Specialized Tarmac SL Expert
Specialized first introduced the Tarmac SL frameset a few years ago. It showcased the very latest carbon production methods available to the US-based company and, despite the passing of several years, it can still hold its head up high.
The release of the SL2 at the beginning of this year has moved the SL from the top peg, but in doing so has meant better value and better specifications down the range, such as this Expert model demonstrates.
More than just a meaningless acronym, FACT Az1 refers to the process involved in producing each frame. FACT referrs to the ability for Specialized designers to be particular about the lay-up of each layer of carbon, so the directional stiffness and vibration absorption of a frame can be tailored for a given requirement. Az1 is a sequential curing process. The carbon fibre for the front triangle, seatstays and chainstays is laid up for each piece individually before the whole lot put back into the oven to be cured. The output is a one-piece frame.
The carbon is moulded into a smart looking frame with that distinctive ‘bowed’ top tube, which is claimed to go some way to providing additional compliance [don't you mean flex? -ed.] throughout the frame. Slim seat stays join the seat tube either side, kinking inwards slightly before curving out and around the wheel, and the large chainstays meet an impressively fat bottom bracket. From this large junction extends a large downtube, square in profile before tapering into a large oval shape when it meets the headtube.
The Specialized fork is made using the same FACT Az1 technique, and is full carbon. It slots into an integrated headtube, and Specialized thoughtfully leave enough spacers for finding the right fit. The company should be praised for their attention to detail, such as the carbon fibre protection panel placed on the chainstays in the event of a dropped chain. Cable routing is well placed, though the exposed rear brake cable is a slight aesthetic downfall beneath the bowed top tube, but this is a minor niggle.
For £1,999.99 the Expert comes equipped with a Shimano Ultegra SL groupset, which is proving popular on bikes at this price point. It finds the delicate balance between weight, performance and wallet friendliness, while the new grey colour is a definite grower. An upgraded rear derailleur sees Dura-Ace make an appearance, which is certainly a nice touch. Backing up the intentions of this bike for racers (or just people who like to ride fast) is the inclusion of a 53x39 chainset, though a 11-28t cassette is some concession to those who might otherwise struggle on the climbs – there seems to be no compact option anywhere in the Tarmac range.
Wheels are the capable Fulcrum Racing 5. With 20/24 aero bladed spokes, radial front spoking and 2:1 Two-to-One Spoke Ratio for the rear wheel all tipping the scales at 1,755g. Finishing up all the contact points are Specialized branded components, including the 3D forged alloy stem stem, 7050 aluminium handlebars, Fact carbon seatpost with Zertz inserts, Toupe saddle, CNC seat clamp, Body Geometry Bar Phat bar tape and finally, Specialized Mondo Pro 23m tyres with Flak Jacket puncture protection. All proved perfectly competent and generated no complaints. In fact, the handlebar shape and width suited the tester perfectly and the Toupe saddle always provided stacks of comfort.
Indeed, there’s nothing I would want to change on this bike out of the box (besides a longer stem for a correct fit).
So far, on paper at least, the Tarmac is stacking up well, but does its ride match its credentials? Happily, the answer is a resounding yes. It’s easy to see why this frame has proved such a hit in its various guises over the years, as it offers a stiff and fast chassis, whether your intentions are racing or just riding around. While the Tarmac is stiff and direct in its response to rider inputs, it’s in the comfort level that the frame most impresses, which is why we’d hesitate to recommend it to just racers and racer-wannabes. It’s very much at home as a sportive bike. Sure, Specialized offers the Roubaix for longer rides where comfort may be a high priority, but if you prefer a lower front end and more involving ride, the Tarmac will impress.