John vs. California: January 2014 Chainrings

[ed note: Shop foreman John made a recent trip south for some technical training at Specialized. Here’s his VERY entertaining story…]

It wasn’t Disneyland, but it could have been. Our arrival entailed as much pomp and circumstance as any trip to Walt’s favorite theme park, facilitated by limousine vans and continental breakfasts, all arguably outside the deserving of the rag tag bike shop dwellers that we were.  Amid unseasonably cold weather, our eclectic crew rode through the non-descript streets of California, our stomachs stuffed, wondering what our next 72 hours would hold at this unseen fantasy factory. As we pulled into the parking lot of our destination there were no waving movie characters to be found. Instead, we were greeted by dusty, stickered Subarus toting bike racks, and in lieu of firework shows and fantastical blue steeples, we were welcomed at the front door by a bold, glossy, red “S.”  It may as well have stood for “SWEET!” given the number of my compatriots who muttered the word as we shuffled into the modern lobby of the big silver building we were still estimating the size of.  Through the duration of our trip, that word never left our mouths: “sweet…”

We were here, at the Specialized Bicycles world headquarters in Morgan Hill, California.

Morgan Hill, for many, is a bedroom community that feeds the collegiate centers of Santa Clara and Santa Cruz, Silicon Valley hubs like Cupertino and Palo Alto, and a bit over an hour to the northwest, San Francisco. Amid the predictable features of northern California sprawl, sat, inescapably, the dusty and broad hillsides that yield some of the world’s favorite avocados and wines. Rolling and vast, many of our group found the terrain to have been largely understated in the bike shop lore preceding their plane flights here. These hills are ripe for ripping on a bicycle. And it was hardly just our group that recognized the beautiful terrain.

Those intimate with mountain biking history will recall this region to be the birthplace of mountain biking: from the “clunkers” of the late 60’s and early 70’s, to some of the first large-production runs of the famous Specialized Rockhoppers. The grandfathers of contemporary off-road biking (Breezer, Fischer, Ritchey, Sinyard, et al.) saw exactly what our group of wide eyed tourists did. Vast, winding, warm hills, peppered with technical rocks and plentiful switchbacks remind any rider that there is no coincidence in the roots Specialized holds here. The company’s presence and impact on an otherwise sleepy burb are notable, as passing bicyclists not sporting equipment bearing the familiar Specialized bicycle names of “Stumpjumper” or “Tarmac” garnered sideways looks, and a few muttered jokes from even our group of out-of-towners.

While our assembly of industry vets was not slow to provide wise-cracks at others’ expense (you expected otherwise?) we weren’t exactly gathered for a convention of bike shop snark. We had flown from all corners of the U.S. to participate in a variety of Specialized Bike Components University (SBCU) classes. While some sat in lecture with sports scientists from the Colorado College of Medicine waxing physiological in Body Geometry Fit classes, others explored shopable, on-site build-outs of storefronts, learning about retail sales and visual merchandising. I was there for the Technical Service class where we were granted access to industry leading tools, tech, and experts. Conducted in a sterile, though stocked, room of suspension forks, carbon fiber wheels, and electronically shifting bikes, the Tech class was all business. This didn’t stop us from taking a few minutes to nerd out on arrival.

Don’t let me understate that.

We really nerded out.

specialized frames

Our carbon fiber friends for the day. There were many more where these came from.

By the time we mopped up our drool it was time to begin bleeding the latest Sram Red road disc brakes. Subsequently we set in on Magura and Avid brake systems, and the next day disemboweled some Fox Float forks. By the final day we were adjusting Shimano’s electronic Di2 shifting components via both firmware and software. Yawns, laughs, and the occasional push-up at the expense of a dropped tool were shared among the class comprised of many midwesterners, Californians, Texans, and the odd Floridian.

Regional ties and talents were better displayed on the daily bike rides than in the classroom as it became quickly apparent whose backyards featured technical hill climbs and who erred to the flat, paved stuff back home. To the delight and relief of all, we were granted a shot at all disciplines across our three day stay as we rode the finest offerings of Specialized’s cyclocross, road, and mountain bikes during the famous Specialized campus lunch rides.

Our first day we sought dirt trails to see exactly what the new Sram hydraulic road calipers could do mounted to the latest cyclocross builds (ridden pre-recall). No one was let down. The Crux Pro Race models we demoed were more than up to our hard stops and rapid, if not squirrely, steering demands. They were showcased in an impromptu lap race we held in a large clearing of a pathway as rollers, berms, and harsh ascents were easily tamed on fine carbon fiber, balanced geometry and fantastic shifting.

Our experiences on the road ride proved no departure from the giddiness and simultaneous ease we’d felt riding the ‘cross bikes the day before. My Roubaix Pro slurped up road vibration so well I found myself seeking cracks and inconsistencies in the pavement to enjoy the forgiveness rarely afforded to my aluminum-accommodated behind. The hydraulic rim brakes modulated so well I would’ve believed there were disc rotors on my wheels. Reports from my classmates shined, too. The Venges sliced air in crosswind and headwind alike, and the Cannondale faithful who’d yet to sample the Tarmacs were forever converted from that day forward. Climbs were lively among all, and our descents a tad too brave.

california cover shot

Not bad…right? The top of our steep ascent in brisk conditions nearing dawn. PDX pal Brett Fleming is in this photo on the right.

This confidence would betray some (read: me), as our final day of riding featured an extended, and technical mountain bike ride that bore more “baby heads” than most maternity wards. Technical lines were the theme of the day and I was found wanting in my attempts to pursue others through rocky ascents and tricky switchbacks astride the S-Works Enduro 29er. Familiarizing my rapidly tenderizing hips and thighs with the high side of mountain banks and boulders while mountain bike riders the world-over cringed, I kept myself in the mix with a healthy blend of hustle and “point and shoot” line taking that was forgiven with my remarkable 160mm travel Rock Shox Pike and 29er Captain tires run at 8 PSI. At around 28 pounds and decidedly slacker in geometry than other members of its MTB family, the Enduro eagerly dug in for dusty climbs that might have phased me on even some cross country bikes. My panting prayers of thanks for the Sram XX1 42 tooth rear cog were rewarded by the bike gods who granted me a speedy final ascent up a steep peak boasting some famous Strava alumni.

Though hardly a winner of any such ascent over my stay, I certainly felt like one. The SBCU team went to great lengths to leave each of the class visitors imbued with a sense of achievement and awe. During our stay we were treated to a tour of the in-house museum hosting one of the very first Rockhoppers and even the toy room of design guru David Egger filled with improbable, impractical, and wildly imaginative bikes that bore semblance to anything from Flinstone Era mountain bikes to Ford GT cars. Between chef-prepared lunches and Specialized comped beers at night, we found ourselves on a particularly memorable tour through the deceivingly large headquarters. Breezing by enough product mockups and industrial sketches to keep my design-inclined self occupied for the day, our tour concluded with a happenstance encounter with the owner of the international company: a cordial, maybe frazzled, Mike Sinyard. Gracious enough to lend a moment he replied to a question from a group member who asked what the most challenging part of his work was. Without flinching he replied,

“Nothing. It’s all easy when you love bikes.”

And while our retention for suspension rebound curves and familiarity with the intricacies of hydraulic calipers had been deeply instilled over our 3 day technical course, it was that quote that we all took special care to etch in memory. That, was, after all, the heart of it. We were all there because we loved bikes and for the many of us visiting, we left loving them just a little bit more.


Almost a week after first passing under the glossy “S” adorning the headquarters in Morgan Hill, my roommate asked me how my trip was. My reply was easy:


Click HERE for the next article in this month’s Chainrings: Shop News


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About sunsetpdx

Bicycle Shop Owner

One response to “John vs. California: January 2014 Chainrings”

  1. bgddyjim says :

    I am thoroughly jealous – sounds like a BLAST!

    Though I already own a Venge, so I know.

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