Late last summer, I had the chance to ride the 2013 S-Works SL4 Tarmac Red while attending Outdoor Retailer. The group ride took me up Emigration Canyon with the Tarmac as my steed. No question, I was smitten. So much so that I thought it worthwhile to get the more affordable Tarmac SL4 Expert in for long-term testing. The results have been downright grin-inducing.
2013 Specialized Tarmac SL4 Expert Features:
- SL4 FACT IS 10r carbon frame with uniquely shaped, tapered head tube and OSBB
- Full monocoque FACT carbon fork with a tapered carbon steerer
- Shimano Ultegra shifters, derailleurs and brakes
- Specialized Turbo Elite 100 TPI BlackBelt tires (700x23c)
- Adjustable 4-position oversized alloy stem (100mm – as tested)
- Body Geometry Toupe Comp RBX saddle with hollow Cr-Mo rails
- FSA SL-K Light carbon BB30 crankset (mid-compact chainrings)
- Specialized Comp FACT carbon 27.2 seatpost
- DT Swiss Axis 4.0 wheelset
- Colors: Carbon Satin/Charcoal/Red or Silver/Red/Charcoal (tested)
- MSRP: $3800 ($3000 on sale now)
Tarmac Expert is the Everyman’s All-rounder
Specialized is on a roll. They are enjoying success across all spectrums of racing. Road teams are knocking off win-after-win on the grandest of stages. XC mountain bike teams are pushing the pace and winning races aboard the Epic 29. And gravity specialists are charging their way to success aboard their squishier bikes.
All that success can certainly be attributed to the juggernaut that is Specialized, but that juggernaut didn’t just happen on its own and the Tarmac SL4 is a great example of the years of R&D that has gone into making one hell of a road bike. Hopping aboard the Tarmac SL4 is like riding a bike that is custom made for you. Out-of-the-box comfort and road chutzpah comes standard with every Tarmac and lucky for me and you, all this can be had for well under $4000.
On paper, the Expert Mid-Compact features a workhorse-level component spec of Shimano Ultegra components, Specialized-brand cockpit and DT Swiss Axis 4.0 wheels. Considering the SL4 frameset alone will set you back $2850, getting a fully-built Tarmac for $1000 more is a steal.
To get the SL4 Expert to that kind of a price point, the aluminum cockpit and vanilla wheelset are to be expected. Surprisingly, the aluminum bars weren’t as bad of an experience as I thought they would be. Honestly, I didn’t feel the immediate need to swap them for carbon drops and have kept them aboard throughout the entire round of tests. The SL4 frameset and fork provide ample vibration dampening while still remaining lively.
This year’s SL4 frameset features 10r FACT carbon layup for increased stiffness and weight reduction. As tested, with pedals, my Tarmac SL4 Expert tipped the scales at a respectable 17.2 lbs. During the course of my testing, I was able to drop it to 16.5 lbs. with a the addition of set of Bontrager Race X Lite TLR wheels and Ultegra cassette — further evidence that a good wheelset goes a long way. Additional carbon bits will be added through the summer to see just how easy it will be to further lighten things up.
As mentioned, the DT Swiss wheelset was ridden for half the review and then removed. While riding the Axis 4.0’s, the bike wound up reasonably well and performed on-par with expectations, but their weight and flex under load dogged their performance. Standing climbs required that I expand the rear brakes to prevent rubbing. Aside from that, they rode as well as other similar wheelsets I’ve ridden and will last as long as you want to ride them — be it 1 month or 2 years. Swapping out the wheels did make for a significant change in wind-up speed, road comfort, lateral stiffness and overall performance.
As is standard with modern framesets, the Tarmac features internally-routed cables and comes electronic-ready for Di2. The unique arced top tube presents a challenge for the rear brake cable as it rattles inside the top tube when going over bumps — kind of annoying. My LBS, Timpanogos Cyclery, said it’s common and easily remedied with rubber grommets. The frame also features a tapered head tube for increased stiffness that works in concert with the carbon steerer on the monococque FACT carbon fork.
Getting back to the ride quality, the Tarmac is a special bike that offers a rare combination of endurance-level comfort with the snappiness needed to conquer a balls-out sprint finish. The carbon construction and optimized seat stays keep comfort to a maximum on rough pave, but the one-piece downtube, bottom-bracket and chainstays maintain a solid pedaling platform and lateral stiffness. Several times I had to double-take, thinking I was on a Roubaix, but the second I put the hammer down, I knew I was aboard a tour-proven race machine.
My favorite aspect of the Tarmac is just how comfortable it feels at speed. I’m consistently in the top 15% of all riders on every climb in the area, but when it comes to going downhill, I’m average at best. There’s something about the vision of flesh and asphalt that doesn’t bode well with me. That said, I’ve felt more comfortable at speed on the Tarmac than any other road bike I’ve ridden. Corners are natural as the bike flows from turn-to-turn and the harshness of some road surfaces are quieted by the ride quality of the SL4 frameset. Again, I’d daresay the perfect combination of road feel, responsiveness and rider comfort.
Long-term Update (9/13/13): The Tarmac continues to shine as it has all season long. I thoroughly enjoy this bike and will have a hard time finding its equal. I’ve continued riding this with the Bontrager RXL TLR tubeless wheels with much success. It’s snappy and fun. The 2014 model is available now.
- Unique balance of long-distance comfort and amazing responsiveness
- Workhorse component spec performed well
- The Expert is the most economical way to get into the SL4 frameset
- With ride comfort, I felt no need to swap the aluminum bars
- Most capable descender I’ve tested
- Mid-compact chainrings provide extra gears for long climbs, but take some adjusting from standard cogs
- Stiff, BB30 bottom bracket translates into instant power
- Rear brake cable rattles inside the top tube
- DT Swiss Axis 4.0 wheelset is heavy, flexy under load
- I’d trade the Toupe saddle for a Romin anyday
The Bottom Line
The SL4 Tarmac frame is tour-proven and rider-loved. I’ve heard more kudos for the Tarmac than any other bike I’ve ridden. The Expert package is the easiest entry into the SL4 frameset and gets you a solid package with wiggle room to make changes over time. You’ll be hard-pressed to find it’s equal in an all-around performer.