There are some bike brands that, whether by plan or happy chance, become more than the sum of their parts, fanning out as part of a wider popular bike culture; reference points for stellar design and engineering. Arguably, Cervélo is one of these brands, and with Gerard Vroomen at the helm as co-founder and designer for 15 years, this road and triathlon rider's favourite mined a seam of unrivalled creativity in both carbon fibre engineering & marketing to elevate the brand to iconic status. Post-Cervélo as the co-founder of bike brand OPEN, a project which prides itself on staying small - perhaps the perfect counterpoint to Cervélo - and more recently as newly-minted co-owner of 3T, this thoughtful Dutchman has begun a new and interesting arc to his already impressive career. With a hectic pre-Eurobike schedule looming, Gerard kindly took the time to chat with us about the new 3T Exploro and Strada framesets, cycling's yearly dilemma, urban cycling & of course, Cervélo.
Pete: Hey Gerard, thanks for taking the time to chat today.
Gerard: No problem Pete, my pleasure.
Pete: I read that 3T - if there was one company - it would be one you'd want to work for, and which you now co-own. How much is being at 3T refreshing for you, in the sense that it's a new challenge? Do you find you've still got the creativity there to do new things, even though you've been doing so many great things over the years?
Gerard: Yeah, probably. It's very different in a lot of ways. It's different if you start a company yourself. You can shape it whichever way you want, right?
Gerard: For better or for worse. Of course 3T has almost 60 years of history of doing really cool things that I had nothing to do with. I don't see that as limiting. Well, maybe in a sense it's limiting, but I think the limits are good. Like when you have all this opportunity, it's really hard to come up with good ideas, I think. I know wherever you look, architecture or whatever, if you have a limited budget I think you come up with original solutions. If you have to build this house up against a very steep slope, that filters into how you design and sort of it makes you create. If you just have a flat piece of land and unlimited budget, you can build whatever you want; you're probably going build ugly.
Pete: Yeah, that's right.
Gerard: I think here it's ... UCI rules is another one. Yes, it's a limitation, but within those limitations you get to do really cool stuff. When there are no rules, it's very easy just to do crazy things.
Of course, we're lucky that 3T is a brand that has 56 years of innovation, of being first, of trying things nobody else is trying behind them. It'd be a bit different if you had a company that's super, super traditional things, then, of course, you have to keep doing super, super traditional. That's maybe not a lot of fun.
Gerard: But, you know, 3T has, in those 56 years, made almost anything. Made a saddle at some point, and then stopped again because it didn't have any more good saddle ideas.
Where 3T has seen an opportunity or something missing in the market or has had a great idea, they've just gone and done it and then see if it sticks, right? That fits me.
Pete: How much of the direction of the Strada and the Exploro was from your feeling about where you are as a cyclist, and how much was in regard to what the market wants as well? Was there a balance to play there or did you have a bit of ...
Gerard: There definitely should have been a balance, but there isn't, which, again, is nice with the 3T. You just make something and see if it sticks. That's what this is as well. If I hadn't come to 3T I don't think 3T would have become a frame manufacturer.
It wasn’t that the market wants us to do this, so now we just have to make something. It was more that now the market is not doing things in this direction, we think this is cool and interesting and new, so we're going to do that. Maybe the reason the market isn't going in that direction is because no customer wants to go in that direction. That's entirely possible. The only way to find out is to make it.
If you make something that's similar to everybody else's, then you know that, okay, there is some market for that. Maybe it's a crowded market, but if you do something like the Strada, we have a hunch. It's not like we're trying to do this completely blindly. But at the same time, it's not like we did market research. It's kind of pointless to ask people if they want a Strada before they've seen a Strada!
Pete: Yeah, absolutely.
Gerard: I'm not comparing myself to Steve Jobs, but it's sort of what he said. There's no point to ask people if they want an iPhone or an iPod when they don't know what that is. So you take a chance and sometimes you're right, and sometimes you're not. Nothing wrong with that. It's happened all my life.
Pete: Me too. I'm mostly wrong, actually! But, I was watching your Inbound video, and you were saying that the worst place to be is in the middle trying to do everything or being just like everybody else. I guess in a way, taking into account the experience that you've had and the skills and the success and blending that with taking a little bit of a risk perhaps in terms of doing something you feel instinctively is right, that's the only way to go, it seems. There's no other way.
Gerard: Well, there are many ways to go, but it also depends on your skill. If you want to play in the middle with safe designs, there's a tonne of other bikes there as well, right?
Gerard: You either have to be the cheapest there or have the biggest marketing budget - those are the ways you can be successful in the middle - but beyond that it's really difficult. Look at this year, there are so many bikes that were introduced that all pretty much use the same press release: It's 13% stiffer in the bottom bracket, 11% stiffer in the head tube and it comes with a rim brake and a disc brake version, and it has a D-shaped seat tube. You just change the brand and the model name and then you could just send that press release 15 times this year.
Pete: That's true.
Gerard: It doesn't mean that those bikes are bad, but is that moving the market? “Is it stiff enough?”, I haven't heard that in the last ten years. Before that I heard it all the time, but recently I haven't really heard that. If you design a half decent bike it’s stiff enough. So, I don't think that's moving the market. And so now you're in this almost bloodbath of a market where the people aren't really asking for it but everybody is offering it.
You either have the biggest marketing budget or you're the cheapest, which means you have to have rules. Both require enormous size, and if you don't have that then it's very difficult. So I'd rather do something completely out of left field.
If you do something original, there are only very few people who say it’s just ok. They either say, "I love it," or "I hate it." And I'll take that any time. Even if everybody would say, "I love it," then it wouldn't feel right either. Then you haven't gone far enough. I'd rather have half the people hate it and half the people love it.
Pete: Yeah, they get very comfortable in what we're fed by the industry. In any walk of life we're fed things. We're fed the smartphone now, that that's the best thing. Well actually, is it the best thing? I walk around like an idiot with mine most of the time, and it doesn't feel right, but the gravity of companies like Apple or Samsung says, "No, this is right. This is what you should be doing."
In a way, perhaps the biking industry as well, you've got this duality. You've got the big guys and then you've got the really, really, really small guys. Perhaps again, like your Inbound video with the small baker saying, "Well, maybe we could do something totally different and niche and we can send that around the world, but we're not going to try and be the biggest."
Gerard: Small brands do the most interesting stuff. To me, that's like the Surly’s of the world and the Salsas and those kind of companies. Tonnes of small companies, in Europe as well. Whether it's gravel or it's fat bikes or it's ... None of that comes from the big companies. And then they put their twist on it and the marketing, but the innovations are not coming from the big companies. And even if the innovation comes from the big company, it's usually because they took the technology from the small companies. Or bought the small company.
Pete: You've designed a lot of bikes. More importantly, you've designed a lot of iterations of bikes. You've refined, you've improved. Has the process changed of how you look at designing a new bike, or are there threads that continue in your process, things that you always bring to a Vroomen bike?
Gerard: Of course there's some things that you know work. We've figured out that using two wheels is a good way to go with a bike, so I'm not trying to try and go with one or three wheels, right? Certain layouts or shapes work. At the same time, I'd say, in the design, I'm freer now than I used to be.
Pete: Why’s that?
Gerard: When you get older, you care a bit less about what other people think. Not necessarily that you ignore others people who give input, that's great, but in the end you make your own decision and then the result sells very well or not ...
Pete: Perhaps you're more confident in your ideas as well.
Gerard: Yeah, and with a company that's small you also don't have that much to lose, right? When you're a bigger company, say you're a billion dollar company, you have this bike model that's 200 million in sales. Now you have to come up with a new version of that model, so you're going to potentially lose 200 million in sales. That’s a lot of pressure to not screw it up, right?
Gerard: So that automatically leads to smaller iterations. So we have a lot of these companies producing a new model every year. Coming up with something useful and new every year is basically impossible, so they're all very, very small steps. Often they're only cosmetic or the shape might be a little bit different but there's not necessarily increased performance ...
This is where you get 8% stiffer. You can always make something a little bit stiffer. So you get all these very, very small incremental changes, which is just a way to think “well, out of the 200 million we can recoup at least 180, so that’s worst case, and if it pans out maybe we'll bring it to 220”, but you really cut down the risk when you don’t put everything on the line.
Of course, when you have a small company, it's much easier to put everything on the line because there isn't that much to put on the line.
It's the same as it was with OPEN U.P. We had no idea anybody wanted a bike like that. We made the size Large first so Andy and I would at least get one bike each out of it and then we'll see if anybody else will buy it. And then of course, if you're lucky, because it's so different from everything else, you really hit a home run, and if you're very unlucky then those two are the only two you make!
Pete: And how do you manage 3T and OPEN? Do you see them as very different things because I guess the presentation is very different. How do you sit with those two things day-to-day?
Gerard: For me, they're quite different in the product approach, in the focus. A few similarities ... I did the engineering for both, but focus again. 3T is a little bit racier and focuses on aerodynamics. OPEN is not really in the aerodynamics side of things. As a company, OPEN is a very small company. We're very close to our consumers. We know a lot of the people who buy our bikes personally, and it's just the two founders with a bit of outside help. You send an email, we're usually the ones responding. With 3T, it is not a huge company, but it is a bigger company so when you send an email normally someone from customer service answers it. They still may ask me something before they answer, but usually they do it directly without me being involved.
That said, I would like both companies to have similarities in that they should have the same standard in those responses, even if they come from different people.
Pete: For sure.
Gerard: Also, that's hard. Both of those companies are works in progress, so we know that we don't do a good enough job. I guess all of us in life know we don't do a good enough job, but we're trying to. There's always room for improvement.
Pete: I think that for me part of the problem sometimes day to day is putting too much pressure on yourself to think, "Could I be doing more?" And I guess, really, what is more?
Gerard: I wouldn't say more, I would just like to be better.
Pete: A good distinction.
Gerard: I want to do less. Less is better (that’s a Dieter Rams reference).
Pete: Is that the thing that's refreshing about this new phase of your career, Gerard, that you're not so distanced where you were at the end of Cervélo? You couldn't be direct with a customer in a way. I guess you could in terms of the bike you were delivering, but you're now so much closer to the customer and the end user. It must be pretty exciting, actually.
Gerard: Yeah. It's fun to ... I think with the OPEN U.P. and the 3T Exploro - it's a little bit too early to say for the Strada - but with those bikes the strange thing and ... I don't know if it's even unexpected, but it changes the way people ride and experience their cycling. And of course at Cervelo we had a very strong fan base, of people who really loved their bikes, but I think with the GravelPlus bikes it's way beyond that. It's not only that they love their bikes, but they're also riding them on different kinds of roads and trails and they're riding in places where they weren't riding before. So it really expands their cycling and the amount of fun they have. The feedback now from people is that “this really is incredible, this really has changed my way of riding.”
And a lot of that, of course, is not really the bike. They're not writing that because of the lay-up of the bike or the way we did the internal cable routing. They write that because we gave them the bike that enabled them to go places, so they're writing more about those places and their experiences. And of course the bike enables it.
In this world, because of how busy everybody is, we risk just going through the motions in life; days become weeks and weeks become months and months become years and we just don't have a feeling that we're really living. We're just going through the motions. I think cycling gives you the opportunity to really get out there and shut off everything and enjoy a different type of life.
As long as you do that purely on the road, you're still pretty attached to the “normal life” because you have cars buzzing by and everything, but once you take that to your gravel roads and your single track and everything like that, you can really reconnect with a simpler kind of life and really enjoy it like you're out of everything. I think that's the power of those types of bikes, and then combine it with the speed people are used to so it's still quite different from a mountain bike, especially if you still have to ride some asphalt to get out of town, as most people do..
Pete: In terms of the market now, Gerard, just in the next two or three years, do you have a lot of hope for the bike industry? Do you have good strong feelings in one direction?
Gerard: I don't know. I mean, it can go many ways here. On the one hand I think there's great opportunity. The bike industry should rule the world. There's no other vehicle in the world that combines so much efficiency in such a small, light, eco-friendly package. You think about a car. You have three thousand pounds of steel to move around 200 pounds of human and a little bit of luggage. That's just insanity. But that is what rules the world. We make things that are huge and, 95 percent of the time, only have one person in them-
Gerard: And our whole economy is based on that, our city designs, our thought processes. It's crazy. And that, for sure, cannot continue. Whether or not the bike can take over from that, or ultra-light two wheeled vehicles, which they have a little electric motor in them. I don't know. I would hope so. I think it would make the world a better place, for lack of a better word.
But, is the bike industry the industry that can do it? Probably not. I mean, probably a bigger chance is that the car companies will figure out how to do that instead, for the commuting part of it.
Pete: Agreed, let's just hope for two wheels!
Once again, thanks for taking the time to chat with us Gerard - we'll keep our eyes on 3T and OPEN over the next few seasons for sure.
Gerard: No worries, and I'm honoured to be following in the footsteps of Dario Pegoretti in your interview series!