As I lean into the turn, a slight mist from the Pacific Ocean beads up on the chrome-accented top tube. The sun burns through the haze hanging over the sleepy, deserted coastal road just outside Santa Cruz, while this $20,000 Specialized S-Works McLaren Tarmac bicycle and I get to know each other. The process repeats over and over: lean into a turn, tap the brakes to burn off speed, jump on the pedals, and accelerate coming out of a corner.
Hugging the fog line, I roll up and down every inch of road I can find within a few square miles. Through the taut frame, I swear I feel every rock and the viscosity of the tar that binds them together. As cars pass me, it’s funny to think how many of them cost less than my ride.
I’ve ridden plenty of bikes from Specialized. I know the feel of the standard Tarmac, its refined carbon road racer, which costs between two and ten grand. But this bike is something quite different, as befits anything with this kind of price tag and limited production run (just 250 were made).
The McLaren Tarmac is the latest result of a years-long partnership between Specialized and McLaren, the world renowned maker of F1 race cars and supercars for the wealthy. The pedigree is obvious, its refinement immediately noticeable by racing aficionados.
But with a price tag that most people (myself included) would consider astronomical or even ridiculous, this bike has to not only feel different, but be different, especially since it’s not alone in the rarified category of $10,000 and up bikes. Choices include Felt’s FRD series, the Cervelo Rca, Pinarello Dogma, plus one-offs from builders like Davidson, Sachs, and Vanilla.
So what does McLaren, master of four wheels, bring to the bicycle game, apart from some sweet orange paint and a fancy name?
It’s data, says Sam Pickman, Specialized’s lead engineer. It’s the intent and the experience: what a bike is designed to do, how it handles, and the way it connects to the ground for a distinctive Tarmac feel. With McLaren’s help, the Tarmac’s ride quality was computer modeled and fed by stiffness, weight, and geometry. Pickman won’t couch up the exact numbers—trade secret and all—but everything the company does relies on data. The main lesson learned from its relationship with McLaren is to prove their decision and trust the numbers.
That makes for a new kind of development process. With McLaren consulting, Specialized gained a new understanding of the complex “bike-rider system,” a specific number to codify what you experience in the saddle when going all out on race day or at a relaxed pace around town. That “code” is the stiffness and damping of all the components in various directions that add up to the desired ride. It considers everything, from the rubber to what’s in between the wheels.
So confidant in its McLaren-infused process, Specialized is diving right into production. In the past, it took a bunch of revisions in the production process for any one bike to get things exactly right. For this model, it’s made just one or two. That’s not a one time change for the limited run of the $20,000 Tarmac: Specialized says the approach will trickle down to its more affordable bikes.
Unfortunately for the few people with $20,000 to burn on a bike, the model I took down the coast was part of a limited, sold out, run. The good news is that the vehicle dynamics know-how from McLaren gave Specialized a template for their next generation of bikes, so the next (reasonably priced) Tarmac you ride should have a lot more data behind it.