Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3

Words Marcus Bloom | May 04, 2011
The Specialized Tarmac SL3 is the hottest road bike on the planet, offering the perfect blend of stiffness, speed and ride quality
Words Marcus Bloom May 04, 2011

I have a confession to make. I’m addicted to speed. It doesn’t matter what it is – driving, biking, boarding, you name it. When it comes time to make a purchase, and that purchase involves multiple options with varying degrees of quickness, I pretty much always opt for the fastest one. An addiction, yes, but it: a) makes the buying process much easier, and b) makes for one incredibly good time.

Why am I telling you this? It’s simple really. This spring I found myself in the glorious position of shopping for a new road bike, so I set out on a single mission: find the absolute fastest road bike on the planet. And when I say fastest, I’m not talking about fastest in a general, everyday sense. I’m talking fastest as in, a warp speed equipped rocket ship from another planet that makes Usain Bolt look like a three legged tortoise. A bike so fast, that if you pedaled hard enough, it could actually stop the earths rotation, reverse it, and send you back in time 20 years. That’s the type of fast I’m talking.

Fast forward two months. Research; test rides; more research; more test rides.

And then I found it. The bike I was searching for. The bike that has no equal. The bike that can, quite literally, make time stand still. That bike is the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3. In a word, it’s incredible. In multiple words, it is hands down, the fastest bike I’ve ever ridden. Period. If you like slow, you’ll have to look elsewhere when shopping for a new bike. But if you, like me, have an unhealthy addiction to speed, read on to find out what makes the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3 so special.

Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3 side view closeup

Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3 side view closeup

Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3 Frame

Like any great bike, the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3 greatness is due the technological prowess of its frame – a frame designated by Specialized as the SL3 FACT IS 11r carbon. It’s a masterpiece of engineering, designed to the meet the needs of the world’s most competitive riders. It took the top two spots in the 2010 Tour de France, it won the Tour of Flanders multiple years in a row, it’s won the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and it’s won countless other events around the world. It’s the bike ridden by Alberto Contador, Team Astana and Team Saxo Bank-Sungaard. And it’s this collaboration with the world’s top racers that’s helped Specialized develop a frame perfectly tuned to the needs of the most demanding riders.

To achieve the greatest speed possible, the key to bike engineering is to develop the highest stiffness to weight ratio possible, which is exactly what Specialized engineers have done. The SL3 FACT IS 11r frame boasts the highest stiffness to weight ratio available, and is an improvement over their prior race ready machine – the SL2 – of 10% in the weight department and 18% in the all important stiffness category. Making the magic happen, the S-Works Tarmac SL3 boasts a one-piece chainstay / bottom bracket shell mated to hollow alloy dropouts. The dropouts alone are a work of engineered art, lighter than carbon, yet significantly stiffer and more durable. As for the BB shell, it features internally raised ribs, stiffening the area between the BB bearings and the frame. The oversized bottom bracket shell also houses a pair of 42-mm diameter self adjusting ceramic bearings directly in the frame, maximizing torsional rigidity. All of this adds up to a ridiculously rigid structure built to resist deflection under extreme pedal loads.

Complimenting the rigid rear triangle, the S-Works Tarmac SL3’s crankset transfers power directly where you want it, thanks to a variety of features. To improve crank arm stiffness, Specialized engineers utilized a hollow and more efficient “D” shape. From there, FACT carbon fibers run continuously from pedal threads into the spindle coupling to increase strength, while the crank arms are attached with Hirth couplings, further maximizing stiffness.

Despite its superlative stiffness, the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3 is incredibly light. More specifically, the Tarmac SL3 the lightest production module in the world (module includes frame, fork, cranks and seatpost), weighing in at 2,047 grams. To achieve the weight savings, Specialized engineers scoured every millimeter of the SL3 FACT IS 11r frame, shaving grams without any compromise to performance or safety. Carbon cups integrated into the head tube replace conventional alloy. The oversized bottom bracket shell is constructed entirely from FACT carbon, eliminating traditional metal cups. And the FACT SL cranks utilize a carbon spider design, increasing stiffness while still saving weight. It is, in no simpler terms, an engineering masterpiece.

Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3 closeup of OS bottom bracket

Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3 closeup of OS bottom bracket

Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3 Components

In selecting a Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3, your choices range from the SL3 FACT IS 11r carbon frameset only ($2,900), the S-Works Tarmac SL3 module ($3,300), the S-Works Tarmac SL3 SRAM ($7,200), the S-Works Tarmac SL3 Dura Ace ($7,700), the S-Works Tarmac SL3 Super Light ($9,200), and last but not least, the S-Works Tarmac SL3 Di2 ($9,900). I’ve ridden and love both SRAM and Shimano, but ultimately I opted for S-Works Tarmac SL3 Dura Ace (which is what I’ll describe here). Of course, your component selection boils down purely to personal preference and the exact weight you’re trying to reach, but you’re going to get the same incredible performance out of the SRAM variant, the Super Light variant (which features some SRAM components), or the Di2 variant, due simply to fact they’re all building on the incredible SL3 FACT IS 11r frame.

On the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3 Dura Ace, as you’d expect, the brakes, derailleurs, and cassette are Dura Ace, and the brake and shift levers utilize the new Dura Ace STI technology (which is flight deck compatible). From there, Specialized added a variety of first party components. The fork is the S-Works Tarmac SL3 FACT carbon fork, featuring a uni-weave, monocoque construction; OS race for 1.5″ bearing; and full carbon legs, crown and steerer. The handlebars are S-Works SL classic-bend carbon. The seatpost is Specialized’s FACT Carbon Pave, which utilizes a Zertz insert to minimize road vibrations. And as already noted, the S-Works oversized BB FACT carbon crankset is in place, designed to offer the highest power transfer and strength possible while minimizing weight. Other goodies include Specialized’s Roval Rapide SL 45 wheels featuring a carbon/alloy hybrid rim design and a Body Geometry Romin Team saddle with solid titanium rails.

Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3 on the Road

Tech specs aside, the true test of the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3 is on the road, and two seconds into a ride, you realize immediately how special this bike is. It is absolutely uncompromising – a creature that takes every trait you’d hope to find in a pro-level race bike, and wraps them into a single, gorgeous package. It’s not a case of what does the Tarmac SL3 do well, it’s a case of what doesn’t it do well. And honestly, if there is a weakness, I haven’t found it. The SL3 is a beast.

First there’s the speed. The glorious, glorious speed. Fast is an understatement. A laser guided missile is more appropriate. The Tarmac SL3’s stiffness is incredible – jump on the pedals, and the surge is instantaneous. There’s simply no power loss from frame flex. In the saddle, out of the saddle, it doesn’t matter – it’s like your legs have a direct connection to the rear wheel. Due to its stiffness, you probably expect that the SL3 excels at climbing as well, and you’d be one-hundred percent correct. Climbing on the SL3 is a joy – there’s no other way to say it. Ascents you once feared are now easily conquerable. The Tarmac is so light and so responsive, you feel like you can climb forever, and the Tarmac will let you. The SL3’s only limits are the ones you impose upon it.

But despite its remarkable speed and stiffness, these are only two of its strengths. When I said the S-Works Tarmac SL3 is uncompromising, it truly is. The poor handling, the twitchiness, the “dear Lord, please don’t let me die” feeling on steep descents common with some lightweight frames – they’re all gone. The Tarmac SL3 is magical, in that it offers the speed I’ve already detailed mated to surgically precise handling. It’s confidence inspiring on downhills due to its excellent stability; it holds its line very, very well; and in the event you need to make a quick adjustment, it responds instantaneously.

Finally, the last defining element of the S-Works Tarmac SL3 is its ride quality. I absolutely love the feel of the Tarmac on the road. It’s stiff, to be sure, but the SL3 offers the perfect blend of road feel and road vibration dampening. I’ve had the Tarmac SL3 out west a few times to work on climbing and descents, but I’ve also spent a good amount of time on the Tarmac here in the Midwest, where winter wreaks havoc on the roads. Potholes, cracks, wildly uneven roads – you name it and we have it – and for me, the SL3 finds the perfect balance of not too rough, not too soft. It’s really a bike that despite its otherworldly performance, you can ride it day-in, day-out, long rides, short rides, it doesn’t matter. The Tarmac SL3 can take anything you can throw at it, it loves it, and it keeps asking for more. Like I said, if the S-Works Tarmac SL3 has a weakness, I haven’t found it. It’s just that good.


Am I in love with the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3? Unequivocally, yes. But when I decided to purchase a bike that has an MSRP of $7,700, it had to be perfect, and the SL3 doesn’t disappoint. It offers an unparalleled level of speed; it offers Herculean stiffness; it offers precise handling; and it offers impeccable ride quality. Plus, there’s the added bonus that it’s the sexiest bike I’ve ever laid my eyes on. There may be others, but there are none better. Simply put, the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3 is the greatest road bike on the planet, the galaxy, maybe even the universe. Ride one – it will change your life.

To learn more about the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3, you can view the full lineup at the official Specialized website, or view the Specialized Tarmac SL3 microsite.