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First Ride: 2015 Specialized Tarmac S-Works

Specialized's redesigned Tarmac will offer disc brakes and size-specific ride tuning

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SANTA CRUZ, California (VN) — Since Specialized’s first carbon road frame left the mold, the Morgan Hill, California-based builder’s motto has been, “stiffer, lighter, faster.” Now, when it comes to the Tarmac road bike, Specialized is just talking about making it “better.”

When it came time for the Specialized team to re-design the Tarmac, already a hit in the road racing world, the team took its time. It had to, as the Specialized Tarmac SL4 is already one of the most highly regarded all-around road bikes on the market. So what did the designers change when it came to the new Tarmac? They sought to make every size of the brand’s flagship road model feel more like what a Tarmac should.

Unfortunately, riders who are on the outside of a size range of bicycles — anyone who needs 49cm or 61cm frames — often get the shaft when it comes to the ride characteristics of their bikes. Bikes and components are, for the most part, designed around a test sample. In the case the Tarmac, it’s been designed around the most popular size, the 56cm.

For the 2015 Tarmac, Specialized claims it set standards for and treated every size as a unique engineering project. Different sizes were not just given altered standards from the 56cm frame. Instead, Specialized used new testing approaches with the help of partner McLaren, seeking to quantify the handling and ride characteristics of the smaller and larger sizes. Specialized wouldn’t share the details of the testing beyond that, but said it hopes to give every size Tarmac that secret sauce feeling that the 56cm has, whether it’s going uphill, downhill, cornering, or sprinting. Specialized calls this approach “Rider-First Engineered.” At its core, it means that each size is designed to hit certain ride quality targets, rather than simply being an upsized or downsized version of the 56cm.

View a detailed gallery of the 2015 Specialized Tarmac >>

The 2015 Tarmac sees two major visual changes. The new Tarmac loses the SL suffix. Despite the speculation that this model would be dubbed the SL5, it is simply known as the Tarmac from the Expert level up through the S-Works and S-Works+McLaren models. Only these models will receive the redesigned, Rider-First Engineered frames. The models below the Expert Tarmac will maintain the SL4 design.

The other major change that the Tarmac sees is the introduction of disc brake models. It should come at the surprise of no one that Specialized wanted to push out its road race frame with a second braking option. After all, the Roubaix was one of the first mass-produced bikes available in a disc option. The Tarmac will be available in three disc brake options: a Dura-Ace Di2-equipped S-Works level with Shimano R785 hydraulic brakes, an Ultegra Di2 Pro Disc Race model, again with R785 brakes, and an Ultegra mechanical Pro Disc Race model with RS685 brakes.

SRAM drivetrain fans might be left wanting. Of the seven 2015 Tarmacs announced, only one model will come with a SRAM drivetrain: the S-Works SRAM Red model.

Details of the S-Works+McLaren model of the Tarmac are not yet available, but Specialized has said that a frameset is in the works. The McLaren Tarmac, like the McLaren Venge, will be very limited and retail for roughly three times as much as the S-Works frameset. Rumor has it that the S-Works+McLaren Tarmac will sport an integrated seatmast, which would be a very new approach for Specialized, but a seatmast does give engineers that much more control over the ride characteristics of the frame. The S-Works+McLaren model will likely show what the McLaren engineers are really capable of, when price is less of a factor.

First Ride on the new Tarmac

I rode the disc and rim brake models of the Dura-Ace Tarmac S-Works. On day 1 I rolled out on the Dura-Ace Di2 disc S-Works model. Initially, I found myself grabbing too much brake, as there is certainly a learning curve to the power that the Shimano R785 brakes provide. It’s enough power that at times, my 23mm tires were having trouble maintaining traction when I grabbed the brakes. Other than the stoppers, ride feel is familiar. The same high modulus carbon that Specialized used in the SL4 is in this frame, and as I ride a 56cm bike, the changes are small.

Specialized claims that the shorter seat tube with integrated seatpost clamp adds to vertical compliance, but without spending time on the previous SL4 directly before jumping on this bike, I could not tell a difference. It’s something that smaller riders, who generally end up running a shorter seatpost, might be able to appreciate a bit more.

On the second day, I rode the rim brake-equipped Shimano Dura-Ace 9000 Tarmac S-Works. Right away, I felt much more at home on the 9000 rim calipers than the day before. The hand position and the shape of the hood could be part of the difference, as I’m more used to the 9000 levers, though I ride both.

Both bikes felt like Tarmacs. They were fast and nimble, especially when I jumped out of the saddle or leaned them into rough corners. It’s hard to improve on something that was already quite good, and in my case, I wasn’t able to find any obvious characteristics — aside from the availability of disc models — that separated the new Tarmac from the Tarmac SL4.

Pricing on the new Tarmac has yet to be announced. We expect it to be comparable to the current models, meaning the Shimano Dura-Ace will retail at over $10,000. We look forward to long-term testing a Tarmac S-Works, and testing it at the Microbac laboratories, soon.

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