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Are in-house wind tunnels really worth it for bike companies?

Giant questions the revenue and technology benefits after Specialized and Ridley go in-house with their aero testing

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Since 1990, when Steve Hed and Boone Lennon put reigning Tour de France champion Greg LeMond in the Texas A&M wind tunnel to test the first aero handlebars, the cycling public has become ever more aware of the growing role of the facilities in bike design. Now, Specialized has its own wind tunnel in one of its own buildings, and Ridley is in the process of building one that is nearly in-house as well.

With the explosion of aerodynamic road frames, clothing, and other equipment, the market has shown its hunger for slippery surfaces. But is having its own wind tunnel a significant competitive advantage for a bike company, or is Specialized just blowing a lot of hot air?

Mark Cote, the MIT-trained “Aero Pharaoh,” is in charge of Specialized’s aerodynamics R&D efforts. He runs the new wind tunnel, along with aerodynamicist and Cat. 2 racer Chris Yu, long-time Easton frame tubing maker Chuck Teixeira, and Specialized bike designer, father of many of its most aero bikes, and always-fast rider Chris D’Aluisio.

After being designed four times for four different locations, the wind tunnel is now in a building just down the road from the main Specialized headquarters in Morgan Hill, California. In the 1980s, that two-story building was where Specialized founder Mike Sinyard housed sales and warehousing for his growing company. Now, in addition to the wind tunnel, it also houses custom bottle-printing and the facility for coating the inner SiO2 surface on Purist water bottles.

The tunnel is up and running; Cote and his team broke ground in October 2012 and started testing in early April, and eight weeks of R&D work have already taken place inside. So far, only hardware has been tested, and Specialized-sponsored athletes are scheduled to start arriving in July and August.

Prior to the Specialized facility, wind tunnels used for bicycle research tended to be made for something completely different — either for automotive or aerospace applications and thus adapted to much higher speeds, or for architectural or similar purposes designed for ambient wind speeds.

The morning after Specialized unveiled its facility in May, Ridley announced it would soon join the California company in having a bike-specific wind tunnel, via a partnership with four other companies and the Belgian government. It will be the first European wind tunnel designed for bikes.

The consortium of Belgian companies composed of Ridley, Lazer (helmets), BioRacer (clothing), EnergyLab (athletic performance center), and Flanders Drive (mobility knowledge center) will partner under an umbrella called the Bike Valley initiative, and has received a government grant of 500,000 euros to establish an advanced R&D facility focused on the aerodynamics and technologies of human power. The money “will mainly be used for the construction of a bicycle-specific wind tunnel”, said Bike Valley managing director Marc Hufkens.

How valuable is a local, bike-specific wind tunnel for R&D?

“The big thing for us is proximity and time,” Cote told VeloNews. “We’ve had great results over the years at A2 [the Mooresville, North Carolina wind tunnel that VeloNews also uses for testing aero equipment] and the University of Washington.”

Now, rather than planning far ahead to schedule time, and packing up a lot of equipment and shipping it out to do tests, Cote and Co. can take a short walk to their own tunnel.

The Specialized aero team performs data-acquisition on the bike, in-house CFD (computational fluid dynamics), and measurements in the wind tunnel. They feel that the combination of these three technologies allows them to achieve not only the fastest equipment, but to get it done the fastest as well.

“If we’re doing on-road work in the velodrome with a pro rider like [Astana’s Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo] Nibali or [Ironman champion] Craig Alexander, we can get a good idea of athlete positioning,” said Cote. “Then we look at what wind they’re dealing with in the event they’re aiming for, say the winds in Kona, and then we replicate that in the wind tunnel. Then we do the nitty-gritty on helmet design, for instance, with CFD. It’s not just the tools themselves, but having the synergy of these three tools with a team that knows how to use them.”

One company unimpressed with the aerodynamic achievements of Specialized is its top competitor, Giant Bicycles, which challenged the company to a head-to-head aero test of the Specialized Venge against the Giant Propel SL Advanced.

“We’ve tested our bikes against all of our competitors’ bikes in that tunnel and we’re so confident of our bike, particularly against the Venge, that we offered that challenge to Specialized to take one of our production bikes and one of their productions bikes and run them head-to-head in their wind tunnel, which is supposed to be state of the art,” said Giant marketing manager Andrew Juskaitis. “We’re sure ours would come out ahead, and Specialized turned us down.”

Cote refused to comment on the challenge, but said, “A fast bike is a lot more than just a number from a wind tunnel, because it has to be ridden. It doesn’t make sense any more than a weight challenge of putting two bikes on a scale and saying the lighter one is better; it’s a lot more complex than that.”

Juskaitis thinks that marketing has at least as much to do with Specialized’s decision to build a tunnel as research.

“While it would be nice to have our own wind tunnel in our backyard — or back warehouse, we don’t feel that our products are in any way compromised by using a third-party wind tunnel,” he said. “As with any tool, the tool itself is not as important as how you use it. And before we even go into the wind tunnel, we’ve done tons of CFD analysis on the bike design to know that it’s going to work well, and then the wind tunnel just confirms it.”

Cote sees the in-house wind tunnel as a natural evolutionary development, and not a marketing extravagance.

“Everybody knew all along that a lighter bike is faster, but it’s as if nobody had a scale you could use all of the time,” he said. “It’s just the physics of it — we [as bike riders] are always pushing wind out of the way, and we lacked a way to measure that on a daily basis. Now we can see right away if something works aerodynamically. Instead of assuming something is more aero, we can check the validity of a design immediately.”

Wind tunnel research, due to its high expense not only in tunnel time but also in planning, preparation, getting equipment to the tunnel, etc., has tended to be focused only on high-end equipment, but Cote sees that as changing, now that he can test whenever he wishes.

“How do you make the range of an e-bike longer? Or how do you make a commuter helmet quieter? These are things that we’ve never spent tunnel time on in the past,” he said. “Since we have wheels, apparel, bikes, and athletes, it makes sense to have this facility.”

Cross-pollination within the company has also happened due to the proximity.

“It’s not why we built the tunnel, but where we would have had maybe five guys at a test [at a third-party wind tunnel], now we’ll sometimes have maybe 50,” said Cote. “Many of our designers and engineers come over and see with new eyes and bring new ideas — and those are the great ideas.”

Those other employees would not have had the time, interest, or budget to travel to wind tunnel tests, but they’ll take a short walk over to watch what’s happening, and everyone may learn something in the process.

That kind of interaction is also what Jochim Aerts, CEO of Ridley, is looking for with his project.

“It will be a lot more than a wind tunnel,” is said of Bike Valley. “We will open an innovation/R&D center with five partners from the bike industry and five to 10 that are not in the industry. The companies from out of the industry are mainly companies who produce raw materials.”

Juskaitis isn’t convinced. On its face, it would seem that the in-house wind tunnel would shorten and simplify the product development cycle by avoiding the need to schedule time at busy wind tunnels. But this may not apply to every company.

“We have such a great relationship with the ACE wind tunnel outside of Paris that we can pretty much get in there and test our products any time we want,” said Juskaitis. “With anything Specialized does, marketing is first and foremost. Specialized makes world-class products, and it also does world-class marketing. I’m sure they’ll market the hell out of it [the new wind tunnel].”

On the other hand, the potential benefits to R&D are numerous. I started going to wind tunnels for bicycle purposes in 1989, and I’ve seen many times that many of the tests that were planned got canned because it took a lot longer to do the tests than anticipated. The day’s final tests can be extremely hurried, and some simply don’t make it in, because when the reserved tunnel time is up, that’s it. With an in-house wind tunnel, there’s more opportunity to look beyond the low-hanging aerodynamic fruit.

How do small brands compete?

Small brands will have to partner with others to accumulate the resources necessary to come up with bikes as fast as big brands can. Ridley is doing just that with Bike Valley.

“It [combining efforts] is the only way we can compete on an investment level with the large global multinationals in the bicycling industry,” Ridley PR and marketing manager Jochen Bessemans told VeloNews.

Ridley’s collaboration in the past with the Force India Formula One car racing team to develop its aero bikes is one example. Partnering with other companies and the Belgian government in the Bike Valley project to attain similar facilities to those that big brands can afford is the next step.

Even before Bike Valley is a reality, Ridley’s new Dean FAST, which the company has just announced will be ridden in the Tour de France, has three patents for aerodynamics. The frame is tube-to-tube construction (rather than monocoque molded), and the customer can order custom geometry. It will be built in Ridley’s own factory in Moldova.

In the absence of collaborative efforts, small brands will endure longer development cycles or resort to straight copying.

Why didn’t they do it earlier?

If the benefits of the in-house wind tunnel are so numerous and obvious, why did Specialized, or its competitors, not build the facility before 2012?

“I’ve been trying to get this done for years,” said Cote, pointing to a number of factors making the timing appropriate: SBCU [Specialized Bicycle Components University, a dealer fit and sales training system of which BG Fit training is a part] is now in over 20 countries, and the company is integrating aerodynamic positioning training for dealers into it; Specialized has over 150 professional athletes with whom it would make sense to do aerodynamic positioning, and Cote oversees over 20 aerodynamics projects going on concurrently and testing at third-party facilities became difficult to manage.

Up until just the past few years, aerodynamic developments were limited to equipment for time trials and triathlons. Now there’s a flood of it going on with road bikes and road clothing, equipment, and accessories. Now sales can justify the investment in both the wind tunnel and the operation of it, because the consumer is more interested in aerodynamics.

So, Specialized and Ridley will stand behind their decisions to take aero testing in-house, and competitors like Giant will question the move, at least for now. Whether the technology and revenue gains play out over time will go a long way to determining whether the move is a sound one.