The folks at BIKE magazine have been hosting a cool series called “Ask a Founder,” where they invite important figures from the bike world in front of a live crowd and have them chat about their history during a Q&A. Past participants include Tom Ritchey, Keith Bontrager and Scot Nicol, of Ibis fame — all legends in their own right. The fourth installment went down on Saturday night in San Francisco at Mission Workshop, and the founder of Specialized Bicycles, Mike Sinyard, was the guest of honor.
Riders who couldn’t be at the event were invited to ask Sinyard questions via Twitter, and the tomfoolery/trolling started early:
— OccupyTheSingletrack (@OccupyTheSingle) September 7, 2015
— drunkcyclist (@drunkcyclist) September 6, 2015
— Stevil Kinevil (@StevilKinevil) October 8, 2015
This surprised no one. Specialized is one of the “Big Three” bike brands, along with Giant and Trek. But Specialized is the most controversial by a long shot. Their high-end line, S Works, has a devoted following proportional with their price tags, which often go into five figures. Specialized also has a reputation as being the Lance Armstrong of litigiousness, suing often and rarely losing.
For better or worse, Sinyard is the one steering the Specialized ship.
Like a lot of bike geeks, I was wondering how Sinyard would do in front of the crowd and how the crowd would be with the CEO, who looks much younger than his 65 years. And, just how “Inside Baseball” would the Q&A be?It turns out it was going to be equal parts “Inside Baseball” and actual baseball: a few slow innings perfect for breaks to grab a beer as well as some interesting “plays.”
The discussion started with a good bit of history. Sinyard, the son of a machinist, dropped out of high school because he had a difficult time concentrating in class. “When I was a kid they didn’t call it ADHD; they just called you bad,” he explained. (Side note: One of Sinyard’s kids was also affected by ADHD and Sinyard believes that exercise is a great remedy for it; he’s fond of the line, “Riding is my Ritalin.” He has started a foundation for those similarly afflicted.)Sinyard still found his way to college, though, and post graduation he pedaled through Europe for three months. That was 1974, and Sinyard was looking for better components that were available Stateside. He met with the folks at Cinelli and started importing their products before admitting, “I can’t make great things, but I know what great things are.”
Sinyard also discussed the birth of the brand, the name ( “Mike’s Bikes” or “Mike’s Parts” didn’t roll off the tongue or articulate the, err, specialization he was going for), the logo (calligraphy) and the value of rubber on ride quality (“Tires make the biggest difference”).
One of the most exciting bits was when racing legend Ned Overend asked Sinyard about the CEO’s success as well as that of the brand. Sinyard is all about his co-workers.
“Once you have great people, it’s fun and you always figure it out. Really, that’s what it is: having people that share the same vision and the passion. It doesn’t mean you always agree, but you’re focused on the same thing and you’ll get there together,” said Sinyard.The CEO also shares the story of asking Overend to ride for Specialized, the company he’s been with for 29 years.
Sinyard: “Ned, we’d like you to ride for us.”
Overend: “Will you make the stuff really good?”
The Q&A covered a lot of ground, including the importance of marketing to Specialized (huge: they were one of the first to use a major ad agency), how hands-on the CEO is (very: “A lot of times, I’m probably a hindrance because I drill down too deep into things”) and the value of retailers in the Internet age (high: “Retailers are not just selling the stuff; the good ones, they’re creating a community”).
Sinyard is also excited about the future of bikes, believing that folks are rediscovering them around the world and that as congestion increases in our cities, many will turn to human power on two wheelse. E-bikes? He’s also stoked about their ability to get more folks into the fold.All in all, even most cycling cynics might be softened by watching Sinyard. Specialized’s legal team seems to be choosing smarter battles these days and Sinyard offered a huge mea culpa after one of their gross missteps.
And he still loves bikes. “People need a way to feel great, and cycling is the magic,” said Sinyard.
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