Specialized, in conjunction with McLaren has introduced a new ultra-aero time trial helmet. So new, so special is this helmet that only two of them exist—so far. As you read this, those helmets are in the possession of Tony Martin and Levi Leipheimer. Their particular combinations of badass time trialist, über-fast bike, none-faster-than helmet and all the ensuing confidence one derives from carrying the biggest gun in the shootout could make the coming Tour de France prologue a little extra satisfying for the folks in Morgan Hill.
Last week I attended the introduction of this new helmet at the McLaren Technology Center in Surrey, outside London. Both Specialized and McLaren are reluctant to share too many details of their working relationship. They could teach a graduate workshop on discretion. And I freaking hate that. I’ve often described myself as the eternal Discovery Channel watcher. I love to learn and I’m full of questions, even at this point in my life. My visit to McLaren was both one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited and one of my least satisfying experiences in writing about the bike industry. At a certain point I just stopped asking questions because they couldn’t/wouldn’t/shouldn’t answer.
So what are we left with? Well, let’s have a look at this helmet. They’ve been working on it for … a while. We really don’t know how long. What we know is that according to their wind tunnel data they’ve devised the absolute fastest helmet on the planet. They spent twice the amount of time in the wind tunnel as they did when designing the Venge, which suggests they would have spent a similar increase in time using Computational Fluid Dynamic (CFD) software to evaluate design changes even before getting to the wind tunnel. These days, most companies doing advanced aerodynamic work do all the heavy lifting with CFD and use the wind tunnel for proof-of-concept.
So what is CFD?
Do you remember the scene in Yellow Submarine where you see the music flowing out of the musical instruments as if it was a fog of beauty settling over the landscape? As a kid, I loved that visual—truth be told, that hasn’t changed; I still love the image of music settling over people as if beauty itself was washing over them. Visualizing the invisible isn’t strictly the domain of hippies on halucinogens, though they rightfully believe they hold a special ownership of that space.
CFD or Computational Fluid Dynamics does much the same thing (not as LSD, but making the invisible visible). Workstations running CFD software take an imaginary wind and blow it over a theoretical shape and then show you in a kind of lines-and-arrows diagram just how the air moves over that surface. Better yet, it can generate short movies to show you just what happens in areas of turbulence.
It’s amazingly cool to see; bong within easy reach, my college roommate could have watched this for whole Saturdays.
I have the sense that Specialized and McLaren looked at the TT helmet market and thought that they might be able to knock that problem off just to show how effective their partnership is. After all, a new TT bike can be years in the making. They just introduced the Venge last year. The wheel market is glutted with new ideas (some of which are working very well). I’m betting that the TT helmet is an interim project while they work on something bigger—a bike—on a longer development timeline.
So what really makes this helmet different? If you’re going to reduce this helmet to its two most important achievements, the first would be its drag numbers for when the rider looks down. Many TT helmets have great head-on drag. The problem is that they turn into sails if you pull a little red kite prayer. While this helmet doesn’t manage to maintain the same drag numbers head-on as head-down, its head-down numbers are so good that it is still faster than some companies’ helmets head-on. The chart below is a small sampling of the many helmets the big red S tested; I saw a chart that was hard to read because it listed so many helmets. This one is a good deal easier to follow.
This chart is also notable for an unintended reason: I had no idea the Spiuk Kronos was so damn fast. Go figure.
The second significant development introduced with this helmet are its gill vents. At the rear of the helmet there are slits along the top and sides that help channel air by and through the helmet to speed its flow. Not only do they make the helmet faster, they move more air over the rider’s head, we’re told, helping to keep him cooler as he rides.
There have been a great many TT helmets that were little more than fairings with a pad or two. They were as protective as a perforated condom, though entirely more popular. The S-Works helmet offers real protection and even uses dual-density foam to keep head trauma to an absolute minimum should you go down.
It’s hard to know just what McLaren provides Specialized in their partnership. Both companies are—quite understandably—pretty tight-lipped about the work they do together, that is, beyond revealing a new product. During the presentation I attended they talked about some of their work being strictly about technology. It was veiled and cryptic enough to be worthy of a Jedi master. Just what they meant I really don’t understand.
But let’s back up a second. McLaren’s Advanced Technology Division exists to bring McLaren’s considerable technological prowess to less fortunate companies. What I learned during our visit is that they spend a lot of time evaluating companies before they make an approach. And yes, so far as I understand, they reach out to you after deciding you’re cool enough. You’ve got to have the horsepower to be able to spend copiously on development. You’ve also got to have a reputation for predation, identity-wise and an ability to convey brainy gnar in your marketing.
Our tour of McLaren was exceedingly entertaining, what with the wheel-change competition on one of the Vodafone Formula One cars (and wherein our protagonist nearly peeled the skin from his thumb in an ill-timed activation of the air wrench), but probably encompassed less than 10 percent of the building. We saw cars driven by Ayrton Senna, Lewis Hamilton and Emerson Fittipaldi and had the ability to take pictures of nary an item we saw outside of the area where the intro was conducted.
Next spring this helmet will begin appearing at select Specialized retailers at a retail price that I suspect will fit somewhere between emergency room visit and college tuition. It’s fair to surmise that those retailers will all be Specialized Concept Stores.
Every now and then I run across a product that seems to have weaknesses equal to its strengths. As a reviewer, that leaves me in a quandary. Because I write about more than product, and really don’t want the mind-numbing job of trying to write about every single road-oriented product on the market (a task so large that it simply isn’t achievable), I’ve chosen to focus on products that excite and I believe are worthy of some attention and market share. The upshot is that I tend to get steered into higher-end products and don’t do a lot on more budget-oriented items even when there are great ones out there. Well, that and I use it as an opportunity, generally speaking, to avoid having a go at a product that I consider inferior. As my review of the Colnago CLX 2.0 last year showed, even after lambasting that bike (no matter how reluctantly) a couple of readers took the opportunity to write in to say they purchased the bike and loved it.
There’s no point in dragging this out in some overly dramatic build-up. I have a serious degree of ambivalence for the Specialized ’74 Road Shoes. I’ll do what I can to keep this simple and direct. Okay, genuine selling point: The FACT carbon sole is both stiff and light. My sense is that it’s not quite as stiff as the Easton carbon sole, but it’s stiffer than everything else I’ve ridden so far. Another genuine selling point: double Boa closures. There’s not another system on the planet that results in a more precise fit for cycling shoes. No matter how much I might like some other systems, Boa is simply better. Another selling point: Kangaroo leather. Try these shoes on and you’ll be reminded of just how soft and supple a cycling shoe can be. I couldn’t tell you the last time I wore a cycling shoe that featured leather this soft. It might be a pair of Sidis I had back in the 1980s. I can certainly list a dozen pairs of shoes I’ve worn that aren’t anywhere as soft as these.
Then there’s the look. The simple black leather with the red/orange/yellow tag and yellow stitching, not to mention the single Specialized “S” logo on the toe and the “74″ on the outside of the heel, makes these shoes as agreeable to look at as Grace Kelly in Rear Window—classic and classy. They are a serious departure from the typical S-Works product even though they are built on a decidedly S-Works platform.
So there’s plenty to recommend these shoes. That said, I haven’t had the shoes long enough to find out if the kangaroo leather will stretch with repeated riding. My circa 1980s Sidis stretched terribly when I switched from clips and straps to clipless pedals; the eyelets almost pulled through. But a bit of stretch could serve these shoes well for any number of people, especially those who, like me, have a high-volume foot. So that’s only a maybe problem.
What troubles me about this shoe is the last two inches of it. If you’ve seen any of the display ads for the 74 shoe, it is placed alongside an original Specialized cycling shoe from that era. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the heel cup curls down around the ankle and then rises high in back to keep the foot secure, even under the force of a sprint. The 74 shoe is cut less on a curve; it looks a lot like those other cycling shoes that were on the market in the ’70s and ’80s. While the heel rises nearly as high as the comparable S-Works shoe, it doesn’t rise as high and the difference in feel is noticeable … and disconcerting.
Look, I haven’t done a full-on sprint in these shoes and pulled out a la Tom Schuler at the US Pro Championships back in ’86. And I don’t even have the right to say I could. It might never happen. However, the feeling that my heel is not as secure as it is in a shoe that runs $40 less (more on that in a sec), is distinct and has caused me to throttle back efforts because I don’t feel secure enough. And because the S-Works shoe runs $360, that $40 premium means these retail for a not insignificant $400.
As I said, there’s a lot to like about these shoes, but my issues with the heel cup and the fact that I simply don’t feel as secure when wearing this shoe as I do when pedaling away in its sibling has the bummer factor of finding out your favorite beer is made using child labor. Really? What gives? Can’t they fix that?
But damn, they look cool.
On a brighter note, the gloves are wonderful, full stop. While many Pittards-leather gloves can go for $60 or more, the 74 glove is a long-finger glove that is only $55. Pairing the gloves and shoes with an understated kit will make for stylish appearance, there’s no doubt. It’s worth noting that the back of the hand features four Lycra gussets to improve fit and flexibility. And while they look good on my hands as i ride, they’d be an even better accessory were I driving a Porsche. On a more technical note, I tend to wear gloves like this in cool but not cold conditions; I prefer them from the low 50s to the low to mid 60s. They also have the advantage of coming in a whopping five sizes. Those of you with big hands who have had trouble finding gloves big enough to accommodate your mits might appreciate the XL and XXL sizes.
I suspect that after I return to wearing the S-Works shoes, each time I pull these gloves on I’ll continue to wish the 74 shoe fit better than it did. Of course, I can keep them around for recovery rides and those breezy jaunts when you don’t want to feel anything more than the wind in your face. For that, these shoes may be perfect.
I’m partial to any occasion that gets people into a bike shop for a reason other than pure commerce. Bike shops have always been a part of my sense of community, even if that shop is 100 miles away. The best shops find ways to make themselves part of the social fabric of the cycling community and when it does happen, the benefits can be profound and unexpected.
Cynergy Cycles, the flagship among Specialized‘s Concept Stores, held a charity event to benefit Right To Play. The organization targets children in areas ravaged by war and disease, using the transcendent power of play and sport to heal those children and help them chart a better future for themselves. The tie-in to Cynergy came through Specialized which sponsors Team HTC-High Road, one of Right To Play’s Global Corporate Partners.
The shop sold 100 tickets to the event at $100 each. For that, attendees got a dinner catered by Wolfgang Puck (it was quite good), wine, beer or coffee (perhaps all three?), a gift bag and $25 gift card to Cynergy. Better yet, they got to meet the HTC-High Road squad for the Tour of California and were entered in a drawing to win a Specialized S-Works HTC-High Road team frame set.
Another 10 folks got their picture taken with the team for their $250 donation.
Emcee for the event was Phil Keoghan of The Amazing Race and NOW: No Opportunity Wasted.
And while I was pretty jazzed to see Mike Sinyard and meet Allan Peiper, it may be that the biggest stars of the evening had neither the last name Goss or Van Garderen. Specialized was showing off one of a handful of the McLaren edition Venges and the local McLaren dealer was on-hand with both a chassis and working MP4-12C. You’ll pardon me if I tell you it was the sexiest thing in Santa Monica that night.
I’m keen to learn more about the McLaren edition of the Venge. I’m aware that it enjoys its own layup room, its own (much lengthier) layup schedule, not to mention its own blend of carbon fiber. That’s probably as close as I’ll come to the bike though; at $20k, I doubt they’ll be loaning any out for bike reviews. So far, they seem to be most popular with McLaren customers, who are picking them up as the ultimate fashion accessory.
Stuff like this just doesn’t happen often enough. A few PROs, a cool new bike, an amazing car and more than $12k raised for charity. Not bad.
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