After doing some group rides in which I knew the roads well, I ventured out to do some of the longer rides that take in some climbing and descending. I started with gentler roads with sweeping turns. The bike had a complete and utter lack of the nervousness I feared would characterize this bike’s handling above 30 mph. It was stable at 40 mph and turned in easily.
Next, I took it north to Malibu’s challenging canyon roads. If ever there was a place where a bike will demonstrate a weakness in how it handles in turns, Malibu is it. Turns come in rapid succession and very few of the roads can be descended safely without touching your brakes. Toss in a little off-camber action here and there plus the odd decreasing-radius turn and you have a veritable buffet of cornering challenges.
It was in Malibu that the Tarmac surprised me. What I expected isn’t what I’ve encountered with so many crit bikes: You get them above 40 mph and the front end starts to get loose. I’ve never understood the phenomenon, especially considering on paper it shouldn’t be happening. However, just what that phenomenon is will be addressed in a different post devoted just to trail.
Here’s the important part: At speeds above 40 mph the Tarmac was rock solid. What’s more, it remained easy to turn in. I have experienced the opposite of some crit bikes, bikes that were so rock solid in a straight line they resisted turning in—at all. The experience was a little like trying to drive a Greyhound bus through a parking garage at 50 mph. Showing Kim Jong Il the value of civil liberties would be both easier—and safer.
By the time I reached the bottom of Tuna Canyon Road the first time I descended it on the Tarmac, all of my assumptions about the Tarmac’s handling had been tossed aside like an unfinished energy bar. I concluded that the Tarmac was the heir to the handling I’ve always believed to be part of Specialized’s brand identity. I have yet to ride a touring bike that handled half as well as my Expedition and if you want to know how elegantly a lightweight cross country bike can handle, just climb on a Stumpjumper. The Tarmac redefined what I think a sport bike can be expected to deliver.
One aspect of the Tarmac’s handling that really can’t be overly emphasized is its stiffness. There are stiffer bikes out there, but I think the Tarmac offers spectacular stiffness for those of us who don’t generate 1000 watts (let alone more) in a sprint. Steering is particularly crisp with this bike, in part due to the tapered steerer which uses a 1.5-inch bearing at the bottom race and a standard 1.125-inch bearing at the top. This also increases stiffness in torsion by allowing the engineers to design a larger diameter down tube to mate to the rather enormous head tube.
My one and only quibble with this bike is its road sensitivity. The Tarmac SL is meant to be different from the Roubaix in two ways: comfort and handling. While the handling is sufficiently differentiated, I do have an issue (a small one) with one component of the Tarmac SL’s comfort. It doesn’t seem to me that the Tarmac SL should damp as much vibration it does. My basis for comparison in this regard are some other bikes in this price range that offer more road feel; they are few, but they are there. Getting this particular balance right is a colossal challenge, though; I think the SL2 delivers great road feel but is too stiff. The SL gets the stiffness right, but would benefit from a touch more sensitivity. My limited time on the SL3 says they got the whole package right.
With the introduction of the new Amira model—the women’s version of the Tarmac, which is built with women’s proportions in mind—Specialized can lay claim to producing the Tarmac in more sizes than any other bike company offers for a production road bike—11. The Tarmac is produced in six sizes, while the Amira is offered in five. And despite the crazy assertion by Giant CFO Bonnie Tu that no other company is designing bikes for women, Specialized’s commitment to women is arguably deeper than any other bike company going, with four road models and five off-road models.
Like the Roubaix Pro, the Tarmac Pro is equipped with a Dura-Ace drivtrain save for the S-Works carbon fiber crank. Unlike the Roubaix, the Tarmac’s S-Works crank is equipped with 53t and 39t chainrings. Ultegra brakes do the stopping.
The Tarmac Pro rolls on Fulcrum Racing 1 wheels. The wheels are fairly light, boasting a claimed weight of 1485g for the pair, but what most surprised me is that in more than 2000 miles of riding at this writing, they are as true as the words from a Boy Scouts lips. It is reasonable, in my opinion to conclude that Fulcrum’s 2:1 ratio of drive spokes to non-drive spokes does substantially aid the wheel by equalizing spoke tension. This is even more impressive when you consider that the front wheel has but 16 spokes and the rear has 21. I’ve had whisky that wasn’t this stiff.
The tires deserve some mention as well. The 700×23 S-Works Mondos feature a Kevlar bead and Flak Jacket protection combined with a 127 tpi casing. This tire ought to be unremarkable, and surprisingly, it corners like an architect’s T-square and I have yet to get a single flat. That’s as unlikely as a zero-calorie beer that tastes like a fine IPA.
Changes from 2009 to 2010 for the Tarmac SL include swapping the S-Works crank for a Dura-Ace one, subbing the Dura-Ace front derailleur for an Ultegra model and swapping the Fulcrums for Ksyrium Elites. My test bike weighed in at 15.5 lbs. before pedals and cages.
I’ll admit that I was infatuated enough by the Roubaix and wary enough of the Tarmac’s geometry that I really didn’t think I’d enjoy it much or put that many miles on it. Of all the bikes I’ve reviewed over the years, this may be the biggest surprise I’ve ever experienced. I love this bike.
Specialized Tarmac Pro: 94 points
Still to come: The Roubaix and Tarmac, head-to-head