As the cheapest bike of eight in Specialized's Tarmac range, the base level Tarmac suffers in the parts specification stakes in order to make price room for a high quality carbon frame and fork. It's hard to fault its performance though.
Long established Californian bike brand Specialized have always followed the principle of allowing the technology they develop on top bikes to slowly trickle down to more price-accessible models. The entry level Tarmac gets the same SL2 FACT (Functional Advanced Composite Technology) carbon frameset as the Tarmac Comp, which costs £2500. Perhaps more significantly, it's almost identical to the frameset that the Specialized sponsored pro teams were using four or five years back. But does the cost-cutting parts package let it down?
This year's Tarmac range peaks with the £8500 S-Works SL4, with Shimano's Di2 electronic transmission. While the chassis construction of the SL4 may be slightly superior to the SL2 in terms of weight and stiffness, the more obvious variations to the average buyer are in the quality of the component parts. The base level Tarmac makes price room for the frame and fork by using far more cost-cutting parts than you might be used to seeing on a £1200 bike. They're all decent offerings that don't bump up weight too much, but there's no getting away from the fact that the Shimano Sora 18 speed gearset and a basic FSA crankset look a little out of place if you're comparing parts lists with the direct sales opposition rather than with other big name long established brands.
It's up to you to weigh up the pros and cons of buying mail order or buying an established brand offering from a local specialist dealer, but bear in mind that Specialized have a lot of R & D control over their bike packages compared to smaller less established brands so, when they boast about the construction of their frames, you know that they've already been used, abused and raced far beyond the capabilities of the average amateur rider.
The build of the Tarmac includes many features that have become familiar on carbon frames and a fair few others that are distinctive to Specialized. A long head tube makes for quite a high front end, emphasised by the 20mm spacer sat on the upper headset bearing, but if you like a lower bar position you can put the extra 25mm of washers above a downward sloping stem. Personally I used to like the cruising comfort of high, wide (420mm on the Tarmac) flat-top handlebars and levers when I had a few back problems but these days prefer a more stem-slammed-down posture as I rarely use the drops anyway. Both options are possibly on the Tarmac, but the combination of the head tube and upward-bowed top tube still makes for a lankier looking bike than some riders like. The curved top tube also leaves the rear brake cable sitting prone 10mm below the top tube.
The frame's 'tube' profiles are pleasing to the eye and undoubtedly contribute to a generally comfortable ride. Better quality wheels and tyres would improve this further: the V profile DT Swiss 1.0 rims and hard 23mm tyres (the harsher ride is the downside of the puncture-protection strip in the tread) are chattery on bumpy roads compared to the more upmarket wheels and tyres normally fitted to a chassis of this quality. I love the way the biaxially ovalised top tube form appears to flow straight into the rear triangle, and the slim slightly bowed seat stays undoubtedly add extra comfort to the back end, as does the small amount of vibration absorption in the carbon seat post.
A tapered head tube and massively oversized top and down tube junctures are created mainly to ensure precise steering and Specialized like to mention the way the carbon in the top tube and down tube wraps all the way around the head tube to create bulges for extra stiffness. The head tube on the more costly SL4 frame design has a smaller lower bearing than on last year's models, but a Tarmac SL2 has a 'standard' 1.125in upper bearing, 1.5in lower.
On the road, the Tarmac generally offers a level of performance that benefits from the classy chassis without being unduly hindered by parts compromises. Tipping the scales at a gnat's whisker under 20lb (about average for bikes at this price) it won't immediately give you an excuse for being left behind on the climbs, and the way the bottom bracket and chainstay form is constructed 'to optimise weight and stiffness' is noticeable when you get out of the saddle for climbs or sprints. The 32/24 spoked wheels (radially spoked front, radial plus three-cross rear) can handle a lot of power and bump abuse without flinching, despite their modest budget, while own brand Espoir Sport tyres grip slightly better than most other tough-treaded low budget offerings in the wet.
While it might be unusual to see just 18 Sora gears on a £1200 bike, the only moan that surfaced during the test period was related to the FSA Gossamer compact crankset: a subtle touch is needed with shifts under power because of the big jump between the 36 and 52 rings... and because the tooth profiles are not as clean shifting as on a Shimano drivetrain alternative. The big jump also means that more thought needs to be put into combined front and rear shifts... personally, I prefer 36/50 for this reason.
Braking duties are efficiently performed by the Axis DC 1.0 brakes and all the finishing componentry is decent quality house branded kit that does the job. I don't find Specialized's Riva Body Geometry saddle especially comfy, but the shallow drop bars felt spot on and I appreciated the gel padded bar tape. But bars and saddles are always going to be a personal thing.
If you don't like red bikes, Specialized considerately do a black Sport version, slightly better equipped, for £300 more. There are obviously loads of similarly priced bikes out there with better component parts, but everything here has a reputation for competent performance. The geometry is a fast reacting 73.5 degrees at the head and 73.25 at the seat (this varies slightly on the different sizes) and the 56cm test bike has a 530mm seat tube, a 565mm horizontal top tube reach and a lot of saddle rail adjustment.
Superficially flawed if you judge it by componentry. But you shouldn't. The Tarmac offers a great frameset that would be, and is, suited to a far more costly bike.
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Specialized Tarmac (2013)
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.
SL2 FACT frameset. DT Swiss 1.0 Wheels. Specialized Espoir Sport 23mm tyres. 18 Shimano Sora gears. FSA Gossamer 52/36 crankset. Specialized stem and shallow drop handlebar. Specialized carbon seat post and Body Geometry saddle. Axis brakes
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?
Relatively comfortable all-round speed machine suited to entry level racing, sportifs or just riding.
Frame and fork
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
Frame and fork are good enough to be at ease on a bike costing twice as much
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
FACT (Functional Advanced Composite Technology) carbon SL2 frame
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
73.5 head, 73.25 seat
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
Average reach, slightly higher front end than some
Riding the bike
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
Generally comfy, but puncture reinforcements in tyres don't do comfort any favours on rough roads
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
Stiff in all the right places
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
Superb power transfer
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? Lively but not nervous
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
Excellent slow and high speed cornering. Sprightly on climbs.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?
Bigger softer compound tyres would improve comfort, ride feel and traction. Close seat tube clearance might limit tyres to 25mm
Better tyres would improve descending confidence, especially in the wet
We've ridden lighter bikes around this price
Clunky front shifts under power
An obvious downgrade at this price to make price room for the framset
Wheels and tyres
Wheels peform well enough but below average for the price
Puncture strips in tyres make ride feel harsher on juddery roads
Tell us some more about the wheels and tyres.Did they work well in the conditions you encountered? Would you change the wheels or tyres? If so, what for?
25mm softer compound tyres would be a good first upgrade when these start to wear
Shallow drop bar very popular
Carbon seat post a worthwhile upgrade
Tell us some more about the controls. Any particularly good or bad components? How would the controls work for larger or smaller riders?
Not everyone likes the Body Geometry Riva saddle, but the shallow drop bar was almost universally popular
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? With reservations about the tyres and drivetrain
About the tester
Age: 58 Height: 181 Weight: 78kg
I usually ride: Merlin Ti My best bike is: Ibis Silk SL
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: cyclo cross, commuting, touring, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding, fixed/singlespeed, mtb,