Cervélo Interview

In the lead-up to the launch of the new Cervélo S5, Bicicletta staff met with Maria Benson and Scott Roy from Cervélo to discuss the latest version of Cervélo’s legendary, race-winning aerodynamic S5 bike. In the course of this conversation, we were able to ask some questions about the bike, the innovations involved in its engineering, and its development process during a turbulent few years.

Maria Benson: Director of Product Management for Cervélo since 2018, her role covers the process from concept to commercialization, including market research and setting parameters for the project. A part of the cycling industry since 2007, Maria brings with her a keen understanding of the needs of riders. 

Scott Roy: Engineering Manager for Cervélo since 2016, Scott worked in aerospace mechanical engineering before transitioning to Cervélo. Since then, he has brought his technical expertise to Cervélo’s line of aerodynamic bikes. He is also the Technical Liaison with the Jumbo-Visna racing team. 

The S5 is clearly the premier road model for Cervélo. Its core design features have been in the DNA of the brand literally since day one. We’re now decades on from the original Soloists, but can you talk a bit more about the importance of the aero road product in the overall family of Cervélo bikes?

MARIA BENSON: There's a lot of heritage in aerodynamics within Cervélo. I think you could argue that we brought aerodynamics to the bicycle industry. However, we're not the only brand doing it any longer. Certainly, the competition has caught up in terms of technology. You know, everybody has a wind tunnel that they go to on a regular basis, etc. But, I think where we stand apart is we maintain the belief that aerodynamics is important in every product that we make, and the S5 is the culmination of aerodynamics being the number one focus for a road bike. 

“The S5 is the culmination of aerodynamics being the number one focus for a road bike.”

We've maintained that combining the categories – what we would call lightweight and aerodynamic bikes – together is too much of a compromise. At the level that World Tour riders are using these bikes for, we're not willing to make that compromise. And so, the S5 is as fast as we can possibly make a bike for riders at that level. 

Of course, we also ensure that this is something that can be commercialized and that everyday riders can also reap the benefits of an S5, not just the World Tour riders. I think it's a display of our DNA, a display of the brand’s heritage and all the work that the brand has done, you know, long before Scott or I were ever here. And we've carried that through everything that we do. But S5 is the best example of what an aerodynamic road bike is.

QUESTION: At quick glance, the new S5 is not radically different. Certainly the design goals and the refinements chosen for the final product mean that the bikes will be significantly different. Can you talk a little bit more about how that development process works? 

MARIA BENSON: So at the onset of a project, the launch date is predetermined. So, you have an already specified amount of time to work on the development of that bike. And with bikes, like the S5 or the R5, for example, these are bikes that we continually develop. Does it ever stop? And the answer in these cases is no, not really. 

With the S5, specifically, the former bike was a really radical redesign. It was a complete new development from the ground up. You know, aerodynamic research for months and months, and then a whole new system of integration. That level of integration hadn't been done before. So, the result of that bike was very, very good, right? It's an extremely fast bike that our athletes are very happy with. The ride quality is really strong, and it's very well received in the market. What we knew we had left on the table in that last one is what we addressed with this bike.

What were the goals from the outset that you knew you had to include in this version of the S5?

MARIA BENSON: The basic goals of this bike were to simplify it, refine it and enhance it. We didn't want to reinvent it, because the bike was already really, really good. We didn't have to do a new geometry study. We didn't have to worry too much about ride quality, you know? We could make some tweaks in stiffness here and there, but it wasn't something we needed to fix necessarily. 

“The basic goals of this bike were to simplify it, refine it and enhance it. We didn't want to reinvent it, because the bike was already really, really good.”

With all that said, one of the major things we addressed was the number of parts it took to put the front end together. That problem affected many stakeholders: it affects our dealers, it affects riders who are working on their own bikes, or even reselling them at some point, and it affects our internal processes, and in terms of managing parts. The previous bike required a specific bolt length for every five millimeters of stack under the stem. And that was one of the main things we wanted to address. So, with a new bike, we said one length bolt for all stack heights, that is the goal. 

What that ended up with is a system overhaul of the front end. When I say front end, it's the fork, how it attaches to the frame, and then how the stem in the handlebars is attached to that. Then, that whole system was simplified by reducing the parts significantly. The fork itself became a single piece, whereas before it was sort of an insert from the bottom and a cap placed on top. Now it's more of a C shape, and it goes over the head tube in one complete form, and then the stem bolts go on top of that.

Also, the way the adjustments are done have been simplified. You can tilt the handlebar from zero to five degrees infinitely with a simple loosening of the bolt, a tilt, and tighten it back up, whereas previously, you needed a shim. And it was a different shim between a tilt and additional stack or another degree of tilt. With the new one-piece fork, it got stiffer and lighter on top of all its simplicity. So, hopefully the dealers and riders see that firsthand, because we're able to supply all of the parts that are required to adjust the stack for each set-up in the box. The riders will also see that, when it comes to maintenance and having to replace headset bearings or having brakes bled, all of that should be much more simple.

I cannot imagine the task of launching the pinnacle of Cervélo road products during the pandemic. That must have been an enormous feat – to be forced to communicate virtually, assemble your engineering team, be effective with wind tunnel time, source components through this period. . .  there must have been a myriad of new obstacles. Can you talk about the coordination required that was probably unique in this project versus previous releases? 

MARIA BENSON: Yeah, it's been interesting. Not unique to S5, certainly, but in the past two years product management has changed a lot. There was a period of time when the pandemic started where everybody scrambled to get in line as early as possible, so we started ordering product two years in advance whereas previously we were ordering seven months in advance. 

What that resulted in was ordering a bike before that bike design actually existed. So the bike had not been drawn completely in CAD, and we had to create a bill of materials (BOM), so that the operations team could get in line at the factory – not just for the carbon parts, but for all the parts, you know: SRAM, Shimano, Reserve, Vittoria – all of these brands that were having major capacity constraints themselves because of the insane demand. And so, unfortunately, that meant we had to do some guessing. 

So far, the guesses were pretty good, and we were able to predict, you know, basically, the results of the design from a compatibility standpoint so that the orders we placed weren't incorrect. So yeah, it changed a lot of the way we work. We've changed our processes quite a bit. Our timelines are completely different than they used to be. Even the information we were getting from the engineers was sometimes a list of guesses. You know, we think it's gonna be like this, we think it's gonna be this diameter. You know, it was challenging.

SCOTT ROY: Yeah, it was... I laughed at the BOM spec thing because at that point in the project, it may well have just been a kid’s napkin sketch of a bike. A BOM drawing for Cervélo is a 2d exploded view, kind of like an Ikea drawing, and it will list every single part from carbon frames, to individual bolts, to the typical components and it gives it a line item, a part number and all of that goes to Maria. That goes out to the assembly factories and suppliers so we know what needs to be where. But, the basis for all of it is a frame design - so we're like, two wheels and like a double diamond and I... don't know what else we have.

We were also working remotely from home. I was in the process of moving down to LA, half the engineering team was still in Canada and the other half was remote in LA or California, so there was a time zone difference. We hadn't, and we still haven't, been to our factories in Asia since the pandemic started. It is still just fingers crossed that we'll be able to get back over there in October or November this year.

The relationships we've built with our factories, they paid dividends. Six or seven years ago, we transitioned away from two factories we had worked with for a long time and moved into two new factories. There was a lot of groundwork that PON, our parent company, did in picking what was not necessarily the cheapest factory. Rather everything had to be good from a quality performance aspect, to a relationship aspect, to a delivery and communication aspect. The way that they treated their employees had to be up to a professional standard. We wanted that.  

“The way that [our factory] treated their employees had to be up to a professional standard. We wanted that.”

We didn't want a high turnover, which is quite common from factories in Asia. At Chinese New Year where often the workers go home, factories will often lose a third of the workforce. So, to keep that level of hands-on manufacturing ability for the workers, keeping them employed for continuous years builds that level of skill. And that level of skill then translates to higher performing bikes. But yeah, incredibly difficult. 

Specifically to the S5, trying to coordinate tunnel sessions was challenging. One really good example of that is we had three dates lined up and three consecutive positive COVID cases between us and the tunnel staff itself, so they were all pushed to later dates. We're kind of lucky with the tunnel that we use at the University of Guelph. It's not as busy as the one in San Diego, so we do have a little bit of leeway to rebook. Even then, there was a point where they wouldn't let us in, they would run the tests, but we would have to wait outside. Again, having that great relationship with them – because we helped them set up bike testing there, we could trust them and trust that the results we were getting – even though we weren't looking at them physically setting it up – were we going to be accurate.

At Bicicletta, our team learned a lot from our conversation with Maria and Scott, and we hope you did, too. We were incredibly excited and grateful for the chance to talk about the development of one of our bestselling bike brands. Did you still have questions? Send them to us, and we’ll put them on our list for next time.