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Outside the box: Cervélo co-founder Gerard Vroomen

Peter Stuart
5 Feb 2018

Cervélo co-founder Gerard Vroomen has a history of disrupting bike design and setting future trends. He speaks to Cyclist

Photography Chris Blott

‘In this world, there are probably five people who really understand bicycle geometry,’ says Gerard Vroomen, co-founder of Cervélo, creator of the new Open and 3T bike brands, and one of the most famous engineers in modern cycling.

We’re sitting in London’s Russell Square, and naturally I have to ask if he considers himself to be one of those five. He smiles and remains silent.

Vroomen is an enigmatic character. Today he’s wearing a set of glasses lacking one of the arms, which seem to be impossibly suspended atop his nose. As our conversation turns to bike geometry, Vroomen points to a ‘No Cycling’ sign painted on the road comprising a crudely drawn image of a bicycle.

‘That bike would have one hell of a seat tube angle,’ he muses.

Vroomen was born and raised in the Netherlands, which has resulted in a slight Dutch inflection to his otherwise Canadian accent. From the outset he seems to speak as he thinks – very quickly yet very clearly.

Every few sentences he’ll say ‘Right?’ before pausing for a few moments, a habit he’s presumably picked up from a lifetime of associates losing track of his fast-paced ideas.

He made a name for himself with a string of landmark bike designs from his time at Cervélo, which he founded with Phil White. The two forged their partnership while students at McGill University in Montreal, where they designed the otherworldly Baracchi frame.

The demogorgon-like green time-trial frame was the master’s graduation project for the two young engineers, and propelled them into forming a brand.

‘I graduated with that project in 1995, and then we incorporated Cervélo in 1996,’ Vroomen recalls. Rumour has it that in those early days the two worked out of a basement below a bike shop on an allowance of $50 a week.

‘Now, as a co-owner of both 3T and Open, Vroomen continues to test the sensibilities of the bike industry with aerodynamic gravel bikes, World Tour racers with a single chainring and road bikes with mountainbike wheels. 

Turning heads

‘My theory about design is always that if you really think about performance, the aesthetics are there automatically,’ Vroomen says.

His and White’s initial Baracchi was considered so ugly that the bike sponsor behind the project refused to have its logo on the down tube. His projects today are met with similarly polarised opinions.

The 3T Strada that Vroomen has brought with him today has inspired awe among those who consider the mixture of a 1x groupset, 28mm tyres, disc brakes and extreme aero profile to be a vision of the future.

It has also fostered disdain among puritans for whom it no longer resembles a road bike.

‘A lot of people think this is really ugly, right?’ Vroomen says. ‘I try not to read the comments below online articles, but people sometimes already have an opinion without having even seen a bike in the flesh, let alone riding it.’

For Vroomen, a shock response from the public has always been part of his strategy.

‘If we introduced a bike and more than half of everyone liked it I’d be really disappointed,’ he says. ‘Because then it didn’t go far enough, and after six months it will start to look old.

‘The 3T is the perfect example as I don’t think more than 50% of people like it. So I think that means in six months people will get used to it and then really start liking it. Right?’

Vroomen’s ambition with the 3T Strada may be his most disruptive so far – to remove the front derailleur and make a single chainring an accepted norm not just for off-road riding but for professional road racing.

He believes it’s a worthy campaign, as it offers a greater range of gearing at a much lower weight. To prove its capability, he’s taking it to the pro peloton with a ProContinental team, Aqua Blue.

‘The funny part is that all these oldie manufacturers say, “Oh, we work very closely with our teams on new product,” but what’s the product? It’s the old product but x% stiffer in the bottom bracket.

‘You don’t need a team for that – you need a test machine for that.

‘If you say you need a team to develop new products then you better have them ride something new – a real new product that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Right? That’s testing.’

It’s a longstanding policy. Cervélo first formed its Test Team because consumers weren’t buying into its vision of aero road bikes, and the Test Team had to prove their worth.

Vroomen remains sceptical about the overall effectiveness of the WorldTour marketing machine, though.

‘I’m not particularly interested in pro team collaborations anymore,’ he confesses. ‘I think the effectiveness has gone down and the costs have gone up.

‘But you know in this case with the 3T it was really useful to get pro team feedback. It’s a big statement if they can use it successfully.’ 

The path less travelled

‘Since I was 13 or 14 years old I was really into human-powered vehicles so my first bike designs were all fully faired recumbents,’ Vroomen recalls. ‘I always thought we should have recumbent bikes in the Tour de France.’

While the 3T Strada or Open UP may seem unconventional, Vroomen has become more conservative in his tastes through his career.

Yet while he’s no longer as experimental as in his Baracchi days, his designs have continually challenged the status quo. It’s generally paid off.

The Cervélo Soloist, for instance, was the first modern road bike with aerodynamic pretensions. Released in 2002 it was built in aluminium with aero tube shapes and used internal cable routing.

At the time, the Soloist and the resulting S-series shocked consumers with their thin, bladed tube shapes, but today they look vanilla amid a market filled with aero-optimised bikes.

Unsurprisingly, Vroomen often feels his ideas are stolen by others. He maintains, though, that they usually miss the point.

‘What always amazes me in this industry is how people focus on the wrong thing,’ he says. ‘Like when we came out with the Cervélo P3 and it had a curved seat tube, everybody started copying the curved seat tube.

‘That’s probably the most copied feature I’ve ever done. But what made the bike so good for a lot of people was that it fitted properly. The geometry is probably the most important part of that bike but everybody copied the curved seat tube and threw in their own geometry. People copy the most visible things, but not the things that really matter.’

Vroomen sees history repeating itself with the Open UP, a ‘GravelPlus’ design that uses specially dropped chainstays to allow clearance for mountainbike tyres.

‘Now everybody’s dropping their chainstays but without thinking about how to do it properly, so the tyre clearance isn’t what we have on the UP.’

Like many veterans of any industry, Vroomen has a certain cynicism about the big brands, but equally he’s filled with enthusiasm for modern bikes.

‘Years ago there were a lot of bikes that were really not very good, right? They were flexible and they were heavy, and there wasn’t much engineering involved. Now almost all bikes are a lot, lot stiffer than back then. I think now there aren’t many bad bikes out there.’

He argues that, as a result, the push for higher-performing materials is slightly misguided: ‘I mean, the bikes are 10 times stiffer than what Merckx had, and most of us just don’t have the power to push that to its limits.’

Perhaps that’s an unusual perspective from someone in the business of selling high-end road bikes, but for Vroomen the diminishing returns have presented new challenges.

‘I always say, if you like riding you should have the slowest bike, because you want it to last as long as possible. Who wants to get home sooner?’ Vroomen says, aware of the irony as he leans on the top tube of his Strada.

While he may be a fan of the leisurely and adventurous off-road scene, he still feeds off the passion associated with the fastest part of the market.

‘You love the sport, you love the kit, you want to walk into your garage on a Saturday morning to get the bike that puts a smile on your face, right? That can be a custom-painted Pegoretti or it can be a Cervélo S5,’ he says cheerily.

‘That’s the case in any hobby. If you like music you spend money on a music system. Can you really hear the difference between A and B? Maybe, maybe not, but you just like that whole scene.

‘It’s better to spend your money on that than on a cocaine habit.’

But while the technology means even middling bikes are many times better than those ridden by history’s greatest cyclists, there’s still huge ground to cover in the consumer experience, Vroomen believes.

‘Look at the geometry charts and you see most manufacturers don’t understand geometry. We talk about stack and reach, but you look and the smallest three sizes of some models have the same reach,’ Vroomen says.

‘They’re not getting any shorter – they’re just forcing their customers to put their saddles further forward. Some manufacturers either don’t understand geometry or they’re just super-cynical in what they’re trying to sell to their customers.’

As he speaks, a passer-by notices the 3T Strada and asks to be photographed standing next to it. Vroomen agrees and politely answers questions while making no hint that the bike is his design.

That wow factor is a trademark of Vroomen’s designs. It was there in the early Cervélo models, and while Cyclist was testing the Open UP we encountered a similar enthusiasm for its unusual looks.

I wonder how much input Vroomen has with the appearance of his bikes.

‘I’m a terrible sketcher,’ he admits. ‘So I usually have it pretty clear in my head but then it’s 50% written word and 50% really crude sketches.

‘I have a really good CAD guy who understands my mumbling and my sketches. Then you draw the UCI boxes and we know we need to drop the seatstays there or change the top tube here.’

Naturally I assume Vroomen would like to see the UCI rulebook about bike design thrown aside. ‘No way!’ he replies. ‘I mean, if they throw the rulebook away it’s not cycling anymore.

‘When you watch the Tour de France today you could still see what is in essence the same as seeing Fausto Coppi or Merckx race.’ 

Vroomen with a view

Looking at Vroomen’s back catalogue, it appears he’s moving from outlandish designs in the early days to something more conventional today. So what’s next? Commuter bikes?

‘That’s the dream,’ he says without a hint of irony. ‘I mean that’s the ultimate goal. This is all just preparation for that.’

I have to check again that he isn’t joking, but it seems that Vroomen genuinely dreams of a commuter bike that could change the world.

‘You think of a bike – it’s 10kg of material to make a 70kg or 80kg person go four times the speed. That’s bike commuting. That’s amazing, right?’ he says with heightened animation.

‘Now you take a car. A car in a city goes roughly the same speed as a bike. If you’re in a really fast city like Los Angeles, the car goes twice the speed of the bike. So to go twice the speed of the bike the car needs 1,500kg of material.

It’s 20 times your weight to go maybe 10 times your walking speed on average. It’s just so inefficient.’

Vroomen seems truly excited by a bike-centric vision of society. ‘I’m not suggesting banning cars, but to work as a city to not needing cars in 20 years or so would be great.

‘A city becomes more liveable – you have fewer problems with air pollution, climate change, obesity. All these things improve.’

It’s clear that whether it’s a recumbent, time-trial frame, off-road adventurer, disc-brake WorldTour racer or futuristic commuter, Vroomen’s designs will continue to challenge expectations and stand out amid the long and winding history of the bicycle.

Vroomen’s crooked and incomplete glasses may give him the appearance of an eccentric inventor, but his vision of cycling couldn’t be more rational.

As he sets off for his hotel aboard his latest creation, he puts it succinctly: ‘Don’t you think the average person would smile a little bit more if they were riding a bike?’

Vroomen’s babies

The most intriguing bikes of Vroomen’s back catalogue

Cervélo Soloist

In 2002 the very idea of an aerodynamic bike was a little bizarre. Easily sculpted carbon fibre was years away, so the initial Soloist was made from aluminium using complex welding techniques.

It took a lot of victories from the Cervélo Test Team, and eventually a win on Alpe d’Huez with Frank Schleck, for consumers to buy into the idea. The Soloist evolved into Cervélo’s S-series, which is today headed by the S5.

Open UP

When Open launched in 2012 it unveiled a slick hardtail mountainbike, but it was the roadie silhouette of the UP (Unbeaten Path) that caught the cycling world’s attention.

It was the first mainstream road frame to allow both 650b and 700c wheel sizes, with clearance for full 2.1in mountainbike tyres. If ever there was a bike for any occasion, this was it.

Cervélo P3C

Launched in 2005, the Cervélo P3C is often regarded as the first mass-production bike to have considered the subject of aerodynamics holistically – that is to look at the entirety of the bike and rider as one. 

It was the first carbon time-trial bike in Cervélo’s range and went on to became one of the most successful triathlon bikes of all time.

The Baracchi

‘The Green Machine’, made in 1995, was the very first product of Gerard Vroomen and Phil White’s meeting of minds. It was a non-UCI-compliant time-trial bike and the brief was simple: Vroomen and White wanted to produce the fastest bike conceivable.

Its looks were so divisive that the bike sponsor of the team they built it for refused to put its logo on it, so Vroomen and White decided to market their ideas themselves – the birth of Cervélo.

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