Soul searching: How Specialized is reinventing itself for the modern industry

US bike brand Specialized has been making some notable cutbacks and changes to its business. Rebecca Bland explores how the company is changing its philosophy for the modern world 

This piece first appeared in the May edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here

Equality, diversity and inclusion: three buzz words currently in the industry, and for good reason. In a time when getting more people onto bikes is imperative for several reasons, the industry should be doing all it can to reach a wider audience.

One brand taking this to heart is Specialized, in global initiatives aiming to get more people on bikes in their own ways. Soil Searching, for example, celebrates and supports trail builders and advocates across the globe. It’s run by Fanie Kok, who set the programme up to help the brand be more “involved in engaging” with the communities it relies on – mountain bikers and trail builders, as he explained.

New paths 

“We realised there’s a massive disconnect between the people who we fundamentally depend on as an industry, a sport and recreation,” Kok said. 

“That’s essentially how Soil Searching started. Obviously, there’s a play on the words ‘soul searching’ and it is literally searching for the soul of mountain biking, which, in essence, is the trail. 

“If you elaborate a little bit more, it’s everything that has to fall in place for that trail to be there: communities, the advocates who have to lobby, the trail builders who have to physically work with their hands to make it happen. I guess the mission statement of soil searching is to recognise, celebrate and support the unsung heroes of mountain biking.”

Specialized has been adapting its business to increase focus on social responsibility

Soil Searching provides support in several ways to trail builders and advocates across the globe. Rather than just throwing free kit at them, the initiative sees Kok provide personalised support, from financial stipends to dig days, which Specialized staff get involved with themselves. In the future, he suggests it will take more of a community-focused approach. 

“Soil searching will eventually evolve into our connection with our communities. At the moment, it’s perceived as trail building, but in essence, it is community building within mountain biking. Then, how the trails themselves and the people looking after the trails can also play a role in conservation and environmental causes. How do we then try and evolve from trail advocacy to almost trail activism? Then there’s also the social aspect of it all which is very important.”


The social aspect is also key for the US-based Outride initiative, which aims to get more kids on bikes through a variety of programmes in schools and estimates an impact of 50,000 youths annually. 

Tasha Tinagero, the marketing and strategic partnerships leader explained further: “Ultimately, what Outride stands for is that we believe that everyone should have access to a bike. The power of cycling to change lives, and improve mental health – should be accessible to everyone. To me, it is the epitome of a true display of something, not just about products, not just about profit. This is about truly changing the face of what has historically been an industry that looks one very specific way.”

The initiative offers middle school programmes as well as research, with its Riding for Focus programme a result of their initial findings, which has time and again provided evidence of the sort of improvements to society, cognition and physical health a bicycle can give. Outride gives the impression of being something far more than a marketing exercise, in part because of Specialized’s blessing to let Tinagero collaborate with other brands. 

“That is also such a huge testament in my opinion, to what Specialized is doing to try to bring diversity and inclusion into this because we are their biggest advocacy effort, second to Soil Searching. But they’re willing to have me partner with Cannondale on a video, and we’ve had conversations with John Burke from Trek.

“We’re here for the long haul. In these school programmes, the teachers get support for as long as they need it. We’re trying to make a difference here, and the fact that’s backed by the research, to me, is vital for not just us but any other cycling brand. It technically doesn’t matter what brand of bike a kid’s on; they could be on a Trek, a Cannondale, a Giant, that research is a testament to the power of cycling regardless of the brand.”

Industry responsibility 

Specialized’s continued efforts in diversity and inclusion stand out in the bike industry. That’s not to say others aren’t also committed to similar initiatives, but they are demonstrating a level of social responsibility not frequently seen by bike brands. 

“What’s the point of any of this if we aren’t doing things like Outride?” added Tinagero. “That’s my opinion. I don’t think diversity and inclusion initiatives should be initiatives. I think they should be the ‘why’ of a company frankly.”

What is clear to see is the passion within the brand. The people running these initiatives are striving for good, but Specialized has also been cutting back funding to other parts of the business, like its Machines for Freedom women’s clothing brand, and its ambassador programme. The cycling industry is evidently in turmoil at the moment, and new ideas are needed – Specialized’s slogan is ‘Innovate or die’, which may offer insight into some of the seemingly cut-throat moves. 

What is evident is that Specialized as a brand is changing. The brand has been quite open about no longer just catering for premium bikes or customers, and focusing more on utility cycles and accessibility. From the outside at least, it looks like going back to basics, focusing on the fundamentals – whether it’s product lines or ambassador programmes, but cutting what doesn’t work any more is part of business. 

It is incredibly unfortunate that the Machines for Freedom brand was closed, but it does appear Specialized is refocusing its efforts on diversity and inclusion to a more hands-on approach – with Outride and Soil Searching, two prime examples of what the company – and bike industry as a whole, is capable of. 

Read more: The new school: Focal Events on why adventure is the new buzzword for riders

“By implementing Soil Searching and Outride and having these programmes, we are taking a hands-on approach,” continued Kok. “We are getting in there, getting our own hands dirty, and trying to understand the communities. We will never be a trail-building company or a lobbying organisation, but we can use our products, voices, marketing power, and platform to keep on supporting the people who are out in the trenches, and who are on the front line of making it happen. And at the same time, the hope is that it would influence and inspire the rest of the industry to do the same thing.”

Alex Ballinger

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