Specialized's headquarters sits on one of the most lusted-after stretches of the USA's east coast. South of San Jose and north of San Francisco, summers around its Morgan Hill facility are long, warm, arid, and clear, while winters are cold, wet, and often overcast. Not far from the high mountains, its scenery and terrain are also just as varied as the weather.
As an aspiring cyclist and business graduate, for Specialized's founder Mike Sinyard it must have been a wrench to leave it behind. However, having sold his VW camper to fund a trip to Europe in 1974, his travels inspired him to set up an import business bringing goods from cycling's Italian heartlands back to the States. Soon Specialized Bicycle Components was also producing products of its own, the first of which was a road bike touring tyre.
Launched in 1976, since then, Specialized has gone on to create thousands of bikes and components, helped popularise the mountain bike, created the endurance segment, and brought to market one of the first mass-produced gravel bikes. In doing so, it's also shifted the balance of the industry from the old world towards the new.
Tyres for every kind of rider
Today Specialized is a billion-dollar business that retains a distinctly Californian attitude to innovation and risk-taking. It also still produces a wide range of bicycle tyres.
"We're pretty passionate about tyres," explains Stewart Thompson, the firm’s Road and Gravel Category Leader. "While you can't rely on a tyre to solve all your issues on a bike, it's a very critical component of the system, so it's a huge focus for us."
Known for creating genre-defining bicycles, including the original Stumpjumper mountain bike, Grand Tour-winning Tarmac, endurance-focused Roubaix, and gravel-going Diverge, each has an excellent claim to define the segment it helped create. This knack for continually being ahead of the curve means Specialized is also often early to produce tyres that capture the attention of forward-thinking riders. Examples include its adoption of wider widths for its road bikes and outpacing conventional tyre manufacturers in releasing models catering to the emerging gravel segment.
"It's not a case of saying we're doing a new bike, so we need a new tyre for it," explains Thompson. "But often our insight about the direction of the market, or what riders are after, informs the direction we take our tyres."
He cites as an example the Pathfinder tyre that now comes fitted to the firm's Diverge. "When we first started doing gravel bikes, we used a wider version of our Trigger cyclocross tyres. But then we saw this evolution of riders seeking something that was faster and more gravel oriented."
While other firms also fattened up their existing cyclocross tyres or even slimmed down existing mountain bike treads, Specialized was one of the first to invest in creating something new and unique. Knowing the demand was there, its high-volume semi-slick Pathfinder was one of the first truly dedicated gravel tyres and has enjoyed success among racers and consumers ever since.
Parity with the pros
On road, Specialized makes a similar effort to stay ahead of its competition. Sponsoring the Deceuninck–Quick-Step, SD Worx, and Bora-Hansgrohe teams, the products used by Specialized athletes are the same available to consumers (unlike many equipment suppliers). "When you read about the tyres most sponsored riders are using, they're often team-specific models unavailable to the public," says Thompson.
So while most teams remain hung up on using glue-on tubular tyres, Specialized has convinced some of the world's most demanding squads to switch to the clincher system it also recommends for amateur riders. A critical factor in driving this change over to tyres like the S-Works Turbo Cotton in elite-level competition has been Specialized's extensive testing and validation capabilities.
"Based on our historical experience with rubber compounds and construction types, we have a good idea where a new tyre will fall with regards to rolling resistance even as we're developing it," explains Thompson. The firm's prototyping and R&D capabilities also allow it to rapidly experiment with different versions of a tyre to tune it for rolling resistance, weight, grip, and durability. In a sport obsessed with data and technology, a combination of its products and its test results has enabled Specialized to win over the teams.
"For our racing tyres, performance-wise, there isn't anything that matches Turbo Cotton or RapidAir’s combination of speed, grip and durability," says Thompson. "Anything that comes close has got there by being pretty fragile and is likely to have a limited lifespan."
Despite having a budget and capabilities to match dedicated tyre manufacturers, Specialized is always likely to be known predominantly for its bikes. Yet regardless of the brand that appears on your downtube Thompson is adamant that Specialized's tyres offer every rider the best possible performance. "Consider this," he says. "The tyres those pros are using are exactly the same tyres that Specialized will sell you."
An introduction to Specialized's tyre range
Used by Specialized athletes running conventional clincher tyres, the superbly fast and smooth ride of the Turbo Cotton results from its natural 320tpi casing. Married to a unique unvulcanized Gripton compound rubber tread, it's a tyre that's as beautiful to look at as it is to ride. "It's a more traditional way of making high-end tyres rather than relying on a vulcanized rubber setup," explains Thompson. Highlighted by natural tan sidewalls, Specialized was also pioneering in offering the Turbo Cotton in widths featuring an increased volume. Further improving the manners of an already class-leading tyre, its performance is again underwritten by Specialized's BlackBelt puncture protection system.
S-Works Turbo RapidAir
"The S-Works Turbo RapidAir is one of the fastest tubeless tyres on the market," says Thompson. "It's also our most grippy tyre, so you'll see our pro riders using it on wet stages or technical days with lots of cornering." Developed in conjunction with Deceuninck–Quick-Step, and supplied to the firm's sponsored racers, its ride aims to match that of a tubular tyre. At the same time, the Turbo’s RapidAir construction means it will easily seat on any tubeless-ready rim and can often be installed using a conventional floor pump.
With a wide tread design, extra stability is built into the sidewalls to keep handling sharp while pushing through the corners. Protected by Specialized's Blackbelt cut-resistant breaker, riders using sealant will find most minor cuts automatically healed before they result in a flat.
Turbo Cotton Hell of the North
If you're going to produce a bike called the Roubaix, it's quite a marketing coup to have a sponsored athlete use it to win the eponymous Paris-Roubaix race. Yet that is a feat Specialized has managed seven times. Now, alongside producing the race's most successful bicycle, Specialized has also released a dedicated version of its Turbo Cotton tyre. Named after the race's colloquial name, the Hell of the North tyre is made to withstand the rigours of the cobbled Classics while thriving in early season conditions. It does this in part thanks to a tailored tread pattern that extends further around the tyre for added grip and protection.
Where the gravel-going Pathfinder has lead, others have followed. Drawing on the experience gained in developing its radical Diverge gravel bike, Specialized leveraged this to create the perfect tyre for what was then an emerging market. Fast down the centre, but with plentiful grip when asked to describe the arc of a corner, the Pathfinder mixes speed and control. Now based around Specialized's easy to set up 2Bliss tubeless-ready construction, security against flats is ensured by a combination of the tyre’s tough Endurant casing and BlackBelt puncture protection. Available in 38 and 42mm widths for 700c wheels, these have recently been joined by a high-volume 47mm wide version for smaller 650b rims.