Consumerism is one of the realities of modern American life that gives me a rash. Buying something just because it’s new or because some cool person has it has never held any sway over me. I’m not against great technology—I do have the iPhone 5s—but with most technology I upgrade every other generation or less, basically only after the improvements are so numerous that my old tech begins to struggle with all the software. However, if there’s little or no software involved, I’ll hold on to something for years if it’s working well. My car model has been redesigned twice since my edition hit the road … 130,000 miles ago.
I’ve had an inconsistent relationship with new bike tech. I thought 8-speed drivetrains and integrated control levers were stupid. But I was perfectly okay with 9-, 10- and 11-speed. I favored titanium and steel over carbon fiber until the composite frames were too good to ignore. Don’t get me started on electronic shifting and disc brakes, will ya? I don’t want to spend this post dining on Corvus brachyrhynchos.
Which brings us to the subject of this post, the new Specialized Tarmac. The idea of an S-Works SL5 didn’t interest me. I don’t want a new bike just to have a new bike. When I asked ahead of the intro if they’d worked with McLaren on this bike, the phone went silent. Oh, well in that case, count me in.
Until now, Specialized had been on a two-year development cycle with the Tarmac and Roubaix, introducing new Tarmacs in odd years and Roubaix in even ones. This latest edition of the Tarmac took a bit longer to develop than the previous iterations, though. The big reason for this is Specialized’s relationship with McLaren. Thanks to McLaren Applied Technologies, Specialized was able to put new tools to use in the design of this Tarmac. The tools came in the form of both hardware for data capture and software for data analysis. The upshot is that for the first time since introducing the Tarmac, Specialized had the tools not just to make an iterative improvement to the frame and fork, but to rethink it from the ground up.
The progression of the Tarmac is an interesting one, and probably emblematic for at least some of the companies out there, but for now I’m going to focus on the changes to the Tarmac in broad strokes. I’ll drill down more deeply when I do a full review of this bike later this year.
With the new Tarmac, Specialized is using the tag line “rider first engineered.” By this they are referring to their effort to design each size of bike as if it were a model in its own right. Normally, what bike companies do is design a 56 and then extrapolate up and down the size range for what the tube size, layup and resulting stiffness should be. The new philosophy of “rider first” is a huge improvement over most carbon fiber bikes on the market. Compared to how carbon fiber bikes were being made in the 1990s and early 2000s—when most models were plagued with a reputation for a terrific 56, great 54s and 58s, small bikes that were too stiff and a 61 that rode like freshly cooked pasta—these new designs make of joke of that era’s engineering.
In designing the new Tarmac, Specialized was able undertake the task of making sure that the both the 49 and the 61 felt just like the 56, giving riders a consistent experience, no matter what their height. To do that, they had to produce sample bikes for each size. It’s a level of prototyping I’ve never heard another company undertake. Not only did they produce those bikes and test them in the lab, they went out and rode them and collected data with the help of the hardware from McLaren and then analyzed that telemetry with the help of the software from the British manufacturer. It can be said that McLaren is in many ways a technology company rather than just a car company.
The root problem that Specialized discovered was that for every 10 percent you raised a rider’s center of gravity, you increased loads by 18 percent. It’s a relatively simple piece of math, but it’s an equation that no one knew until Specialized and McLaren worked it out. Specialized’s engineers have long maintained that rider position has a bigger effect on handling and flex than rider weight and this math finally proves them right. The upshot is that the smallest frames have surprisingly small diameter tubes—almost like oversize steel—while the down tube on the 61 looks like a drainage culvert.
While the size run and handling geometry remains unchanged, everything else about the bike is fresh. We spent two days riding the new Tarmac. I rode the 58, a size that I was told would show off the new bike’s best qualities. I wasn’t sure what to expect; The S-Works Tarmac SL4 is a pretty terrific machine. Following my first high-speed descent on the new Tarmac, I was willing to dismiss the SL4 the way I would some open-mold frame from China. The new Tarmac demonstrated to profound differences compared to its predecessor. The first was a matter of control. The new bike handles more precisely and consistently and that’s saying something as the old Tarmac is one of my favorite bikes on the market. The greater precision and consistency in handling owes to its other banner quality, namely, how smooth it rides. This bike has an ability to smooth road surfaces on a par with many company’s grand touring bikes. This thing might be as comfortable as the Roubaix.
There was no way to fool us into thinking the bike was better than it was. For the launch, we were based in Santa Cruz and rode into the mountains north of there for both days. The rides long, the climbs rough and steep and the descents ranged from screamers with placid pavement to hack jobs the required careful vigilance. I was in heaven.
The recurring theme I found was how because of the bike’s ability to smooth road surfaces and reduce road shock while still delivering enough high-frequency road vibration to let my hands know what was going on with the road, I often pedaled a lower gear at a high cadence. If a bike chatters over a road, I’ll shift up a gear so that my lower cadence reduces some of the bouncing. This was the opposite effect and it kept my legs fresher considering just how long and hard these rides were. If you’re friends with me on Strava, you can look up the rides “Holy Jeez” and “16 kinds of amazing” to see what we did.
Our final big descent of the rides was down San Jose Soquel Road. It’s a descent I’d done two other times, which means I had some familiarity, but was far from having it memorized. I knew the pavement was smooth and that I’d be able to follow our group in a full tuck. One of Specialized’s product managers, Don Langley—a masters World Champion and the dude for whom the Langster is named—led the way and I ended up posting a top-ten on Strava. I care less about a result on Strava than the idea that this bike may be helping me get my descending mojo back.
Did I mention
Specialized, you may have heard, has it’s own wind tunnel. Naturally, this bike received significant CFD treatment and was tested in the wind tunnel. While it’s no Venge, we were told this Tarmac is more aerodynamic than previous iterations.
The new Tarmac will come in a variety of spec, but one of the more interesting variants is a disc-brake, Di2 version. This ain’t your daddy’s road bike. Hell, this ain’t my first road bike. For all the resistance I’ve shown disc brakes, Shimano’s system with 140mm discs has all the stopping power of Dura-Ace calipers with better modulation. I’d prefer this version to the full mechanical Dura-Ace. There, I’ve said it.
On day two (16 kinds of amazing) we did six repeats of a road at the edge of Scotts Valley, Bean Creek. I did the first two descents on the Dura-Ace 9000 rim-brake bike, the next three descents on the disc-brake bike and the final descent back on the rim-brake bike. The road had enough broken pavement, sand and debris on it that I wasn’t willing to go all-out, but I did find that I was more willing to go into a corner hot and brake as late as my brain stem would allow with the R785 disc brakes.
Two days of riding isn’t enough for a full review, but it was enough to convince me that I’m desperate to get on this bike and ride it over roads I know intimately.
This is an arms-race sort of bike. It’s going to force other manufacturers vying for that spot at the top of lustful lists to work even harder. The biggest winners here will be those at the shallow ends of the bell curve, riders tall and small, but even those of us who are more traditionally proportioned will benefit.
I was concerned that this bike would also set off a new round of moon-shot pricing. Amazingly, that didn’t happen. The Di2, R785 hydraulic disc model with Roval Rapide carbon clinchers retails for $9500. That’s major cash, but honestly, I was scared it would go for $12k. The Dura-Ace 9000 mechanical bike with the same wheels will go for $8250. There will be five other versions; prices to come.