Flying the Specialized Tarmac SL3 “Blackbird”

The Specialized Tarmac SL3 Superlight standing still gallery

Even standing still the SL3 has an aggressive lean to it. The muscular head tube, massive down tube, and arching top tube strung taught like a bow hint at a potential for speed we all dream of. Looking every bit like an air force skunk work's stealth fighter, the Superlight version of the Tarmac SL3 is a blackbird designed to fly. It dispenses with cosmetic carbon, paint... even clear coat to make it better, stronger and faster. This could be the Six Million Dollar Man's bike.

I won't pretend I'm qualified to discuss superbike performance in terms of vertical compliance and lateral stiffness, but the bike is responsively stiff. I described the sensation previously as "ruthlessly efficient". There's no apparent flex under power, no kick or bounce as you sling the bike left and right when out the saddle. My sprint tops out around 32mph which wouldn't keep up with a PRO cruising on his TT bike but at 176 lbs, I'm heavier than those greyhounds. When it comes to stressing bikes like the Tarmac what I give up in watts I make up for in sheer body mass ;-)

The massive front end of the bike

In any event, the Tarmac was unfazed by anything I did during our three weeks together, deliberately or accidentally, including falling off. By all accounts it was a spectacular ejection.

For a thoroughbred race bike the SL3 is remarkably comfortable. Handling is quick and precise but never skittish. Two years of design, prototyping and testing produced new shapes for the seat stays and chain stays. The former to improve ride quality and forgiveness over less than smooth pavement, the latter to improve power transfer. Clearly this works. Those of you riding Tarmac SL2s should notice a difference; the SL3 is 10% lighter and 18% torsionally stiffer than your Tarmac.

New chain stays efficiently transfer SL3 power to the Red components in the back

Weighing less than the UCI limit the Superlight featured Zipp 202s shod with S-Works tubulars; SRAM Red running S-Works 53/39 chainrings and an 11-25 Red Cassette; a rear derailleur tricked out with ceramic bearings; TRP 960 calipers front and rear; S-Works carbon bars; S-Works alloy stem; Toupe Team saddle and a very secure pair of Specialized carbon cages.

Specialized's FACT carbon spider and S-Works Chainrings Stopping power provided by TRP 960s with titanium hardware

Road bikes, and particularly carbon road bikes are in the habit of making the odd disconcerting noise. The SL3 was absolutely silent except for the smooth whir of the drive train and the positive click of the Red shifting. I have no doubt Specialized mechanics deserve credit for a bulletproof build, but the FACT IS S-Works 11r frame quality has a lot to do with it. You can find the full technical specs here.

During it's three week stay with Velodramatic the latest Tarmac got several comments from riders stopped at traffic lights and one surprised pickup driver.

Ten What?

I'm riding the SL3 home from work, waiting for the long light at Lawrence Ave to change, when I notice the driver of the pickup beside me pointing at the bike. He's fifteen feet away and its tough to hear over the roar of traffic.

He rolls down the passenger window and shouts "Nice bike". I nod and grin.

"How much?"

I pause to consider an answer then holding up both hands, fingers splayed... respond "ten!"

Puzzled, he mouths the words "ten what?"

Another pause... "Ten thousand" I reply and his eyebrows nearly shoot right off his forehead, so to make him feel better I add...

"It's not mine, it's a demo"

that appears to help, his eyebrows return to his head which he's shaking side to side "wow"

I sense the light has changed, give him a friendly wave and roll away, smiling to myself.

In actual fact the msrp on the Specialized Superlight I was riding is $9200... leaving him a full $800 for his first bibs, shoes, jersey and helmet. Now that's how to spend a perfect "ten".

Another angle on the Tarmac SL3

Having gotten a taste for flying the "blackbird" it sure was tough to come back to earth and give it back. This is great race bike in the unlimited performance category. I wish I had the legs to truly test its limits but that wouldn't stop me from buying one. In the meantime I'm hatching a plan to test the SL3 with Di2.

16 Responses to Flying the Specialized Tarmac SL3 “Blackbird”

  1. You know what – I like it. I think it’s the whole black matt thing.

  2. If I knew someone at the nearby Moffet Field air base I’d have tried to shoot the bike there in the doorway of a hanger.

    It rides as good as it looks.

  3. Stefan says:

    these new all curvy bikes look sooo horrible ;(

  4. Malk says:

    “smooth whir of the (Red) drive train”? Those Specialized mechanics are magicians.

  5. BR says:

    M – you mentioned the brakes as a factor in your (velo)dramatic dismount. Were the wheels the culprit or are those brake pads that effective? Cool looking bike and it must have been a treat to ride.

  6. Wheel/Brake/Pad combination is very good actually. The TRP 960s have plenty of stopping power shoe’d with Zipp pads (I believe). The TRP front and rear mechanisms appear to be identical and I’m used to Campy having a dual pivot for the front brake and a single pivot for the rear brake. In practice that gives the brakes a front bias.

    I think the TRP action on the rear wheel is just too strong. I’d cop to the charge of rider error, except the rear brake was so hair trigger in its action that I’m not sure there was much point having it on the bike.

  7. kurt says:

    Sounds like it may be time for ABS? Might as well add another function to the grouppo for the electronic age.
    The SL3 is very cool and the matte black just makes it look badass and ready for battle.

    It is a rare luxury to be able to test different bikes and components.

    Just had a near miss myself this weekend. At the end of our group ride, we had the usual “Peacock” called from the front.
    Their were actually four and everyone went into lockdown from a steady 20 mph. I was 4 guys back in a double paceline. My rear tire began to skid as my front tire rapidly approaches the rear wheel of the chap just in front of me. I ease my front tire to the right, as it closes in on the guys rear derailleur and I fear an entanglement is eminent. I am so focused on the tiny gap that seperates the two bikes that I cannot breath. As the gap widens after what felt like eternity my buddy Guillermo next spouts in his thick latin accent, “Oooh, Kurt I saw you on the ground”. We laughed together as the air returned to my lungs and the mood lightened. The peacocks and the Gringo escape unscathed.

    I think I am going to need to add some braking practice to the regime.

  8. vectorbug says:

    Almost all of the big S’s bikes this look really really great. Even the entry level mountain bikes. This is truly a velodramatic.

  9. Lee says:

    SRAM Red for the win! Light weight, serviceable and less expensive than other brands.

  10. David Irvine says:

    Even a humble mug plugger like myself cannot help but be astounded. This would do some damage to the “The Tab”!

  11. Jon Moss says:

    A spectacular-looking bike and a half. Stealth in action.

    I wonder what the radar signal is like? ;-)

    I’d never heard of TRP brakes before, so I’ve learned something new too.

  12. marek says:

    I see a really nice computer on your superlight. a perfect color combo. Could you tell me what is it?

  13. cdjug says:

    my next bike