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Inside Specialized: A peak behind the S-Works curtain

Peter Stuart
28 Jul 2017

Specialized is a major force in racing, retail and research. We travel to California to see what goes on in Specialized's HQ

Head south from San Francisco on Route 101 for an hour, past the monolithic tech motherships of Silicon Valley and into the Santa Clara valley, and you’ll find the sleepy town of Morgan Hill. Among a cluster of enormous warehouses there is one with a jagged ‘S’ emblazoned on its frontage.

It’s an unassuming spot for one of the most pervasive and powerful cycling brands on the planet. Yet this is Specialized’s HQ.

In one of these warehouses sits a temple central to the church of Specialized – the in-house wind-tunnel.

In the next building over is a high security composites lab, inaccessible to all but the most senior staff.

On the surface, Specialized could easily be confused with its Silicon Valley cousins developing self-driving cars or self-aware robots.

Some see it as prioritising form over function, but spend a day here and it’s clear that the business of bike building has changed dramatically over the last decade.

Far from a vanity project, Specialized sees its wind-tunnel as a necessity if it is to keep pace with its rivals, to ‘innovate or die,’ and it was no mean feat getting it built.

‘This was a real Battle Royale,’ says Mark Cote, head of integrated technologies, as he walks Cyclist up a ramp toward a vast black cube housing the wind-tunnel in the heart of Specialized’s largest warehouse.

‘The water bottle team who use the other part of the warehouse had doubled their business since we started and they wanted this for storage.’

When he opens the door on the Tardis-like cube, I couldn’t be happier not to be staring at a thousand crates of bidons.

One man and a bike

These whitewashed walls and clinically clean floors are a long way from Specialized’s humble beginnings.

Established in 1974, the brand began life as an importer of Italian cycling components, an irony that probably isn’t lost on an Italian luxury bike market that’s struggling to compete with Specialized’s top tier of race frames today.

It also began with just one man.

‘Mike Sinyard grew up here,’ says Seth Rand, ‘professor’ of SBCU (Specialized Bicycle Components University), as he begins to tell the tale of Specialized’s founder.

‘He finished college in San Jose, and literally had no clue what he was going to do with his life,’ he says with a sort of precision that suggests this is a tale that’s often recounted.

‘He decided after college to go to Europe and just ride around and stretch his money as far as he could. Just a loaf of bread each day, sleeping outside and staying in a hostel if he needed to,’ Rand adds.

While Sinyard never turned one loaf into 50, he did make the acquaintance of Cino Cinelli, and his entrepreneurial cogs began to turn.

‘He knew there was this big need for riders in the US to get better access to Italian products because the mail order process in the 1970s was just horrible,’ says Rand.

‘So he convinced Cino to make him the sole US importer of Cinelli components, used whatever money he had left to fill up a suitcase with Cinelli’s wares, then flew back. That’s how Specialized was born.’

It wasn’t long before the company started producing its own products. By the end of the 1970s, Specialized was selling its own tyres, and by 1981 it dived into bike production with the Sequoia, a touring bike relaunched this year.

Its first big success was the Stumpjumper, a mass production mountain bike (a unique prospect in the early 1980s), which made the brand a global player.

Never focusing on just one category, and instead expanding in an ever-outward spiral, Specialized gradually morphed into what we see today. Covering all categories in all territories, it’s an astounding achievement for one man on a touring bike.

The brand’s identity has been refined over the years. Currently the ethos is ‘aero is everything’, together with a fixation on performance fostered by an astoundingly strong presence in the professional sport.

But wind-tunnels and WorldTour riders do give Specialized a slightly cosmetic sheen. The brand is a master when it comes to marketing, and was accused by one rival of ‘making nothing.’

What better place than the company’s home base to put that to the test? To my surprise, Specialized had no trouble convincing me otherwise.

The brand

‘We make a hell of a lot of stuff here. We make stuff because we want to, and we want to so we can ride on our lunch break,’ says creative director Robert Egger to a sea of nods by employees standing around us.

‘That’s a core tenet of how this place works.’ The lunch ride, a daily chaingang turned race, has evolved into a culture here. Each and every ride crowns a victor, and the ‘Friday Worlds’ is so fiercely competed that Specialized had a special Lunch Ride World Champs jersey printed to reward the winner.

Egger has won the lunch ride more than any other employee – ‘1,533 times to be exact.’ 

We’re now in the composite lab, where Egger works on all manner of eccentric projects. It’s a clear indication of the lengths Specialized goes to in keeping a strong hand in developing its products.

‘We have three structural labs, one here and two in Asia,’ says Cote. 

Standing before a Venge Vias frame covered in writing and notes, which sits in front of a white sheet laid over a frame we’re not allowed to see, is principal engineer Luc Callahan.

‘This composite shop got going a few years ago,’ Callahan says. ‘We spend a lot of time doing research and development here. It’s mostly on different ideas, and especially concepts that we want to keep to ourselves.’

The idea that R&D is all done in the West and production all done in the East is one that Callahan dispels, though: ‘We do a lot of development with our partners in the Far East. For us they’re not simply factories. We have our own production lines there, with our own people.

'I go there all the time, but they also bring a lot of ideas to us.’

For a brand with such a distinct aesthetic – a signature curvature to the top tube of every bike – I wonder how a structural engineer juggles looks with performance.

‘There’s a balance,’ Callahan says. ‘If you can marry function and performance with an aesthetic, that’s beautiful. But there’s always a push and pull between design and engineering because what looks beautiful will rarely be what’s most efficient structurally.’ 

He lifts up the Venge Vias to show me its profile. ‘Looking at this you may think it has a lot of design, but it has virtually none. The only concession [to aesthetics] was making this edge slightly crisper.

'Otherwise what you’re looking at is all functional and wind-tunnel tested. Which is good because it looks wild, right?’

While the wind-tunnel is the showpiece, it’s behind the doors of the structural lab where some of the most pivotal design and development takes place – informed by data gleaned from that wind-tunnel.

It’s clear Callahan knows more about bikes than most as he explains to me the differing ratio of T700 and YS60 as you descend the Specialized range, and the impact on handling.

He shows me the latest Tarmac frame, and reveals how it was the design around the head tube not the bottom bracket that most influenced the stiffness of the bottom bracket area.

He tells me how finely tuned feedback and compliance must be for a ride to be perceived as both comfortable and fast, even when that comfort is achieved without sacrificing either stiffness or weight.

With the slogan ‘Innovate or die’ printed on about a dozen walls here, it’s clear Specialized takes engineering very seriously, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle.

'As much as creating world-class bikes, they need to be ridden by world-class riders.

‘I asked myself that question a lot before I came to work for a bike company,’ says chief marketing officer Slate Olson when I ask him whether sponsoring WorldTour teams really sells bikes.

‘We know the impact of being connected with the right riders and teams,’ he says. ‘But it’s a huge commitment – not just the bikes but the money involved too. It’s a timely question too.’

By that he means that with us meeting just before the Tour de France, contract renewals are up, and yet again Specialized has to make the decision whether to continue with three WorldTour teams.

With a commitment of close to 400 bikes per team, and a financial contribution above and beyond that, it’s not a decision to be taken lightly.

‘It’s always going to come back to the question, “Does the end justify the means?”, and there’s always a case for being present at those races and those moments,’ Olson reflects.

‘We also benefit from the feedback and the level of knowledge we get from supplying the teams that we do.’

Considering the scale of Specialized’s operations across the cycling industry, the enormity of its presence specifically in pro cycling becomes all the more striking.

‘The road side probably makes up 35% of our business,’ Olson says. ‘That’s if you count everything – including footwear, apparel and helmets. Mountain is still our biggest category around the globe.’

To cover Specialized’s mountain bike range would fill more pages than this magazine can offer. But what unifies all of Specialized’s various disciplines and product ranges? Perhaps the wind-tunnel, where our day began, holds the answers.

The brain

Inside the glass cube of the wind-tunnel, behind an altar of computers and live data, are Chris Yu and Mark Cote. The two have garnered increasing YouTube fame for their various videos exploring shaved legs, shaved arms and all other manner of aero gains.

Every company in cycling has a certain groove that both Yu and Cote fit – the scientific yet creative minds that dream up and then develop new projects. 

‘I think the interpretation of what we do in here is something we have to change,’ Cote says, stressing that almost every product comes through the wind-tunnel, whether it’s a mountain bike or commuter jersey.

‘Maybe if we had a Turbo [Specialized’s e-bike platform] in here we’d be having a different discussion. We spend as much time working on non-road and non-triathlon stuff in here, and that’s a big difference. Aero is no longer a category – it stretches across everything.’

That commitment to aerodynamics is clear when you consider Yu’s role. With a PhD in aeronautics from Stanford University, he worked in the aerospace industry before deciding to focus on the much smaller – but equally challenging world – of cycling.

‘With aerospace it’s cool in the sense that you get to do fighter jet or airline-scale projects,’ Yu says.

‘But at the same time, by necessity you’re working on a team of hundreds and you’re just a tiny part of that. For some people that’s exciting, but here products have to come very, very fast,’ he says, clicking his fingers in quick succession.

‘As an engineer, I’ve gone to training camps with our teams to get feedback and product ideas, come back and tested in the wind-tunnel and then gone directly to factories in Taiwan to analyse the viability of production. That level of immersion is unheard of in the aerospace industry.’

Sitting behind him, and in the centre of the wind-tunnel, is the culmination of Specialized’s fixation on aerodynamics – the Venge Vias. In a case of almost eerie simultaneous thinking, both Specialized and Trek launched rival aero bikes that removed all cabling from the exterior and pushed aerodynamics to another level.

‘You had two groups of engineers locked in labs,’ says Cote. ‘One group in Wisconsin and one here in California. Both of us came out with a huge leap in bike design, yet the approaches are so drastically different.’

For Cote and Yu, aerodynamics is a battleground. So too is Specialized’s investment in disc brakes, which has seen it go all-in on discs – all of its new Venge models are equipped with them.

Yet the company is as focused on the rider as it is on the bikes, and that seems to be where the next gamble for the brand will lie.

Cote dreams of a system of sensors available to the consumer in the not-too distant future to analyse drag, recovery and all manner of performance metrics: ‘What we don’t want to do is just add a bunch of gadgets that all need to be charged regularly.

'But five years ago aerodynamics was just a talking point and then we doubled down on that, saying that 80% of your drag on the road is from aerodynamics.

'Well, what’s the other 20%? Maybe we should be researching it. Maybe we should all be sleeping 10 hours a night, changing position, stretching more.

'Whatever it is, we’re focusing on the engine. I think that’s quite unique for a bicycle company but we’re trying to become much more a cycling company.’

It’s not all wind-tunnels and data acquisition, though. As much as performance takes centre stage, most of the work done here is never destined for WorldTour sprint finishes.

While Yu and Cote labour over wind-tunnel figures, the teams developing the latest AWOL and Sequoia touring bikes take a regular Thursday night tour out to Henry Coe National Park, panniers packed to the brim, to cook and camp under the stars. 

Leaving the tinted windows of Specialized and emerging into the blazing Californian sunshine, Egger leaves us with a parting thought. ‘These are just toys for adults,’ he says. ‘You can’t forget that just because everybody is so serious.

‘Riding a bike was so much fun as a kid. It should be that same way now, only with better bikes, which means even more fun.’

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