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Talking Cycling with Gerard Vroomen of Cervélo

Interview by Jen See

Gérard Vroomen "I don’t want everyone to think I’m only interested in women’s cycling," Gerard Vroomen told me near the end of an hour-long conversation. Certainly, Vroomen had plenty to say about the sport, the Garmin-Cervélo team, and what benefits he sees to sponsoring a women’s team. We also talked about designing bikes for women, and why it is not that much different from designing bikes for men. Here, my friends, is the first part of what we hope will eventually be a two-part interview with Gerard Vroomen. This time, it’s women’s racing. Next time, we’ll give the dudes their due.

If you don’t recognize his name, Gerard Vroomen is, together with Phil White, the co-owner of Cervélo. As cycling companies go, Cervélo is relatively new. The company presented their first line of bikes in 1997. Fun fact! The company’s name combines the French words for brain, cerveau, and for bicycle, vélo. Owned by a pair of engineers, Cervélo devotes a significant amount of their time and resources to design and testing. Their big break came in 2003 when they signed on to sponsor the CSC team. Surely, you know the rest of the story, for after CSC came Cervélo TestTeam and now, the Garmin-Cervélo partnership. "You’re the boss," Gerard Vroomen said as we began the interview. Yes, for one hour, I got to be the boss of the Cervélo owner. No, I did not boss my way into a new bike. Maybe next time!

Why women's cycling

Cervélo’s commitment to women’s cycling dates from their earliest sponsorship agreements. "The initial decision goes way, way back," explained Vroomen, whose company has sponsored women’s teams in Canada since they sold their first line of bikes. "We had some people on our assembly line who raced on semi-pro cycling teams," he said, and the Cervélo employees included both men and women. In the beginning, there was no master plan: "I’d like to say there was some high-minded philosophy, but it was really just coincidence." Cervélo did not immediately sponsor women’s cycling at the elite level. The agreement to supply CSC stretched the still-small company to its limits and delayed the move into the elite women’s ranks. The first sponsorship agreement with a top-level women’s team came in 2008 with Cervélo-Lifeforce. Olympic time trial champion Kristin Armstrong was among the riders who raced at Cervélo's first elite women's team.

Vroomen’s approach to supporting women’s cycling is pragmatic. The team brings Cervélo exposure, though maybe not as much as Vroomen might like, and also establishes a connection to the company’s potential customers. "Our female customers expect from us that we support their sport, and I think rightly so," he explained. Cervélo aims at the performance market, and supporting women at the elite level simply makes sense. "It would be inappropriate, let’s say, to not support women’s cycling when you are supporting men’s cycling," asserted Vroomen. The company sponsors women’s cycling to build credibility among the athletic women who are their likely customers. "It’s better than just taking frames and putting pink and flowers on them." Vroomen paused. "Not that there’s anything wrong with flowers. Or pink." Vroomen has no fear of the pink. He has pink Speedplay pedals on his personal bike.

Vroomen also values the feedback he receives from the elite riders. For him, this is the most important benefit of the sponsorship relationship. It offers him an opportunity to see how his bikes perform out in the wild and hear from women riders who spend quality time with their bikes. "Our customer base is female, so our product base has to function properly for women," Vroomen explained. Sponsoring an elite women’s team means Cervélo receives feedback from riders who race their bikes hard and put in the big miles.

Building bikes for women

Unlike many companies in the bike industry, Cervélo does not build a frameset specifically for women. "I really can’t ride the women’s bikes as they’re made by the mainstream companies," I commented. "That’s because you are a woman," quipped Vroomen. Vroomen has strong feelings on this subject, and recognizes that he is working against the grain. "It’s based on the theory that women have long legs and a short torso. The only problem with the theory is that it’s just not true," said Vroomen of the approach to building women’s bikes adopted by many companies in the cycling industry. The framesets designed for women tend to have a shorter, steeper geometry and an upright position. "That’s not performance cycling, that’s riding around and going to the bakery," argued Vroomen. Sometimes, you need a bike to get to the bakery.

But the bakery is not a bike race. "The women’s geometry, it makes some sense for people who aren’t that serious about the sport," noted Vroomen. He conceded that the marketing is very powerful all the same. "It’s such a strong story, you go to someone and you say we made this bike just for you." Still, building a bike for a small person is the same whether that person is a man or a woman, according to Vroomen. "If you look at a guy that’s 5’5" and a woman that’s 5’5", they have the same ratio." Vroomen called his bikes "small person specific." A smaller size frameset is simply different than the bigger sizes. After all, "that’s why we have sizes."

We need to "debug the myth" that women need separate bikes, Vroomen believes. Some women may want a more upright riding style, as may some men. But that preference is separate from dialing in bike fit for women. In fact, he worries that the current marketing narrative may actually turn some women away from the sport rather than helping to build it. This set of ideas, "it’s completely destructive to women in cycling," he said with only a touch of hyperbole. Certainly, sponsoring a women’s team offers Vroomen a tangible way to make the case for his approach. Garmin-Cervélo team rider Emma Pooley stands 5’1" and rides a 48 cm Cervélo S3 frameset.

The Garmin-Cervélo Ten

Ten riders comprise this year’s Garmin-Cervélo squad, a significant decrease from the super team of 2010. Vroomen defended the decision forthrightly. "Well, I think it’s pretty simple. There’s rarely a double program, and every race except the Giro has just six riders per team," he explained. A big team has more riders than they can possibly race with the current women’s race calendar. "What on earth are you going to do with fourteen riders?" Vroomen asked. If the team is very strong, the math may lead to top level riders sitting at home, because there are not enough races to keep them busy. In Vroomen’s view, this arrangement does not serve the sport or the riders especially well. "Better to let them go, increase the average level of the field, get a better basis, get people more interested, grow the sport, and everyone shall live happily ever after!"

Vroomen also argued that running a smaller team offers better opportunities for the younger riders. "Because the women’s racing scene is so small, a women’s team is at the same time both a top of the world-ranking type of team and a development team. It’s all in one," he explained. With that reality in mind, the current Garmin-Cervélo team includes a mix of experienced and young riders. "You can see a core of very experienced riders, but also a significant number of very young riders, to get that development aspect going as well." If the younger riders do not get enough chances to race, their development may stall. The numbers game could mean a young rider spends much of her time training rather than learning how to race. "You’re a development rider, you’re nineteen years old, you’re rider number fourteen" on the roster. Number fourteen is not going to make too many races when the field limit stands at six riders from each team.

Together with HTC-Highroad, last year’s Cervélo TestTeam dominated many of the races on the calendar and amassed a stack of victories. While that record led to headlines for Cervélo, it was not necessarily the best way to inspire competitive racing. In Vroomen’s view, "it’s bad for the sport if you have this dominant team." It can mean that fewer riders receive recognition and the racing has less suspense. This year, "it’s not that important to win every race" with the Garmin-Cervélo team said Vroomen. The Cervélo owner has his eye on the long-term. "Maybe you have to sacrifice some victories short term to grow the sport long-term," he said. Of course, growing the sport over the long term means selling more bikes, an excellent thing in Vroomen’s line of work.

With an eye toward building for the future, Garmin-Cervélo has also set a minimum wage for the women’s team. Women’s teams are governed by the same rules as Continental teams, and there is no minimum wage for the Continental level teams. Vroomen set out to create one. He did not confirm the exact number, but instead explained that he looked at the amounts from various Western European and North American countries. "It’s a little bit difficult because riders live in eight different countries and the team is in a ninth and has a service corse in a tenth, so which country do you pick to get an average? I sorta did an average of civilized countries," Vroomen explained.

Vroomen said the Garmin-Cervélo minimum came out to be "relatively generous," especially if we add in personal endorsements. If you are working at a coffee shop, you are not going to have endorsement money to add into the salary. Garmin-Cervélo uses this minimum as a starting point for the new riders. For riders who have been racing at the elite level for at least two years, the minimum salary increases by 50%. Still, "it’s not a very good way to become a millionaire," Vroomen admitted.

The Garmin-Cervélo move is a small step forward. It is likely too soon to see a minimum wage adopted throughout women’s cycling. "It’s not good for your budget, and it’s hard enough to find sponsors for a women’s cycling team" said Vroomen. He considers Garmin-Cervélo in a fortunate position to be able to offer a minimum salary. "It isn’t our intention that this reflects poorly on those teams who don’t do it yet." Vroomen is realistic about the ability of smaller teams to pay a minimum wage and for now would rather see more teams in the sport than more rules. "For the smaller teams, I’m just happy that they’re around," said Vroomen. Over time, he hopes that the bigger teams will join the Garmin-Cervélo effort and eventually it can become "the standard," but for now, that represents a long-term goal.

Who's in charge of women's cycling?

Unlike the top-level international men’s teams, elite Women’s teams like Garmin-Cervélo do not receive their licenses from the UCI. "Not to say anything bad about the UCI, but women’s cycling isn’t really governed by the UCI, it’s governed to a large degree by national federations" explained Vroomen. "Our women’s team does not ride on a UCI license." Indeed, Jonathan Vaughters did not initially know how to register the women’s team, because it did not follow the same pattern as the men’s Garmin-Cervélo pro tour team. Currently, the women’s team carries a British license, because British riders command a majority on the roster. "This year, we have a British license, last year we were Dutch, the year before that probably Swiss," said Vroomen ticking it off on his fingers. To give another example, though they sound Italian, Diadora-Pasta Zara-Manhattan received their team license from the United States.

The diffuse structure in women’s cycling also helps to explain the strange rules that occasionally emanate from UCI headquarters. Why do the rules ban stage races over ten days when the women have long raced the ten-day Giro Donne and the now-defunct Tour de l’Aude? Only the UCI knows the answer to that one. "There’s, at this point, I don’t believe a very strong movement at the federation level — national or international — to take women’s cycling to the next level," said Vroomen. Plenty of teams and individuals are doing the work of building the sport, but for now, "there isn’t a really concerted effort." "It’s really not that hard to add women’s race to men’s race and a women’s team to a men’s team," argued Vroomen, but the sport needs the institutions and unity to make such changes. "It’s really not that hard. It’s just one line in the rules," he reiterated.

Though he would like to see more unified governance for the women’s side of the sport, Vroomen is not convinced that women’s racing needs the intermediate levels that men’s racing has just yet. "I’m not sure there’s really a need for that right now," he commented, but admitted that he also does not consider himself "an expert" on this aspect of the sport. For now, he would rather see young riders mixing it up with the bigs and learning the sport with the best. "A lot of the nineteen and twenty year olds are a real contribution to the current races, so putting them in other races means you’re weakening the current races and maybe weakening their development," Vroomen said. He worries that adding a Pro Continental level like the men have, for example, would spread the talent in women’s racing too thinly. And for now, the resources simply do not exist to fund separate development teams and races. "We don’t have that luxury, we don’t have the races to choose from. It’s hard enough to get the budget together for the highest level. How are you going to get the budget for the next level down?"

Selling the story

Vroomen has committed to supporting the women’s team for two seasons. Attracting additional sponsorship remains a necessity for the long-term survival of the team. At its current level, the Garmin-Cervélo team’s budget runs in the mid-six figures, a fraction of the cost of the top level men’s professional teams. "Garmin is really interested, they sell GPS’s to both men and women. And both markets are important. The cycling team is a big part of their marketing exposure," Vroomen commented. It remains to be seen whether Vaughters and Vroomen can sell the women’s team story to Garmin or another title sponsor.

For Vroomen, expanding the sport’s media exposure offers one of the more significant ways to grow the sport. The major men’s races should all have women’s races: This is one of Vroomen’s mantras for growing the sport. He points to Flèche Wallonne as a model he would love to see other races follow. "It’s on television. Right now, it’s the only race that does that," he said. Not only can women’s cycling fans see the finish at Flèche Wallonne, but the men and women share a podium ceremony. The race organizers at Flèche Wallonne, "they’re taking steps and I don’t know why they’re doing that, but I applaud them for it." Vroomen’s philosophy is to ask for small things first: "We’re not even asking you to spend money on a motorcycle camera, just turn on the cameras in the last kilometer." If people watch it, then perhaps it will be possible to add live coverage from the road for the women.

At the same time, Vroomen also recognizes that women’s teams have to do their share of the work in promoting the sport. "Every sponsorship is what you make of it yourself. With the women’s team you have to make more of it yourself. With the men’s team, you already get exposure even if you’re lazy," Vroomen commented. The do-it-yourself approach characterized the Cervélo TestTeam’s media efforts and Vroomen is working to bring it to the new marriage with Garmin. At Garmin-Cervélo, the team plans to continue to include the women’s team in the Beyond The Peloton video series. To critics of the Garmin-Cervélo’s promotion of the women’s team, Vroomen offered a challenge: "For those people who think that Slipstream doesn’t do enough, I’d say just grab your half a million dollars and start your own team." Vroomen also hopes to see women riders do more to embrace social media. "If you look at how many women riders blog and social media compared to the men, there are some gains to be made," he suggested. "You can’t say, on the one hand, no one wants to watch us, but you’re not on twitter."

Vroomen recognizes well the value of the women he sponsors in marketing his brand. He says the women riders are especially effective in outreach with Cervélo dealers and customers. Iris Slappendel, for example, recently attended a dealers’ meeting for Cervélo in California. "There are way more female riders I would put in front of a group of customers or retailers or anything without any hesitation than there are men," he commented. The women are typically well-educated, since most riders do not expect to make significant money from racing. They need a career beyond racing, and indeed, may already have one. "They haven’t been groomed since they were twelve years old to be professional cyclists. They have actually thought about other things along the way," Vroomen explained. Those wider experiences can make the women effective ambassadors for their sport and sponsors.

Building for the future

Vroomen’s favorite race result from last year came at Flèche Wallonne when Emma Pooley won on the Mur de Huy. Not only was the finish on television, but the race showcased one of the more down-to-earth and likable characters in women’s racing. "I just really liked Emma’s statement, her power was crap, she was lucky to win there, and then she didn’t dare to cheer there because she was afraid to fall off," Vroomen recounted. Pooley is the master of self-deprecation. "I just think maybe that’s not what you want a world champion to say, but it’s great for people just starting to out to hear," laughed Vroomen of Pooley’s post-race comments.

"In all fairness, women’s cycling has to prove itself," Vroomen concluded. The women can not do it by themselves, and it is unfair to expect the riders to overcome every obstacle. They need support from teams and sponsors, and they need exposure from the media. At the same time, "there’s no inalienable right to be a professional athlete in any sport in any gender. There has to be someone will to pay sponsorship," he argued. Both men’s and women’s cycling face a similar challenge in this respect.

At Garmin-Cervélo, success is "for the riders to say that they had the support to perform to the best of their abilities." Vroomen is not counting race wins or calculating points. "If the best of their abilities is that they win everything or they just win a couple of races, that’s secondary, that’s just the outcome," he said. The best athletes know that they can control their training and their performance, but they can not always control what shows up on the results sheet at the end of the day. Sometimes on the day, someone else is faster. Concluded Vroomen: "I think for the most part people who are involved in women’s cycling they’re involved not for the enormous glory of today but to try to grow something for the future."