Specialized Tarmac SL7 2021: New edition eclipses the Venge with aero upgrade

Trickle down technology is all well and good, until it makes the initial product obsolete. Arguably, that’s what’s happened to the Specialized Venge.

Every Specialized release of the last few years has taken notes from the aero road bike’s design. Now, in its latest guise, the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL7 is considered aero enough by the brand that it’s all but eclipsed the Venge out of existence.

The Venge will still exist as a frameset, but with this new Tarmac SL7 (affectionately called the Varmac in the Cycling Weekly office), we wave goodbye to it as a built bike. The Tarmac SL6 will continue to be available at Sport and Comp level, for those who prefer the old bike’s ride quality. And make no doubt about it: the new Tarmac is different.

Team Boels-Dolmans’ Anna Van der Breggen and Jolien D’hoore training on the Specialized Tarmac SL7 around the Maastricht area in The Netherlands (©kramon)

A lot of the justification for the new, aero Tarmac SL7 comes from feedback from the pro ranks. They wanted the Tarmac to be stiffer, more stable and aero like the Venge, but to maintain the lively feel and climbing prowess of the Tarmac.

I had a lot of affection for the Tarmac SL6, in particular its blend of speed and comfort. When I rode the SL7 for the first time, ahead of any presentation or press literature – I wasn’t immediately converted, and messaged the brand manager to ask “have you made the bike stiffer?” However, after 450 kilometres on the new SL7, any reticence has ebbed away: I can confidently say that the Tarmac still holds a very firm place in my list of ‘favourite rides of all time’.

Specialized Tarmac SL7 aero treatment

The aero paintbrush has clearly traveled across the Tarmac, but it’s not accessed all areas.

Specialized says it used its ‘Free Foil Library’, backing this up with CFD testing, to define the best shapes to use.

The brand has developed the seat tube, seatstays, head tube, and fork blades. Add on the Aerofly II bars seen on the Venge and Roval Rapide CLX wheels – and the bike is a reported 45 seconds faster over 40 kilometers at 50kph vs the old Tarmac SL6.

We don’t have a comparison to the Venge, or data at slower speeds, but this very paired down diagram produced by Specialized shows that the SL7 isn’t quite as aero as the Venge (nor quite as light as the SL6) but sits closer to the Venge than the model it replaces.

Look at the seatstays against the outgoing Venge vs the Tarmac SL6, and it’s clear that the new SL7 takes after the Venge. The headtube is also bulbous at the top and bottom, with a taper in the centre.

The seat tube curved to meet the wheel on the old Tarmac SL6, but it’s now more pronounced. The downtube, interestingly, looks near identical – and that’s noteworthy with other brands, such as BMC in its latest Teammachine, beefing that area up.

The handlebar is an obvious update, and the SL7 has a new ‘Tarmac Integrated stem’, this comes with an integrated computer mount.

Integrated cables can make living with a bike, day-to-day, not a lot of fun, but the Specialized Aerofly II bars and Tarmac integrated stem aren’t among the worst to work with. There’s a plastic cover which hides the headset bolt, this flips off with pressure. On the old Venge models this came off too easily, but apparently this has now been improved.

There are no split spacers, so if you want to lower the front end (there’s 35mm of adjustment on offer), you’ll have to chop the steerer. That means I tested the bike with a full complement of spacers below the stem.

The seatpost adjustment is located below a cover, and easy to access. The SL7 also features an S-Works Carbon Seatpost, with an integrated location for the Di2 junction box, just like the Venge. Those running SRAM eTap can use a cover to hide this away; riders who prefer a simpler option can install an A-Junction at the handlebar.

These changes make the bike more slippery against wind resistance, but beefing up the rear end has also made it stiffer – an intentional response to the pro requests. Brand Manager Cameron Piper confirmed, “the new Tarmac has a stiffness/compliance balance that’s much closer to the Venge than the old (SL6) Tarmac)”.

Specialized Tarmac SL7 weight

Brands have been able to make aero bikes pretty lightweight for a while now. A size 56 S-Works Venge disc tipped the scales at 6.9kg, which is only 100g over the UCI weight limit of 6.8kg, whilst the last S-Works Tarmac Disc we reviewed came in at 6.61kg in the same size. Unless you’re the upmost of weight weenies, the margins were always small.

The new S-Works Tarmac frame, at the top level featuring the ‘FACT12R’ carbon, now comes in at 800g – up from 733g in a size 56 for the SL6 – with a built bike a reported 6.7kg; the size 52 model we have on test weighs 6.6kg. The SL7 Pro and Expert models come with FACT10R’, at 920g, coming in at 7.3kg and 7.65kg for Ultegra Di2 builds.

Specialized did reduce wall thickness where possible, but it hasn’t made weight a major objective, Piper comments: “if you want a lighter bike, you better hand in your racing license.”

Specialized Tarmac SL7 geometry

The Tarmac geometry remains as it was, the brand hasn’t messed with it, and it retains the handling characteristics which were known and loved.

“There’s nothing that sets the bar for handling like the Tarmac. This new SL7 has telepathic handling,” says Piper.

The size range continues, and Specialized says it offers ‘rider first engineering’, with tube diameters adjusted throughout the range to ensure those on a 49 enjoy the same experience as those on a 58.

The bikes are all unisex, with cockpit swap options available, though not necessarily as standard – something worth bearing in mind with the likes of the Aerofly II bars at £275.

Specialized Tarmac SL7 ride quality

During this early testing period, I’ve ridden this bike with both the Roval Rapide CLX wheels fitted, as well as a set of the shallower 33mm Roval Alpiniste wheels. The two sets were released simultaneously earlier this year and the brand says that’s ‘no coincidence’.

With the Roval Rapide CLX wheels, the new Tarmac SL7 rides a lot like an aero bike: sprinting for the brows of short, power climbs, there is no denying that it’s rapid. On our designated flat Cycling Weekly testing loop, it provided a heady dose of speed. However, it also felt to lack a little bit of the soft (rear end) touch that I loved in the SL6. I even tried dipping the tyre pressure down to 65psi, which is much lower than my typical 80.

Moving on to the Alpiniste wheels (fitted with identical tyres, and back up to 75psi), the SL7 is still a harsher ride than its predecessor, but for me, the wheel swap truly brought out the characteristics I’ve always loved: climbing felt like giving free reign to an animal that’s been in the confines of a cage for too long (or perhaps I’ve been spending too long in the four walls of my lockdown office), bends begged to be leaned into and there was still ample speed to be enjoyed on the flats.

Typically, reviewers make a decision on a bike on the first ride, but with the Tarmac SL7 it took me a good few rides to form an opinion. This bike is not like the last – Specialized absolutely has taken the stiffness and most of the aerodynamics of the Venge and partnered it with the quick-footed ride of the Tarmac. With the 50-60mm deep rims, the Venge characteristics shone through more, whilst with the Alpiniste wheels my old favourite Tarmac seemed to be the stronger presence. It’s likely that swapping the stock bars for a narrower pair would add to that expert handling quality even more.

In the set up I’d choose, the Tarmac SL7 – or ‘Varmac’ – had my grinning from ear to ear. Those partial to the ride of the Venge but just seeking a small reduction in weight might love the deeper rim set up. Regardless, this bike certainly still holds a very strong position in my ‘best bikes of all time’ list.

Specialized Tarmac SL7 specs and prices

The new Tarmac SL7 has clearance for tyres up to 32mm wide, though the bikes come specced with 26mm rubber, with clinchers being the name of the game for Specialized – a choice that goes against the popular tubeless direction of travel.

All of the bikes use a threaded bottom bracket – something that will no doubt please home mechanics all over the world.

The top end models come with SRAM Red eTap AXS, or Shimano Dura Ace Di2, and either a SRAM/Quarq power or Dura Ace power meter – both retail at £10,500.

A step down is the SL7 Pro – of which there are two versions. Both have the Tarmac Integrated Stem and S-Works Aerofly II handlebar. However, one comes with 1x SRAM Force eTap AXS and a SRAM power meter (£6500) whilst the Ultegra Di2 model is 2x and has no power meter (£6250). The Expert (£4750) with Ultegra Di2 has the Tarmac Integrated stem but with Specialized Expert Shallow Drop handlebars, and it’s the first model without Roval Rapide wheels – instead running shallower DT R470 Disc wheels.

Finally, the Tarmac Comp and Sport have the SL6 frame, both offer Ultegra shifting with the Comp (£3250) using the Tarmac Integrated Stem whilst the Sport (£2500) has a standard alloy stem.


This content was originally published here.

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