If any brand can be said to capture the vibe, hype and division that Apple has achieved in the world of consumer tech over here in bicycle land, then surely it's Specialized.
Both brands have their diehard fans, as well as detractors. Both carry a distinctly recognizable brand identity, and both are highly successful in their respective spheres. Of course, for Specialized - as with Apple - the flipside of being such a large and ubiquitous brand is that most people have an opinion and are very forthcoming with it.
A product launch is always a particular impetus for conversation - and the (official) unveiling of the Tarmac SL8 has only served to prove that rule. Exactly as we did when the Allez Sprint broke cover - with its apparently ugly welds - we thought it might be interesting to delve into the comments and attempt to crystallize exactly what the reaction has been.
Not all about the Speed Sniffer
Before the bike was officially unveiled, leaked documents were published on the popular forum WeightWeenies, giving us (and Specialized, we expect), an early glimpse into the likely response.
It wasn't all pretty, with some commenters taking a particular dislike to the brand's 'Speed Sniffer' head tube. The 'frontal bulge' is designed to improve the aerodynamics in a lighter and more efficient way than just making the head tube super deep, like a TT bike or other, more boxy, aero bikes.
It's fair to say that the initial reaction wasn't great with comments ranging from "horrible" to "hilarious"; "upsetting and insulting" to "a full-on troll job and I can’t even be mad...".
Over in the Facebook comments of our launch story on Sunday, Brett Scheepers encapsulated the sentiment with his super-imposition of Homer Simpson on top of the head tube.
Still, the 'Big S' obviously anticipated some of this, with engineers telling us at the launch, "we knew the 'Speed Sniffer' would be polarizing, so we decided to own it."
But to honest, I personally don't really see the fuss about the head tube. This isn't the first time that a brand has gone for a more 'bulbous' leading head. Trek's head tube on the new Madone has something similar - as does the Pinarello Dogma F.
My mind never leapt to Homer Simpson's belly any more than when looking at the profile of a U-shaped rim the top of Homer's head pops into my imagination. Although now I've made that connection, I probably won't be able to escape that little mind worm!
Anyway, aside from that mocked up image, upon the official launch, it wasn't the head tube that garnered most - or even much - of the attention. Cycling Weekly's audience was instead focused on two main themes:
(1) The similarities in form between the new SL8 and the outgoing SL7 (2) The high price of the SL8 - something which we've covered extensively as a trend across the industry, with causes having initially included the high price of containers and the cost of carbon (as well as Brexit in the UK), and since being compounded by high energy prices and inflationary pressures.
When it came to analyzing our own audience's response, I started by sorting the comments on the Facebook post of our Tarmac SL8 launch story into the categories Positive, Negative and Ambivalent. As you’d expect, this wasn’t an exact science, but I had a few rules or principles which helped with the categorization.
Comments where someone stated that there is a particular other bike they prefer I put in the Ambivalent category, as those weren’t direct criticism of the SL8 - it’d be equally applicable to all other bikes except for the model mentioned. I also put comments which complained about all bikes looking the same these days in the Ambivalent category for a similar reason: that’s a criticism applicable to many models, not the SL8 in particular.
Comments which specifically called out the strength of similarity between the new SL8 and the outgoing SL7, on the other hand, I put in the Negative category. Of these, Richard Wood's comment perhaps the clearest encapsulation that was posted.
In many cases, though, I simply made a judgment whether a comment was a criticism or not - Brett Scheepers might not have intended his super-imposition of Homer Simpson over the headtube of the SL8 to be a criticism, but I made the call and popped it over in that column. Again, just to reiterate, this isn’t a consumer survey, just a flick through the comments in a slightly more methodical way.
The two comments which suggested Cycling Weekly had been paid for its coverage also went into Ambivalent, since they don't relate to the bike itself. However, no part of the Tarmac SL8 coverage was paid for. The reason we’ve written so much about the newest superbike on the market is because it is the flagship model of one of the most popular bike brands in the world. According to our data sources, there are 110,000 internet searches a month for 'Specialized Tarmac', and 253k searches when you include those for specific models. It would be bizarre if we didn’t write about it.
Finally, where someone made multiple comments with a similar sentiment (generally replies), I counted that just once in its relevant category.
As you might expect, there are more critical comments than positive ones, which is somewhat to be expected from a self-selecting sample where the primary condition for inclusion is ‘strength of feeling’.
And so, the headline stats broke down like this:
Of the negative comments, about a third of those pertained to the SL8 looking overly similar to the SL7 and 12% referenced the price as too high.
What can we learn from this?
Despite the convergence of bike designs being an ongoing topic itself, the signal was pretty strong here regarding the resemblance of the SL8 to the SL7. And fair enough. I could repeat all the tweaks and changes we covered in our launch story on the Specialized SL8 and our follow-up story on some of the less publicized details about the bike.
But when the Tarmac SL7 and the Tarmac SL8 are side-by-side, it's undeniable those differences aren’t visually dramatic. This re-design is not anywhere near as striking as the shape shifting that went on when the SL7 took over from the Venge as an aero bike.
Then there’s the price. Flagship bikes these days are expensive, most brands top models coming in at over the five-figure mark.
In the case of the Tarmac SL8, perhaps Specialized had reached the ceiling of consumer willingness in the UK, because the newer model is actually a smidge less expensive than the top models of the Tarmac SL7. Shimano Dura Ace and SRAM Red builds of the SL8 are currently listed at £12,000, compared to £13,000 for the SL7.
That said, back in 2020 when the SL7 first launched, the S-Works model with a power meter came in at £10,500 - the brand actioned some pretty hefty price hikes after the event.
Looking further down the current range, the SRAM Rival equipped Tarmac SL8 Expert comes in at £6,000 compared to £7,250 for the SRAM Rival equipped Tarmac SL7 Expert - so the prices have come down there as well.
Over in the US, the story is a little different. While the top models of the SL8 cost $14,000 compared to a list price of $14,250 for the upper echelons of the SL7, the older bike currently has reductions down to $13,249.99 and so is a fair bit cheaper at the moment.
So, while it is certainly the case that bikes have gotten more expensive, this latest release isn’t a major departure from the price hikes which have already taken place across the industry - for a myriad of reasons.
What did surprise us, following the furore over on the WeightWeenies forum, was the lack of real interest in the 'Speed Sniffer' nose cone, particularly its aesthetics. Only really the 'Homer Simpson meme' made reference to the new hump in the design. However, having got our hands on the bike (not once, but twice) for early rides, we'd be inclined to agree. Perhaps when it comes to the expected storm over the Speed Sniffer, the old adage is true: never read the comments.
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