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Review: 2011 Specialized Tarmac Expert

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Every year bike companies come out with lighter, stiffer, faster and more comfortable bikes. It seems impossible to engineer something that has such opposite qualities, but stiffer and lighter, but still comfortable to ride, it the ultimate goal. With the 2011 Tarmac Expert Specialized has created a bike with an impressive mix of these qualities. It’s no wonder that Team HTC-Columbia has chosen to ride the big S for 2011. Read after the break to find out more about the newest offering.

The Expert fits in the Tarmac line in the right spot for many riders. It has trickle down technology from the S Works model but the price is kept down by the componentry choices. This gives you all the handling characteristics you want without breaking the bank. While Dura Ace or SRAM Red along with carbon bars come on the S Works and Pro models, the Expert has Ultegra and alloy bars. Think of it as a sports car without the upgraded stereo or sunroof.

The Expert comes with full Shimano Ultegra components and Fulcrum Racing 4 Wheels wrapped with Specialized Turbo Pro tires. My bike came with two features that will not be available to consumers. First was the compact 50/36, and second is the blue color scheme. The Expert will come in Carbon/Neon Yellow or Carbon/Gloss White Red and in a standard 53/39 chainring.

As mentioned above, the Expert borrows some key technology from the S-Works line, the SL3 construction and oversized, tapered head tube. SL3 construction means the bike has a one piece chainstay and bottom bracket as well as internal ribbing in the bottom bracket and headtube. This design provides stiffness while also keeping the weight down. The front end also borrows the 1 1/8″ to 1 1/2″ steerer tube, which increases the stability up front. The end result is a bike without a weak link.

Along with the SL3 construction, tube shaping and size helps the Tarmac Expert put the power to the road. The bottom bracket is so massive that the front derailleur cable is routed through a small hole. The seat tube is squared at the bottom and becomes round at the the top tube to create rigidity where you want it but also helps stop road vibration from traveling up. The seatstays and chainstays are perfectly straight for rigidity and power transfer. The seatstays are narrow to allow for some compliance, while the chainstays are relatively short at 405mm for power transfer. This is another example of how the engineers have created a mix of stiffness and compliance. The downtube is also oversized and because it is a more conventional round shape rather than the aerodynamic shape some have moved to it has better torsional stiffness.

The bottom bracket is so large the front derailleur cable is routed through a small hole. Photo: A. Johnson

The stiffness of a bike is apparent in two scenarios, full on sprints and climbing. In both circumstances the bike needs to put every bit of effort into the road. In training and racing I found that the Tarmac Expert was easily capable of handling what I could give it. When sprinting for the line or doing all out intervals out of the saddle the entire bike responded with a solid feel. The oversized head tube kept the front end in line and the bottom bracket didn’t budge. When putting in a sudden acceleration, say having to cover an attack, the Tarmac Expert responds quickly. There is no lag and the bike jumps as you pour on the power. This is due to the combination of the large bottom bracket and straight chain and seat stays. The power has no where to go but the rear wheel, just where you want it.

What makes the Expert so good in all out sprints also makes is a great climbing bike. I rode this bike for five weeks in the mountains of Summit County Colorado. Loveland Pass, a 45′ climb topping out at 11,990 ft. was my default route from home. Staying in the saddle and putting out an extended effort you start to realize how important it is for every ounce of energy to get to the wheels. Unlike a sprint where your weight is more forward and your throwing the bike around, seated climbing efforts put all the stress into the bottom bracket and rear of the bike. Again, the bottom bracket, straight seat and chainstays deliver maximum power to the rear wheel. When doing big gear repeats or trying to acclerate in the saddle the Expert didn’t budge.

That stiffness at the bottom bracket and at the head tube creates predictable yet nimble handling. On only my second ride on this bike I felt comfortable hitting speeds over 40 MPH while descending on twisty roads. Leaning into corners I felt like I could set a line and let the bike do the rest. The stiff head tube inspires confidence that the bike will hold it’s line and it does. Minor adjustments are met with solid feedback rather than sudden movements.

The Tarmac Expert exhibits nimble and predictable handling. Photo: C. Johnson

The biggest surprise I had was how compliant the bike was. Colorado roads are a mix of chipseal, blacktop, cement and dirt and I took the Expert on all of them. You certainly aren’t fully isolated from the road, which is a good thing, but I wasn’t beaten up on long rides either. Rather, the bumbs and cracks you roll over don’t travel all the way to the seat or bars and you’re not jarred at high speeds. Riding on chip seal I could certainly feel the road vibrations but it was was muted to tolerable levels.

A small bit that was a highlight for me were the Specialized B.G. Ergo Alloy bars. The top section is flat, but angled upward slightly, perfect for when you put your hands on the tops when climbing. The ergonomic shape of the drops was also a natural fit for me.  The Shimano Ultegra performed well with crisp shifting and strong brake action. The levers feel solid and my hand wrapped around them nicely. I’ve really taken to the new shape well and being able to route the cables along the bars cleans up the front end nicely.

The Fulcrum Racing 4 wheels are adequate, but not outstanding. I found it odd that they chose Fulcrum over Mavic, Shimano or their own house brand Roval, but performance wise they are equal to the other brands. Other bikes in this price range have similar wheels, so it’s not a down spec by any means. For those that will be racing hard, especially crits, you may want to consider a stiffer wheel set for race day as I felt that the wheel set was the weak link when sprinting for the line. I did like the Turbo Pro tires that came on the wheels. They delivered a smooth ride and good durability.

My only dislike was the new Romin saddle, and even then I liked parts of it. The Romin was developed with input from the Pro Tour riders and the rear turns up just a bit. This is great for really setting yourself on the saddle to push the pedals. What I didn’t like was the width at the nose. I felt my inner thighs go up and down with every stroke. It wasn’t overly apparent, just enough to be bothersome. The nose is only slightly wider than my preferred saddle, the Toupe, but it made a big difference for me.

The Romin, on the left, was just a bit too wide at the nose for me, but I loved the upturn at the back. Photo: A. Johnson

One of the biggest question I hear is “which is better, the Tarmac or the Roubaix”? The answer really depends on your riding style and how you like the bike to perform. Both bikes have the same top tube length for a given size and can be fit the same, but the Roubaix has a longer wheel base due to longer chain stays and more rake in the fork. This makes the Roubaix a bit more stable, but it can still put the power down. The Roubaix also has the Zertz inserts and the zigzag in seatstays, which gives it more compliance as well. Before you think that the Tarmac is the racer and the Roubaix the cruiser remember this, when Cancellara pulled the double of Tour de Flanders and Paris-Roubaix this year, he rode the Tarmac for Flanders and the Roubaix for Paris-Roubaix.I firmly suggest trying out both models for yourself to see which suits you best.

The Tarmac Expert delivers at all levels. It is essentially a Pro Tour frame with mid level components to make it more affordable. Each part of this bike works in concert with the other. The Tarmac Expert wouldn’t work if you only had the stiff bottom bracket or if the chainstays were smaller. It’s how the bike performs in total that is most impressive. The technology put into the frame design comes from their top level, the specs are spot on for the pricing and the bike flat out performs. Dollar for dollar the Expert is hard to beat and at $3600 it’s not cheap but it’s still not half as much as the top end S Works. Find all the geometry, models and colors at www.specialized.com.

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12 years ago

How did you end up with a 50/36 compact Shimano Ultegra crankset?

Are the 36T rings available anywhere?


12 years ago

I bought the Specialized Tarmac Expert one month ago. I love it. Great bike!
Very sporty and quick, yet comfortable too.

11 years ago

I’ve been riding my Tarmac with full DA 7800 for a few months, and I am absolutely in love with it. I have ridden a Pinarello Dogma, Trek Madone, Cervelo Soloist, and none of them are anywhere close to the Tarmac’s responsiveness, stiffness, and ability to accelerate. It feels less like a bike than it does like an extension of my body. It is overall an AMAZING bike!

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