Mating aerospace engineering with cycling engineering, Cervélo has found a home at the Tour
“I am afraid to add up all of the money we have spenton the development of this bike,” says Phil White, one of the two foundingowners of Cervélo.
White is speaking about the R2.5, the carbon bikeon which Team CSC won three Tour stages in 2003, including Tyler Hamilton’sepic solo stage 16 win. Those stage wins, and even the presence of Cervéloat all on a top Division 1 pro team, may be a surprise to those accustomedto seeing Tour victories only from bigger companies or long-establishednames. To White and his partner, Gerard Vroomen, however, it is merelythe culmination of many years of hard work.
The two started Cervélo in 1995 after havingmet the year earlier at McGill University in Montréal, where bothwere graduate students in mechanical engineering with a specialty in composites.Cervélo (which is a play on words from the French “vélo,”meaning “bicycle,” and the Italian “cervello,” meaning “brain”) was anoutgrowth of Vroomen’s composites class project, which they both workedon, to build an aero’ time-trial bike. Both ultimately quit school in orderto focus on developing the company.
“We had spent all of our money on bike testing,”says White. “We had none left for school, and we had no time or energyto spare, either.”
The company’s focus initially was on aerodynamics,so besides spending money on strength and fatigue testing of their bikes,White also started taking them to the Texas A&M wind tunnel in early1996 to dial in the shape. Even though the two had originally built onlycarbon bikes, the prototype frames White took to the tunnel were aluminumas well as carbon, because the financial investment involved with workingin aluminum was lower, and Cervélo was able to offer more sizesin the less-expensive material.
While many companies offer few sizes in high-end“compact-geometry” road frames, and only one size in time-trial frames,Cervélo offers six sizes for road, and seven or eight for time trial.
“TT bikes are an important part of our business,not an afterthought,” says Vroomen. “Even more than on the road bike, time-trialsizing and positioning are crucial.”
Since all of the frames for CSC are off the shelf,the team is fortunate that Cervélo offers enough sizes that allof the riders get a good fit. Between models, the dimensions are the same,so riders can easily swap from one to another — from a Soloist Team aluminumroad frame to an R2.5 carbon
frame, for instance.
While the majority of Cervélo’s early successcame among triathletes, in 1996 White and Vroomen also built a sub-1kgclimbing frame out of aluminum and carbon.
Cervélo saw an increase in road demandbefore sponsoring CSC, and exposure due to that sponsorship has boosteddemand even more.
“If we had twice as many bikes last year as wedid, we could have sold them all,” says White, who reports that sales areup 91 percent so far this year.
As sales rise, both partners continue to givesingular attention to quality. Before going back to college to get a seconddegree, White worked in the aerospace and defense industry for Lockheedand for Spar, a satellite manufacturer in Montréal.
“The focus on quality is extremely high in aerospace,”says White. “While keeping the quality is different when building thousandsof bikes than when building one satellite per year, the principles arethe same. You can’t inspect in quality; you have to build it into the process.You have to design the product in such a way that errors cannot be madein manufacturing.”
Consequently, Cervélo has been very conservativeabout the development of all of its bikes.
“It is way cheaper in the long run to make themstrong enough than to get them back and have angry customers,” says White.“I can’t say we don’t have any quality problems, but we are approachingzero returns.”
That quality perspective was paramount when thepair took on the R2.5 carbon road bike, which they developed and testedover a long period before its introduction. White notes that head-tubetesting is particularly important with carbon, something few other companiesfocus on.
“We have asked other companies about their protocolfor front-impact testing,” White said, “and a lot of them don’t even understandthe question. It’s pretty scary.”
The production R2.5 carbon frame is light (1050grams) and stiff, reliable, affordable (with an Ultegra package, it sellsfor under $3000) and sports a lifetime warranty, and it is exactly thesame as the CSC pros ride.
The CSC team is an important part of the company’slong-term testing. “They seem to be harder on the equipment and put inmore miles and race so much more than riders we have had in North America,”says White.
Happy to see the bikes come back in good shapefrom CSC, White and Vroomen view it as confirmation of Cervélo’squality orientation.
CERVÉLO AT THE 2004 TOUR DE FRANCE
The R2.5SL, weighing between 850 and 900 gramsyet meeting the same stiffness and durability standards as the rest oftheir frames, has White’s and Vroomen’s immediate attention. They workedhard to get the bikes to Team CSC in time for the Tour.“It’s easy to make a change every year; it’s alot more difficult to make a real improvement,” says White. “We made changesin how we were making the parts and upgraded the stiffness and strengthof carbon, but it doubles the price.”
L’ALPE D’HUEZ TIME TRIAL
Ivan Basso and Carlos Sastre accompanied CSCteam manager Bjarne Riis to the MIT Center for Sports Innovation wind tunnelin early May. The team and the MIT group made a computer model of the Alped’Huez climb and discussed with the riders where to stand and where tostay seated in order to minimize aerodynamic losses. In their new positions,the two riders were more comfortable and produced more power.
Since the first kilometer of the mountain timetrial is flat, Cervélo’s lightweight full aero’ road frame, the1250-gram Soloist on which Tyler Hamilton won the 2003 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, will be a boon to Basso and Sastre. The bike will offer thema normal climbing position with a close to normal TT position. The 2004Med Tour team time trial (in which the times of the top three riders countedon general classification) also had a flat approach with a long climb tothe finish, and CSC won the time trial as well as the individual overall(with Jörg Jaksche) on the Soloist.
“The aerodynamics of the Soloist outweigh the200-gram weight loss of the carbon bike,” says White. “Riders comment onhow much it rides like the carbon frame, and that’s largely because wedesign them to have the same stiffness properties.”
For the success of their company, the two canpoint to the success of their partnership. While sharing knowledge andinterest in engineering (Vroomen studied engineering for five years inthe Netherlands as well and worked on human-powered vehicles), White hasa business degree he had attained before he worked in aerospace. Theircompany is a bootstrap business model; the two poured every cent they madeback into it for the first six years until they were finally able to paythemselves a modest salary. “We were complementary in the way we thoughtand stupid enough to put up with the abuse and no pay,” muses Vroomen.“There is always so much to do; the great thing is having a partner helpingyou out on the other 14 things you can’t do but that have to get done.We spend more time together than most marriages, and we have lasted longerthan the average marriage.”
And, as evidenced by three stage wins and fourthoverall at the 2003 Tour, their marriage has been a productive one.