I think the Cervelo S5 is the hottest road bike on the market. For now... Photo: A.S.O./Charly Lopez
Every few years, a new bike gets released that strikes the right chord with bike geeks. Before long, it seems like every performance-oriented rider with enough cash is riding one, and they dominate group rides, fondos, crits, and road races. It becomes the “it” bike, the bike of the moment, a must have for racers and serious road riders.
For years, the "it" bike in the road racing scene has been contested by two main protagonists: the Trek Madone and Specialized Tarmac (and probably the old Venge too, RIP). But the power balance has been shifting, and if you ask me, the hottest pair of wheels on the road right now is the Cervelo S5. I'm seeing more and more in the wild every day, and here at TPC, we can barely keep any in stock.
But recently, Trek and Specialized have released new versions of their flagship road bikes: the Madone Gen 7 and the Tarmac SL8. So will the S5 lose steam in 2024? Or will it stay atop the throne? The battle for road supremacy looks like it will be fought between these three very fast machines. Which do you think is the best?
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What Made the Cervelo S5 Such a Hot Commodity?
Before we make any predictions, let’s talk about why the Cervelo S5 had all the right elements to become the hottest bike of 2022 and 2023:
- Bold performance claims
- Eye-catching looks and/or a unique and defining characteristic
- Race dominance
It all starts with bold performance claims. With the S5, the 2022 update claimed to reduce drag by 65 grams while still reducing overall weight. I’m not an aero expert who can wind tunnel test the S5, but all we need to know as consumers is that a bike is somehow better than anything that came before it. So if we want to win races, set new PRs, or just beat our friends, then this is the tool we need.
This isn’t unique to the S5 though. Just look at any bike media and you’ll see that hyping up a new bike’s performance is the norm across the industry. For a bike to make cyclists froth at the mouth over it, however, these performance claims need to be paired with a couple more key elements.
As important as performance (sometimes more important) is a bike's appearance. A good "it" bike needs to have eye-catching looks. Note that “eye-catching” does not mean beautiful. We live in the age of the internet and social media. If I just scroll through my Instagram feed for 10 minutes, I’ll see hundreds of objectively beautiful high-end bike builds. If you want to pop, blandness is the enemy. To get the people to stop scrolling and stare for an extra second, a bike needs to have something unique and instantly recognizable.
Look at that thing. The unique V-stem is certainly eye-catching. Photo: Cervelo.
These days, it’s not enough to just slap a massive logo on the downtube (looking at you, Trek). The best way to get a bike to pop is to design a weird and polarizing frame or component. For the S5, I think a lot of its appeal comes down to the radical V-stem.
When Cevelo’s V-stem first came out in 2018, many riders made fun of it (I’ll admit, I was one of them). But it has since become the S5’s trademark component. Now, I can’t imagine the S5 without it. It'd just look wrong. Most importantly, the aerodynamic V-stem comes with all the requisite performance claims of reducing drag, and it made the Madone and Tarmac look pretty bland in comparison.
Remember this wavy thing? You could spot a Dogma 65.1 from a mile away. Winning le Tour didn't hurt either. Photo: Josh Hallett
We’ve seen this work in the past too. At the height of Team Sky’s dominance in the early 2010s, TPC's hottest road bike was the Pinarello Dogma 65.1s, which sold like hotcakes. The asymmetric frame with its characteristic wavy Onda fork legs and rear stays were instantly recognizable, even from a distance. It made the Dogma irresistible to those who wanted to not only ride the best of the best, but wanted everyone else to know it. When Pinarello toned down all the waviness with the Dogma F8, it never seemed to reach the same heights again.
Speaking of Team Sky, this is crucial final ingredient to achieving "it" status: race dominance. The Pinarello Dogma was most popular when it was the dominant bike at the Tour de France under Bradley Wiggens and Chris Froome. When Peter Sagan was at his peak, winning three consecutive world championships, the Specialized Tarmac SL6 and Venge were the bikes riders had to have. And years ago, before Lance Armstrong got busted, the early Trek Madone he rode to seven Tour de France "wins" was the ultimate road racing machine.
How to win races and influence cyclists, by Jumbo-Visma. Photo: A.S.O./Pauline Ballet
Now, it’s a new era in road racing, and the S5 is the new king of the pro peloton. Jumbo-Visma has established itself as the best team in the world with the best riders. Riders like Primoz Roglic, Wout van Aert, and two-time Tour de France winner, Jonas Vingegaard (pictured above), are dominating races aboard the S5. Cyclists don’t even need to watch racing to feel the influence. People understand victory, and right now it’s easy associate the S5 with winners.
The Trek Madone and Specialized Tarmac Strike Back
The new Madone Gen 7 is ready for a fight.
The Trek Madone and Specialized Tarmac have long been two of our best-selling bikes. They often swap places with each other in terms of total sales numbers. (It's worth noting that the most popular bikes will vary by area — we're based in Colorado, and our three biggest markets are Colorado, California, and New York, so most of our data reflects buyers living in those areas.)
But in 2022 I started seeing the Cervelo S5 creep up the ranks. Throughout 2023, it's had the Madone Gen and Tarmac SL7 soundly beat in terms of sales velocity. These days, we can’t keep a 2018+ S5 in stock because they all sell in less than 24 hours! In our own social media posts, we’ve seen the S5 get more engagement than the Madone and Tarmac as well. Anecdotally, I’ve also noticed way more roadies showing up to group rides and rolling around on S5s when, two years ago, the Tarmac SL7 seemed to be de rigueur.
In my eyes, the S5 is the current king. But Trek and Specialized are ready to put up a fight. Perhaps taking a cue from Cervelo's V-stem, both of their new flagship models incorporate performance-enhancing elements seemingly designed to raise eyebrows and set the internet ablaze.
IsoFlow is cool AND weird. I couldn't resist putting my hand through it.
The Madone Gen 7 features IsoFlow, an aerodynamic hole in the Madone’s seat tube. Of course, not only does it look unique, but it comes with the requisite claimed performance gains. Like the S5’s V-stem, I’ve heard plenty of riders mock it. We've been calling it a "speed hole." But we’ve seen impressive sales with early examples of the 2023 Madone that we’ve listed on our site.
That Speed Sniffer headtube on the Tarmac SL8 is... prominent.
With the recent release of the Tarmac SL8, Specialized added the “Speed Sniffer.” It’s essentially a pointed head tube that acts like an aero nose cone. But it's the goofy name that really takes things up a notch. Plenty of internet comments have mocked the Speed Sniffer, and I think that’s exactly what Specialized wanted. People are taking notice.
So far, we’ve only been able to stock the S-Works SL8 frameset at TPC, which retails for $5,500. It’s super expensive, and it’s not even a complete bike, but we still sold out of every size almost immediately. It looks like the S5 has some serious competition.
S5 vs. Madone Gen 7 vs. Tarmac SL8: Which Will Come Out on Top in 2024?
Remco Evenepoel giving the Tarmac SL8 its first major win. Photo: Rafa Gomez/SprintCyclingAgency
If I were to bet money on which road racing bike will be the most popular in 2024, I’d feel pretty confident about putting my money on the Tarmac SL8. While I remember the S5 and Madone Gen 7 attracting plenty of gawkers the first time they rolled through the shop, they didn’t come close to the attention the Tarmac SL8 frameset was able to attract. Top-of-the-line Specialized S-Works bikes just have a je ne sais quoi that acts like bike geek catnip.
Everyone in the building had to come to see the infamous Speed Sniffer in person. Everyone wanted to pick up the frame and feel the impressive weight. EVERYONE wanted to offer their opinion on it. The Tarmac SL8 just generated its own buzz.
Even if Jumbo-Visma dominates every race next season, I still think the Tarmac SL8 will be the fan favorite, far outselling the S5. I actually unironically love the Speed Sniffer name because it’s so absurd and goofy. And while I don’t find the new Tarmac pretty, I think the big schnoz gives the bike that “it” factor, like a high fashion model. It’s more striking than beautiful, and it's actually growing on me.
Plus, Specialized has rising young talents like Demi Vollering and Remco Evenepoel acting as the face of the Tarmac SL8. They've already won big this year, and next year, they might be even more dominant. Win enough, and people might actually take something like the Speed Sniffer seriously.Yeah, I'm a sucker...
But which would I pick for myself? That’s a tough choice. Wout van Aert is currently my favorite racer, so I’ve always been very interested in the S5. However, I do think the Madone Gen 7 is the prettiest bike of the three. That said, I still think I’d pick the Tarmac SL8. If anything, just so I can make more Speed Sniffer jokes. Plus, I really like that it's both aero AND lightweight. Those Specialized marketing guys really got me this time.
Let me know which of the three you think is going to be the “it” road racing bike next year. Or, if you think there’s another, better contender, let me know too!
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