When it comes to launching new race bikes, the folks at Specialized are fairly predictable. Like Trek, they seem to follow the same pre-Tour de France formula on timing, and even when faced with this year’s less-than-ideal conditions, that timing was only slightly modified. As many know, the Tarmac SL6 has been one of our favorite bikes and the base for many of our wheel and component reviews.
So, when the SL7 was dropped off at our doorstep, we had a few mixed feelings. At first glance, the new Tarmac SL7 looks as if the SL6 and their Venge aero road bike had mated. We wondered, did we get too much of the Venge and not enough of the SL6?
We wondered this because the last time we reviewed their aero-prioritized Venge (RBA, November 2018), we were neither fans of the aero handlebars or the harsh ride in the saddle. Additionally, the fork was also not as laterally stiff as we hoped and would cause a bit of brake rub as the pads would shift under heavy braking.
As is typical of most brands that sponsor WorldTour teams, Specialized couched the new “merged” design as a gift to the pro riders who would no longer have to choose between a climbing bike or an aero bike. So, what about the new Tarmac SL7?
The Tarmac SL7 bike we received is the Pro level, so it is constructed of Fact 10r carbon instead of the higher-end Fact 12r that comes on the S-Works models. Specialized claims the frame weight is 920 grams painted, while the S-Works version is 800.
The overall geometry is nearly identical to the previous version, and it is obvious that Specialized has found a general set of numbers they are happy with, because nearly all of their road bikes share the same geometry. The slight changes are to the head-tube length, which is 1cm shorter on paper for our size 54 at 13.3cm (same as the current Venge.) This is a bit misleading, though, because with the needed headset cap, the lowest stem position
“Specialized couched the new ‘merged’ design as a gift to the pro riders who would no longer have to choose between a climbing bike or an aero bike.”
The wheelbase remains the same at 97.8cm with a reach of 38.7cm and a stack of 53.4cm. The biggest changes come in the form of added emphasis on the aero refinement of the frame tubes. We’re told the SL7 has 17-percent less surface area than the current Venge while hitting the same weight as the current SL6 Tarmac.
The biggest change is the adaptation of completely hidden, internally routed cables and hoses. There is no steerer stop, which we appreciate, and if you desired, a traditional stem and handlebar are easily swappable.
While not as sexy as frame shapes go, perhaps the best news for the SL7 comes in the form of the updated bottom bracket. All of the SL7 frame levels will now have a threaded English bottom bracket, meaning no deciphering what OSBB (Over-sized bottom bracket) is and no more creaking bottom brackets. This also means that the Specialized’s own Power Cranks that used a 30mm spindle will no longer be compatible.
The bike has 41cm chainstays with more tire clearance. The bottom bracket junction remains a very similar design to the previous, but with slight refinements to offer the extra clearance. With no seatstay bridge, the new SL7 will be disc brake only.
Our bike is the only one in the line-up that runs a 1x drivetrain, which left us a bit disappointed. And, it’s not that we don’t think it’s a viable road option, just more difficult to validate in our local SoCal terrain that favors a fairly large range between the steep and sustained climbs with matching extended descending. To best achieve this, you lose the tight gear gaps that you want on a “race bike.” This makes pace-matching difficult in fast-group rides or races.
Our build uses the new 10-36 SRAM cassette with a wide rear derailleur and a 46T chainring. As a bonus, there is a Quarq power meter on our model, adding value and making it more training/race-ready. The SRAM Force electronic group is a great option, and the best part is, it is easily upgraded to a 2x system with a few parts.
As mentioned before, the aero bars are the same as what has been supplied on the Venge. There is a new stem design that very closely resembles the one found on the current Venge, but it’s been slimed down, with the 100mm version weighing in 45 grams lighter. The underside of the stem clamps the brake hoses and directs them into the gated and internally routed steerer spacers.
“…the Pro level is probably the way to go for most.”
Also new are the Rapide CL Roval wheels that feature different (front and rear) external widths and shapes. The rear wheel is 61mm deep, while the front is 52mm deep. The front is 35mm wide external with 6mm hooked beads on each side. This offers an exterior rim profile that is wider than our 26mm tires that measure 28mm. The rear is 27mm wide external and looks much more like the current Roval lineup with 2.5mm hook beads. The 21mm internal widths are the same and should be tubeless-ready (click here for the whole story on why they are not). Because the internal dimensions are identical, tire sizes remain constant front to rear, even though the external width profile is 8mm different.
The new seatpost also takes inspiration from both the Venge and SL6. The truncated aero post most resembles the SL6 but with a bit more aero depth. As you get to the top, like the Venge post, the new SL7 post has a position to house the Shimano Di2 junction box or, in our case, a cover plate. Atop the post is the popular Power short saddle with Ti rails.
On the road, the SL7 feels and responds like its predecessor. Cornering is predictable and responsive, offering lots of confidence even when pushing the limits. Out of the saddle, the bike responds to efforts instantly. In the saddle, the SL7 is a bit stiffer than the SL6 but significantly more comfortable than the Venge.
The ride characteristics of this bike have remained some of our favorites. The added benefit to fit 32mm tires with room to spare makes it even more versatile. With that said, it is still very much a race-oriented bike. This doesn’t mean you need to race it, but a confident rider with moderate experience will get the most out of it.
As we step back and analyze the new SL7, it’s clear to us that Venge owners will get a fairly significant overall gain if they make the switch. SL6 owners will gain some aero advantage, but ride quality is a bit stiffer in the saddle. For anyone that has been shopping for a new bike, the Tarmac SL7, or as we have been calling it the “Tarvenge,” offers a very balanced road race style with aero optimization. The choice to be aero- or mountain-optimized is simplified.
Also to note that there is no gender-specific sizing, and all SL7 frames are optimized for the frame size and range from 44cm to 61cm.
For us, the bike is a great option, and to be honest, the Pro level is probably the way to go for most. Yes, it’s constructed of a lower grade of carbon, but it’s only 120 grams different in total frame weight. If you choose the $12,000 S-Works version, you’re paying a premium for the badging and some fancier parts. There might be a slight uptick in performance, but we think it would be hard to quantify.
This may sound odd, but what got us most excited about the new SL7 is simply the fact that it has a threaded bottom bracket. Sure, marketing companies have pounded BB30 or PF30 into our brains for years, including Specialized, but the truth is, Press-Fit bottom brackets have been the single-most problematic aspect of any bike we’ve tested.
The SL7 is available in a variety of builds and framesets, starting off with a 10R $3000 frame and fork or $5000 for the S-Works version. An Expert will set you back $5000 with Shimano Ultegra Di2 and $7000 Will get you one of the two Pro models. A whopping $12,000 for either S-Works version with SRAM or Shimano top tier components.
The “Tarvenge” is born
Finally, a threaded bottom bracket
Nothing is really “new”
Weight: 16.75 pounds
Sizes: 44cm, 49cm, 52cm, 54cm (tested), 56cm, 58cm, 61cm
4 OF THE LATEST 2021 ROAD BIKES MODELS
Weight: 17.8 pounds
Weight: 17.18 pounds
Weight: 18.79 pounds
Weight: 980 grams (frame)