Specialized Tarmac SL3 Expert – review

The Specialized Tarmac SL3 Expert was one of three race-ready bikes we’ve had on test (with the Scott Foil Team Issue and Focus Cayo Evo 2) for last month’s ‘summer of cycling’ theme.

At a now widely available £2700, we feel the Specialized represents good value: until the arrival of the SL4 a little over a year ago, the SL3 was the finest Tarmac available and used in various incarnations at cycling’s elite level.

Its affordability derives perhaps not only from its displacement at the top of the Tarmac range, but also from a judicious choice of components, which come mostly from Shimano’s Ultegra groupset: by spec-ing a Shimano 105 chain and cassette, for example, Specialized have realised savings, but not unduly diminished performance.

The Specialized Tarmac Expert SL3, equipped with a Reynolds R32 wheelset

The Fulcrum Racing 4 wheels, however, we felt were a false economy. Absent from Fulcrum’s website, we found they sat between the Racing 3 and Racing 5 in terms of weight. They share some features of the lighter Racing 3s, but with a higher spoke count and tweaked rim profile. They rode well, as did Specialized’s Turbo Elite tires, but this is a frame, and, by and large a groupset, that deserves better. To that end, we slotted in the Reynolds R32 wheelset we have on test, which revealed the true quality of the frame: smooth, and with a geometry attuned to fast paced climbing and descending.

Our test frame was a 56cm. A comparison with the geometry of closely priced and sized competitors (Lapierre’s Xelius, the Scott Foil, the Trek Madone Series 6 in H1 and H2 forms, Cannondale’s Super Six) revealed similar angles and lengths, and yet the SL3 Tarmac seemed a little more taut and compact (the Trek alone had a shorter wheelbase, and only then by a few millimeters). The main difference was in the length of the chainstays, which on the SL3 Tarmac Expert are short (40.5cm), bringing the rear wheel closer to the bottom bracket, producing a short wheelbase that afforded excellent seated climbing performance. It also proved possible to create an aggressive position with a low-ish front end, in spite of the tall headtube. Commited descending with late braking into hairpins revealed a bike kind enough to reveal its intentions in time for the rider to react.

In summary, the Specialized Tarmac SL3 Expert represents an excellent package with which to start some very serious road riding (and racing, if desired). The sluggish wheels can be relegated to winter training duties, and a fancy set of hoops will certainly bring out the best of the frame.

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