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Specialized Tarmac Sport review

2 Aug 2016
Verdict:

The Specialized Tarmac Sport has the race-ready geometry of its bigger brothers but does it deliver at this price?

Cyclist Rating: 
For 
Stiff racing frame
Against 
Heavy wheels slow it down

The Specialized Tarmac Sport is the firm’s most affordable version of the evergreen racer and all-rounder. Although £4,000 cheaper than the range-topping S-Works Tarmac Dura-Ace, it mimics the Grand Tour winner’s geometry exactly, so we were given to expect a similar standard of powerful sprinting ability, assured handling and descending prowess, and climbing eagerness to boot. Obviously the build is different, hiking up the overall weight, but with race DNA running through its veins, a sporty ride is certainly on the cards.

Frame 

Specialized Tarmac Sport headtube

The carbon-fibre frameset matches the firm’s pro-level racer’s geometry, claimed millimetre for claimed millimetre, but is constructed from a lower-grade carbon (9r as opposed to the range-topper’s 11r compound). The oversized down tube and bottom bracket area combine with slab-sided chainstays to scream ‘stiffness’ at the top of their lungs. A measured head angle of 72.5° on our size 52 bike is less aggressive than the spec sheet suggests, but still a steep angle that backs up its promise of quick handling. Bolstered by a relatively short 970mm wheelbase, the Specialized does react like a race bike – just a slightly heavier one. 

Groupset, Finishing kit & Wheels

The Tarmac Sport is specced with Shimano 105 equipment, with the exception of an FSA Gossamer Pro chainset. Working with an 11-28 cassette (also 105) at the rear, this ensures a workable spread of available ratios for pretty much any occasion. Special mention goes to the chain – it’s common for manufacturers to cut corners when specifying the groupset here, but Specialized has included a Shimano 105 11-speed chain, too.

Specialized Tarmac Sport frame

Starting from the uppermost contact point, the Tarmac’s finishing kit is topped off with the tried and tested Toupe Comp saddle. There’s just enough gel padding to ensure an unbattered posterior, and hollow chromoly rails keep weight down. It’s fitted to a 27.2mm carbon seatpost, made to absorb road buzz. Specialized’s own 42cm alloy bars offer just the right amount of flex to prevent white fingers, but sufficient stiffness when you want to get your head down and sprint for signs.

Unique to Specialized, the bike runs on Axis 2.0 wheels. They’re adequate for rolling roads but too sluggish for serious out-of-the-saddle sprints or climbing. This is one of the areas in which Specialized has kept the cost down, and it adds 3.06kg to the weight. The S-Works Turbo tyres, however, do a great job of masking the weight of the wheels, offering rapid pick-up and exceptional grip. 

The ride

Peculiarly, for a bike that’s aimed at all-round riders rather than racing snakes, the first impression of this incarnation of the Tarmac was one of abrupt stiffness, to the point of discomfort in the initial miles of our test loop. Taking a little wind out of the 24c tyres improved the ride quality no end, without compromising feel too much. After 10 miles or so, we became dialled in to the way the Tarmac talks to us, and felt the better for it. The short (120mm) head tube adds to this feeling of connectivity, offering a stiff front end that’s tempered slightly by an effective carbon fork. Fire this bike along a race track (circuit race, anyone?) and the stiffness will be your friend; ride it for any time on UK roads and you may fatigue after two or three hours.

Specialized Tarmac Sport review

Where this bike really shines is on rolling roads that have received the attention of local council resurfacing. The biggest gear of 52x11 is plenty high enough to allow rapid progress on flat straights, and most false flats are taken without recourse to the little chainring, and with assured shifting from the 105 setup. That’s the beauty of the mid-compact chainset. The 36x28 smallest gear was never needed (we were testing in the Midlands, not the Alps), but it’d haul you up most of Europe’s bucket-list climbs. Even quicker if you decided to replace the Axis 2.0 wheelset, which we’d recommend. Its trump card, however, is the way the Tarmac Sport kids you into thinking it’s slower-handling than it actually is.

The Tarmac is quick-steering but not in the slightest bit twitchy. A short wheelbase of 970mm doesn’t translate into disconcerting speed wobbles on rapid descents, but flatters the bike’s already aggressive geometry, allowing you to pick your line, eye your exit and throw it into corners safe in the knowledge that you’ve a solid platform. The S-Works tyres are a masterstroke on this bike, doing their best to mask the weight of the wheels with quick-rolling performance and superior grip. But the handicap of its wheelset makes itself evident again when climbing, contributing nearly 50% to the bike’s overall 8.28kg bulk. Even a modest upgrade to Mavic Ksyrium Elites would do this bike some serious favours, shaving the best part of 400g from its weight. Still, for the money, you could sell the Axis wheels on and put the cash towards a more mid-level wheelset.

Ratings

Frame - Stiffness and geometry are designed for speed - 8/10

Components - Excellent Shimano 105, even down to the chain - 8/10

Wheels - Fine for rolling roads, too sluggish for sprints - 6/10

The ride - Fast and responsive, feels very connected to the road - 8/10

Overall - 7.9/10

Geometry

Geometry chart
Claimed Measured
Top Tube (TT) 537mm 538mm
Seat Tube (ST) 490mm 492mm
Down Tube (DT) 614mm
Fork Length (FL) 368mm 371mm
Head Tube (HT) 120mm 120mm
Head Angle (HA) 73 72.5
Seat Angle (SA) 74 73.3
Wheelbase (WB) 970mm 975mm
BB drop (BB) 72mm 71mm

Spec

Specialized Tarmac Sport
Frame Specialized FACT 9r carbon frame, BB30 bottom bracket
Groupset Shimano 105, 11-speed
Brakes Axis 2.0
Chainset FSA Gossamer Pro, 52/36
Cassette Shimano 105, 11-28
Bars Specialized Comp, alloy
Stem Specialized Comp, alloy
Seatpost Specialized Comp, carbon
Wheels Axis 2.0
Tyres S-Works Turbo, 24c
Saddle Specialized Body Geometry Toupe Comp Gel
Contact specialized.com
Price: 
£1,500

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