Engineers of Victory

Cervélo Cycles Inc. CEO Phil White describes a key decision that set up his business for success

Written by As told to Jim McElgunn

Phil White

CEO, Cervélo Cycles Inc.

When my former partner, Gérard Vroomen, and I co-founded Cervélo, high-end bicycle-making was built around craft. Everyone used the same main components, and they differentiated themselves by the paint job and the craft process.

But we’re engineers, and we saw ourselves as an engineering company that would move the sport forward by making riders faster through innovative design. We focused relentlessly on aerodynamics. We tested our designs in wind tunnels—which is standard in aircraft and race-car design, but which other high-end bicycle-makers weren’t doing. That way, we could test ideas without having to make a product and find out it didn’t work as well as we’d hoped.

Our bikes had big, wide, aerodynamic-shaped tubes, so you could easily see the difference between a Cervélo and any other brand. Companies need to stand out from the crowd—because if you’re not differentiated, you’re a commodity; and then, the only way to sell is on price.

Because our bikes were so different, we needed to educate consumers, who were starved for information. We posted all our information on our website and had two-way conversations with consumers in online forums—both of which were innovations at the time. But we needed something big to build our credibility.

Our breakthrough came when Team CSC, a cycling team whose manager was a former race winner and very focused on equipment, agreed to sign us as its bike sponsor. He liked our engineering focus and willingness to work closely with him in developing designs. During our sponsorship, Team CSC rose from a No. 14 global ranking to No. 1 and won the 2008 Tour de France.

We’re by far the youngest and smallest company ever to sign such a deal. That put us on the map globally, especially in Europe, and now we’re the largest high-end bicycle manufacturer in the world.

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Photograph by Jesse Milns

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