How do you improve perfection? That’s the question Specialized had to answer when they took their already impeccable Tour de France winning Tarmac SL3 bike back to the drawing board in an effort to make it even better. The result? The Tarmac SL4 range, ranging from the top of-the-line S-Works SL4 on down.
If you’re a regular reader of our publication, you may recall my colleague Marcus already talked about his experience with the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3 – a bike that he’s still yet to part with and one that he’s still racing. So when it came time for me to start looking into a new road bike, Marcus was the first person I turned to. His response was swift: you need to put the SL4 at the top of your list. He told me to go and ride other similarly priced bikes and save the SL4 for last. That’s what he did, and he told me the difference was night and day.
Numerous trips to local bike shops and numerous test rides later, and the Tarmac SL4 lived up to the hype. It felt faster and better than anything else I tried, making the decision an easy one. What was more difficult, however, was picking the model. As much as I loved the top-of-the-line S-Works Tarmac SL4, pricing for the complete bike retailed for $8,500, whereas the Specialized Tarmac SL4 Pro Race retailed for $5,800. The two bikes share the same geometry, with the key frame difference being the Tarmac SL4 Pro utilizes the Specialized SL4 FACT 10r carbon frame ($2,950) while the S-Works utilizes the slightly lighter SL4 FACT 11r carbon frame ($3,500). Both felt fantastic – light, nimble and comfortable – so for me the choice came down to components.
Contemplating both, the question was whether I wanted to spend the extra for the new SRAM Red 22 group or opt for the new and less expensive SRAM Force 22 group. Riding both, they again both felt awesome, so from a value standpoint, it was hard to beat the Tarmac SL4 Pro Race, as it felt very similar to the S-Works at a more attractive price. But what sealed the deal for me was the two bikes they had on hand. The Specialized Tarmac SL4 Pro Race I tested was gorgeous, sporting the gloss metallic silver / black / white paint scheme with red saddle and grips (as you can see in the photo gallery) vs. the more subdued black S-Works they had on hand. Had they had a different color combo my choice may have been different, but for me the Tarmac SL4 Pro Race was really love at first sight. I rode both, and I can tell you that whatever you pick, you’re getting one hell of a great ride.
So how does the Specialized Tarmac SL4 Pro Race ride? In a word: brilliantly. Riding it is like having a direct connection to the road, meaning whatever input you give the bike is instantly transferred to the pavement. Other bikes I rode simply couldn’t match the instantaneous responsiveness I felt with the Tarmac SL4. Acceleration is just unreal – mash the pedals, and there’s no flex, just instantaneous power transfer, a trait that’s possible due to the Tarmac’s one-piece bottom bracket and chainstays. Whereas other bikes tend to have the chainstays and bottom brackets bonded together after molding, Specialized molds the two together along with the carbon BB shell to create a single unit. The result is lightning quick acceleration with no flex and superb power transfer.
It also translates into a bike that climbs exceptionally well. I love climbing – I bike to stay in the best shape possible – so having a bike that climbs well was exceptionally important to me. There’s nothing worse than having a bike that works against you on long climbs, but with the Tarmac SL4, there’s nothing standing between you and the hills you’re trying to conquer. Pedal response with the SL4 is just superb, it’s light, it’s stiff, and it’s simply fantastic no matter what ascent you throw at it.
Which brings us to comfort. You might think that a bike so adept at eliminating flex may be overly harsh to ride, but in truth, it’s easy to forget your riding a bike designed for racing. There are obviously bikes that are more comfortable, but they don’t offer anywhere the near the same performance and speed as the SL4. If you’re looking at bikes designed from the ground up to be race-ready, I honestly don’t think you’ll find a bike better than the Tarmac SL4 in the area of comfort. The key is making sure you take the time to get it fitted properly, and once you do, you’ll find you can easily ride it all day and feel great. The Tarmac SL4’s blend of performance and comfort is almost surreal, and likely one of the biggest factors of the bike’s dominance in virtually every competition it enters.
Lastly, I have to mention the Tarmac SL4’s phenomenal handling. Up front, the head tube on SL4 frames tapers from 1-1/8” at the top to 1-3/8” at the crown, which is what has helped Specialized achieve the massive top and down tube junctions. According to Specialized, “this design increases strength and stiffness for greater steering precision and responsiveness during out-of-the-saddle efforts”, and while I’m certainly not a bike engineer, I can tell you the Tarmac SL4 handles incredibly well. Steering is quick and precise, and the bike overall is incredibly stable and confidence-inspiring on fast downhills. I’ve had the SL4 up to speeds around 45 mph, and whereas other bikes I’ve ridden felt twitchy even at slower speeds, the SL4 feels confident and sure at every speed I’ve ridden, which is amazing considering how light and flex-free the Tarmac SL4 is.
As Marcus noted with his Tarmac SL3, if there’s a weak spot to the SL4, I honestly can’t find it. It just does everything so well that it’s only limit is you. No matter how hard you push it, the Tarmac SL4 is ready and capable of handling anything you can dish out. For those of you looking at the absolute lightest, fastest bike on the planet, go for the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL4. For those of you that don’t mind a few extra grams looking for what may be the greatest value option, then the Specialized Tarmac SL4 Pro Race is impossible to beat. Whatever you pick, you’re getting a bike that defies physics and does everything brilliantly, and once you’ve ridden it, you’ll never go back to anything else.