The Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL4, Part II

IMG_0482The build on the S-Works Tarmac SL4 was Rubik’s Cube-tough.

The Build
One of the more noticeable differences between the Tarmac SL4 and its predecessor is its internal cable routing. The change in frame design to allow for internal routing isn’t peculiar to Specialized. Many manufacturers are offering frame designs with internal routing options. This has been driven to a great degree by electronic shifting systems, Shimano’s Di2 and Ui2 in particular. Some bikes offer an option for either internal or external routing, depending on whether you plan to use electronic or mechanical shifting systems; some still require mechanical systems to be routed externally. Not so with the Tarmac SL4. All cables get routed internally, whether the bike is spec’d with a mechanical or electronic shifting system.

Internally routed cables clean up the look of the bike, there’s no doubt. That said, I need to make a small declaration: Internally routed cables may look nice, but the bike suffers in almost every other way if you’re using mechanical shifting.

The first issue is assembly. Now, this doesn’t affect you as a consumer right off the bat, but it affects the shop you do business with because it can double the amount of time required to build a new bike. That slows down the productivity of the wrenches, thereby driving up the owner’s cost to build the bikes, and that’s a cost he has to figure into his bottom line. Where it affects you is any time you take the bike in for any service that requires replacing a cable. I’ve built a lot of bikes over the years and while I’m not as quick as I used to be, I can do a very thorough build on an ordinary road bike from the box in two hours. My initial build of the S-Works Tarmac SL4 took me six freaking hours. Now I’ll admit, had I been able to attend  a tech presentation that went over the assembly procedure on the bike beforehand, I suspect that could have shaved as much as two hours off the assembly. I could have watched Avatar during the time I wasted just trying to figure out where each of the ferrules and cable guides went.

Even once I knew how everything fit together, when I swapped out the parts for SRAM’s new Red group, the tear-down took more than an hour and the assembly of the new parts took three full hours. Working on this bike will never, ever be speedy and you’re going to pay for it by being charged more in labor. And in the event you’re not, you ought to be concerned about your retailer taking a hit on his bottom line by not making enough on the labor. I know everyone wants a deal on parts and labor, but your local shop needs to make a profit so they can keep being your local shop. End of sermon.

The other problem that internal routing causes is a degradation in shift quality. I haven’t noticed a problem with rear braking, but I did notice that the Dura-Ace 7900 I first built the Tarmac SL4 with didn’t shift as well as it did on the Tarmac SL3, which had externally routed cables. Given that the group was fresher than sushi, there shouldn’t have been anything wrong with the shifting that wasn’t already an inherent problem in the group—which mostly boils down to high shift force. I consistently had a problem with either the rear shifting hesitating on downshifts, but if I increased cable tension, it would hesitate on upshifts. The sweet-spot in shifting proved to be nearly as elusive as the Snuffleupagus. I did manage to get the shifting to work with 7900, but it took a great deal of fiddling. With SRAM Red the dial-in of the shifting was a good deal simpler.

IMG_0475The hourglass-shape King Cobra head tube helped add a measure of comfort to the front end of the bike and the internal cable routing looks very clean.

I’d like to go back to the seemingly incompatible goals of torsional stiffness combined with vertical compliance. If you’ve ever seen a modern helicopter on the ground with the engines off, then you’ve probably noticed how the rotor blades sag while at rest. Those rotor blades are made from carbon fiber and they are stiffer than a murder one sentence in rotation, but vertically they aren’t made for stiffness; they achieve their proper straight attitude thanks to centrifugal force.

Now, no bicycle frame is ever going to flex visibly under its own weight, but carbon fiber layup technology has come a long way since the original Kestrel 4000. Today, there’s software available that allows engineers to simulate particular layup schedules. They can specify the dimensions of the structure, the size and shape of each sheet and the orientation of the fibers. Following a set of calculations that make differential calculus look like long division the workstation yields feedback on how stiff that structure will be under a given load. The upshot is that we’re now seeing frames that are hundreds of percent more flexible vertically than they are torsionally.

I think it’s with observing that what carbon fiber allows a manufacturer to do is control the entire fabrication process from the shape of each tube to the material used as well as where it’s placed. As much as I love steel frame building, there’s not a builder out there who has as much control over their fabrication. After all, they aren’t creating their own tubing, specifying the tube shapes before they are drawn and then also dictating the butt lengths. Previous history has shown that the stiffer a steel frame is in torsion, the stiffer it will be vertically. The only steel frame I ever rode that is as stiff as today’s carbon fiber beauties was an Eddy Merckx made with Columbus’ stouter-than-a-Cuban-cigar Max tube set. I’ve ridden only a handful of bikes that bucked more on a bump than that bike; most memorable among them was Cervelo’s SLC-SL.

There’s a huge mitigating factor to this phenomenon: frame weight. While there was a time when a lighter frame deserved to be an end in itself because shaving more than a pound off a frame’s weight was a pound you could lose forever, shaving an additional 100 grams off a frame’s weight won’t give a rider much in terms of better acceleration or speedier climbing, but if you can starve an additional 100g off a frame, especially if you can do it without sacrificing torsional stiffness, the result is a bike with a livelier ride.

I’ve long held both fascination and admiration for the work that goes into laying up a carbon fiber frame. Never have I been more impressed than when I was laying on the ground in Tuna Canyon and my buddy unclipped my shoes from the pedals and picked up an intact bicycle. It became the only topic of conversation that could distract everyone from just how messed up my face was. It’s remarkable to me that I could render the frame useless with one firm swing of a hammer and yet it came through a 30 mph impact ready to ride. Holy Indian cow. My regard only increased when the recall was recently issued for the Tarmac SL4’s fork. Here’s a link to information about the recall.

IMG_0479While this fork is currently the subject of a recall, I went from 30 to 0 in less time than it takes to burp and was unable to break it.

For the most part, the geometry remains unchanged from the inception of the Tarmac straight through to the Tarmac SL4. The head tube angle, seat tube angle, fork rake, BB drop and wheelbase remain exactly the same between the various iterations. If yo’ve previously ridden a Tarmac and liked it, you’ll like this bike. I went into the geometry of the six sizes in some depth in my review of the SL3. You can check that out here.

The only difference between the SL3 and the SL4 is in the head tube length on the four largest sizes. The two smallest sizes (the 49 and the 52) remain unchanged.  In the other sizes, the head tube has been shortened; I’m told this was to respond to requests by pros so they could position the bar lower. On the 54, the head tube has been shortened by 5mm, from 145mm to 140mm. On the 56, it’s been cut from 170 to 160. The 58 was chopped from 205 to 190, while the 61 got a haircut from 230 to 210. I’m of the opinion that head tubes are too short in general and that most riders, when properly sized will never wind up with a no-spacer fit. I’m also of the opinion that the majority of all pros are on bikes with ridiculous fits—no spacers, minus-17-degree stem that’s a centimeter (if not two) too long. What’s most surprising about this is that Specialized has taken a very proactive role in making sure the riders of the teams they sponsor are on bikes that fit them, thanks in no small degree to having one of the best fitters on the planet—Scott Holz—on staff. So it’s a bit surprising to me that their bikes would still have such short head tubes.

As I mentioned in a comment in response to Part I of the review, I went through a fitting recently, one that was exceedingly thorough and pinpointed some issues I’ve been wrestling with, but hadn’t been able to properly diagnose. And I write that with the acknowledgement that I’ve been through five or six fittings in the last eight years. The upshot is the realization that aging has resulted in more spinal compression than I had previously understood. I stand 5′ 11″ these days but still possess a 6-foot wingspan. Compounding matters is that I have a 34 1/2-inch inseam. While I want to have a chance to do a fitting with a 56cm Tarmac before I commit to it, on paper it looks like it’s time for me to drop down a size.

IMG_0467It does come in colors other than red; my first choice would be a matte-finish to reduce weight and give sharper feedback.

Ride Quality and Handling
What separates the Tarmac from many other bikes on the market is its combination of crisp handling, high stiffness, low weight and sensitive road feel. you can find bikes that are as stiff, but most are heavier and don’t have the road feel. There are bikes that beat it on weight, but most of those aren’t as stiff and as a result don’t offer the precise handling. Broadly speaking, I consider the sub-kilo frames in a class apart from all of the frames weighing 1000g or more. They have a liveliness all their own. You can go on a date with anyone who seems attractive, but when you’ve got chemistry it makes all the difference. Most of those kilo-plus frames are as fun as dinner with someone on Lithium.

It’s been interesting to watch the geometry of other bikes follow suit on the aggressive trail numbers of the Tarmac (62mm for the 49cm frame, 57mm for the 52 and 54cm frames, 56mm for the 56 and 58cm frames, and 53mm for the 61cm frame). What we’ve come to appreciate is that the stiffer the frame the sharper the handling can be. The inverse is also true though: If a bike isn’t super-stiff, you need to relax the handling so that the bike isn’t twitchy to the point of being difficult to control. I can say that with every steel bike I ever rode that posted numbers this aggressive, I didn’t like how they handled but with carbon fiber, it’s a very different story. Let’s put it this way: Steel is to stiffness what slapstick is to comedy, while carbon fiber is to stiffness what satire is to comedy—subtler and more calculated; it rewards skill.

I can come up with a dozen solid, objective reasons why this is a great bike, why the sheer ubiquity of Specialized dealers pumping these things into the market is a good thing for cycling. That still doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason to consider purchasing one. What separates the Tarmac SL4 from some of the more rudimentary expression of carbon fiber bicycles is the difference between an Arabian horse and the plastic variety you find on a carousel. Is this the greatest carbon fiber bike going? Ahh, that’s like asking if Mozart is the greatest composer. He’s on everyone’s short list—and with good reason.

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  1. Scott G.

    Builders using steel and aluminum are able to have tubing made for them to their specs. The recent Pegoretti/Sachs Spirit for lugs for example.
    Reynolds has been making custom tube sets for small and large builders since the 1930s, Bates for example. Builders with less resources will mix a tube set from many suppliers.

    1. Author

      Scott G: The comparison you draw between tube sets like Spirit for Lugs and the carbon work being done by companies like Cervelo, Felt and Specialized (just for instance) isn’t remotely equivalent. While there are four of five really obvious differences, consider that each carbon fiber layup is unique to that model and size of frame. Anyone can buy Spirit for Lugs. There’s not a builder on earth who can have a one-off custom down tube drawn for them and then have one-off head lug and BB shell cast for a single bike. This isn’t to argue against how great a well-made steel frame is; rather I wish to give credit where it has not been fairly awarded.

  2. Mo'Nilla

    As much as I want to like their bikes, I am repelled by their business practice of suing competition our of business.

    1. Author

      Mo’Nilla: Who have they actually sued out of business? I think the Volagi case was a PR black eye for the company, but I also spoke with Specialized employees who absolutely believed that company intellectual property had been stolen and were outraged by it. And for what it’s worth, the principals at Volagi say that case was worth every penny as a marketing exercise, though not one they would have willingly paid for.

  3. Ransom

    Thanks for speaking up in defense of external cable routing. Internal routing is “neat”, and it’s tidy, but when it comes to actually functioning or being worked on, it is just worse than external routing, full stop. And while it does basically function, it’s worse in a way which reminds you of the fact almost constantly, and then doubly on days you do maintenance.

  4. Alex TC

    I´m yet to find an internal-routing frame in which the brake and gear performance is as good as the one I get on an external-routing one. To me it´s a practical impossibility, maybe they sort this out sometime in the future but I´m not sure. It´s OK if you´re using an E-group, but braking still suffers a lot in terms of feedback if there´s any friction in the system. I for myself can´t stand it less than “perfect”. I prefer that over aesthetics, my opinion.

    My SL3 still has the original set, a mix of Yokozuna and Ride-On housing and Aztec Teflon cables I concocted when I assembled the bike 2 yrs ago. And it gets a “whew!” every time someone squeezes the levers or shifts a gear. And I forgot the last time I did any kind of maintenance, not even a cable clean-and-lube is needed.

    1. Robot

      @Adam – There is no such thing as Ui2, but within the industry (builders and shops) it is very commonly used shorthand for Ultegra Di2. I think it’s a fair reference, no?

  5. Walt S


    I read your review with great interest. Whenever a new bike is being introduced by one of the storied companies like Specialized, it is fun to see what is being offered.

    Between Specialized and it latest incarnation of the Tarmac SL, and Trek and its latest incarnation of the Madone, there is an obvious war going on between two bicycle manufacturing titans to see who can produce the latest lightest and greatest carbon bicycle frame and fork. The battle is also to sell to as many cyclists as possible and reap as much profit share as possible. Seems innocent enough, eh?

    The lightest frame can be measured objectively. If Brand T’s frame weighs 799 grams and Brand S’s frame weighs 790 grams, obviously Brand T’s frame is lighter, whether those few grams actually make any difference at all.
    Which will build up into the “greatest” is more based on how effective marketing hype is than on reality. And the cyclists who must have the latest lightest and greatest because they have more dollars than sense, will lean toward purchasing one product or another, simply because it is lighter and they have been told it is better by a review of one expert or another, rather than evaluating their own needs realistically.

    There have been countless discussions about whether cyclists need the latest and greatest vs. want the latest and greatest. If someone actually has $5,000+ to spend on a frame and fork, then shouldn’t they be allowed to make that decision and live with the consequences?

    But here is the rub. The consumer who is plunking down five grand for a new super bike may not be doing so in an informed way. She or he is assured by the bicycle manufacturing giants that are Specialized and Trek, as well as Giant, et all, that their latest super bike they are unveiling to the eager cycling public is not only worth the cost because of increased performance, but it is SAFE! That assumption is what I question the most.

    I called The U.S. Product Safety Commission to get further information. There were 3 reported fork steerer tube failures on the Tarmac SL4 in 2012 and 1 reported failure in 2013, so far. There were also 9 recalls of Trek bicycles since 1994. The number of Trek/Bontrager carbon forks failing at the crown and the steerer tube is documented on the internet for all to see, including George Hincapie’s fork failure at Paris

    When is the cycling public at large going to realize that owning and riding the next super bike iteration may come at the cost of grave personal injury or even death? Is owning and riding a bike that is ½ pound lighter than your friend’s worth bragging rights as well as the risk that the bike might be under-engineered and under-built? The Specialized recall was for 22,200 units. If you asked yourself two simple questions: Do I have complete confidence in this bike? Am willing to put my body and life at risk to prove it? What would your answer be?

    This is not just hypothetical for me. A good friend crashed heavily when the Trek Madone he was riding forks snapped approximately mid-way up the fork blades. The injuries he sustained from having his face smashed into the tarmac were very serious, leaving permanent disfiguration. The bike was bought from a Trek dealer and assembled by supposed trained technicians. The bike was never crashed in any way; he was an avid cyclist who did not race. He refused to ride anything carbon that was structural again.

  6. Jean

    You loved the Cervélo R3 end R5, and liked the BMC Team Machine. How would you compare these to the Tarmac SL4? (I admit I have a Team Machine, so I am curious to have a glimpse of how they are different.)

    1. Author

      Adam: Chill. Ui2 is a convenient way of referring to Shimano Ultegra Di2. It’s a nickname, nothing more, one that even Shimano staffers are comfortable using.

      Walt S: That’s a tricky bit of thinking you’re engaged in. There are far more cars recalled every year for failures that result in actual deaths than what a recall like the one the Tarmac is currently engaged in. But you still drive a car, don’t you? The steerer that failed on Hincapie’s bike was one that had been crashed previously—that’s known. It was not a manufacturing defect. With your friend’s bike, we don’t know that that bike wasn’t damaged in shipping, in an early test ride or by some other means. To suggest that carbon fiber bikes are—broadly speaking—unsafe is simply irresponsible. Following the crash I went through last fall, I’m more convinced than ever that the engineering going into carbon fiber bikes is worth my trust.

      Jean: I’d put the S-Works Tarmac SL4 on a par with the R5 VWD. Neither the R3 nor the Team Machine possessed the same lively ride. The Cervelos and the Specializeds share very similar handling while the BMC has a more relaxed demeanor.

  7. Scott G.

    Builders can and do make their own lugs, tig the lug together from tubing, add some brass filets, then silver braze the frame tubes in. Bi-Laminated lets you add external 2 dimensional butting to the joints.

    From Cycling Weekly 1947 review the latest Claud Butler Bi-lam frame,
    think of Mr. Butler as the Mike Sinyard of postwar Britain.
    “. The liveliness of the machine and the steadiness of the steering at all times and on even the worst road surfaces was remarkable, and to back up the manufacturer’s confident assertion that ‘whip’ is eliminated completely,”

    The term whip is 1947 English for stiff.

    1. Author

      Scott G: Bear in mind that I used the term “cast,” as in investment-cast, something no one does on a one-off basis, except in jewelry and art. But to address your point more directly, I’m well aware of bi-laminate building and handmade lugs. While those do techniques do allow a builder to craft their own joints for a frame, you seem to be missing the larger point. A handmade lug is still limited by the tubing that’s commercially available. The point here is that carbon fiber allows companies with sufficient engineering resources a blank canvas to work from. The reality is that even though you can make an incredible bike from ferrous tubing, steel is a material with considerable limitations.

  8. nrs5000

    Padraig, when you mention the varying trail numbers for different frame sizes, it makes me think all the sizes get the same rake regardless of HTA — and therefore, different handling. If, as you say, each size frame has it’s own layup schedule, why use the same fork rake across the size range?

    1. Author

      NRS5000: The head tube angle varies a good bit on the Tarmac, from 72.25 degrees on the 49 to 74 degrees on the 61. Only the 56 and 58 share the same head tube angle, 73.5 degrees. They use two fork rakes, 45mm on the 49, 52 and 54, and 43mm on the 56, 58 and 61. I used to ding manufacturers pretty heavily for allowing trail to change from size to size. In talking with Specialized engineers over the years, they have made a case for wanting to offset the short wheel base on small frames with slightly more trail, while cutting trail on the bigger bikes to offset the long wheelbase. While lots of companies do this, it was guys like Specialized’s Chris D’Aluisio who made the best argument laying out the thinking. That wouldn’t have been enough for me, though. What really clinched it was hearing from so many riders on the 49 and 52 who have told me that the Tarmac and Amira (the women’s version of the Tarmac) was easily the best handling bike they’d ever ridden. Specialized has long had a reputation for making small bikes handle well, like their bigger counterparts, so I’ve come around on allowing trail to vary across sizes. I’ve yet to hear more diminutive riders speak as highly of a bike’s handling as they do so uniformly of the Tarmac and Amira.

  9. Paul I.

    I crashed my carbon fiber bike last year (a Fuji SL-1, for the record.) The only damaged parts were the (aluminum) bars and a (plastic) bottle holder. The frame was perfectly fine.

  10. todd


    with all due respect, if we’re going to limit the products we talk about and review to those without “considerable limitations”, maybe those who are reviewing and reading, and applying said reviews, should be limited to those who are racing pro/1/2, under the age of 30, and with perfect skin… we all are sub-prefect as riders, and all ride sub-perfect gear.

    carbon fiber parts and bikes both have considerable limitations. period. let’s not forget that. carbon just has different limitations. it is no more a miracle material than steel or aluminum or titanium. the drawbacks maybe longevity, even environmental, economic, or social. shit, man, you can’t even put a frame pump on that bike. we all know that those tiny pocket pumps have “considerable limitations”.

    yes, spirit for lugs is available to anyone. as would custom lugs if we were talking in terms of the scale in which the “big s” operates within.

    it really is apples to oranges here.
    maybe a review of a proper custom steel bike is in order?
    keep up the good work.

    1. Author

      Todd: Hang on a sec; I didn’t say anything about limiting what products I review. Nor did I suggest that carbon fiber is without limitation. Let’s keep our eye on the ball. The bigger picture, the point of my digression about steel within the review, was that a manufacturer can exercise greater control over the structure of the bicycle itself and create a bicycle that is not simply an assembly of components widely available to everyone else. That much is undeniably true. Again, I will add that I’m a big fan of steel bikes; I even have a custom frame on order as we speak. However, I think that manufacturers working in carbon fiber don’t get the credit they deserve for envisioning the manufacture of the frame and fork beginning with the composition of the “tubing,” designing the shape of the frame and the placement of the material.

      Your observation about custom lugs being available to a large manufacturer like Specialized misses my point by a wide berth. While Specialized did have Mark DiNucci design a set of lugs that were used for the Allez (and they are gorgeous lugs I might add), he designed one set that was used for every size. They did not cast separate lugs for each and every size, which is in effect what they do with the carbon fiber layup on the Tarmac and Amira.

      As to actual reviews of steel frames, as opposed to mere profiles of builders, it’s pretty hard to find a steel builder willing to ship a frame and fork off for a review. I haven’t talked to anyone willing to pursue that in nearly 10 years. That’s a detail that amuses me, given that RKP now has a readership larger than the later days of Bicycle Guide.

      Saltz: You know, I had someone suggest putting me on a 53cm frame last year, with a 13 or 14cm stem. He was a retailer for BMC who received and assembled the Team Machine shipped out for me to review. I laughed and laughed, then told him I wanted to stick with the 57.

    2. Anonymous


      I love the world of hearsay about what goes on inside the company. The Lugs designed by DiNucci way back when indeed came in many angles (3 if I recall correctly) as did the BB shells and dropouts. As the other half of the design team for the bike line, the details are something I am familiar with. But that was a zillion and a half years ago. Check in on the new super limited edition steel Allez which Mark just finished. Every tube, every lug, every braze is entirely new and…….we developed 3 angles for 74 bikes! There will be more on this in the press in the coming days. Stay tuned.

  11. saltz

    curious about your fit on a 54?! with your inseam, it would seem that would give you a monster drop to the bars even with spacers unless I’m missing something. I would think with your measurements, you would be on a 58 (as Rivendell as that sounds)

  12. LesB

    Padraig, I would hazard that you get offers to review lots of different bikes, even if no steel mfrs make that offer. How do you decide which to review and publish?

  13. Scott G.

    Specialized has great flexibility in the layup for each size, but each size is designed for near worst case rider, a 58cm may be ridden by a 6’2″ 160lb cat2 or a 6′ 210lb recreational rider who likes to hop curbs. The custom metal bike
    builder has less flexibility in their materials, but is designing for a specific rider. Which bike will better suit the rider ?

  14. MCH

    I’m curious about your latest fit. Who did the fit and what system was used? Perhaps a review of how bike fits have changed over the last decade (technology, research, etc.) is in order.

    Re steel frames – while I really like the craftsmanship that goes into a custom steel frame, and appreciate the asthetic, when it comes to performance I’m convinced that there simply is no comparison between steel and carbon. I’ve owned 5 custom steel frames as well as numerous italian classics through the years. The customs all used a variety of the best tubes from the top manufacturers, with different butt lengths, thicknesses, etc., etc. In other words, all the tricks of the custom builders trade. None of these frames comes close to the performance (performance in every aspect imaginable) of the R3 I ride now. I still own a custom steel frame and appreciate it for what it is. While steel may have been the pinnacle of performance 15 years ago, it isn’t today.

    As always, your review provides more insight than anything I’ve seen elsewhere.

    1. Author

      LesB: I’m approached by companies most often to review components, apparel and accessories. It’s rare that a company reaches out to me to review a bike, so I go after stuff that interests me. There are lots of bikes out there but a great many of them aren’t all that surprising or exceptional.

      Scott G: Your assumption that Specialized designs their bikes for the “worst case rider” is incorrect. I’ve had numerous talks with their engineering and R&D team and they have all told me the same thing: They design for one goal, the best, most raceable bike. They want a bike that Cavendish and Boonen can win on, bottom line. They refine designs based on the feedback from those pros. That the design is able to pass all of the stringent testing standards is convenient, nothing more. I’m sorry dude, but I’ve ridden a great many amazing steel bikes by some of the finest builders ever to wield a torch, but I’ve yet to ride one that can measure up to the Tarmac in terms of pure performance. The proof is in the pudding—if steel really was the best material for a pure race machine, there would still be a notable presence of steel bikes among unsponsored amateur racers. There’s not.

      MCH: Steven Carre at Bike Effect in Santa Monica did my fit, and I’m already planning a post on the fitting. He’s been certified by Serotta, SBCU and Retül—probably a few others. The guy is pretty fit-obsessed. We had to do my fit in two sessions, so long did he spend with me. We used the latest generation of the Serotta size cycling along with what serves as my primary bike (A Felt F1, the review of which is coming). The fitting surprised me for all that it revealed.

  15. Scott G.

    Padraig, I guess I live in a better off neighborhood, lots of steel and Ti bikes here. Ti is the new black. Do you think a Tarmac feels the same to a rider putting out 1200 watts as it does to someone putting out 400 ?
    Does a Tarmac handle the same with 15cm drop and a 14cm stem as it does with 5cm drop and a 10cm stem ?

  16. Mike

    Padraig – Thanks for the write-up.

    First, gonna say it again. It’s ugly. Matte black as you suggest is gonna look much nicer (and lighter… and really, why drop that much money for 100g in paint?)

    Second, I agree internal routing is silly for a road bike. Harder to work on and I don’t understand the benefit. TT bikes, even aero road bikes like a Cervelo Soloist, I get (should be obvious). But regular old road? Why put up with that headache? Changing cables should be easy… and it’s often the easiest way to improve shifter and brake feel. I do note some sweet rear derailler cable routing by the rear dropouts though- that’s a nice touch.

    Third, I actually have a bike where shifting was comparable to internally routed mechanical… I have a Sette CX-1. Great internal routing… at least on par with external stuff. But more importantly, it’s a CX rig where shouldering and keeping out the grime matter.

    Fourth, did I mention I don’t like the stripes? =) Those stripes!!

  17. Anthony F

    Your steel frame review will be a comment about the nicely filed lugs, the deep luster of the paint, and the cool headtube badge. Maybe an additional line about the neat dropouts. That’s it.

    Unfortunately, since that’s not enough of an article, you’ll have to go into the builder’s story of how he was inspired by Hampsten’s ride in the Giro or the scene in Stars and Watercarriers where the mechanic is cleaning the Bianchi’s bb bearings. Then you’ll tell us that the builder, who most likely lives in Porlandia, can build you anything you want. Cross, porteur, rando … and so on.

    Oh yeah, he can also put SS couplers on it. And any Joe Bell paint job. ( I’m not gonna call it a colourway )

    Sounds about right doesn’t it?

    What you won’t talk about is performance.

    Cause there’s none. Today’s “constructeurs” are building frames that ride like any SL, SLX, SP or 531, 753, 853. Pego’s are just wanna be MAX’s.

    The problem with NAHBS is that it’s actually arrested whatever little, I emphasize little, performance advancements might still be eked out of steel.
    NAHBS is an art show. Nobody’s bending and manipulating tubes for the sake of performance. It’s all about aesthetics. About function following, at some distance, form.

    Lugs, loved by all the “steel is real” guys, is hugely to blame. At the apex of steel frame development, the late 80’s and early 90’s, the guys pushing the limits of steel performance were building without lugs. The National Team’s Yamaguchis were lugless; and were probably the most exotic steel frames ever made. Most of the best stuff being tried on steel was happening in the world of mountain bikes. Because those guys didn’t limit themselves with lugs and tradition, they were able to mess around with the good old double diamond. So they did things like drop and slope top tubes. There were some really neat road frames coming from mainly mountain bike guys. Better performing than the steel stuff made today.

    At NAHBS, you’ll mostly see road bikes with horizontal top tubes and lugs. Steel frame builders are trying to outdo each others fork crowns or seat clusters. No push for perfomance.

    The frames may be pretty, but that steel frame ride won’t fail to disappoint.

    1. Author

      Anthony F: Come on dude, that was unnecessarily cynical. There is still good work being done in steel. I’ll grant that the constructeur category has been overdone and it’s the rare rider on the rare occasion who needs that variety of bike, but some of that work is gorgeous. You presume a lot to suggest there is nothing interesting to say about the ride quality of a steel frame and all I’d have to write about is the bike’s appearance. Honestly, it insults the work I do and unless I’m wildly off the mark, I’m willing to guess that wasn’t your intent.

    1. Author

      LesB: We should do what we can to stay on topic, please. That said, I’ll add this very briefly—some years ago I reviewed a frame made from Columbus Metax. What I can tell you about studying the tubing that’s available is that it doesn’t change the ride quality in any significant way. The one real advantage it offers is that you can polish it to make it gorgeous, just like chrome. The difference is its a much less toxic process than chrome, but polishing is crazy time consuming.

  18. Anthony F

    Sorry. I should’ve written ” A steel frame review …” rather than “Your steel frame review …”

    Insulting you wasn’t even close to being remotely anywhere near my intent.

    I actually agree with all your points regarding the performance of carbon vs that of steel. And, I agree that there are many gorgeous steel frames currently being made. I don’t begrudge the craftsmanship of past and current framebuilders. I can call many of them friends. However, not a single one of them will argue that a current state of the art race bike should be made of the material they most love to work with.

    They’re realistic. They know that it is not possible to make a frame that’s stiff, aero, light, and comfortable at once. I’m not gonna concede a single performance advantage to steel. Not a single one.

    But, they are beautiful. I still own a lugged steel track frame and a lugged steel mountain bike. Raced them both. They’ll both be replaced by carbon superbikes.

    How do I know that 58 is too big for you? Cause I’ve been reading your work since Bike Guide, BKW, Asphalt, and now RKP. That might be twenty ,or close to ,twenty years. I like your work and respect your writing. I also think all your bikes, I remember a Sycip and others, were always too big for you. I just never said anything till now.

    No insult meant. Just responding to the steel is real crowd. If I came across as insulting and cynical, that’s due to my failed attempt at light sarcasm. Apologies again.

  19. phillipivan

    Perhaps an inadvertent side effect of this review, is that is has clarified any doubt I had about purchasing an end of season SL3 on sale over a brand new SL4. For reasons of HT length and external cabling (and concomitant shifting quality for mechanical group sets), I think the SL3 suits me better. I would add though, that being a very tall (194cm) cyclist on the XL sized frame, I would prefer the handling to be a tad slower. But only a little bit.

  20. Marc

    I think it’s a little bit unfair to make comparaison of actual top carbon fiber frame and steel frame. Technology will always be pushed according to the market size witch is in turn influenced by what drives the company to be profitables. One of the reason carbon fiber is so widely used today is because there is probably a better money markup to be made on a carbon frame then on a steel frame, once you take account all the costs.

    Now, I’m sure the SL4 is a marvelous bike. So would be a top bike made of any other material that would be in an as large demand as carbon.

  21. Peter lin

    I’ll second the insight on internal cable routing. I was wondering if internal cable routing is really worth it. Looking at everyone’s comments, it’s pretty clear there is a trade off. SL3 looks like a more affordable option that doesn’t sacrifice breaks and shifting.

  22. AK

    Thank you for the in depth review. I’m in dilemma between the sworks and non sworks sl4 line up. Apart from the weight differences, will there be any differences in terms of ride feel and etc? I’m pretty sure I won’t feel any stiffness differences as I’m not a racer with brute force in sprinting, I’m more of a casual cyclist. Hence the question. Will it justify to purchase the top of the line frame set?

    1. Author

      AK: My limited experience with the Pro level of bikes from Specialized tells me they aren’t quite as lively in road feel. As far as stiffness goes, it’s supposed to possess the same stiffness. Bear in mind that while you may not be as strong as a pro, the greater determiner in how stiff a bike should be is the rider’s weight, not their strength. You needn’t be as strong as a pro to need a bike as stiff as a pro’s.

  23. kc

    I ride an SL2, I’ve ridden (for extended periods) the SL4, and the Venge. The bummer is that the trail in the XL is just not enough for my liking. I understand why Specialized does it, they have two fork rakes across the size range. I tried a Venge in a 58, night and day shocking how much difference 3mm makes in handling. I wish they’d make the XL w/ a 73.5 head tube. I may be in the minority but I like a slower more stable handling rig. I think most would if they rode them side by side. Ever wonder why a track bike feels like it’ll squeeze though the smallest hole, or it can broadside a pick up truck? Tons of trail.

  24. Mike


    Have you ridden a Venge? How does it compare to the SL4? I’m curious since I sold my Venge and I’m currently in the market for a new bike. I am definitely looking into the Sl4.

    1. Author

      Mike: I haven’t yet done a single ride on the Venge, though I’m really eager to. I just haven’t had the opportunity.

      Rick: I don’t build bikes as often as I used to and while you may not think much of my skills as a mechanic, I’ll say in my defense I spent more than 10 years working in bike shops as a mechanic. I can still do a very thorough build on most boxed bikes—including dialing my fit—in less than three hours, though that’s probably twice the time it would have taken me back when I was working as a wrench. I think I’ve got a pretty good idea what increased the build time on the Tarmac SL4: While the liners helped with running the cables, not knowing the particular combination of guides and ferrules for each cable run took me a while to figure out and there’s no doubt that even with the aid of the cable guides the build takes longer than with external routing. Regarding shift performance, my experience is that both 7900 and Red work better on bikes with external routing.

  25. rick

    As far as the 6 hour build goes I would say that may have to do with your lack of bike building skills as anything else. The bike comes with liners pre-installed to ease the running of cables for both brakes and derailleurs making installation quite simple.
    As far as shifting quality goes I think your complaint is spot on but has more to do with Shimano 7900 than it does the Tarmac. As a matter of fact Shimano has in there own documents stated that the shifting is not designed to work with bike with internal routing.
    I think you’ll find as I have that the new bikes with Dura-Ace 9000 work perfectly well with internal routed frames, including the Tarmac SL4.

  26. Stan Yeatts

    Excellent summary. And, I will reference “Road Bike Action Magazine’s” edition from 1 year ago (e.g.,Feb 2012) where they did a ‘Shootout’ among the best dream bikes on the planet. The pucnhline of the article was: “…In a unanimous decision, the blue ribbon goes to the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL4…”

  27. Darwin

    Giant makes a better bike. In fact they and Merida used to make Specialized bikes but now only Merida does. Something odd about the Specialized reviews here. Like you have some sort of bias based on a connection with Specialized.

    1. Author

      Darwin: Our bike reviews aren’t contests. If you need a shootout, I recommend our buddies over at Road Bike Action. They do shootouts.

      As far as bias goes, if I admit we’re biased to you, then our evil cabal will have to send out our steroid-enhanced henchmen to kill everyone who sees this comment. I’m sure you don’t want that.

      The reality is simpler: We’ve been talking to Giant, but we have yet to get a single bike from them.

  28. Darwin

    I didn’t ask for shootout so thats a strawman comment.

    You are really soft pedaling the fork recall in both Part 1 and Part 2 and you claim you don’t know that Specialized has shut companies down when in fact they have. Google “specialized lawsuits”. Not that hard to find.

  29. DH

    I’ve been on an SL4 for the season. Amazing bike that puts a smile on my face everytime I ride it. Previous bike was a madone 6.9 ssl…the sl4 is not quite as comfy, but way more lively, handles a bit better, and has more crisp power transfer under accelleration. Only issue has been a creaking bottom bracket. I ride for 200-300 miles, it starts creaking, then I remove my crank and wipe everything down, and it stops for another 2-300 miles. Annoying.

  30. Wes

    Anyone know if the Tarmac sl4 is more or less stiff than the venge. I’m undecided between the two. I’m a power rider so the venge has been recommended but I’m one of those guys who runs the gravel and hard pack dirt roads when training. How does it feel on these surfaces. Will a sl4 beat my teeth in?

    1. Author

      Wes: The S-Works Tarmac SL4 is a bit more torsionally stiff than the Venge and it’s also a more comfortable bike, vertically. If you like playing on dirt and gravel roads, the Tarmac is a terrific choice.

  31. Paul Thober

    Good review. I rode a 2005 60 cm Trek 5200 until recently. For a week or two I’ve riden a 61 cm 5-works sl4. My seatpost is a cm from the minimum insertion mark. I weigh 205 lb. This frame is stiff and uncompliant. I love it. Much better than the Trek and no more worries about the Trek’s aging aluminum steerer

    I’m a bike mechanic, retired, and rehired after ten years or so. The first few of these bikes I built took longer than I expected, but like you I was looking at all those little bits and trying to figure out what went where – and then pullling out the cables and putting that ferrule in that I forgot. I’ve several times had the liner fall out of the frame, but have never had any trouble rerunning it. After building and repairing a dozen or so of these bikes it’s no big deal and the brakes and the shifting work just fine.

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