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Special effects: the story of Specialized

2 Dec 2020

What started as one man selling components out of a trailer has become a behemoth of the bike industry. Here's how

Words: Sam Challis Photography: Danny Bird

Like many successful brands, Specialized’s story is one of entrepreneurship and capitalism, but this one comes with a leftfield twist.

As a young man fresh out of university in 1973, Mike Sinyard sold his Volkswagen Camper van to raise enough money to fly to Europe and ride around on his bike. After spending some time in Italy he met Cino Cinelli, founder of the eponymous Italian bike company.

Spotting an opportunity, Sinyard bought as much of Cinelli’s product as he could afford, so that he could sell it back in the US. He would later convince the Italian to make him the sole US importer of the brand.

‘Mike sold those first few components from a trailer attached to his bicycle, riding up and down the San Francisco Bay area,’ says Mark Cote, global head of marketing and innovation at Specialized.

‘That was where our name came from – “specialistas” is an Italian term for manufacturers who would build or connect specifically tailored products with the consumer.’

Sinyard officially founded Specialized in 1974, and two years later the brand released its first product, the Specialized Touring Tyre. Since then, the company has developed beyond all recognition, growing to the point where it not only follows trends in the cycling market but often dictates them.

Its catalogue boasts a huge and diverse range of products, sponsors world-class athletes in every cycling discipline and has even launched a charity that now runs independently of the bike brand. Yet Cote says its core tenets remain the same as when it began.

‘We’re still just catering for what riders want,’ says Cote. ‘It’s just now we get to do that globally instead of just up and down that bit of San Francisco Bay. Our depth and connection to the market is the secret sauce that has led the company to be as successful as it has been.’


Thick and thin

Not that it has been plain sailing for Specialized throughout the 45 years it has been in business. On occasions, costly investments would prove to be non-starters, and according to Sinyard himself the brand came within a few hundred dollars of bankruptcy in the mid-1990s.

‘Rodney Hines, one of our graphic designers and a Specialized veteran of more than 30 years, started slapping these “Innovate or Die” stickers around our HQ in the 1990s because he thought we were getting a bit soft,’ says Cote. ‘We really took that to heart and still use that slogan to this day because it resonated – if we aren’t differentiating and driving innovation, why are we around?’

That’s especially true in an industry as competitive as cycling, where it isn’t hard for the consumer to find good products from any number of brands.

‘So we changed our approach,’ says Cote. ‘Thinking more holistically, not just about product but about the facilities and processes that support the product, too.’

As an example of this shift in mentality, Cote points to the expansion of Specialized’s ‘Body Geometry’ concept. These ‘contact point’ products have been designed with doctors, engineers and riders to improve comfort and reduce the chance of injury.

‘Body Geometry started in the late 1990s with a saddle. After that we started to realise the potential this concept had so we worked on some shoes too, but came to the conclusion that the features we designed into any Body Geometry product would only really matter if you fit on your bike properly.’

That lead to the creation of the Specialized Bicycle Components University – which now incorporates the bike-fit technology from Retül – with the aim of training individuals to conduct bike fits so Specialized’s Body Geometry products could be used correctly.

‘Consequently we now have thousands of trained fitters worldwide,’ says Cote. ‘Now riders with Specialized shoes don’t have to worry about hot feet like they used to, and women get products properly designed for their anatomy.

‘We won’t compromise on a project – we’re happy to go down a rabbit hole, investing time and resources if it means we can develop the product we need.’

Cote says Specialized demonstrates the same way of thinking when it comes to its bikes: ‘We decided to go after “speed” in 2014. So we didn’t just build the Venge ViAS, our approach let us build a system that would save you five minutes over 40km, which incorporated wheels, tyres, shoes, skinsuit and helmet.

‘Our teams work next to each other and everyone is within shouting distance – and shouting does happen sometimes – so we’re all aware of what’s going on. It means we’re naturally well aligned when it comes to developing new products.’

Thanks to the aforementioned willingness to invest, new product development now happens at a speed that belies Specialized’s monolithic size. Within the company’s Morgan Hill headquarters in California there is a new R&D facility capable of building 10,000 frames a year entirely on site, yet Specialized uses the resource entirely for development prototyping.

The initial frame moulds are now machined on site too, which means Specialized doesn’t have to involve its Asian factory (and the logistical issues of managing a long-distance partnership) until the point at which a new design is basically ready for full production.

‘We can go through so many levels of simulation in-house now that in most cases the first rideable prototypes of a new design are already better than the previous generation,’ says Cote.

‘Ten years ago the way we’d develop a Tarmac would be to set given performance and safety parameters, build that up in one design, make a prototype, send it to the factory.

‘We’d then get a pre-production sample back. We’d test it, get feedback and make a change. It would take three to four weeks for the next iteration to come back. We’d repeat that anywhere from nine to 20 times in a two-year development cycle, then put the frame into production. That was probably true up until the Tarmac SL3.’

Today, Cote explains, the process is far more complex, but also far quicker: ‘Most importantly we’ll set parameters for handling, as every bike has to handle the Specialized way, but also for ride quality, stiffness and aerodynamics. Then we codify them for every different frame size, so for the Tarmac that’s nine variations.’

Each size is a separate engineering project – the carbon layup is totally different, the aerodynamics are totally different – but Cote says that thanks to the resources Specialized has on hand now, something can be made in the morning, lab tested and ridden, and then another iteration can be fabricated immediately that can be ridden again in the afternoon.

‘What used to take a month now takes about five hours because we’ve made sure everything that dictates the riding experience is in-house within 500 metres of each other,’ says Cote.


Changing gear

The past couple of years have seen some seismic shifts in the road market but it only takes a brief bit of research to see that Specialized is handily placed within each niche.

A case in point is the Tarmac – it has a reasonable claim to have pioneered the blueprint for a modern road race bike and many competitors have since released machines with similar features.

‘We’d been treading the same path with the Tarmac for several iterations so with the SL6 we took a step back to see what other avenues we could go down,’ says Cam Piper, Specialized’s road product manager for the Tarmac and Venge.

‘That coincided with the widespread uptake of disc brakes so we ended up creating something markedly different. Using the R&D lab and our “Win Tunnel” we could understand how features like the Tarmac’s dropped seatstays improved aerodynamics as well as comfort before other brands.’

As other brands have introduced similar concepts there has been a convergence in frame design. Piper says that means that now it is the details that matter.

‘The ingredients to do what we do exist everywhere. Most brands have access to the materials and technology we do and are bound by the same UCI limits.

‘It’s no longer at the point of “can we build it?”, it’s “what shall we build?” – little, astute selections and refinements that make the difference. With our development process we’re best placed to discover and exploit those areas, which is why the SL6 has been such a success for us.’

Chief among the updates to the design of the SL6 was aerodynamic efficiency, which is an attribute taken to a more extreme extent in Specialized’s aero road platform, the Venge. 2018 saw a slew of aero road designs released from the big brands and Piper is able to summarise the crux of the latest generation.

‘As the road market has matured, riders have become more discerning and they expect complete performance now. It’s no good for the Venge to just be the most aero bike – it needs to be lightweight, handle well and be comfortable too,’ he says.

‘The Venge has been almost 10 years in the making so I’d like to think we’ve educated riders in that time. When our Win Tunnel was built we’d test in there and people acted like it was a photoshoot or PR stunt. Now people understand the benefit of aero.’

Piper says he first saw evidence of that on Specialized’s lunchtime rides. They’re a brand institution and notoriously competitive – apparently pros have been dropped in the past because riders need a very specific type of fitness that Piper and Cote dub ‘lunch ride strength’.

‘A few years ago people started showing up on the ViAS and did so well on the ride that everyone started seeing the value in being aero. Now each lunchtime you can’t move for skinsuits and Evade helmets.

‘It has been accepted, which I think is representative of the market now too. We credit the Venge ViAS for helping to kick-start the aero trend.’

A key factor in the well-roundedness of modern race bikes has been the move to wider tyres – even the raciest of bikes now have clearances for tyres that were the preserve of endurance bikes a few years ago.

With the explosion of gravel at the other end of the spectrum, is Specialized’s venerable endurance road platform, the Roubaix, at risk of being made obsolete by the widening capabilities of the Venge and Diverge?

‘I don’t see endurance road being edged out by the combination of race and gravel,’ says Cote. ‘There’s still a definite application for the Roubaix. Geometrically and technically it has features that allow it to specialise between race and gravel – it has similar aerodynamics to the Tarmac but the Futureshock suspension unit of the Diverge, for example.

‘The widening scope of each bike just means the rider has a more adaptable machine that still performs highly. That didn’t used to be possible, and can only be a good thing for riders.’


New horizons

Cote says that while naysayers may claim that the road scene is tapering off, Specialized believes that worldwide it is still as vibrant as ever. That said, the brand is focussed heavily on gravel and e-road too.

‘We just can’t get enough of how forward-thinking and experimental gravel riding is,’ he says. ‘The future is really open for gravel and it’s one of our biggest areas of investment.’

Specialized’s ‘biggest single investment in product development ever’, though, was in the drive system for its new Turbo Creo SL e-road bike. Unlike other e-road bikes that are designed around third-party systems, Specialized developed a proprietary drive system, which Cote says sets the e-bike apart in terms of ride feel and battery range.

‘We opened an e-bike hub in Switzerland seven years ago, which now has 40 employees,’ says Cote. ‘The Creo is my favourite bike of ours without doubt.

‘We had a taco night at our HQ for our pro teams at last year’s Tour of California. Bora-Hansgrohe’s Max Schachmann took off on a prototype Creo, disappeared up the road and came back with a huge grin on his face.

‘No matter if you are in the WorldTour or haven’t ridden a bike since you were a child, e-bikes have this ability to put a giddy smile on your face. It’s so exciting.’

Specialized says the Creo can be set up to suit gravel just as well as road. ‘People who were racing triathlon now want to go bikepacking,’ says Cote. ‘That type of crossover simply wouldn’t have happened a couple of years ago.

‘It means people are spending more time on their bikes and enjoying it more, which is ultimately all we want to facilitate. As I said, we’re still running on the same principles Mike fostered when he founded the company. The rider is still the boss.’


Aero gets practical

‘The Venge ViAS was released in 2015 and for us this was the moment when aero was widely accepted as something tangible,’ says Cote. ‘But there were so many things that made it not your go-to bike.’

Not least was the cockpit design – it hid every cable away from the wind but was notably convoluted to adjust. The latest Venge is just as clean but uses split spacers and smart, easy-to-remove fairings to make sure the bike is easier to live with day-to-day.

Shock of the new

The second iteration of the ‘Futureshock’ suspension unit is a lot more refined than the first. That was a simple sprung system but the redesign has introduced two significant features.

First, the unit’s travel has been damped using an oil reservoir, which ensures that both the compression and rebound are more controlled and progressive. Second, the unit is adjustable now that the original top cap has been replaced by a dial that can be turned on the fly to stiffen or soften the suspension.

Thinking inside the box

With the Diverge gravel bike, Specialized has been able to try out some new concepts, one of which is the SWAT storage unit. Standing for ‘storage, water, air, tools’, SWAT is a range of solutions for carrying stuff on the bike, and this SWAT Road Kit bolts into the junction between down tube and seat tube with space for a spare inner tube, multitool, CO2 cartridge and tyre levers.


Dropping like flies 

It seems like every endurance race bike now features dropped seatstays – something the US company was among the first to champion. ‘Dropped stays are more aero and naturally promote compliance in the seat tube,’ says Piper.

‘As the tubes are shorter they’re also lighter. Thanks to our R&D lab and wind-tunnel we could understand and optimise their inclusion in our SL6 Tarmac design quickly. We know other brands have found the same thing as it’s now hard to find a race bike without them.’