Industry Insider: Specialized's Eric Schuda and the development of the all-new Roubaix - Road Cycling UK

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Industry Insider: Specialized’s Eric Schuda and the development of the all-new Roubaix

The man behind the Specialized's radical new Roubaix talks suspension, McLaren and disc brakes

“It was a matter of combining the data with gut instinct.”

Eric Schuda, who led the project to radically overhaul Specialized’s genre-defining Roubaix, can afford to relax and joke about the need for a crystal ball to complement the simulation model developed with McLaren Applied Technologies.

After all, redesigning a bike as successful as the Roubaix is no small task, especially when the makeover involves introducing a front suspension unit. There are engineers to set loose and rein in; dealers to reassure; professional riders to satisfy; and, ultimately, customers to engage and thrill.

The original Roubaix came to define the endurance bike – now Specialized have revamped the machine ridden to victory five times at the Hell of the North (Pic: Brakethrough Media)

“We joke that as a product manager, you have to use your crystal ball a lot,” Schuda laughs. “I’m looking around and trying to solve a problem for people they don’t know exists, or don’t know there’s a better way around it.”

– Specialized reinvent Roubaix endurance bike with FutureShock suspension –

When the Roubaix was launched in 2004, it had few competitors. Now, the so-called endurance sector is a competitive market, and the models that attempt to balance comfort and speed are no longer seen as the ugly sister of the thoroughbred race bike. Increasingly, they are a brand’s technical showcase. All of this can be seen in the new Roubaix.

Specialized might have named its FutureShock with a nod to Alvin Toffler, the American writer and futurist, or perhaps even to Cannondale, whose HeadShok suspension fork, introduced in 1992, might have served as inspiration. Critically, Specialized has positioned its suspension unit (a cartridge system offering three different spring rates and 20mm of travel) above the headtube, rather than below it, with the intention of suspending the rider, rather than the bike. In doing so, it eliminates the ‘bobbing’ effect that beset early mountain bike suspension systems, but still vastly improves comfort, according to Specialized.

Images of RockShox mountain bike forks attached to pro bikes for Paris-Roubaix now belong in the archives. FutureShock (and systems like Trek’s IsoSpeed decoupler) offer a more sophisticated, integrated alternative. Why has it taken so long?

“I would say for ourselves – and I bet you for some of the other bigger brands as well – it’s scary to make such a big change,” Schuda says, with admirable frankness. “Roubaix is a big category for us. A lot of riders love it. A lot of shops rely on us for it.”

Timing is everything, he believes. Forward thinking is an obvious plus, but it’s essential to carry the audience with you. Attaching a mountain bike fork to a road bike was considered shockingly innovative in the early 1990s, but the technology left the peloton almost as quickly as it arrived.

“It was almost too early,” Schuda continues. “People weren’t ready for it. So for us, it’s trying to find a balance. We want to push and innovate and lead, and we’ve got to do it in a way where we know we can bring some people along too.”

The security of the McLaren-derived simulation model provided all the reassurance Specialized needed to push the envelope with the new Roubaix.

Specialized have developed the FutureShock front suspension for the Roubaix (Pic: Brakethrough Media)

“What we ended up doing was creating a Formula One-style simulation model, which we called the rolling efficiency simulator,” Schuda explains, describing this algorithm as the “product” of Specialized’s latest engagement with McLaren Applied Technologies. Mention of the F1 constructor creates the assumption of perfection, even in the abstract realm of number crunching, but this was not the case, Schuda insists.

“A lot of people hear that we have an efficiency simulator and think we have this beautiful computer model. It’s not that. It’s very raw, but it’s a very powerful simulation tool. The reason we created this tool was so we could run thousands and thousands of different simulations: whether it’s the amount of front compliance, the amount of rear compliance, the angle at which the compliance occurs. It allows us to do thousands and thousands of computations and to see what kind of trends we come up with. From those trends, our team can dig in and make physical prototypes to test ride.”

Specialized worked with McLaren to develop a Rolling Efficiency Simulator – not a physical device, but software to analyse the effect of compliance on mechanical efficiency. The software produced an intriguing result, or rather two: different types of compliance described as “splay” and “axial”. The former describes how the frameset bends around the front axle, while the latter describes vertical movement in the fork – an up and down motion that will be familiar to anyone who owns a suspension mountain bike. Specialized’s data suggest axial compliance was far more effective in improving the comfort of a bike.

Specialized Roubaix, McLaren testing (Pic: Specialized)
Specialized Roubaix, McLaren testing (Pic: Specialized)

As a result, Schuda’s engineers, headed by Venge creator Chris D’Aluisio, began by building prototypes with up to 10mm of suspension, but the data encouraged them to go further. The end result is a machine with 20mm of front suspension and, as Specialized see it, the hitherto missing piece in a puzzle that reveals the relationship between ‘fast’ and ‘smooth’.

Thousands of miles from McLaren HQ in Woking, the early prototypes created from the simulation tool were causing quite a stir. Schuda admits colleagues not directly connected with the Roubaix project would ask if D’Aluisio and his engineers were certain they were heading in the right direction. Schuda admits the new Roubaix is ‘quite a departure’ from anything Specialized had done previously, but the ‘compelling’ nature of the data encouraged the team to push the envelope still further.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and having created a machine to satisfy four-time Paris-Roubaix winner Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep), it’s easy to imagine a seamless transition from drawing board to finished model. This was not the case, however. The bumps in the road encountered by Schuda and his team were not limited to those beneath the wheels of their prototypes.

Most major manufacturers allow at least two years for the redevelopment of a signature model, and Specialized is no different. Having decided at an early stage to make the new Roubaix a disc-only model, the project reached a fork in the road, if not total derailment, when, in April, the UCI suspended the testing of discs in all of its sanctioned races following injuries to Movistar’s Fran Ventoso at, of all races, Paris-Roubaix.

The goalposts had been moved. Schuda and his team found themselves working to a design brief headed “a bike to win Paris-Roubaix” and facing the very real prospect their creation would never see the pavé. Was he concerned?

“For sure,” he says with chuckle. “It definitely twists you up inside. It’s so fluid right now, what’s happening with disc brake bikes.”

Convinced they were working with the right stopping system for consumers, the team continued development of a disc-only model, and held a watching brief on events in Europe, specifically any missives issued from the UCI in Aigle.

The Roubaix is now a disc-only platform – whether it will be raced at the highest level in 2017 remains to be seen (Pic: Brakethrough Media)

Their decision proved to be correct. In October, the sport’s world governing body issued the following statement: “Following extensive examination of the equipment and a detailed safety report it has been agreed with manufacturers that the trial will restart on January 1st 2017, exclusively with discs which have been modified to ensure the perimeter edge of the brake rotor does not contain any 90-degree edges, but are smoothed or chamfered.”

Any further developments will be largely hypothetical. The new Roubaix is finished and while victory at l’enfer du Nord remains an outcome entirely beyond their control, Schuda and his team have met all other aspects of the design brief.

The S-Works frame weighs 900g, and even with the ‘dropped’ seat clamp feature for rear compliance, is lighter than its predecessor.  Additionally, the weight of the complete bike is no greater than the last Zertz bike, despite the inclusion of the FutureShock. Some achievement. Schuda says his team worked hard on reducing weight in the chassis, but also in the accompanying CLX32 wheelset. Weight, arguably a road bike’s most tangible feature, remains a key consideration, even for a project so focused on compliance.

Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com
Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

Schuda is convinced the new Roubaix has reached another less tangible objective: to make the endurance model as desirable as its more obviously speed-focused stable mates. The trend, whereby endurance bikes now allow bike designers to experiment beyond the constraints of the UCI or pro peloton, is encouraging for a sector so long viewed as a staid and ‘safe’ alternative.

“I like it a lot,” Schuda says of the trend (though perhaps also of the model that embraces it). “It gives us more opportunities to do more things with the bike. We’re no longer making a rigid frame with stiffness to weight [as the primary concern]. We’re adding features and benefits to the rider. It’s pretty fun to work on. It’s really exciting.”

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