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by Caley Fretz
July 29, 2020
Photography by Caley Fretz
Take a Specialized Venge and a Tarmac SL6 and squish them together. This is what you get.
The underlying promise of the all-new Tarmac SL7 is that it’s as light and sharp as the old Tarmac SL6 and as aerodynamic as a Venge. No compromises, the Specialized marketing materials shout. The SL7 is, they say, the best of both worlds. So good and so fast that two of the brand’s existing road bikes, the SL6 and Venge, have reached overnight obsolescence.
Think I’m kidding? Specialized said it themselves.
“Based on the performance targets and where we landed, the Tarmac SL7 really is the complete package, and knowing that there are no compromises for the rider it is hard for us to tell anyone to go out and buy a Venge once this bike launches,” Specialized product manager Cam Piper told us on this week’s special CyclingTips Podcast.
“You’ll see that even with our WorldTour athletes, they’re all in agreement and really have validated the performance of the new bike, and will be racing that going forward,” Piper said. “So currently the Venge in our line right now does not meet much of a need for that rider looking for the performance product.”
Maybe we should call the new Specialized Tarmac SL7 the Cannibal, since it seems designed to eat its own.
The new Tarmac SL7 corners like it’s on rails.
Though the SL7 technically replaces the previous Tarmac, in reality it appears aimed squarely at replacing Specialized’s own aero bike, the Venge. It’s just as much Venge as it is Tarmac. In fact, if the facts and figures Specialized presents are correct, there’s no longer any point in having the Venge in their road lineup.
This is an odd admission to make on Specialized’s part. The Venge was released only two years ago, and the Tarmac and Venge have co-existed peacefully within the company’s line for years. Why break up the power couple?
For the last few product cycles, the Tarmac and the Venge have been inching closer together. The latest Venge, for example, is both significantly lighter and handles much better than the Venge Vias it replaced. It’s quite Tarmac-like. It’s also, on its own merits, an exceptionally good bike. On the other side of the coin, when Specialized launched the SL6, they did so noting the aero cues in the head tube and dropped seat stays. It got slightly more Venge-like.
With the SL7, the two models have fully coalesced.
If one considers how bikes are designed these days, this starts to make sense. Designing a race bike is essentially a big optimization problem, balancing weight, stiffness, and aerodynamics.
To try to solve this optimization problem, Specialized once again leaned on modeling software developed by Ingmar Jungnickel, which runs CFD (computational fluid dynamics) and FEA (finite element analysis) for each shape and keeps working until it finds a shape that is drag optimized for particular weight and stiffness targets. What the software churns out is essentially a repository of tube shapes with known aerodynamic, stiffness, and weight qualities. Specialized calls this its Free Foil Library.
It is this optimization that leads to the conclusion that this new bike, the SL7, is as much the next Venge as it is the next Tarmac. It’s simply the next step in the optimization of both bikes. It’s a lighter Venge as much as it’s a more aero Tarmac.
So what is it? It’s a very fast race bike.
The new Tarmac SL7 makes big promises. We’ve had one for a few weeks, have ridden it extensively, taken it apart and put it back together, and have formed some initial opinions of the thing. Here’s a full breakdown, feature-by-feature:
What does the Tarmac SL7 weigh? Is it lighter than the SL6?
The S-Works SL7 frame weighs a claimed 800 grams. That’s heavier than the 733 grams (claimed) of an SL6, but lighter than the 960 gram Venge.
The complete S-Works SL7 with SRAM Red AXS that arrived at CT HQ weighs 6.73kg for a size 56. Claimed weight is 6.7kg for the Di2 model.
The SL7 Pro, which uses a lower grade carbon, has a frame weight of 920 grams and a claimed built weight, with Ultegra Di2, of 7.3kg.
Is the Tarmac SL7 stiffer?
Specialized doesn’t make any claims surrounding stiffness of the SL7. The goal, it appears, was to mimic the feel of the SL6 while improving aerodynamics.
It’s worth noting that stiffer isn’t always better. In our discussion with Specialized engineers, they were clear that while there’s a floor that they were seeking in terms of stiffness, there was no specific target number. Part of the development of the SL7 involved building SL6 frames with various layups, some stiffer and some less stiff in various parts of the frame, and having pros ride them and provide feedback. The engineering team then sought to transfer the preferred ride qualities over to the SL7.
What’s the SL7 geometry like?
It’s 100% identical to both the SL6 and Venge. Specialized has found a race bike formula it likes and is sticking with it. This doesn’t mean they all handle exactly the same, though. More on that in the ride review below.
Is the cockpit annoying?
Not really, at least as far as integrated cockpits go. The design is very similar to the Venge, but with a few tweaks. For one, it’s a bit less stiff. The brake lines are run under the stem, not through it, making stem swaps easy.
The stem can be swapped and moved up and down on the steerer without having to re-run brake lines or Di2 cables, assuming line and wire lengths are adequate. The spacers all clam-shell so they can be pulled out or added easily.
That said, external routing is obviously way less annoying.
Is the Tarmac SL7 more comfortable?
Compared to an SL6, I’d say no. Compared to a Venge, maybe a tiny bit. But this isn’t a bike built for comfort. It’s a race bike. It’s not uncomfortable, but there are no flexy bits or handlebar shocks to take the edge off.
If you want it to be more comfortable, run big tires. It’ll fit a 32mm tire easily.
Is the Tarmac SL7 more aero than a Venge?
Not quite. The Venge is still a bit faster. The SL7 is roughly as quick as the old Venge Vias. The Venge Vias is roughly 8 seconds slower than the new Venge over 40km, according to Specialized.
The SL7 is certainly more aerodynamic than the SL6, though. Simply moving the cables and brake lines internal is a big improvement there (cylinders, like a brake line, are bad for drag figures). According to Specialized, the SL7 will save you 45 seconds over 40km compared to the SL6. However, Specialized stipulates that figure includes an upgrade from the SL6’s stock wheels, the old Roval CLX, to the new, faster Roval Rapide CLX. So part of that gain is certainly from the wheelset.
Specialized marketing materials include this handy little graph, the accuracy of which we can’t vouch for:
Does the Tarmac SL7 have any compatibility or integration issues?
The Venge only takes electronic drivetrains, either eTap or Di2, but the SL7 solves that problem. You can run a mechanical drivetrain on the new Tarmac.
Di2 integration is excellent, placing the junction box in the back of the seatpost like the Venge.
In other good news, the SL7 sticks with a standard threaded bottom bracket. Specialized returned to threaded bottom brackets because they were tired of everyone yelling at them. So good job, people of the Internet, pat yourselves on the back for a job well done.
As evident below, the Tarmac SL7 is not cheap. Specialized will continue to sell the SL6 (effectively unchanged from before) at lower price points.
S-Works eTap & UDi2 – $12,000
Pro eTap – $7,000
Pro UDi2 – $7,000
Expert UDi2 – $5,000
S-Works Frameset – $5,000
10R Frameset – $3,000
S-Works Di2 – $18,000
S-Works eTap – $18,000
Pro eTap – $10,500
Pro UDi2 – $10,500
Expert UDi2 – $7,500
S-Works Frameset – $7,500
10r Frameset – $4,500
S-Works Di2 – £10,499
S-Works eTap – £10,499
Pro eTap – £6,750
Pro UDi2 – £6,500
Expert UDi2 – £4,750
S-Works Frameset – £3,750
Want even more? We sat down with the engineers and product managers behind the new Tarmac to dig into the bike’s development. You can listen to that episode here, or subscribe on your favorite podcast app:
I’ll be honest, over the last few years the quality of these top-end race-oriented road bikes has converged to the point where differentiating between them feels like splitting hairs that have already been split six different ways. It feels almost silly trying to compare the new SL7 to the SL6 or the Venge in any meaningful way. They’re all phenomenal. Stiff, fast, fun.
But this is the new hotness, so allow me to try.
Is it stiff? Of course it’s stiff. It feels, in this regard, almost exactly like the SL6 I was on last.
The integrated cockpit looks nice and, like the Venge, is quite comfortable. I like the flat tops on the bars and the slight texture added so your hands don’t slip. The hood/top transition is nice and smooth with SRAM’s AXS shifters.
The SL7, like the SL6 and Venge, doesn’t apologize for its race-oriented handling. The 56cm frame I rode has a 55mm trail figure, quite steep by most modern road standards. When you stand out of the saddle and put pressure on one hood and then the other the front wheel flips back and forth. A bit of pressure on the right side of the bar sends the bike arcing right. It wants to corner. It almost begs to.
The stack is low, too. If you ride with your bars up near the same plane as your saddle, this probably isn’t the bike for you. If you want long and low, it might be.
There’s not much else to say about the geometry, which is identical across all three models. If you’ve ridden an SL6 or a Venge, you know roughly how the SL7 corners. But they do ride slightly differently despite using the same numbers.
If you’d asked me a month ago which Specialized road bike I’d pick for myself, it would be the Venge, hands down. The Tarmac SL6 is a great bike, but never felt as fast to me. The Venge corners and sprints and descends just about as well as the SL6, but does it all a bit faster. And fast is fun. I get on it and I feel like a bike racer again.
Today, if asked to make that same choice, I’d pick an SL7. Because it really does feel like an SL6 and go like a Venge.
The SL6 has a sharpness to it that is incredibly enjoyable. It’s a difficult sensation to describe. A bit more treble to the Venge’s bass, perhaps. There’s a reason why a lot of Specialized pros raced the SL6 most of the time, even though the Venge was, in theory, faster: it’s because the SL6 is a supremely confidence-inspiring bike when it’s chucked into corners or slotted through gaps or stood on to accelerate. You can feel the road underneath you, feel the bike move on it. Confidence is good for bike racers.
The SL7 has that same sharpness and combines it with a bit more raw speed. I’m not going to tell you I could feel the 45 seconds over 40km aero difference when just riding around – anyone who says that is lying to you. These are minuscule differences. Where I could feel it is descending.
There are a few descents around here where you can hit 80kph quite easily, and at those speeds small aero differences turn into a few kilometers per hour. These are descents I ride a few times a week. I know how fast I usually go, and an extra few kph is obvious. I even snagged the Strava KOM on one of them (though I think downhill road KOMs are a bit nuts and possibly shouldn’t exist). My previous fastest time on that segment was on the Venge.
I still think Specialized has put itself in a bit of a pickle. Their marquee aero bike, by their own admission, is no longer the bike their own pros will be riding. I love the Venge, and don’t want to see it killed by its own sibling.
Or maybe it hasn’t been. Maybe the Tarmac is now the race bike for pros, and the next Venge will chuck UCI regulations out the window and come back faster than ever. I’d like that, if for no other reason than I want to see what those clever engineers could come up with. Until then, this will be my favorite Specialized road bike.
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