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The history of Cervélo bikes

24 Nov 2020

What began as a university project kick-started the aero road bike market, and Cervélo is still trying to make riders quicker 25 years on

Words: Sam Challis Photography: Tapestry

Anyone with an interest in bikes knows that Cervélo was founded in 1995 by Phil White and Gérard Vroomen. However, the duo had been working together behind the scenes for many years before that.

‘Actually, “studying” is probably a more accurate way to describe what they were doing,’ says Sean McDermott, Cervélo’s director of projects. ‘Gérard was making a carbon frame as an engineering project at McGill University in Canada.

He crossed paths with Phil, a fellow student engineer who shared his interest in bikes, so he jumped into the project. They were both interested in TT bikes, but thought like engineers using data to inform design, rather than constraining themselves to what bikes were generally supposed to look like at the time.’

Evidence of this analytical approach is displayed in the brand’s name. Cervélo is a portmanteau of cervello, the Italian word for brain, and vélo, the French for bike. Looking at the industry at the time, the pair recognised they had an opportunity to disrupt a market that was still wedded to the status quo of round-tubed steel bikes.

‘This led to their first design, the Baracchi,’ says McDermott. The bike is well worth a Google. The acid-green paint scheme of the bike serves only to highlight its radical design, which had 1x gearing and eschewed a traditional bike frame’s double-triangle construction completely. It still looks futuristic today, bearing an unsurprising resemblance to Cervélo’s radical P5X time-trial bike. Back in 1995, the design was beyond comprehension.

‘It disrupted the industry too much,’ says Scott Roy, Cervélo’s engineering manager. ‘The pair took the idea to all of the traditional framebuilders in Italy, proposing it to them as the future of bike design. With the benefit of hindsight we now know they were totally right, but back then the Italians just carried on sipping their espressos and told Gérard and Phil to bugger off.’

Denied both acceptance and support, the pair decided to build the bike themselves, and Cervélo was born. 

Forging ahead

Before Vroomen and White’s rationale could be validated by results, the UCI introduced strict rules regarding frame design, making the Baracchi probably one of the most famous race bikes never to be ridden professionally.

‘It did cement in Phil and Gérard’s minds the approach Cervélo should take, though,’ says McDermott. ‘So they started making aluminium frames with airfoil shapes.’

Before long they produced the Eyre road bike, then the P2 TT bike followed, a UCI-legal spiritual successor to the Baracchi. It would go on to win many races, justifying the efficacy of the ideas that went into Cervélo’s bold first bike.

Wind-tunnel testing and computational fluid dynamics – design tools that are now standard in any contemporary road bike design – were still in their infancy at this point, viewed as obscure and unnecessary by most brands. Yet, says McDermott, White and Vroomen’s obsession with them set the tone for the future direction of all Cervélo’s bikes, right up to the present day.

Those weren’t the only working practices that set Cervélo apart. ‘I was around back then,’ says McDermott. ‘We were in these offices with high walls but no ceilings, like tall cubicles. Phil and Gérard were at opposite ends, so they’d just yell at each other about what was going on.

‘Phil would lead the design groups, identifying where the bikes could be better, and he was adamant we wouldn’t release a design until the original goals had been reached. Our top bikes, like the RCa, had no end date. It was very different to the regimented developmental cycle of other brands.’

It may have been different, but it was successful. In 2002 Cervélo released the Soloist Team, a road bike with a frame more reminiscent of a then-TT bike. That design essentially created the aero road genre.

‘The year after we became the supplier to the pro team CSC, who were ranked 14th in the world at the time,’ says McDermott. ‘Cervélo was easily the smallest and youngest bike company to ever supply a team at that level.’

Regardless, Team CSC rose up the rankings, becoming the top team in the world for three of the six years they were aboard Cervélos. Fabian Cancellara reigned supreme in the spring Classics, and in 2008 Carlos Sastre won the Tour de France aboard Cervélo’s SLC-SL and R3-SL bikes.

‘The trajectory of the brand accelerated steeply from then, so Phil and Gérard set up our own team, Cervélo TestTeam, in 2009 to continue the development,’ says McDermott. ‘It took things to another level. When Carlos won the Tour we’d all gone to the local pub to watch the final TT. It was awesome, but having a team the following year honestly felt like we were part of everything. Riders would come to visit and we’d tell them about the bikes and other cool stuff we were doing. It was very good for morale and product development. A massive challenge for the business overall but anyone who was here at that time would look back on it as a happy time I’m sure.’

While McDermott dismisses the suggestion that those good times came to an end, they certainly changed form considerably in the early 2010s. Global expansion put strain on every facet of the brand. In the space of a couple of years, Cervélo TestTeam morphed into Garmin-Cervélo, Vroomen left, and White sold to Pon Holdings, a Dutch company involved with several other bike brands such as Raleigh, Focus and Santa Cruz. White was Pon’s chief innovation officer until 2017, and then he too moved on.

McDermott says the departure of both founding members was felt keenly, but also allowed Cervélo to modernise. ‘Gérard’s was a very slow transition out – he remained as a consultant and visited frequently. Then when Phil left he tasked us with upholding Cervélo’s original tenets. We have a core of long-serving engineers, which is a huge source of pride for us, so those principles were hardwired into them anyway, but we had to develop a structure to work together more as a team. We became more professional and ended up in a stronger position.’

Constructive criticism

Being such a data-driven brand, Cervélo has always used rider feedback as part of its engineering process. However, some pro riders are more forthcoming than others.

‘Mark Cavendish was an arsehole,’ says Roy. The British sprinter rode Cervélo bikes at Team Dimension Data from 2016 to 2019. ‘It’s true, and he says he is too. But that was brilliant. He was never wowed by a shiny new bike, nor impressed by us being nice to him. He’d objectively analyse everything he used. The input he gave us is how we ended up with the stiffness-to-weight ratio of our current S5. He got on the previous generation, a really successful bike, and in no uncertain terms told us it was the worst bike he’d ridden for stiffness.’

Cavendish could drill down into exactly what was happening and when, Roy adds. ‘He’d say, “When I came out of this corner and did that, I felt it understeer because of this…”, in much the same way he can describe the final few kilometres of every sprint he’s ever been in. He was an engineer’s dream.’

Another rider who helped shape the design of Cervélo bikes was American time-triallist Dave Zabriskie. ‘He really subscribed to what we were trying to achieve. He has DNA in literally every bike we make because we scanned his body in 2007 and made a life-sized model of it, which we’ve put on top of every bike we’ve wind-tunnel tested since. So basically every bike we’ve made for the last 13 years has been completely optimised for Dave Zabriskie.’

These days, however, feedback from racers only goes so far. Maria Benson, Cervélo’s director of product management, says, ‘The maturity of road cycling means it’s getting harder from an engineering side to make the gains we were able to 10 years ago in aero, stiffness and weight reduction. Plus many other brands have caught up to our level in the areas we pioneered, because everyone has access to the same technology.’

The answer, according to Benson, has been to widen the remit of the bikes: ‘In our S5 we’ve taken a more holistic approach to what an aero bike is, making it more well-rounded as well as fast. We’re really trying to understand how a frame reacts to a rider. Are they comfortable? Do they fit properly? That’s where we now get the performance benefit. Fostering a sense of confidence and enjoyment in a race bike through design is more powerful than just pumping out “faster” frames. We haven’t lost Phil’s “engineering-first” approach, but we’re broadening our understanding of what needs to be engineered.’

The same scenario is being played out in other sectors. ‘From a silhouette standpoint, lightweight race bikes all look similar, and gains between brands are marginal,’ she adds. ‘It’s just the right way to make that type of bike.’

That isn’t purely down to the engineers. ‘Consumers have allowed the change of lightweight road bikes to happen,’ says Benson. ‘They’ve become better educated and bought into the shift because they understand that faster tube shapes and disc brakes are an overall gain in a bike traditionally designed to be lightweight.’

Down the road

Cervélo states that every bike it has ever made is fit to be raced at pro level, so the release of its new Áspero, the brand’s first bike that isn’t tarmac-oriented, should be examined with interest.

‘The gravel category is so broad,’ says Benson. ‘We noticed most designs lean towards the adventure side, with an upright position and mounts for bags, and that customer doesn’t really fit with the ethos of the bike we design. We also noticed there aren’t really many bikes out there meant for a competitive style of gravel riding, even though a lot of these events are highly competitive. There’s huge potential in this area. Naturally we jumped into the market there.’

Even away from the tarmac, Cervélo is focussed on speed. Could the company have a similarly disruptive effect in the gravel market as it has done in road bikes for all these years? Don’t bet against it.

Complete speed

Aero isn’t the whole story with the S5

‘We had a big head start in this space,’ says Maria Benson, Cervelo’s director of product management. ‘But today all major brands have figured out a way to make something fast. So we approached the S5 differently, making sure handling, ride quality and usability were just as polished as aerodynamics.’

The S5’s V-stem and external steerer are key features in that regard. They add stiffness to the front end and make cable routing simpler. They also improve aerodynamics of course – this S5 is a claimed 5.5 watts faster than the old one. 

Modern classic

The R5’s roots go back almost 20 years

Cervélo’s R-series has been winning pro races since 2003. This latest R5 Disc is the raciest version yet, with a longer and lower geometry than previous models.

The brand says frame stiffness is higher too, thanks to Cervélo’s famous ‘Squoval Max’ tube shaping. Benson says the tubes blend a mostly square profile with oval corners and curved sides, which generates a good balance between stiffness and aerodynamics at a light weight. Unusually, the disc frame weight is even lighter than its rim brake counterpart – a claimed 831g versus 850g. 

All-road racing

The Áspero is fast over any surface

The Áspero is Cervélo’s first move into the gravel sector and is one of the first gravel bikes built for racing rather than adventuring. What that means is an expansive tyre clearance – up to 42mm – but a lightweight frameset with no mounts for luggage or mudguards.

The Áspero uses a ‘Trail-mixer’ dropout, too. It changes the bike’s fork offset by 5mm depending on its orientation to keep handling consistent whatever tyre/wheel size combination is used.