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18-08-2023 | Frank Jansen

Specialized SL8: first impressions

The World Cup in Glasgow marked the ideal occasion for Specialized to unveil its latest flagship bike: the SL8. This cutting-edge successor follows in the tracks of the highly successful SL7. CycloWorld participated in the Dutch launch in South Limburg, where they thoroughly tested the new flagship.

Image: S-Works version, 200 grams lighter than the standard SL8. © Joris Knapen

What's new?

The SL7, an iconic bike for the American brand, was undoubtedly a triumph. Yet, room for enhancement remained evident. Wind tunnel assessments revealed the Venge's enhanced speed capabilities, while the Aethos outperformed in weight, particularly in climbing. This presented a clear challenge: slim down the SL7 while simultaneously enhancing aerodynamics. The objective: to create a bike excelling both in alpine terrains and lowlands, one bike to rule them all.

The primary change driving this transformation is the redesigned headset shape, referred to as the Speed Sniffer by Specialized. While it might not suit everyone's taste, aesthetics remain a subjective matter.

Speed Sniffer: the external 'dent' in the steering head. © Joris Knapen

Further alterations include a slightly narrower seat tube design. The combination of flat and round tubes, akin to the Aethos, persists. The fully integrated cockpit (Roval Rapide, standard on pricier models) has also been substantially improved in terms of speed. Importantly, the top tube maintains a sensible width, particularly beneficial for cyclists who ride with knees close in. As anticipated for a flagship model, all cables are impeccably concealed.

The ultimate test, however, remains whether Specialized has successfully achieved its objective. Independent wind tunnel tests in the ensuing months will provide the verdict.

Renewed cockpit, Roval Rapide. © Joris Knapen

The portfolio

Notably, various versions of the SL8 persist. The higher-tier S-Works edition is approximately 200 grams lighter than the standard Tarmac. The S-Works designation is recognizable by the lettering on the sloping tube.

In terms of components, the choice extends to electric groupsets from either Shimano or SRAM. Specialized supplies the components and tires, with Roval as the in-house wheel brand. Compared to the SL7, the geometry changed slightly, the stack increased by 10 mm due to the 6-7 mm longer head tube. The reach decreased by 3 mm. The bottom bracket is still BSA, favoring home mechanics. This might slightly affect stiffness, albeit negligible for the average cyclist.

Prices range from €6,500 to €14,000, depending on the version, with a standalone frame priced at €4,000. An S-Works frame (200 grams lighter) comes in at €5.500. Yes, that's not cheap. However, these figures align closely with last season's prices.

Ride experience

Expect no trite clichés here. The SL8's performance doesn't lend itself to facile statements like 'responsive yet rigid' or arbitrary speed boosts. Having said that, the SL8's ride experience can be summed up succinctly: it's exceptional. The bike is notably stiff, lightweight, and highly responsive in steering. Optimal comfort could be achieved by substituting the standard 26 mm tires with a broader alternative. Nonetheless, even with stock tires, the SL8 remains remarkably comfortable.

The slender profile of the Roval Rapide handlebar ensures a comfortable grip. A minor gripe is the minor visibility of a cable segment at the base, a minor discrepancy compared to the competition's concealed setups.

Photo: Riding on the Camerig. © Joris Knapen

As for tire clearance, Specialized refrains from pushing the boundaries. The SL8's maximum tire clearance is 30 mm, eschewing the extreme limits. This, however, is understandable given the bike's premium nature; gravel rides aren't its intended use.

Ride characteristics compared to the SL7 exhibit subtle variations, primarily noticeable in the reduced weight. A 56 cm frame weighs a mere 685 grams, notably lighter than the SL7 S-Works equivalent at around 800 grams.

Suitability for gran fondo riders

Currently, the SL7 and Aethos are popular choices in the gran fondo circuit. Many enthusiasts opt for the Aethos due to its exceptional lightweight design. The SL8, with its improved aerodynamics and integrated cables, offers the same low weight along with enhanced performance. However, the SL8 isn't solely intended for elite riders; even intermediate cyclists can relish its capabilities.

Photo: Challenging Ide Schelling on the SL8. © Joris Knapen

Admittedly, one must appreciate the racing geometry of the SL8, which entails a relatively lower headset (although the reach increased by 10 mm). Nevertheless, the elegantly integrated spacers mitigate any visual disturbance, accommodating riders seeking a slightly more upright position.

Final verdict

The SL8 signifies Specialized's commendable progression in top-frame development. Critics may contend that comparable performance can be found at a more modest price point, yet that's not Specialized's aim with the SL8. This bike caters to those who demand the best, with its excellence reflecting in its price tag. While the cost might be steep, this conclusion isn't significantly different from that of its direct competitors.

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