The Specialized Women's Tarmac SL6 Expert is a sound investment for anyone looking to buy a high quality bike that will perform in all areas. While the groupset and wheels keep the price below Specialized's top of the range bikes, the frameset itself is absolutely outstanding. It will satisfy any budding amateur racer, avid sportive rider or those who simply value and enjoy riding a really decent bike.
- Pros: Lovely looks, great ride, strong wheels
- Cons: Washing requirements... and only one colour choice
While the idea of women-specific geometry has been around for several years, it's interesting that Specialized is presenting its women's 2018 Tarmacs with frame geometry that is actually no different to that of the men's.
Specialized's Retul data source suggested that the only things that needed to be different for women were the handlebar, saddle and crank length. Makes sense really... if you're looking to buy a car you move the seat and steering wheel to suit you; if it still doesn't suit, you look at another model. There are no female-specific cars out there.
I felt instantaneously transported back to my race days when I first got on the Tarmac. Eight weeks later and the novelty still hasn't worn off, and I will be fiercely reluctant to return it. That said, for someone who doggedly rides an aluminium, full-mudguard bike in winter, the Tarmac could be nothing but 'exciting' to ride.
Without wishing to sound clichéd, it just felt right. Some bikes I raced on took time to get used to, requiring micro-adjustments from my normal setup to 'feel right'. Once I'd set the saddle height, set back and bar height on the Tarmac I was away – no tampering or minor adjustments, just spot on.
The Tarmac is an exceptionally comfortable, smooth ride. A degree of flex in the seatpost and 26mm tyres provide sufficient comfort for longer rides, and there is clearance for up to 30mm if this isn't smooth enough for you. The excellent Oura saddle made for further comfort; a great shape with a decent sized cut-away, and sufficient padding to feel soft but not too soft to sacrifice the racing profile and build.
The bike handles well on climbs, both in and out of the saddle, not surprisingly nimble thanks to its weight, or lack thereof. It feels remarkably stable and secure on descents and while cornering. As mentioned, my setup was easy to achieve, so this sense of security is simply a direct consequence. I took it across a five-mile stretch of cobbles, impacted gravel and stones, and the vibrations were far from unbearable.
Geometry & frame
If you are not in the market for a pure race bike, stop reading now. Specialized has worked hard to develop a pure racing frame with the optimal balance of stiffness, light weight and aerodynamics. I honestly think it has achieved this.
The geometry of the Tarmac is a direct consequence of statistics from the Retul database. Based on analysis of this data, Specialized concluded that there was no statistical difference for stack/reach and grip positioning between genders. There was, however, a need to accommodate for handlebar width, crank length and saddle preference. So with a 54, women get a 400mm handlebar, while men get a 420mm. I've always ridden with a 400, so maybe there's something in this Retul data thing.
However, look closely on the Specialized website at the dimensions for a Women's SL6 Expert 54 and compare them to a Man's SL6 Expert 54, and they are different. This doesn't tally with Specialized's 'no statistical difference' statement. Surely the reach on a men's 54 should be the same as on a women's 54, not 3mm more? Rather confused by this, I contacted Specialized and was swiftly informed it was a typo. Great to get a prompt response, but...
I was also surprised to find that the bike came with 170mm cranks, as the website states 172.5mm. Another typo, apparently.
That aside, as I said above, I was thoroughly impressed with how quick and easy it was to get the correct dimensions on my setup. I used to dread getting a new team bike and fighting to achieve a millimetre-correct position; the geometries just never quite lent themselves to hitting perfection and there was always some compromise, followed by a period of adjustment to a slightly different position on the bike for the season. It was novel to have a bike that only required a single spacer to be moved at the headset, and the saddle height and set-back to be put right. No change in stem was necessary.
As soon as I rode the Tarmac everything felt right, simply because there had been no compromise in my setup. So the dimensions of a 54 truly are tailored to the average person riding that sized bike; thanks Retul. Each frame size has been individually tailored for a rider of its related size, so a 52 is not just a 'down-scaled' 54. You can read more about all of this in Dave's article here.
The dropped seatstays are a distinguishing feature on the SL6. They look great and they serve a purpose. Two purposes, actually. The first being a lower seat tube, which in turn allows greater flex of the seatpost. I can't compare it to the SL5, but it's a noticeable improvement on all the other bikes I ride, though I think it's on the limit of what is desirable.
The second relates to aerodynamics. Apparently their lower position helps maintain uninterrupted airflow over the back of the bike. Specialized tells us that 'the seat stays on the Tarmac were also designed with co-optimized truncated airfoils and an optimized junction with the seat tube, which allows them to add additional aero benefit without any extra weight or loss in stiffness'.
Also noticeable is the narrower and less curvy tubing and fork. Personally, I think it looks great – slightly retro. Specialized claims that it adds to the comfort of the ride. The fork on the 54 is the V2, the middle of three different sized ones used on the Tarmac.
Tech aside, this bike flies down hills, and I am sure that I haven't put weight on. It's not just the effortless speeds it achieves but the smoothness with which it does it that impresses. You will be surprised that you are riding at the speed you are, it is so efficient.
Although I cannot compare it to the geometry of any previous Tarmac, the SL6 enables a super race position without sacrificing comfort during long hours in the saddle. It has the right balance of flex in the seatpost with rigidity and responsiveness in the front end.
Build & equipment
Unless you are lining up to race against the best in the world, Shimano Ultegra is well up to the job. So it's marginally heavier than Dura-Ace, but it performs perfectly well. Gear changing is smooth, and the mechanisms are all comparable to Dura-Ace. I had absolutely no problems with the groupset during testing.
Specialized says it has built the SL6 with a 'stiffer, more reliable derailleur hanger' to offer 'increased shifting precision because the hanger stays precisely in place when a wheel is installed/removed' and 'is less prone to bending.'
My personal preference would be for an 11-28 cassette rather than the 11-30 that it comes with; it feels a bit patronising that the men's comes with an 11-28 – especially as it isn't stated as one of the differences. Gearing is personal preference, though; no doubt some women will be happy with the 11-30.
The SL6 uses direct-mount brakes. The obvious benefit is the lower fork crown, which should improve aerodynamics. Having never used direct-mount before, I have been thoroughly impressed. I suspect this is the ceiling of rim pad performance; it certainly far outshines single bridge mounted brakes for smoothness and effectiveness. Braking is noticeably crisp and even at the levers.
Wheels & tyres
The Roval SLX wheels aren't the lightest out there, but they are a perfect compromise between performance and durability. They handled some very rough surfaces and cobbles exceptionally well. They lend themselves well to being run on lower pressures thanks to the 20mm internal rim width; many other wheels in the same weight category are marginally narrower here.
It's great to get a set of wheels that you know can comfortably take wider tyres and lower pressures, be it for comfort on the road or the need to push it on cobbles.
Despite the battering the bike has been through, the wheels are rolling as true as they were when I got it. They are strong and up to the miles that might be thrown at them. If you wanted to reduce the bike's overall weight, this would be the obvious place, but it's likely if you are racing you have a decent set of wheels for that purpose anyway; lighter wheels would only push the price up.
The tyres are Specialized's S-Works Turbo in a 26mm width, with 120 TPI (threads per inch) construction and BlackBelt puncture protection. A little bit of research suggests that they aren't the best in terms of rolling resistance, but I didn't puncture once during the two months of testing, which seems incredible given some of our roads and recent conditions.
They are certainly a smooth running tyre and offered some decent cushioning on rough terrain. Traction was above average in all conditions. Although I haven't punctured, I wouldn't want to push them through very many more miles as they have worn quickly; they look more like they have done a full winter rather than two months.
The paint job is flawless, but although I like the satin finish it is an absolute nightmare to clean. Dirt and oil that would easily wipe off a gloss finish smear on the satin finish to a cloudy patch, though certain cleaning products worked better than others.
Personally, I prefer the men's Tarmac Pro iridescent paint job. Sadly, unlike with the men's Tarmac Expert, which is available in two different colour options, there's only one choice for women. A bit annoying; you're screwed if you don't like it.
The Tarmac offers everything that you would expect when forking out £3,500: a beautiful looking frameset, a smooth functioning and reliable groupset, internally routed cables, an above average, tidy looking wheelset, and a flipping decent saddle. It really is the best bike I have had the fortune to ride and I would urge you to take a look if you're in the market for a fast bike, racing or not.
As good to ride as it is to look at – if you've the money to spare, consider spending it on this (and some decent bike cleaner)
road.cc test report
Make and model: Specialized Tarmac SL6 Expert Women's
Size tested: 54cm
About the bike
State the frame and fork material and method of construction. List the components used to build up the bike.
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 with tapered construction.
SEAT BINDER Tarmac SL6 clamp assembly
CHAIN Shimano Ultegra, 11-speed
BOTTOM BRACKET Praxis BB30 w/ Shimano conversion adaptor
CRANKSET Shimano Ultegra R8000
SHIFT LEVERS Shimano Ultegra 8000, 11-speed
CASSETTE Shimano Ultegra 8000,11-speed, 11-30t
FRONT DERAILLEUR Shimano Ultegra 8000, braze-on
REAR DERAILLEUR Shimano Ultegra 8000, 11-speed
SADDLE Oura Pro, 155mm, carbon rails, carbon base
TAPE S-Wrap w/ Sticky gel
SEATPOST S-Works FACT Carbon Tarmac seatpost, 20mm offset
STEM Specialized Pro SL, alloy, 4-bolt
HANDLEBARS Specialized Expert Shallow Drop, alloy, 123x75mm
REAR WHEEL Roval SLX 24 Rims, DT Swiss 350 hubs, DT Swiss Competition spokes, 24h
INNER TUBES 700x18/25mm, 60mm Presta valve
FRONT TYRE S-Works Turbo, 120 TPI, folding bead, BlackBelt protection, 700x26mm
REAR TYRE S-Works Turbo, 120 TPI, folding bead, BlackBelt protection, 700x26mm
FRONT WHEEL Roval SLX 24 Rims, DT Swiss 350 hubs, DT Swiss Competition spokes, 20h
FRONT BRAKE Shimano Ultegra 8010 direct mount
REAR BRAKE Shimano Ultegra 8010 direct mount
PEDALS Nylon, 105x78x28mm, loose balls w/ reflectors
Tell us what the bike is for
Specialized tells us, rather poetically:
'The Women's Tarmac Expert isn't just a bike that's born to race''it's a bike that proves you don't need to take out a second mortgage to have a luxurious ride. This Women's Tarmac will excel dutifully at every discipline of road riding, from climbs to sprints''put it through its paces, and don't be surprised that you're smiling at the top of the climb.
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 SLX 24 rim. 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 thank 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. Our Boels-Dolmans 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.
This Women's Tarmac Expert comes ready to race out of the box, featuring a crisp Shimano Ultegra 8000 groupset, lightweight Roval SLX 24 rims laced to DT Swiss hubs, our fastest S-Works Turbo 26mm tires, and a sublime Oura Expert Gel saddle.'
Frame and fork
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
Excellent quality all round, as you'd expect for £3,500.
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
*FACT 10r carbon frame (in comparison to the S-Works Tarmac's FACT 12r, the next/highest step up in the Women's range)
*S-Works FACT full carbon fork.
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
Finally, admission that a frame geometry does not have to be female-specific. The geometry is the same as for the men; the Tarmac is designed for a race performance ride.
Tapered fork construction for front end stiffness and excellent steering response, acceleration and high-speed descending.
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
I would normally ride a 54 and build accordingly – stem, spacers etc. I got a millimetre perfect setup based on that from my race days and didn't even need to change the stem – bonus.
Riding the bike
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
Exceptionally comfortable. Absolutely nothing felt wrong about the bike.
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
Stiff in the head tube and at the BB. Flex, just enough, in the seatpost.
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
Okay, so I'm not racing anymore but this outperformed any of the bikes I did have the fortune to race on.
Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively Neutral.
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
Great at any speed and manoeuvre. Genuinely felt like I should be back in a race peloton.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?
The one thing I am always reluctant about on an off-the-peg bike is the saddle, but the Oura Pro was absolutely brilliant. I wouldn't make any changes.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's stiffness? would you recommend any changes?
The wheels are solid. No changes required if you are going to be using the bike for sportives, group training and general riding, particularly in this country where roads can be rough. If you are racing then a different set of wheels may be preferred, though these would be fine for racing on too if your budget won't stretch to race wheels.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's efficiency? would you recommend any changes?
The tyres were surprisingly good. See main review.
Lighter wheels would make it exceptional.
Tell us some more about the drivetrain. Anything you particularly did or didn't like? Any components which didn't work well together?
It all worked perfectly well, but an 11-30 cassette wouldn't be my choice.
Wheels and tyres
Tell us some more about the wheels.Did they work well in the conditions you encountered? Would you change the wheels? If so
I took the bike over several miles of impacted ground, gravel/stones and cobbles, not to mention all the potholes and rough roads out there at the moment. The wheels are solid performers and will handle a variety of terrain. Unless you are genuinely racing on a regular basis these wheels are ideal; not the lightest but above average performance with a decent level of durability.
Good grip and not one puncture, impressive given the recent weather and poor state of our roads. Can't confirm or deny the '20% less resistance than others' claim on the packaging, but this isn't a top of the range tyre.
They are looking a little worse for wear now and have only been used for eight weeks. I wouldn't want to push another eight out of them.
Tell us some more about the controls. Any particularly good or bad components? How would the controls work for larger or smaller riders?
The bar is a great shape and the right size for me. If you've a narrow frame you may not be so happy.
Anything else you want to say about the componentry? Comment on any other components (good or bad)
Ultegra – sound all round and perfectly good enough for the mileage and needs of most avid amateurs.
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes
Would you consider buying the bike? Yes, definitely.
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Yes, already have!
Use this box to explain your overall score
This is an outstanding bike. It ticks every box for the keen amateur rider wanting to experience a genuine, high-quality race bike. The price tag is steep, but you are certainly getting quality that has stemmed from in-depth research and technology.
About the tester
I usually ride: Road My best bike is: Carbon road
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: commuting, touring, club rides, general fitness riding, getting to grips with off roading too!
Emma’s first encounters with a road bike were in between swimming and running. Soon after competing for GB in the World Age Group Triathlon Championships in Edmonton in 2001 she saw the light and decided to focus on cycling.
After a couple of half decent UK road seasons racing for Leisure Lakes, she went out to Belgium to sample the racing there and spent two years with Lotto-Belisol Ladies team, racing alongside the likes of Sara Carrigan, Grace Verbeke, Rochelle Gilmore and Lizzie Deignan. Emma moved from Lotto-Belisol to Dutch team Redsun, then a new Belgian team of primarily developing riders, where there was less pressure, an opportunity to share her experience and help build a whole new team; a nice way to spend her final years of professional racing.
Since retiring Emma has returned to teaching. When not coercing kids to do maths, she is invariably out on two wheels. In addition to the daily commute, Emma still enjoys getting out on her road bike and having her legs ripped off on the local club rides and chain gangs. She has also developed an addiction to touring, with destinations including Iceland, Georgia and Albania, to mention just a few. There have also been rare sightings of Emma off-road on a mountain bike…