When we see a Porsche Carrera flash by in the fast lane or an Audi R8 rip through some corners we think speed, technology and of course, money. While they do posses all of those things, to put them in a cycling category they would be nothing more than a high-end commuter. They are not racecars. Chances are everyone reading this owns a bike or two closer to a professional level race bike than any road car ever gets to a racecar. In fact, for about $8000 dollars and a trip to your local bike shop you can ride the exact same race bike as your heroes. No amount of money is going to put a McLaren or Ferrari F1 car in your garage for daily driving. This is one of the greatest features of cycling. We get to experience the same performance as the pros. Cycling is the everyman’s sport after all.
While we may get to buy an exact replica with the perfect kit and matching paint, it is of course, not actually the same bike. Those are busy being raced all over the world. This week they are being raced here in Northern Europe. It was also this week that I got an interesting email from Specialized, “Want to go for a ride on Tom Boonen’s Tarmac Sl4, the bike he raced at Flanders on Sunday?” I had to think long and hard about that for an eighth of a second.
While being 6’3” can make it hard to sit in coach and find bibs long enough it does make me ride the same size bike as Tom Boonen. Some of the folks at Specialized knew that and offered the bike for a spin over the cobbled climbs Tommeke raced, and won on, Sunday. As exciting a proposition as this would be I was eager for a number of reasons but the primary reason had to be this would not just be a chance to drive Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari during his hey-day, this was a chance to drive it exactly as he had set it up for one of the most important races of the year over that same race track.Boonen's SL4 with my 85cm saddle height and Time pedals in place of his LOOKs.
To be perfectly honest, this was Boonen’s number two bike and it rode the Ronde on top of the Omega Pharma – Quick Step car. But its spec and setup is identical to the one he raced as the bike would have been used had he faced a mechanical. This bike could very well be his number one bike at a later race. To that end, his mechanics requested I adjust nothing. As I ride almost 4cm higher than Boonen, this would have been tough. The mechanics just pulled Boonen’s seat post and saddle out as one piece and replaced it with another. This ensured saddle set back would be unaffected buy its less pedigreed passenger.The tell-tale Roman numeral
I’ve had a lot of experience on the Tarmac SL4 and it is an incredible race machine; stiffer through the bottom bracket and chain stays, while more forgiving to impacts at the front than the SL3. I often found myself drawn to the bike long after testing duties ceased. The Tarmac SL4 has a crispness and liveliness we have yet to experience with another bike.
As similar to the SL4 you and I can buy, Tommeke’s is slightly different. While it uses the same modulus carbon, the same design features, and is essentially the same in terms of geometry, it uses a lower Team Issue head tube. The 61cm I ride at home has a 210mm head tube. Boonen’s 61cm has a 175mm head tube, which is shorter than even a consumer 58cm bike’s head tube by 15mm. Unbelievably low considering his 81cm seat measurement. These guys ride a low bar height. Specialized used to offer Team Geometry on their frameset modules, but with the 2012 SL4 they lowered the head tubes considerably and discontinued the practice. Only the pros get the short head tubes.
Boonen also rides very long. The bike has a 58cm top tube, to this he adds a 140cm stem, for a whopping 66.5cm to his bars and only 57.5cm from front skewer to stem. Low and long for a guy pushing 6’4”. Zipp provides the cockpit, a Service Course SL stem, 44cm Service Course SL bars with a traditional bend and a Service Course SL Speed Seat Post.
Zipp also provided the wheels, 303’s. Incidentally, these are the wheels Boonen is scheduled to race at Roubaix. He has always raced box section aluminum tubulars, a pound heavier than 303’s, at Roubaix in the past. During testing this winter he discovered he could save almost 40watts over the old wheels. What damage might an on form Boonen do with 40 extra watts at Roubaix?
For Flanders he used a new Specialized designed and produced tubular. This is no re-branded VeloFlex. At 24.5mm wide it is a bit of a hybrid. During winter testing, both on roller drums and real world tracks they found it had incredibly low rolling resistance and knew they had a winner.
The 155mm Chicane saddle and 177.5 S-Works Fact Carbon cranks are the only other Specialized produced products on the bike. Other than those cranks, new SRAM RED is the group supplier. For those keeping score, it’s the third year in a row RED has won Flanders and the biggest win so far for the new group. While chain catchers used to be special equipment they are seen more as everyday equipment now and Boonen ran the slick RED chain catcher Sunday. The biggest change may have been the use of a stout 53-tooth TT ring instead of the new X Glide R chain rings. SRAM has claimed that only the X Glide R rings are optimized for the YAW front derailleur but Boonen appeared to have no issues shifting his front rings on what must be one of the most demanding days on a front derailleur. He also opted for a tight 11-25 Force cassette instead of the new RED Powerdome X cassette in order to get better mud shedding in case the skies did open up.
My ride on Boonen’s Tarmac SL4 was a four-hour affair that took in both the Kwaremont and the Paterberg as well as a fair amount of the bike paths along the canals of Oudenaarde and the farm roads outside Kortrijk. As I rode the bike out to the climbs I found myself experiencing the SL4 I already knew and loved. The low head tube felt incredibly racey, while the long stem kept the handling steady, predictable and precise regardless of the extra weight in the bars. I did want to answer a question I had been asking. Why wouldn’t Boonen run his faithful, Hell of the North winning, Roubaix on the cobbles of Flanders? Conventional wisdom tells you they aren’t as harsh as the cobbles of Roubaix. While this is generally true the Kwaremont has some yawning gaps in its stones right before the mid point. The Koppenberg is no billiard table either.The Paterberg
As we hit the Kwaremont at speed I had the answer very quickly. The Tarmac SL4 remains incredibly composed on the cobbles. Keep your weight in the saddle and the jarring isn’t enough to interfere with power transfer. The front of the bike is simply incredible. The new one-and-three-eighths lower bearing of the head tube keeps the bike on line while allowing it to soak up impacts. The bike makes quick direction changes, necessary in the group as it splinters on the cobbles, very easy. The bike can be flicked from one side of the cobbles to the other at speed with no drama. Coming back down the other side of the Paterberg I found another piece of evidence. We all talk about the climbs but the descents down the back of these climbs are just as steep, just as narrow and swerve left and right at the will of the drunk Belgian farmers that first carved them. The longer wheelbase of the Roubaix, while perfect for tracking the minefields of Roubaix would not dice these descents so sweetly. Of course, other issues add to this, mud typically isn’t much of an issue at Flanders so extra tire clearance isn’t required and the tires themselves are narrower which all make the Tarmac a viable choice.
We liked the Tarmac before but getting a chance to see how Tom Boonen sets his up for Flanders victory from the saddle of the bike itself, over the very roads he raced, gives us a new appreciation for what the bike can do. It is undoubtedly a full-tilt race bike but amazingly it is as at home on the Paterberg as it is on Alpe d’Huez. We didn’t see that coming. We do have one humble request. Please bring back the Team Issue head tube. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but if it’s good enough for Tom, it’s good enough for flexible, high mileage riders that pay retail to.The 175mm Team Issue head tube.140mm Zipp Service Course SL Alloy Stem. The new Specialized tubular mated to the 303. New SRAM RED brakes easily accept the wider rims. Boonen's 53-tooth TT ring and the YAW front derailleur.The slick new SRAM RED chain catcher. The same size and model post and seat Boonen runs, but this is the set up his mechanics gave me so I wouldn't alter his fit. The old 'Tornado Tom' sticker is gone and the names are placed on the seat tube now.