Bikes

Why Specialized’s Tarmac SL7 recall provides an important lesson – CyclingTips

Specialized’s voluntary recall of its flagship Tarmac SL7 race bike was rumoured, leaked, and now, it is official – Specialized has issued a stop ride request for all SL7 owners. A lot of anger has ensued across the internet in the past few days since the news came out, and while justified, I also think the recall serves as a healthy reminder to the industry that safety should never be a secondary thought.

Before I get into why I think this is, let me first cover the official details of the recall. This recall is only for the Tarmac SL7 – a model that features integrated cable routing through the headset. Other Tarmac models with cable routing external of the headset are not impacted.

The issue relates to the potential for fork steerer tube damage following a significant impact to the front wheel, something that could lead to fork steerer tube failure. Specialized says that no injuries have been reported to date and that the necessary replacement parts are in stock with dealers. 

The Tarmac SL7 features a metal headset compression ring that doubles as a guide for the internal cables. It’s this compression ring that is at the heart of the issue, as it has the potential to damage the round-shaped carbon steerer tube on impact. As the potential issue affects the exterior of the steerer tube, dealers have been informed how to assess forks needing replacement versus those that simply need to be fitted with new parts to prevent a future issue. 

The fix involves two new parts relating to the headset, both of which are already found in the latest Tarmac SL7s that have been produced in the past few months. The recall affects SL7s sold between July 2020 and August 2021. Specialized has not shared how many bikes this impacts globally, but it’s likely a large number. In the US alone the recall impacts some 6,900 bikes, but interestingly, Specialized states that only two incidents have been reported (and no injuries). 

The first revised part is a considerably lengthened aluminium expander wedge that now runs from the top of the steerer tube all the way to below the height of the top headset bearing. It’s perhaps the longest reinforcing expander wedge we’ve seen from any brand, and no doubt adds a handful of grams to the original design (personally, I’d happily trade a few grams off in favour of a reinforced steerer).  

The old parts are marked with an “A”, the new parts are marked with a “B”. Parts shown in Figure 1 sit inside of the steerer tube, while Figure 2 shows the compression ring that surrounds the steerer tube.

The second part (Figure 2, B) replaces the culprit of the issue, the metal compression ring itself. The new version is now two pieces, with a stainless steel sleeve sitting between the compression ring and the carbon steerer tube. 

Owners of the Tarmac SL7 can verify if their bikes have these updated parts by simply removing the headset top cap. Bikes with an anodised red expander plug are safe to ride, while those with an anodised black plug need to stop riding and return their bike to a Specialized dealer for fitting the new parts at no charge. Retailers will be reimbursed by Specialized for the labour.  

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More information on the Tarmac SL7 recall can be found at Specialized.com

Common questions 

The news of this recall seemingly leaked out before Specialized had finalised details with the relevant governing bodies responsible for recalls. In the past few days, a number of questions have been raised about the timing of the recall – notably surrounding the fact that the new and improved parts have been seen on new bikes for months, indicating that Specialized knew about the issue and quietly went about solving it before announcing it to the public. 

Disappointingly, Specialized was not willing to provide any further comment on why it took so long to notify riders of a potentially dangerous issue with its bikes. Similarly, the company chose not to comment on whether any changes have been made to internal fork testing methods.

These are certainly questions I wanted answers to, but for now, it seems they’ll remain unanswered. 

An opinion of the bigger picture 

Recalls related to front forks are a far too common occurrence in the bicycle industry. Intricate to manufacture and subject to significant loads, the fork is one of the few components on a bike where a total and sudden loss of control occurs if things fail – it’s what keeps tech editors up at night. And as performance road bikes continually move to new wholly integrated and lightweight composite systems, it’s unfortunately likely we’ll see more recalls in years to come. 

Specialized itself has had prior recalls related to the headset collars of its 2019 Roubaix platforms and the forks on 2018 Allez road bikes. This latest recall serves as yet another reminder that the industry still has room to improve its safety margins, especially when it comes to such a critical part of the bike. The reality is that the Tarmac SL7 would have passed all required international standards tests with flying colours, and yet, real-world circumstances (or in engineering terms, foreseeable misuse) prove that more could have and should have been done in the name of absolute safety. 

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It’s frightening that these type of failures are even possible, but one must also accept that many of us (as consumers) are constantly giving our money to the companies that push the limits on materials science and engineering. Performance innovation should never come at the price of safety, but then, the uncomfortable reality is that pushing the limits of performance can mean that the limits are pushed in other areas, too.

There’s no denying the latest crop of wholly integrated road bikes look amazing, but such innovation means new (and sometimes old) lessons must be learned.

And while the industry is once again reminded that safety should be the number one design factor above all else, in the meantime, I’ll argue that brands that proceed with a voluntary global recall with an approximate .02% failure rate and before any reported injuries should perhaps at some level be applauded. I’d much rather see brands accept fault and remedy the issue than go into hiding out of fear of brand damage or a short term hit to the balance sheet. Failures happen, and it’s how a brand handles such issues that matters most. 

There’s no doubt that Specialized could (and perhaps should) have reacted faster with this one rather than waiting for all the replacement parts to be delivered around the world, but the other side to the argument is that the vast majority of SL7s rolling on the roads are probably safe to be on and won’t ever fail. Specialized is merely taking the steps to ensure that rare failures from foreseeable misuse aren’t possible.

So yes, perhaps Specialized could have taken everyone’s new bikes off the road sooner while it finalised production of the replacement parts and went through its legal obligations, but was it needed? I can’t answer that, but what I can say is that consumers would be upset regardless of how this situation was handled, and the court of public opinion wouldn’t judge either outcome kindly. 

There’s no clear answer to this. On the one hand, there was a tiny risk with no known injuries, and Specialized has worked to remedy it, presumably at considerable expense. On the opposite side of the coin, Specialized knew about a potentially catastropic issue for weeks, didn’t do anything to notify consumers, and waited to get all their ducks in a row to minimise disruption to their sales and brand reputation.

The uncomfortable truth is that the issue with the SL7 isn’t unique to Specialized, and there are surely a great number of other bikes being ridden today that at least in theory, could be susceptible to similar failure. For example, Factor’s head of engineering, Graham Shrive, previously noted that the aluminium headset plate used in the Ostro (a bike that experienced an unrelated and quite public steerer failure itself) serves to stop the metal headset compression ring from cutting the carbon in the event of a large impact to the front wheel – this is a known issue in the industry and not an isolated issue with the SL7. 

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The Factor Ostro employs a long aluminium sleeve down the front of the steerer, which is designed to prevent the very issue that the SL7 was recalled for.

Obviously, there is no perfect answer here and in a perfect world, these issues wouldn’t exist. The industry as a whole clearly needs to take more steps to ensure these potential and sometimes unforeseen issues are solved, and consumers need to show that they’ll still spend their money even if a product is 50 grams heavier as a result. 

Until then, I’ll choose to view voluntary recalls in an almost positive light – one that shows a company willing to pay for its error while also providing competitors with lessons to mistakes that hopefully won’t be repeated. Personally, I’m far more concerned about the companies with products failing, people being injured, and zero public acknowledgement of any issue. 

I’ll also take this chance to remind people that steerer tubes can fail through misuse, especially from incidents similar to what the SL7 has been recalled for. Similarly, it’s not uncommon for people to be riding bikes where the fork steerer hasn’t been looked at in years of use. It’s a good idea to periodically check the steerer tube for any signs of cracking, imprinting, grooving or similar. Pay particular attention to where the top headset compression ring sits against the steerer – these can commonly become grooved through being ridden with a loose headset. 

Longer-term, I’m certainly keen to see more manufacturers build additional levels of safety to forks, with particular attention paid to the prevention of damage from headsets and internal cables. The metal sleeve within the compression ring that Specialized has employed is a simple but likely effective fix to a common issue. Merida’s newly announced Scultura seems to have taken a similar path, while the Factor Ostro employs metal reinforcement in a different manner along with a now bonded reinforcing insert.

More of this bike industry, please. And in the meantime, don’t ignore the parts of the bike the consumer can’t see.

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