How Cervélo, supplier to Team Dimension Data, Cervélo-Bigla and British Cycling, has returned to the big time
Cervélo was the cutting edge road brand with its own professional team and a determination to do things differently, on and off the bike.
Widely regarded as inventors of the aero road bike, Cervélo has seen others adopt its ideas; a trend that last year resulted in a WorldTour roster filled with aero machines, but none from Cervélo.
The Cervélo Test Team folded after two seasons in 2010, and the brand withdrew from the WorldTour entirely at the close of 2014 as Jonathan Vaughters’ Garmin-backed Slipstream outfit merged with Cannondale.
But Cervélo’s return to professional cycling’s top tier with Team Dimension Data, led by Mark Cavendish, means the Canadian brand will no longer depend on race organisers for invitations to the biggest races, as it did last year while the team raced as the Pro Continental MTN-Qhubeka squad.
And Team Dimension Data is only one strand of Cervélo’s involvement with elite cycling. It has consolidated its presence in the women’s peloton to become joint title sponsor of Cervélo-Bigla, and partnered with British Cycling.
So how important is professional cycling to a bike manufacturer, both in terms of technical development and market position? Does an endurance bike fit the ethos of a brand that bills itself as “simply faster”? And having led the aero revolution, can Cervélo be counted upon to discover the next big thing again?
Claims for “game changing” technology are made routinely in cycling, but Cervélo’s adaptable Soloist Team, launched in 2002, pushed aerodynamics to the front and centre of the peloton’s collective mind.
The irony of Cervélo’s full-scale involvement in racing – men’s and women’s professional road teams, and British Cycling’s track and road squads – is that Cervélo’s first new series in a decade is a disc-equipped endurance bike.
The C-Series is a striking machine, with low slung, elegantly-arched seat-stays, disc brakes, thru-axles and substantial tyre clearance, but is precisely the last bike one would expect from Cervélo, despite the rounded contours of its ‘Squoval’ tubes. Does it represent a change of direction?
Phil White, one of Cervélo’s two founders (with Gerard Vroomen), argues not.
“The C5 may appear to be a late arrival in the endurance road segment,” says White. “But if you look at it more closely, this is truly the first-ever performance bike in this segment.”
White’s opinion is, of course, subjective. Cannondale, Specialized and Trek would doubtless consider their top-tier Synapse, Roubaix, and Domane machines, all major players in the so-called endurance sector, to be “performance” models, having been ridden by the likes of Peter Sagan, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara in recent years, but the C5 has already made a hit with the cycling press.
Its selling points – stability, comfort, versatility and safety – seem oddly askew with Cervélo’s long-standing ambition to produce “the world’s fastest and lightest bikes”, although at a claimed 850g, the C5’s chassis is far from weighty.
Confidence, however, is the new buzzword. Controlling speed is as much a goal as generating it. Phil Spearman, the product manager responsible for the C-Series, argues that “high performance” is a relative term.
“In some applications [performance] relates to aerodynamics; in others, weight,” he says. “In still others it is about handling and comfort levels that are appropriatefor a given riding style. By applying what we have learned from Project California research and our pro teams, we are able to bring top-tier performance attributes to the C-Series and the endurance road market.”
The C-Series has its roots in pro machinery, he continues: specifically the RS and R3 Mud – bikes designed to cope with the exacting demands of Paris-Roubaix. Nevertheless, it’s hard to escape the sense that commercial ambition has dictated a broadening of Cervélo’s portfolio. Spearman, however, argues that the brand has simply responded to consumer demand.
“To date, there has been a distinct performance cost and perception associated with bikes offering ‘endurance fits’ and/or ‘endurance handling’, and this is probably because so few manufacturers have had the conviction to offer a truly high-performance, mixed surface/endurance road bike. Being Cervélo, we did.”
White and Vroomen sold their brand to the Dutch concern Pon Holdings in 2012. Vroomen now runs the Open bike brand, works with Italian component manufacturer 3T and offers business advice via his company Very Simple BV. White’s involvement with Cervélo remains close, via his role as chief innovation officer for Pon.
“I have been deeply involved in e-bike development over the past few years, as this was the area where innovation was most needed,” he says, “but I have to admit that I always keep a close eye on my baby. I am still in close contact with the entire management team at Cervélo, especially the engineering and marketing people, and try to add value wherever and whenever I can.”
He rejects the idea that Cervélo’s ethos has changed since the buy out, offering the VW Group as a parallel: a parent company with car brands as distinct as Audi, Skoda, Porsche and Lamborghini.
“Every brand is fully in charge of its own destiny and has full power to make decisions it feels are right for its markets,” he says of Pon. “So for the end consumer, Cervélo remains the exact same premium brand, standing out individually while benefitting from the strength of the group for activities such as sourcing and IT.”
Pon certainly can’t be accused of resting on Cervélo’s laurels. New models have come thick and fast since they acquired the brand: a new S3 and R3 in 2013, a major update to the S5 a year later, a disc version of the R3 and the new C-Series in 2015, and a sighting of the disc-equipped S5, ridden by Cervelo-Bigla’s Gabrielle Pilote Fortin at the brand’s own Belgian Waffle Ride in San Diego.
Brand positioning, however, is a subtle, but powerful concept. For almost any bicycle manufacturer, an association with racing is desirable. For Cervélo, it is part of the brand’s DNA. Its year of absence from professional cycling’s elite UCI WorldTour felt significant.
When Slipstream Sports merged with Cannondale Pro Cycling at the end of 2014, Cervélo found itself outside of the top tier of professional cycling for the first time since 2003. They gambled, becoming supplier to MTN-Qhubeka, an African team about to embark on its second season in the second tier, Pro Continental ranks.
Pro Continental sponsorship is a gamble, as Wilier will attest. The revered Italian marque lost its WorldTour berth with Lampre at the end of 2012. It has since sponsored the now-defunct Team Colombia, and is the partner to South East, the latest face for an Italian team with an unenviable recent history.
For Cervélo, however, things worked out more favourably. MTN-Qhubeka enjoyed a stellar 2015, whose considerable high point came at the Tour de France with a Mandela Day victory on stage 14 for Steve Cummings and four days in the polka dot jersey for Daniel Teklehaimanot.
In the closed season, team principal Douglas Ryder signed a host of big name riders, including Mark Cavendish, attracted the title sponsorship of Dimension Data, and took his African to the WorldTour – and with it, Cervélo.
However, Cervélo’s relationship with professional cycling is deeper than that of bike supplier. After six seasons as supplier to CSC between 2003 and 2009, a period in which Bjarne Riis’ team won the Tour de France with Carlos Sastre, Cervélo set up a ProTeam of its own that included Sastre.
Vroomen’s ambitions for the Cervélo Test Team were nothing less than to “change cycling”. A broad remit that included product development and better fan access was married to a focus on performance rather than results.
This critical shift of emphasis empowered the riders, who hit the ground running with victory on the opening road stage of the 2009 Tour of Qatar for Roger Hammond.
“Maybe if we hadn’t got results for a couple of months, the pressure would have come,” says Daniel Lloyd, who joined the team at its inception.
“There wasn’t, from my perspective, immense pressure to target wins or to achieve results. We won our first race, with Roger [Hammond] at Qatar. That gave us huge momentum, which we carried into the Giro and the Tour, so there wasn’t the need for pressure.
“A number of riders whose careers may have stagnated elsewhere, where they weren’t enjoying things so much, like Roger and Andreas Klier, for example, were very motivated [for the Cervélo Test Test].”
Lloyd joined CTT from the An Post squad run by Sean Kelly and Kurt Bogaerts. After years of self-sufficiency in the lower ranks, Lloyd suddenly found himself supplied with cutting edge equipment.
“As a rider, to have the best of everything makes you feel good: the best brains behind you, the best bikes, the best clothing and the best wheels.”
He agrees that a place in the WorldTour is essential for a bike brand with a high-performance proposition, pointing to the comparative recent fortunes of Pinarello and Colnago.
“Colnago had huge teams like Rabobank, but if you look at them now, they have none in the WorldTour and barely any Pro Conti teams [GazProm-RusVelo and the Wiggle-High5 women’s team].
“The contract with Team Sky would have been one of the biggest Pinarello has signed, and one of the most complicated, but they’ve won the Tour de France three times since, and a lot of people will have based [buying] decisions on that.
“I think your image takes a bit of a hit when the top riders aren’t riding your bike.”
Hammond, now a sports director with Team Dimension Data, remembers CTT as a “forward thinking team”, co-funded by Cervelo’s partners, in which each rider had multiple roles beyond simply getting results.
“Teams always say that riders are valued for reasons other than riding their bikes, but at CTT they really were,” Hammond says.
“There were three aspects: one was riding your bike, one was interacting with the public and sponsors, and one was product development. They had a points system that would calculate your value at the end of the year. It was pretty innovative at the time and they stood by it.
“The beauty of it was those other two things you could do: product development or interaction with sponsors. Realistically, you could have a successful year with no results at all. It takes away that worry. You see a lot of riders who are too afraid to fail, but riders who are not afraid to lose are potent.”
Hammond is not the only member of Team Dimension Data to refer back to Cervélo Test Team’s heritage and its legacy. Rolf Aldag, the team’s performance manager, who joined the African team in the closed season, also sees the parallel.
“If you look at the history of Cervélo with CTT – developing product with the team and having a direct influence – this is a good sign [for Dimension Data],” he says. “It’s pretty unique.”
Aldag’s previous employer, Etixx-QuickStep, is among a handful of ‘super teams’ in the WorldTour. The German insists Cervélo’s commitment to Team Dimension Data is no less than he enjoyed from Specialized at his previous home.
“With Etixx, we can make a direct comparison. There, it was 29 riders; here it’s 28 riders. That reduces bike quantity by five; not more, not less.”
The scope of Cervélo’s support extends beyond mere supply lines, he continues.
The company has staff dedicated to supporting the team, up to and including those working in velodromes to calculate drag factors and advise on equipment selection for Grand Tour time trials.
As the WorldTour’s first and (to date) only African team, Dimension Data has another, significant logistical hurdle to overcome.
“You don’t just have riders based in Italy or central Europe,” Aldag says. “We talk about Eritrea, Rwanda; a very global situation, and of course our partners support the idea of developing African cycling and giving these kids a fair chance.
“What does that mean? That means we have to step up and make sure they don’t have to keep travelling in and out of Eritrea, for example. That’s something we have to consider.”
Thomas Campana is the general manager of the Cervélo-Bigla women’s team, and managed CTT nearly a decade earlier.
He talks of the “old Cervélo” and the “new Cervélo”, referencing the sale to PON Holdings, and describes the “family-like” atmosphere which has remained as the link between the two.
Both eras value clean, consistent performance and product development more than victory at any cost, he says. Cervélo-Bigla has high standards and ambitious riders, but it is not, to quote Campana, under pressure to be a “20 or 25-win a season team.”
Last season, Cervélo sponsored two women’s teams. Veloćio-SRAM, however, has become Canyon-SRAM, consolidating Cervélo’s presence in the Women’s WorldTour. Campana’s team now enjoys the brand’s undivided support.
“They said, ‘Thomas, what do you need to move forwards?’” Campana recalls.
“The conversation was not built on marketing topics. If you talk to [other] sponsors, they mark on certain goals: return on investment and things like that. For us, it was a very open discussion among people who know each other. They said, ‘It’s not a sponsorship, it’s a partnership.’ It’s much more family-like. We exchanged our opinions openly. This is exactly how it should be.”
Robert Reijers is now Cervélo’s managing director following the sale to PON and has strengthened the position of a women’s team within the brand’s portfolio, Campana believes. He describes his team’s relationship to Cervélo as “a pure partnership.”
“They wanted a proper women’s project within their community,” says Campana. “That was very clear. It was driven by Robert, who is Dutch, who grew up in the Netherlands and could see the importance of women’s cycling on the road. It was already an open book to him. Women’s cycling is a big show in the Netherlands.”
There is another, equally interesting aspect to Cervélo-Bigla’s technical partnerships: the team’s use of the Rotor UNO hydraulic groupset. This, however, is a topic worthy of its own article. Watch this space.
Cervélo’s engineering director Sean McDermott describes the challenge as “significant”, but says it was Cervélo’s data driven approach that had appealed to the federation in the first instance, prompting them to contact the brand in 2014.
While the Great Britain team rode both Cervélo and UKSI bikes at the World Track Championships in March – in fact, Sir Bradley Wiggins rode a Cervélo and Mark Cavendish a UKSI machine when the pair joined forced to win the Madison – McDermott confirms a new, yet-to-be-seen track bike is being specifically developed for Team GB at this summer’s Olympic Games, though whether Cervélo bikes will be used across the board by British teams in Rio remains to be seen.
“British Cycling’s track team is at the top of their sport, and their bikes certainly contributed to their success,” says McDermott. “The early challenge was in understanding the capabilities of the UKSI bikes, as well as the needs of the riders and their performance goals, and translating that into targets for a new bike.
“We certainly faced additional complications with a relatively short time to develop a new bike, and were reminded at several points that the targets we set were not as straightforward to achieve as we might have hoped. We are looking forward to seeing them in action in Rio.”
A grand unveiling in Rio would fit British Cycling’s preference of saving its best technology for the biggest occasions. RoadCyclingUK.com asked British Cycling for an interview with technical lead, Tony Purnell, but were told he was unavailable for comment.
Fighting on all fronts
Cervélo’s return to the WorldTour with Team Dimension Data is more significant than even some of its staff realise. “We’ve never been away,” one insider told RoadCyclingUK, pointing to MTN-Qhubeka’s success at last year’s Tour de France, but, as Daniel Lloyd points out, it’s the top tier which has the greatest influence over the paying punter.
Lloyd, of course, was a member of the Cervélo Test Team, and Rolf Aldag’s comment that CTT’s embrace of rider input as a means of product development “is a good sign” indicates that similar practices may be at work within Team Dimension Data. The idea of merely being a bike supplier is not one which sits easily with Cervélo.
Cervélo’s fight on other racing fronts, in its partnerships with the Bigla women’s team and British Cycling, might be of similar significance, especially if British riders deliver in Rio.
White says a brand remains at the cutting edge by reinventing itself, and with the C-Series it has done that to an extent, even if by releasing an endurance bike long after the genre was established, it has failed to break new ground for the industry, as it did with the aero road bike.
The most interesting comment, however, comes from Spearman, the man responsible for the C-Series.
“As the gran fondo and sportive scenes usurp racing as the backbone of bicycle sport, there is a very good chance that the C-Series will play a major role in the continued success of Cervélo,” he says.
Cycling’s shifting demographic and the growth of the sportive scene have made the endurance event the amateur cyclist’s preferred discipline. By catering for the die hard amateur as well as the WorldTour pro, Cervélo may find itself back at the cutting edge.
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