I go behind the scenes at Specialized to talk to prototype and concept bike guru Robert Egger about his approach to bikes and design. Be sure to flick through the gallery above for a closer look at many of his wildest prototypes.
Officially, Robert Egger is Specialized's creative director, however take a look at his business card and you’ll see ‘Trouble maker’, which seems more apt for a guy who builds prototypes that break the rules of professional racing, especially with names like the FUCI — we’ll leave you to guess what the F stands for.
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BikeRadar: You've worked at Specialized for 30 years, so what is it that makes it a great place to work and has kept you there for so many years?
Robert Egger: "I feel like this is the most fun place to work in the whole cycling industry, you make lifelong friends here. So what’s cool to me is that people who work here do stuff together at the weekends; ride, families hang out together, and that pulls everyone in the same direction. When we’re creating new bikes, parts or whatever, the bond is strong and we get things done, we’re proud of it, and because we’re friends, egos are in check.
"Even when hanging out we’ll be having conversations like ‘Hey, how do we get those grams out of the Tarmac', or 'how do we get that back end of the Epic stiffer?' For everyone here it’s a lifestyle, we ride bikes, talk bikes, heck, we all love bikes."
How do you go about starting your wild creations and how did it all start for you?
"So the quick story is I started designing bikes when I was five years old, I have 10 brothers and sisters so I got handed down all the junk. When I wanted a bike I got my sister's bike. I wanted a cool bike, a Schwinn [Orange Crate, which served as the inspiration for the Raleigh Chopper]; we lived on a dairy farm and didn’t have a lot of money, so if you wanted something you had to make it.
"I said to my mom 'that’s a girl’s bike', and she said no, no it’s a regular bike. But I kept complaining. I thought heck I deserve that bike, I’m a good kid. So later my dad comes home and says I got your new bike outside, and I thought wow they listened! I went outside to find a truck piled as high as it could be with junk bikes. My dad had been to the dump and rounded up all the bikes that got chucked away.
"He gave me a set of pliers, a crescent wrench, a screwdriver, and a few other tools in a little metal toolbox and said 'Hey, you can make your own bike'. So that’s when I started and I’ve pretty much been doing that ever since."
So you have a much bigger toolbox these days — his workshop at Specialized’s Morgan Hill HQ is about the size of a soccer pitch, its fenced off with ceiling-high corrugated steel that's topped with razor wire (really) and inside there’s state of the art CNC machines, welding, a fully enclosed and ventilated spray shop, myriad of benches and tools, and not forgetting Egger's office, a micro caravan he fabricated from sheet aluminum from which he does most of his blue sky thinking — but has much changed?
"I feel like I’m still doing the same now, 50 years on, here I can follow my dreams. My college professor told me, ‘You can’t work in the bike industry, there are no design jobs there, you need to design cars or computers, that’s the future’. But I love bikes and I never wanted to do anything but that, I like just having fun.
"We have to get serious sometimes, bikes have to weigh a certain amount, we need the ride character to be a certain way, they have to be slippery in the wind tunnel, and on the road, and they have to appeal to more than 40 markets worldwide. At the end of the day you always need to remember we design and build fun stuff.
"My concept bikes you could say are very light hearted, but there are so many ways to ride a bike. That’s one reason I did the FUCI bikes. The UCI puts us designers into such a small box I think that the general public really doesn’t care too much about the pro peloton."
Do you feel that way even more now about the UCI, especially with the current state of flux regarding discs, weight limits, and the success of the new Roubaix (a disc only bike that’s not yet legal to race — aside from a few test events)?
"That’s it; bikes like the Roubaix are bikes that we all should be riding: fast, controlled, comfortable, safe. The pro peloton is very vain and of course certain riders follow that you should look a certain way, wear certain things, ride a certain type of bike. But that’s not always what’s best for the individual.
"Sometimes I’ll take out my Varsity bike — its modelled after a Schwinn Varsity, which I had when I was at college — it wasn’t a great bike, but it's all I had. My version is based around a 2015 Roubaix, its lightweight and tricked out, but I ride it in my tennis shoes. When I see other riders when I’m on it I’ll ring my bell and say hi, but sometimes it’s the race guys who don’t acknowledge you. So it's fun to turn around and chase them on my town handle-barred machine and go past them just to say hi again, and make them talk to me, because we should be social, we’re all in it together. We may not ride the same bikes, but we are a family of cyclists.
"You know we can always get better though, in this job I’ve never got to the top and thought that’s it I can’t go further, you can always improve, as you learn and as you research. We haven’t even come close to scratching the surface of what this brand can do, and that’s the camaraderie, the way we’ve approached R&D, the investment and the freedom we’ve been given.‘That can only happen when you're passionate about what you do."
Do you have any other goals?
"My goal now here at Specialized is to change people's perceptions, from what they think Specialized is, to what it actually is, what this company is all about. I also want to try and open people's eyes to what cycling can be and what it can do. It can change people's lives; where would we be without cycling? It's changed our lives, and for the better.
"Outside though riding can be dangerous, cars cut you off, people shout at us, spit at us, but within cycling we have security, from the kinship of us all just being riders. It's almost like a religion, especially here, where you feel safe and still feel like you can change the world, but enough of the sermon, let's have a look at what I’ve been working on."
I can’t help but notice that a lot of your more recent creations have some sort of power assist, is that where you think bikes are going?
"I believe that one day all of Specialized’s bikes will have some sort of power, be that true assistance or just lights, GPS, navigation, power monitoring, body monitoring, environmental analysis, geometry shifting.
"With power assist we need to think beyond the current pool of riders, because it’s a very small pool, you could say a cesspool as it's very down and dirty. But if we can get that pool to spread out to an ocean of potential riders who’ll get some aerobic exercise from a power assisted bike, you get a healthier society, you cut pollution and congestion, and that makes for a better world.
"I don’t think we’ve even begun to tap the potential. I think assisted bikes still give great exercise and make things better, I’m working on another e-powered bike, but this one's different. You have a module that contains the battery and motor, and it's transferable so the module can go into your road bike, mountain bike, town bike, delivery bike, whatever, think of it like the battery in this [DeWalt] drill. You can take that battery and fit it to a grinder, sander, or saw, but you only have the expense of the one battery.
"We’re even thinking that the module power unit could be used in developing countries. With solar charging you could have a bike for transport and that unit could also power the pump for your well. There are huge possibilities.
"I’m pretty certain that there is no other bike company in the world that offers this freedom to its designers, So I feel very privileged to be working here and allowed to do these things. I like to design things that get people thinking outside of the box, looking at things from a new perspective, only that way can we truly innovate (or die)."
Take a look in the gallery above for a selection of some of Egger's best creations.