Inside: McLaren and its partnership with Specialized

The technical research methods used in bike design at the McLaren Technology Centre

Specialized has recently been working with Formula 1 giant McLaren, and for 2014 the duo have expanded their research into how to make better bikes and gear. BikeRadar recently took at tour of the McLaren Technology Centre headquarters with Specialized to learn about what’s to come.


Proactive research

Up until now, the successful meeting of minds between Specialized’s R&D division and McLaren’s applied technologies experts has been reactive on McLaren’s part. The key bike, the S-Works/McLaren Venge, as ridden by Mark Cavendish, was an existing design. Indeed, it was an existing frameset from Specialized that was given (in its S-Works form) to the McLaren AT team headed by keen rider Duncan Bradley.

The Woking-based boffins at McLaren then analysed the carbon layup and structure at the core of the bike, optimised it, and introduced new materials. That led to a significant weight loss for the aero frame, as well as increases in key points of stiffness and the general dynamics of the frameset.

The mclaren at team have built a chassis rig at mclarens hq to simulate road conditions: the mclaren at team have built a chassis rig at mclarens hq to simulate road conditions
Geoff Waugh

The McLaren AT team have built a chassis rig at McLaren’s HQ to simulate road conditions

The next phase of the partnership is all about acquiring and developing key information at the conception of Specialized’s products.

Duncan Bradley explained: “Historically, development within McLaren was always based on the subjective. Our drivers took the car out, drove it hard and then came back and explained what they liked, what they didn’t like about the car. As the company and technology has progressed we’ve gone from ‘engineering interrogation’ of the drivers to recording and analysing what is happening mechanically and dynamically.”

Since those early days, McLaren has been creating development tools and modelling so it can create, test and develop ideas without ever going near a road. We got the chance to see the key Formula 1 tool in action. It’s a full 180-degree simulator. Mounted in front the screen is an F1 chassis sitting on a fully active bed. The software has pinpoint accurate circuits – even the texture and surface of the road are mapped with almost incomprehensible accuracy. That allows the engineers to run setups, new designs, engine maps, even tyre compound simulations for every race.

It’s all seriously impressive, and we could only guess at how much developing and building a simulator this accurate would cost.

Simulation and analysis

You might ask what this has got to do building bikes – that’s where the interesting research comes in. Both parties already use plenty of simulation and analysis tools in bike design.

For the structure, they use FEA tools to define how the carbon fibre is laid up, they can also simulate the structure and ‘virtual’ test it to quantify weight, strength and areas of stress. This was used on the Venge, now these tools are used on all of Specialized’s carbon.

Then it’s about aero – Specialized has built a wind tunnel at their HQ in Morgan Hill, and McLaren has a state-of-the-art wind tunnel in Woking. But wind tunnels are expensive to run and it takes a lot of time to get usable data. That’s where CFD (computational fluid dynamics) tools come in. It’s a relatively quick and far cheaper way of exploring ideas and developing a bike without having to resort to modelling and prototyping early in a project.

Finally, the biggest challenge is ride quality. This is the most difficult part of any bike design to judge. It’s something that troubled the team at McLaren. When the team develops a new car (such as the MP4C as driven by Mark Cavendish) the simulator is used to not only make the car fast, but also to achieve its dynamic feel. The final piece in the puzzle is that the car has to be comfortable enough to be driven every day, and not just on super smooth race circuits.

McLaren has created a set of tools that can be fitted onto a bike and the bike rider. The data kit is used by Specialized to acquire banks of data on different frames – the race-ready Tarmac, the comfortable Roubaix, the aero Venge. Once this data is acquired (Specialized has been gathering information for over 18 months now), the goal of Duncan and his team is to use this information to create a simulator, using the technology they have already developed for the car side of the business.

Part of the data acquiring tools developed by mclaren include these hubs that can record movement, acceleration and deceleration and vibration:
Geoff Waugh

Part of the data acquiring tools developed by McLaren include these hubs that can record movement, acceleration and deceleration and vibration

Then, when they want to design and develop a new bike, the parameters of what makes a good bike for the cobbles, or the best bike for an alpine stage, can be input into the simulator. A ‘virtual’ prototype using FEA, CFD and so on, can then be uploaded and ridden before ever going near cloth and glue to build a bike.

If this all sounds a bit Tron, well, yes, it really is. We asked Duncan about the challenges they face. He said the key factor is that “data doesn’t lie” – as long as you have the right data, that is.

The biggest issue is just how complex a bicycle is. It may seem less complex than a state-of-the-art Formula 1 car, but a bike is just a small part of the whole – the biggest factor of any bike is the rider.

Duncan explained: “The bike as a system is incredibly complex, in no small part that the ride is the integral and a highly dynamic part. Then you’ve elements like the tyre; the longitudinal and vertical deflection has an impact on performance and comfort.”

So Duncan and his team created a CDR (chassis dynamics rig) based on the same rig that actuates the F1 chassis in their simulator. They’ve collected real life data – road surfaces, potholes, speed bumps and so on. Real life acceleration, deceleration and multi-axis movements are input into the rig and they have then recorded data of a real rider (usually Duncan himself) so they can analyse the effects on a rider.

From this data the goal is to create a mathematical formula for each systems result (bike, rider, and bike and rider combined). The end game will be to create a set of base figures that can become the start point of every bike and new component Specialized make.

What’s the benefit?

The whole research project stemmed from Specialized president Mike Sinyard’s idea that ‘smoother is faster’. It’s something the company has always thought of as true, without any real empirical factual back-up.

From everything they’ve learned, Mark Cote from Specialized R&D was prepared to say: “If you can actively reduce kinetic energy losses the net gain is that you will be faster, so yes, smoother is faster. In the last six months of research we [Specialized] have learned more about bike dynamics than we have in the last 10 years.”

A seatpost mounted detector records the energy that makes it through to the rider:
Geoff Waugh

A seatpost mounted detector records the energy that makes it through to the rider

What does the future hold?

It’s so early in the research partnership that no one really knows what the future will hold. McLaren could see the benefits of an intelligent bike that ‘self adapts’ – imagine a Roubaix that softens over the Pave, but sharpens up on smoother roads. McLaren hopes that it can ‘crack the logic’ of what makes a bike great. For McLaren it’s about generating the specification.

Specialized and McLaren both expect their cooperation to be ongoing. Mark Cote of Specialized R&D told us that “the simulation modelling will continue on and on, so much more is still to be learned”.

When will we see the fruit of these tech labours? It could be as soon as the SL5 Tarmac and Roubaix, or the next generation Venge. We asked Mark, if they can indeed crack the bike ‘code’, then wouldn’t it be possible to create an aero road bike like the Venge that has the lightweight of the Tarmac and the comfort of the Roubaix all in one package? This would effectively reduce the need for such an expansive road bike range – and let’s not forget expensive research like this should and will be used for mountain bikes too. He said: “That could happen, but I think we’ll still need highly focussed single-purpose bikes – and our pros will still ask for them. So I don’t expect to have a single do-everything bike any time soon.”


After a day spent seeing just how far these two companies are prepared to go in the name of research, we came away impressed. If they can define what makes a bike great, then we look forward to trying the next-generation Specialized bikes on real roads – but next time, please can we have a go on the simulator?