Caught up in a good cycle

Creative Director Robert Egger sprays paint onto a carbon fiber protype bike frame inside the paint booth at Specialized Bicycle Components.

When Robert Egger fell in love with bicycles as a child and made his first two-wheeled, pedal-powered vehicle on his family’s dairy farm in Wisconsin at the age of 5, he didn’t know that as a grownup he would be at the forefront of cycling technology working for one of the world’s largest – and most influential – producers of bicycles and associated parts.

Egger, 51, is the Creative Director at Specialized Bicycle Components, the corporate headquarters for which have occupied a substantial two-story industrial building on Concord Circle in Morgan Hill since 1985.

Egger’s love of cycling, and his ability to see the endless possibilities for such a seemingly simple machine, date back to his days as a toddler, growing up with his 10 brothers and sisters in the Midwest. A frequent recipient of hand-me-down clothing and toys, he learned how to pedal on his older sister’s bicycle. He envied his neighborhood peers, who would ride by his home with newer, flashy bicycles, and it wasn’t long before he was begging his parents for a new bike.

“Even at that age, I saw that bicycles could be much more,” Egger said at Specialized headquarters.

One day, his father – a mechanical engineer who once worked at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. – came home with his truck loaded up with piles of discarded bicycle wheels, handlebars, saddles, frames, cranks, pedals and other parts Egger’s parents had gathered from a nearby dump.

The cache of parts was Egger’s “new bicycle,” his father declared.

Egger immediately began experimenting with the varieties of different sizes and shapes of parts to produce his first bike, and his creative juices haven’t stopped flowing since.

In his nearly 26 years at Specialized, Egger combined his passions for cycling and aesthetics to help produce some of the bicycle world’s most ground-breaking technology, all the while spicing it up with sleek designs, always in an effort to compel any potential consumer to fall in love with the product even before they buy it.

“My goal was to create an emotional tie to the product,” said Egger, who lives in Corralitos with his wife Sandy and daughter Jazzy.

He has been instrumental in the creation and development of full-suspension bicycles, which are pervasive among off-road cyclists. He was involved in the production of Specialized’s McLaren Venge – a professional-grade road bike that retails for up to $14,000 – “arguably the best bicycle in the world,” he said.

Egger, who touches every product that Specialized produces, is particularly proud of his role in designing the Sub-6 helmet, Epic mountain bikes, women’s bikes and high-end road bikes whose weightlessness belies their nearly unbreakable sturdiness.

He has worked with some of the world’s top professional cyclists who are sponsored by Specialized.

His approach to everything he designs at Specialized is not just to make the products efficient and robust, but to make them “exciting, cool and sexy.”

“I’m a proponent of ‘form follows function,’” Egger said. “It has to work great but it also has to be beautiful.”

Even in his high school shop classes, Egger was drawn more to the design aspect of construction. He recalls one assignment in which each student had to build a chair.

Egger built nine chairs of varying sizes and shapes.

More recently, he applied his skills and creativity to build his home in Corralitos from the ground up.

He likens Specialized to the “Apple” of the bicycle industry: The company strives to make state-of-the-art products that appeal to consumers of all ages and abilities, male and female. It places prioritized emphasis on a sleek, aesthetically pleasing appearance for all of their products, from helmets and water bottles to handlebars and wheels.

“I think I’ve been really lucky to work here, where ideas are encouraged,” Egger said. “I’m always pushing ideas, and I push pretty hard. I want to see how far this thing on two wheels can go.”

As much spokesman for Specialized as he is for cycling as a sport, activity and industry, Egger is quick to credit the “team” he works with in Morgan Hill that produces the company’s wares together.

One of Egger’s co-workers, Sean McLaughlin, who has worked at Specialized for 19 years, said Egger exhibits a “creative freedom” that strays outside the norms of bicycle equipment designs.

“He has a powerfully creative mind,” said McLaughlin, who does global marketing at Specialized. “He’s not really confined in the way he thinks, and he has very high standards. He’s very critical of his own work, and the Specialized brand.”

The interior of Specialized headquarters even shows a predilection for attractive designs. The building’s vast foyer branches off into a “museum” exhibiting the history and progression of the many bicycles and parts Specialized has produced since Mike Sinyard founded the company in 1974.

Two conference rooms named after Specialized-sponsored professional cyclists are decorated with wall-sized, colorful photos of the athletes in competition. The laid-back “Sam Hill” room contains a picnic-style table built by Egger, complete with a tabletop chiseling tool set to encourage occupants to carve their names into the furniture.

Upstairs is filled with flashy prototypes, quirky demo models and show pieces, most of which were designed by Egger and strongly suggest a playful side ingrained in Specialized culture.

A version of a Japanese bicycle shaped like a moped flaunts an attached storage case for martini ingredients and the equipment to mix the libations. Several heavy-duty, three-wheeled “Big Wheels” suitable for adults are parked on one side, and Egger said his co-workers sometimes race the vehicles around the building to blow off steam.

The fierce desire to keep moving and pushing is apparent in Egger as a cyclist as well, as he was once the Wisconsin state champion in road cycling. He trained for the Olympics when he was younger, but found he didn’t fit into that culture and started looking for a job instead.

Having studied industrial design, Egger was often told by professors and his parents that he would never get a job “playing with bicycles,” but he inevitably gravitated in that direction.

“In Wisconsin, I would ride my bicycle everywhere. Everything I did revolved around bicycles,” Egger said.

His first job designing bikes – before he tried to join the Olympic team – was at Trek, one of Specialized’s largest competitors. Then a few years later he worked for Blackburn Design, another bicycle manufacturer.

Almost everyone at Specialized has the same passion for cycling, and that’s another company trait that contributes to its success, Egger said.

McLaughlin described Egger as a “really strong cyclist.”

“That firsthand experience being a talented bike rider guides him in the design of Specialized products,” McLaughlin said.

Each day at lunch, at least a couple dozen Specialized employees go for a ride on the streets of Morgan Hill. Egger and others who participate in the daily ritual are aware that this custom sometimes upsets motorists with whom they share the road, and Egger is the first to admit that he is occasionally guilty of unduly slowing down motorized traffic.

But they don’t intend to be a nuisance.

“We as cyclists need to be more aware of our surroundings, and be respectful and mindful whenever possible,” said McLaughlin. “A little bit of common courtesy can go a long way, for both motorists and cyclists. We’re not deliberately trying to be a pain, but with just a little bit of patience and maybe a couple taps on the horn, we’ll try to get out of the way.”

The sport of cycling is growing, and McLaughlin noted that the presence of a growing number of cyclists on the roads raises awareness.

At Specialized, naturally, keeping that interest growing is an enduring goal. Egger thinks cycling “can save the world,” by cutting down on pollution, promoting mental and physical fitness, and encouraging active lifestyles.

“We are intoxicated by bicycles, and we want to spread that disease to everybody,” he said.

• A private company that designs, engineers and produces a wide variety of bicycles and associated equipment, catering to cyclists of all ages and abilities, for the global recreational, professional and commuter markets.
• Founded in San Jose in 1974 by Mike Sinyard, who remains the company’s president.
• Moved to 15130 Concord Circle in Morgan Hill in 1985, where all of the company’s engineering, research and development, composite research, prototyping and testing operations take place. (Products are manufactured in Taiwan.)
• Employs about 350 people at the Morgan Hill offices.