Book Review: To Make Riders Faster

If you’re crazy about Cervélo, you can stop reading right now and just buy the book.

If you’re a bike geek who hoovers up all manner of bike lit, you can stop reading right now and just buy the book.

If you are neither, then this review is for you.

Cervélo was born out of a graduate school project by two engineers—Gerard Vroomen and Phil White. In relatively short order, Cervélo (coined from cervello, “brain” in Italian and vélo, “bicycle” in French) became a player in the triathlon bike market, and then only a few years later, a player in the road bike market. Even with impressive growth and an even better reputation, it was an enterprise that, according to this book, could barely stay afloat, and just as it looked they were going to have to fold, they were bought out by a bike conglomerate.

The company’s ride from baking a carbon fiber frame in a home oven ’til they were taken over by a big business has been detailed here by someone who rode shotgun the whole way. Anna Dopico is not only the wife of Cervélo’s co-founder Phil White, but also helped get the company off the ground, and worked for the company for many years, on the business side. To Make Rider’s Faster is her memoir of the company’s ride.

The format is of a coffee-table book. Square-shaped, with a hard cover, and thick pages, it comes with photos and text.

As with anyone riding shotgun, Dopico was in an unenviable position. She helped shoulder the risk, but wasn’t calling the shots and could only silently share in the glory. She literally lived with the company, as it was based out of her house when it was fledging. She was invested in the company, both emotionally and financially; she shared in the passion. This book is a result of that passion.

I’m not generally a fan of memoirs. To me, they need two of three things to succeed. First, the memoirist needs to be able to critically judge herself and be willing to share the warts and failures as well as the successes. I expect to read about successes, but only the good memoirs honestly share the failures. Second, the memoirist needs to be able to be critical of the people and actions she observes. I expect to read about good people, but throwing some shade and burning a few bridges is a way to demonstrate the ability to appraise honestly. Yes, sometimes this can be seen as score settling, but praise only seems genuine if one is also able to criticize. Third, it needs to be a good story. Back room tales can be interesting because we learn what it takes to make the sausages, and the contrast of the sometimes-ugly process and ingredients to the shiny results is often striking.

That she was riding shotgun seems to have been a big limiter. As she wasn’t one of the principals, she might not have felt it was her place to be critical, either of Cervélo, or the people and companies they worked with.

Dopico is effusive in praise, but gentle in criticism. Too gentle. Cervélo seems to careen from critical acclaim to huge success to more acclaim to more success, and the few missteps are well-intentioned well-thought out efforts that didn’t quite pan out after lots of hard work. Most ex-employees went on to great successes, and were nice people as well. A few people who weren’t good or nice are mentioned without being named, and a few are portrayed, in name, as being old-world and clueless.

Likewise, she loves Cervélo. Possibly too much. According to her, it seems that all Cervélo bikes were incredible advances that shook the bike industry out of its old-world torpor. She relates a story with the head of the company that made Coppi bikes;  White and Vroomen met with him to sell him on their radical aero time trial frame. The Coppi honcho tells them he only wants to make “Italian round-steel-tube bikes.” While Cervélo was certainly an innovator, the bike industry wasn’t nearly as old-world as Dopico paints it. Even Coppi had their pro riders on an aero-tubed carbon-fiber road bike in 1994, a year before White and Vroomen were shot down by the same company. As a memoirist whose only lens by which to view bike world is through the company she was a part of, she can be forgiven for not knowing, but it is frustrating.

While she was privy to the stresses and challenges of running Cervélo as a business, it’s frustratingly unclear how successful or precarious Cervélo’s existence was. She reports they received several small-business loans from the government, but it’s unclear for how much, and if they ever got close to paying it off. In Dopico’s telling, despite incredible growth, Cervélo was forever perched on the edge of insolvency–though they seemed able to soldier on with this barely in the back of their head most of the time. And eventually, White and Vroomen were about to lose the company, just before they worked out a deal with Pon Holdings to buy the company from them. Was the company poorly run? Did they ever turn a profit? Were they paying down the loans the whole time, or had they been unable to keep up with payments?

Despite these difficulties, where the book shines is in highlighting how small companies are run on passion, seat-of-the-pants decision making, and survive thanks to some well-timed strokes of good luck. Long hours, low pay, working in makeshift offices, and then flying blind to track down and work with suppliers and vendors is probably the norm, but it’s easy to never see this aspect of business. She also shares the second-hand excitement of figuring out how to make a frame more aero, and feeling the recognition of the bike world for the effort.

Likewise, a small joy is seeing how accidental Cervélo’s relationship with Bjarne Riis and his CSC team was. Cervélo took a shot, had little cash to offer, and struck gold because Riis was in the mood to favor a company that would work for him.  It more than paid off, at least in terms of the attention heaped on the brand and product.

One surprise was the reveal that Cervélo might have been as good at marketing as they were at designing bikes.  Dopico doesn’t explicitly express this, but she details their ad campaigns and alliances with influential pro cyclists and triathletes and seems as impressed with the marketing side as she is with the design side. Even the Cervélo Test Team, which must have burned all available cash and then some, is portrayed as a huge success, even though the finances are kept murky and she believes disbanding the team was the smart move.

The ride, in retrospect, was probably unsustainable from the start. But Cervélo, including the author, lived the dream, for a long time, though it almost certainly what they weren’t expecting. Reading To Make Riders Faster is to see both the attraction to and dangers of creating a business based on passion.


You can purchase To Make Riders Faster here.


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