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Case study: Specialized

At McLaren Applied we choose challenging projects that are the best fit with our skills, experience and technical capacity.

One of our best-known projects in recent years has been the collaboration with Californian bicycle manufacturer Specialized, which has seen the design and creation of the legendary Specialized S-Works+McLaren Venge racing bike. The Venge was ridden by Mark Cavendish, who was named as the all-time greatest sprinter in Tour de France history by L’Equipe.

The bike is a thing of pared-down beauty. We were tasked with reducing frame weight while maintaining the desired degree of stiffness. Demanding expertise in lightweight, super-stiff, super-strong materials technology, aerodynamic design and carbon fibre fabrication, the project was a perfect fit for our skill set. The other attractive component in the project was Specialized’s attitude of absolutely no compromise.

“I think it’s fair to say we have been quite selective about who we work with – we work best with people who share our vision within their field of endeavour,” says Geoff McGrath, vice president of McLaren Applied Technologies. “They want to be the best in their field, or do something their competitors didn’t think was possible, or even better, do something for the first time. The Specialized bike is a perfect example: it goes without saying they are at the top of their game with bike design, but they gave us a challenge. We overachieved on their expectations and designed something with key performance indicators that have never before been reached. The bike has been winning races, and Specialized has a legitimate claim to say they have the fastest road bike in the world. It carries the McLaren brand partly because we’re proud of it, and partly because we expect it to be a high-performance benchmark.”

The target set by Specialized was a frame 15 per cent lighter than the awe-inspiring Venge, to be constructed without a corresponding reduction in stiffness. And just to make it a little more difficult, they demanded the bike be designed to use their usual grade of carbon fibre, have standard Venge geometry and be assembly on the Specialized production line.

The frame delivered by McLaren massively over-achieved: the Specialized S-Works+ McLaren Venge frame is 20 per cent lighter than the standard model and is 11 per cent stiffer around the bottom bracket (the ‘business end’ of a frame for a competition rider intent on transferring maximum power into the crank).

To achieve this, MAT developed a new set of analysis tools, in essence taking the data-driven approach used for car design and applying it to the two-wheeled format.

At McLaren a well-defined set of tools exists to predict car performance based on the analysis of myriad contributing factors. Everything from weather conditions to an extra coat of paint can be factored into the programme that calculates airflow around the vehicle. With rider feedback still the key analysis tool, the same technology did not exist in the bike world – and so MAT and Specialized embarked on a development project, the end goal of which was the creation of a simulation tool to accurately study the ride dynamics of the bicycle and rider.

The resulting software tests and analyses frame stiffness, bike and rider mass, tyre technology, ambient conditions, surface characteristics and course profiles. It’s a measurement system that understands how bikes perform in the real world and thus informs upstream design decisions to a much greater extent than ever before. “In the last six months of research we [Specialized] have learned more about bike dynamics than we have in the last 10 years,” was the judgment of Specialized’s aero R&D manager Mark Cote.

Today, our collaboration with Specialized continues. We spent months working together developing the S-Works McLaren TT Helmet, the most aerodynamic headgear ever seen in professional racing. As our applied cycling analysis tool evolves, so we look at future bike design with an eye to everything from further weight savings to the possibilities for adaptive bikes optimised for specific road and rider combinations. 2014 also saw the launch of the new S-Works McLaren Tarmac, the second bike to evolve out of this winning pairing.

Find out more about the S-Works McLaren Tarmac here