I Spent The Summer With The Tour de France Winning Bike
Watching the Tour de France as a kid I remember wishing for two things: 1) that I was in the beautiful French Alps, and 2) that I had one of those stealthy-looking pro bikes that looked like they came from Lockheed—which, now knowing the rigors of wind-tunnel testing, probably wasn't that far off.
This was around this time Lance Armstrong released his best-selling book It's Not About The Bike, and I remember reading that cover and thinking, Easy for him to say; dude probably has a basement or hangar full of fancy bikes. No book was going to tell me not to evict those bikes the Gerolsteiner guys rode out of my dreams.
Well, around 14 years later, that dream finally came true, as I got a chance to spend a few months with the 2015 Tarmac Rider-First Engineered S-Works—probably stealthiest-looking bike available.
This is Specialized's highest-end road offering—a bike that won the Tour de France, Tirreno Adriatico, Tour of Basque Country, Tour de Pologne, Vuelta a España, and the World Championships.
It had one difference, though, and one which many consider a step up—it had disc brakes put on. I was going to get to ride something better than the pros.
After picking up the bike outside the shop, a friend handed me a cigarette, because...well, I don't know really. But I thought of the old timers smoking their way up the climbs—to "open their lungs"—and decided to take that opportunity to see how obvious it is that smoking makes cycling harder.
Turns out, it's very obvious. I don't know how these people could have possibly thought smoking makes you faster. Cooler to the les femmes on the side of the road perhaps, but not faster.
For a few weeks, I decided to commute to work on the Tarmac, because, well, I could. If Ferrari sends you a Ferrari, you drive it as often as possible. (And it worked fine with my months-old Chuck T's, but we recommend Specialized's S-Works Road shoe.)
This Specialized's paint job was described as "murdered out," by an admiring stranger and it drew considerable attention on its own. Not surprising, given the bike has the same design language as an F-117 or SR-71.
Somehow, everyone knew. This thing crinked more necks than Kate Upton. I got a "Dude, nice bike," comment every few seconds. I caught an older woman, likely in her 70s, checking it out. Is subtle the new loud?
Of course, there were a few things that might have tipped them off. When the Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 drivetrain shifts, it makes a robot noise and then self-adjusts. Sure, it's only a matter of time before Skynet takes over the drivetrain, but I never messed with it—it was completely no-maintenance.
Wires, not tubes, going into the Di2 junction box under the carbon bars and stem.
Perhaps the brakes were the tip-off. Like every other vehicle with wheels, bikes are starting to steer away from rim brakes to disc. The power is only vaguely apparent if you've just stepped off of a caliper-brake bike, but if you got caught in the rain like I did, you can still stop without being afraid of sliding into the intersection and an impromptu game of Frogger.
Shimano had to make its levers a little larger to accommodate the reservoir of hydraulic fluid. I never had a problem, which was good, because I don't know how to wrench that stuff. Yet.
With the direction of bicycle brakes, it looks like we're all going to be in that world; it's only a matter of time.
Specialized calls this bike the Rider-First Engineered Tarmac, which developed from Specialized's relationship with McLaren. Yes, that McLaren. Decoding that from marketing speak, that means it didn't just scale the design for large and small frames from the mid-size blueprints, but rather designed each size specifically. Rider-First Engineering starts at the $4,000 Tarmac Expert, but if you don't have that budget, the lower-end Tarmacs are still rad.
Since I would never have any reason to ride anything other than a size large bike (57-58 centimeters), that didn't mean too much to me. What I could and did notice was a stiff bike that didn't seem to flex under strain, in part thanks to that massive bottom bracket area.
Stiffness, the biggest buzzword in cycling today, was great, but what impressed me more was the handling and comfort. The Tarmac cornered really well and never fought against me. While accounts of bike handling typically devolve into nebulous description, comfort does not.
Since Niki Terpstra won Paris-Roubaix this year on a Specialized—the Roubaix model—I figured I'd hit every bit of cobbles I could find in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. I went over some nasty stuff and the bike dealt with it fine, diminishing vibrations, even with pavement tire pressures (you're supposed to let out air for cobbles).
The included wheels and tires definitely kept things smooth and light. The Roval Rapide CLX 40 SCS disc wheels kept the bike weight down, even with the heavier disc system. They're also black and carbon, which keeps with the government-issue color scheme.
The cobbles in Manhattan make Roubaix cobbles look like pavement. Specialized's supple S-Works Turbo 24-millimeter tires are regarded as some of the best in the business, but I have to believe it was luck that they survived the New York pavé. They ain't Gatorskins. These stones have syringes instead of mortar.
While finishing up our photo shoot, one man asked me where he could "buy raffle tickets" for the bike. I could only laugh a little bit.
For a bike that barely has any metal in it, I'd say it's pretty magnetic.