One Big Reason Why This Year’s Tour De France Was The Fastest Ever

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Even your slow rides are pretty damn fast on the 2022 Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL7. That’s how I titled a recent 70-mile ride on Strava.

If you do Strava, the ride title is something you ponder as the miles and hours go by. There are even plug-ins to automate the titling of rides. It’s a big part of how we use the platform. Should you be clever, ironic, literal? Or just default to “Morning Ride”?

On this particular day, my plan was to do some long, slow distance (LSD) training. The route I chose has this gradual climb up Route 248 between Park City and Kamas, Utah. As I hit the base of the climb, I could see a rider way up ahead with a rear flasher light. Though I was taking it slow, I noticed I was just barely reeling him in. I resisted the urge to push it, as that’s my competitive nature, and settled into a pace below 200 watts. This climb crests with a epic views of the Jordanelle Reservoir and Mt. Timpanogos before descending into Kamas. By that point, I’d cut the gap in half.

The descent is equally long and gradual—as in, you can typically pedal to maintain speed without running out of gear. This is when my closing speed ramped up. We were both pedaling for the first mile, which actually flattens out for a bit before the steeper final section. I stopped pedaling when I hit that pitch, but my pace still increased. I could now see that I would overtake him before the bottom, even though he was still pedaling. As I coasted by him, I noted that he was on a modern, carbon-fiber road bike and that he was about my size. I’m about 180 pounds, so I tend to have a weight advantage on the descents, but that wasn’t the case here. The pace difference was entirely in the bike I was riding.

This brought me back to a conversation I’d had with a friend a couple weeks prior about the incredible pace of this year’s Tour de France. I said something to the effect that I hoped it wasn’t related to undetected doping. His response went something like this: “It’s the technology, stupid.”

Indeed, during the doping era of the early 2000s, the pace of the Tour was incredible. But riders were also using equipment that was downright primitive by today’s standards. This year’s Tour averaged 42.068 km/h (26.14 mph), which is a record. That’s insanely fast given all the climbing. And I’m cautiously optimistic that cheating was not the reason, as I’ve experienced the very palpable advantage that teams like Bora-Hansgrohe, Quick-Step, and TotalEnergies enjoy—teams that all ride the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL7 as their primary race bike.

Frame Set

The SL7 debuted in 2020, so this isn’t a new model, but I’ve taken the liberty of building it up from the frame set to create a dream version. For reference, though, the complete SRAM Red eTap AXS variant retails for a gulp-inducing $14,000, which is $2,000 more than it was earlier in the year. That’s the ‘22 inflation effect, yet you’ll be hard pressed to find one to buy. That’s the ‘22 supply effect, which is a big factor in said inflation effect. I was able to secure a frame set, though, and started from there.

My experience with the SL7 actually pre-dates this bike in the form of the Specialized S-Works Venge, which was an aero bike. The Venge opened my eyes to the potential of modern aero frame design. I say “modern” because we’ve had aero bikes for years, but they were so stiff and abusive that they were all-but unridable. They were heavy and couldn’t climb worth a damn. The Venge represented a quantum leap in ride quality, aero efficiency and all-around performance. It actually climbed pretty well, especially when fitted with climbing wheels.

To be clear, the aero advantage is really where you could feel the difference. Literally, from the moment you first put power to pedals, it was as if the bike raised a middle finger to atmospheric drag. The closest thing to that feeling was the first time riding an e-bike—that sensation of super-human strength and effortless speed. At that time I was riding a Pinarello Dogma F10 Disc, which is neither light nor aerodynamic, so there was tremendous contrast. To put a finer point on it, the Pinarello is an overrated race bike that relies more on its sponsorships and Italian name than objective performance to justify its price and status. It’s inferior to the Specialized in every way.

With the debut of the SL7, Specialized endeavored to combine the aero qualities of the Venge with the climbing and race qualities of the Tarmac. Indeed, that mission has been accomplished in a 56cm frame that weighs just 800 grams—a full kilogram lighter than the Venge but with the same ultra-low drag coefficient. This complete build with pedals, computer mount and bottle cages weighs an even 17 pounds.

Cockpit

The SL7 frame set includes an aero seat post, stem and handlebar that all contribute to its slippery nature, complete with internal routing for a clean look. In particular, I’m a huge fan of the Roval Rapide bar (42cm), but the aero qualities are secondary. It’s just a very comfortable and ergonomic design. The flattened tops of the bar form a superb riding platform with an array of different hand positions. They are also skewed forward, which makes for a more natural riding position from your hands to your elbows and shoulders. It also puts the hoods farther out from the stem, which is partly why I went with a 90mm stem instead of the standard 100mm. Lastly, I chose to wrap the entire bar with Lizard Skins DSP 3.4 Grip Tape V2 instead of stopping at the hoods. This just adds more comfort to the bar tops even if it undermines the aero design.

You’ll also notice the SRAM eTap AXS Wireless Blips integrated on top of the bar, where they can be triggered with a thumb. They could also be mounted inside the drops so you don’t have to use your finger to shift while sprinting. Since they’re completely wireless, they could actually be mounted anywhere. I mostly use them when climbing.

Wheels & Tires

The biggest upgrade to the SL7 beyond what you’d get from a complete bike is this set of Zipp 353/454 NSW Tubeless Disc wheels, which are some of the most advanced road wheels on the market today. Plus, they have a unique aesthetic that completes the SL7’s slippery race look.

Zipp’s tubeless NSW line is packed with so much technology and progression that it’s tough to know where to start. Are these climbing wheels? Aero wheels? Gravel wheels? Racing wheels? The answer is yes. They are offered in three dish dimensions: the shallow 353, the medium 454 and the most recently released 858. You can purchase each as a set, but I opted to spec the 353 for the front and the slightly deeper 454 as a rear wheel. This was the same setup Alejandro Valverde ran in Strade Bianchi this year, where the 41-year-old veteran finished second. This is a spring classic best known for its long gravel sections.

When Zipp set out to create the ultimate road wheel, the team looked at the four forces working against you on the road—gravity, wind, rolling resistance and vibration—and proceeded to design around each of them. The NSW’s “Sawtooth” tech, which is immediately noticeable, offers varying wheel depth by shaping the inside of the wheel like an ocean swell. This reduces the effect of crosswinds, which have been the Achilles heel of deep-dish wheels, while increasing structural integrity with less material i.e. stronger and lighter. A set of 353s weighs just 1,255g, and the 454s add about 100g. So this mixed set is right around 1,300g.

The NSW’s aero properties start with the rim depth and extend to the internal width and hookless design. The 353’s internal width is a very generous 25mm, while the 454 is a respectable 23mm. This enables you to run wider tires, such that a 28c is actually the narrowest tire they support. And with hookless rims and tires, the sidewall of the tire extends vertically from the rim to create a more aerodynamic profile and better contact with the riding surface.

Finally, this combination of specs enable you to run much lower tire pressure. These rims max out at 73psi, which you’ll actually find is still too high if you weigh less than an NFL linebacker. This is counterintuitive to old-school roadies who believe higher pressure equals less rolling resistance. Countless studies have debunked this thinking. What’s more, as road surfaces become more rough and textured, the tire’s malleability further reduces rolling resistance by absorbing the terrain (at lower pressure) as opposed to pushing back against it (at higher pressure). So you’ll go faster, and the ride will be more comfortable, stable and forgiving.

As for treads, I’ve formed a number of tire biases over the years because different manufacturers excel in creating tires for different cycling disciplines. For the longest time, the Continental Grand Prix was my road tire of choice, but it’s now been replaced with relative newcomer Pirelli.

The Italian manufacturer and Formula One tire sponsor has developed a full line of high-performance cycling tires ranging from road racing to gravel riding, mountain biking and downhilling. For this build, I used two different tubeless models: the P Zero Race TLR 30c and the P Zero Race TLR SL 28c. Both support the hookless spec of the Zipp NSW rims, which is a requirement that comes with that 73psi max. The standard Race TLR weighs 320g in the 30c width, which is a fantastic all-around performance tire. Personally, 30c has become my new sweet spot for tubeless road tires. The extra girth enhances comfort and grip with minimal weight penalty, and the data show that a larger contact patch with the pavement actually reduces rolling resistance. These also feature some extra tread for wet conditions. I’ll go up to a 32c tire for early-season riding, when roads are still messy, and then I’ll mount the TLR SL 28c treads for big climbing days. These sacrifice some flat protection and tread in favor of creating a very fast and light (275g) tire for this tubeless/hookless category. And it’s still very comfortable to ride at 60psi (for my weight). Lastly, they are very easy to mount and switch tires if you can manage the sealant mess. One shot from the air compressor is all it takes to seat them.

Drivetrain & Brakes

Having chosen all of the above, the last big decision was drivetrain and brakes. Given the Zipps and how evenly matched top-of-the-line road drivetrains have become, it made sense to go with a SRAM Red eTap AXS group. But there is certainly more to it than that.

The Red eTap AXS Shift-Brake lever packs a bunch of great features. First, the hand feel on the hoods is especially confident. The hoods are big and inspire a lot of confidence in several different hand positions, not least of which is having two huge handles when climbing out of the saddle or navigating rough sections of tarmac.

Then there’s the default shift pattern. Like a modern race car, you click the left paddle to downshift and the right paddle to upshift. (And you click both for the front derailleur in either direction.) Why is it like this? Because eTap was designed for the post-mechanical era. Back when we had cables, you had one shifter for the front derailleur (left) and one shifter for the rear derailleur (right) because that’s how the cables were routed. The introduction of electronic and wireless shifting allowed us to take a step back and ask, “What is the ideal way to shift a road bike?” And that’s how SRAM came to this conclusion. So it still amazes me that Shimano Di2 defaults to the old way of shifting (one shifter for each derailleur), and you have to manually reprogram the buttons to how electronic shifting should be. It’s a bit like when Steve Jobs introduced natural scrolling to Mac computers. He said, “This is how you should scroll. You can switch it back, but my default setting is the right way.” Shimano needs to do the same thing.

When you lift the hood on the SRAM shifter, you also find an easy way to adjust the brake pads (once centered) that determine how much lever throw you want before making contact, which effectively tunes the level of brake modulation. This is how the brakes feel. How progressive the braking pressure is as you pull the lever, which is highly personal. All it takes is a 5mm Allen wrench to dial this in, which is a great feature.

For gearing, I chose the Goldilocks 48/35t chainring configuration, which is fully integrated with the SRAM RED AXS power meter to shave weight and maximize efficiency. This is a dual-sided power meter, which ought to be table stakes at this level. Next, I chose the big range 10-33t RED XG-1290 cassette to give me a bailout gear for HC climbs like Pine Canyon Road.

Bottom line: Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy bike speed. If you can properly fit your body within this WorldTour race geometry (that’s a big IF), you’ll go faster. On the climbs, on the descents, the flats, sprints, corners and any other type of paved terrain. Guaranteed. It’s just science. The S-Works Tarmac SL7 challenges the laws of Nature as we’ve known them. It does feel a bit like cheating. As such, it inspires you to push harder because you get more in return for your effort—more speed, more miles, more PRs and a helluva lot more fun.

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