Specialized Secret Agent Assignment

The Tarmac SL3

OK, so I didn't get to carry a gun or sleep with a hot girl named Heavenly Rider but getting a chance to see a new PRO bike months before its official debut at the Tour de France was pretty cool. After swearing I hadn't been tailed and signing an electronic NDA in the lobby, I nervously put on the S-Works blindfold and let myself be led by a circuitous route to a holding cell deep in the bowels of Specialized's Morgan Hill HQ.

A bug sweep and polygraph administered by a heavily embrocated Belgian named Wout seemed to satisfy the watching security cameras because the test abruptly ended, a heavy steel door opened and I was welcomed into a brightly lit locker room to shower and put on the red overalls I'd be wearing for the duration of my stay. "Can I keep these", I inquired? "Afraid not, they're paper and they contain a special accelerant that flash incinerates when it comes in contact with outside air. "Oh, it's too hot to go outside anyway"... I offered looking down at my crotch and nervously zipping up.

In actual fact Specialized's Design/Tech center does bear a certain resemblance to James Bond's Q Branch, with all manner of apparatus for testing the two-wheeled weapons coming out their labs. My assignment was to photograph a brand new Tarmac SL3 build, smartly dressed in Saxo Bank Team livery, as it got its final adjustments and tweaks. This was the culmination of another two year project to improve and refine Specialized's flagship road racing platform; a few weeks later the bike would be under the Schleck's, Sparticus and Boonen, front and center in the peloton circling France.

At this rarefied level, every piece of carbon in the Tarmac's composition and every gram of resin that bonds the SL3 layup had been optimized through countless prototypes, machine tests and rider feedback. With so many accomplished riders on staff, and a daily hammerfest on the back roads of Northern California, they've got the equivalent of a Formula 1 test program even before sponsored riders provide their invaluable feedback.

The Tarmac SL3

In a well lit "build room" bustling with activity, engineers and mechanics, Andy Schiffer, R&D Shop Supervisor, took charge of the final build details: fine-tuning Red shifting; trimming/crimping cables; and wrapping the bars all the while fielding a constant stream of questions and requests from Product Managers looking for project builds of their own. Luc Callahan and Brad Paquin, lead engineers on the SL3 project joined in the discussions and I got some photos of them inspecting the headtube of a second SL3 frame with a fiber optic camera.

Brad Paquin and Luc Callahan inspect the inside surface of the head tube with a fiber optic camera

Using the tool Brad and Luc got an accurate picture of the FACT (Functional Advanced Composite Technology) details inside the frame that contribute to its exceptional stiffness to weight ratio. While we've all come to appreciate the benefits of optimized tube profiles and graceful transitions in advanced road bikes, Specialized has made significant advances further contouring, ribbing and gusseting the internal surfaces of the Tarmac's four monocoque sections to improve performance. Inner Space, the next frontier.


I kept shooting and pretty soon the bike was complete and ready for some glamor shots. We had about an hour before the lunch ride ritual when everything, and seemingly everyone stops what they're doing, kits up and rides out for an hour of high stakes (as in bragging rights) pedaling. If I were to sum up the experience of visiting Specialized I'd highlight three things.

Science. If you ride a Specialized bike you can feel confident there's real science working in the machine beneath you. Bikes like the Tarmac are not the product of tinkering and accident. There's enough pseudo science in sports equipment to put a man on the surface of Arizona if you know what I mean, but the engineers behind the stylized "S" really know what they're doing.

Creativity. This is a cool place to work, and the building is full of beautiful bicycles, many of them one-off creations and prototypes, not to mention cycling photography and art. You could definitely spend several days in the building and not run out of interesting things to discover.

Legs. The Specialized crew has the legs to rip most of ours off. They all ride and its a wonder any of them have cars and houses because I get the impression they're the first in line to buy the bikes they're designing and building. Happy addicts, every single one of them.

The Tarmac SL3 sporting a new pair of Roval SL-45 wheels

Oh, and the car. It's the creation of Robert Egger, who heads up the Specialized Design team. It was parked a few feet away from where Robert was working on a helmet prototype. Makes a very nice background doesn't it.

Fast forward to the present. I've got a matte black 54cm SL3 sitting in the garage for the next couple of weeks. SRAM Red, Zipp 202s, and trick TRP brakes add up to one super light rocket. It's more lethal than a flame throwing fountain pen. Thanks Sean.

17 Responses to Specialized Secret Agent Assignment

  1. william says:

    Looks like a great asignment, I’d love to have a snoop around in there…

  2. Jon Moss says:

    What a great assignment!

    I must admit, it’s a stunning bike to look at, and look forward to your thoughts. I guess Specialized and Trek meet head to head in terms of competition on the tour. I’ve got the former but never ridden the latter. Have you Michael?

    PS The car does make an ace background – what exactly is it?!

    • Hi Jon,

      Yes, I’ve ridden the new Madone, but not for an extended period. Good bike of course.

      Sean McLaughlin from Specialized has some info on the car for you in his comment below.


  3. kurt says:

    OK Velo!
    Thats it!

    Hangin’ in Portland with steel horse builders.
    Travelin’ with rapha on their summer Epics.
    Spyin’ in on the pre-launch of a real TdF screamer.

    It’s official you are having the best summer ever.

    I think I might be feeling, dare I say, envious for the 1st time in my life.

    You deserve all of it and thank you for sharing it with us, your prose are entertaining as well as transporting.

    The Roval wheels look new as well, very cool graphics.

    Interested to hear about your rides over the next two weeks.

    • It has been a great summer Kurt.

      I really liked those Roval SL45 wheels too, they looked great on the bike. Here are some details on them. I’ll see if I can swing a demo of them at some point.

      – FACT structural carbon rim co-molded with a welded alloy bead seat and brake surface
      – Carbon center, alloy flange front hub
      – Rear hub features CNC-machine alloy body; Swiss-made internals, ratchet and cassette body, sealed cartridge bearings
      – DT Aerolite butted spokes
      – 20/24 spokes. Radial front. DoubleDrive rear.
      – Roval titianium QRs
      – Wheels approx 1595g per set
      – QRs approx 106g per set

  4. Sean says:

    For those who are curious about the car, here’s a little 411.

    It’s a replica of an AC Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe hand-built by Rober Egger. Robert is the creative director at Specialized and lead the graphic and industrial design teams. The car is built upon a tubular steel frame with an aluminum body. Power is delivered via a 5 litre Ford V-8 that makes somewhere around 400 HP. Robert built the engine, but I don’t think he’s had it on the dyno.

    The car is street legal, but one could argue whether or not that’s such a good idea. It’s loud. It’s hot. It kicks you in the kidneys. It doesn’t weigh much and is utterly lacking in any manner of driver aids. It’s a “hands on the wheel and eyes on the road” kind of car.

    It’s also fast, nimble, and stunningly beautiful.

    A brief history of the car that inspired this creation can be found here. http://www.ultimatecarpage.com/car/2/AC-Shelby-Cobra-Daytona-Coupe.html

  5. BR says:


    The Daytona is the Holy Grail of US bred road racing cars for every gear head with the exception of the hard core Sebring Corvette circles. The replica’s are beautiful and a great tribute to Carroll Shelby. Roush Racing teams with Superformance of South Africa to deliver these amazing cars to mortals. For the non car guys? Google Weird Science :-) – same deal. Shelby America can build you one. http://www.shelbydistributionusa.com/CSX9000.aspx

    The AC Cobra in replica or original form is the most unrefined and raw road trip out there…427 Cu in, 4″ side pipes 24″ from the driver,etc.

  6. BR says:

    Michael…see if they have any 60 CM leftovers hanging around.

  7. veeral says:

    Hey Michael,

    Nice pictures. I have to say that car makes an amazing backdrop. Are you using any additional light, since the first pic is very well lit. I take it you used your 5D2, any chance you going to put any videos up from your shoot ?

    If you need someone to hold a diffusion panel, I’m more than happy to tag along on one of your adventures ;-)


  8. doniu says:

    Stunning pics Michael! I have a major soft spot for Specialized, especially the Tricross and the Langster series. Very cool to get a peek into where the magic happens.


  9. Christopher says:

    is this the first time you have had an extended period on SRAM and if so are you liking it?

    • Hi Chris,

      Yes, first time using SRAM period, and I really like it. The shifting mechanism is crisp and accurate, with much the same positive feedback I get from my Campy gear. Easy to learn, though I still miss the occasional shift on the front derailleur for some reason. I’d definitely give it serious consideration on a new bike even though I believe there’s real merit to Campagnolo’s separation of Church and State (that’s how I refer to the differentiated controls for upshifting and downshifting). I think I can thumb shift quickly through a series of gears faster than I can click my way through a similar range on the SRAM, but that’s just me. I like being able to swing the shifting paddle on the RED levers back closer to the bars when needed too.


      • Christopher says:

        I just made the leap onto the new 2010 Force (pun intended). I have been happy with the purchase. The shifting is quite crisp and the hoods have been quite comfortable even though they are considerably smaller than Shimano. I don’t know if I can go back to Shimano after my experience with SRAM. I have a feeling it’s Campagnolo and SRAM from here on out.

  10. Jay Batson says:

    So, I suspect you’ve been on a few wheels. An SL3 is in my future in the next couple of months.

    I’ve been wrestling with buying the bike with the Specialized wheels, or ordering it built with Zipp or Hed wheels – 404s, or the like. They’re more bucks, but I suspect probably worth it.

    If price weren’t a consideration, having ridden all you’ve ridden, would you stick with the Roval wheels, or opt for the Zipps / Heds?

    I’ll be interested to hear. I may not be back to visit your website as quickly as I’d like; if you could reply by email (entered in your form here), it’d be appreciated.


    • Jay,

      I’m going out on a road assignment with Specialized this week and no doubt there will good representation from the SL3 in the peloton. They’re all far better riders than I am, so I’ll note what they’re using and get their thoughts about wheel selection. I’ll be on the road for the next couple of weeks through the end of interbike. Please send me a reminder at the end of the month in case I forget.