2004 will be Specialized’s 30th year in business. The company was founded by Mike Sinyard in 1974, selling top-end European bike parts to US IBDs. Early into the touring bike market, Sinyard was even earlier into mountain bikes: in 1981 the Specialized Stumpjumper was the first mass-produced mountain bike.

Founder flies in to open Specialized’s new UK HQ

The 30th Anniversry Stumpjumper is a full-suspension, disc-brake equipped, M4 alloy framed special edition. It retails for £4000 and there’s just 50 for resale in the UK.

The 1981 Stumpjumper retailed for $750 in the US and featured a built-to-last steel frame from Japan and a mixture of components from long-standing European companies: TA cranks. Mafac brakes. Huret derailleur. Tomicelli brake levers. Selle Italia saddle.

Back in 1973, a heavily-bearded, 22-year old Mike Sinyard snuck off to Europe with his touring bike on a three month fact-finding mission. A roadie, he wanted to import high-quality Italian parts into the US. He bought goods from Cinelli, shipped them to the US and started delivering them, by bike and trailer, to San Francisco Bay area IBDs.

A name was needed for his business. The Italian parts were ‘specialized’ so, in 1974, Specialized was born, financed by the sale of Sinyard’s VW camper van.

Mike Sinyard was in the UK today to officially open Specialized UK’s new HQ. He was joined by some of Specialized UK’s top IBD accounts, including Edinburgh Bicycle, the buyer of the first Stumpjumper in the UK (from Richard Hemington, then of Caratti, since 1989 the boss of Specialized UK).

Also present at today’s opening was Gary Smith of Evans Cycles.

Smith has been to Specialized’s Morgan Hill HQ, 15 miles from San Jose, California. He’s also been on one of the famous lunch-time rides, where Specialized employees – including Sinyard – stretch their legs, test new products and brainstorm.

The rides are a longstanding feature of working for Specialized, part of Sinyard’s passion for the industry. Passion is a word he uses a lot when he talks about bikes.

Sinyard renovated bikes at college and sold them on for a profit but he didn’t originally set out to join the bike trade. He had started a course in aviation (“I would have made a terrible pilot, I got lost easily,”) but switched to business studies.

And when he left college, his entrepreneurial drive led him to Europe to seek out parts hard to get in the US. He travelled to England, buying a Condor frame from Condor Cycles, Monty Young’s central London bike shop that’s seems to have been around for ever.

Sinyard travelled to Italy. A friend said she had some contacts at Cinelli and would act as interpreter at any visit.

“I bought some clothes so I wouldn’t look like a bum and went to Cinelli. It was like a dream. I ordered some parts and headed home.”

Delivering the parts personally by bike and trailer didn’t last long. Sinyard’s company grew quickly.

And the biggest spurt to growth was because of a dodgy batch of European tyres.

Sinyard thought he could make better tyres, so he did. This decision to contract out manufacturing was just as much a business builder as mountain bikes would be later.

“Tyres really fuelled the company’s growth," said Sinyard.

"In the run up to the US Bicentennial, 1975, 1976, loads of people were cycling across America. Touring was big. Our tyres were an instant success.”

In 1976 Specialized had nine road tyres, including a Kevlar-beaded folding one.

In 1977, Specialized started to spec and sell bikes. The Seqoia touring bike was based on a British Holdsworth bike of Sinyard’s.

“I rode that Holdswoth for 100 000 miles. It’s now in the [Specialized] musuem.”

This was at the peak of the touring bike boom, a time when Jim Blackburn would start making copies of British pannier racks: but in aluminium, not pig-heavy steel.

Sinyard gave Blackburn, still at college, his first order.

“I had to buy 100. He even made me fill out an official order confirmation form.”

Just when it seemed the touring market would keep growing, Sinyard had an intuition that the Repack riders in nearby Marin County were on to something big. Tom Ritchey’s hand-built mountain bike – one of the very first – was fitted with parts supplied by Sinyard.

“This bike wasn’t much different to the clunkers we rode offroad as kids but it had something extra. [Specialized] wasn’t mainstream, we had nothing to protect so we could embrace it.”

This was in 1980, the same year the Specialized ‘S’ was created by woman who specialised, as it were, in Japanese calligraphy.

At the first trade show he showed the very first Stumpjumper, and met plenty of resistance.

“Lots of bike shops said ‘what are you doing with this bike, you have lost your marbles, it’s a kids BMX, people are going to get hurt.’ Yet when people rode the bike, they knew it was right.”

This was the first commercial mountain bike. For a few months, mountain bikes weren’t known as that, they were on the verge of being Hooverised: they were known as ‘Stumpjumpers’.

Specialized didn’t have the market to itself for long.

“At the trade show the following year, everybody had a mountain bike,” said Sinyard.

Some of the hippy mountain bikers – the Repack innovators, such as Gary Fisher – were now custom builders no more. And mainstream bike brands jumped on the bandwaggon too.

The rest, as they say, is history. Yet Specialized has stuck to its early principles.

“We make strong. There are plenty of early Stumpjumpers out there still being ridden.”

Today, Sinyard – who likes nothing more than test-riding prototype bikes on six hour rides, the Tarmac is a current favourite – remains proud of his company’s prowess at designing and sourcing bombproof bikes.

The bikes may be made in the Far East but they are designed – and tested to destruction – in California. Specialized has an inhouse testing lab and also gets second opinions from third-party labs in Germany.

“When people buy into a brand like Specialized, they’re buying confidence, integrity, engineering and testing. We have a social responsibility.”

Specialized is a $200m, privately-owned company. Sinyard is the majority shareholder. Merida of Taiwan – a supplier to Specialized for 22 years – invested in a stake in 2001. In the UK, Specialized has 250 IBD stockists, and sold 42 000 bikes in 2002.


What is it about US bike companies and rock bands? Marin has moved into a building housing the Grateful Dead’s recording studio and Specialized’s new UK HQ in Chessington was formerly the storage area for Iron Maiden’s sound equipment and back catalogue…

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