Specialized Tarmac Comp 2016 road bike - review - Road Cycling UK

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Specialized Tarmac Comp 2016 road bike – review

It may be a few years old but Specialized's Tarmac SL4 frameset still produces a lively, refined ride

Specialized’s all-round road race frameset, the Tarmac, forms the basis of a rewarding and satisfying bike in this £2,000 Comp build – but it’s held back by the wheelset.

Specialized, like other big name bike brands, have a seriously comprehensive range of bikes to choose from for your every cycling need, from the aero-sculpted Venge ViAS at the very top of the range, to the Tarmac, which is billed as Spesh’s all-rounder, to Roubaix endurance bike – all race-tested bikes with a different edge. Then comes the aluminium-constructed Allez, as well as the female specific Amira, Ruby and Dolce bike. The road range is completed with the time trial Shiv and gravel Diverge as well.

That’s a serious range of bikes, and the Tarmac is arguably the most prestigious bike of them all, having been ridden by Tour Slam winners Vincenzo Nibali and Alberto Contador – that tells you something of its pedigree.

Specialized mark their bikes with range markers: Sport, Comp, Expert, Pro, and the range-topping S-Works. The Tarmac follows this general rule, and the 2016 Comp here is based on the SL4 version of the frame, introduced in 2011, while the Expert, Pro and S-Works now used by Nibali and Contador, is based on the latest iteration, introduced in 2014.

The Comp is based on Specialized’s Tarmac SL4 frameset

The frame – race-bred, with a touch of class

While those guys ride the top-line S-Works version of the Tarmac, the exact same geometry is used on our 56cm test bike. It’s suitably racy, with a relatively low 160mm headtube, compact 405mm chainstays and tight 986mm wheelbase, which allow the rider to achieve an aggressive position and contribute to the snappy handling.

A curved toptube gives the frame its characterful looks, and straightens towards the seatpost, which has an external clamp unlike the latest Tarmac. The toptube has a flatter, beefier profile up towards the stem which stiffness up the front end of the bike.

  • Specification

  • Price: £2,000
  • Weight: 8.24kg
  • Sizes: 49, 52, 54, 56, 58, 61cm
  • Size tested: 56cm
  • Website: Specialized

In reality, it’s a frame that you could argue is starting to show its age, which is no surprise given it was introduced in 2011, but it still cuts a striking figure. In fact, if a slightly more traditional-looking frameset with top-level credentials is what you’re after, then there too aren’t many others out there now that road bikes come in all manner of weird shaped and sizes; the Cannondale SuperSix Evo perhaps the standout alternative with its arrow-straight top tube.

The Comp frame is made from Specialized’s FACT 9r carbon fibre – the S-Works and Expert/Pro feature lighter and stiffer FACT 11r and 10r carbon respectively – but stiffness and responsiveness is still superb through that beefed up headtube, tapered toptube and oversized bottom bracket, without sacrificing all comfort, showing that flared and outright curvaceous profiling isn’t the be-all and end-all in producing an all-round performer.

The ride – racy and responsive yet stable, a great all rounder

To be honest, unless you’re a top-level racer, you’re hardly going to notice that you’ve got Specialized’s third-tier carbon layup offering at all. The frameset laps up punishment, and is very direct in its response when you press on the pedals. At 8.24kg in this 56cm build, the Tarmac Comp’s roughly in line with its competitors at the £2,000, though there are certainly lighter bikes out there for the money.

Throwing the bike side to side as you attack up a steep incline, the fat bottom bracket area is amply stiff to take all the power I can muster from my 85kg frame. In this regard, it’s an incredibly rewarding bike, while also retaining a predictability in its handling. The broad toptube and headtube help in that regard, providing plenty of stiffness through the junction, felt when giving the bike the heave-ho whether on a climb or in a sprint.

It’s a frame which inspires confidence, dealing with poorly-paved roads with admirable composure. It’s no Roubaix, which practically kick-started the whole road endurance market, but certainly it smoothes out the rough roads of the UK well enough for a bike designed to be pin-sharp.

Specialized Tarmac Comp 2016 road bike - review (Pic: George Scott/Factory Media)
Specialized Tarmac Comp 2016 road bike - review (Pic: George Scott/Factory Media)
Specialized Tarmac Comp 2016 road bike - review (Pic: George Scott/Factory Media)

That translates well on descents too, with the frame sitting beneath the rider still and true as you tilt it into a turn. Distributing your weight accordingly across the bike on a steep downhill gradient is also easy, and that’s completely down to the sure-footedness of the frame beneath you.

While the SL4 frame has been around a while now, the Comp still features Di2-compatible internal cable routing – so upgrading further down the line is a realistic possibility here – and there’s a full carbon fork, as you’d fully expect on a bike of this price.

The spec – (Almost) full Ultegra, shame about the hoops

Bottom line, the frame makes for a solid basis for the rest of the bike. Shimano’s go-to premium groupset, Ultegra, takes centre stage, interrupted only by the Praxis Works TURN Zayante 52-36t chainset (paired with an 11-28t cassette to provide an ideal spread of gears for the Tarmac’s all-round intentions). While for some the caché of a full-beans groupset will be a key deciding factor when buying a bike, the Praix crankset does an excellent job at handling power and is a smart swap to help keep overall costs under control without sacrificing the Ultegra experience.

Braking is also impressive, with the Ultegra calipers providing predictable and dependable performance, both in terms of power and modulation. Fitted on the shallow drop Specialized Comp bars, the levers are easily accessible on the hoods and in the drops, even for riders with relatively small hands.

Shifting and braking components come from Shimano’s excellent Ultegra groupset

At the £2,000 price point of the Comp, it’s important that the rolling stock is able to do the frameset justice. Fulcrum Racing S4s are fitted standard to the Tarmac, and while the brand matches up with the bike’s pedigree, in reality this is an area which still needs an upgrade in order to maximise the frame’s competencies.

The Racing S4s, while not especially heavy overall, do struggle when the road tilts upward and light, responsive feedback is what you’re after. Unlike Mavic’s Aksium Elites, which we shoved on to the bike during testing to give us a reference point, the Racing S4 wheels suck significant fun out of the overall ride – even the Aksiums (a relatively inexpensive upgrade at £200) were an improvement. Continuing on the wheel upgrade theme, we had a go with a set of 50mm section carbon rims, and were again impressed with the results, with the Tarmac Comp allowing them to shine on less hilly terrain. .

The supplied Specialized Gripton Turbo Pro tyres do a good job in terms of grip and feel but are 23mm in width – not the now industry-common 25mm. it’s probably worth upgrading the hoops and tyres together, pulling in the additional comfort and handling benefits of wider rubber, and keeping the Fulcrums and Griptons for backup use.

Specialized Tarmac Comp 2016 road bike - review (Pic: George Scott/Factory Media)
Specialized Tarmac Comp 2016 road bike - review (Pic: George Scott/Factory Media)
Specialized Tarmac Comp 2016 road bike - review (Pic: George Scott/Factory Media)

Tying off the bike is the finishing kit: all Specialized-own components which are well proportioned, comfortable to ride on and certainly good enough for the around them. The excellent Body Geometry Toupé saddle with hollow chromium-alloy rails proved comfortable over all-day rides Specialized’s equally good Roubaix bar tape completes the tactile contact points on the bike.

Conclusion

The Tarmac has been accused of being a bit long in the tooth in a fast-evolving market, but it’s still a rewarding ride and still exciting enough to spike your adrenaline without shaking you silly. The Comp is solid in its supplied build, but upgrade the wheels, and this becomes an altogether more competent road machine.

Pros

  • Direct and responsive under power
  • Well-refined ride quality
  • Excellent drivetrain components and finishing kit

Cons

  • Room for improvement with wheel upgrade
  • 23mm tyres seem dated
  • Frame is due an update

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