Chris D’Aluisio can’t really tell you what he does for a living. The longtime Specialized employee’s business card reads Creative Specialist, but beyond that his explanation is fairly vague. “My job is to give riders a better experience on the bike,” he told us during a sit-down interview in Santa Cruz, California in early February. “That means I spend most of my time thinking about the future.”
Of course, for reasons of industry secrecy, D’Aluisio can’t reveal exactly what that future holds. Heck, he can’t even ride most of the bikes in his garage unless he’s alone. That often necessitates early-morning departures, lest he run into prying cyclist eyes. “I ride in the dark a lot,” admitted D’Aluisio. “I’ll roll out at 6 a.m. so I can get through the nearby towns before other people are up and out.”
And if he does run into other riders while pedaling a top secret prototype bike? “I just keep moving. People will say things or ask questions, but I never stop. I’m a rude cyclist when I am on special stuff. I just take a turn or gas it past them.”
Fortunately on this day, D’Aluisio is neither rude or on a secret bike. Instead we spent a few hours picking his brain about new product development at Specialized. Here are the highlights from the mostly enlightening — and sometimes evasive — conversation.
RoadBikeReview: Let’s start with the basics. How’d you get your start in the bike industry and how’d you end up at Specialized?
Chris D’Aluisio: I started racing bikes at 15 as junior, so that’s where it really started. But my first industry job was with Cannondale around 1984. I started in customer service but ended up setting up manufacturing for aluminum bikes. I designed the machines to make those bikes, so I went to factories and figured things out. I don’t have an engineering background, but I guess I just have a knack for figuring things out.
RBR: And the move to Specialized?
CD: Yeah, so around 2000 there was quite a bit of turmoil at Cannondale, people getting fired for no good reason, people that were my friends. Around that same time I got a call from [Specialized founder] Mike Sinyard. He brought me out to California for an interview and the rest I guess is history.
RBR: How has your role at Specialized evolved?
CD: Well, I used to be primarily involved with our race teams and working with the pro riders. I developed a performance program where we did track testing with riders. And I did some special carbon layups for some riders. I worked with everyone from [Mario] Cipollini to [Mark] Cavendish. That in turn would help us with our development process. If for instance they said they had this issue or that issue, I’d say okay let’s talk more about that. It is always very anecdotal, but you are always looking for the little clues that you can take away. I mean those guys are so good that they can get their bike through almost any situation, but they might just say the bike chattered a little in this situation or that turn. It’s those little clues that you have to then piece together to make the product better going forward. When we are working on the next version of a bike, we’re taking all those clues into consideration.
RBR: Currently Specialized is the bike sponsor for three WorldTour teams, Astana, Etixx-Quick-Step and Tinkoff Saxo. How much pride do you and the rest of your Specialized team feel when one of the pro guys wins a race?
CD: It’s huge, because we definitely feel like we are a part of their success. We send around celebration emails, and if we have a big win there is always a big party at Specialized. We even do videos and send them to the team, saying congratulations.
RBR: So why no Specialized-branded team like what Cannondale and Trek are currently doing, or what Cervélo did in the past?
CD: It’s really sticking your neck out to do just one team. And it would be hard to have own team be the Specialized Factory Team, and also have two other teams on your bikes. It’s hard enough to keep the three teams separate now. But there is no sharing in between. If you only have the Specialized team, you could have a bummer year and then what. We’d rather have 90 guys on our stuff than 30 for both product development and exposure. We learn a lot from them. And it’s Mike [Sinyard’s] passion. He jokes that some company owners have yachts or whatever but these teams are his yachts. Otherwise the guy is super modest. He has a small home, no fancy cars.
RBR: Okay, back to innovation. What drives the process? Is it customer demand or is it more internal idea generation?
CD: Mostly it’s ideas we are coming up with internally. At the end of the day, I want to satisfy me. I’m really selfish and I want good stuff for me, so if I’m happy the customer will be happy, too. It’s really fun, but I obviously can’t talk specifically about what we are doing right now. What I can say is that we are really innovating. Mike [Sinyard] is giving us the space to not just be incremental, which is what happened with the latest version of the Tarmac. In the past we would have just made a few changes and released the SL5, which would have been next in line. But instead we took some more time and really made some significant change. We are getting that extra time and horsepower with more engineers. There could be 20 people working on a bike project.
The way we came up with the new Tarmac was thinking about how we ride bikes and how to do it better, how does the experience differ. Bikes are not like a car, where each person who drives it will essentially have the same experience. For instance because of our height difference, you and I have much different experiences on a bike. [Editor’s Note: Author Jason Sumner is 6-foot-4; Chris D’Aluisio is 5-foot-6]. Your body has to lean more to maintain the same lean angle, and that takes more energy from a bike. It has to lift you and catch you through each turn. That’s how we came up with the rider first engineering concept.
RBR: It’s no secret that wireless shifting is coming soon to road bikes. How, if at all, do you see that changing frame design?
CD: Honestly I don’t think it will open that many doors as long as there are still bike with cables and wires. Wireless is great but we can’t just design around that. Otherwise you might be asking dealers to stock bikes that are wired, wireless and cabled. That’s too many bikes, so for now we still have to cater to all. There will be a lot of plugged holes on frames for a while.
RBR: How about the increasing proliferation of disc brakes on road bikes? You in on disc?
CD: I am . I love it. I just wish we could do our own disc brake, but lever compatibility would be too big an issue to get around. It’s a shame because I think with our relationship with McLaren we could do some really cool stuff. I do see it revitalizing things to a certain extent. People will be looking to upgrade from non-disc to disc, so they’ll be looking to buy a new bike.
RBR: So give us some kind of clue. What’s in the Specialized road bike pipeline?
CD: All I can tell you is that it’s good. What we are making is so different. We are inventing and being creative. We’ll have something in mid-summer, and something the same time next year, and the same time the year after that. Be patient. You’ll get to see it soon.