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‘There’s another level of aero, a whole plateau higher’: Phil White Q&A

Peter Stuart
3 Nov 2020

The Cervélo co-founder on cycling’s next great innovation, the rise of China and how little he made from the company that made his name

Cyclist: You and co-founder Gerard Vroomen have been credited with introducing aerodynamic design into modern road bikes with the Cervélo Soloist [launched in 2002]. Do you think we’ve now reached peak aero?

Phil White: We all seem to think we’ve reached peak aero, but there’s another level of aero, a whole plateau higher. It’s going to take more engineering to get there, though.

I’m working at the moment with a small team doing a bunch of stuff for the Olympics where we’ll see some of that. Right now a lot of companies think, ‘Let’s make an aero shape and put some carbon on it,’ and away it goes. But if you want to make it more aero you’re going to have to put some more engineering into it. It’s going to start looking more like an aeroplane wing. 

Cyc: Your book tells the story of the sale of Cervélo quite candidly – what made you sell the company?

PW: You’ll have to read chapter 12! It was nasty. Our private financier wasn’t happy with how things were proceeding.

We started the Cervélo Test Team during the biggest global recession in decades, and it sucked up a lot of cash. That started a domino effect and we had to look for a buyer. We found Pon [a Dutch bike company that owns Raleigh], which we thought was a great partner.

We didn’t personally make millions out of the sale or anything like that.

Cyc: How has it felt to leave Cervélo and see it develop without you?

PW: Well, we started it, and it was like having children – we want to see our kids leave home and be successful. They didn’t put out much in the three years after we left. I was in charge of innovation across the brands at Pon during that time, but I really stayed very much out of Cervélo as I didn’t want to be in there and have people say, ‘Why the hell is he here?’

I wish they’d been able to innovate faster, but now they’re coming out with some good bikes again. There’s a whole bunch of people there now who get what that company is about. I think they can come back to the very top, as they’ve got some of that core DNA.

Cyc: Where do you see the real innovation in cycling at the moment?

PW: I liked what Pinarello was running this year, with the shock in both the front and the rear for Roubaix. I’ve met the guys who designed that and they’re smart guys. It’s a well designed system.

I think systems like that have a great future, in city bikes for instance. I look at where electronics can go, and I think people have been slow to embrace electronics on bikes, partly because cycling offers that sense of freedom away from your connected life. But I think it can be simple and intuitive.

The same guys in Italy have done an ABS brake system. It will fit in the down tube and it works super-well. It means you know exactly how far you can push that front wheel before it locks, so you ride much closer to the edge.

Cyc: We’ve seen production expertise in China really come on lately. Do you think that’s extending to design and R&D too?

PW: I think this is a significant issue. How many bike engineers in the West really know layup? Most of them live in Shanghai and are Chinese nationals. There has been a shift in the technology and knowledge from the US to Taiwan and China. Now they’re starting to leverage this.

Now they know everyone wants e-bikes, and they think, ‘Who makes these e-bikes? We make them all. Ah, it just got a little bit more expensive.’ So they’re starting to ramp up the prices.

When I was at Cervélo I had an apartment in China for two years and I’d go to work with them every day. Now I think there’s a real need to bring it back to the West – to Europe and America. Back then we needed to think six to eight weeks ahead for production, then the bikes would be in production for four to six weeks, and then it was six to eight weeks to get it back to the US for painting.

You add that up and it’s half a year. Then suddenly you’re selling to a market that wants pink and not blue. That doesn’t work. Consumers expect a faster response than that. Everything is much more immediate now.

Cyc: If you were designing Cervélo bikes today, would you commit to disc brakes on your road bikes?

PW: Definitely. Anyone who doesn’t go for disc brakes is nuts. They’re so much better. Plus there’s the fact that you only need one set of wheels – you can ride a set of 40mm or 60mm deep section wheels all year round. You don’t have to worry about braking in the rain because they will actually stop, unlike carbon rim brake wheels, which are useless.

Cyc: You and Gerard were often credited with capturing the zeitgeist. What’s the secret to spotting trends?

PW: When we started Cervélo, people thought we must be ex-pros. Because we were very aware that we weren’t, we really had to listen to the athletes. So we thought, ‘He’s telling us this, or she’s telling us that, but what does that mean from an engineering standpoint?’

Cyc: Do you see a future for pedal-assisted e-road bikes?

PW: Well, yes and no. I think some of the ones I’ve seen are too huge – they look like a mountain bike with drop bars on. That, to me, is not going to take off. As a roadie you still want something light and elegant that climbs really well and those are so heavy that they’re not going to.

But there are some that are interesting.One is similar to the Vivax-Assist [a completely concealed seat tube-based motor] but it just works much better and is much more powerful. To me, that’s going to change things.

I’ve done a four-hour ride with an ex-pro who I could never keep up with, and suddenly it was this huge equaliser. I think that will make riding more fun. It will get a lot of people out together and riding as a group, but still make sure you have a good workout.

Cyc: Do you ever have a vision of making a bike that will make a real change to transport, or the environment, rather than performance?

PW: It’s hard not to have that vision. Look at the amount of space a bike takes up on the street versus a car, or the cost of constructing a mile of road versus a bike path. You know it’s nuts. The whole thing isn’t just fossil fuels and climate change, it’s congestion. It’s efficiency. It’s faster to get around a city by bike.

We talked about making a bike to transform city travel when we were at Cervélo. We’ve talked about it since, too. So yes, we’ll see what we do.

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