Specialized founder Mike Sinyard on the power of the bicycle

Specialized Foundation reducing side effects of ADHD and improving health of 20,000 kids

From toddlers on their balance bikes to triple world champions such as Peter Sagan, Specialized offers quality bikes for all. Currently it provides two WorldTour teams with race bikes — while riders have won almost every notable race on the company's bikes in the past. Plus there was yet another world championships win through Kate Courtney at this year's UCI cross-country women's elite event. But Specialized is going further…

The company was founded by Californian Mike Sinyard back in the 1970s and he is still at the helm as CEO. And his drive and innovation is continuing through The Specialized Foundation, Riding For Focus — a program that is revolutionising the way schools and doctors deal with education.

The early Specialized team
The early Specialized team

Because of his ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) Sinyard failed high school before self-funding his way through university, building up and repairing bikes he found at flea markets and selling them on.

Today, through The Specialized Foundation, Sinyard is looking to combat the effects of ADHD on children's learning. ADHD is being diagnosed in 1 in 11 American children, and, by reducing the effects of the condition through cycling, the Specialized CEO is aiming to reduce the need for prescription stimulants, such as Ritalin.

By introducing regular exercise on bicycles before and during learning hours, school kids have a chance to improve their concentration and reduce the need for prescription drugs, improving grades, as well as resulting in better general health and reduced obesity. The benefits of cycling are endless.

"Riding is my Ritalin"

We caught up with Sinyard on the phone, where he described his introduction to the project: "I was always terrible at school, I couldn't concentrate at all. The thinking was I just wasn't that smart, and so I dropped out of high school. Later I discovered riding and that was pretty transformative for me, I was able to go and finish college. 

"When I had my son, I realised he had the same tendencies as me and wanted to drop out of school. I was, of course, telling him 'don't do that' and then I saw an article written by a doctor from Harvard Medical — it was titled 'Riding is my Ritalin'.

"The story was about a kid who said 'when I'm riding my bike a lot, I don't need to take my Ritalin'. As I was reading it, I thought 'That's me! That's my son!' and it changed my world."

While Ritalin helps manage symptoms, according to Sinyard the side-effects and potential for abuse are unacceptable. He believes there should be a better solution. "I called my doctor and asked him why this isn't out there and his reply was that no drug company is willing to pay for the studies, and so that's where our story started, six or seven years ago."

Riding for Focus School Cycling Program

The Specialized Foundation's focus combines the funding of scientific research and adding tangible evidence to their findings, alongside the school-based cycling programs. The aim is to increase accessibility to cycling at schools, improving students' mental and physical wellbeing.

"Ultimately what we would like is for parents and kids to know there are other options. It doesn't always need to be pharmaceuticals. It would be great to create this awareness and to get doctors to know about this.

"This is much bigger than Specialized, this is much bigger than the bike industry. It has the potential to really help kids"

"At the end of the day, all exercise is great, we think cycling is above and beyond though and we're working to prove that. Pushing the pedals is one thing, but there is also the sensory stimulation from riding, balancing and the fresh air."

The Specialized Foundation is working closely with Stanford University, with the hope that the Riding for Focus program could revolutionise the way doctors, schools, parents and children address ADHD and similar conditions.

"We've created a special helmet that uses sensory devices to see what's happening to the brain while cycling and with that, they can show what your brain is doing before exercise, while cycling and when on medication. The results are there. This thing is real.

"This is much bigger than Specialized, this is much bigger than the bike industry. It has the potential to really help kids."

The Specialized Foundation's investment in their Riding for Focus program has, since 2016, seen 20,000 students have access to regular bike-riding at school. "Right now, we have a lot of these programs in schools and parents are acknowledging that this is good for their kids. By the way, it isn't a difficult job to get kids to go out riding their bikes, it's fun and it's working."

Funding for bikes

Alongside the research, Specialized are obviously in a strong position to provide bikes for the project and this is something the Foundation supports through an annual grant program.

"There are some schools that can afford this and they'll co-fund the project, but there are some that can't afford it and we sponsor them. Every year we have a grant application and there are decisions made about which schools we sponsor. 

"The schools don't have to use Specialized bikes, they can use whatever bikes they want. As I say, this is bigger than Specialized. My personal view is that we're going to look back in five years from now and ask why were we overmedicating our kids? 

"The project is focused mainly in the United States, but we've started looking into the United Kingdom as well. We just wanted to get it started and prove it works."

Sinyard's legacy in cycling

Sinyard has built and run one of the biggest companies in the cycling industry, and when asked what he wants his legacy to be, it's clear the Riding For Focus project is something Sinyard is beyond passionate about.

"I would say this is the biggest thing I've been involved with. I can foresee this becoming part of schools. A doctor's prescription should be for kids to ride bikes.

"There's a lot of data that show how brains look before and after, how calm the kids are, how it reduces the obesity and improves test results. The test results are something the schools relate to, but it's so much more than that."

The Specialized Foundation's target for growth is ambitious, but achievable. And if the project is anywhere as successful as Sinyard's business, it could drive real change.

Learn more about The Specialized Foundation and their Riding for Focus program here.

Social Media and Communities Manager
Josh has been a fan of road racing since a youngster, partly due to an obsession with a certain Texan during his earlier years. Josh is now based in Bristol via running a popular cycling cafe in Surrey near where he grew up.
  • Discipline: Road
  • Preferred Terrain: Surrey's short sharp climbs, Belgian cross winds or cobbles.
  • Current Bikes: Bowman Palace.
  • Dream Bike: Custom Argonaut in Abarth grey, Speedvagen Urban Racer, Canyon Speedmax CF SLX
  • Beer of Choice: Anything Belgian
  • Location: Bristol, UK

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