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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.