Specialized, in conjunction with McLaren has introduced a new ultra-aero time trial helmet. So new, so special is this helmet that only two of them exist—so far. As you read this, those helmets are in the possession of Tony Martin and Levi Leipheimer. Their particular combinations of badass time trialist, über-fast bike, none-faster-than helmet and all the ensuing confidence one derives from carrying the biggest gun in the shootout could make the coming Tour de France prologue a little extra satisfying for the folks in Morgan Hill.
Last week I attended the introduction of this new helmet at the McLaren Technology Center in Surrey, outside London. Both Specialized and McLaren are reluctant to share too many details of their working relationship. They could teach a graduate workshop on discretion. And I freaking hate that. I’ve often described myself as the eternal Discovery Channel watcher. I love to learn and I’m full of questions, even at this point in my life. My visit to McLaren was both one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited and one of my least satisfying experiences in writing about the bike industry. At a certain point I just stopped asking questions because they couldn’t/wouldn’t/shouldn’t answer.
So what are we left with? Well, let’s have a look at this helmet. They’ve been working on it for … a while. We really don’t know how long. What we know is that according to their wind tunnel data they’ve devised the absolute fastest helmet on the planet. They spent twice the amount of time in the wind tunnel as they did when designing the Venge, which suggests they would have spent a similar increase in time using Computational Fluid Dynamic (CFD) software to evaluate design changes even before getting to the wind tunnel. These days, most companies doing advanced aerodynamic work do all the heavy lifting with CFD and use the wind tunnel for proof-of-concept.
So what is CFD?
Do you remember the scene in Yellow Submarine where you see the music flowing out of the musical instruments as if it was a fog of beauty settling over the landscape? As a kid, I loved that visual—truth be told, that hasn’t changed; I still love the image of music settling over people as if beauty itself was washing over them. Visualizing the invisible isn’t strictly the domain of hippies on halucinogens, though they rightfully believe they hold a special ownership of that space.
CFD or Computational Fluid Dynamics does much the same thing (not as LSD, but making the invisible visible). Workstations running CFD software take an imaginary wind and blow it over a theoretical shape and then show you in a kind of lines-and-arrows diagram just how the air moves over that surface. Better yet, it can generate short movies to show you just what happens in areas of turbulence.
It’s amazingly cool to see; bong within easy reach, my college roommate could have watched this for whole Saturdays.
I have the sense that Specialized and McLaren looked at the TT helmet market and thought that they might be able to knock that problem off just to show how effective their partnership is. After all, a new TT bike can be years in the making. They just introduced the Venge last year. The wheel market is glutted with new ideas (some of which are working very well). I’m betting that the TT helmet is an interim project while they work on something bigger—a bike—on a longer development timeline.
So what really makes this helmet different? If you’re going to reduce this helmet to its two most important achievements, the first would be its drag numbers for when the rider looks down. Many TT helmets have great head-on drag. The problem is that they turn into sails if you pull a little red kite prayer. While this helmet doesn’t manage to maintain the same drag numbers head-on as head-down, its head-down numbers are so good that it is still faster than some companies’ helmets head-on. The chart below is a small sampling of the many helmets the big red S tested; I saw a chart that was hard to read because it listed so many helmets. This one is a good deal easier to follow.
This chart is also notable for an unintended reason: I had no idea the Spiuk Kronos was so damn fast. Go figure.
The second significant development introduced with this helmet are its gill vents. At the rear of the helmet there are slits along the top and sides that help channel air by and through the helmet to speed its flow. Not only do they make the helmet faster, they move more air over the rider’s head, we’re told, helping to keep him cooler as he rides.
There have been a great many TT helmets that were little more than fairings with a pad or two. They were as protective as a perforated condom, though entirely more popular. The S-Works helmet offers real protection and even uses dual-density foam to keep head trauma to an absolute minimum should you go down.
It’s hard to know just what McLaren provides Specialized in their partnership. Both companies are—quite understandably—pretty tight-lipped about the work they do together, that is, beyond revealing a new product. During the presentation I attended they talked about some of their work being strictly about technology. It was veiled and cryptic enough to be worthy of a Jedi master. Just what they meant I really don’t understand.
But let’s back up a second. McLaren’s Advanced Technology Division exists to bring McLaren’s considerable technological prowess to less fortunate companies. What I learned during our visit is that they spend a lot of time evaluating companies before they make an approach. And yes, so far as I understand, they reach out to you after deciding you’re cool enough. You’ve got to have the horsepower to be able to spend copiously on development. You’ve also got to have a reputation for predation, identity-wise and an ability to convey brainy gnar in your marketing.
Our tour of McLaren was exceedingly entertaining, what with the wheel-change competition on one of the Vodafone Formula One cars (and wherein our protagonist nearly peeled the skin from his thumb in an ill-timed activation of the air wrench), but probably encompassed less than 10 percent of the building. We saw cars driven by Ayrton Senna, Lewis Hamilton and Emerson Fittipaldi and had the ability to take pictures of nary an item we saw outside of the area where the intro was conducted.
Next spring this helmet will begin appearing at select Specialized retailers at a retail price that I suspect will fit somewhere between emergency room visit and college tuition. It’s fair to surmise that those retailers will all be Specialized Concept Stores.
For all the talk of Eurobike vs. Interbike for the place to introduce cool products, let’s face it—many of the coolest new products that enter the world during a given year do so at the world’s greatest annual sporting event: le Tour.
I just got a heads-up on a new bike coming down the pike. I’m sure it’ll be in bike shops by the time there’s too much snow on the ground for most of you to ride. Sorry ’bout that, but it’s not our call.
The subject of the photo above is from the outside of the drive-side chainstay of what I’m told will be Alberto Contador’s primary bike at this year’s Tour de France. Before you come to the conclusion that Contador will be riding a McLaren Venge at the Tour, I think we’re being told something different.
[UPDATE] I just received confirmation from Specialized that the above shot is, in fact, a Tarmac SL4 built for Specialized by McLaren.
Contador has elected to ride the lightest equipment he can generally choose within the confines of sponsorship. He chose to ride Zipp 202s at the Giro even though they had other wheels that were not significantly heavier yet were stunningly more aerodynamic. He’s not going to ride a Venge most days.
Specialized updates one of its road bikes every year. Last year they introduced the Roubaix SL3, meaning this is a year for an update to the Tarmac. We’ll see a Tarmac SL4 at the trade shows. I believe this shot is of what will be a very limited production of McLaren-produced Tarmac SL4s. If you’re wondering just how different a standard Tarmac SL4 could be from a McLaren one, consider this: A standard Venge frame requires about 6 hours to produce. Its layup schedule, that is, the manual with all the instructions on which pieces of carbon go where, is 60 pages, a whopper by most standards. The McLaren Venge, by comparison, takes 20 hours to produce and requires a 140-page manual.
That’s why the McLaren bike runs $20k.
As layup schedules get more complicated a bike can do more things. Because material placement and orientation is everything in carbon fiber, these ultra-complicated layup schedules result in bikes that can be both more stiff in torsion and—yes, I promise—more compliant vertically. It requires the techs to vary the orientation of layers by 45 degrees when maybe the layers might all be oriented the same direction, that sort of thing. It’s unlikely the McLaren bike differs much in weight from what we’ll soon call the standard Tarmac SL4, but I anticipate it could feel more responsive and more comfortable. It may also be stronger in crashes.
I’m riding a Tarmac SL3 right now, and it’s hard for me to imagine this bike being improved upon by a significant degree. That’s probably why I’m not a product manager; I’d have called it a day after this thing.
We’ll learn more about the new Tarmac SL4 soon. So far, what I’ve been told is that the bike has received an upgrade to the layup, what is being called FACT 11R. The head tube has been changed some as well; we’re told to improve torsional stiffness while increasing vertical compliance. They claim it is lighter as well. They’ve actually reduced the diameter of the head tube; the lower bearing is only 1 3/8″ now. The bottom bracket has been integrated with the chainstays for a stronger, lighter one-piece construction. Other features include hollow carbon dropouts, internal cable routing and more widely spaced seatstays for improved lateral stiffness.
I’m partial to any occasion that gets people into a bike shop for a reason other than pure commerce. Bike shops have always been a part of my sense of community, even if that shop is 100 miles away. The best shops find ways to make themselves part of the social fabric of the cycling community and when it does happen, the benefits can be profound and unexpected.
Cynergy Cycles, the flagship among Specialized‘s Concept Stores, held a charity event to benefit Right To Play. The organization targets children in areas ravaged by war and disease, using the transcendent power of play and sport to heal those children and help them chart a better future for themselves. The tie-in to Cynergy came through Specialized which sponsors Team HTC-High Road, one of Right To Play’s Global Corporate Partners.
The shop sold 100 tickets to the event at $100 each. For that, attendees got a dinner catered by Wolfgang Puck (it was quite good), wine, beer or coffee (perhaps all three?), a gift bag and $25 gift card to Cynergy. Better yet, they got to meet the HTC-High Road squad for the Tour of California and were entered in a drawing to win a Specialized S-Works HTC-High Road team frame set.
Another 10 folks got their picture taken with the team for their $250 donation.
Emcee for the event was Phil Keoghan of The Amazing Race and NOW: No Opportunity Wasted.
And while I was pretty jazzed to see Mike Sinyard and meet Allan Peiper, it may be that the biggest stars of the evening had neither the last name Goss or Van Garderen. Specialized was showing off one of a handful of the McLaren edition Venges and the local McLaren dealer was on-hand with both a chassis and working MP4-12C. You’ll pardon me if I tell you it was the sexiest thing in Santa Monica that night.
I’m keen to learn more about the McLaren edition of the Venge. I’m aware that it enjoys its own layup room, its own (much lengthier) layup schedule, not to mention its own blend of carbon fiber. That’s probably as close as I’ll come to the bike though; at $20k, I doubt they’ll be loaning any out for bike reviews. So far, they seem to be most popular with McLaren customers, who are picking them up as the ultimate fashion accessory.
Stuff like this just doesn’t happen often enough. A few PROs, a cool new bike, an amazing car and more than $12k raised for charity. Not bad.