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Ridden & Reviewed: the Specialized Tarmac SL4 Pro

March 13, 2013

This is last week’s post. I just wasn’t finished riding the bike yet, so it had to wait until today. The thing is, I wanted to race it a couple of more times before I finished writing. So there you have it. I skipped work to ride my bike.

The Tarmac SL4 is a refinement more than a new bike from Specialized. The SL3, the predecessor model, was a bit more traditional in appearance, with external cable routing, a more traditional looking albeit larger diameter headtube, and a reputation from some for being overly stiff. Not that a race bike shouldn’t feel like it has some snap, but you’ve also got to be able to ride it for miles on end, many of which may well be when you’re bleary eyed and your heart is in your throat if you’re really planning on racing. The SL4 retains that overall race quality but seems to have toned down the rear end to make what might be the best stock road race bike going.

Fresh from the shop, the 2013 Specialized Tarmac SL4 Pro SRAM mid-compact. Perhaps one of the most through model names out there!

Fresh from the shop, the 2013 Specialized Tarmac SL4 Pro SRAM mid-compact. Perhaps one of the most thorough model names out there!

Yes, Specialized says that the SL4 has a “higher stiffness to weight ratio” than last year’s SL3. But road manners, or subjective ride quality, mean more to most riders than lab results, as impressive as they may be. And the SL4’s road manners are ably helped by the balanced geometry, similar to the Cervelo R3, which I generally liked, but with a shorter front-center number and a much shorter headtube, both leading to a bike that rides a bit faster in terms of handling but still feels quite stable.

I put that stability to the test at La Primavera Road Race at Lago Vista a couple of weeks ago. Saturday’s course features what for me is a blazing fast downhill–speeds right at 45 mph. Never once did I feel the need to grab the top tube with my knees or to feather the brakes as I descended. Although, since it’s been about 7 months since my last road race, I did play it fairly safe on the back of the group. When I first got the bike I thought it might have descending characteristics that were too twitchy for me. But I had set the bike up myself–quickly–and a proper fit got me better balanced and feeling great on the SL4, particularly when the road tilts down.

Over the rollers and across the (false) flats the bike felt like it disappeared under me. No random noises, no weird vibrations. I didn’t have to muscle it into the couple of 90 degree turns and I didn’t have to coax it to accelerate. In short the bike felt like it should–nothing. I was able to focus on the wheel in front of me, the gaps opening, trying to attack the group–unsuccessfully–you know, bike racing.

La Primavera is a two-day race. Sunday is the same course albeit in reverse direction. The 45 mph downhill? Significantly slower when going up.

I’m not one to dwell on a bike’s weight. As I often tell folks who ask what my personal bike weighs, “I’m not sure and I’ve never been too concerned since I’ve never ridden on a scale.” That said the SL4 is “whoa” light. Out of the box it was a hair over 15 pounds. And with bottle cages, pedals, and Garmin accessories it’s still under 16. I don’t know what my bike weighs, but I know this SL4 is the lightest bike I’ve ridden. The fact that it feels so stable at speed is a testament to the engineering behind it. A bike this light could easily feel nervous and unsettling rather than solid and reassuring.

Of course, since I have a severe addiction to breakfast tacos and a love of Real Ale (both the beer and the Real Ale Ride) the bike’s weight wasn’t really what helped me stay with the dwindling field on Sunday’s climbs. It was the excellent component choices on the SL4. The Pro model actually comes configured a couple of different ways–a Shimano Dura Ace 11 speed equipped bike or a SRAM Red Black Edition equipped model. (The S-Works model features SRAM’s revised “new” Red kit.) I’ve been riding the SRAM Red model purely out of vanity–I like the all black look of the SL4 Pro SRAM. Ok. I also have become a fan of SRAM’s road kit over the past couple of years having ridden it exclusively on my cyclocross bikes. But really, I like the black. It matches everything. If that’s not your thing, the Tarmac line-up features 12 different models, 7 of which are the new SL4 design, and a bevy of colorways.

The guys at Cycle Camp USA are rolling the SL4 Pro this year. They're on the Dura Ace equipped version, which conveniently comes in Cycle Camp USA blue!

The guys at Cycle Camp USA are rolling the SL4 Pro this year. They’re on the Dura Ace equipped version, which conveniently comes in Cycle Camp USA blue!

Regardless of the bike’s weight and stealthy appearance, it was the gearing that made the climbing difference for me. The SL4 features what Specialized and others call “mid-compact.” My personal bike has a traditional crankset with 53/39 rings. A compact generally runs 50/34, pretty low gearing that can get you close to what a triple does when run with certain cassettes but without duplication of gears. The mid-compact, as the name perhaps suggests, splits the difference and features a 52/36 crankset. The bike also came with an 11-28 cassette, and Sunday was the first time I really got to put that 36-28 to use and I was quite happy to have it. And, the 52-11 never left me feeling like I needed more gear on the crazy descent the day prior.

Everything else on the bike that isn’t drivetrain related is branded Specialized. The handlebar and the now ubiquitous Specialized 4-position stem–which features a nifty clip for holding the faceplate on when removing and installing faceplate bolts, the two-bolt seat post, the Toupe model saddle–which I switched for the Romin for personal comfort, the tires, and the handbuilt wheels all carry the Specialized moniker. While the rear hub features internals from DT Swiss‘s 350’ hubs and the wheels use nipples and spokes from the famed wheelsmith, each of the bike’s components are no muss, no fuss items that would feel at home on any bike.

La Primavera was two weeks ago. Why the delay getting this posted? Because I also wanted to run the Tarmac through the Grand Prix Loop at the Pure Austin Driveway Crit Series season opener, the Spring Classic. In the 4/5 pack averaging 25 mph, the bike handled great. It went into turns easily and I was able to move it over ever so slightly as guys around me jostled for spots as I tried to get my criterium legs back under me. As lines would close going into the turns the bike never lost stability as I rolled the rumble strip a couple of times–and the grass once. It definitely felt like a race bike on the Driveway’s smooth, fast race car surface. And it of course felt plenty stiff under power, whether rolling up the large climb at La Primavera or chasing a prime in the masters’ race the Driveway. The SL4 never felt like it could be overpowered.

The Tarmac SL4 is at home in the wild.

The Tarmac SL4 is at home in the wild.

Since late January I’ve ridden the SL4 a little over 800 miles. The vast majority of them have been cruising around familiar roads with friends or on my own. The bike has been nothing short of comfortable and pleasant on these rides, whether chasing friends around the Dam Loop, cruising the bike paths in Circle C, or rolling across the rough roads out past Creedmoor. It’s still not my favorite bike. But it’s the first stock road bike I’ve ridden in a few years that has me wanting to keep it indefinitely and doesn’t have me wishing for a component upgrade here or there–aside from the saddle, which of course was done purely for personal preference.

Specialized has done something fairly amazing with the Tarmac SL4 Pro. They’ve made what I think is a truly neutral race bike. The SL4 doesn’t come across as “extra” or “more” anything, despite the fact that it’s “one more” than the SL3. And that’s a good thing to me considering most of my ride time is, well, simply riding.

Now to quit working and get back on the SL4.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Sileem permalink
    May 1, 2013 10:01 am

    Nice to know, what’s your favorite bike? 😉

    • djcurtin permalink
      May 2, 2013 11:09 am

      The absolute best bike is the one that’s being ridden! Cheers! And thanks for reading!

  2. jim permalink
    June 1, 2013 3:03 pm

    great review….torn between this or the roubaix….2 very different bikes i know…..i do like my comfort and disc brakes so the roubaix wins there but i still cant decide

    • djcurtin permalink
      June 3, 2013 6:36 pm

      Thanks for reading, Jim! It’s a tough choice for sure. Know that that the Roubaix is very “racy,” probably more so than the Tarmac is “comfy.” If that makes any sense! Let us know what you end up with and what you think!

  3. pete permalink
    August 4, 2013 7:13 pm

    looking at the argonaut carbon frame vs specialized sl4 pro and the trek madone/domaine. can’t test drive them all and don’t know if the custom argonaut can perform as well as the specialized/trek with their knowledge and experience with carbon?? thoughts?\

    • djcurtin permalink
      August 12, 2013 8:31 pm

      In a nutshell, it’s hard to beat true, full custom. A nice suit off the rack with a little tailoring is a nice suit. But a suit that’s made to measure and look exactly the way you want it often times can’t be beat. Same generally goes for bikes. All of the bikes you’ve mentioned are nice bikes–the Tarmac and Madone are more traditional in terms of being more race oriented, while the Domane has that measure of comfort built into a race platform. With some fitting, they’ll work great for you in all likelihood. A custom bike will be YOUR bike. Folks around the shop that have Independent Fabrication models built for them adore those bikes, for the fit, the finish, the ride quality–everything. Sounds like you’re choosing between great bikes, so happy hunting!

  4. John permalink
    August 25, 2013 10:16 am

    Nice review, it was very informative.


    • djcurtin permalink
      August 28, 2013 7:05 pm

      Thanks for reading, John!

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