Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Best of Specialized's S-Works - Tarmac SL4 and Venge

The day of impending change had arrived yesterday and the switch to the new S-Works Tarmac SL4 was made down at Ride Advice and I picked her up just in time for this morning's group ride around the river. There was a mixed level of anxiousness and reluctance with the change as I had just been re-tweaking the Specialized S-Works Venge and she had been performing so well since last Sunday's Age Division Champs at Chidlow, but I was still incredibly keen to feel the differences between the Venge that I had been riding for the last 18 months and this new Tarmac SL4.

The benefit of comparison that I would have is that I would be using the exact same drive train and wheels as these were transferred from the Venge to the Tarmac meticulously by the team at Ride Advice, who were a very helpful part of the Team attaining the Specialized sponsorship. When I picked up the bike, I had too look twice as everything looked brand new. The guys had done a superb job and this morning had people guessing whether or not it was a whole new bike. The Tarmac frame is a prize to look at too and the components coming from the Venge were a perfect match, a testament to Specialized's ability to create framesets that allow for simple and easy transference of components between frame types.

The most important thing, however, is how this new Tarmac would compare to the comfortable ride of the Venge? When I first sat on the Venge, I knew it was a perfect fit from the moment I hit the saddle. It required little to no adjustment (beyond the measurements taken from my Giant) so I was hoping the same would be true with the Tarmac and I have to say, I couldn't be more pleased. In fact, I would go as far as to say that unless I looked down at the bike, I would not have known I wasn't riding the Venge. For simple riding, the two are difficult to tell apart. Both are comfortable and both roll along the road with ease. That could also be testament to the new Specialized Turbo Blackbelt tyres I was riding on this morning.

It would not be until I put the bike through its paces that I would notice the differences that are touted by Specialized and I would have to say, they certainly know what they are talking about. I hit the first small rise of the morning and I immediately felt a difference in the way this bike goes up hills. It simply cannot be attributed to anything other than the frameset as the drive train and wheels came from the Venge. It simply glides up hills with very little effort by comparison. On the Venge, there is a level of "wrestling" that is experienced as I felt it necessary to throw the bike from side-to-side more. On the Tarmac, it rides very true and "on the line" as you ascend which I felt translated to using less energy for the same effort.

As the road levelled out, I felt a return to normality and I could have sworn I was back on the Venge again. I rode around the Burswood Peninsula and back to the shop to meet the rest of the group and set on our way around the usual river loop. As most of my riding seems to revolve around this area, it would make for a good comparison in disciplines from hill climbing, descending and sprinting - although the true hill climbing and descent comparisons would have to wait until I hit Welshpool Rd.

Rolling through in the group offered little to no noticeable difference between the two bikes. The Tarmac was just as smooth as the Venge and you could still sense that it had a lot more to offer. My position on the bike was a little more upright (probably due to the geometry and a slightly longer fork tube resulting in a higher placed stem and handlebar assembly) but no less comfortable and transitions between the recovery and working lines were effortless.

As we approached The Avenue, I was keen to test out how well this bike climbed something requiring a little more effort than my last experience. From the very beginning, the Tarmac simply came into its own, as Specialized say that it should, and it was noticeably more capable on the inclines than the Venge. Again, there was far less side-to-side movement allowing me to concentrate more on my forward/backward position while getting up the hill and the climb was done before I knew it. I felt that to achieve the same effortlessness on the Venge, I would have to have used a completely different gear ratio than I did with this bike as the stiffness of the frame became obvious.

I continued to put the bike through its paces along the Parade and Avenue until Claremont and it was simply a pleasure to ride. I hadn't really had the chance yet to see how well it would descend but I knew I would get that chance down Wood St and Kirkwood Rd in Swanbourne which included a nice left-hander to test the higher speed corner handling. Before we reached this section of the ride, I would get another chance to test the climbing ability up Shenton Avenue in Swanbourne and once again, the Tarmac was in her element and although this hill had me working a little harder, the ride was impressive.

I turned into Wood St and hammered on the pedals to get a reasonable speed up and then sat in to let the descent do the rest of the work as I was keen to know how the bike would roll. I know that the Venge descends with very little effort and can pick up considerable speed without putting any pressure on the pedals. The Tarmac was close to the same experience but I think the aero design of the Venge provides a more effortless descent. The Tarmac held her line very well and continued to do so around the left-hander into Kirkwood Rd but there was a slight difference to they way the Tarmac corners and I would have to attribute that to the slightly longer wheel-base. I was very surprised with how well this bike cornered but the overall descent experience was a little more pleasing on the Venge.

This led me to the first of the most important tests (in my book), the sprint. Port Beach Rd would be the perfect place to see how this Tarmac would compete in a sprint but unfortunately, a bit of traffic hindered any real chance to get out of the saddle and go for it so a true sprint test would have to wait. For what I did notice, the build up was fine but I think it lacked the sense that the bike wanted to you to smash it. The Venge gave me this feeling from the very first time I sprinted down that road which resulted in a completely unexpected Strava KOM. I would need to wait for Shelley to see how a sprint finish would be received as I was keen to get into TT mode on Burke Drive.

The Tarmac rode comfortably around the hair-pin bend at the top of Burke Drive and I was more than happy with the line that it held through the corner and the ease and confidence for which it got me though. Again, I thought the descent on to Burke Drive proper wasn't quite up there with the Venge but was still impressively quick. Time to tuck in, get the head down and put some strength into the cranks along Burke Drive.

Given the Tarmac has a slightly more upright riding position than the Venge, it was surprising how well the bike performs when you get the head down and put some power into the pedals. The position was certainly different but the performance was just as good as the Venge which surprised me a little given the somewhat more aggressive geometry of the Venge. I would have thought that would have lent itself better to this discipline. Certainly a big plus for the Tarmac to be able to keep the same measure and I felt no less comfortable during the entire stretch to the end - even when Drew Gibson decided he'd use me as a lead out and spoil my fun at the end (you'll keep Mr. Gibson).

The climb up Majestic offered another chance to climb but this time, I would be chasing another group that had a good head start on me so this would require an out of the saddle sprint up the hill. This was truly an amazing difference that impressively favoured the Tarmac, after all this is what it was built to do. Those that have ridden up this hill know that it starts relatively easily and slowly builds to a slight kick at the end. The Tarmac had no trouble with any part of this climb and allowed me to remain out of the saddle the entire time and the significantly less rocking of the bike probably had a hand in this. I kept the power on through to the Raffles and had collected a couple of riders on my wheel - I suppose they were keen to get a closer look at this bike. I don't blame them. It is impressive to look at and more impressive to ride (lucky for me, not so much for them).

After allowing the rest of the group to catch up at the Raffles (testament to the speed of the Tarmac, eh?), we began rolling turns through to the Rossmoyne-Shelley foreshore. Again, the transition between the recovery line and the working line was effortless although, in a race I would need to be more mindful of stepping right off the gas when reaching the front so as not to upset Singo.

As expected the pace picked up along the river side in Rossmoyne and once more, it was difficult to tell that I wasn't on the Venge. The ride is that comfortable. By the time we approached the end of Riverton Drive and approached the long right-hander that leads into the sprint finish, the pace had picked up quite a bit which left the usual contenders to compete for the sprint. I still wasn't feeling the same sensation I usually get on the Venge, but I could sense that there was still some significant kick in this Tarmac and was probably a little keen to get out of the saddle and put her through the paces of a sprint finish.

I jumped early and came around the two or three riders that had lead me around the right hand bend and the bike performed impressively well. Well enough to ensure that there was no argument on the result and I was still able to gap the rest of the group before easing off the power and rolling through to the cul-de-sac. While the Tarmac responded well to the power and the stiffness of the frame was helpful, I felt a little more in control on the Venge and I think that this again would be more due to the aero design and slightly more compact and aggressive geometry of the frame than the Tarmac. But the Venge is built for that scenario, which would also lend to slightly better performance on descents, and it was expected that this would be the case.

I can't fault the Tarmac though. It responded to everything I threw at it and was certainly impressive to ride when tackling the climbs. I am now even more keen to try it out up Welshpool Rd. The overall comfort of the bike is very pleasing and the handling in group situations is excellent. It's known to be a slightly lighter frame than the Venge although I think it is marginal and for me, I didn't really notice too much of a weight difference but I think this might become more apparent on longer climbs.

Overall first impressions are extremely good and I am now more than happy to have made the change from the Venge to the Tarmac. I think the Venge is still "the" machine for an all out sprint finish but the Tarmac will still be hard to beat in the right hands (yes, I do mean you Paul Foxwell). For everything else, the Tarmac is the goods. It handles beautifully especially on the climbs. It's certainly more responsive than I was anticipating which is a huge plus for a bike that is promoted as an all-rounder.

As a final comment in this review, I think Specialized have truly done their homework, not just with this Tarmac, but across their racing range. The Venge is a machine built for pure speed and it certainly lives up to that reputation, while in turn, the Tarmac simply performs well in everything you apply it to with a supremacy in hill climbing and handling. I'm more than happy with the change of bike and I would recommend the Tarmac to anyone who has their eye on a good all rounder. If you are a pure sprinter, however, then perhaps Specialized's Venge is the frame for you. With Specialized, you certainly have a great choice.

I will be sure to post my review on how well the Tarmac performs in the hills next time I'm up that way.


  1. Great post Charlie, Good luck with Team Unicorn racing. Reg

  2. Thanks to Stuart Passmore who rightfully pointed out [on facebook] that the frame geometry between a Venge and a Tarmac are in fact the same. I can only assume that the riding position differences I noted between them were a result of a slightly higher set stem placing me in a more upright position. Other differences would more likely be a result of the stiffer Tarmac frame. It will be interesting to note any change in comparison after a bike fit. This post was about initial impressions.