First, a brief note on why this review is hitting as the new Tarmac SL4 is being released. I began riding this bike in July for a review that ran on Map My Ride’s site. The reviews I penned for them were, shall we say, necessarily brief. I so fell in love with this bike that I wanted to make sure I reviewed it for RKP; unfortunately, other posts kept back-burnering it, but now the Christmas is almost here and these things are being closed out, it’s worth noting that it’s a good deal better than day-old bread.
When I first began reviewing bikes I didn’t have much in the way of preconceived notions. If I’m honest, some of those early reviews lacked a little something because my criteria for judgment revolved around execution. I was looking for things like sloppy detail work, no clear coat over decals, signs of poor alignment, crappy (cheap) spec and ugly colors.
It took a couple dozen bikes before I realized that my favorite bikes were those with a bit more trail and a low bottom bracket. In fact, the lower the better. On the mountain roads near my home I found that the bikes with the low BBs were easier to control on the descents. They turned in easily and I equated that—incorrectly—with stability.
Eventually, that preference became calcified. I so preferred bikes with a lower BB that I became a bit prejudiced against bikes with a normal to high BB. In concrete terms, my preference was for bikes with 7.5cm of drop, or more. As 7cm of drop is traditional due to CPSC regulations, that resulted in a few rather automatic determinations. First, it put every production bike sold in the United States on the wrong side of the tracks, so-to-speak. All my favorite bikes were at the shallow end of the bell curve because only custom bikes could be built with a BB with more than 7cm of drop.
Not that I cared.
As the industry shifted to carbon fiber, I was faced with choosing between a stiffer, lighter bike, and a bike that sacrificed some performance aspects in exchange for that lower center of gravity.
Almost two years ago I undertook a review of the Specialized Tarmac SL and the Roubaix SL. The two Specialized models helped redeem the company after a spate of crap bikes in the 1990s that caused me to despair that the company had lost its way. When the boys in Morgan Hill made the move to full carbon-fiber models, they did it in a big way and their work was impressive.
There was no escaping my old preferences, though. Faced with the chance to ride a bike with a longer wheelbase, lower BB and a touch more trail and I chose the Roubaix twice a day and three times on Sunday. So accustomed was I to the long and low geometry of the Roubaix I concluded that the Tarmac was a bit skittish, too F1 when luxury sedan was the right response.
I kept riding the Tarmac and my appreciation for it increased, but it wasn’t until I spent a day descending Decker Canyon Road north of Malibu that I figured out just how good the Tarmac is. I did six loops on canyon roads, climbing Encinal (because it was longer and shallower) and then descending Decker (because it was more fun). The first two were on the Roubaix, the second two on the Tarmac then a final loop on each the Roubaix and the Tarmac. I called that post “The Crucible” and while you can read it here, I can sum it up by telling you that by the end of the day I learned that I preferred the Tarmac to the Roubaix on technical descents.
To me, that was tantamount to keeping kosher and then deciding one night that all you’re ever going to eat is pork barbecue. What the?
There was no mistaking that on the tight, technical, twisting descents of the Santa Monica Mountains I prefer the Tarmac. It’s true that I could carve smaller radiused turns, but that didn’t—couldn’t—define the whole of my preference. The biggest piece of the puzzle had to do with how the bike behaved when leaned over. From time to time you’ll hear a reviewer talk about how a bike felt as if it was on rails. That sensation, in my experience develops when you lean a bike into a turn and once you set the lean, the bike continues on that course until you turn the wheel into the turn to stand the bike back up. I have ridden plenty of bikes that once leaned over never settle into a particular line. That’s a problem because if you’re not sure what a bike will do next, you’re apt to hit the brakes and the brakes, we know, are a fun antidote. On the other side, I’ve ridden bikes that just flat-out didn’t want to lean over. I can say the latter is way more problematic than the former.
In terms of pure numbers, my experience is that a BB drop of 7cm combined with a head tube angle (HTA) slacker than 73 degrees and more than 45mm of fork rake will do this noodly line thing. I’ve ridden bikes with an HTA of 73 degrees and 50mm of fork rake, but had 7.5cm of BB drop and they were rock solid in corners. But I’ve ridden others with only 7cm of drop and they were all over the place in corners—just wouldn’t hold a line. Stand them up straight and they tracked true. And the bikes that wouldn’t turn? It was always a BB with less than 7cm of drop combined with a 73-degree HTA and 40mm of rake.
By comparison, the Tarmac in my size (58cm) has a 73.5-degree HTA, 43mm of fork rake and 6.75cm of BB drop. To get a bike with a BB that high to lean over it needs to have fairly aggressive trail; the Tarmac is 5.59cm.
The Tarmac has become my favorite-handling bike on the market. For me, the bottom line of this bike is more objective than subjective: When you need it to change course, it responds with precision, but unless you tell it to do something, it’s going to stay on its present course. I can’t think of a reason you’d want a bike to do anything different.
While we’re covering geometry, I want to shine a little spotlight on the size run for the Tarmac. The bike comes in six sizes: 49, 52, 54, 56, 58 and 60cm. When you consider those six sizes are meant to cover men and that the women’s version of the Tarmac—the Amira—is available in another five sizes, that adds up to 11 sizes in total, a pretty impressive size run. The Tarmac features some significant jumps in sizing that could pose an issue for some in finding the right size bike. The top-tube lengths are, respectively: 51.8, 53,7, 54.8, 56,5, 58.2 and 60.0cm. For the most part, the size jumps are between 17 and 19mm. It means that some riders will need to consider two sizes when looking at the Tarmac. What is encouraging, though, are the number of Specialized dealers that staff someone who has gone through at least the first fitting course (there are several) at Specialized Bicycle Component University.
I’ve shrunk a bit over the years and while I used to commonly ride a 58.5cm top tube, I tend to ride shorter stuff these days. My personal preference would be for a bike with a top tube in the 57.5cm range. With the Tarmac, the 56.5 top tube works great with a 12cm stem, but the head tube length is really short for me and causes shoulder issues. No bueno. So I went with the 58.2 and an 11cm stem. It looked odd, seeing that stubby stem on there at first, but rather than pull a bonehead move and put a longer stem on just ‘cuz it looks better, I rode it and found the bike to be incredibly well balanced. It lost none of the nimble feel that I’d experienced with riding a 56.5 previously.
On steering geometry, the 52 and 54 both feature a 73-degree HTA and a 45mm-rake fork for 5.69cm of trail. That’s not much different than the 56 and 58 which use a 73.5-degree HTA and a 43mm-rake fork for 5.59cm of trail. Where things get a little weird is with the 49 and 60cm sizes. The 49 has a 72.25-degree HTA and a 45mm-rake fork for a sluggish 6.15cm of trail. The 60 has a 74-degree HTA and a 43mm-rake fork for a quick 5.27cm of trail. Some of the slow steering in the 49 will be offset by the fact that it has a short wheelbase. The opposite is true for the 60; its quick handling will be partially offset by a rather long wheelbase; even so, neither bike will feel quite like those middle sizes. Ah to be part of the 99 percent.
Tomorrow: frame stiffness and ride quality.
When I review a bike, I tend to hit the “road feel” aspect of a bike’s ride pretty hard. I’ve done it enough and gotten enough subsequent questions about just what I mean and what I value that it seems high time I spend devoted some pixels just to the subject of road feel.
It used to be that road feel or “ride quality” was an indispensable dimension of any bike review. Even Bicycling Magazine would address it in their famously brief reviews. Those publications that devoted more than a couple hundred words to a review tended to spend more time defining not only a given bike’s ride quality but also made an effort to assign some sort of value to the quality. I’m not seeing much conversation on the subject these days, save the reviews Ben Edwards pens for peloton magazine.
While it may seem that ride quality and road feel may be essentially two different phrases for the same phenomenon, I do see them differently and I believe historically that “ride quality” was often used to define not just the feel of the frame material, but the interplay of that material with the bike’s geometry. In a nutshell, I use road feel to address the sense of road I get based on the frame material alone. It has nothing to do with the frame’s overall stiffness.
So any discussion of road feel is limited to the sense of road the bicycle’s frame imparts to the rider. Many of the bike’s components can affect just what you experience. Ride a bike with 100 psi in the tires and then ride it again with 140 psi in the tires and you could be forgiven for believing you were on a different bike.
Bar, bar tape, seatpost, seat and tires will all affect road feel, but none of these will usually have the effect that a significant change in tire pressure will bring. Additionally, different shorts and different shoes will affect what you experience as well. When reviewing a bike, I never get the chance to normalize for more than wheels and tires. I’ve got a set of wheels I know intimately and have some trusted open tubulars on them. That will zero out the wheel/tire combo. Ride a bike long enough and you’ll even see through differences in shorts. All that aside, the most important feedback you get comes through your feet and butt.
Okay, so all those factors can skew what you feel, but that doesn’t answer the central question of why road feel matters.
I’m fascinated by road feel because it is one of a handful of the dimensions of a bike’s overall composition that can affect how I descend and corner. When a bike is pushed to its performance limit, road feel can have a profound influence on just how far I’m willing to go.
People will use descriptors such as “lively,” “dead,” “springy,” and even “razor-sharp” to discuss the way the bike feels as they ride it. That feel is road feedback. Think of your frame as a pair of glasses and the road as the sky. The frame you ride is essentially the lens color of your glasses. You can ride a frame that blots out most of the sunlight to tame a sunny day. Or it can be a high-contrast yellow lens for the low-light situations you find on early morning fall rides. And whether you choose a dark or light lens, the quality of that lens will determine the clarity with which you see.
While this may be obvious almost to redundant, the road surface has a huge influence on just what you experience. The smoother the road, the less input you get and the deader the bike will feel. Some amount of texture is helpful for descending and cornering.
When I first started reviewing bikes, my sense was that the changes I experienced in road feel related almost entirely to frame material, that all bikes created from a frame material were sort of static in feel. However, the market was being flooded with new steels and I quickly learned that some of the new oversize steel tube sets (such as Columbus EL-OS Nivacrom) felt different from older stuff (such as Columbus SL). Even though the material density was the same, the bikes felt different.
So why was that? The best information I have from engineers is that it was related to wall thickness. If density remains consistent, a thinner wall will transmit more vibration. Increase wall thickness or decrease density and the feel changes. Titanium is half as dense as steel; aluminum is a third as dense as steel.
But the vibration transmission is affected by other factors. Butting makes a huge impact on road feel. No matter what material is used, if the tubes are straight gauge, the bike will have a harsher feel; more vibration will radiate through the frame.
So what constitutes good road feel and how much vibration should a frame transmit? Well, there are a variety of opinions on this. The French manufacturer Time does all it can to eliminate as much road vibration as possible; they include materials like Kevlar to make the frames mute to vibration. There are other manufacturers, such as Specialized, Cannondale, Felt, Look, BH, Parlee and even Bottecchia that offer bikes with a nude finish; that is, decals and no paint. No paint means an absence of 80 to 100 grams of material that contributes nothing structural to the bike. When you’re talking about a potentially 800g frame, that means 10-12 percent of the bike’s weight does nothing to contribute to strength or stiffness. You might as well just wrap the frame with electrical tape.
While 80g of paint is a liability in the weight department, the presence of paint does an interesting thing to a bike’s road feel. It deadens the frame. Not terribly, but it does fundamentally change just how the bike feels.
I’ve had the opportunity to ride bikes from a couple of manufacturers with paint and then with a decal-only finish. The difference in feel has to do with high-frequency road vibration. It’s that high-frequency stuff that gives you the greatest sensitivity to the road conditions. And though Trek doesn’t offer (so far as I’ve seen) a single nude-finished frame, it’s absence suggests less that they aren’t concerned with road feel and more that they aren’t confident in the cosmetics of their unpainted frames.
While I could try to illustrate the point of sensitivity with the analogy of a condom, let’s go with a stereo instead. On a traditional stereo with volume, bass and treble controls, if you turn up the bass and then turn down the treble, you wind up with gangsta rap—a pumping sound that has little definition. Carbon fiber frames with nude finishes feature a little less volume overall (because the frames feature an incredible amount of internal butting at junctions) but offer clarity that can only come from keeping the treble cranked up. Think of top-40 radio and the way those melodies can carry even when played on a lousy department store PA.
The Trouble With Color
Painted carbon can look amazing. It can also give a manufacturer the opportunity to cover blemishes in substandard work. It even offers a very minor degree of impact resistance. But it does nothing for road feel.
Bikes like the Specialized Tarmac, Cannondale SuperSix EVO, Felt F-series and BH Ultralight feature next-generation carbon fiber construction that has eliminated the use of foam in junctions where compaction has traditionally been a problem. Internal forms help make sure the bike achieves optimal material compaction. I suppose there are others using these techniques, but these are the bikes I’m aware of so far. Tap a fingernail on the down tube of one of these bikes and you’ll hear a distinctly metallic sound. The greater the material density, the higher frequency the sound. Both frame strength and road feel benefit.
It’s easy to conclude that greater high-frequency sensitivity is strictly an aesthetic preference and that one can make a strong case for a frame that stamps out vibration like ants in a kitchen. Unfortunately, there are objective reasons to seek out a frame with less vibration damping.
If your goal is a frame that maximizes strength while still achieving a competitive ~800g weight, you have to go with a nude finish. I’ve yet to come across a bike that offers the strength and weight equal to the world’s top frames that also feels dead. I’m so glad. But, God, how I wish Cervelos were available in a paint-free scheme.
A final note: One needn’t ride on the roller coaster roads of Malibu to make use of the benefits of superior road feel. I try not to push bikes to the point of breaking the tires loose (at least, on the road), but when the roads are wet, a bike that gives me great feedback will help me get down a descent faster. And as a rider, the greatest challenge I ever face on two wheels is riding in the rain. Descending in the rain? Nearly guaranteed flow state, and it’s times like that I want all the data I can get, even if it’s 100 percent right-brained.
When we left off yesterday, our hero was waxing less than poetic about the Vamoots handling. If you’d like to see what he was on about, go here.
With a trail of 6.37cm, the Vamoots has roughly a centimeter more trail than many race-oriented bikes for this size. It’s also got a longish wheelbase, but I didn’t have trouble getting the bike to turn thanks to that lower bottom bracket. Compared to a Specialized Tarmac, the BB is 5mm lower. On descents, at speeds between 30 and 40 mph, the bike was calm as a United Nations diplomat. My concern with bikes with this much trail is that while they can be ultra-stable at 12 mph, they can get loose when you get up to 50 mph. I suspect—though I didn’t have the opportunity to try—that would not have been a problem because of the short-ish 57cm top tube, which keeps plenty of weight on the front wheel.
My one issue with the Vamoots had to do with the bike’s trail. Across nine sizes, five different head-tube angles are spec’d, ranging from 72 degrees in the 48cm frame to 73 degrees in the 60cm frame. The increase in angle is only a quarter of a degree at a time. To their credit, they spec three different fork rakes, 40mm, 45mm and 50mm. The issue is that a 5mm increase in fork rake is almost equal to 1-degree increase in head tube angle. The upshot is that trail on the nine sizes jumps around a bit—the 56cm frame with the same head angle but 5mm more fork rake is going to be a sharper handling bike, noticeably so. To offset a quarter-degree increase in head tube angle you only need increase fork rake by 1mm. I’m being picky here, I admit. While the choice of forks isn’t ideal, they get credit for taking a much better approach than some companies that use a single fork rake across six or seven sizes. It’s good, better than some, but not ideal.
It’s a bike, so the issue of weight invariably must come up. I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to weigh the frame alone on this bike. They claim a 56cm frame weighs 3 lbs. Given the bike’s stiffness, that number is unsurprising. I’ve yet to ride a steel bike with that combination of weight and stiffness.
I’ve ridden more than a dozen different ti bikes over the years. I’ve ridden a half-dozen or more Litespeeds alone. The first thing I noticed about the Moots as I rolled from my driveway was how surprisingly stiff the bike was at the bottom bracket. It was stiffer than most steel bikes I’ve ever ridden, most ti bikes, too. Certainly it wasn’t as stiff as the current crop of carbon creations, but this ride is more 7-series than M-series to use a BMW analogy; it’s meant to be comfortable.
Out on the road one of the bike’s most distinctive features was its muted road feel. While some ti bikes allow a fair amount of high-frequency road vibration to reach the rider, the Vamoots was plenty sensitive but turned the treble down on the highest stuff. It’s an understandable approach if you’re going to be on the road for hours riding centuries and gran fondos. Honestly, this bike is perfect for a long day in the Alps.
The Vamoots is the sort of bike that will build a rider’s confidence. It’s stable, yet responsive and stiff without being jarring. There’s going to come a day when my agility has gone brittle, my confidence cheap. I hope to age with some grace, which to me means staying on the bike but dialing back my ambition. While I love this bike today, its relevance as the correct answer to my life will sharpen in 15 years.
What I most wanted to do while this bike was in my possession was to roll from my front door with no agenda. Simply head out one morning with three pockets stuffed with food. No worries about pace or destination, maybe spin through downtown, hit the Mulholland rollers, maybe head up the recently reopened Angeles Crest Highway, the Vamoots would have been perfect on its sweeping bends. Alas, my review bike is a demo that needs to circulate … and can’t spend months in my garage. In their wisdom, they will rely less on my word than your experience. Good plan.
After months of riding on both the Roubaix and the Tarmac SL I was dismayed. I had yet to determine a preference relative to my own riding and that was killing me. Mind you, I wasn’t trying to determine the better bike, because I didn’t actually think one was superior to the other, but I believed that because the two bikes were different I must, as some point, arrive at a conclusion about which better suited my taste. Simply put, I should get down a technical descent on one faster than the other. Which would it be?
Malibu contains more than a dozen roads that run from the ridgeline of the Santa Monica Mountains down to Pacific Coast Highway. The roads can drop nearly 2500 vertical feet at grades of up to 18 percent. The descents generally range between 4.6 and 9.2 miles. Most of them feature more than a dozen turns per mile. At 40 mph, that’s a turn about every six seconds … and many of the turns can last for three or four seconds.
Of these descents, three offer grades steep enough to sustain speeds above 45 mph over road surfaces that don’t make the experience seem like fodder for an episode of Jackass.
Kanan Dume Road recalls the sweeping turns and consistent grades of the Rocky Mountains. It features far fewer turns than the other descents and a good deal more traffic.
Tuna Canyon Road is where the ill-fated Red Bull Road Rage was held. It features more than 70 turns in 4.2 miles and drops some 1800 feet at an average gradient of 8.1 percent. On the descent’s one significant straight (which was used for the speed trap in the Red Bull event), it is possible to clock 60 mph just before a sharp left turn will cause you to rethink your actions or alter your future. I know plenty of riders afraid to descend this road and it’s one of a handful of roads I descend where I’m unwilling to let the bike run. The looming wall of dirt has whispered things to me about deceleration trauma that I’m unable to repeat.
Decker Canyon Road is a bit like Tuna Canyon light. It is almost a half mile longer, drops 150 fewer feet, culminating in a 6.8 percent average gradient, as compared to Tuna Canyon’s deceptive 8.1 percent average. It also features nearly roughly ten fewer turns, meaning the road bends don’t come quite so frequently.
Decker Canyon is my road of choice for challenging myself on a descent or when testing the limits of a bike’s cornering. The descent is fairly steep, but not super-steep, the turns come in rapid succession and nerves of steel are tested in the turns, not in the chutzpah of straight-line speed.
I came up with a crucible. I’d take both bikes up to Malibu. I would ascend Encinal Canyon Road six times—three times on the Tarmac and three times on the Roubaix—and following each five mile, 6.3 percent average gradient ascent of Encinal Canyon I would plummet down Decker Canyon.
My first two ascents of Encinal were aboard the Tarmac. The second two were aboard the Roubaix. Trip number five was back on the Tarmac and the final trip was made aboard the Roubaix. The six circuits only added up to 57 miles, but the climbing totaled more than 9000 feet ascended.
My position was very similar on both bikes; saddle height and setback was the same and reach to the bar was within a centimeter, though the bar on the Roubaix was almost a centimeter higher. Switching between the two was unremarkable from a position standpoint. However, as soon as I did switch from the Tarmac to the Roubaix the increased vibration damping was immediately apparent.
According to my GPS data my fourth and fifth ascents (Roubaix and Tarmac, respectively) were my two fastest; my average speeds were within a tenth of a mile per hour of each other. Interestingly, I burned fewer calories on the Roubaix, lending further credence to the idea that cutting vibration can decrease fatigue.
My three fastest descents were aboard the Tarmac. On those descents (first, second and fifth) my max speed was 46, 46 and 46.5 mph, respectively. My slowest descent, surprisingly, was my first trip down on the Roubaix.
The tightest turns on the descent, the ones on which there was no question of braking, just how hard would be necessary, were all right-handers except for the final switchback less than a mile from the bottom. I was able to carve very consistent lines through these turns and found myself consistently shaving the yellow lines on the Roubaix and six inches to the right on the Tarmac. That minute difference made a big difference at speed.
What I noticed was that the more I felt like I was really having to manage the bike—push it—to negotiate a turn, the more inclined I was to brake before the next turn. I did almost no braking during turns on the Tarmac but did scrub speed with some regularity during turns while aboard the Roubaix.
A brief word on my descending: Fast. I like it. Roller coasters were always my favorite at amusement parks when I was a kid but today, compared to mountain roads, they lack a critical interactivity component. That said, I don’t take what I believe to be are risks. While I find the foregone conclusion of a roller coaster lacking, I enter every turn with the belief that my safe exit from it is deal-done. As soon as I feel like I’m really pushing a bike, I back off. My empiricism ends at the point of wondering just how fast I can enter a turn and exit it without a yard sale. Aided by downhill pads and a Kevlar suit I might play my hand differently and bluff my way straight to call, but in Lycra I do little more than ante up.
What I learned was I preferred the Tarmac for descending. I’m unafraid to declare my surprise at this. I really thought that the Roubaix would see me brake less and roll up to higher speeds, but it just didn’t happen that way and I can say that I did my best to make each of those drops an E-ticket ride.
But how many people buy a bike for how it descends?
In my estimation, more bikes ought to be purchased that way. I think it indicates a great deal about a bike’s character. A downhill turn is the ultimate litmus paper for any bike. If the bike won’t turn, you should ask yourself what that bike is meant to do and what you plan to use it for.
But here’s the asterisk: My preference for the Tarmac was revealed under fairly extreme circumstances. Most riders won’t ever ride down a road as challenging as Decker. There just aren’t that many of them in the world and unless such a road is part of one’s regular vocabulary of roads, the reasonable response is to back off. So what about the downhills more regularly encountered? What if, say, you rode in the Rockies or the Alps?
If I factor Malibu out of the equation and consider the other roads I took the bikes over, the many other roads I’ve ridden around the world, the answer is easy.
The Roubaix is easily one of the best all-around bikes I’ve ever ridden. I’ll venture to say it is one of the best thought-out bikes on the market. For most riders under most circumstances the Roubaix is an easy correct answer. It’s lighter than elfin armor, handles with the relaxed control of a Bond villain and cuts vibration like a power outage.
The Roubaix should be the default answer for anyone considering a Specialized road bike (or perhaps many other road bikes).
So where does that leave the Tarmac? It is, without marginalizing it, a bike for the margins. The Tarmac is the Navy SEAL to the Roubaix’s sailor, the surgical scalpel to the butcher knife, the truing stand to the Y Allen wrench. It is the accept-no-substitute for criterium racing, intestinal descents and the most aggressive group rides.
They are both spectacular bikes and well-enough differentiated to have earned their place in the Specialized product line.
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
It’s only natural that a bike meant for longer days would be designed to eat vibration the way a whale sucks down krill. Specialized includes its Bar Phat bar tape with gel inserts to further cut vibration at the handlebar, before lawnmower hand has a chance to become a problem. This tape, of course, is wrapped around a wing bar, easing the degree to which your hands have to wrap around the bar.
The wheels are Roval’s Roubaix, a modern answer to the 32-spoke, 3-cross wheel that remains the favorite of pros racing the event that gave rise to this bike’s name—Paris-Roubaix. The wheels feature 24 spokes front, 30 spokes rear, two-cross, bladed spokes with machined aluminum hubs featuring a Swiss-made freehub rolling on a Specialized 25mm-wide Roubaix tire.
So what else can you do to reduce vibration transmission? How about a Specialized Body Geometry Toupé gel saddle?
Zertz inserts, Bar Phat, wing bar, old-school wheels (sorta), big tires and gel-filled saddle, it all adds up to as many different responses to vibration as I can think of. You might say a no-stone-unturned approach to reducing vibration.
Reducing vibration does more than just increase comfort, though. It reduces muscle fatigue and has the power to make five hours feel like four, leaving you fresher at the end of a long ride. This probably isn’t as big a deal for young riders, but for riders who have celebrated their 50th birthday, nerve pinches and back and neck issues become very real obstacles to comfort if not outright completing long rides.
I don’t want to go too far into the parts spec for this bike; it would be unfair to Specialized to judge the bike relative to my like or dislike of Shimano componentry. There are, however, some important points to touch on.
The Roubaix is spec’d with a compact drivetrain. The crank is Specialized’s carbon fiber S-Works model with 50/34t rings. It is mated to a Shimano Ultegra 12/27t cassette. When one considers that this bike’s most likely consumer is a non-racer, the choice of a compact crank and widely spaced cassette is an entirely logical pairing. Why not give the bike gearing meant for mortals?
The shifters and derailleurs come from the 7900 Dura-Ace lineup, while the brake calipers are Ultegra. The only real fault I can find with the bike is in the Ultegra calipers; they simply don’t offer the same stopping power and modulation as the Dura-Ace grabbers, but that’s something I’m aware of due to riding different bikes. Someone without the same frame of reference won’t have any issue with the Ultegra brakes as they do an adequate, if not pro-worthy performance. On the other hand, the mix of Dura-Ace and Ultegra parts helps bring the cost of the Roubaix Pro in at $5000, as opposed to the cost of the Roubaix SL2, which runs $2200 more. Heck, that’s another bike!
So what’s the Roubaix like out on the road? I think it’s simply one of the most comfortable bikes on the market. People often confuse vibration damping with road shock. The Roubaix won’t fill potholes, hide rocks or smooth driveway ramps, but it has a very real ability to hit everything you ride over with 300 grit sandpaper. It won’t make every road glassy smooth, but it will definitely take the edge off any rough road.
Vertical compliance is an elusive quality to track. I don’t often believe I’ve found it in today’s carbon fiber bikes due to their incredible stiffness. Consider that Dave Kirk, the builder who invented the Serotta DKS suspension, said that suspension system, even when equipped with the softest of the three silicone dampers included with the bike, only saw 1-2 millimeters of vertical travel in the chainstays. I’m sure you experience more vertical compliance with an old Vitus or Alan than any of the current crop of carbon wonders. However, I’ve identified occasions when there was too little vertical compliance and found a bike to be chattery on rougher roads. Yes, a bike can be too stiff. That said, this bike doesn’t have nearly as much vertical compliance as an old Alan or Vitus. I wish that were enough to put the conversation about vertical compliance to rest, but it won’t.
The debate still rages on about whether energy is lost when a bike flexes, particularly when it flexes at the bottom bracket. I’ve got my answer, and had it long ago. For new riders, the answer is much simpler, though. A stiff bike allows someone still developing their skills to apply more force to the pedals with fewer hazardous overtones. On the Roubaix, any power you put into the bike will cause it to continue in the direction it is pointed with nothing so much as increased haste.
Torsional flex is yet another dimension of frame response that can be problematic. In the extreme, torsional flex can make a bike really hard to handle. Anyone who ever rode a Schwinn Twin tandem will tell you it handled like al dente pasta. Early carbon fiber forks from Europe (I’m specifically excepting the Kestrel fork) flexed enough in hard cornering to alter my line. I experienced no torsional flex that I could comment on with this bike. With its enormous-diameter tubes (I could fit a Navel Orange in the down tube) this thing tracked as straight and true as a sheet of drywall, even in aggressive cornering.
The bigger deal with the Roubaix is its handling. When I began building my vocabulary of bikes through ongoing shootouts and reviews, I quickly picked up on a theme of preference. I liked bikes that had really calm manners. They didn’t tend to feel too exciting when I first got on them, but after four hours you appreciated the way they held a line and when on a descent they made 45 mph feel like 35. And because your perception of speed is often the great decider for when you hit the brakes, any bike that makes you feel more in control and less like you’re doing something reckless is going to inspire confidence and a feeling of safety. Heck, you’re likely to go even faster.
The Roubaix seems a first cousin in its handling attributes to some of my old favorites. When I look back on the best descending bikes I’ve ever ridden, many of them have been Italian. CPSC rules prevent American bike manufacturers that deliver complete bikes (as opposed to framesets) from designing with a bottom bracket drop of more than about 7cm; you’ve got to calculate pedal-down lean-angle clearance very carefully to get any more BB drop than that. As I mentioned, Specialized squeezed another 1.5mm of BB drop into the design; it may not seem like much, but even that tiny amount makes the bike easier to lean into turns.
Out on long rides, the easy handling of the Roubaix is a pleasant departure from the twitchy reflexes of many bikes. You can sit up and look around, enjoy yourself, see the sights—and not worry that you’ll soon run off the road. Is there a more appropriate bike to take on a century traversing back roads of questionable maintenance? Maybe not.
The issue of weight must be addressed or it will seem like I left out the be-all, end-all number. It’s not, but that number is 16.06. Given the pavé-capable wheels and tires spec’d on this bike, that’s a very impressive number.
The number of people who enjoy road riding has has increased by multiplicatives in the last 10 years thanks to charity rides, Lance Armstrong and a host of other factors. When you consider how many of them joined the USCF (their numbers are up, but they haven’t doubled) you realize a very small percentage of newer roadies have moved into what many folks think is a much more aggressive expression of the sport. The Roubaix is an appropriate response for tens of thousands of riders who don’t need the agility of a bike like the Tarmac.
The 2010 Roubaix does feature some different parts spec from the 2009. That it has taken me so long to write this review is something of a disservice to Specialized. I’m sure you’ll be able to find this bike on the floor at many bike shops, but I’ll note the differences in spec for the new season. The big changes are as follows: a Dura-Ace 50/34t crank is substituted for the Specialized carbon fiber model. An Ultegra front derailleur replaces the Dura-Ace model. An even wider-spaced 11-26t cassette is exchanged for the 12-27t one. A narrower, 23mm tire replaces the 25mm one; both feature 120 tpi casings with Flak Jacket protection that seem impervious to all but land mines. Finally and most significantly, the Roval wheels on the ’09 bike are replaced with Roval Fusee SL wheels, a noticeably lighter set. The 2010 bike will weigh closer to 15.5 lbs. out of the box.
As a reflection of the population, grand touring bikes ought to be dominating road bike sales. Specialized did much to remove the stigma from these bikes by offering the Roubaix in carbon fiber and giving it top quality parts spec. In a world dominated by bikes made for American crit racing, the Roubaix is one of the most intelligently designed bikes I’ve ever ridden. Easily one of my all-time favorite bikes.
As I did with bikes I reviewed at BKW, I’ll be scoring bikes on a 100-point system. It will take into account every facet of the bike: price, design, effectiveness for given consumer, parts spec, fit considerations, handling, weight, stiffness, road feel and even availability, the idea being a $2000 bike has the same chance of scoring 100 points as a $10,000 bike if it accomplishes its consumer-oriented goals.
Specialized Roubaix Pro: 94 points
When Specialized introduced the Roubaix in 2004, it was the first bike on the market to combine top-of-the-line carbon fiber construction with a more relaxed geometry aimed at riders doing charity rides and centuries. Up to this point in time, the handful of bikes out there from the bigger manufacturers that combined a longer head tube for higher handlebar position, a longer than usual wheelbase and more trail for greater stability were made from aluminum and were rarely equipped with anything as nice as Shimano 105.
The implicit message seemed to be that if you weren’t fast you wouldn’t appreciate quality. The reality was simpler: For companies like Giant and Specialized, these early bikes had been aimed at a new wave of cyclists entering the sport, often as a result of events like the AIDS Ride. Getting these riders transitioned to a road bike from a mountain bike had been a significant achievement and there was little stomach on the part of risk-averse product managers to try to steer them into a bike 10 times as expensive as their last.
The road product development team recognized a need for a bike that combined the geometry found in the charity ride bikes with the high performance carbon fiber technology found in their top-of-the-line Tarmac. The Roubaix has been an unqualified hit among more than just the charity ride crowd.
The chicane in the chainstays really doesn’t flex much vertically, but aids in vibration damping
So how different is the Roubaix from the Tarmac? On paper, the differences seem minor, insignificant even. Just a few millimeters here, a centimeter or two there. Let’s compare a 56 in each:
|Seat tube length||53cm||51.5cm|
|Top tube length||56.5cm||56.5cm|
|Seat tube angle||73.25 degrees||73.25 degrees|
|Head tube angle||73.5 degrees||72.5 degrees|
|Head tube length||17cm||19cm|
Three dimensions are the big determiners for fit: the top tube length, the seat tube angle and the head tube length. Those first two—top tube length and seat tube angle are identical. What changes is the head tube length; its greater length gives riders the opportunity to adopt a bar position 2cm higher, allowing them to sit more upright without exposing too much fork steerer above the top headset bearing. As many of you are already aware, too much exposed steerer is at risk for breaking because of the greater leverage the rider can exert on the steerer from the handlebar.
So the bike offered a less aggressive position for greater comfort. The designers didn’t stop there. They increased the wheelbase length by more than 2cm by increasing the chainstay length and by using a slacker head tube angle and more fork rake, thereby increasing the front center distance as well. Practically speaking, this increased the distance between the rider and the wheels, cutting road vibration. More comfort.
The choice to go with a longer wheelbase had an added benefit. It addressed the rider’s more upright position and higher center of gravity (CG) which resulted in reduced weight on the front wheel (relative to the weight distribution in the Tarmac). Bottom bracket drop was also increased to help offset the higher CG; 2.5mm may not seem like much, but it’s enough to make a subtly helpful difference.
The Zertz inserts in the fork are angled to absorb more vibration
The longer wheelbase of the Roubaix means the bike won’t track quite as tight a turn as the Tarmac, but the fact that the slacker head tube angle is paired with more fork rake results in exactly the same trail as the Tarmac. As a result, steering input remains as crisp as the Tarmac’s.
Back to the issue of comfort. The Roubaix’s single most distinctive feature are the Zertz inserts in the fork, seatstays and seatpost. The size of those inserts and the way they are positioned in the fork and seatstays has changed since the Roubaix was first introduced in 2004. They are larger now and positioned more at an angle to the fork blades and seatstays to better serve their purpose, which is to interrupt the transmission of vibration.
I’ve met riders who doubt the Zertz inserts do what they are advertised to accomplish. Having ridden the Roubaix (in various iterations) more than 1000 miles and having ridden other, grand touring category bikes, I do believe that the Zertz inserts cut vibration transmitted through the frame. I often compare vibration—which is different from road shock—with the vibration from a lawnmower. While it’s not nearly as severe, I think the point illustrates the issue rather well. Anyone who has ever used a lawnmower with a two-stroke engine (as opposed to a push mower or an electric mower) knows well the interesting feeling your hands have once you let go of the mower. For a minute or more afterward your hands feel, well, like they are still on the mower. Sex aids wish they were so memorable.
Tomorrow: Part II