If you’re in the market for any type of bike, chances are you’ve heard of Specialized. It’s just as likely that at least one Specialized bike will end up on your short list of potential purchases.
This makes perfect sense: Specialized is one of the largest bike brands in the world. They’re also one of the highest-volume sellers, with a 9.5% market share in the US. If you consider how many bike brands are out there, the fact that almost 10% of all bikes sold are Specialized is pretty remarkable.
Specialized bikes may be popular, but does that mean they’re actually a high quality brand worthy of your hard-earned money?
Since the company was founded in 1974, Specialized has been on the forefront of innovation, building great bikes with high quality components. More importantly, they don’t just build bikes with the elite rider in mind: they have great choices for riders of all styles, ability levels, and budgets!
But are Specialized bikes really that much different from any of the other comparable brands out there?
Modern technology has made great quality bikes available to pretty much everyone, so we’ll look at a few other brands as well to see where Specialized might stand out…and where they may fall short.
In this article, I’ll cover:
A Brief History of Specialized Bikes (The Company)
Specialized was founded by a man who sold his VW bus to pay for a cycling trip across Europe. As a VW owner and someone who thinks VW buses are really cool, this pains me, but it turned out to be a great decision for Mike Sinyard, the future CEO of what would become Specialized.
While touring Italy, Sinyard realized he could buy premium Italian bike components and sell them to cycling enthusiasts back in the US. Sounds like a great idea, right? Turns out that buying parts up front was expensive, and making only 200 bucks on his first batch of products, he didn’t have the capital to keep this process going.
So, like any good business-minded individual, he changed tactics. He instead convinced bike shops to order parts up front, after which he could buy the parts in bulk from the manufacturer. This turned out to be a successful endeavor, and Specialized was born.
It wasn’t until seven years later that Specialized built their own bikes in-house. But the results were impressive.
In 1981, the Specialized Stumpjumper became the first mass-produced mountain bike sold to the general public. It was so successful, it’s often credited as the bike that launched the sport of mountain biking as we know it today.
Specialized continued to build bikes out of their small Santa Cruz, CA warehouse until increasing demand required a larger facility. So the company relocated to Morgan Hill, CA to keep up with customer orders, and have been there ever since.
40 years later, Specialized has grown to more than 1,500 employees and continues to rack up some of the highest annual bike sales of any company in the US. Their website currently features more than 180 different bike models for road cyclists, mountain bikers and everyone in between!
Where Specialized Bikes are Made
Though Specialized is based in California, their bikes are made in Taiwan. In 2001, the Taiwanese bike company Merida – one of the world’s largest bike manufacturers – bought a minority share in the company and took over production. But this isn’t surprising: most US bike companies outsource their bike production overseas, with Taiwan being a major producer.
Specialized Bikes’ Reputation
You don’t create some of the first mass-production bikes in the US and not cement your place in biking history.
Aside from bike production, Specialized is also credited with creating the first mountain bike racing team in 1983 -something that previously only existed for road bikers. The focus on not just building great bikes, but building a community of riders, really bolstered their reputation as a company that cared about cycling.
The world biking community noticed this, and in 1998, Specialized’s CEO was inducted into the mountain bike hall of fame – fitting, since the Stumpjumper made mountain biking accessible to the masses!
Specialized bikes are frequent members on “Best Bike” lists across the internet. Check out your favorite bike review website: chances are good that a Specialized bike will be somewhere among their top bikes of the year.
The best thing about Specialized is their commitment to make riding open to everyone, no matter your budget. They offer a fair number of bike models under $1000, and even more for less than $2000.
Some of the “boutique brands” out there are really cool, but when the cheapest bikes cost around $5000, it makes entry into the cycling world really difficult, especially for beginners.
Whether you choose a budget bike or not, Specialized sources high quality components and frame materials for all their models. And speaking of frames, Specialized offers a lifetime warranty if anything should go wrong with your bike’s frame. Standing behind your products is important.
However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.
Specialized is a big company, and unfortunately they seem to have let it go to their head on more than one occasion by employing some less-than-nice tactics against other people and businesses.
Their most public transgression occurred in 2013 with a cease-and-desist order levied against a bike shop in Canada that happened to share the same name as one of their bike models – which Specialized themselves “borrowed” from a town in France.
Specialized backed down soon after, but the public outcry against the brand and their tactics from cyclists all over the world was immense. There were even calls to boycott the company’s products. You can read more about this and other public incidents HERE to judge for yourself.
Just goes to show that success is about more than just making a good product: public perception is key.
Top Pros & Cons of Buying a Specialized Bike
Now that we’ve covered the company’s history and their reputation over time, let’s dig into the pros and cons of actually getting yourself a Specialized bike.
Specialized is an innovator. They are always working on improving bike technology to make their products lighter, stronger, faster and more advanced than the competition.
Sure, this new tech comes at a premium price, but it’s necessary for bikes to continue to get better. Just look at biking technology a few decades ago. I guarantee you’d rather ride a modern $1000 bike rather than a decades old bike that cost $5000 in its day!
This is thanks to “trickle-down” innovation: as new technology becomes more common – and replicated by other brands – prices begin to drop due to the influx of competition. This benefits you, the consumer!
Being one of the most popular bike companies in the US, Specialized dealers are plentiful. If you’re set on buying a Specialized, you’ll have no trouble finding a bike shop that sells them.
This also means that if you run into any maintenance issues, you’ll have tons of certified dealers to visit for repairs.
With more than 180 bike models available, Specialized makes something for everyone at every price point. They also source quality components: if money is no object, you can have the best of the best. But, if you’re like the rest of us, you can still find a budget bike that offers the best components available based on how much you’re able to spend.
One of the main concerns of all big companies is profit. They are always looking for ways to cut costs and save money. One way Specialized (and other similarly sized brands) does this is by using in-house components as much as possible. From handlebars to wheelsets and even tires, you’ll find a lot of Specialized brand components on most of their bikes.
This isn’t going to be a big deal for most people, me included. A lot of in-house components are pretty good, and it does keep consumer costs down.
But if you ride a lot, you’ll probably end up replacing certain parts with better alternatives from companies that specialize (no pun intended) in certain components. And that can get expensive.
The second con relates to those pesky lawsuits. Specialized has made some mistakes in the past that have brought public condemnation down upon them. No matter how good their products are, this behavior will rub some people the wrong way.
Now before you decide whether a Specialized bike is right for you, let’s see how they compare to their direct competition. For all categories, we’ll be comparing entry-level bikes that are similar in both application and price, so you can see exactly what your money will get you with each brand.
Specialized vs. Trek
Trek is probably Specialized’s biggest competitor, and though their bike designs are very different, these are usually the two brands people will compare head-to-head the most. So, which one is better?
Both Trek and Specialized offer great value for riders of any ability level and budget. However, Trek does offer a slightly better value to customers, and Trek bikes tend to spec higher quality components for the same price compared to what you’ll get on a Specialized. This may be why Trek bikes have and continue to outsell Specialized bikes 2:1 in the US!
Let’s look at some specific examples below to give you a better idea of what I mean:
Road: Specialized Allez Sport ($1200) vs. Trek Domane AL 2 Disc ($1129.99)
Both companies market these bikes as entry-level road bikes. So how do they differ?
Well, the first difference is right there in the name…and it’s a huge one.
Trek provides disc brakes, but with Specialized, you’re stuck with rim brakes. Even a beginner will be able to tell that disc brakes offer significantly better stopping power and modulation. Point for Trek.
Specialized comes back though with a 9-speed cassette to Trek’s 8-speed. I’ll always take an extra gear if given the option!
Both bikes feature mostly in-house components, which is expected at the entry-level price, but they both give you a carbon fiber fork, which is lighter, stiffer and provides better handling than aluminum.
Hybrid: Specialized Sirrus X 3.0 ($1000) vs. Trek FX 4 Disc ($1049.99)
If you want a bike for commuting or general fitness, these are two great options.
Specialized gives you disc brakes this time, which is great: however, the Tektro brakes on the Sirrus aren’t even close to the quality and stopping power of the Shimano brakes on the FX 4.
Looking at the gears, Trek turns the tables this time, providing an 11-speed cassette to the Sirrus’ 10-speed. That extra large cog will be an asset if you ride uphill a lot!
Mountain: Specialized Stumpjumper Alloy ($2400) vs. Trek Fuel EX 5 ($2399.99)
The obvious comparison is between each brand’s flagship mountain bike model!
These bikes have a nearly identical component spec: same fork, shock, drivetrain, and dropper post. But once again, it comes down to the brakes: The Stumpjumper’s Tektro brakes just can’t compete with the Fuel EX’s Shimano stoppers. Trek also specs wider tires–2.6 inch vs. 2.3 inch–which provide better traction.
Specialized vs. Giant
Rounding out the “Big Three” brands in the US, Giant may not be known for trendy frame designs or using the latest, greatest technology, but if you’re getting started in any biking discipline, Giant will be a brand to consider. So how do they compare to Specialized?
The “better brand” between Specialized and Giant really depends on the type of bike you want. If you’re looking for a bike for commuting or general fitness, either brand will serve you well. But if you’re a road or mountain bike enthusiast, Giant offers value that Specialized just can’t beat. Take a look at the quality of components offered on each model below:
Road: Specialized Allez Sport ($1200) vs. Giant Contend AR 3 ($1250)
Wow, these two look almost identical on paper: mostly in-house components, same Shimano drivetrain, same gearing (9-speed).
The only difference is the brakes again. Giant gives you disc brakes; something Specialized can’t–but should–match at that price. Though in this case, Giant specs Tektro brakes, which are subpar compared to the Shimano brakes on the Trek. So this difference is less substantial.
Hybrid: Specialized Sirrus X 3.0 ($1000) vs. Giant Escape 1 Disc ($850)
I know: there’s a bit of a price difference here, but the next step in Giant’s lineup is over $2000.
So the Sirrus should be better…but is it $150 better?
Again, the bikes appear similar: they even use the same brakes this time. But you do get a 10-speed drivetrain on the Sirrus compared to the 9-speed Escape. Replacing the entire drivetrain is going to cost more than $150, so if you need that extra gear, the Sirrus is a better value.
Mountain: Specialized Stumpjumper Alloy ($2400) vs. Giant Trance 29 3 ($2350)
The Trance is Giant’s do-it-all trail bike: a worthy opponent to the bike that gave way to the sport of mountain biking in the first place.
Giant may be viewed as a little behind the times in terms of innovation, but they make up for it in value. Aside from a similar 12-speed drivetrain, Giant comes out swinging with better brakes (Shimano 4-piston vs. the Tektros), a better fork (Marzocchi Z2 vs. Rockshox 35 Silver) and a better shock (Fox Float DPS Performance vs. X-Fusion Pro RL).
Better components will provide better ride quality, and since you get all that for $50 less than the Stumpjumper, I’d pick the Trance every time.
Specialized vs. Cannondale
Cannondale was founded three years before Specialized, but doesn’t quite have the following Specialized does. Their designs have been polarizing at times (case in point: the Lefty fork), but while their customer base is smaller, they’re quite loyal.
And that says a lot.
So should you consider a Cannondale instead?
The choice between a Cannondale and Specialized bike really comes down to personal preference. Both brands are very innovative, which some people like and others don’t. But both bike brands offer very similar value for the money.
Take a look at these examples:
Road: Specialized Allez Sport ($1200) vs. Cannondale CAAD Optimo 3 ($1200)
Cannondale’s Optimo 3 is comparable in almost every way to the Allez Sport: mostly in-house components, same 9-speed gearing, similar budget rim brakes.
They’re even the exact same price–first time I was able to say that in this article!
So the difference here might come down to which one you like the look of better…and there’s no shame in choosing based on style!
Hybrid: Specialized Sirrus X 3.0 ($1000) vs. Cannondale Quick 3 ($1000)
Two for two on price matching!
The Quick might be quick, but let’s see how its components compare to the Sirrus.
Both bikes use Tektro disc brakes for stopping, but what about going?
The Sirrus gives you a 10-speed cassette to the Quick’s 9-speed. But, the Quick also has two chainrings in the front, which actually gives you 18 gear combinations. That’s enough to tackle any terrain.
Personally though, I prefer 1x drivetrains (one chainring in the front). They tend to be less finicky, and no front derailleur means one less part that can break. So while some might like the Quick’s extra gears, I’d take the Sirrus!
Mountain: Specialized Stumpjumper Alloy ($2400) vs. Cannondale Habit 5 ($2500)
Cannondale’s Habit 5 is the cheapest full-suspension bike they offer. I don’t know about you, but that’s a lot of money to spend for an entry level bike.
The Habit 5 uses an 11-speed drivetrain, which is a little outdated. However, Cannondale does move away from the use of in-house components. A prime example is their choice of Maxxis tires–the first bike in this article to use them!
Both bikes use the same fork, but the Habit uses a Rockshox Deluxe shock, which smoothes out the trail better than the X-Fusion.
Do a better shock and tires offset the 11-speed drivetrain? Well, I ride an 11-speed bike, so I think so!
Are Specialized Bikes Worth the Money?
As we’ve seen through these comparisons, whether a Specialized bike is a good choice for you comes down to the type of riding you do, as well as what features and qualities you value most in a bike.
Specialized is a company that likes to be on the forefront of innovation, and is constantly improving their technology to make great bikes. But you know what? So are a lot of other bike companies!
Today, there are so many great bike brands that it’s hard to make a truly “bad” purchase. So use this guide, do some research and narrow down your list of choices. If Specialized makes the cut, great! If not, that’s ok too. Any bike you pick from your list will lead to many happy rides, especially if you’re buying from any of the brands we mentioned above (including Specialized).