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Specialized Tarmac SL7 review

16 Oct 2020
Verdict:

Going fast on a bike you’d be happy to ride all day has never felt so good as it does on the Specialized Tarmac SL7. Photos: Mike Massaro

Cyclist Rating: 
Price: 
£10,500
For 
Impressively light and fast • Ample comfort
Against 
No tubeless compatibility

It was perhaps inevitable we would end up here. The writing was on the wall two years ago when Specialized launched a new Venge that looked and rode, well… a lot like a Tarmac.

At the same time, the Tarmac SL6 was also displaying a number of design cues borrowed from its aero sibling. Now the merger is complete and it’s time to say goodbye to the Venge. From this point forwards the Tarmac SL7 flies solo as undisputed top dog in Specialized’s road race category.

‘The engineering has just caught up,’ says Specialized road product manager Cameron Piper in justifying the union of these two thoroughbreds. ‘We can now build an 800g frame that’s a full 45 seconds faster than the Tarmac SL6 over 40km [measured in the wind-tunnel at 50kmh], with no sacrifice to stiffness or ride quality.

‘Our sponsored pros used to have to choose on race day whether to ride the aero race bike [Venge] or the lighter climber’s/GC bike [Tarmac]. There’s no need for that anymore.’

 

The ‘Vermac’

In terms of racing pedigree, you’d be hard pushed to find a more successful pair of bikes to combine. Between them the Venge and Tarmac have mopped up victories in just about every major championship, including one-day Classics, Olympic road races and Grand Tours.

The new Tarmac – or Vermac as we like to call it – has some big expectations resting on its narrow shoulders.

‘This is the new shape of speed,’ says Piper. ‘Tube shapes have been refined where they matter most – the fork blades and head tube especially – without forgetting about weight and ride quality throughout. We’ve literally spent years examining every possible iteration.’

Buy the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL7 now from Tredz for £10,500

The SL7 is apparently still a fraction behind the latest Venge in terms of aero drag, although Piper reasons that the difference is insignificant in the face of the Tarmac’s appreciably lower weight and the promise of more amenable handling. But before I could assess that claim, my first task of this test was to get the SL7 onto the Cyclist scales.

Specialized promised that the bike would hit the UCI minimum of 6.8kg straight out of the box and sure enough it delivered, literally to the gram.

Granted, that’s without pedals and bottle cages, but this is nonetheless seriously light for any disc brake bike, let alone one with this level of aero credentials.

Having tested all the various versions of the Tarmac and Venge over the years, I was impressed by the SL7 straight off the bat.

I could immediately sense the unification of the two bikes, and it quickly became apparent that I would be reaching my limits long before the SL7 reached its own.

 

Fast and smooth

The bike delivered a truly electrifying sense of power transfer that, combined with its low weight, meant it launched into attacks and sprints, accelerating with ease and eating up the road.

The rigidity throughout the frame, wheels and cockpit gives the SL7 a very agile feel, and its poise when sweeping through fast corners on descents was unfaltering.

If there is a chink in this bike’s armour, I wasn’t able to find it. Not even when it came to comfort. Even the most recent Venge still felt like a fairly harsh beast, but somehow Specialized has managed to temper this side of the SL7 to a much more acceptable level, and more akin to what I remember of the SL6.

That’s no mean feat given the extra speed on tap here, and Specialized hasn’t even opted to use its lower-clamped seatpost (featured on the Roubaix and Diverge) so there’s a door left open to add more compliance in future.

Plus, with clearance for up to 32mm tyres there’s always the option to gain additional comfort there too. Specialized says the SL7 tests fastest with the supplied S-Works Turbo 26mm tyres, but unless you’re racing or obsessed with speed my advice is to ditch the 26s and go for at least 28s as soon as possible. I did, and I really liked the changes they brought.

The ride was noticeably more comfortable with a barely perceptible sacrifice in speed. Would 30mm have been even better? Possibly, but sadly I didn’t have a set in the garage at the time of this test.

Buy the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL7 now from Tredz for £10,500

Tubeless would have been the icing on the cake, and it seems a curious backstep that these latest Roval wheels are not compatible, but that’s another area where we could see potential improvements in the future.

Regardless of what rubber you fit, it’s clear to me that in the Tarmac SL7 Specialized has found a way to deliver speed without the usual compromises we’ve been used to accepting. And being the trendsetter Specialized is, I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before other brands start to combine their respective superbikes in a similar way.

 

Pick of the kit

dhb Aeron Lab Raceline s/s speedsuit, £180, buy now from wiggle.co.uk

A fast bike demands fast kit and dhb’s wind-tunnel-developed Raceline speedsuit is a top choice. The design uses a super-light textured weave across the shoulders, sleeves, side panels and the outer panels of the shorts to reduce drag.

It’s an uncompromising fit and feels like it has been painted on, but compared to other aero suits I’ve tested it’s extremely comfortable.

Thankfully there is also plenty of overlap between top and bottom to avoid any unsightly belly button exposure when standing off the bike.

Alternatively…

 

Power of one

Buy the Specialized Tarmac SL7 Pro from Cyclestore for £6,499.99

1x drivetrains are gaining popularity with road riders, and this Tarmac SL7 Pro with 1x Sram Force eTap AXS (£6,500) looks exceptionally clean, and with only a single chainring and no front mech, it’s lighter too.

 

Cheap at half the price

Buy the Specialized Tarmac SL7 Expert from Tredz for £4,750

For less than half the cost of the top-spec SL7, the £4,750 SL7 Expert Ultegra is a smart option. You get dependable Shimano Ultegra, 38mm carbon Roval wheels, and the Fact 10r frame is only 120g heavier.

Spec

Frame Specialized Tarmac SL
Groupset Shimano Dura-Ace Di2
Brakes Shimano Dura-Ace Di2
Chainset Shimano Dura-Ace Di2
Cassette Shimano Dura-Ace Di2
Bars Specialized
Stem Specialized
Seatpost Specialized Carbon
Saddle Specialized Power
Wheels Roval CLX Rapide, Specialized S-Works Turbo 26mm tyres
Weight 6.80kg (56cm)
Contact specialized.com

All reviews are fully independent and no payments have been made by companies featured in reviews

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