INTERVIEW: Cervélo co-founder Gerard Vroomen
by Adam Tranter
Gerard Vroomen co-founded bike brand Cervélo in 1995 with his business partner Phil White after studying aerodynamics at university. The pair had been designing in Human Powered Vehicle design since 1986, but decided to take things further when asked to create a time trial specific bike for an Italian pro.
Cervélo rapidly received a reputation for pushing the envelope in terms of design and aerodynamics. They also ran the hugely successful Cervélo TestTeam. Vroomen talks to Adam Tranter about Cervélo, the sportive industry, his favourite rides and what's in store next for him, with his new mountain bike brand Open.
AT: You were the co-founder of bike brand Cervélo, how did you start out? What's your background?
GV: My background is in mechanical engineering, specialization composites and polymer technology. For my final year project I moved to Montreal, Canada to design an aerodynamic time trial bicycle. When it came time to build a prototype, Phil [White] helped me and when we got positive feedback on that, we decided to start Cervelo and try to have a go with it.
AT: What made it stood out at a time when lots of new bike brands were emerging?
GV: Yes, I remember our first Interbike, so many new brands were exhibiting. Hardworking people with a dream just like us, and most of them are gone now. We were lucky, that's for sure, but we also had a focus that maybe some of the others lacked. We had a very small model line, every model was special, and we focused on something almost nobody (not even the consumer) was interested in: aerodynamics.
While it may sound strange that focusing on something nobody is looking for is a good idea, I think it is. It meant we didn't have any direct competition, and all we needed to do was convince people aero bikes made sense. Of course that went pretty fast in triathlon and time trial and it took 15 years for road bikes, but eventually it happened.
AT: What did you learn from your experience there? It was a young business that grew very quickly - you must have made some mistakes?
GV: Of course, we made mistakes every day. So many that it's actually hard to pick one out. You choose the wrong vendors, retailers, distributors, sponsored riders, you make mistakes in design and production. But as long as the majority of the decisions are right, you move forward.
I think what helped us was that we had an idea at the start that we really believed in, and that never changed in those 17 years. We're still saying the same thing today as when we started, and that builds trust with our customers. Too many brands change their philosophy every few years, but is it really a philosophy when you do that?
AT: Then came the Cervélo TestTeam. It was unusual for a bike brand to take on title sponsorship of a team in this era. How did it come about?
GV: We were in a very successful sponsorship arrangement with Team CSC, and although we liked working with CSC, we did not enjoy working with the team. The more successful they became, the harder it was to get riders to test product and be available to meet with fans and other activities.
On top of that there was the doping issue. We didn't like how the sport was dealing with this issue, which is basically not dealing with it. The biggest problem is not the riders, it's management. Most team managers think that winning is important, but it isn't. I've never met a sponsor who quit the sport because the team wasn't winning enough; they quit because teams want to win so badly that they resort to illegal practices. If winning was really important, Highroad and Leopard would have found sponsors.
AT: Does team sponsorship work?
GV: Depends on who you ask. There isn't a very direct correlation, but it's hard to compare apples to apples because our TestTeam coincided with the financial crisis. So the fact that we still grew during those bad years, although not as much as we expected, may be attributable partly to the TestTeam. Maybe without it we would have shrunk, but it's hard to say exactly.
AT: What were the biggest issues in running a team?
GV: Finding sponsors and finding good management
AT: Your blog often provides some really insightful comments. Do you think there are too many people 'on the scene' who just don't speak up?
GV: It's incredible; very few speak up. I have so many people who email me stuff in the hope I'll blog about it, people in a position to affect change. But they don't want to get their hands dirty. Well, I am not their little monkey and I won't dance to their music, but it's sickening that these people don't take their responsibility.
The biological passport is the perfect example; teams are paying a fortune, the number of riders caught is decreasing (actually zero lately), announcements that new cases are coming soon are retracted and none of the teams speak up. Either the project is so successful that nobody cheats anymore, in which case you expect teams to boast about this success. Or it's not effective, and you would expect teams to speak up to try and improve it. Instead we get a deafening silence. Why aren't the teams speaking up?
AT: What would you like to see change in cycling the most?
GV: The individualist mentality of the teams and the singular focus on winning. 200 riders start, 1 wins. Whether you dope or ride cleanly, whether you focus on winning to the point of pissing off sponsors or are inclusive to fans and VIP, whatever you do only one wins. So when you look at the sport as a whole, the winning is the same whether you operate in a smart (clean, inclusive) way or a stupid (doping, obnoxious) way.
Right now QuickStep wins every race. So I wonder, are they happy because they win everything, or sad because it's hurting the sport and if it hurts the sport, it hurts them in the long run - winning or not. I bet you they're happy right now.
AT: Cervélo was a brand that not only supported the top end of cycling, but it also became the brand of choice for the new breed of wealthier, keen-to-learn sportive riders here in the UK. Was that intentional?
GV: We had no idea what sportives were when we started out. We focused on performance; that was it. Of course what makes a pro faster also makes a sportive rider faster. The reverse is also true, what is good for the sportive rider is good for the pro. People often think that sportive riders care about comfort and pros don't. Let me tell you, when you spend 6 hours on a bike per day for 300 days, you care about comfort.
AT: What do you think to the boom in cyclosportives across Europe? It's got to be healthy for the bike business, right?
GV: I think it's great. We like to make things complicated in this industry, but in the end it's pretty simple; cycling is a great sport, the more people participate the better, and sportives offer a fantastic experience for people and a great "season's target". And it's not nearly as intimidating as racing, so the barrier to enter the sport is lowered.
AT: How do you think the UK market compares with others markets across the world that Cervélo has sold to?
GV: I think in general regional differences are overblown. Companies spend a lot of time on regional spec, regional colors, etc. I'm not sure why. Of course, TT is a little more important in the UK than in most other European countries, and the market in Japan is different from Canada, but sooner or later these markets all move into the same direction. And right now that's in the direction of an increased interest in health and fitness, and more specifically for bikes a growing triathlon scene and a growing sportive scene.
AT: What's your favourite ride in the world?
GV: Very tough question. I would probably have to say To Hell and Back, which used to be organized by Michael Barry's dad outside of Toronto, Canada. (Michael rides for Team Sky). I once wrote a long race report about it (http://gerard.cc/2011/05/16/to-hell-and-back/). Closer to home, I try to do the triple of the Argus CycleTour, the Tour of Flanders cyclosportive and then Paris-Roubaix each year. The Argus is incomparable, 35 thousand people on a beautiful course in the sun, with a fantastic atmosphere. Then the Tour of Flanders with 20 thousand people on climbs that can only hold 20, the pureness of cycling in Belgium is just great. And then finish off at Roubaix, usually with just a few friends and a support car riding from Wallers to the velodrome the day before the pros, with virtually nobody else on the course. A very peaceful experience, despite the violence brought on by the cobblestones.
AT: How often do you get out on the bike?
GV: Not often enough. But a better work/life balance is part of my future plans.
AT: What's been keeping you busy recently?
GV: Many things. Starting up the open company together with Andy Kessler, where we will make a very small number of mountain bikes. Some business development work for Pon, the Dutch company that recently bought Cervélo. And a few projects I can't really talk about yet.
AT: Can you give us any hints on your upcoming company launch? When's it happening?
GV: We're launching at SeaOtter, the premiere event for mountain bikes. We've started to publish blogs written in the past year about the start-up phase of the company and that's been well-received. We try to be part bike company, part community, and giving people an insight in how we are building the company is one aspect of it. We look forward to be in closer contact with our customers than is normally the case, and of course by keeping the company small we can afford to do that.
The Open Hardtail O-1.0 that Vroomen has released
You can follow Gerard on Twitter at @gerardvroomen
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