The professional cyclist is an impressive and majestic creature, capable of marvelous feats of strength, grace, and sheer ‘squeeze every last wattage from the power cottage’ determination. They’re also, occasionally, guinea pigs on bikes. This is a good thing. The feedback—and occasional odd requests—they have on bikes and equipment can affect how that final product feels and performs. Whether it’s testing tires with pro road teams like Etixx-Quickstep, or spending a year working with Boels-Dolman’s Evelyn Stevens to perfect the S-Works Power Saddle, pro testing of Specialized products leads to innovations and improvements that can benefit all riders.
WEIRD IN A GOOD WAY
For mere cycling mortals, the idea of generating enough raw power to pull the heel of your foot from your shoe while pedaling is mind-boggling, but for Alberto Contador, it was a legitimate thing. “It’s interesting when you get riders talking about something that you can’t fully experience yourself,” says Rob Cook, Design Director of Footwear at Specialized, recalling when Contador first came to him with the request for a better heel fit in his shoe. “You wonder to yourself: ‘how the heck do you move in a way that lifts your heel out of a cycling shoe?’ You just can’t totally comprehend it at first.”
“Sometimes you have to actually build the shoe to get it,” he says. “Then you realize that, although you obviously weren’t strong enough or fast enough to experience the negative as he was, you can experience the positive. And once you can feel the benefit, you realize that it’s a change that will actually be good for many riders.”
In this case, a performance-enhancing request from a pro athlete led to a more consistent heel fit in the new S-Works 6 and Sub 6 road shoes. This kind of scenario—where a pro rider requests a change for their specific need—occurs across all disciplines and products. Whether it’s the fit of a shoe or the grip of a tire on a specific surface, athletes always want to find ways to improve their performance, and testing new innovations and materials is part of that story.
“When it comes to tires,” says Wolf VormWalde, Director of Tires and Tubes, “sometimes you’ll get a rider with a special request. For example, with the mountain team looking at different terrain from one race to the next, we’ll sit down with riders like Aaron Gwin, or Anneke Beerten and Curtis Keene, and we’ll talk about tires and what they need from them. Then we work towards meeting those needs—translate them into product specifications like new tread patterns for mountain or compounds for road and mountain—then test the samples with the athletes. And if that goes well, they’ll use those tires.”
But specific rider requests are just one side of the athlete testing coin. Product developers will sometimes want to test new technologies or materials and get feedback from the pros. Here, the testing sessions can seem a little more…mysterious. To get from-the-hip feedback, sometimes sleight of hand has to be involved so as to not plant preconceived ideas that’ll mess with the findings.
WE WON’T TELL THE ATHLETES WHAT MAKES EACH TIRE DIFFERENT DURING THE TESTS, WE HAD THE MOUNTAIN GUYS RIDE A COURSE MULTIPLE TIMES, TESTING DIFFERENT TIRES TO GIVE FEEDBACK.
— Wolf VormWalde, Director of Tires and Tubes
“We won’t tell the athletes what makes each tire different during the tests,” says VormWalde. “A few months ago, for example, we had the mountain guys ride a course multiple times, testing different tires to give feedback. So let’s say we know one tire should behave softer over small ripples, the other maybe a little firmer, and the third one has a very firm, hard casing but maybe gives you more safety at higher speed when the hits become hard. But the athletes don’t know any of this—we need to see if their feedback matches up with what we think should happen with each tire.”
So how do you keep an athlete in the dark?
“To tell each tire apart, sometimes you write a number on the side, or sometimes we use dots,” he says, describing how they keep track of which tire is which. “But these markings can become a problem, too, because some of these racers are very….” he pauses, searching for the right word. “Like, they’ll say, ‘I test rode a tire with a number two on it. I gotta have the tire with the two’. They’ll get a new sample and notice it doesn’t have the two on it. But it was just handwriting with a marker that we did on the test day.”
The feedback itself is a mix of anecdotal and raw data, depending on the discipline.
“In mountain,” says VormWalde, “the environment and the courses change so much it’s hard to express in numbers, so that’s more ‘feel’ based. But with road, a lot of time the feedback comes from the technical staff after velodrome testing. They’ll come back with power numbers and values. Comparing certain tires on certain wheels and how many seconds faster a tire is.”
“Of course, road teams also come back with more anecdotal feedback when it comes to handling. That’s then similar on the road as it is in mountain.”
One thing is clear when talking to both Rob and Wolf—pro athletes are in a league of their own. The issues they encounter and the conditions they perform under are extreme and can help find problems with products quickly. They’re also, as Wolf puts it ‘super fit’—a definite advantage if you’re going to ask someone to ride the same course over and over and over again.
“Christoph Sauser?” he says. “He can just ride a two kilometer or two mile loop all day and not be too phased by the effort.”
THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA
Pro cyclist Evelyn Stevens will be the first to tell you that she has a reputation as a bit of a saddle princess. But it’s this quality—her sensitivity to any saddle that’s just a little bit ‘off’—that made her the perfect candidate for working with the saddle team on the S-Works Power saddle development.
“I’ve always voiced my opinion when something’s not right,” she says, “and I just wanted a saddle where I could be in an aggressive position and still be comfortable.”
Evie’s initial involvement with testing and the saddle team began with the Sitero saddle. Her feedback on positioning while using that particular saddle converged naturally with work the team was doing developing a new road saddle that put the rider in a more ‘power’ position.
“The best thing about Evie is that she would give the test saddles time,” says Nick Gosseen, then head of saddle development. “She’d take prototypes and test them for a week or a month then give us feedback, and she knows pretty quickly what she wants and is able to articulate it clearly.”
The process of tweaking the saddle after each round of feedback sounds a little McGuyver-ish to the initiated, but these quick-turnaround tweaks made it easier to test and re-test until a more perfect, final version of the saddle emerged.
“In the beginning,” says Gosseen, “it was just cutting up production saddles and refining them—and I mean literally using X-Acto knives, epoxy, anything you could to give the saddle structural stability so that Evie could ride and test it safely.
“We created probably two or three saddles that allowed us to test certain things with her. One was nose length; another was foam density and curvature in the back of the saddle. It helped us narrow the tree down and decide which direction we wanted to go with the Power saddle. She had some things she specifically liked, so we found a version that worked with her during testing, and she ended up riding it full-time.”
I RODE SOME REALLY WEIRD STUFF. FORTUNATELY, I’M NOT TOO CONCERNED ABOUT HOW COOL I LOOK.
— Evelyn Stevens, Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team
These early prototypes are not always the most beautiful, particularly the final prototype that she liked.
“It was a hacked up thing.” Gosseen screws up his face when describing the aesthetic glory of it. “I mean it looked so terrible it looked like something that someone did in their backyard or back garage or whatever.”
Fortunately, the final production of the S-Works Power saddle is much more beautiful, and as a thank you to Evie for all of her valuable feedback during testing, the saddle team created a one-off Power saddle for her.
“For me,” says Evie, looking at the saddle. “Red is a symbol of power and strength. When I look at it, that’s what I think. It says, be strong and be powerful when you get on your bike today.” And as for being part of the testing process?
“I think because we race it, and ride it, and we pay such close attention to our bodies, we’re able to give good feedback. And in the end, that means someone who just wants to ride their bike a couple of days a week can get benefit from that.”
It sounds strange to say it, but some of the testing robots in the Test Lab at Specialized headquarters in Morgan Hill are such fans of professional athletes that they model their entire lives on them. And their dedication to replicating real life in a lab environment is good for you, because it means safer bikes for everyone.
The Test Lab is a constant metronomic hum of activity, with each machine set to perform single, specific tasks, over and over and over again, simulating something that happens in real life, but in a controlled way.
“For example, this machine here,” says Santiago Morales, Test Lab Manager, is saying ‘Brake! Brake! Brake! Brake! Brake!’ while that one is going ‘Pedal! Pedal! Pedal! Pedal!’ but with all the intensity of the hardest part of an all-out sprint.”
Scanning the room, these robotic machines are everywhere, testing everything from frame integrity to wheel strength. One is set to simulate failing to lift a wheel over an obstacle and hitting it hard, while another mimics completely casing a jump. Wheels are put through their paces, with machines set to test rim heat while braking on the longest descent ever, or hitting a bump at 35kph over and over again. Extreme cases for sure, but in order to set up these tests on each machine, you first must understand what happens in real life and work your way back to create the test parameters—and that’s where lab testing and athletes come together.
“The first thing to know,” says Morales, “is that international standards for bikes are intended for ensuring minimum safety, and those standards they’re usually pretty old and limited. Mountain bikes, for example, only have one standard. But think about it—there are multiple kinds of mountain bikes. We have cross country, enduro, downhill, and all of these are different. So if you test a downhill bike to the minimum standard, it won't always do a good job. That’s why we invest time in creating our own standards and tests to meet the specific conditions we intend the bike to see.
“And that’s where the athlete comes in. We gather data from them—athletes from within the building and the pros—and that data can tell us the forces that a frame sees, for example. So when you’re developing a test, you’re trying to match those forces in the frame, but in this artificial set up. The athletes are usually the ones who put the highest demands on a product, so by taking that, and understanding what that athlete performing at the highest level needs, we can use those numbers to backtrack and design a test that replicates that situation. So testing is a combination between the data we get from the athletes, the research we do into extreme riding conditions.”
One of the ways they collect data is through what’s called a ‘strain gauge’ bike.
“Sagan rode this," he says, referring to a silvergrey bike covered in sensors and hanging on a wall of the lab. “Each one of these sensors measures how much a tube in the frame is stretching, then you can back calculate the load that it’s seeing. So when you have an athlete ride this bike, you’re measuring how it’s reacting to his riding style. Then we can take all that data and create something that replicates it for a test.”
As Morales is talking, a call goes out in the lab: ‘Breaking!’ Everyone covers their ears as a mountain bike frame succumbs to ‘seat tube ultimate strength’, a test that simulates a botched, hard landing. Products die sudden and important deaths here, with each sacrifice marked with an epitaph of sorts. He picks up a piece of a Roval wheel to show the words ‘brake heat to fail’ scrawled on the side.
“We break a lot of stuff in here,” says Morales, laughing. “And that’s no joke.”
Professional athletes wear many hats in their lives. They’re heroes to kids and adults alike, slayers of epic mountain stages, and fearless descenders of way-to-steep rock gardens. But it’s not all about podium steps and champagne showers. Through their willingness to try things that might give them the edge, they play a part in helping to make bikes and equipment faster, safer, and better for all of us for the one thing that really matters—the ride.