In doing some background for this review, I was surprised to learn that Specialized was one of the first North American manufacturers of high-performance road cycling tires. In 1976, after a couple years of importing Italian components into the US, Mike Sinyard recognized a market for quality road tires among the Northern California framebuilders he dealt with and made the leap from ‘distributor’ to ‘innovator’ with his first branded product, the Specialized Touring Tire. The S-Works Turbo, the company’s current flagship road model, continues this long tradition of innovation and quality.
The S-Works Turbo
The Turbo is a foldable tire available as a standard vulcanized clincher in 22, 24, 26 and 28mm widths, as a tubeless clincher in 22, 24 and 26mm, as a fine thread, non-vulcanized cotton casing in 24 and 26mm, and as a 23mm tubular. Its weight is very much in line with its competitors’ offerings, with a standard 24mm 120 TPI vulcanized casing model tipping the scales at 210g. The tire employs Specialized’s GRIPTON rubber compound and Black Belt puncture protection technology, and supports relatively standard 100 – 125 PSI inflation for the primary models. While many of the features technologies are consistent throughout the line, my experience, and in large part this review, is confined to the standard vulcanized casing clincher.
The Case for Clinchers
For many years, tubulars have absolutely dominated the higher end of the road racing tire market. Based on the assumptions that narrower tires were more aerodynamic and critically lighter, and that higher pressures equated to lower rolling resistance and therefore greater efficiency and speed, tubulars offered significant enough performance benefits over clincher tire technology as to outweigh their costs and the notorious difficulties of their installation and use. They were more robust through a smaller cross-section than clinchers, and their design was inherently more tolerant of very high pressures. Upon returning to competition in recent years, I made the decision to invest in a set of tubular race wheels, hoping that this equation would still be a positive one. While I wouldn’t specifically say that my money was wasted, my experience has led me to believe that tubulars no longer make sense for an amateur racer.
I think some major shifts in our understanding of tire performance and technology have contributed to this. Rolling resistance depends on the delicate balancing of a variety of factors, including rubber compound, casing materials and design, tire width and pressure. Lennard Zinn’s excellent article in Velonews, Where the Rubber Meets the Road, provides a thorough explanation of these factors, including what may be (to some) a revelatory and counter-intuitive fact: that wider, lower pressure tires, through the mechanics of deformation and adhesion, actually roll faster than narrower, higher pressure options. Additionally, many wheel manufacturers have come to understand that a wider rim bed and therefore a less bulbous tire section is actually more aerodynamic, a trend that again favors wider tires at potentially lower pressures. With their natural advantages removed, (road) tubulars begin to look like just so much hassle and expense for those of us without a paid mechanic and a professional sized tire budget.
The Turbo in Use
I have had a set of 26mm Turbos on my everyday wheels for about 3 months. Living in a rural area with fairly rough roads and being a lighter (67kg) rider, I tend to run them slightly under their recommended pressure, both for the reasons noted above and for additional comfort and cornering performance in wet, dirty and patchy conditions. While this does present a greater risk of both punctures and pinch flats, I have so far experienced neither, apart from one incident with a corrugated box-type staple that would’ve flatted any tire (and probably would’ve permanently ruined one with a less robust casing).
In another of the compromises inherent in tire design, the GRIPTON compound is soft enough to produce that confident feeling when leaned into a corner (wet or dry), but hard enough to demonstrate surprising longevity through my relatively strong weekly menu of asphalt and gravel. And speaking of gravel, I have to admit to a bit of an affinity for our local mixed use trails and their absence of multi-ton death machines. While I wouldn’t exactly call the Turbo a ‘gravel tire’, it does handle these regular forays with ease, and feels remarkably solid and steady for a 26mm tire on a loose surface, even during a 37 km/h hope-you-have-your-dog-on-a-leash FTP interval.
Perhaps most critically for a racing tire, Zinn’s article also reveals that when it comes to rolling resistance, there is simply no substitute for Specialized’s meticulous engineering. The top 3 and 4 of the top 5 performers in his testing come from the S-Works Turbo family, which confirms that Specialized’s claims of ‘the fastest tire in the world’ are not just marketing hype. Riding on Turbos further bears out this claim, with the ‘fast’ feel and slight ‘singing’ sound that I have come to associate with really high quality tires. While my wheels are a more traditional narrow bed design, feedback from those I ride and race with is that these sensations are amplified when the Turbo is allowed to spread out on a wider rim bed. And, while it may seem very low on the list of factors to consider when choosing a high performance road tire, I do appreciate the ease with which the Turbo comes off of and goes back on to the wheel during a change, something I certainly can’t say of all clinchers.
Keeping it in the Family
While the Turbo is an amazing tire for everyday training and racing, I have to admit that if I were to build a set of race-specific wheels today I would be tempted to try the Turbo Cotton. I believe that its supple 320 TPI casing and very light weight, when coupled with a latex tube (an option that I rarely hear people talk about but which offers significant speed and weight advantages) would translate to a level of performance and feel on par with any mass-produced tire on the market, clincher or tubular. At the other end of the spectrum, I’m also very interested in the 28mm Turbo as a training tire. While I can’t fit them on either my race bike or my winter bike (believe me, I’ve tried!), my current N+1 of a disc braked cross/winter training bike will definitely be shod with these tires. I think the larger cross section and resulting lower allowable pressure (Specialized recommend 85 – 95 PSI) would make for a go-anywhere dream ride, a real asset when grinding out those long winter kilometers.
The S-Works Turbo is simply a great tire. Its exceptional performance and feel have, for me, broken the long standing tubular spell, and Specialized’s solid engineering and development have created a family of products that satisfy just about everyone’s racing needs. To say that this is no secret, at least in my area, is a bit of an understatement. The S-Works Turbo has become our de facto team tire, and is the choice of many others I ride and race with. At the end of the day, this popularity is perhaps the best indicator of an unbeatable performer.
Marcel Rambo is a busy father of 3 who recently concluded that the best way to relive his youth would be to pin a number on his back and ride around in circles as fast as he could. You can follow Marcel on Instagram: @vee9zee.