The Specialized Tarmac

IMG_0070The Tarmac SL, the bike that won the green jersey at the Tour de France.

I’ve worked in the bike industry for more than 20 years. In that time, I’ve had more exposure to Specialized than any other brand. It began even before I entered the industry; the first bike I purchased as an adult was the Expedition, a serious touring bike by any standard. The first shop I worked in was a Specialized dealer and I assembled scads of Allez, Sirrus, Stumpjumper and Rock Hopper bikes. I had the opportunity to ride a carbon Allez for a weekend and considered larceny one Sunday evening. When I joined the staff of Bicycle Guide I spent some time on a few different Specialized models, most of which were made with M2 metal matrix. I’ve logged as many miles as possible on the Roubaix since it was released.

All the while, I’ve watched a gradual, though subtle, shift in the geometry of Specialized’s sport bikes (what they term “competition”) from the old Allez to the current Tarmac.

Compared to the early bikes I built and occasionally rode (not counting my Expedition), Specialized’s sport bikes build today have a slightly shorter wheelbase, slightly higher bottom bracket and slightly less trail.

Once a 58cm top tube bike’s wheelbase drops below 100cm, its trail below 57mm, and its BB drop below 7cm, I have traditionally filed it under “crit bike.” That is, I’ve seen it as a somewhat more extreme expression of the standard sport bike, something skewed toward a style of racing peculiar to the U.S.

I’ll be honest and say I’ve shied away from riding bikes with this sort of geometry. In years past I found other bikes with this flavor of geometry to be all-out sketchy on descents. They made 35 mph feel like 55. To the degree that I could select bikes that comported with my taste for Italian stage race geometry, what I’ve chosen to call grand touring geometry, I did so.

I suggested doing the back-to-back comparison (call it a shootout if you must) to Specialized because I was curious to see how different the two riding experiences would be. I assumed that I’d like the Roubaix better and was honest with them about that. To them, that presented no problem.

The question on my mind when I first climbed aboard the Tarmac was whether it was a bike really suited to about 50 percent or just 10 percent of the population. I was curious to know just how some of the best bike riders on the planet were getting down Pyrenean descents on a bike that seemed, on paper, to be less well-suited to the task than its stable mate.

IMG_0072The engineers at Specialized utilized as much of the bottom bracket as possible to gain stiffness.

The first few rides I did on the Tarmac were with a morning group ride here in South Bay called the Pier Ride. It’s a jaunty little 30 mile spin over what is for my neck of the woods a very flat course (just shy of 700 feet gained) and in season will average a little more than 20 mph with warm up and cool down. Done properly, I arrive home wishing it were the end of my day, not the beginning.

The first thing I noticed about the bike was that in turns, because I was on a bike more similar in geometry to what other riders were on, I followed the line of other riders more naturally; I didn’t find myself swinging a touch wide and then correcting. After a week or two of this I noticed that I was focusing less on the turns and more on how hard I could pedal through them because I wasn’t thinking about actually following another rider’s line.

The next thing I noticed was how colossally stiff the bike was at the BB and in torsion. On the hoods, out of the saddle and delivering each and every glimmering watt I could muster was delivered unabridged to the drivetrain. A frame that flexes under hard pedaling or out of the saddle efforts has an organic feel to it for me; a little bit of detectable give conjures the feel of older wooden furniture and how it may flex a bit despite a sturdy construction. The Tarmac was so rigid and efficient as to summon thoughts of health club Nautilus machines.

IMG_0073You can only get flowing lines like this with monocoque construction.

Here’s what you need to know about Specialized’s carbon fiber bikes. Specialized uses a system of partial monocoque sections to build its bikes. All of the bigger guys do this. The IS in FACT IS means integrated system and Az1 (pronounced “as one”) is Specialized’s particular method of reducing the number of joints in a frame.

In Specialized’s case one piece includes the top tube, the head tube and all but a few inches of the down tube. The next piece is the rest of the down tube, the bottom bracket and all of the seat tube. The seatstays and chainstays are formed separately. Ultimately the Tarmac and Roubaix frames are made from six discrete sections, not counting dropouts. These joints are epoxied and then wrapped with additional carbon fiber to increase joint strength.

The 12k weave that you see in the finish of the Tarmac Pro and Roubaix Pro is essentially cosmetic; it provides a small amount of impact resistance, but it provides no structural support to the frame. It is, in short, an impediment to breaking the kilo barrier. You may have noticed the unidirectional carbon fiber finish in the SL2s and the new Tarmac SL3. That top layer is structural. Think of it as the bike equivalent of the “Visible Man” kit from when many of us were kids.

Next week: Part II

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  1. Alex

    how do you like the crankset? I noticed on pictures from the Roubaix review there were scuff marks on it also. just wondering if its an odd shape

    1. Author

      Alex: The scuffs on the crank arm are all me. I pronate a lot and my left heel will touch left crank arm a bit when doing track stands at lights.

  2. Hautacam

    What fascinates me is that pretty much every cyclist in North America appears to have exactly the same garage door, and we all photograph our bikes in front of them — everything from junky decade-old hybrids to full custom carbon TT bikes. I half expect to find them all in my driveway when I go outside in the morning.


    1. Author

      The spacers are what were included straight out of the box. I did put on a longer stem (a 12cm to replace the 10cm) and while it is angled up, that doesn’t really bother me. Fit should always trump style and I opted for a size that would give me a little more weight on the front wheel. The folks at Specialized would prefer to see me on a 58cm frame rather than a 56cm, but I wasn’t to review the Roubaix and Tarmac in the same size. I knew the 56cm Roubaix worked for me, so I stuck with that size. With a 58cm Tarmac I have some concern that I’d wind up with a 10cm stem and less weight on the front wheel than I’d like for descending. Fit and how that affects handling should always come first.

  3. velomonkey

    I’m not saying it like the style is bad, I’m mealy pointing out that as photographed, that bike wouldn’t fit anyone properly. There are a lot of spacers, a longer stem and it’s pointed up – this is 100% the reason why they came out with the two models. To say style trumps fit would just be churlish, and I’m not even implying that. Know a few guys who gets along fine with the roubaix, one of ’em is named tom.

  4. Larry T.

    Interesting comments about the spacers. I’ll admit I’m an old fart but did none of you ever ride a bike before these ugly clamp-on stems became standard? A quill stem would yield a handlebar position similar to this, I find to end up with the same bar position on a bike with clamp-on I need around 3 cm of spacers on bikes with more or less horizontal top tubes. I think some of this taller head tube stuff is just a gimmick to allow someone to ride a bike with handlebars up where they want ’em without using (based on some comments here “geeky”) spacers under the stem. I’ll go further than Padraig here, proper fit not only trumps style, it trumps everything else — frame material, paint job, components, etc. NOTHING looks geekier than a guy riding in a horrible position – no matter what bike he’s riding. Nothing looks better than rider sitting in the proper position, even if he’s riding a bike decades old. I think of it like a mens suit. It can be Hugo Boss or Armani but if it’s the wrong size and doesn’t fit, you’ll look like a dork compared to the guy in a cheap Haggar suit that fits correctly.

  5. Trev

    @ Larry T
    I agree that nothing looks better than a rider in the correct position but As Velomonkey said the way this bike is set up is probably not a good position for anybody. And definatly doesn’t look good. And isn’t the ‘correct’ postion different for most people? I would never use 3 spacers to raise an ‘ugly’ clamp on stem , and last year I had my L5/S1 disc removed. I still use less than 10cm of spacer.

    BTW what is up with the angle of the shifters? Or is it just me?

  6. Larry T.

    I have a tough time understanding how this bike can’t offer a good position for anybody. Padraig has dialed it in for himself and I think he sits in a pretty decent position though I admit it’s been a long time since I’ve seen him on a bicycle. Without a photo of him on the thing, how can one come to a conclusion like this?

    1. Author

      I’m amazed that anyone is willing to assert that there’s something wrong with the position this bike offers without actually seeing me on the bike. I’m equally amazed that some folks still talk about position in the singular, as if there is one true answer. I can vary my position quite a lot and the answer that works for me could be very different for someone of the same proportions as me but has greater or lesser flexibility. I actually prefer descending and hammering the flats with the stem flipped the other way, however, that position gets to be hard to maintain after about 60 miles; people tighten up as they get fatigued. Most of my weekend rides fall in the 65-85 mile range, meaning those last miles getting home can be a little uncomfortable if the bar is too low. Additionally, I don’t climb as well when the bar is that low, so that position is something of a compromise.

      The old-school notion that there is a—singular—position that is right and bikes should be set up to put the rider in that position is an idea whose time has left the building.

  7. lachlan

    it is pretty funny… too often we want to look aesthetically PRO, rather than be efficient on our bikes. (in the BKW sense)

    I can understand people want to achieve both with a bike set up (ie good mechanical pos. that also looks great) but as many have said, the right fit has to trump looking great. That’s the true mark of PROness… Even the most dialled in PRO: Armstrong always looked ‘bad’ from the side on his machines due to his back, but kicked ass because the position worked for him.

    And besides this is a test bike.

  8. Trev

    My mistake: I just have never seen brifters tilted upwards like that. It doesn’t seem like it would make for good comtrol or comfort.

    1. Author

      Alex: Word.

      Trev: Sorry, but I meant to address your point previously. I’ll admit when I pulled the bike from the box and assembled it, the levers looked like they were in a crazy position. I rolled them down on the Roubaix before even riding it. I didn’t have time to do it that day to the Tarmac and so when I took it out for its first ride, I did so largely as an experiment. I was surprised because the position felt very comfortable. Much of it can be attributed to the fact that my hands don’t have to bend at the wrists and while I don’t have carpal tunnel, I’m keenly aware of how much my hands bend in each of the positions on the bar. I’m not sure how much people have considered the difference in height between the bar and saddle when looking at how this bike is set up.

      And yes, that is a Blackburn Neuro that I’ll review soon.

      Larry: What your body is aware of and what you are cognitively aware of can be two rather different things unless you’ve been trained to recognize it. I’d venture that your body has a much greater awareness than you can articulate. I’ve yet to meet a serious roadie who can’t recognize how much easier it is to accelerate a bike that is three pounds lighter than their typical ride. But then, you’re entitled to believe whatever you want.

  9. Alex Torres

    Lance has been using his RED shifters like that on his Treks. I prefer mine in a lower positin where I can reach both the shifting paddle (also Sram Reds) and braking lever at fingertips. But that´s very personal as is pretty much everything bike-fit wise I guess.

    Padraig, is that a Blackurn Neuro on the test bike? Just curious 😉

  10. cwcushman

    I thought the reason why the current brifters have such a large head to hold onto was because more and more riders were angling them up.

  11. Alex Torres

    Nice 😉

    I´ve been using a Neuro 6.0 for some time too, and I must say I absolutely LOVE this thing. It´s solid. Tough, precise, as complete as a regular (non-PM) cyclocomp can get, yet very intuitive and easy to use IMHO – I´m a bit of a bike-telemetry nut I confess).

    Look forward to your review, thanks Padraig.

  12. velomonkey


    Looking forward to reading the next of the reviews – I am on travel hence the late reply.

    I challenge your assertion that one can not issue a valid opinion on position without seeing the rider on said bike. Did I not read lengthy articles by you that degree changes in geometry are met with radical changes in handling? I think I did. I also agree with you. Outside of frame geometry a rider can alter a bikes handling with spacers, stems and bar position. All three taken together will net a result in either intended handling as per frame geometry or lax or squirrely. The way you have it set up – the bike is not going to handle as per the frame geometry intentions. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t mean you’re right or wrong, better or worse – just different from the intention, that’s all.

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