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David vs. Goliath?

  • By Lennard Zinn
  • Published Feb. 10, 2012

The wrangling

Much earth was scorched during this lawsuit, and there is no shortage of hard feelings on both sides. Volagi lawyers employed what Specialized lawyers called an “unclean hands” defense in using Sullivan to testify that Specialized employed a team of engineers to reverse-engineer and copy competitors’ products, that the original Roubaix design was copied from a Seven bike and that the Roubaix name was chosen despite knowing that Fuji held the rights to it. Sullivan also contended that Specialized used its considerable pull in the industry by threatening its dealers, in attempts to stop them from selling certain competitors’ products, and threatening some of its vendors to keep them from making products of some competitors.

Sinyard dismisses this testimony as coming from a disgruntled former employee. Emails to Sullivan received no reply, and officials of Sullivan’s prior employer refused to comment on the record about him.

Capron told VeloNews.com that everyone in the cycling industry is aware of what their competitors are doing, the same way Tour de France riders know their competitors’ strengths and weaknesses.

“But (the assertion that Specialized copies and reverse-engineers competitors’ products) is totally false,” Capron said. “The BG (Body Geometry) shoes developed with Andy Pruitt, the BG saddles developed with Roger Minkow, and the dual-density foam technology that make the Prevail such an awesome helmet all came from research at Specialized. The company, and Mike personally, invests heavily in that and pours the profits back into that; I’d be willing to bet that no one (in the bike industry) has a bigger R&D budget than Specialized.”

Up until the 2010 Interbike show, Specialized appears to have had good relations with Forsman and Choi. As late as June 24, 2010, two months after he’d left the company, Specialized paid Volagi $750 for six hours of design work by Forsman in creating a 3D CAD design for a Specialized Powerade water bottle. He claims that Specialized subsequently asked for some design work on a saddle, which he turned down, claiming he felt he already had too much on his plate.

Forsman and Choi also traveled together in Taiwan and China in May 2010 to line up suppliers and manufacturers for Volagi bikes. This is when they came to an agreement with X-Pace, a carbon vendor that does no business with Specialized, to build their bike as well as to assist them in its design. Choi began his trip to China on Specialized business and then continued the trip on Volagi business, reimbursing Specialized for his expenses during the Volagi-related part of the trip. He claims to have previously approved this with his supervisor, Eric Edgecumbe. Edgecumbe said otherwise.

“I did not know that Robert Choi was going to do anything other than work on his Specialized projects during his May trip in advance,” Edgecumbe said. “Robert disappeared on the trip for about three days; some Specialized employees came to me asking where he was because they had not been able to reach him for three days, and he usually was very reachable in Asia. It was really embarrassing to me. I brought this up with him after he returned and told him to reimburse the company for the non-Specialized expenses he (had) incurred.”

At the time, Choi was working under an April 23, 2010, agreement between him and Edgecumbe stipulating that he was only required to work on-premises at Specialized 20 of his agreed-upon 40 hours per week. As many of the infractions Specialized cited in Choi’s case occurred after their April 12, 2010, resignation date, he and Forsman felt that he was no longer under any contractual obligation to the company and believed that the jury might find him innocent of breach of contract as well.
Forsman claims that there was no cease-and-desist notice or any communication of the sort before being served with a lawsuit. “We thought it (the lawsuit) was a mistake,” he said, “and we thought we could clear it up. We were naïve in thinking that if we gave them everything they asked for, that they would stop. But in doing so, we gave them half of the information they used against us in the trial. I am one who believes that an employee should be loyal to their employer, and I was.”

Forsman claims that he did no design work on the Volagi bike beyond rough sketches while at Specialized, but that he and Choi did have to make some plans, including one by Choi to cover housing expenses of Forsman and his wife once he resigned.

“We believed that if we resigned from Specialized, we would be walked out the door the very same day so we knew that, if we were to resign, we would need to have a plan for the future in place,” Forsman said. “We discussed completing a display model of a bicycle in time for the annual Interbike show in September 2010.”

Choi said, “We had a harebrained idea of a company. We had a sketch of a bike and that was it. But we didn’t know it was actually going to happen and that the bike was even going to work. You can’t start a company with a sketch, and California law said that you can plan a business while working at another company.”

Sinyard felt that Choi and Forsman took advantage of him, his company, and his employees. “They started their company while they worked here,” he said, “and that’s bad form. They wanted to take our most popular product – the Roubaix – and they knew it was our most popular bike because they worked here.”

Capron said, “If it becomes okay for guys working at Specialized to take technology that others on the team worked so hard to develop, it’s not good. If Mike doesn’t (file suit), then it said to the others on the team that, ‘your blood, sweat and tears don’t matter, and I’m not going to defend it.’ Knowing Mike, I’d guess that was a big part of where this thing was coming from for him.”

Despite the fallout, Sinyard told VeloNews.com, “If I had it to do over again, I would do it again.”

Somewhere between the hardened positions on either side is where the truth lies. Perhaps Goliath isn’t quite the big, bad ogre he is made out to be, and perhaps David isn’t quite a chaste biblical hero, either.

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Lennard Zinn

Lennard Zinn

Our longtime technical writer joined VeloNews in 1987. He is also a framebuilder, a former U.S. National Team rider, and author of many bicycle books, including Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance and Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance, as well as Zinn and the Art of Triathlon Bikes and Zinn's Cycling Primer: Maintenance Tips and Skill Building for Cyclists. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in physics from Colorado College. Readers can send brief technical questions to Ask LZ.

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