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Cervélo Bicycles

From McGill to Cycling Master: Cervélo Bicycles

Lest you think that it has been an easy road to success for Phil White and Gerard Vroomen, the founders of Cervélo, let me take you back to the early days of the company. The scene is an apartment the two were sharing with a couple of friends in Montreal. Gerard managed to score the bedroom, while Phil was relegated to a small room that served as the company’s office during the day, and
his bedroom at night.

“Every night I would roll out a sleeping bag and sleep on the f loor,” White remembers. “Then, in the morning, I’d roll it up and we’d work at the office every day.” Things weren’t dramatically more comfortable for Vroomen, mind you. One night, after they’d received a shipment of about 25 bikes, the Dutch-born engineer was woken suddenly to find himself trapped when they all fell on him in the middle of the night – the hunt for space meant his bed had been taken over as a bike storage area.

So how did a company that consisted of two engineers with no background in the cycling industry who couldn’t even afford their own office space go on to become one of the leaders in the triathlon and road bike industry? Dogged determination certainly helped. A passion for developing super-fast bicycles was a must. In a warped kind of way, though, Cervélo is what it is today because White and Vroomen happened to come along at the perfect time to succeed.

It didn’t always feel that way, of course. Vroomen and White met in Montreal while the two were at McGill University. Vroomen was working on a project to develop a time trial bike and White started to help him with the carbon layup of the prototype. The two obviously got along and realized their shared passion for design, so in 1995 they started a company together.

They quickly learned that it was not going to be easy. At the height of the dot-com era, they were actually producing a real product that made money when it was sold. White remembers a typical conversation he’d have with potential investors.

“So let me get this straight,” they would ask. “You’re making bikes for a sport no one has heard of?” “That’s right,” he would reply. “Is it on television?” “Well, sometimes. nbc does a show and the Subaru Triathlon Series does a few shows on tsn.” “And you think this is a viable business?” “Yeah.”

There was never much money in the early days. The two worked out of basements, extra rooms in apartments and eventually White’s wife’s garage. In fact, she’s the reason the company was relocated to Toronto. When she got a job there White figured he might as well follow suit so he could continue to work out of her garage. Free space was better than no space.

The move to Ontario, in hindsight, might have been one of the keys to the company’s success. During the mid-90s the Ontario-based Subaru Triathlon Series was the largest multi-sport event series in the world. While the professional triathlon world was centred in San Diego at the time, the age group racing in Ontario was booming. Every second weekend through the summer upwards of a thousand athletes were arriving at Guelph Lake or Orillia or Grimsby to take part in a triathlon event.

“Ontario and San Diego were the hot beds of the sport in those days,” White remembers. “The races were growing every week. There was a small scene around Montreal, but it was much bigger in Ontario at that time.

” Triathletes were an integral part of the Cervélo world in those days because, unlike cyclists, triathletes were much more willing to experiment with new concepts and ideas. “We started the company in an era when any good bike was an Italian, round-tubed steel bike,” White says. “Triathletes were into any performance opportunity.”
Triathlon was ready for the changes Vroomen and White were envisioning, but that wasn’t the only factor that helped the company grow.

“We started at a unique period,” White says. “The World Wide Web was just starting up … and the whole telecom world was exploding. nafta was just coming in. You had PCs that you allowed you to do 2d drafting. You could be in an apartment in Montreal and look like you had a global company. At the same time the [bicycle] industry was changing. There was a move towards aluminum; there was a move away from the round-tube Italian bikes. People were starting to make good frames in Asia … and you were starting to see things with carbon. We were a bunch of engineers trying to do some new things. We were even making our own tubes. People told us ‘You can’t make your own tubes, you buy them from someone.’ We didn’t know. We went to an aluminum manufacturer and asked them to make what we wanted. We didn’t know we were just supposed to buy them from someone else. That’s what we did as engineers, we knew what we wanted so we went to someone and asked them to make it for us. The business was changing so fast and the whole triathlon industry was changing things so fast. When do you have so many things changing all at once? It created a huge opportunity.”

“We were lucky we started at that time,” he continues. “We could never do the same thing now. I would hate to try and do what we did now. You can’t start a company that’s based around engineering. All we did was good, basic engineering.”

That good, basic engineering resulted in some fast bikes. In 1998 Melissa Spooner won Ironman Lanzarote on a Cervélo frame. Around that time Lothar Leder started riding a Cervélo, a huge coup for the company since Leder was the dominant German Ironman athlete of the time. White and Vroomen continued to work like madmen as they developed the company. As the industry started to move towards carbon fibre designs, Cervélo was perfectly poised to become a leader in the new frame designs because of those early days of carbon prototype development in the basement at McGill.

“You look at the changes within our industry,” White says. “The jump to carbon and the evolution of carbon, that was our forte. Our first three bikes were carbon, but we quickly realized we couldn’t afford that so we moved to aluminum. But, before we started the company, all the prototypes we built were carbon fibre bikes. When the carbon capability came along in Taiwan, we were ready for that because we’d started off with that when we were in school.

” Cervélo bicycles became the standard bearer of aerodynamic capabilities. Suddenly giants like Trek and Specialized were comparing their bikes to Cervélo’s during presentations. In 2003 an opportunity presented itself that would really put the company on the map – Bjarne Riis from Team csc enlisted the company to become the official supplier of the team bikes. It was a moment of triumph for Vroomen and White.

“For me personally, the greatest moment was at the first training camp for csc,” Vroomen told Amy White during an interview with Triathlon Informer. “The riders had just gotten their first look at the bikes, and they were so different from the old bikes (not just the Cervélo frames, but the fact that Bjarne Riis handpicked each and every part) that they were all giddy like little schoolgirls. I was sitting in the corner of the room on a table just taking in the scene when Bjarne sits down next to me and says, ‘This is what I always wanted.'”

There was a downside to the csc deal, though. Looking back, White realizes the company wasn’t ready for the pressures of becoming the supplier for a top-level cycling team.

“Those early parts of the csc sponsorship were really tough,” he remembers. “It was the classic scenario of doing too much too soon – at the same time we started to move a lot of our production over to Asia.”

As tough as it was, Cervélo survived and the surge of exposure in the cycling world helped fuel sales in triathlon, too. In 2005 Cervélo finally “won” the bike count at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, overtaking Trek. While White tries to downplay that achievement as more of a victory of triathlon-specific, steep-angled bikes over traditional road bikes (Trek’s oclv frames had been the dominant Ironman ride up till then), it can’t be denied that triathletes were being won over by the company’s speedy frames.

That success was also becoming extremely apparent on the road, too. Over the six years that csc rode Cervélo bicycles the team moved from 14th to first in the uci standings. But the road scene would once again put a huge strain on the company’s resources in 2009 when Cervélo sponsored it’s own team, Cervélo Test Team. The company started to search for investment help and, in 2011, was sold to the Dutch company pon.

None of which seems to have affected the overall goal of the company. In 2011 Vroomen left the operational side of Cervélo, but remains as a part-time business adviser (and has formed Open Cycle with Andy Kessler, the former ceo of bmc, which makes mountain bikes). While Vroomen and White aren’t the mainstays of the engineering front they once were at Cervélo, they’ve put together an impressive team that shares their vision.

“Cervélo does aerodynamic road bikes and aerodynamic tri bikes only and that’s where my passion lies,” says Damon Rinard, who drove across the border at Sarnia, Ont. on November 30, 2008, leaving Trek’s Advanced Concept Group to work for Cervélo. “Aerodynamics and speed. The mission of Cervélo is to help our athletes go faster.

” Bringing Rinard on board was one major move for Cervélo, but it should come as no surprise that the two also managed to engineer another industry coup – three years ago they also brought Ivan Sidorovitch, a dedicated aerodynamicist specializing in cfd (computational f luid dynamics), to the company from Chrysler. The two are amongst the crew of engineers who continue to innovate Cervélo’s way as a leader in the cycling industry. The launch of last year’s P5 showcased just how far Cervélo has come – engineers like Rinard and Sidorovitch have helped keep the company at the forefront of the industry. Rinard describes the company’s innovations as coming, in part, because of a “disruptive technology” that has been discovered over the years.

“In 1995 Phil and Gerard showed us all that the best tubes were not round,” he says. “The next ‘disruptive technology’ was carbon fibre, which resulted in the P3C. The P4 was the result of exhaustive wind tunnel testing. The P5 allowed us to make huge gains because we had a dedicated aerodynamicist in Ivan.”

Rinard is being modest by not mentioning the other major factor that separated the P5 from other bikes – the simplicity of the design. Unlike the other superbikes available at the time, the P5 was much simpler to put together or maintain.

“Damon is a real advocate of thinking of the mechanic and thinking of the customer,” says Robert Pike, who, in essence, designed the 3T bar Aduro bar on the P5. “That helps me focus my thoughts and concepts. It needs to optimize aerodynamics, but it needs to be livable.”

Last May at the Giro d’Italia, Ryder Hesjedal became the first Canadian to win a major cycling tour. He won the race in the final time trial, riding a P5. The engineers at Cervélo figure the bike and his setup gave him a 72-second advantage.

Nothing has changed at Cervélo since the mid-90s, when Gerard Vroomen and Phil White dreamed of building the fastest bicycles possible. That remains the passion, but what has changed is that it’s no longer a two-man team.

“Now we have 15 guys who are using the same tools they use in Formula 1,” White says. “Now we keep pushing the guys to keep pushing.

” Which they do. Last October Cervélo once again won the Kona bike count with 483 bikes in the transition. The next closest was Trek with 211. Specialized rounded out the top three with 170. Somehow the little company that grew has become one of the dominating forces in the triathlon bike industry – right here in Canada.
Those days of rolling up that sleeping bag to set up the office are long behind them.

Formed in 1895, pon is one of the largest family-run companies in the Netherlands. The international trading and service company has been involved in bikes and other vehicles for over a century. In 1900 pon began to import Opel bicycles to the Netherlands. By 1920 it was dealing with Ford and Opel cars and Continental tires. In 1947 it started importing Volkswagen cars into the Netherlands and would later introduce VW to the North American market.
In 2011 pon entered the cycling industry through its purchase of Dutch company Gazelle, which has about 450 employees. They produce more than 300,000 bicycles a year including commuter, city, leisure and even electric models. A month later pon purchased Derby Cycle, the largest bicycle manufacturer in Germany.

The acquisition of Cervélo added a high-end component to pon’s bicycle interests.

1994: Phil White and Gerard Vroomen meet

1995: World champion Gianni Bugno asks
Vroomen and White to build the fastest
time trial bike. He loves it, his sponsors do
not. It’s never raced. Regardless, Cervélo
is created.

1996: Trying to provide an “Italan car dealership”
look and feel, White and Vroomen
launch two models. Over the next few
years Cervélo frames become popular
with triathletes and time-trial specialists
alike. When Melissa Spooner won the 1998
Ironman Lanzarote event on a Cervélo,
athletes around the world started to take
notice of the company.

2001: The P3 is launched. Over the next
decade the P3 wins more time trials and
triathlon races than any bike in history.
Triathletes who rode the P3 include
Lisa Bentley, Lothar Leder, Spooner and
many more.

2002: The Soloist road frame, which offers
aerodynamic tubes so it can be adapted for
use in time trials, is launched.

2003: Cervélo becomes the bike supplier
to Team csc. Over the next six years the
team would go from 14th on the world
rankings to first.

2007: Cervélo starts working with Team
tbb. That year Chrissie Wellington wins the
Ironman World Championship on a P2C.

2008: Carlos Sastre wins the Tour de
France on an R3 SL and P3 time trial
bike. That year more than 40 Olympians
compete on Cervélo bicycles and take ten
medals in Beijing.

2009: Cervélo Test Team is created.

2011: Cervélo is sold to Dutch company pon.

2012: P5 is launched with the moniker
“Simply Faster” to emphasize the bike’s
aerodynamic properties and ease of fit.
Ryder Hesjedal wins the Giro d’Italia on an
R5 CA and P5 time trial bike.