MONTEREY, Calif. (VN) — I’ve been at the Specialized 2012 product launch here the last few days, riding new bikes, listening to product presentations, touring Specialized’s headquarters, and generally learning what the company is up to. This is an innovative company making lots of cool things, and I’ll tell you the coolest things I’ve seen.
First up: Science.
I don’t know of any other bicycle company that devotes the amount of resources to scientifically studying how to make riders go faster and stay healthier than Specialized does. I would venture to say that the standard method in the industry is to look for studies after the fact that validate what they have done, but not do the studies themselves on the front end to optimize the design. The fact that for a decade and a half Specialized has been funding scientific research by the two Dr. Roger Minkow and Andy Pruitt and has invested in building products and services based on their findings says a lot about company president Mike Sinyard. Sinyard, who founded the company in 1974 on a shoestring, doesn’t buy fancy houses, yachts or airplanes; he lives and breathes bicycles, and he pours his profits back into making better ones. This investment has resulted in a bicycle, saddle, and shoe line that is second to none and in an amazing array of top professional athletes using a full Specialized setup, when they could easily weasel out of using some of the items. And a new deal with McLaren dropped into the company’s lap another level of scientific study well beyond what a bicycle company could normally ever aspire to.
Roger Minkow is of course the originator of the Body Geometry saddles and is credited with putting a groove down the middle of a saddle to stave off male erectile dysfunction among cyclists. But it never stopped there. He did studies in Germany with the leader in the field for years on penile blood flow, continuing to improve the saddles to guarantee the urological health of riders. And then Specialized invested over a $100,000 on its own lab to study penile blood flow while riding — the only lab in the world with such equipment besides that of Dr. Sommers in Hamburg. Yes, it actually measures the blood flow in the penis while the rider is pedaling.
Sommers claims that as long as the blood flow to the penis stays above 50 percent of normal while riding, the rider can be fairly sure that long-term damage will not occur, but below that level, scarring in the erectile tissues and a permanent reduction in erectile function can occur (and similar damage can happen in women). Minkow’s studies of a wide range of saddle brands and models under innumerable cyclists generally shows that even top pro cyclists can have blood flow reduced down to under 10 percent of normal with standard saddles they’ve chosen for years, and with Specialized saddles properly fit to them, that often increases to above 70 percent of normal.
Once again noseless saddles seem to be getting passed around the Internet with dire warnings for those who don’t use them. But instead of those of us who are horrified at the prospect of putting such a thing on our bike coming up with excuses for not using them that non-cyclists shake their heads at, thanks to the funding by Specialized, Minkow actually has a scientific response. (Turns out, according to Minkow, noseless saddles only offer increased penile blood when riding in a low position; they can actually cut off blood flow when riding in an upright position.)
There is actually no way to measure genital blood flow in women, but they face the same blood-flow issues when riding as men, with the same potential for permanent damage. Minkow’s lab at Specialized uses a digital pressure-mapping system. Minkow’s free reign to study similar issues all over the body has also led to gloves and grips said to prevent nerve damage while riding, although now he is back to working only on saddles.
Andy Pruitt, the founding director of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, has been the leader in the cycling field for decades when it came to everything from how to position a rider to get more power and reduce injury, to diagnosing and fixing orthopedic injuries — including coming up with new surgical and treatment protocols specific to cyclists and other endurance athletes.
Pruitt pioneered using video-capture methods to find inefficiencies in pedaling stroke, as well as using X-ray images to identify length discrepancies in specific leg segments. He incorporated all of his accumulated knowledge about fitting into “BG FIT, or “Body Geometry Fit Integration Technology,” the school within Specialized that teaches Pruitt’s philosophy of fit in the x, y, and z plane. This is the most widely-used fitting system in the bike industry, and it is integrated into all Specialized frames and bike components.
In the process of improving bicycle fitting, Pruitt has developed ideas about shoes and the interface between the shoe and the pedal. Specialized BG shoes, which he is the mastermind behind, and of which the current top models are also incredibly light, incorporate lots of fit widgets to dial in the link between the rider’s feet and pedals. They already have a slightly outwardly-tipped angular correction built into the rigid sole designed to accommodate the majority of cyclists. This was based on old studies finding that the over 80 percent of the population has this “varus” tilt, but when the study came under fire for not having a large enough sample, the vast database provided by BG Fits done all over the world provided the biggest study ever done on the subject. And the Specialized data showed, indeed, that 87 percent of riders who had had a BG FIT done had a varus tilt to their feet.
Pruitt has long been the go-to bike fitter for top American riders and some European pros, but due to Specialized’s sponsorship of multiple ProTour teams (this year, Saxo Bank, HTC, and Astana), he touches, and improves the power output and comfort of, an incredible percentage of the peloton. Many of the world’s top riders depend on his advice. “To have the kind of relationship I have with these top riders is incredible,” says Pruitt. “And it’s due to Mike’s investment in these teams.”
This past offseason, Pruitt changed the foot placement (with BG shoes) as well as the saddle and upper body positions of Saxo Bank’s Nick Nuyens, who went on win the Tour of Flanders, HTC’s Matt Goss, who went on win Milan-San Remo, and Alberto Contador, who won the Giro and lots of other stage races. Mark Cavendish has a full BG FIT from Pruitt, even though he doesn’t use BG shoes; his Nikes have been “BG-ized,” according to Pruitt, including widening his stance after a long, drawn-out process of getting longer pedal spindles from Shimano. Contador is riding stock (though custom-painted) BG shoes dialed in for him.
Pruitt positioned Fabian Cancellara and the Schleck brothers, improving their time trialing the last couple of years, and fixed the huge back and leg-muscle problems of domestique Lars Bak while making him faster. Ivan Basso, who had an undiagnosed leg-length discrepancy, met up with Pruitt in an airport hotel to fix his position problems last year.
Most interesting is Pruitt’s continual improvement in methods for measuring and documenting power-output changes with fit changes. Astana’s Roman Kreuziger became a recent recipient of this largesse. By simply doing a full BG FIT on him including shoes, the Czech rider gained 10 watts; i.e., the power required for him to ride at 40kph dropped by 10 watts. Using an indoor velodrome in Milan, Pruitt and his assistant Neal Henderson found that due to aerodynamic improvements from his new position, he had gained another 11W at 40kph (on his road bike). And in the TT position with the new Specialized Shiv TT bike, Kreuziger’s power gains were far higher yet.
To go through the BG FIT standard, masters, and certification programs, you must be a Specialized dealer or employee. On the other hand, that is a lot of people who impact a lot of cyclists. “I can’t fit everybody in my office, and it’s pretty exciting to have people all over the world doing what I do,” says Pruitt. All bike and bike-component designers at Specialized go through BG FIT school, and every product they come up with must pass its established criteria to ensure that it fits the rider the best that the company knows how.
The new McLaren Venge aero road bike is a result of the Formula One team coming to Specialized with the idea that the two companies could work together and mutually benefit. The understanding of composites engineering and the capabilities of computer modeling of composites at McLaren had heretofore been out of touch of bicycle companies.
McLaren did ply-by-ply analysis of every carbon layer on the frame.
“They have one of the world’s five most powerful computers working overnight performing an astronomical number of computations to do it,” says Specialized chief of racing-bicycle development, Chris D’Alusio.
A surprise it revealed to Specialized engineers was how low the stress is on the lower seat tube when riding. By reducing the number of fabric plies in that area, they were able to save a lot of weight there. The drop in weight of the McLaren Venge over the S-Works Venge is 110g, yet it is also 17 percent stiffer torsionally, due to further tweaks in layup discovered by McLaren’s computational analysis. On the other hand, the tooling was much more expensive (and some tooling changes would have been totally out of reach of a bicycle company so were foregone in order to make a product that could still be sold). A higher price is also due to the precision of fabric placement required, as the minimal overlap between plies means that it takes three times as long for workers to lay up a McLaren Venge than an S-Works Venge.
Specialized also learned a lot about testing from McLaren. Bicycle companies generally build prototypes and bring them into the lab and break them to see how they failed, but the Formula One car builder does non-destructive composites testing, as it can’t afford to break a chassis when it only makes five per year; it has to race them after they’ve been tested. Specialized engineers consequently have learned a lot about how to test a frame without damaging it, discovering where voids (interfaces between fibers at the wrong angles) are that could cause cracking, and potential delaminations.
One of the reasons that Specialized is able to be a leader in the bike industry year after year is that it doesn’t wait for other people to do the science. If it recognizes the need for scientific studies to develop new products or services, it funds them itself.