Offering most of the performance of the top-of-the-range S-Works model but at a substantially lower price, the new Specialized Tarmac Pro is a highly appealing race and fast performance bike finished with one of the best paint jobs I've seen since 1996.
If you've been reading road.cc regularly, you might have seen the news that Specialized massively updated its flagship race bike, the Tarmac, for 2018. And the result is that this sixth generation, the SL6, is in my opinion the most improved bike of the year. And one of the best race bikes on the market right now.
There's a lot to like. Not only is the frame significantly lighter, it's claimed to be more aero and comfortable than the previous bike which, let's be honest, was looking a bit dated compared with the current top-end race bikes. Technology has moved on quite a bit in recent years in terms of eking out more performance from the latest carbon developments.
What really matters more than all the headline-grabbing detail is how it rides, and the answer to that is: superbly. It is comfortably one of the best high-end race bikes currently available.
There are four options to suit different budgets: two S-Works models, the S-Works Tarmac Ultralight (£9,000) and S-Works Tarmac (£8,500), the Tarmac Pro we have here on test, and the Tarmac Expert (£3,500), the cheapest of the four.
I spent a lot of time riding the S-Works Tarmac and it's hard not to be impressed by a bike dripping with all Shimano Dura-Ace and carbon bling. Having now spent some time on the Pro, it's clear the improvements are there regardless of specification.
Granted, there are shades of difference between the two bikes, Dura-Ace versus Ultegra, similar but not quite the same carbon wheels (though the same tyres), and £5,400 is still a heck of a lot of money, but the Pro's superb ride is testament to the advances made in the frame. It's nearly as good as the S-Works bike, there's no short-changing in performance. (And you arguably get a better paint job.)
One critical difference between the bikes is the carbon fibre used, despite the frames looking the same (apart from the paint job, obviously). For the Pro (and Expert) models, Specialized has used what it calls FACT 10r carbon rather than the FACT 12r carbon in the S-Works model, with a difference showing on the scales: 950g claimed for this frame versus 750g for the S-Works model.
How does that manifest itself when riding? The complete bike weight is still just 7kg (6.35kg for the S-Works) and that can hardly be described as heavy, and while it doesn't possess quite the same immediacy and litheness of the more expensive bike, it's no slouch when the road points upwards.
There's also little difference to detect in other areas of performance. Generally, the Pro is as responsive and exhilarating to ride as the S-Works.
The steering is a highlight. The bike responds to your inputs at the handlebar really well, being neither too fast nor too slow when steering into corners and bends. It's a really easy bike to ride at pace and it takes very little time to get accustomed to it.
There's no lack of stiffness evident when sprinting for imaginary finish lines against your riding mates, and out-of-the-saddle efforts reveal a climbing ability that's on par with any other high-end race bike.
It's perhaps not the stiffest race bike on the market; there's just enough softness to ensure it's a very usable bike in a wide range of situations and at any speed. It used to be that a top-end race bike would be overly stiff and uncomfortably hard, crashing along rough roads with no ability to soak up vibrations, but that really isn't the case anymore. The Pro isn't harsh, and doesn't beat you up if the road surface suddenly deteriorates.
The new seatpost design certainly helps here. It provides a noticeable amount of saddle deflection – you can actually see and feel the saddle moving – and that really contributes to the wonderfully smooth ride.
There's also space for wider tyres: 28s will fit if you wanted an even smoother ride.
This is a bike you could use for any long distance ride (I did) or a sportive over unfamiliar terrain.
I was blown away by the performance of the S-Works Tarmac, though the £8,500 price tag also took my breath away. This Pro model, while not exactly cheap at £5,400, is a little more affordable, and there are few compromises in the ride. The differences are marginal; I'd say that unless you have the opportunity to ride both bikes side-by-side, you won't be able to detect them.
The Pro is the third bike in the new SL6 lineup, and Specialized hasn't exactly skimped on equipment. Shimano's brand new Ultegra Di2 8150 shifters and front and rear derailleurs offer exceptional performance, as smooth and precise as Dura-Ace and with the same ergonomic hoods as the more expensive groupset.
There's no Ultegra crankset, instead it's Specialized's own S-Works carbon fibre model, which certainly looks the business, fitted with Praxis aluminium chainrings. The crankset is certainly stiff with no flex detectable, though the slightly bulbous cranks can scuff if you have a slight heel-in pedalling style or are wearing bulky overshoes.
Shifting with the Praxis rings is flawless, and the 52/36-tooth setup is ideal for the riding this bike is intended for. Praxis also supplies the bottom bracket bearings – no CeramicSpeed bearings like on the S-Works model – and I had no issues during testing.
The new Tarmac switched to direct mount brakes, allowing a lower fork crown for improved front-end aerodynamics, and the new Ultegra 8010 brakes provide a very firm and reassuring lever feel. They're about as good as rim brakes get; it feels like we really have reached a pinnacle here with rim brake technology.
At first glance the wheels look the same as those on the S-Works build. The Roval CL50 carbon clincher rims are identical to those on the S-Works' CLX50s, but different hubs and spokes keep the price down. I noticed no trade-off in performance; the wheels are exceptionally fast, braking is excellent in the dry and respectable in the wet, and the hubs ran smoothly for the entire review period.
Specialized's own wheels continue to impress, then, but the S-Works Turbo tyres are something else. They are fantastic. They measure 26mm wide, have a 120 TPI (threads per inch) construction with BlackBelt puncture protection, and feel just lovely to ride. They're supple and smooth on any road surface, help to cushion you on rougher roads, and have a high level of traction in a range of conditions. The only downside to their awesome performance is that they do appear to wear rather quickly.
Specialized isn't shy in kitting out its bikes with its own-brand finishing equipment, and nor should it be. It makes some really good products so it all works and fits perfectly. I could happily have the Toupe Expert Gel saddle with its hollow titanium rails on every bike I ever rode again. It's supportive with just enough padding to dish out long-distance comfort.
The aluminium Expert Shallow Drop handlebar has a 75mm reach and 123mm drop and I found that ideal for riding, whether on the hoods or in the drops. A carbon handlebar might add a bit more bling and drop some weight, but I'm quite happy with a solid feeling aluminium bar and have no complaints.
The only change I made was swapping out the Pro SL aluminium stem for a longer one. Even the bar tape fitted feels lovely in the hands: grippy and slightly padded.
Buying a Specialized Tarmac has always been a safe choice if you wanted a very capable race bike. The latest changes push its performance and desirability on a massive step from the old bike, making it also a smart choice.
It's expensive, though, and perhaps not the best bang for buck buy. Specialized still can't compete against the direct-sales brands – a look at the Canyon website reveals a Dura-Ace Di2-shod Ultimate CF SLX will cost just an extra £400 over this SL6 Pro.
There's also Trek's brand new Emonda SLR 8 which, for £5,200, offers a full Dura-Ace mechanical groupset with Bontrager carbon wheels as another option.
These are all very good race bikes that offer exceptionally low weight and high levels of stiffness and comfort, and would suit any seriously enthusiastic amateur racer. I've ridden each one, though not in these specific builds and I've not had the opportunity to do a direct comparison between each, but I know it would be difficult separating them on performance alone.
And if your wallet can't stretch to the Tarmac Pro, there's always the £3,500 Tarmac Expert to consider.
Stunning performance and great looks, though perhaps not the best value for money
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Specialized Tarmac Pro
Size tested: 56cm
About the bike
State the frame and fork material and method of construction. List the components used to build up the bike.
The FACT 10r carbon frame combines the lightweight performance and compliance of our top-end carbon production methods with our Rider-First Engineered™ design that ensures every frame size has the same legendary climbing responsiveness and descending prowess you'd expect from a Tarmac.
S-Works full FACT carbon fork with a tapered construction provides incredible front end stiffness and steering response for instantaneous accelerations and high-speed descents.
A 52/36T S-Works alloy crankset is incredibly stiff, with a chainring grouping that's equally suited to big alpine climbs as it is to throwing down the gauntlet on the flats.
Frame: Specialized Tarmac SL6, FACT 10r carbon, Rider-First Engineered™, OSBB, clean routing, internally integrated seat clamp, 130mm rear spacing
Fork: S-Works FACT carbon
Stem: Specialized Pro SL, alloy, 4-bolt
Bars: Specialized Expert Shallow Drop, alloy, 123x75mm
Front Brake: Shimano Ultegra 8010 direct mount
Rear Brake: Shimano Ultegra 8010 direct mount
Front Mech: Shimano Ultegra Di2 8070, braze-on
Rear Mech: Shimano Ultegra Di2 8050, 11-speed
Shifters: Shimano Ultegra 8150 Di2
Rims: Roval CL 50, Win Tunnel Engineered, carbon, 50mm depth
Front Hub: Roval AF1 16h
Rear Hub: Roval AF1 21h
Front Tyre: S-Works Turbo, 120 TPI, folding bead, BlackBelt protection, 700x26mm
Rear Tyre: S-Works Turbo, 120 TPI, folding bead, BlackBelt protection, 700x26mm
Seat Post: S-Works FACT Carbon Tarmac seatpost, 20mm offset
Chainset: S-Works carbon fiber, alloy spider, 52/36T
Bottom Bracket: Praxis 6806 bearings
Chain: Shimano Ultegra, 11-speed
Cassette: Shimano Ultegra 8000,11-speed, 11-30t
Tell us what the bike is for
If you're obsessed with marginal gains and have the wallet to back it up, we made S-Works. But if you're obsessed with phenomenal performance but have a racer's budget - we know the feeling - look no further than the new Tarmac Pro with Shimano Ultegra Di2.
To get the weight around 950 grams, we utilized advanced aerospace composite optimization software to revolutionize the construction and layup of our new FACT 10r carbon. It's the most advanced material and schedule we've ever made - the shape, schedule, and material optimization allowed us to shed nearly 200 grams. That's right, a 20% reduction in frame weight - the perfect recipe for your next hill climb PR.
We then further improved our Rider-First Engineered™ technology to ensure that the new Tarmac is stiff and compliant in exactly the right places. With this revamp, we also updated the geometry - basing it on countless Retül data points and professional rider input. This enabled us to develop a performance road geometry that perfects the combination of a responsive front end and short wheelbase, delivering instantaneous response and optimal power transfer.
And while stiffness aids in the aforementioned, compliance must also be utilized for an optimal ride quality. That's why we designed a seatpost that builds compliance into the upper 120mm where clamping doesn't happen, dropped the seatstays, and altered the seat tube shape. We also added tire clearance up to 30mm, which translates to a 28mm Turbo Cotton on a Roval CL 50 wheel. This allows lower pressures for decreased rolling resistance, increased traction, and more comfort. Altogether, these additions still have the Tarmac riding like a true race-machine, but just takes a bit of the sting out of those road imperfections. You'll thanks us on your next long ride.
And while this is all great, we know that aerodynamics are the most important thing we can do to make you faster. Both our Bora-Hansgrohe and Team Quick Step Floors Pro Tour riders, after all, are demanding aero improvements on every bike. With this, the aero goal was to discover where we could essentially "add aero for free," by not taking anything away from the hallmarks of the Tarmac design. During the six-month iterative process, three areas were discovered where we could do this - a new fork shape, dropped seatstays with aero tubes, and a d-shaped seatpost and seat tube. The result? A bike that's approximately 45 seconds faster over 40km compared to other lightweight bikes in the same category. A speed savings that you'll feel when you're attacking off the front of the peloton.
The Tarmac Pro comes spec'd with Shimano's new Ultegra 8150 Di2 groupset with direct mount brakes and the affordable, yet impressively aerodynamic, Roval CL 50 wheelset with 26mm S-Works Turbo tires.
Frame and fork
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
Full carbon fibre frame and fork, lower grade carbon than used in the S-Works so it's a little heavier overall, but there's little impact in ride quality.
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
The geometry of the previous Tarmac was always well received in bike tests and by consumers, but Specialized has refined it, utilising Retul and professional rider input to provide a more responsive ride. The key change is a shorter wheelbase to provide 'instantaneous response and optimal power transfer'.
Another important change is that the new Tarmac is used in both men's and women's ranges. Previously, women were catered for by the women-specific Amira, but the Amira is no more. As a result of extensive Retul and professional rider feedback, there's now a shared geometry across the range with a greater fit range, the women's bikes only differing in terms of specific finishing equipment such as bar width, crank length and so on.
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
The bike fits really well, it's a good balance in terms of reach and stack.
Riding the bike
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
Very comfortable. You can fit wider tyres up to 28mm if you wanted to add more comfort.
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
Certainly did; hard to make the frame flex at all.
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
Very well, ideal for laying down the watts.
Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively Perfect.
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
The handling is a true highlight of the Tarmac. I think Specialized has got it about perfect for high-speed racing and handling.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?
There's little that could be improved really, it's all good equipment.
Wheels and tyres
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Oh yes.
Would you consider buying the bike? For sure.
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your overall score
I'm very impressed with the new SL6 platform and this cheapest model is a very complete package with one of the best paint jobs I've seen in a long time. The value for money aspect isn't the greatest, though it should be added this is a brand new frame that has been a long time in development. If you're not worried about value for money and want one of the best race bikes currently available, this is a cracking option.
About the tester
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: 10-20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, time trialling, cyclo-cross, commuting, touring, mountain biking
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.