Gerard Vroomen on Rubbing Paint, Road-X, and the OPEN U.P.
If you have any type of affinity toward tri bikes, aero road bikes, or even gravel bikes, you have Gerard Vroomen to thank. The enigmatic engineer started as one half of Cervelo, a company that pushed bicycle aerodynamics into the mainstream. Over his time, Cervelo became the first bike manufacturer in the modern era to have its own cycling team at the highest level of racing, and fundamentally redefined how road bikes are designed. Today, Vroomen co-owns both OPEN Cycle and 3T Cycling, brands that we proudly carry. Since his time at Cervelo, Vroomen left to co-own OPEN Cycle and 3T Cycling, two brands that push the envelope on bikes. The OPEN U.P. and 3T Exploro were the leap into fat tire gravel and road bikes that broke the mold, and the OPEN ONE+ is the lightest 27.5" hardtail mountain bike on the market. More recently, the Vroomen-designed 3T Strada road bike combines wide 30c tires, aerodynamic design, and a 1x drivetrain into yet another genre-busting speed machine. Gerard Vroomen might dabble in the weird and fringe of bicycle design, but it is clear that these unorthodox bicycles will continue to push the envelope amid a long and changing history of bicycle development. We were lucky enough to have Vroomen here for an informal Q&A at the shop, and we sat down for a one-on-one interview before the event. (The "It's gold, Jerry! Gold!" OPEN ONE+ ) Alvin: First of all, thanks for making the time to come to the shop. Gerard: My pleasure, I’m happy to be here. Alvin: I read in an interview that you didn’t think that there would be a market for a bike like the OPEN U.P. I remember thinking, “man, the U.P. is exactly the bike I’ve looked for.” Why’d you think nobody would be interested? Gerard: Well, we really didn’t know. It would be presumptuous to predict what the market thinks of it, but I knew there was a market of one. Pretty similar to you, I was always using my road bike, and I was always trying to find the biggest tires that fit, or even ones that didn’t really rubbed off some paint until it does fit. But of course when you do that, you get stuck in mud because a 28mm road tire really isn’t that big, and you get flat tires too. So the idea was to keep the road feel, speed, and positioning but fit a bigger tire to take care of whatever you might come across. (The OPEN U.P.P.E.R. Assos Edition) A: Totally. It makes perfect sense for what I and people I knew wanted to do. At the time, I didn’t think a mountain bike was necessary for where I lived - G: Right. Obviously, there are plenty of times where a mountain bike makes more sense, but for where most people live and how most people ride.. Most people don't live where they take the photos for mountain bike magazines. You guys in Utah are a bit of an exception, but even then you live in the city, the first ten miles or so are asphalt. It can be annoying on a mountain bike, but fully engaging on a road bike because you have the speed. And once you’re off road, even on really really difficult sections, you might go, “hey, a mountain bike might be faster, but it wouldn’t necessarily be more fun or more engaging.” Because you're fully engaged if only to make sure you stay alive. *laughs* It might not be the appropriate bike at the time, but it is definitely a fun bike.
(Clockwise from left: Vroomen at his Q&A, a signed U.P., seriously cool colorways)
A: I like that you said that we had all these trails. Despite that, we still sell a ton of U.P.s, which I found surprising because I thought there’d be more of a delineation between road bikes and mountain bikes here. But there are a ton of people that want that, even here.
G: I think people are slowly realizing that the U.P. is just one hundred percent a road bike as well. You're not giving anything up if you just put road wheels with road tires on it. I think the industry shoots itself in the foot by calling it a gravel bike. People go, “I don't need a gravel bike. I don't have any gravel”. But when people start to understand that it's a road plus kind of bike.. You can do anything that you'd do on a road bike, then put these monster tires on them and go anywhere, and I think that sort of riding.. You have that here too. You ride asphalt and you wonder where that dirt path goes, and you follow it. Of course on your road bike, you'd never do that. And on your mountain bike, you'd never go up that asphalt road.
A: Would you say that people in the industry are making a mistake in calling these bikes gravel bikes?
G: I would love for the industry to change it to a different name. But if you say it enough, people will probably just realize it's like those gravel bikes and call it that. But none of the alternatives are very good so far. I don't know what to call it.
A: I like road plus.
G: Yeah, but WTB already took that name for their tires. I was thinking about road-x. Cross road is also a really cool word.
(Clockwise from left: 3T Exploro Team, OPEN U.P. in Brown, new OPEN U.P. in Lime Green)
A: We can start it here! We sell plenty of U.P.s.
G: But this is the problem right? There’s a lot of genres. You say something else, and people used to looking for a gravel bike all of a sudden think, “oh is that a gravel bike? Or a road-x, or a gravel plus, or a cross road?” It's hard. We’re kinda stuck in the middle now. But actually I was talking to a few people who were thinking that we should do a mini summit of people who make gravel bikes, at Eurobike, and get everyone in one room, and decide on a new name. Maybe you know, you start with gravel slash cross road, then cross road slash gravel, then you just ditch gravel. I think something has to happen. I'm truly convinced this should be bigger than road. Most people who buy road bikes are better off buying some sort of gravel bike.
A: For me there was this period where I was racing road bikes and training, and after a little bit I got tired of the whole thing. Eventually, I picked up an old touring bike with cantilever brakes. That was the coolest thing. I put the biggest tire I could on it. I remember thinking I could do everything on it that I would do on my road bike, and then some, and that everybody should be riding something like this.
G: Exactly. If you're racing, or plan on racing, it makes sense to get a skinny tire road bike. But not many people race, and it's less and less every year. It's always been low. Really, all you need is a group of friends who ride every weekend, and perhaps it was never as tied to racing as many made it seem. But I think that's why gran fondos have one hundred times more participants than road races, right? Or even with loosely organized gravel rides in the middle of nowhere that still draw two thousand people. And if there’s been any road race with two thousand amateur participants, I'm not aware of any.
(The Vroomen-designed 3T Strada)
A: Branching off what you just said, did you see the writing on the wall as far as the decline of high performance road bikes when you were at Cervelo?
G: Not really. I left in the middle of 2011, so it was going pretty strong I think. There’s never one right factor, but many. In 2008 there was the crisis; we didn’t lose sales but we stopped growing at the crazy rates that we were before. Was that just the crisis? Or was it also road bikes being less popular, or both? Now road bikes have it a bit tougher. Was that because road riding isn't that popular, or is it that we haven't figured out whether disc brakes are going to be the future or not? There always these different influences and it's hard to blame or understand which thing actually matters.
(Phil White, Gerard Vroomen and the groundbreaking Cervelo Baracchi)
A: I really like the idea of calling the U.P. road-x. In my mind it connects it to road bikes as more of an evolution than anything.
G: Well that's the thing. A lot of people kind of come from the road side of things, and stick to a Synapse or something like that. But if they want bigger tires, they’ll go to the U.P. Rarely do people come in saying, “oh I want to ride gravel, singletrack, and more”. But you look at an U.P. with a 30mm tire and think, “oh that's a lot of space in there, what's the biggest (tire) I can fit in there?” And that's why I love road-x, it's a road bike and more. Once you've bought your U.P., now it costs two tires to try out a whole different world. You don't need another bike, or even different wheels. Now you're hooked to this whole different kind of cycling for one hundred dollars. It keeps that connection. Like, okay everyone that's a roadie sorta understands it's connected to cross, or even more, or both. We’ll see.
A: Did you design the U.P. with two wheelsets in mind? Or was it happenstance?
G: First we wanted a road bike with bigger tires. I was thinking about it for a while, but then Steve Hed (of Hed Cycling) invited me to a gravel bike ride in Minnesota, and said, “bring the road bike that can fit the biggest tires, but don't bring wheels and tires. I’ll take care of it.” I brought the bike Thor Hushovd used to get third place in the 2009 Paris-Roubaix. It was a Cervelo RS with longer seat and chainstays for mud clearance, with the Shimano 105 long brake calipers. So I went to Steve, and he put in a 34mm cross tire in what was pretty much a normal Cervelo.
I rode the Almanzo gravel ride with it, and I kept thinking, “it would be nice to put big tires on this without changing the geometry too much.” He told me, “well, you know that a wide 650b tire ends up with the same diameter as a 700c road tire.” He designed a steel road bike (to fit a 650b tire), but it had long chainstays. But I didn’t want that, I wanted short chainstays and a road bike. So I just dropped the drive side chainstay to get more clearance.
A: And now everybody’s copying it -
G: Yeah! Trek, amazingly, has copied the feature.
A: I feel like Trek is just doing it as a distinction from their other bikes.
G: *Laughs* Maybe we should just call them “dropped chainstay” bikes then. That should be the common name. But that's the only way to do it, to get tire clearance. It's funny that companies use the dropped chainstay, but don’t have the tire clearance. So yeah. The two wheel sizes idea came from Steve Hed.
A: I don’t know if anyone has ever told you this, and you don't seem like you'd ever think of this yourself, but when the U.P. and 3T Exploro came out, 650b wasn’t really a thing. You’d see them with niche bikes from Rawland or Rivendell, and before then GT did it a bit in the 90’s, and then before it was old French randonneur and touring bikes. Now you look at these bikes, and everyone asks, “can this bike do 650b?” I guess I just wanted to say kudos to you.
G: Thanks, but it's not like I was interested in saving 650b. It fit the mold of what we needed. But my favorite U.P. or 3T Exploro builds use 650b wheels.
(The OPEN ONE+)
A: Well, I didn’t want this to drag too long so I’ll cut it here. But thank you for your time, this was a ton of insight and information!
G: Thank you for having me.
(Vroomen and some shop members post-Q&A)