Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL6 review

The GC contender from Specialized received a major overhaul in the creation of the 2018 version - and we absolutely love it

The Specialized S-Works Tarmac race bike is, and always has been, the GC race bike from Specialized and it has always been at the pointy end of things over the years, including winning world titles under Peter Sagan.

But it’s not Peter Sagan’s successes that lands this bike a spot on the Cycling Weekly Editor’s Choice for 2017, it’s Specialized’s engineering triumphs. 

Since the first Specialized Tarmac debuted back in 2003, road racing has changed, says Specialized, exponentially over the last five or so years.

Unlike the good old days when sprint stages were pan flat or a mountain stage was just that, now stage racing has it all – climbs, sprints, you name it – and it is harder than ever to choose whether to use the aero or the lightweight bike.

So, the goal for the new Tarmac was easy to set: faster, lighter and better handling than the previous Specialized Tarmac – though that was no easy task with the Specialized Tarmac of old being a great handling bike – with great aerodynamics, and not forgetting compliance. In other words, all the best attributes of a top race bike rolled into one.

Slighter stature, greater power

Compared to the previous version the Tarmac looks a lot different; more slender, with a different rear end and fork. That is mainly down to the fact that new carbon technique allows Specialized to use smaller sized tubing without losing strength, thus being lighter overall.

Specialized weighed a batch of size 56cm frames and says the average weight for this batch was 766g. The bottom bracket alone is notably more slender, saving 30g without losing stiffness.

 Specialized S-Works Tarmac

Bottom bracket is notable slimmer

A little nip and tuck, and a small change to the cable entry in the down tube also allows the American brand to remove extra strengthening materials to help weight loss.

These changes provide an aerodynamic boost too and the new Tarmac saves a claimed 45 seconds over 40km compared to the likes of Cannondale SuperSix Evo2 for example, says Specialized.

In fact, it is said to be on par aerodynamically with the first Venge and you can see the technology it’s borrowed from the latest version with the dropped rear stay that use co-optimised truncated airfoils and d-shaped seat post and seat tube that helps with compliance too.

Rider First Engineering is used here too, so a 52cm (which we had on test) should ride the same as a 61cm and everyone should get the same ride sensation across the board.

Over 500 different pieces are used to tailor the ride for each size and three different sized forks are used between the range.

Effortless to ride, no exaggeration

When it comes to the ride – we’re afraid we’re going to gush. This bike is a total dream to ride, and has been from the moment we jumped on to it.

This out-and-out race bike is fast, nippy and fun. It allows you to muck around and really press it into corners confidently and if you like that characteristic in a bike it never stops being a fun ride.

Expert handling is spoken about a lot with the Tarmac, and totally it rings true when you ride it. Poised is how we would describe it, you can make a switch around pretty quickly, lean into bends nicely and feel the strength in the bike throughout the corner.

It feels light, too. Effortless to ride might sound like a throwaway exaggeration, but in this case it’s not hyperbole, but a perfect reality.

 Specialized S-Works Tarmac

Dropped seat stays are a major feature

Usually the undesirable side effect of speed is a loss of comfort or compliance. But thanks to the wider 26mm tyres and fatter rims (internal is 20.7mm), a d-shaped seatpost and lowered rear stay, the compliance in the bike is noticeable.

A distinct lack of road buzz, even from the front end and the bridgeless rear stay (you get a carbon insert to go with the direct mount brakes), all comes together to offer all day comfort.

Of course Rider First Engineering plays a factor too, our small 52cm bike doesn’t mean a harsh ride. Compare this to the Venge Vias we tested earlier in the year, which is a bit of a harsh machine, and it’s a very different ride.

We must add, however, that all this fun comes at a small price and that is that at top speed, full flight sprints, we’ve noticed the Specialized S-Works Tarmac can be a little too twitchy, and if you prefer a more assured ride then this won’t be to your tastes.

It’s never dangerous but something to consider if you are sprinting full gas for the finish line, or out playing with some mates.

To put it bluntly, this is one hell of a machine. It’s a serious carbon beast that’ll leave you grinning ear to ear, and sprinting towards every road sign and up every hill.

Star of the specification

The star of the specification for us was the tyres – the amazing S-Works Turbo Cotton. Fast, grippy, fairly durable so far and they look great in the tanned side wall colour. They’re 26mm in width, too, for a little extra comfort out on the road.

Aside from the tyres you get Roval CLX 50 wheels, which are a solid all rounder that feel racy and compliment the bike well. Thanks to those direct mount brakes you’ll be able to go a little wider on those tyres, too.

 Specialized S-Works Tarmac

Turbo cotton tyres are the star of the spec

All components are of course from Specialized; saddle with the Toupé,FACT carbon seatpost and handlebars and the stem is alloy.

This version features Shimano Dura Ace 9150 Di2, an awesome groupset – though the Synchro-Shift annoyed some testers. This can be set up to suit the rider with a simple plug in, though.

Elsewhere, the S-Works carbon cranks are a nice touch and a good swap out here.

The Shimano Dura-Ace direct mount brakes are without a doubt the best on the market, and brake well with the Roval’s in both wet and dry and offer a good amount of control.

This model comes in at £8500. However, the Tarmac range starts from the £1500 with the Tiagra equipped SL4, and the range includes both men’s and women’s versions, with identical frames and adjusted touch points.

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