Specialized Tarmac SL4 Pro Review

by CyclingTips


At the end of this winter I found myself needing a good race bike. I spoke to Specialized about getting on one of their bikes, but I have to admit, I’d never ridden one of their newer road models; the Roubaix, Tarmac or Venge. I wasn’t sure which one to choose but was fortunately given the opportunity to take each one out for a good couple week test ride before I got to pick. The Tarmac won, hands down.

I first tested the Tarmac SL4 S-Works (S-Works = top of the range) for the Amy’s Gran Fondo. I knew straight away that this was going to be the bike I’d be riding. Smooth, light, and fast. I quickly moved onto a Venge which was a completely different type of ride. Even though the Venge’s bottom bracket stiffness is technically more compliant than the Tarmac, this didn’t translate into the overall feeling. There’s no doubt I could ride the Venge all day, but it was a pure race bike without much “feel” or forgiveness. It didn’t sway me away from the Tarmac.

This was the Venge that I rode. Awesome race bike, but not as comfortable as I'd prefer for anything other than racing. One of the biggest surprises were how good the Roval wheels felt.

Next I moved onto the Roubaix. I had a feeling that I wouldn’t connect with this bike as I’m not a fan of the shaped seatstays and fork and the upright geometry, however many people recommended it. Tom Boonen won Paris-Roubaix on this bike, so it was definitely worth a try. I rode the Roubiax Expert Ui2 and I can’t honestly say that it was the bike for me. While riding it with my eyes looking forward, it was a decent ride. Comfortable and upright. However, when I looked down and saw that massive headtube and unconventional fork, I just didn’t feel right. Yes it was all in my head, but that’s a big part of liking a bike.

In the end, I went back to Specialized and asked for a Tarmac SL4 to be my bike for the summer. Here’s why…

BEFORE THE RIDE

Specialized has been able to retain its desirable brand status amongst a very price-driven marketplace. I wouldn’t turn to Specialized if you’re looking for the cheapest bike you can find, and as a business I respect that they’ve been able to thrive in this market while still keeping prices at a slight premium.

The Tarmac SL4 Pro is built around Specialized’s FACT carbon full monocoque frame with a tapered head tube and oversized bottom bracket. The bike I’m riding here has a mixture of Dura-ace 11 speed with Ultegra brakes, Roval alloy wheels, and a host of Specialized branded parts such as saddle, stem, seatpost, and handlebars.

I have to admit that I don’t care for the way that manufacturers are beginning to brand many of their own components. This is more of an emotional response rather than a rational one. I perfer to see some character and individuality to a bike build with complimentary brands rather than a complete package. I do see their reason for this however. As with a many of Specialized bikes, the frame and components are designed as a system which they call ‘Total System Integration’, which is their philosophy that allows them to build stiffness and compliance in the varying level they want to achieve.

I’ve had a range of mixed reactions to the color of this particular bike. Some say “nice bike, do they make them for men?” but many more say, “I love it!” In a world where the trend is for frames to be painted matt black, I think it’s a refreshing change that stands out from the crowd.

Pro Teams who ride the Tarmac frameset are Omega Pharma-Quickstep, Astana, and Saxo-Tinkoff. If you believe rumours, Team Sky may also be switching to Specialized in 2013 as well.

GEOMETRY

AFTER THE RIDE

As I said earlier, the ride is super-smooth, comfortable and responsive. The Tarmac is positioned in-between the Roubaix and Venge, but by no means is it a compromise. It always takes me a few rides before I begin to really appreciate a bike’s characteristics, and the more I ride this, the more I like it and appreciate its quality.

The mid-compact gearing is something that’s new to me. It’s spec’d with the new Shimano Dura Ace, 11-speed with 11-28T cassette and 52/36 chainrings. This is a remarkable gearing combination that is extremely versatile for climbing the high mountains all the way to racing a crits. The 11-speed has a nice step in gear ratios without feeling that there are any big jumps. I think an 11-23T would be ideal for riding around much of Australia, and the 11-28T for the big mountain adventures.

Interestingly, I’ve used my SRAM 10spd cassette with other wheels on numerous occasions with the Dura-ace 11-speed without any difficulties at all. It shifted perfectly without any adjustments whatsoever. The extra gear is shifted at the bottom of the cassette, so there’s no risk of jumping past the limits into the spokes.

The Roval Fusee SLX23 alloy wheelset is one of the biggest surprises. The hubs are built for this wheel by DT swiss and the rims have been designed by Specialized which are then handbuilt (laced, trued and tensioned). They have a unique low profile shape with a 20 front/24 rear spoke count and a depth of 22mm front/24mm rear. After nearly 2 months of use on all conditions, they’re still true and roll beautifully. I feel absolutely no need to put my race wheels on for weeknight club races.

Ever since I discovered the Specialized Body Geometry saddles I’ve been sold. Every time I sit on whatever bike I’m riding with one of these saddles I breath a sigh of relief. However, the touch-point which I would improved with this bike are the handlebars and brake hoods. The handlebars are very basic and round which I also don’t care for. A set of FSA K-Force or 3T Ergonova bars would be something that would add to my comfort. I’ve grown accustomed to SRAM and Di2 brake hoods, but the new Dura-ace feels bulky. These things are simply a personal preference and are easily dealt with.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Having ridden a couple thousand kilometers on this Tarmac SL4 Pro, I understand why so many riders choose the Tarmac in the range of Specialized bikes. The quality of the ride is outstanding and there are nine options to choose from depending on your budget. This particular bike will appeal to intermediate riders looking to step it up a notch, while having a bike that’s not far off their top of the range models.

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Disclosure: Specialized advertises with CyclingTips and this bike was loaned to me for the summer at no cost.

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