Photos of what appears to be the new Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL8 have emerged from a Soudal Quick-Step training camp in Italy, and safe to say, it’s not what any of us was expecting. A photo of several Soudal Quick-Step bikes is circulating WhatsApp groups of friends of friends whose friends are in a WhatsApp group with pro riders. The same photo has emerged on the popular WeightWeenies forum, along with another photo that emerged earlier this week.
Many had predicted Specialized would release a new Tarmac in 2023, but those predictions seemed a little less certain as the Tour de France kicked off sans SL8. Had the economic downturn and a slump in the bike market caused Specialized to halt its SL8 plans, might it have been different had Remco Evenepoel raced the Tour, did the UCI’s new equipment approval process snag Spesh’s Tour plans, would the bike still arrive at some point this year? It seems we now have an answer to some of those questions.
What we know
Truth be told, not much beyond what we can see in these photos. Specialized hasn’t commented on the existence of a new SL8. In a reply to Escape Collective’s e-mailed request for comment, the company sent the same statement it has to other enquiries about prototype gear spotted in the wild, namely that the company relies on feedback from its sponsored pro athletes “in both developing and testing advanced pre-production products in real-world applications … some of these design elements and products eventually show up in future retail product offerings.”
But the bikes in the images look production-level finished, down to a Soudal team paint job. While no new Specialized has yet appeared this year on the UCI list of approved frames, the UCI now allows pre-launch approval without public inclusion on the list. And while the photos aren’t sharp enough to say conclusively, the frames appear to have the UCI approval sticker on the seat tube just below the top tube. So based on these photos, it seems clear that a new Tarmac, presumably called the SL8, is now ready to race, with availability to follow TBD.
What’s even more obvious is the new frame’s clear resemblance to the existing Tarmac SL7 and the Tarmac SL6 before it. In fact, one Tarmac rider I shared this photo with simply replied, “isn’t that what we already ride?” One could be forgiven for thinking this is an existing Tarmac. On a quick glance, the top tube, seat tube and dropped seat stays closely resemble those from the SL7, while the down tube is very reminiscent of that on the SL6. There are subtle differences, but this is very much a Tarmac evolution rather than a revolution.
There is, of course, one glaringly obvious difference … that head tube. Many brands have recently incorporated much deeper head tubes into new frame designs to improve the front end’s aerodynamic efficiency. While technically, Specialized has done the same, the forward-swooping bulbous head tube on the new SL8 is a wildly different approach to aero head tube design.
While we haven’t seen a head-on image of the new bike, presumably in bringing the head tube forward of the headset and hose routing, Specialized can make the front end much narrower, better conditioning the flow over the head tube. It makes sense; it just doesn’t look great.
The SL7 has been a hugely successful and popular bike since its launch nigh on three years ago. Part of its popularity is that it both looks and rides well. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, arguably, the new bike (read, the new head tube) takes the SL7 and makes it look less good. I’m all for ditching aesthetics in a trade-off for much-improved performance, but it’s difficult to see how this minor tweak can deliver anything more than a marginal aero gain.
Sticking with the front end, the fork is the other major update to the new bike. The blades appear deeper and are perhaps more profiled than those on the existing SL7. In fact, the new fork bears more than a resemblance to the fork from the now-discontinued Venge line with a much deeper crown and a forward arching lip rising up to meet the head tube. Many had hoped the new SL8 might be more Venge-like and a dedicated aero bike, but the fork seems as Venge-like as the Tarmac will get. Cue the “Re-Venge” rumours.
Beyond that, there isn’t really all that much to gather about the new frame from these photos. On closer inspection, the top tube is considerably thinner than that on the SL7, perhaps an intervention targeting improved ride compliance. The downtube seemingly also features an extra bottle cage boss for an upper and lower bottle cage position.
Specialized has eschewed the current trend of taller bottom brackets and chain stays, both thought to improve stiffness and improve aerodynamics in combination with much thinner seat stays. Speaking of seat stays, Specialized does seem to have thinned the stays down a little on the new bike. The stays-to-seat tube junction now seems further rearward on the seat post and may attach even lower.
Interestingly, all fives bikes pictured here feature the two-piece bar and stem setup from the existing Tarmac SL7, with seemingly none of the riders opting for Roval’s new Rapid one-piece integrated bar stem setup. Furthermore, every one of those bikes has a spacer above the stem. While the most plausible explanation is that the mechanics have left a little position experimentation room to play with, this is highly unusual on pro bikes. Such “wiggle room” could hint at a geometry tweak on the new bike. Some WeightWeenie comments have speculated the additional spacer could hint at some form of Future Shock integration, although that seems much less plausible.
It seems Specialized has also developed two new seat posts. The bike closest to the camera features a setback seat post with front and rear clamp adjustment, whereas the next bike in line features an inline seat post (no pun intended) with a single-bolt side clamp a la the existing SL7. Both seat posts ditch the Di2 junction box port also seen on the existing seat post.
What we don’t know
With so few aero and visual updates, perhaps Specialized has instead targeted reducing the weight of the new Tarmac by implementing some of its learnings from the Aethos project. If the SL7 could retain the same aero performance of the SL7 and reduce the weight, that could make for an interesting bike. If that is the case, I’d have preferred the weight to stay the same and any improvement to come on the aero performance.
Time will tell, of course. I dare say Specialized hasn’t set out to make a slower bike, so expect some aero data when it gets round to officially unveiling this new bike. As for when that will be, I’d bet sometime around when Remco Evenepoel’s next big goal, which could mean as soon as a few weeks from now.
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