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Specialized’s 2018 Tarmac: A Taste of Greatness

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Specialized has never been one to overly fret the grams race in past versions of its flagship racer, the Tarmac. Product designers chose, rather, to focus on achieving particular ride characteristics, such as stability, compliance and acceleration. Specialized’s 2018 S-Works Tarmac however, attains a new level of litheness, proving the Tarmac can be light, while retaining the very ride characteristics for which it is renowned.


The last major update to the Tarmac platform was in 2014. Predictably, Specialized turned to its pro teams and riders for feedback in designing the new Tarmac. Equally as predictably those teams and riders told Specialized to make it lighter, more aero, more responsive and more compliant. They wanted what they had come to love in the Tarmac but with, well, more of it. In short, they wanted the bicycle equivalent of a unicorn… Did they get what they asked for?

The Tarmac’s designers recognized that modern racing and training has evolved. Individual stages run the gamut of demands with climbs, sprints, wind, cobbles and more. The result is that the 2018 S-Works Tarmac is a bike that meets the expectations of its original brief – do many things very, very well.

Team riders wanted lighter, and Specialized delivered. The new frame is impressively light, but it’s the S-Works Tarmac Ultralight model that truly impresses. The company will initially launch with 600 frames worldwide. A 56cm frame– with only 10g of special ultralight paint– is reputed to come in at a willowy 733g. Fully built the bike weighs just under 6.8KG, while the Tarmac UL – with some special parts – nears the 6.2kg mark. It’s worth noting that as light as this is, there are a few sub 700gram bikes on the market now, including the new Trek Emonda SLR, which hits that frame weight in both rim and disc brake versions.

Check out our launch coverage of the new Trek here.

Bikes this light can often feel shrill, picking up every minute, jarring road bump, crack or distressed surface. Not so with this Tarmac. Engineers designed the tubes to create greater levels of compliance. With so many team riders training regularly on brutal Belgian cobbles, they needed to have comfort as well as speed. Over an 80-mile ride that tackled rough roads, mixed surfaces, and 6k climbing, we finished feeling fairly fresh and significantly less brutalized than would have been the case on other race-focused rides.

This is a bike that knows what it wants. Put the pedal down, and it takes off, responding decisively to rider input. Taking full advantage of its newly advanced aerodynamics, this Tarmac leaves no watt wasted and accelerates with ease– whether closing gaps, pulling in the wind, powering up climbs, or stomping out sprints. Specialized spent six months in its wind tunnel facility studying ways to achieve more efficient aerodynamics. Engineers deconstructed
everything– from layup to stays to drop outs– to minimize drag. The result is a bike that purports being 45seconds faster than comparable bikes over a 40k TT, without obvious airfoil cross sections.

The new Tarmac is a bike that needs to be driven. It reacts rapidly to rider input, so having a confident, steady hand helps, yet does so without being twitchy or lurching from side to side with every errant eye blink. With hands off the bars, the Tarmac still maintains its composure. Perhaps not quite as assuredly as previous generation Tarmacs, but for skilled riders that’s a minor trade-off given the lower weight and improved aerodynamics.

Our test bike came dressed to the nines. Using 11-speed Dura-Ace Di2 9150 with a 52×36 chainring and 11-30 cassette. That gearing provided enough range to cover every pitch the road took on our test ride. Specialized has opted to launch the 2018 Tarmac with Dura-Ace rim brakes only; disc brakes will join the line-up at a later date. Those rim brakes are now direct mount. The build comes with carbon Roval 50mm wheels, while the Ultralight model uses the Roval 32mm wheels to help achieve its light weight. Both are wind tunnel tested and adorned with 26mm Turbo tires that measure 29mm inflated. The combination is not only fast, it truly softens rough roads. Let’s face it, comfort equals endurance and speed.

Working with Retül, the digital bike fit company it acquired in 2012, Specialized went to the data to determine the appropriate fit for the men’s and women’s Tarmac. They analyzed over 40,000 points of data, representing three years of information, to determine the ideal frame sizes and fits. Based on the numbers, Specialized determined it wanted the same platform for both men and women. They are calling this approach performance riding for people, rather than building different platforms for men and women. It’s certainly an outcome that conveniently simplifies production. The differences in size and subtle geometry alterations are informed by big data. The women’s model is available as a 44-56cm, while the men’s model ranges from 44-61cm. The 2014 Tarmac is still a blisteringly good good bike and will continue to be available with lower end builds, making it one of the very best values in carbon.

We do have one complaint. Those designers at Specialized are cunning as foxes, and the new S- Works Tarmac is a trickster– a peddler of beautiful illusion. Under the assured power of a pro, the capabilities are obvious. In the hands of we mortals, though, the Tarmac seduces us into believing we’re something more. It makes us feel in our bones that we are somehow lighter, faster, and stronger than we truly are. Only when we return to our everyday rides are we confronted with the cruel reality that the S-Works Tarmac has deceived us with a fleeting taste of greatness.

S-Works TARMAC MEN DI2 $10,000
S-Works TARMAC WMN DI2 $10,000

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