I’m going to start this post in a way that you’re not supposed to start a review—on a sour note. I didn’t see the need for this bike. Initially, it struck me as the inevitable result of the Specialized product machine. The template was struck some years back following the introduction of the Roubaix. The company alternates between a new Tarmac and a new Roubaix each year. In odd-numbered years Specialized introduces a new Tarmac, while there’s a new Roubaix in even-numbered years. Fall of 2011 required a new Tarmac.
When I first rode the Tarmac SL, I was not particularly enamored of the bike. I was a bigger fan of the Roubaix. I still think the Roubaix is the better bike for most non-racing riders. The issue for me was that I was accustomed to grand touring bikes; the two bikes I’d spent most of my miles on prior to first riding a Tarmac had relatively low bottom brackets and longish wheelbases. The Tarmac was a big change; the Roubaix less so.
It wasn’t until I began reviewing the Tarmac SL and the Roubaix SL back to back that I really acquired a taste for the Tarmac’s handling. I’d ridden plenty of bikes with handling as sharp as the Tarmac, and had disliked plenty of bikes with such quick handling. Well, “dislike” might be a bit harsh; they wouldn’t have been my first choice. The Tarmac showed me that with adequate stiffness (particularly in the fork and at the head tube) sharp handling needn’t make you nervous. By the end of the review I’d come to the conclusion I actually liked the Tarmac better in my favorite terrain—the canyon roads above Malibu. Here’s the post where I changed my tune.
Next, Specialized came out with the Tarmac SL2. I didn’t like that bike. It was okay on smooth roads, but anything rougher than a chick flick would rattle you like a paint shaker. It made chip-and-seal feel like the Arenberg Forest. That said, I know plenty of people who liked that bike.
Two years later Specialized came out with the S-Works Tarmac SL3. The biggest difference between those two bikes was in the rear end. The seatstays were flattened and reduced in diameter. And while I was told there were some changes in the layup of that frame, the folks I talked to didn’t go into too much detail. Broadly speaking, I was told that the layup was changed to permit more flex vertically while keeping the bike as rigid as possible torsionally.
So here’s where I have to address that trope of “vertically compliant but torsionally stiff.” It’s become a joke because some of the publications out there use it as a crutch to convince you that a Toyota Camry is a BMW M3. There’s nothing wrong with a Camry, but very few autos can provide the performance of an M3. That line about ”vertically compliant but torsionally stiff” rings hollow because at a certain point, if all bikes have that quality, then it ceases to be a way to distinguish bikes. And we know they aren’t all that way. There are real differences.
When I say I liked the SL3, I mean I loved that bike. Here’s that review: part 1 and part 2. It was one of my two or three favorite bikes I’ve ever ridden due to its particular constellation of road feel, performance, handling and weight. It didn’t need improving. When you’re putting out one of the best bikes on the market there’s a risk in trying to improve upon your work; there’s a real chance that no one will notice the difference. And the risk there is that if consumers can’t tell the difference between the old product and the new, improved one, they will begin to think what you’re selling is smoke and mirrors.
After assembling the S-Works Tarmac SL4 (and I’ll come back to the assembly in a bit), I went for a ride on the SL3. It was a short ride in my neighborhood, less than two miles. Then I jumped on the SL4, and did the same circuit again. I took care to make sure the tires were pumped up to the same pressure. The difference was not night-and-day, but the bikes were unmistakably different.
It’s common for fans of handmade steel and titanium bicycles to deride carbon fiber bikes for lacking personality, or sometimes it’s phrased as soul. When you’ve got a one-man shop, the marketing effort is pretty obvious. Land Shark begins and ends at John Slawta. As it should. But with a bike like the Tarmac, there’s quite a team involved and it’s not exactly possible to market a bike around every engineer and layup craftsperson who worked on the bike. And believe me, if you’ve ever seen someone doing layup, you begin understand that it really is a craft, just like brazing or welding.
The team responsible for the Tarmac includes some of the most knowledgeable people within their respective fields that I’ve met in the bike industry. And the resources that Specialized put into the bike are staggering. I was surprised to learn that each iteration of the Tarmac, from the original SL up to the current SL4, received its own set of molds. That’s a new set of molds every two years. That’s a lot of tooling. Consider that some Italian bike companies are still using the same frame shapes from six years ago.
So why new molds every two years? Easy. With each iteration of the Tarmac, Specialized has altered the frame shapes, slimming seatstays here, swelling the down tube and growing the bottom bracket there. Like other carbon fiber frames, the Tarmac is made from several monocoque sections that are joined after molding. With each new iteration, the locations of some of these joints have shifted based on what the engineering team has learned about the previous bike.
In talking with members of Specialized’s engineering team, they revealed that feedback from riders on the HTC-Highroad team indicated they needed to increase vertical compliance without sacrificing overall torsional stiffness. While riders said they liked the S-Works Tarmac SL3, the front end was a bit harsh for a 200k day. To that end, Specialized replaced the 1 1/2-inch lower headset bearing with a 1 3/8-inch bearing and decreased the diameter of both the fork steerer and the head tube. Another important evolution in the Tarmac is the move to Specialized’s OSBB design, which is essentially a press-fit 30. Such a large bottom bracket structure—and similar ones by other manufacturers—has eliminated bottom bracket flex that I once used to take as a given in all bikes.
Aside from the desire for a more gentle front end, one of the few criticisms sponsored pros had for the S-Works Tarmac SL3 was that the rear brake bridge wasn’t stiff enough, that the rear brake would chatter and squeal. To correct that, the brake bridge was beefed up and right at the brake bridge the seatstays were also beefed up.
I could tell you that the bike uses Specialized’s FACT IS 11r carbon—okay, I have told you that it has the FACT IS 11r carbon. But that didn’t help, did it? Information ought to answer questions, not raise them and while all that stuff signifies that the carbon fiber material and layup that Specialized is using is more sophisticated than anything they used in the past, it really doesn’t tell the consumer anything objective. Not a crime, but not nearly as helpful as they’d like us to think. The upshot—the part that matters—is that the S-Works Tarmac SL4 is the lightest frame Specialized has ever produced, that is, with the exception of the women’s Amira frame. My 58cm frame weighed in at 898 grams and likely came in a few grams heavier than the matte carbon version due to the number of coats of paint necessary to generate that bright arterial red.
Up next: the build, the ride, the bottom line.
Before I jump too far into the second half of this review, I need to mention that the bike as shown here was shot after I’d put a good 2000 miles on it. Normally, I shoot bikes as soon as I get them, but somehow, my excitement to get on this machine saw me flame out on that mission. As a result, you’re seeing it with some non-standard parts, including a replaced rear tire, a compact crankset and a compact bar. I swapped the cranks and bar out for my personal preferences. Had I been purchasing the bike off the showroom floor, I’d have put those parts on eBay before ever riding a single kilometer. Okay, on with the real subject.
I had an interesting conversation this past fall with one of Specialized’s engineers. We were discussing how stiffness isn’t an absolute, how a bike needs to flex in certain directions to track well, as well as provide some comfort to the rider.
What he told me was that stiffness, as a concept, required a lot of flexibility, that when they use the word “stiffness” they say it with a wink. To understand this, let’s begin with a simple example: a fork.
A fork, generally speaking, can flex in a few different ways. The blades can flex fore and aft. They can flex side-to-side. They can twist. And the steerer can flex based on twisting forces exerted by the rider. Of these, one—fore/aft—is useful. The other three are not helpful in making a bike track well when under power, cornering or descending. So the trick is to vary the sheets of fiber so that you’re minimizing twist, sideways and steerer flex while allowing the blades to respond to bumps and vibration.
When you get to a frame, how and where you want stiffness and how and where you want flex gets a good deal more complicated. In the late 1990s, the challenge was to eliminate bottom bracket flex. Once that was conquered we started noticing how frames would twist when we were out of the saddle.
One way a manufacturer can address stiffness while keeping an eye on weight is through the addition of ribs. There are a number of companies using ribbed construction these days, though it’s still a technology in the minority. To picture it, imagine looking at a round frame tube from one end. Now, imagine a wall of carbon fiber running vertically from the 12 o’clock position to the 6 o’clock position. That’s how it’s used in the down tube. Other tubes orient the rib 90 degrees from that. Pretty straightforward, but it can be difficult to picture if no one bothers to explain it.
I’ve seen enough snarky comments about “torsionally stiff and vertically compliant” to know that most readers are at best highly suspicious of this claim and at worst think its as achievable as domesticating a unicorn. I’ve had the chance to ride enough different bikes at this point that I know some are more comfortable than others. There’s no mistaking a frame with a small amount of vertical flex. Similarly, there’s no mistaking a frame that doesn’t have enough of it. What a few different engineers have told me is that if you vary the orientation of sheets of unidirectional carbon fiber so that some are at 45 degrees to the primary orientation, that will soften the feel of the frame some. It can make a big difference in how harsh the chainstays are, I’m told.
Here’s the thing about the Tarmac SL3: I didn’t really like the SL2. I loved the SL and thought it was a terrifically stiff and precise bike. The SL2 squared the function and to me it was overkill. Specifically, I thought the rear end was harsh. Riding one on a rough road left me with the concern that maybe I should have worn a kidney belt like the motorcyclists who ride hardtails do.
On the SL3, the seatstays were slimmed up and flattened in a manner similar to the Cervelo R3, though not to the same degree. That and other changes to the rear end took the edge of the bike’s harsh feel at the saddle. Meanwhile, the front end remained crisp feeling. The original SL seems like a pig by comparison. The frame has also lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 grams. I haven’t weighed the stripped down frame, but I’ve seen several sources report that a 56cm frame weighs around 850g. There are a lot of claims about sub-900g frames. Very few are true. That the SL3 has been independently confirmed to weigh around 850 should impress you.
Part of the Tarmac’s crisp feel comes from the fact that it doesn’t suffer the weight of several glossy coats of paint. Paint, as I’ve mentioned previously, can add 100 to 120 grams of non-structural weight to a bike. All it does is deaden the feel of the bike. On a descent I want maximum feedback, which is why I’ve found I prefer matte-finish bikes.
This bike was equipped with a number of Specialized products. The traditional-bend bar I removed was light, the lightest handlebar I’ve encountered other than the Zipp. It seemed plenty stiff, but I just couldn’t force my hands into those bends, no matter how many Euro PROs run them. The Roval SL45 Rapides are wheels I didn’t expect to like. While they weren’t super-easy to wind up (that has more to do with my lack of a sprint than any inherent problem with the wheels) they were more stable in wind than I expected, though not Firecrest stable. The combination of carbon fiber aerodynamics and an aluminum brake track offers day-to-day reliability and performance that are hard to argue with.
I’ve heard the carbon crank criticized for flex. I’m not sure why. It was terrifically stiff for me and because I’ve ridden carbon cranks that flexed—a lot—I can say these were quite different. The best feature about the cranks is how once a lockring is removed you can simply pull the spider and chainrings off and replace them with something different. So while mine came with 53/39 rings, in a matter of minutes, one of Specialized’s most experienced techs had a compact setup installed. That change saved my beans later that week when we climbed above 9000 feet.
I’ve ridden a lot of great bikes. Many bikes I really didn’t want to send back. I’m in love with this thing. It’s easily in my top three favorites of all time, though that may change next week when I get on the Tarmac SL4. I’ve done a few miles on one already and I can say there is definitely a difference, but that difference is really only apparent if you’ve ridden both bikes within a day or two of each other. Had they not come out with the SL4 there would be no reason to think that Specialized was off the back in some way. Indeed, before I got on the SL4, I couldn’t help wondering if they weren’t solving a model-year problem as opposed an actual performance issue.
Here’s the thing to think about: There are Specialized dealers all over doing what they can to get this model out their door. And the new Pro-level bike is the SL3, so while my review bike retailed for $8100, the new Tarmac SL3 Expert Mid-Compact gives you this frame and fork for only $3900.
Like I said, one of my favorite bikes of all time. It’ll be a long time before I find this level of performance inadequate.
Specialized brought Alberto Contador to the U.S. for a truly whirlwind tour. We did a ride on Tuesday out of Mike’s Bikes in Sausalito, just north of San Francisco in Marin County. Afterward, we attended a press conference with him. These posts are slightly out of order; I’m doing the interview first because, well, it’s ready and the post on the ride needs more work.
Q: Would you have planned your season any differently had your arbitration been set November all along?
AC: I’m very happy with the results I achieved at the Giro. My intention was to tdo the Giro anyway. I wanted to use it for prep for the Tour. But I realized that the Giro was tough, very tough when I got there. I didn’t expect the Giro to be so hard.
Q: How do you feel about doing the Giro-Tour double in the future?
AC: I believe it’s possible. There are many factors that are very important. The course has to be perfect (for me). Same thing at the Tour. A super-strong team that can help me with the protection I need.
Q: Are you doing anything to beef up the team for next year?
AC: I am speaking daily with Bjarne. He’s working pretty hard to improve the level of the team. It’s clear that Bjarne has the responsibility to sign the riders, but before signing a rider, he talks to me.
Q: Pat McQuaid has said he’d like to move to an independent tribunal. Is that appropriate?
AC: If there is a high level of objectivity that would be really good. It could be faster but there would need to be the control of an external organization.
Q: (to Fran, Contador’s brother) What do you remember of Alberto as a teenager riding bikes?
FC: I remember one day when he was young where we did 60-70km, and Alberto was wearing a lightweight trainer jacket and it filled up with air like the Michelin Man. When we got back the other riders were surprised he was able to stay with us despite his jacket. They realized, ‘Wow, he must really be strong.’
Q: No one beats CAS. Are you confident?
AC: I’m very confident. Because of all the controls, the scientific facts support my case. I’m confident because of all the experts who are supporting my case. I think there will be a favorable resolution.
Q: Does it affect you when you race?
AC: When I race I don’t think about it.
Q: Does the decision by WADA not to impose limits on clenbuterol strike you as fair?
AC: I don’t believe this decision will affect my case. I strongly believe there will be a change in the acceptable level of Clenbuterol in the future. Probably right after my case is resolved.
Q: The way you rode at the Tour, you may have captured the hearts of Americans more?
AC: Even though I live far away from here I have received a lot of support from people here.
Q: Is it possible to win all year with the super teams like Radio Shack, BMC, etc?
AC: I believe it will be difficult, but I also believe it’s possible, because it’s all the same riders winning the other races.
Q: What races haven’t you won that you’d most like to achieve a victory in?
AC: I’d like to win some Classics. Fleche Wallonne or Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The problem is that it’s not the best training program for my larger objectives. I’d like to win Tirreno-Adriatico. There aren’t many others, but the World Championship is one.
Simoni (translator) added, “He wants to win all year. He wanted to win at the Tour of Algarve.”
Q: Do you plan on racing in the U.S?
AC: I would love to race the Tour of California. I feel that cycling is getting bigger and bigger here. Right now the US is getting more and more important in world cycling. The reason I didn’t come here the last two years is because of the new date and the fact it conflicted with the Giro. I believe the Tour of California could change my chances at the Tour de France for the worse. If I come to the Tour of California I’m not coming to ride, I’m coming to win.
Q: And Colorado?
AC: This year was the first year, but in the future I’ll have to look at the dates to see if it conflicts with the Vuelta a Espana. If the Tour of California moves back to February, then I’ll come, for sure.
Q: Will you compete in the Olympics in 2012?
AC: I’m not sure the course is difficult enough. I would like to ride the TT.
Q: About the bikes: Having time on the Tarmac SL4, what’s your feedback?
AC: It’s less harsh than the SL3. So such a change in a bike at the last minute is very difficult to assimilate at the last minute. (Which is why he rode the SL3 at the Tour de France.)
Q: How much input did you have into the new bike?
AC: One of the reasons that I am here is because of the objective Specialized and I have for making things better. Specialized is a brand that is dedicated to making things better. I wanted a certain kind of time trial bike. It’s very difficult to find a company that can give you the right equipment. There are many other brands that have tried to go other ways. No one has ever reached the level of Specialized.
Q: On vacation where would you like to ride?
AC: If it’s a real vacation the bike will stay at home.
Once the interview was over, the subject of the pistolero salute came up. Rather than Simoni translating, Alberto made the effort to respond himself. What he told us (and his accent is thick, so I couldn’t be certain of every word he uttered) is that the salute is meant as an expression to his family, that he carries his family in his heart when he rides, and that the salute isn’t so much about firing a gun. Rather, it is a reminder that he is thinking of his family.
Brand identity is a funny thing. When I was a kid, Ford represented the car my dad drove. Later, it came to stand for an American car I wouldn’t own even if you gave it to me. More recently it has come to symbolize the very best in how a company can reinvent itself and survive under its own steam. At least, that’s how I see them.
Cannondale has had a similarly curious arc. There was a time when the brand made accessories, not bikes; they were a competitor to Rhode Gear, not Trek. And while large-diameter tubing aluminum bikes weren’t solely their domain, the company named for a train station achieved greater market penetration than Klein ever did. In the 1990s, I recall the company as being a repository for talent, fresh ideas and ambitious marketing. Actually, the company wasn’t just ambitious in its marketing, it was as ambitious as any bike company had ever been.
Then came motorcycles and the bankruptcy. For a while, the brand felt like damaged goods and though I was a fan, I wasn’t sure they’d survive with their full reputation intact.
Though Cannondale has stayed at the forefront of aluminum development and construction, the Connecticut company was by any standard late to the carbon fiber game. The Six13 may have used an innovative method to join carbon fiber to aluminum, but nothing could change that a bike featuring three carbon fiber main tubes joined to an aluminum head tube and rear triangle was an idea that dated to the first Bush presidency.
With the SuperSix, Cannondale got into the carbon fiber game in a serious way. It had the hallmarks found in its competitors’ bikes: It was light, stiff and reasonably lively feeling. However, it wasn’t a particularly special bike. The problem wasn’t so much Cannondale as it was the market. By 2008, there was a near glut of really good carbon fiber bikes on the market. There was a much shorter list of truly extraordinary bikes.
It wasn’t too long ago that in purchasing a carbon fiber bike you had to choose between stiff and light. The industry has essentially solved that problem. So what separates the good bikes from the great ones? Road feel. The knock against most magazines’ reviews of bikes is that the reviewer always credits the bike with being “torsionally stiff and vertically compliant.”
Even for riders who haven’t ridden a dozen different bikes, there is widespread acceptance that as bikes gain stiffness in torsion they lose flex—compliance—in every other dimension. However, the quest for torsional stiffness combined with vertical compliance isn’t quite as mythical as the unicorn.
For those of you who have followed the development of the Specialized Tarmac, it is the perfect example of how a bike that is stiff in torsion can be tuned to take some of the sting out of the rear triangle. The original Tarmac SL was a very good bike. Two years later Specialized introduced the Tarmac SL2. It was stiffer in every direction, but it was also livelier feeling. That rear end, though, was a bit brutal on long rides. Two years after its introduction the company followed up with the Tarmac SL3. The front triangle remained unchanged, but the rear triangle was redesigned with both new tube profiles and a new lay-up. Ride the two bikes over the same roads and you’ll quickly feel how the rear end doesn’t chatter as much. It feels as if you let 5 psi out of the rear tire.
Back to Cannondale.
I’ve just spent two days riding the brand-spankin’-new SuperSix EVO. This bike is to the previous SuperSix what the Bugatti Veyron is to the Chevy Camaro.
The bike boasts some impressive numbers, such as a normalized weight of 695 grams. It has scores the highest stiffness-to-weight ratio ever recorded: 142 Nm/deg/kg. That’s more than 15 percent higher than the Specialized Tarmac SL3 and more than 40 percent higher than the Trek Madone 6 SSL.
We can talk numbers all day long, but based on my experience, there seems to be a tipping point in ride quality when you near the 900g mark for a frame. I can’t claim this is true for every bike out there, but my A-list of bikes I’ve ridden, which includes the Tarmac SL3, the Felt F1, F2 and Z1 and Cervelo R3 SL, were all at or below 900g.
My sense isn’t that the weight is the issue. Weight is just the canary in the coal mine. What gives these bikes their lively ride quality is the incredible compaction achieved in their construction. Tap a tube with your fingernail and you’ll get a near-metallic-sounding “tink.”
The SuperSix EVO possesses these same qualities. And like the Felt F1, it employs hollow carbon fiber dropouts, which both reduce weight and increase the lively feel of the rear triangle without increasing stiffness. What helps to separate the SuperSix EVO from other similar bikes is the fact that the chainstays have been flattened along the horizontal plane once they clear the chainrings.
Cannondale says it didn’t set out to make the lightest bike, the stiffest bike, the most aero bike or even the smoothest-feeling bike. What they came up with is an incredible blend of those qualities. They say they wanted the most efficient bike out there. It’s hard to say they’ve created the most efficient bike on the market, but it’s easy to say it’s among the most efficient. I haven’t previously ridden a bike that offered as much torsional stiffness while feeling as smooth over rough pavement.
With the introduction of the SuperSix EVO Cannondale has effectively reinvented itself as a bike company. This is an extraordinarily sophisticated bike, the result of three years of work … and it shows.
I’m looking forward to getting one of these to review next month. In the meantime, for even more details you can check out my piece for peloton magazine.
In the 21st Century the call of the Sirens has been replaced by the opportunity to ride almost any bike you might desire. How else can we explain what could get so many non-desert dwellers to congregate at a park where it was 104 degrees in the shade?
With so many choices, it’s tough to decide just where to start. For me, I knew I needed to check out Felt’s redesigned F-series. While the new flagship F1 was not yet available, I did ride the F2. In a 56, frame weight is reported to be about 850g, which is roughly 50g less than last year’s F1. It’s also stiffer than last year’s F1 and while they have the numbers to back that claim up, I’ve spent some time on the F1 and can tell you, the changes due to the new design and new construction methods make the improvements more than apparent.
This was my first opportunity to ride the Specialized Roubaix SL3. Many bikes achieve vibration damping through the use of lots of intermediate modulus carbon fiber. Ultimately, those bikes feel rather dead. Thanks to the Zertz dampers, long wheelbase and carbon layup, the Roubaix SL3 didn’t feel dead so much as muted. It was extraordinarily stiff, must stiffer than could be achieved were the bike built from intermediate modulus carbon fiber exclusively.
Last year, the Tarmac SL3 was my pick of the litter. I really thought it has the best combination of road feel, stiffness and handling of any bike I rode. I took a short spin on it for comparison purposes, just to make drawing a comparison to a known benchmark easier.
In 1978, long before sealed bearing headsets bearing his name became the headset of choice, Chris King was building steel frames in his Santa Barbara shop. Today, frames bearing his Cielo Cycles monicker are once again being sold to shops. Jay Sycip (yes, of the Sycip brothers fame) oversees production on the bikes and worked with Chris on the geometry.
This Cielo is a great example of why people buy steel bikes. It had terrific stiffness; it was absolutely stiffer than I thought it would be. It also featured crisp, precise handling and Jay revealed each frame features its own fork in order to keep trail constant. The upshot is that everyone gets the same riding experience, which is really special. This is one of the very best steel frames I’ve ridden in the last eight years, if not the outright best.
The head tube and seatstays featured some lovely polished stainless steel touches.
Cervelo’s R3SL is one of a handful of bikes that seemingly everyone asks about. Any time I talk to someone interested in compliance and ride quality, the R3SL is one of the first bikes they ask about. People have good reason to be curious. While my test-ride bike was a little small for me, I was impressed with the combination of stiffness and ride quality.
Trek has come a long way since the days of the OCLV series bikes. The new Madone 6.0 uses carbon fiber superior to anything the company has used before. On the road, it definitely had the best ride quality of any Trek I’d ever ridden, not to mention stiffness that can rival many bikes. But while the other bikes I rode had handling that was quick but predictable, the Madone 6.0 felt a touch nervous, as if there wasn’t enough weight on the front wheel. That said, the longer I rode the bike, the more accustomed to the handling I became, but my preference is for bikes with fewer nerves.
Overall, the big surprise of the day was the Cielo, but the most impressive bike of the bunch was the Felt F2. Its combination of rarely achieved stiffness, kid-glove sensitivity and masterful handling led me to the conclusion that most riders could easily be fooled into thinking this was Felt’s top-of-the-line bike if they never saw the decals.