Q&A: Gerard Vroomen on the future of bike technology

The Cervélo co-founder talks with VeloNews about where the bike industry is headed.

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Frank, honest, and controversial opinions are hard to come by in the bike industry. Not so if you’re talking to Gerard Vroomen.

Vroomen, a Dutch-born Canadian, founded Cervélo as an outgrowth of a project in graduate school — he wanted to build an aerodynamic time trial bike. The project changed the way the cycling world thought about bike shape and design. Today, aerodynamic road bikes proliferate the peloton. Many of them trace their design back to Vroomen.

In the last few years, Vroomen has moved from road bikes to the blossoming niche of gravel racing. With his new brands 3T and Open Cycles, he has pushed the boundary of gravel design. Why does a gravel bicycle have 700c wheels? Could it be more aerodynamic? Can’t it be just as fun as a mountain bike but also quick on pavement? We caught up with him at the Rapha Clubhouse in Boulder, Colorado, to hear his unvarnished opinion on the future of bikes.

VeloNews: What do you imagine bike technology will look like in 10 years?

Gerard Vroomen: Ah, man, if I knew that I’d be really successful. What we call gravel bikes now — but hopefully we’ll come up with a better name for them — I’m 100 percent convinced that will become a bigger category than road bikes and than mountain bikes 10 years from now. That really is a bike that addresses today’s needs for people. It gets people off the paved roads, it’s still fast, and it works really well on a mixture of different surfaces. For sure that will be a big trend.
There’ll be no front derailleurs anymore. That’s for sure. I think when you ask people, “Hey, if there’s 1-by-14, would you ride that or would you still ride 2-by-14?” People would say, “Well, of course I’ll ride 1-14.” And now we’ve established that, and it’s just a matter of when you switch. Is it 1-by-11? 1-by-12? 1-by-13? You wait a couple years, an extra cog shows up in the rear, that’s how we’ve been going since the first rear derailleur. So those are trends that I think are pretty clear.

And then in the nitty-gritty, for sure disc brakes are going to replace rim brakes. But who knows, maybe you’ll get drum brakes again.

VN: People can be resistant to new technology, such as disc brakes. What do you say to people who are not happy with different technology?

GV: It’s kind of funny. You see with disc brakes a lot of people going, “Well, that’s just the industry trying to sell us bikes.” Well, that’s what most of the industries in the world are trying to do. They’re trying to sell you a product. That’s no different than what Apple’s trying to do with their phones or what General Motors is trying to do with their cars. You can decide for yourself to go along with that or not. Certainly, if you think that they come out with a product that doesn’t make sense, you should definitely not buy it, right? And if enough people think that it doesn’t make sense, then the product will change because the industry is not stupid either, in that sense.

I think the industry has done a bit of a poor job in introducing disc brakes — not rounding the corners off the discs, for example, and saving that 50 cents. But then maybe a couple of pros [don’t get cut], although the majority of pros tend to get cut by discs when there’s not a disc-brake bike in the whole peloton, so …

The industry has always been innovating in order to sell their product. That’s nothing new, right? Maybe the only thing that’s really new is that more and more people just love to spend time writing stuff online.

When aero frames were first introduced by some little Canadian company, most people thought that was silly too, right? [Vroomen co-founded Cervélo, the company to which he refers. – Ed.] And now a very large number of road bikes sold are aero. It’s the same with carbon wheels and deep-dish wheels. Every innovation there’s resistance. There’s certainly also tons of innovations that aren’t a good idea, so it’s good that there’s that criticism. But it seems to be, for some people, a default reaction.

VN: Technology seen at the Tour de France now lags behind what the average consumer buys. What is your opinion of this?

GV: I don’t really think anything about that. I think pro cycling has become less and less relevant in the cycling world. And that’s OK for me. I think that, actually, in the end, that benefits customers. I think for too long in the last 20 years, regular customers have been buying bikes that really weren’t the best choice for them just because it was what some pro was riding that they liked.

I think it’s kind of good that there’s less focus on that. I think you see that road bikes or gravel bikes are starting to be tailored more toward what the consumer actually needs — even though some consumers may think that it’s less the case because of disc brakes they don’t want and everything like that. But I think, overall, when you look at geometry, performance, and the features and benefits of the bikes that are on the market now, they’re a lot better-tailored towards the public that is buying them than was the case 10 years ago.

VN: What was the first bike that really opened your eyes to the benefits of new technology?

GV: I’ve been involved with Cervélo a long time, on many different things, and a lot of them, certainly I’m proud of the designs. But a lot of those bikes were better bikes or different bikes and people appreciated that. And you got a lot of feedback, like, “Oh, I’ve bought this bike, I really like it.” But I would say what goes beyond that is when we had the Open U.P. first and then the 3T Exploro. And you get people like, “This is not just a different bike but it allows me to ride differently. It opens up a whole way of cycling for me …” rather than a different bike, or just slightly faster, or this or that. So I’d say the number of people you get feedback from on those bikes, and how it just really changed their life, their cycling life, not just what they ride. That makes it really interesting, when you change the riding, not just the bike. But of course, you don’t have many options to achieve that.

In general, with innovations, some brands that I really appreciate are Surly and Salsa. Those small companies are driving the change in this industry. The big ones are slow followers often. The small ones introduce real innovations, and they are real people that are very closely connected to the consumer, and really go where the consumer may not know they want to go but in the end do.

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