A top performing frame from Specialized that comes with an interesting choice of spec
While they might not always be the best at PR, Specialized sure know a thing or two about bikes.
Suppliers to Omega-Pharma Quick-Step and Tinkoff Saxo – both of whom use the Tarmac extensively – Spesh have a long and storied history in the professional peloton and their bikes have been ridden to victory in a huge number of the biggest races around.
The Expert is third in Specialized’s Tarmac range, behind the S-Works (of which there are two) and the Pro Race. There are also two disc-equipped versions of the Tarmac – an S-Works and an Expert version – and nine bikes in the range overall, so you have a lot of choice.
The frameset is made from Specialized’s Functional Advanced Composite Technology (FACT) 10r carbon, the same as the Pro Race version, so you’re effectively getting Spesh’s second-tier Tarmac frame, which might be part of the reason why the price tag is a little higher than similarly-specced bikes.
One interesting feature on the frame is the hidden seatpost clamp. In the past, I’ve been sceptical about integrated clamp solutions as so many of them haven’t worked all that well (especially on TT bikes), but I was pleasantly surprised at how hassle-free the Tarmac’s clamp is.
Recommended max torque is 6.2Nm, but apply a bit of carbon paste and you’ll bring that down as tightening all the way up isn’t ideal. The only thing I’m not sure about is the seatpost insertion, which looks a little unfinished, but that’s just a personal preference.
It’s also worth noting that although the frameset come with a mechanical group, it’s electronic compatible as well, and the ports on the frame are filled in with small rubber stoppers, so if you wanted to upgrade the groupset later, you could (unless you want to run SRAM Red eTap, in which case you won’t need wires at all).
Ride quality of the frameset is excellent, just as you’d expect. The Tarmac is a performance road bike but it’s not a full-on race beast like the Venge, instead throwing a little comfort into the mix.
Handling is sure and sharp, just as you’d expect from a race bike, and although you wouldn’t describe it as comfortable in the same way as, say, the Roubaix, it’s a comfortable enough ride that you don’t need to be a pro to spend multiple hours in its saddle.
When it comes to the drivetrain, the Ultegra 6800 mechanical groupset here is top notch. I’ve ridden Ultegra on so many bikes and never cease to be amazed by what an excellent quality groupset it is.
With the updated dual-pivot brakes that were introduced for the 6800 series the difference in functionality between Ultegra and Dura-Ace are so small that it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between the two.
And it’s that braking that really makes the Ultegra groupset. Shimano’s shifting has been wonderfully crisp for a while now – although the long arm front derailleur has definitely improved an already good area – but the extra braking power, and the confidence that inspires, is invaluable.
The one difference from the full Ultegra group is a set of FSA carbon cranks paired with FSA Super T chainrings. It’s a strange little setup, and one that seems slightly miserly on a bike at this price.
Given the option, same brand derailleurs and crankset are always the best choice – even if it’s just to keep the look consistent – although previous experience has taught me that certain brands mesh better than others. Admittedly, this is less true with Shimano than, say, Campagnolo and, with 11-speed, things have definitely improved but it’s still not the case that everything works perfectly with everything.
Our test bike is a 2015 model, but the 2016 version will come with an FSA SL-K Light crankset – which actually has a significantly higher RRP than the Ultegra equivalent – but in all honesty we’d still prefer the Shimano cranks.
Finishing kit is all own-brand, an S-Works carbon seatpost (with 20mm offset, since you asked), alloy Specialized Pro stem and a set of alloy Specialized expert alloy bars.
There’s nothing there to feel particularly strongly about, although being someone who primarily rides gloveless I’m not the Specialized Roubaix bar tape type, but that’s easily (and cheaply) changed.
Spesh also provide their own-brand saddle in the form of the Body Geometry Toupé Expert Gel. It combines a lightly padded upper with a flexible body and sides while the titanium rails are easily stiff enough to support it.
And now we come to the wheels. You’ll hear this in almost every review of bikes between £2-3,000 around this price point (with few exceptions) but the wheels are basic.
They’re Fulcrum’s Racing 4s, which are okay but in no way do justice to the frameset. They’re a little flexy when you’re spiriting or climbing out of the saddle which manifests itself as annoying brake rub.
They’d be fine for training (because anything that works properly is fine for training, to be honest), but you’d definitely want something a bit better for racing or any type of riding with performance in mind.
The Tarmac Expert is a quality bike that gives an excellent ride, only let down by a set of sub-par wheels that both don’t do justice to the ride quality and don’t justify the £3,000 price tag.
If you’re after a bike that combines performance with a slight concession to comfort, the Tarmac fits the bill well and the only issue I’d take is that while the frameset more than justifies the price tag, the spec isn’t quite as good.
– Quality frameset that’s Di2 ready
– Ultegra groupset is top notch
– Integrated seatpost clamp works well
– FSA crankset is a strange choice of spec
– Wheels don’t do the rest of the ride any justice
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