Innovate or Die: Inside Specialized world HQ

Big Red S opens its doors to reveal innovation secrets and more

Company Spotlight
Specialized

The Innovate or Die mantra is the driving force behind everything Specialized does.

Innovate or Die. It has been the mantra of Specialized almost since it began in 1974. Depending on who you ask, there’s a wide range of opinion on the Big Red S, but one thing is not up for debate; as long as it’s existed, Specialized has been instrumental in pushing bicycle innovation. Named after the Italian word specialista, Mike Sinyard originally started the company to distribute fine Italian made road cycling components.

But it didn’t stay that way for long. Since starting as a parts distributor, Specialized has grown into every possible segment of cycling, from road bikes and mountain bikes to commuters and e-bikes to tires, apparel and every bicycle component imaginable aside from brakes and shifting. And Specialized was the first manufacturer to offer a production mountain bike, the Stumpjumper, in 1983 when the sport was in its infancy.

Specialized

Since it began in 1983, the Stumpjumper has gone through 10 iterations.

Specialized has typically kept their innovation processes very close to the chest, but they recently opened their doors to a gaggle of journalists, including Mtbr. During out tour, the company showed off the massive investments they’ve made into R&D, including their “Win” tunnel, a cycling-specific wind tunnel that was designed with the assistance of NASA engineers.

Specialized

Taking a tour of the Specialized facility in Morgan Hill.

Equally important and as impressive as the “Win” tunnel, Specialized also revealed their Morgan Hill Innovation Lab, a recently completed in-house prototyping lab that can fully design, develop and build pre-production models of their bikes, including the recently released and completely redesigned Stumpjumper. The paint literally had just dried on the lab as the company toured us through this incredibly complex and expensive facility.

Specialized

More commonly found in hospitals, this CT scanner ensures all composite designs are structurally sound.

It was truly eye opening to walk the halls and see a 3D printing lab, a CT scanning lab, a massive CNC mill, and a complete composites facility where an entire frame can be laid up and ready to ride. The amount of money Specialized has invested into its own processes is staggering. And the fact Specialized has similar Innovation Labs in Switzerland developing their own e-bike powertrains, as well as new labs in Taiwan and Boulder, Colorado, further underlines how seriously the company takes their “Innovate or Die” mantra.

Specialized

This 5-axis CNC mill creates several complex alloy pieces for the new Stumpjumper.

As an example of how their process works from first scratch on a napkin to a fully rideable bike, Specialized showed us the entire process of how the new Stumpjumper came to be. Of course there are a lot of pieces to this puzzle, but what really stood out was just how much of the technology and innovation on the new Stumpjumper was designed and tested in Morgan Hill.

Having the Innovation Lab in the same building as the design and testing team is essential. The composites team can pass the laid up frame to the testing team for both lab and trail testing, collect data and feedback, and pass it right back to the composites team for further stiffness and compliance tweaking. Meanwhile, the design team can be present to ensure that the beautifully sculpted lines of the new Stumpjumper remain intact.

Stumpjumper

The new Stumpjumper was designed, tested and developed completely in Morgan Hill.

Stumpjumper

The SWAT box design was refined and perfected in Morgan Hill.

Stumpjumper

The CNC-made chain guide on the new Stumpjumper is another example of in-house capability.

Specialized

A cross section cut of the new Stumpjumper reveals the inside surface of the tubes are as clean as the outside surface.

Another impressive piece is just how much of the bike’s pieces – SWAT box, integrated chain guide, chain guard, linkages – are all machined and refined in Morgan Hill. Add in the company’s exhaustive list of branded components and wheels, as well as their own suspension tuning lab, with the exception of the brakes and the shifting, there’s nothing on the new Stumpjumper that hasn’t been directly touched and refined by Specialized.

The Next Generation

Not only were we able to see the next generation of bike design through the new Stumpjumper, but we also met the hardworking and imaginative people behind the company. A perfect example is Jason McDonald. As soon as I saw McDonald, I knew I recognized him.

Jason McDonald

One of the lead Stumpjumper engineers, Jason McDonald started his career at Specialized 12 years ago and represents the future of the company.

I met him more than a decade ago when he was a kid working at Cupertino Bike Shop and had just gotten his first job at Specialized. McDonald has been with the company more than 12 years and earned his engineering degree while working there. He’s now the lead engineer who helped design and develop the new Stumpjumper. And McDonald is just one of many people who’ve made a lifelong career innovating at Specialized.

Many have associated Specialized with the company’s founder, Mike Sinyard; in many ways he has been the Steve Jobs of the cycling industry. And although Sinyard still steers the ship, it’s pretty clear Sinyard does not exert as much control as he used to. He can’t. The company has grown too big for any one person to manage. The amount of education, intelligence, drive and passion at Specialized is so pervasive, that the best thing Sinyard can do is step back and let his employees work their magic.

Win Tunnel

Inside the Win Tunnel.

As an example, as we walked over to the Win Tunnel, Sinyard and Mark Cote, head of Global Marketing and Innovation, joked about how the six massive 75 horsepower fans were purchased and initial build out of the wind tunnel was already in progress before Sinyard even knew about it. The wind tunnel is proof of this next generation of thinking. Every aspect of human-powered performance can be tested in Specialized’s Win Tunnel. Everything from how much drag shifter and brake cables on the new Stumpjumper can make at six miles-an-hour to drafting techniques at 60kpm, a test former Specialized athlete Mark Cavendish did to have an aerodynamic advantage in the Tour de France.

Win Tunnel

The platform where aerodynamic magic happens.

Specialized calls the wind tunnel a Human Performance Lab, and according to Cote, the lab helps validate with data all the innovations Specialized puts into its products.

“We’ve made all these innovations with our product designs, but how do we validate that these innovations actually make improvements to rider efficiency?” said Cote. “The Human Performance Lab is our validation.”

Aero is not just for professional athletes. As the hashtag in the lab says, #aeroiseverything. Making even the most recreational cyclist more efficient on the bike enhances the riding experience, and the Human Performance Lab is an incredibly important piece to the company’s Innovate or Die mantra.

Win Tunnel

Getting our hair blown back at 50 mph in the Win Tunnel.

After getting our hair blown back in the wind tunnel at 50 mph, and seeing the proud smile on Sinyard’s face, I realized Specialized is entering a new era. An era where Sinyard may still be at the helm, but he is far from the face of the company. The talent pool here is deep, and with the recent surprise announcement of industry veteran Vernon Felton joining the company’s mountain bike marketing team, the talent pool at Specialized continues to get deeper. It’s hard to imagine a Specialized without Mike Sinyard, but he’s doing an incredible job of making sure the future of Specialized – and that of cycling innovation – remains strong.


About the author: Kurt Gensheimer

Kurt Gensheimer thinks the bicycle is man’s most perfect invention. He firmly believes ‘singlespeed’ is a compound word. He sometimes wears a disco ball helmet. He is also known as Genshammer. He is a Gemini and sleeps outside in a hammock.


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  • RP says:

    Love that saying considering how many times they sit on the sideline and wait.

    Remember what they said about 650B. LOL

    • CWN says:

      I do, and they were 100% right. Just look at the market now.

      Big S seems to always be a few steps ahead. When everyone was talking 650B they said 29″ was really where we would all end up. Now look how may companies are scrambling to get a 29″ trail and enduro bike to market while the Stumpjumper and Enduro have been killing it for years.

  • dickachu says:

    More like ”rip off or die”
    Its OK to rip, if its done by S and not ok other way.

    • Will Urich says:

      How come you really dislike S so much man? I’ve got two used Specialized bikes, a 2002 Allez Elite roadie and a 2016 29r enduro fattie, I both really enjoy riding, maintaining, looking at and talking about both of those bikes. Maybe I’m not as invested in this market as you are? Do you work in bicycle design?

      • Warwick says:

        Google “Specialized bicycles court case” and see if you don’t change your mind about them.

        • Will Urich says:

          The main court cases I found were a douchey case in Canada against a man his Cafe Roubaix cycle shop and another case against volagi that looks like it was settled for $1 in damages…..You and that dude dickachu make it sound like they were putting lead paint on their bikes. IN the spectrum of things, yes I don’t like bigger companies pushing little companies around and lawyers greedily grabbing as much money and protections as they can, but on another hand, I’m not a specialized Fanboy to begin with, I just got deals on their bikes and they make good bikes.

      • myke says:

        They are not original thinkers on actual innovation. there a companies that take cues from one another but S is will straight up will steal a design and call it their own. this is certainly true with their accessories. they have been caught doing the same with frame designs.

        Then you look at the way they interact with shops and their competitors. it is more like muscling people out of the way even when they know they are wrong. it is not a brand worth supporting if you ask me.

  • dickachupachu says:

    Haters will Hate. Spesh forges on and ups the competition. Their high-end bikes are usually exquisite. Keep hating, I’ll keep buying. Yeah, Apple, Google, Amazon are all a bunch of softball players?!? No! Big biz gets ruffles your petite feathers, man up cupcakes.

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