Specialized’s creative director slides his business card across the meeting room table at Specialized’s Californian HQ. It says Robert Egger / Trouble Maker.
Egger is the unofficial class clown of Specialized; he once filled a young designer’s car with water bottles and attached a bespoke number plate to founder Mike Sinyard’s car, bearing the words PIMP.
“He drove around for a couple of weeks and didn’t realise. His kids were like ‘dad, what’s that on the car?’ He never could prove it was me, I don’t like to leave a trail.”
Egger is a wisecracking, whimsical 55-year-old man with bicep tattoos and the get-up-and-go of a teenager. A company of Robert Eggers-type characters would be chaos; just the one has given Specialized flair and been significant in shaping their bicycles and identity.
Egger has helped innovate everything during his 30 years at the company, from later iterations of the Stumpjumper to Specialized’s original tri-spoke, plus the staples of the company’s road bikes over the years: the Tarmac, Roubaix and Venge.
“That’s why I have so many lunch ride victories – 1,537,” he says. “Sometimes it was just me.”
With his deadpan delivery of jokes, I’m not always sure if he’s pulling my leg.
“I should have given you a disclaimer: only about half of what I say is true,” he tells me halfway through our chat. How do I know which one? “Just use the half that sounds good.”
Having graduated with an industrial design degree, Egger landed a job at Trek in the early ’80s, but found he was the only competitive cyclist there.
“It’s changed a lot,” he says, with a pause for comic effect. “I think there’s two competitive cyclists now. I still have a lot of great friends there, that’s a great company. But it’s different than Specialized, it’s very conservative in a lot of ways. We’ve always been very irreverent. We just try shit, right? Or we do things that are outlandish.”
True to that statement, Egger got this job as a by-product of insulting the company founder. As a youngster working in a bike shop near Los Gatos in the mid-’80s, “this old guy” walked in and they got talking.
He asked about the company’s Stumpjumper and Ground Control tyres. Egger ended up recommending rival brands, which he deemed superior. When it came to Specialized saddle bags, he pulled him close and whispered “these ones are really shitty”.
The customer introduced himself as Sinyard. Egger thought he was going to lose his job because of his big mouth; instead, Sinyard asked if he was free to meet the next day and duly gave him the challenge of making some better bags. It was the first of many creative missions accomplished; he’s been on board ever since.
Egger is an incorrigible creator. He and his wife own a 50-acre ranch, where they built everything from scratch and raise 50 goats (“The best fuckin’ goats in California!”). When it comes to design, he is an advocate of letting the mind and hands go: the kind of guy who doesn’t start by thinking outside the box, but wonders whether the box itself should be triangular or cylindrical.
Egger shows us his design playground on Specialized’s first floor, populated by his playful inventions. Nearest the stairs is the fUCI concept bike, a futuristic two fingers to the bureaucrats.
“I hate the fucking UCI. I think as a designer, they really thwart innovation. This might be selfish, but I would rather see the general population have better bikes than the few hundred pro riders in the world. Right?”
Specialized’s creative director doesn’t take himself or his passion too seriously: to him, bikes are big people’s toys. Elsewhere, there is his Flintstones-esque oldest mountain bike in the world, with a sundial GPS and woolly mammoth skinsuit (“Good wicking properties”), an e-bike which resembles a motorcycle, a police bike with a doughnut holder, a cowboy bike with horseshoe pedals and a gun for protection, and a toddler’s balance bike. Fun is the guiding principle.
“I’m always trying to push what the perception is for a bike,” he says. “If a kid has fun on this, he should have fun on a bike the rest of his life. A very simple idea, but I hope it works.”
Egger draws inspiration from the worlds of automobiles, muscle cars and motorbikes. Why can’t turn signals, horn, GPS, heated seat on a wet day’s ride be incorporated into a bicycle? His saying is ‘don’t change it, make it better’, partly inspired by Ferdinand Porsche, who kept the same silhouette on classic cars like the 350, 550 Spyder and 911.
“There’s also no perfect design. Right? We get done with something and go ‘we don’t know how we’re going to beat that.’
“Then a year goes by, we start working on something newer and go ‘that thing’s a piece of junk, the new one’s way better.’ And that’s the way it should be: we should always be trying to obsolete ourselves, to elevate our expertise and our product.”
Is that frustrating? Hardly: it’s job security for life.
Others can slave over the science; Egger is a guardian of Specialized’s soul.
“I love the wind tunnel because we can make better and faster products. But if we solely do product development and design based on data, it loses the emotional attraction that people want in their products. Also, the problem is that every company is using that same data so suddenly, all the bikes look alike. So as a designer, I’m not a proponent of that.”
Often, his whole concept doesn’t make it through the process, but one or two pieces do – which can make all the difference.
Egger is still just as motivated to keep pushing the boundaries for Specialized as when he began in 1987.
“To me, it really hasn’t changed at all. I mean, there’s more people, but we still kind of run it like a start-up. Every day is a job interview, every day we have to perform. In a lot of ways, this is like a bike race here. If you don’t have results, then you don’t get the opportunity to be here.”