Sell on Wheels The Tarmac may be the best bike on the planet. But manufacturer Specialized hopes it'll perform even better as a rolling ad campaign.
By Andrew Tilin

(Business 2.0) – Sometimes having it all can be a burden. That's not to suggest that the bike you see above is, on its own merits, a heavy cross to bear. The Tarmac, from Specialized Bicycles, is a wondrous racing machine that weighs a feathery 16.8 pounds, hugs tight hairpins, and arrows impressively down the road. It's built unlike any other bicycle, with curiously shaped hunks of carbon fiber and aluminum. Special spokes cheat the wind. All done up in red and black, the Tarmac is among the most striking machines you've ever seen. And that, like driving a bright-red Ferrari or dating Anna Kournikova, is where the trouble begins.

As Ferrari owners (and more than a few Russian hockey players) well know, everybody wants to challenge someone strutting around with exotic hardware. Case in point: One morning I was out on the Tarmac when another cyclist pulled up next to me. His was a somewhat battered rig, and he quickly popped what I soon found to be a very common question: "How's that bike?" Yet before I could offer any details, he got his enormous thighs a-churning and chugged away. It seemed clear that he thought I was a "Fred"--biker slang for a middle-age poseur undeserving of a $5,000 machine designed to take on the Tour de France. But after several minutes of self-doubt, I came to a happy realization: I was riding the best bike on the planet and he wasn't.

You might think that today's finest bicycles would have knobby tires and trail-smoothing suspensions. In truth, riders these days are hankering not for mountain bikes but for ever more sophisticated road machines. A decade ago, off-road bikes dominated the estimated $3.2 billion specialty-retail bike market. But as Lance Armstrong continues to inspire cyclists with his feats, and as aging boomers gravitate toward the less frictional world of pavement, bike makers have seen an increase in the need for speed. During the past 10 years, road bikes' share of the overall market has tripled.

As the category has grown, the technology behind it has gotten ever more zooty. For that we must thank the U.S. defense industry. Over most of the last century, the dominant European manufacturers slowly evolved steel-frame bikes that still bore a strong resemblance to those used back in the first Tour de France (1903, for those scoring at home). Then, in the early 1990s, when America's military-industrial machine was taking a breather, the same smarts and materials used to engineer fighter jets were funneled into products like golf clubs and bicycles. By the end of the decade, U.S. manufacturers such as Cannondale, Trek, and Specialized had won contracts to supply their road bikes to top European road-racing teams, arrangements that were as much about marketing on the cycling-mad Continent as they were about the bikes themselves.

The Tarmac is just such a rolling ad campaign. While Specialized expects the bike's direct effect on net earnings to fall somewhere between bupkis and diddly-squat, it's hoping that frequent appearances in cycling magazines and on ESPN2 will help it sell more of its $500 to $1,500 mountain and road bikes, which already move to the tune of $200 million a year. As Specialized marketing director Rick Vosper puts it, "These bikes are not about rolling a lot of dollar volume. They're for showcasing our engineering talent."

Appropriately enough, Specialized is headquartered in Silicon Valley and lives by the same innovate-or-die credo as its digital neighbors. So what makes the Tarmac special? Most bike frames are composed of one material--whatever best delivers the primary quality that the maker is after, like responsiveness or light weight. A smattering of manufacturers cobble together two materials in an attempt to combine qualities, but only the Tarmac achieves this feat seamlessly. Each handmade frame has a carbon-fiber upper half, which absorbs vibration for comfort, and an aluminum bottom half, which provides supreme stiffness for acceleration. Specialized shunned the idea of using weight-adding lugs to join the two materials and instead spent the better part of three years engineering a way to bake the pieces together. What rolls out of the shop is a bike that's up to 26 percent stiffer than other carbon-fiber frames but that absorbs substantially more shock than standard metal frames.

And indeed, I found that riding the Tarmac over rough pavement feels little different from cruising on smooth stuff, thanks to the carbon-fiber tubing and the reassuring "thunk" it announces while damping shock. I also discovered that climbing--on a bicycle that weighs less than my 22-month-old daughter--can actually be fun. But descending on the Tarmac is the most satisfying act of all. It's easy to lean the compact frame one way and then the other, and pedaling leads to acceleration so quickly that you can keep up with cars, as I did in the Bay Area's Oakland hills. Yes, thank you, I do own the damn road.

As for that burden, the components adorning the frame only make matters worse. The top-of-the-line 20-speed drivetrain from Shimano allows effortless shifting of gears, and the Mavic wheels, with their flat, aerodynamic spokes, can pass as industrial art. The crown is Specialized's proprietary saddle, featuring titanium supports and a giant groove set in the middle to ease the pressure caused by sitting on such a tiny wedge. The whole package adds up to a lot of work in shooing away gawkers, at least until you've ridden the Tarmac enough that fewer people can catch you. My bet is, that's a challenge you can easily live with.

Andrew Tilin (atilin@business2.com) is a senior editor at Business 2.0.