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review

Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL7 Dura-Ace Di2 2021

9
£10,500.00

VERDICT:

9
10
Eye-watering price but an exceptional performance
Wheel rim profiles make a massive difference to aerodynamics
Impressive weight for a disc brake-equipped bike
Wheels aren't tubeless compatible
Top-end price tag
Weight: 
6,850g

The S-Works Tarmac SL7 Dura-Ace Di2 is one of the latest top-end offerings from Specialized that now focuses just as much on aerodynamics as it does on weight – or lack of it. The frameset has seen various tweaks over its predecessor, and when paired with aero components like the handlebar and wheels makes the SL7 a very, very fast bike indeed. This model comes at an eye-watering price, though.

Ride

When I wrote my First ride review piece I stated that this Tarmac SL7 was the fastest bike I had ever ridden, and I still stand by that. As a complete package this S-Works is phenomenally efficient and therefore fast.

> Find your nearest dealer here

Coming in a smidge over the UCI's minimum weight limit of 6.8kg (15lb), this 56cm S-Works is obviously no slouch off the line, so acceleration is very brisk and keeping up with the ebb and flow of the traffic in urban areas or on busy roads is easy.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - UCI sticker and size.jpg

Once up to speed, aerodynamics comes into play, but they seem to be far more important at much lower velocities than most aero bikes I've ridden. Some, such as the Storck Aerfast and Orro Venturi, feel as though they require less effort to keep moving as they get to around the 23mph mark; a lot of deep wheels create this effect too, highlighting the sort of speeds at which aerodynamics really start to make a difference. On the S-Works, though, that feeling kicks in at around 18mph. Once you get the bike up there it just rolls along, like you are always on top of the gear, and it makes for a very efficient ride and an impressive average speed.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - riding 2.jpg

It even helps when you come to a climb as you can hit the base of it using a lot less effort than you normally would, so you can carry the speed into the incline. Then, as the aero benefits start to diminish, that low weight helps you power to the top of the hill.

A lot of the aerodynamic bonuses are coming from the Roval Rapide CLX wheels, the front especially with its 51mm depth and massive 35mm external rim width. It's a similar sort of design found on the Hunt 48 Limitless Aero Disc wheels that I've been riding recently, a wheelset that is also unbelievably fast.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - riding 7.jpg

Alongside the low weight and wind-cheating design, the Tarmac SL7 also delivers on the stiffness front. Compared with a lot of the tightest frames out there, Specialized hasn't exactly gone for massive tube profiles to create the stiffness and nor has it gone for a wider bottom bracket shell that would use press-fit bearing cups located inside the frame. It has instead plumped for a threaded option, with the cups mounted externally.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - bottom bracket.jpg

Even with all of this stiffness, the SL7 hasn't sacrificed the comfort levels. It's a peloton-ready race machine, so don't go expecting a cosseting ride, but it's firm without any irritating levels of harshness.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - riding 5.jpg

I had the 26mm tyres pumped up hard and had no overall issues at all with discomfort in my hands or feet when riding for four to five hours at a time, but if you want to bring in a little bit more 'suspension' then you can exploit the Tarmac's 32mm max tyre width.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - clearance.jpg

As you'd expect, the geometry is pretty aggressive – there is no relaxed endurance front end to be found here or an upright riding position.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - front.jpg

This 56cm size has 73.5-degree head and seat angles and stack and reach measurements of 555mm and 398mm respectively, which gives quite a long and low setup on the bike. If it was my Tarmac, I would take out the 20mm of spacers sitting below the stem to really get the most out of the low position.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - head tube.jpg

The steering is quick, which makes the S-Works an absolute blast when descending. Very light, stiff bikes can sometimes feel a little flighty over rough road surfaces at very high speed, but the Tarmac never really does. The whole bike feels very balanced and thanks to the handling being very precise, you can carry a lot of speed into the corners.

You get plenty of feedback from the supple Specialized Cotton tyres, too, which really helps the confidence levels.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - riding 4.jpg

Overall, this bike really does deliver on all the attributes you'd want of a top-flight race machine: speed, stiffness, handling and comfort.

Frame, fork and aero components

The SL7 was officially launched on the 28th of July, and Mat wrote a full in-depth piece on everything that you need to know about the new Tarmac which is definitely worth a read if you are interested in the design and manufacturing that went into its inception.

I'll give you a brief run-through here though.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7.jpg

Specialized has its own wind tunnel – or the Win Tunnel as it calls it – and it's obviously a big advantage having the ability to trial designs in-house.

For aerodynamics it'll come as no surprise that the company has focused on tube shapes. Traditional aero bikes use quite large tube profiles to achieve the wind-cheating benefits. Larger tubes mean more material, though, and that brings weight increases.

The head tube and seat tube, seatstays and fork blades all use designs from Specialized's FreeFoil Shape Library, a collection of aerofoil shapes that it has developed.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - seat tube detail.jpg

The head tube, for example, has an hourglass shape, only being wider at the top and bottom to accept the bearing cups.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - head tube badge.jpg

The seatstays are dropped too, something Specialized has done for aerodynamic reasons right throughout its range all the way down to the aluminium Allez models.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - seat stays.jpg

The real key, though, is clean lines: everything that can be hidden is hidden.

From the front we'll start with the Aerofly II handlebar, which has been taken from the Venge. The bar has a very slim profile – it's almost three times wider at the tops than the front edge that is striking the air; not only is it aero, it's also stiff and, from my point of view, impressively comfortable.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - bars 2.jpg

Even better, Specialized has kept it as a standalone handlebar rather than an all-in-one system with an integrated stem. This means you still get the option of some adjustment.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - bars 3.jpg

The hoses and cables (or in this case wires) are internally routed through the bar and are held in position by a neat clamp arrangement in front of the stem before being fed down into the head tube via the spacers. This is one of the biggest changes I've seen to 2021 bikes, with many of those I'm currently testing following their own take on this design; it certainly gives a very clean looking front end.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - stem and spacers.jpg

Here you are only seeing the hoses/cables/wires again right before they are connected to the components.

The stem also has a clean look with a top cover that hides all of the bolts and headset gubbins. There are three options that come with the bike that will work with various builds, mechanical or electronic, and one that will work with a standard stem plus round spacers should you not want to trim the steerer straight away.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - stem.jpg

The seatpost hasn't been neglected either. It has a teardrop shape to it with a flattened rear to match the seat tube and there is no clamp as such: the Tarmac uses an expanding wedge design sat under the rubber cover on the top tube.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - seat post.jpg

The seatpost also houses the Di2 junction box at the rear.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - charging port.jpg

When it comes to material, the S-Works models use the top end FACT 12r carbon fibre grade, while others lower in the range use FACT 10r. The main difference between the two is weight, as both use the same tubing profiles and have corresponding stiffness levels.

FACT 12r uses less material to achieve this stiffness, so it's a lighter build by around 15% – around 800g, give or take.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - frame detail.jpg

Specialized offers the Tarmac in a decent range of sizes from 44cm through to 61cm, which equates to top tube lengths of 496mm to 595mm. The S-Works also comes in two colours, red/black with white decals, or this rather subdued natural carbon finish which has a bit of a silver/green finish to it when it catches the sunlight.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - down tube.jpg

Everything else spec-wise about the frame is exactly as you'd expect really: flat mounts for the disc callipers and 12mm thru-axles front and rear.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - front hub.jpg

Groupset

Other than the special edition Sagan bike, this is pretty much the flagship of the Tarmac SL7 range, so it's no surprise to see a full Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 groupset, with a power meter included.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - powermeter.jpg

Not only is it a beautiful looking gear system, you also can't fault the performance. The changes are fast and crisp, and the large buttons on the lever make sure you don't fudge a critical shift in the heat of the moment.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - lever.jpg

Can you tell the difference between this and Ultegra Di2? Barely – unless you are riding the two side by side, which I am lucky enough to have done, and then you find that Dura-Ace is just a little bit quicker and shifts a smidgen better under load.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - front mech.jpg

Gear-wise Spesh has gone for a 52/36-tooth chainset paired to an 11-30T cassette, which gives a good balance of gears right across the range. While it is a pro-level bike that's probably more used to seeing a 53/39T chainset and a closer ratio cassette, for us mere mortals this setup works well.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - drivetrain.jpg

I have to say, if it was my money I'd go for the eTap model for the same money. I love the ratios found on SRAM's latest 12-speed groupsets, which I talked about in my Vitus Vitesse Evo Team and Canyon Endurace CF SLX Disc 8.0 reviews.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - cassette.jpg

On the odd occasion that you need to slow the SL7 down, you'll find that the hydraulic setup is absolutely brilliant. Its 160mm front disc and 140mm rear offer plenty of stopping power.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - rear disc brake.jpg

The rotors can be a little flexible, mind, so you really need to crank up the tightness on the thru-axle otherwise, like me, you'll get some rotor rub in the corners and also when they heat up. It was most noticeable for me when I was stuck behind a tractor and trailer on a downhill and needed to drag the front brake a bit.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - front disc brake.jpg

That aside, it's the usual thing from Shimano's braking components: loads of power but with loads of modulation whether wet or dry. The way I ride makes me a very heavy late braker and I've never locked up a front wheel in my life, even in the wet. The feel and feedback from the levers here mean that'll remain the case even with the amount of power you have at your fingertips.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - bars 4.jpg

Wheels and tyres

I touched on the wheels earlier. The Roval Rapide CLXs are deep and wide: 51mm deep and 35mm wide at the front, 60mm and 30mm at the rear.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - rim detail 2.jpg

The front is taking the brunt of the airflow which is why its shape is more pronounced than the rear. Both have an internal width of 21mm, which means they are still compatible with 25mm tyres, one of the most common sizes still used on race bikes.

The thinking is that the widest part of the tyre/rim combination needs to be about a third of the way back from the leading edge so therefore the rim needs to be wider than the tyre. It does look a little disconcerting from a rider's point of view when you look down and see all of this carbon fibre poking out either side of the tyre, but after testing the Hunts that I mentioned earlier, it really does make a difference to the aerodynamics.

One thing that some might find odd is that there is no tubeless compatibility. Specialized says that when the designers looked at what they wanted to achieve in terms of aerodynamics, weight, stability and ride quality, going tubeless wasn't possible.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - rim detail 1.jpg

Hunt managed it with the 48 Limitless, though, and while they are probably around 150g to 200g heavier, in the real world when I swapped them over there was no discernible difference.

Personally, on the road I can take or leave tubeless. On the gravel, yes, but on the road I'm not bothered about dropping tyre pressures for comfort. I like them high, and over the last 20 years punctures have been few and far between.

> What they don't tell you about tubeless

The Specialized Cotton tyres fitted here to the S-works have a 320TPI (thread per inch) carcass and they feel super-supple, even at high pressures – something you don't always get from a tubeless tyre.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - tyre.jpg

The compound used is impressively grippy too, and I really loved chucking this bike into the bends hard.

The super-smooth rubber used for the central tread rolls very well and wear rates aren't looking too bad either. It is cool to see some little dimples in the tread too, which will let you know that they are wearing out.

And finally... the saddle

It's a Body Geometry S-Works Power with a carbon fibre base and rails. I especially like the stubby design – it suits the kind of hard, powerful riding I found the S-Works kept egging me on to do, and its firm padding is very supportive while being comfortable.

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - saddle.jpg

Value

At ten-and-a-half-grand, value is a strange concept but let's just say that money is no object. How does it compare to other peloton-ready machines?

Trek has recently gone down a similar route with its Emonda, giving it an aero edge while retaining the lightweight frameset. The similarly specced SLR 9 model comes in a few grams lighter (claimed), but costs £9,700.

> Buyer’s Guide: 21 of the best and fastest 2020 aero road bikes

Liam is currently riding Merida's take on the aero theme, the Reacto Team Disc. It weighs in at 7.5kg on the road.cc Scales of Truth, but even with the Dura-Ace Di2 group and power meter it 'only' comes in at £9,000.

Overall

As a technical exercise this is one hell of a bike. It really does deliver the whole package. It's great to ride, super-fast with sweet handling, and thanks to that low weight and the excellent wheels all it makes you want to do is smash it everywhere.

True, it's a lot of money, but wow!

2020 Specialized Tarmac SL7 - riding 3.jpg

Verdict

Eye-watering price but an exceptional performance

If you're thinking of buying this product using a cashback deal why not use the road.cc Top Cashback page and get some top cashback while helping to support your favourite independent cycling website

road.cc test report

Make and model: Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL7 Dura-Ace Di2 2021

Size tested: 56cm

About the bike

List the components used to build up the bike.

Specialized lists:

HANDLEBARS S-Works Aerofly II

STEM Tarmac integrated stem, 6-degree

TAPE Supacaz Super Sticky Kush

SADDLE Body Geometry S-Works Power, carbon fiber rails, carbon fiber base

SEATPOST 2021 S-Works Tarmac Carbon seat post, FACT Carbon, Di2 Compatible, 20mm offset

SEAT BINDER Tarmac integrated wedge

FRONT BRAKE Shimano Dura-Ace R9170, hydraulic disc

REAR BRAKE Shimano Dura-Ace R9170, hydraulic disc

SHIFT LEVERS Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 Disc R9170

FRONT DERAILLEUR Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 R9150, braze-on

REAR DERAILLEUR Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 R9150, 11-speed

CASSETTE Shimano Dura-Ace R9100, 11-speed, 11-30t

CRANKSET Shimano Dura-Ace R9100, HollowTech 2, 11-speed, Dual-sided Power meter

CHAINRINGS 52/36T

BOTTOM BRACKET Shimano Dura-Ace, BB-R9100

CHAIN Shimano Dura-Ace, 11-speed

FRONT WHEEL Roval Rapide CLX, 21mm internal width carbon rim, 51mm depth, Win Tunnel Engineered, Roval AFD hub, 18h, DT Swiss Aerolite spokes

REAR WHEEL Roval Rapide CLX, 21mm internal width carbon rim, 60mm depth, Win Tunnel Engineered, Roval AFD hub, 24h, DT Swiss Aerolite spokes

FRONT TIRE Turbo Cotton, 320 TPI, 700x26mm

REAR TIRE Turbo Cotton, 320 TPI, 700x26mm

INNER TUBES Turbo Ultralight, 60mm Presta valve

SWAT Integrated cycle computer mount

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, "Why should you be forced to choose between aerodynamics and weight, between ride quality and speed? It's simple, you shouldn't. Enter the new Tarmac - climb on the lightest bike the UCI allows, then descend on the fastest. We've utilized our most advanced technologies, from our FreeFoil Shape Library to an all-new Rider-First Engineered™ frame, to deliver a race bike that is truly without compromise. The days of making sacrifices between "aero" and "lightweight" bikes are over''the all-new Tarmac is the fastest race bike, ever. One bike to rule them all."

It is a very fast and efficient bike while being extremely light too.

Where does this model sit in the range? Tell us briefly about the cheaper options and the more expensive options

At the top of the range is the Sagan Collection model for £11,000, then it is both this Shimano Dura-Ace model and a SRAM Red eTap AXS for the same price.

Below these come the SL7 Pro (SRAM Force eTap 1x at £6,500 or Shimano Ultegra Di2 at £6,250) and the SL7 Expert models which are £4,750. Two builds are offered.

Frame and fork

Overall rating for frame and fork
 
8/10

Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?

The build quality looks and feels to be very good overall. I find the natural carbon finish a little understated, even with the added green/silver colour run, but it is also available in a much more striking red and black with white decals.

Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?

FRAME S-Works Tarmac SL7 FACT 12r Carbon, Rider First Engineered, Win Tunnel Engineered, Clean Routing, Threaded BB, 12x142mm thru-axle, flat-mount disc

FORK S-Works FACT Carbon, 12x100mm thru-axle, flat-mount disc

Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?

As you would expect, the geometry here is race orientated with a long top tube (563mm) and a short head tube (151mm). The head angle is steeper than you'd find on most endurance bikes too (73.5°).

How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?

Height and reach is well within the range of what I'd expect for this type of bike and size. The 56cm has a stack of 555mm and reach of 398mm. This gives a ratio of 1.39.

Riding the bike

Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.

Overall comfort is pretty good for a bike of this style. The frame and fork are quite stiff but the supple tyres and comfortable saddle help out a lot.

Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?

Stiffness is excellent throughout the bike.

How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?

Thanks to the aerodynamic details and the low weight, this SL7 is very efficient indeed.

Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so was it a problem?

No.

How would you describe the steering? Was it lively neutral or unresponsive? Lively.

Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?

The handling is great. The steering is quick and very precise which makes descending at speed a joy.

Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?

The tyres bring a lot of comfort to the ride, as does the Power saddle.

Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's stiffness? would you recommend any changes?

All of the components tie in well with the frameset's stiffness levels. There is no flex from the handlebar, for instance, when riding hard out of the saddle.

Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's efficiency? would you recommend any changes?

The aerodynamics of the wheels give the largest gains.

Rate the bike for efficiency of power transfer:
 
9/10
Rate the bike for acceleration:
 
9/10
Rate the bike for sprinting:
 
9/10
Rate the bike for high speed stability:
 
9/10
Rate the bike for cruising speed stability:
 
9/10
Rate the bike for low speed stability:
 
8/10
Rate the bike for flat cornering:
 
8/10
Rate the bike for cornering on descents:
 
9/10
Rate the bike for climbing:
 
9/10

The drivetrain

Rate the drivetrain for performance:
 
9/10
Rate the drivetrain for durability:
 
8/10
Rate the drivetrain for weight:
 
8/10
Rate the drivetrain for value:
 
6/10

Tell us some more about the drivetrain. Anything you particularly did or didn't like? Any components which didn't work well together?

Shimano's top flight groupset can't be faulted for its performance, and the power meter is a bonus.

Wheels and tyres

Rate the wheels for performance:
 
9/10
Rate the wheels for durability:
 
8/10
Rate the wheels for weight:
 
8/10
Rate the wheels for comfort:
 
8/10
Rate the wheels for value:
 
6/10

Tell us some more about the wheels.Did they work well in the conditions you encountered? Would you change the wheels? If so what for?

Loads of aerodynamic benefits and they seem durable as well as coming in at a decent weight. The lack of tubeless compatibility will be a boundary for some riders though.

Rate the tyres for performance:
 
9/10
Rate the tyres for durability:
 
7/10
Rate the tyres for weight:
 
8/10
Rate the tyres for comfort:
 
9/10
Rate the tyres for value:
 
6/10

Tell us some more about the tyres. Did they work well in the conditions you encountered? Would you change the tyres? If so what for?

A really nice set of tyres. The construction gives a very supple ride even at high pressures, and the rubber compound offers plenty of grip.

Controls

Rate the controls for performance:
 
9/10
Rate the controls for durability:
 
8/10
Rate the controls for weight:
 
8/10
Rate the controls for comfort:
 
8/10
Rate the controls for value:
 
6/10

Tell us some more about the controls. Any particularly good or bad components? How would the controls work for larger or smaller riders?

I'm a big fan of the Aerofly II handlebar. It's comfortable even on the tops, and the shape of the drops isn't too extreme.

Your summary

Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes

Would you consider buying the bike? Yes

Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Yes

How does the price compare to that of similar bikes in the market, including ones recently tested on road.cc?

Trek has recently updated its Emonda to create a lightweight climbing bike that also now focuses on aerodynamics. The Dura-Ace Di2 SLR 9 model is a very similar build to this Tarmac SL7, although it is a little bit lighter and costs £9,700.

The Merida Reacto Team Disc that we currently have in for test is another peloton-ready bike and comes with the same groupset. It's heavier at 7.5kg, but is priced at just £9,000.

Rate the bike overall for performance:
 
9/10
Rate the bike overall for value:
 
5/10

Use this box to explain your overall score

In this build the S-Works Tarmac SL7 is phenomenal when it comes to speed, stiffness and handling. Yes, it is a big outlay, and more than some of the competitors, but it's still an exceptional bike – I can't give it less than 9.

Overall rating: 9/10

About the tester

Age: 41  Height: 180cm  Weight: 76kg

I usually ride: This month's test bike  My best bike is: B'Twin Ultra CF draped in the latest bling test components

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: time trialling, commuting, club rides, sportives, fixed/singlespeed,

With 20 years of road cycling and over 150,000 miles in his legs it's safe to say Stu is happiest when on the bike whatever the weather. Since writing his first review for road.cc back in 2009 he has also had a career in engineering including 3D-CAD design and product development, so has a real passion for all of the latest technology coming through in the industry but is also a sucker for a classic steel frame, skinny tyres, rim brakes and a damn good paintjob.
His fascination with gravel bikes is getting out of control too!

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