The Specialized Tarmac Expert eTap is a thoroughly rounded package, delivering great pace in all situations and an impressive level of comfort for a bike designed for racing. SRAM's Red eTap wireless derailleurs provide wonderfully crisp and intuitive shifting, but it's not the full groupset and corners have been cut on the spec list to accommodate it. Those shortcuts don't undermine the performance, though, which is just brilliant.
Let's dive straight into how the Tarmac Expert rides, as that is what's really important. It's here, or out on the road should I say, that the bike puts in a stellar performance, and any compromise in the specification fades away as the excellent handling shines through.
The Tarmac is a bike developed for racing, and the geometry leans towards the aggressive end of the scale. The 160mm head tube on the 56cm size tested provides a low front end, but Specialized recognises that many people buying this won't actually use it for racing, so there are ample steerer tube spacers for adjusting the handlebar height.
It's a rapid bike. There's little discernible lag when you stamp on the pedals – power transfer from the oversized bottom bracket and big chainstays ensures the bike shoots you down the road quickly with every push of the pedals. It's not as quick as the Venge aero road bike I tested last summer – an expected difference in performance – but it's no slouch in getting up to speed.
Power hard out of a corner and there's little discernible flex in the frameset. It feels taut, wound up and ready to propel you out of every bend. The tapered head tube and wide tapered top tube gift the Tarmac a high level of front-end torsional stiffness that manifests itself as sharp and direct steering responses.
Those attributes really help when you starting making shapes with the Tarmac. It's highly alert to your input, responsive at any sort of speed. It's lithe and precise at high speed, and through bends and corners the refined handling shines through. It's a bike you feel right at home on, with a neutrally balanced steering feel. It feels light and easy to move about, crisp and precise.
Under hard cornering the excellent Specialized tyres provide plenty of grip for confidently pushing the bike close to your limits, but the brakes – SRAM Force callipers on DT R460 rims – lacked the assurance I would expect of such a combination. A bit more bite from the brake blocks against the aluminium rims would give more confidence when making big speed adjustments.
It's possible to detect a small amount of flex from the DT wheels if you really push them, but it's within tolerable levels and certainly doesn't detract from the overall performance. If you're going to be racing then a set of stiffer aero wheels would undoubtedly unleash more of its potential. The DTs are durable, though, and a reasonable weight, and the aluminium brake track is a bonus in the rain compared with a carbon rim.
Feedback is good – you get a sense of what is going on underneath you and the road surface under the tyres, but you're isolated to a certain degree from the undesirable stuff, chatter from riding over corrugated roads for example.
Until recently comfort was low down on the list of priorities when outlining the design brief for a race bike, but the latest Tarmac feels fluid and composed over rough roads. The integrated seat clamp helps, offering increased seatpost extension, and there's a hint of saddle deflection during bigger impacts.
This latest generation Tarmac was introduced two years ago and it's clear the frame takes up a big chunk of the funds available for specifying the components bolted to it.
While the frame has the same outline and tube dimensions as the top-end models, this Tarmac Expert uses a slightly lower grade FACT 10r carbon fibre rather than the FACT 11r carbon used higher up the range. That's going to impact on the weight a little and possibly the performance, but by such small margins that detecting a difference would be tricky.
A Tarmac with a full SRAM Red eTap groupset costs £7,800, so to get this Tarmac Expert to £5,000 Specialized has been forced to make a few concessions. It's proven a tricky task for Specialized to compete with some of the smaller direct-sales upstarts that have really shaken up the market in recent years, so it's not quite a full SRAM eTap wireless groupset, but you do get the important bits.
It has married SRAM Red eTap brake/shifter levers and front and rear derailleurs with a SRAM S952 BB30 chainset, SRAM Force brake callipers and PG-1170 cassette. Those changes give a little away on the scales but pure performance isn't that far behind the top-tier Red groupset.
SRAM Red eTap is really good, and if you want to learn more about it you can read my review here.
The DT R460 Pro wheels are nothing flash but they are well made and durable, with reliable hub internals, and provide an aluminium braking track for all-weather braking confidence. You'd certainly get a boost of performance with some posher carbon aero wheels, and it'd be a worthy update if you're an aspiring racer, but for bashing around the country lanes I found the DT wheels competent performers. That said, it's hard not to look at similarly priced rivals with better wheels and not wish Specialized had been able to fit a set more in tune with the rest of the package.
Where Specialized gains back a few points is in the quality of the finishing kit; it all provides a premium ride experience and offers an enhanced fit. The wheels are shod with excellent tyres, 24mm wide S-Works Turbo rubber with BlackBelt puncture protection. They are fast and grippy and fend off thorns and glass well.
I found the Body Geometry Toupe Gel saddle a very comfortable shape, with generous padding and a little flex in the rails to provide additional vibration absorption. It's clamped to an S-Works FACT carbon seatpost with 20mm offset.
Up front, an Expert Shallow Drop aluminium handlebar has an ergonomic 123mm drop and 73mm reach, and the Roubaix bar tape is grippy whether soaked in rain or sweat and provides a little cushioning. The aluminium stem is a simple design with a four-bolt faceplate. I found it too short and swapped it for a longer stem to suit my fit requirements.
We put the 56cm test bike on the scales and the 7.3kg (16lb) weight is good if not startling – you can certainly see the opportunity to get it below 7kg with a wheel upgrade for starters. But it feels lighter than it is, especially on the climbs where it scales climbs with authority.
If you're in the market for a SRAM eTap-equipped bike – and we know it's a popular groupset this year, tempting even the biggest Shimano and Campagnolo fans – the Tarmac Expert is a good option. It's the cheapest way to get a Specialized Tarmac with eTap that's for sure.
But Specialized can't compete with some of the newer direct-sales brands, and if you're okay with your new bike arriving in a box and not getting the service and after sales support from a reputable bike shop, there are a few options.
German Rose Bikes will sell you the X-Lite Team-8810 with full SRAM eTap and Mavic wheels for £4,850, which is certainly a better specification for the money.
Canyon's Ultimate CF SLX 9.0 SL with full eTap and Mavic Ksyrium Pro Exalith SL WTS wheels is £4,499.
Another option – and one that is available in select bike shops – is the Boardman SLR Endurance, with full eTap and Zipp 202 wheels for £5,299.99.
You're getting a world class carbon frame with the same DNA as the bikes ridden by the likes of Peter Sagan and other top athletes, with thoroughly enjoyable handling and one of the best paint jobs we've ever seen on a road.cc test bike. Although on paper the Tarmac Expert is undermined by compromises in the spec, out on the road, where it counts, the performance really isn't: it's a thoroughly enjoyable and rapid ride.
Commendable performance, and a great paint job, but better wheels would make it shine
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Specialized Tarmac Expert eTap 2017
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.
FACT full carbon fork with tapered construction provides incredible front end stiffness and steering response for instantaneous accelerations and high-speed descents.
SRAM eTap, 11-speed shifters glimpse into the future of shifting. They communicate wirelessly with the front and rear derailleurs for a ground-breaking level of performance, while offering new, intuitive shift capabilities.
FACT 10r carbon, OSBB, full internal cable routing, internally integrated seat clamp, 130mm rear spacing
S-Works FACT carbon, full monocoque, size-specific taper
DT R460 Pro
DT R460 Pro
700x20/28mm, 48mm Presta valve
S-Works Turbo, 120 TPI, folding bead, BlackBelt protection, 700x24mm
S-Works Turbo, 120 TPI, folding bead, BlackBelt protection, 700x24mm
SRAM S952, Yaw BB30
SRAM BB30, 68mm, no spacer
SRAM eSRAM eTap, braze-on
SRAM eTap, 11-speed
SRAM PG-1170, 11-speed
SRAM PC-1170, 11-speed
Specialized Expert Shallow Drop, alloy, 123mm drop, 75mm reach
S-Wrap Roubaix w/sticky gel
Specialized Pro SL, alloy, 4-bolt
Body Geometry Toupé Expert Gel, Adaptive Edge design, hollow titanium rails, 143mm
S-Works FACT carbon, 20mm offset
Integrated wedge for Tarmac
Nylon, 105x78x28mm, loose balls w/ reflectors
Tell us what the bike is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about the bike?
Specialized says: "Where cutting-edge technology and value meet, you'll find our Tarmac Expert with SRAM eTap. Like the S-Works Tarmac iterations, it features a Rider-First Engineered™ design that that applies specificity to every tube size and carbon layup for every frame size. This creates the optimal balance of rigidity, weight, and responsiveness, so every frame, regardless of size, performs just as we intended. You'll also find an identical, Grand-Tour-winning geometry, plus a FACT 10r carbon fibre construction that's mere steps away from what you'll find under the likes of Peter Sagan and Alberto Contador. For the spec, we selected components that deliver the best bang for your buck, stiff, reliable DT Swiss R460 Disc Pro wheels, SRAM eTap wireless shifting, and a bevy of Body Geometry components that maximize performance by providing the utmost in comfort. It's everything you need to take your racing to the next level, and more than enough to bag some PRs on the weekend."
Frame and fork
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
There's no doubting the construction quality of the Tarmac, and the paint finish is one of the best we've ever seen on a production bike.
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
FACT 10r carbon frame, not quite as light as the more expensive carbon used on the high-end models, but gives little away in terms of performance.
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
It's suitably racy, as you'd expect of a bike developed for racing, but it's possible to get a comfortable position if you're not competing.
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
With a change of stem, I found it perfect.
Riding the bike
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
Impressively comfortable for a race bike, the extra exposed seatpost appears to help offer more saddle deflection.
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
It's got a very stiff head tube and bottom bracket and you can feel this in how direct and responsive the Tarmac is in the corners and descents.
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so, was it a problem?
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively, neutral or unresponsive? Responsive and direct.
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
It's a highly competent race bike with responsive handling and loves being hustled along the road, but is also right at home cruising at a more sedate pace.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?
The wheels are competent but don't really flatter the Tarmac's high-class frame and fork design, and the brakes were underwhelming.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's stiffness? would you recommend any changes?
A wheel upgrade would certainly unleash more of its capability and performance.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's efficiency? would you recommend any changes?
Just the wheels.
Wheels and tyres
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes
Would you consider buying the bike? Yes
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your score
It's hard to ignore the specification compromises, but if you can, the Tarmac Expert offers a lot of performance in a package that is well rounded and enjoyable to ride. There are better specced rivals for the same sort of money though, and it's that value for money that makes me award it an overall score of 7 rather than 8.
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.