We review the Specialized Tarmac Pro SL3 road bike

Specialized Tarmac Pro SL3 Specialized Tarmac Pro SL3 (2011)
£3,999.99
specialized.com

Specialized’s super-light Tarmac S-Works has dominated the climbing stages of the Tour de France since it appeared. The SL3 uses the same shape in a slightly downgraded material, but proves it’s got morale boosting moral fibre when the roads get mountainous.

FRAME AND FORK
With the Roubaix family taking care of sit-up-and-beg comfort bike duties, the Tarmac can get down to serious race business. A relatively short stack height on the tapered 1.125-1.5in headset naturally encourages an attacking position, and there’s plenty of stretch in the curved, rectangular top tube.

The down tube swells subtly towards the deep full-width bottom bracket section, which swallows oversized press fit crank bearings ahead of deep but tapering chainstays. While the SL3 uses a different carbon-fibre grade to the top dollar S-Works, you still get the same internally ribbed head tube and bottom bracket, plus hollow dropouts and headset cups as the team bikes.

The seat tube tapers from a wide base up to a skinny 27.2mm seatpost complete with a ‘Zertz’ shock damping jelly insert and the seatstays are skinny pencil style tubes with a slight curve adding to their intentional spring effect on the ride.

It’s still the only bike in the test over the kilo frame weight mark however, and the fork isn’t that light either. It’s hard to fault Specialized in terms of their selling experience though and the specially trained Body Geometry Fit advisors working in most Specialized dealers can properly fine-tune your ergonomics.

THE KIT
Another bit of unique Specialized syncing is the colour coordinated carbon-armed FACT Pro crank – an impressively light piece of kit that also feels pretty stiff underfoot, even when the gradient overwhelms your gears.

Full-size chainrings mean you are going to man up on some of the UK’s steeper Tarmac slopes though, even with a big 28-tooth bottom cog at the back. Gears and shifters are top-end Shimano Dura-Ace, although there’s a downgrade to Ultegra on the brakes, chain and cassette to sneak it under £4,000.

The wheels are Specialized’s Roval own-brand and despite low flange, carbon centre front hubs, they’re relatively heavy in terms of this test. Specialized bars are very flexy and the ‘classic’ rounded shape didn’t agree with everyone.

The rest of the Specialized kit is nicely shaped, with an angle adjustable shim inside the stem, making fine tuning without shifting spacers easy. The minimalist flat-topped Romin saddle got a lot of positive comfort comments from our test team too, particularly on longer rides where the skinny shock-damped Zertz post also comes into play.

THE RIDE
The first impression was a very friendly welcome. All the contact points were where more competitive riders would expect them to be, reach was just right and while not everyone was a fan of the bar shape, we all felt at home on the Tarmac. Press on the carbon cranks smoothly and it squeezes forwards with minimum effort and a springy sense of buoyancy.

There’s a thoroughbred glide between pedal strokes or into and out of corners that helps you purr along feeling properly luxurious. The positive plush effect of the saddle and Zertz seatpost is also clear in the firmer ride out of the saddle.

Even after a headline hilly hundred-miler dales session, our Tarmac rider was fresher and less road weary than those on the other bikes. The handling is well measured thanks to the ride position, which places body weight through tyres without being overly belligerent. The softer ride seems to squeeze more traction out of the tyres through corners and on super-steep climbs with less wheel slip, despite rubber that’s average rather than outstanding.

This cosseting comfort does come at a price. In pin-sharp feedback and strong-arm steering response, the Tarmac is far softer than the other three bikes, with twist and flex from the wheels and bars when you start pushing hard. Most of the time it’s just a case of choosing a broader, more approximate line or trusting rather than feeling the tyres, but a couple of times it did twang out of shape and threaten to high-side us coming through twisty descents.

The higher wheel weight makes it feel sluggish, and while power delivery and drive stiffness is OK, it’s not up to the rock solid standard of the superbikes here. Specialized’s second-tier Tarmac isn’t as light or power responsive as true top-end superbikes, with flexy wheels and bars undermining flat-out race focus on technical roads.

Where it shines is by combining a racy ride position with a smooth and energy-conserving ride that will make a lot of comfort-oriented ‘sportive’ bikes very jealous, and a lot of longer distance multi-sport athletes very happy.

PROS
Specialized’s ride position and shock absorbing saddle make it very comfy
Overall bike weight is good for a complete bike at this price

CONS
Flexy wheels and bars add comfort but sap peak power and steering
Frame is heavy for a £4,000 bike which limits upgrade potential