Flashback – Interview with Phil White (2005)
One of the men who started Cervélo visited the RIDE office back in October 2005. Rob Arnold spoke with Phil White about his work, the bicycle trade, carbon-fibre production and many other things that related to the industry. Although almost seven years have passed since the interview, many of the topics raised are still relevant today. We delve into the archives for another flashback, this time from RIDE #31.
By Rob Arnold
Phil White @ Cervélo (from RIDE #31, December 2005)
Bold ideas on design and a passion for cycling have helped Phil White and Gerard Vroomen establish a reputation for innovation. Cervélo was born just over 10 years ago from relatively humble beginnings but the Canadian company is now a major player in the pro peloton. White explains what’s involved in creating his brand’s bikes…
There are two names that grace frames from Cervélo. ‘White Vroomen Design’ is a decal denoting the two engineers who have made waves in the bicycle trade with their innovative creations. Phil White is a Canadian who spends much of his time flying around the world to races, factories and test facilities as an ambassador for the company he co-founded with Dutchman Gerard Vroomen.
There’s no doubt that White is enthusiastic about cycling. He attends the Tour de France as a guest of Team CSC, the squad Cervélo have sponsored since 2003 [a relationship that ended after the 2008 season when White and Vroomen launched the Cervélo TestTeam], and he likes to play an active role. “I’m there to liaise with the mechanics and make sure they have no complaints about our equipment, but I don’t mind carrying bags if I have to,” said White in the lobby of a hotel in Pau on the second rest day of the Tour de France in 2004. “I could easily just kick back and receive the royal treatment but that’s not in my nature. I’m a hands-on guy.”
Sure, he’s proud of his bikes and the rapid development of a company that has grown significantly in the past decade. But he’s not prone to resting on his achievements. Innovation is part of the Cervélo ethos and his engineering background is obvious when you start talking to White. Quiet by nature, his face lights up when you start discussing the finer details of bike design such as the intricacies of laying up carbon-fibre to ensure the best possible frame.
RIDE caught up with White in Sydney at the end of 2005 and we seized the opportunity to get his thoughts on frame design, working with Bjarne Riis at CSC, the future of carbon and what benefits his company has gained from its frequent visits to the wind tunnel for aerodynamic testing.
“The first three bikes we made at Cervélo were all carbon. We always wanted to do that because we saw it as the future,” said White of the early days of the company. “Gerard and I had gone a fair way down the road to make bikes only out of carbon. But we sat back at one point and said, ‘If anything goes wrong here, it’s all over for us.’
“The technical and financial risk was really high. We then planned to have a supporting line with aluminium bikes and we knew we could make a pretty fast bike from that material. We didn’t waste time accelerating the work on those bikes because we could afford to do so. We were in a position to be able to withstand an error and still recover from it.”
Riders from the CSC team have tested and raced on bikes supplied by Cervélo made from both carbon and aluminium. Bobby Julich won the first round of the ProTour on an alloy Soloist frame. Dave Zabriskie set the fastest speed for a time trial at the Tour on a carbon P3. Jens Voigt used the recently developed Carbon Soloist to earn the right to wear the maillot jaune in 2005. And Ivan Basso’s frame of choice at the Tour last year was the carbon R3.
Clearly carbon is the material of the moment but as each of the men we interviewed for this series that looks inside the bicycle trade confessed, the aircraft industry’s penchant for carbon is drying up supply. “Companies that are jumping into carbon-fibre production now are going to have trouble getting stuff,” said White. “The original rumour we were hearing was that Airbus and Boeing were pushing the price. Demand is higher than ever before.
“Face it, a set of wings for an Airbus A380 probably uses more carbon than the entire bike industry. The suppliers didn’t really see that coming and they are already working at a high capacity. Aerospace has been taking its toll on the availability of carbon but I think the increase in demand at the sporting goods level has also had an impact. There’s a fair bit of carbon in a bike frame compared to a tennis racket.
“We order our raw materials well in advance but the price rises are done quarterly so I won’t be surprised if prices rise 10-15 per cent for carbon products during the season.”
As planned, Cervélo established a reputation for clever frame design using both carbon and aluminium. But it’s the work they’ve done with composites in the past 12 months that’s helped boost the brand’s sales beyond the expectations of the company directors. “We’re going to focus on what we know really well and that’s the engineering,” said White about Cervélo’s future. “Design is what we put all our effort into. We’ve outsourced the production to a very good aluminium frame builder; we started off with two, one in Canada, the other on the west coast of the States. But this is actually the first year that Americans are not building bikes for us.
“We planned to come back and look at carbon when we could afford to do it properly. So we had been working with it again for quite a few years before Cervélo launched the R2.5 and then the P3 which is the bike that we made a real statement with.”
These frames have received a lot of attention on the racing scene and White is aware of how important the collaboration with CSC is for marketing purposes. The sponsorship does, however, offer a lot more than just chest-beating rights alone.
“For us the association with CSC was a great opportunity and although we knew it was a little too early for us, we went ahead with the project anyway. We looked at Bjarne Riis and his set-up and said, ‘This is a team that has its act together. It’s super professionally run. The guy knows what he’s doing, he’s a winner – he can make this into the world’s best team.’ That was three years ago and no one else really saw the potential.
“When we signed up we knew it would be difficult to take full advantage of the situation because we just weren’t ready. But it was a case of, this is an opportunity that’s going to come along once in a lifetime. We could grab it and know it would hurt for a short time; or we could castigate ourselves for the rest of our lives that we turned the opportunity down.
“We looked at it as a long-term investment in Cervélo. We knew that it was not going to pay off in one or two years; it was something for the development of the brand. It’s starting to pay off now. That’s the best way to put it.”
The cost involved in sponsoring a ProTour team is considerable but the return is invaluable. Although White didn’t disclose what the cash component of his deal with CSC is, he tried to summarise how much product Cervélo supplies.
“It’s quite a few bikes. The squad has two trucks, one in southern Europe and one in the north. The riders fly between the two programs and so they need bikes in both positions. In each van a rider will have a race bike, a back-up race bike and a time trial bike. They’ll also have a training bike at home. The leaders will have more; a back-up time trial bike and perhaps a special one for the mountains. It’s a big commitment.
“When we started the sponsorship with Riis it was a leap of faith. We were a tiny little company out of Canada and he hadn’t heard of us before. When we sat down together we realised we had common interests. We all liked the technical side of things and he’s always wanted to have the best equipment. Now that he’s got his own team, that’s definitely something that he’s concerned about.
“It was a good match. He’s pushed us and we’ve received excellent feedback from the team that has helped us to make our bikes better. I know Riis is very pleased with our product now. He feels he has a definite advantage over every other bike maker and the other teams in the peloton.
“The Soloist was tested by Le Cycle, a French magazine that went around and weighed all the bikes at the Tour this year. Our bike is stiffer than most other bikes. It is lighter than every other bike at the Tour. And it’s also aerodynamic. What else could you want?
“No other team has the advantage of an aerodynamic road bike like CSC do and they also have the lightest.
“We used Jens Voigt to test the early version of the Carbon Soloist frame because he’s such a monster of a rider who is tough on equipment. He’s also articulate enough to relate what changes he would like. After some early test rides, he declared that he wanted the frame to be a bit stiffer. Now it is. If Jens is happy, I’m happy.”
It’s no coincidence that White and Vroomen’s designs are being recognised for their aerodynamics. Wind tunnel testing has always been a big focus for Cervélo they had a long association with the world of triathlon well before getting involved with Riis and his squad. “I believe we have spent a lot more time in the wind tunnel than any other company in the bike industry. We once used a facility in Texas and we have a collaboration with the national research council tunnel in Ottawa. But we do most of our work at the Wright Brothers wind tunnel at the MIT in Boston. We helped them develop the tunnel. They worked with Gerard and I to get the design of the jig so that it was completely separated from the frame.
“There is nothing on the jig that has any interaction with the bike. We spent a lot of time and money getting the flow in the tunnel to be as accurate as possible for the lower wind speeds which we wanted to test our products with.
“From an instrumentation standpoint we’re very consistent. We spend so much time there that we’ll find now that there are no differences from the prototype to the actual product. We’re pretty confident that, once we come up with a design, it will not have to be re-tweaked after the mould has been cut. That’s when it starts to get really expensive.”
White now understands the benefits of a frame that can cut through the wind. This knowledge has come from multiple visits to the various tunnels and a willingness to experiment with a range of materials in the early stages of development. “We’ll take an existing frame and actually cut sections out of it so that it’s not at all structurally sound – you couldn’t even ride it. We’ll have replacement parts that can be made out of wood, putty or even foam and we add these modular parts to try different things. It could be a differently shaped seat tube or chainstays and we’ll attach these to the base frame and measure the changes in aerodynamic effect.
“If we’re looking at creating a new frame we’ll start with a combination of foam, steel tubes and aluminium pieces. This will all be glued or welded together so we can test a concept.
“We’ve taken a bunch of concepts into the wind tunnel and it’s allowed us to realise early if they’re not a practical idea. It helps us to get a better understanding of what’s important because we can see how a little amendment can make a significant difference to performance. We’ll duplicate that when it comes to creating a working model. It moves quite quickly from development to production. We’ll go back to the tunnel and validate that everything works as it’s meant to.”
The close association with the Boston facility means there have been times when Riis and his riders have taken the trip across the Atlantic. “We don’t just test our frames,” said White about what happens at the MIT wind tunnel. “We also test the position of the riders as well as how things interact with our bikes. This includes different aero bars, saddles, seatposts and things like that. We spend a lot of time getting an understanding of how things work with the frame.
“We’ve got a system integrated approach. The whole bike must work together. I think we’ve always had a very blended product – for example, our fork works well with our frames – and this is one thing that we’ll look to continue to improve.”
Plenty of White and Vroomen’s design concepts have not made it out of the tunnel. If a prototype doesn’t meet their exacting standards, of which aerodynamics are usually a major consideration, it’s scrapped before reaching the production. Even a seatpost clamp is a possible hindrance to achieving the perfect airflow on a bike like the P3.
“One thing we knew there would be a penalty for was a clamp that sticks out. You can measure that pretty easily; it’s a nasty little protuberance. And so we were pleased to come up with a design that didn’t interrupt airflow. When we originally did the P3 in aluminium, we realised the advantage of getting some coverage over the rear wheel. That made a vast improvement,” continued White about one of his discoveries during testing. “When we understood how the wheel worked with the cut-out it was a moment for celebration.”
Phil doesn’t mind spending time on the tradeshow circuit. He relishes the opportunity to talk to like minded souls who are passionate about cycling and products and he spends months of each year in large exhibition halls in places like Las Vegas and Friedrischafen. Give him the chance to explain the nuances of the multitude of carbon-fibre available for cycling products and White can talk for hours. The more technical, the better.
“With the carbon shortage, we’re going to start seeing a change in the way it’s used. We’ll see more exteriors that are unidirectional fibre instead of woven. You can see that on the Carbon Soloist in the black windows in the frame. That’s structural carbon-fibre, there’s no woven fibres.
“Woven carbon is getting hard to find. It’s generally a lower grade material and it also has to be processed. We also found that it was getting hard to add the cosmetic layer from a weight standpoint. The woven layer doesn’t add much stiffness or strength. It adds a little bit for impact but really it’s more cosmetic than anything.
“We considered the situation. ‘Okay, it’s hard to get a hold of, it doesn’t really offer any real gains and it adds weight… let’s get rid of it!’ We were a little worried about the aesthetics. I’m really sick of the woven look but do like the unidirectional carbon. I wasn’t sure if the market was ready for it, but consumers have lapped it up. They’ve been very receptive.
“I expect that we’ll see a bit of a shake-out in carbon-fibre in the bike industry. There are people who have the know-how to use it properly and put the engineering behind it. They’re going to make good frames. If you don’t have that knowledge, you’re relying on guesswork and if you don’t have any testing there will be issues with safety and frame strength.
“On the R3 we use three different grades of carbon because each area has a different driver to it. The area under the head tube is taking a big load but you don’t want the frame to be stiff there. You want it to be nice and soft to allow the stress to flow out of that region and into other areas.
“In other areas, like the side of the tubes, we want the carbon to be really stiff. That’s when we use super high modulus material. Torsionally we don’t need as much strength so the full wraps are an intermediate modulus carbon. Each of these three materials adds something special to the bike. We wouldn’t want to have just high modulus material because the frame would be more expensive and also more brittle.
“On top of that we use Kevlar which is a little softer but it just does not break. We use this in the head tube so that even if it totally fails, it’s not going to fall off – it will always be held partially in place by the little strips of Kevlar.
“We have four materials in one frame, each of them delivers something specific for the role they’re cast in. Anyone claiming to have created a high modulus frame is just showing they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re just throwing an expensive material at a problem to try and solve it, because they can’t do it from an engineering standpoint.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold (email@example.com)
RIDE Media publishes RIDE Cycling Review, a quarterly magazine all about cycling.
RIDE Cycling Review is now available in a digital format via Zinio.