Interview: Cervelo co-founder Phil White

Folding the TestTeam and the new relationship with Garmin

When Cervélo introduced their TestTeam in 2008, it had a clear mission statement: "Even though winning races is great, it’s not why we're in pro cycling. Our ultimate goal is to make better bikes and share our passion for cycling with our customers."

For two seasons, the TestTeam seemed to remain true to this goal. There's no doubt that Cervélo's bikes progressed during the team’s tenure, and this year there was a similar trickle down to sponsors' consumer products, which in many cases were improved directly from feedback given by the squad.

Aside from the ultimate goal of building better stuff, the 'winning isn’t everything' mantra brought with it less performance pressure for Cervélo’s riders, since race palmeres became only part of a rider’s measure of their worth to the team. And with continued scandals in pro cycling, anything that promotes fair play is deeply important to the sport.

For 2011, Cervélo’s TestTeam is no more. BikeRadar sat down with the company's co-founder, Phil White, at the Interbike trade show to talk about the squad’s demise, his company’s new partnership with Garmin and why he believes that the TestTeam’s ultimate goal will live on.

BikeRadar: What will Cervélo’s relationship with Garmin be like? Will it revert to more of a sponsorship role or will it be a true developmental partnership like the TestTeam?

Phil White: If we were just looking at going back to a sponsorship that wouldn’t accomplish the objectives we have and that wouldn’t have been what we were looking for. From the bike company’s standpoint, we see [Garmin] as a tool that we’re going to use for development going ahead.

We’re sad to see the test team go away, as we believed it was true to its mission of helping its sponsors develop better consumer products. What happened?

We’d spoken with Garmin at length and with Slipstream Sports – even years ago, we knew them – and they brought up this whole issue of where the sport is going, its new 'go big or go home' philosophy and the emergence of what they saw as the Super Teams; it was a concern we had as well.

They looked at it and said, ‘You guys are doing some things right here.’ And with that [it seemed] there was a real opportunity for some type of partnership. We had that same feedback from other teams as well, so we were recognised as doing something different, something right.

There are some teams that are completely uninterested in working with manufacturers, so I see this [partnership with Garmin] as a continuation of the same values, just with a different method.

The world has changed in the past couple of years and you want to have a bigger team now. You’re kind of forced by the UCI, in a certain respect, to have a larger team; they want to gear the ProTour teams so that they do all the ProTour races and the Continental Pro are geared toward a different level and direction. [Cervélo’s TestTeam was registered as a Continental Pro team during its two-year run ed.]

So, you will continue the TestTeam’s development mission with Garmin?

Other people see the value of what we were trying to do and want to continue it. I think that [Garmin] is a team that has very similar values to us, similar objectives, and it was really good to see that they wanted to continue with a lot of the stuff that we’ve already started. Proof is in the pudding, of course, but certainly to date, the response has been very positive.

Will you have as active a role as you did with the TestTeam?

I certainly hope not. The first year I spent 40 to 50 percent of my time devoted to the team. That wasn’t the case of needing to be there to collect the information – we have Damon Rinard, who’s our race engineer, that's his role – it was just the case of getting things going and getting set up.

We started that project in August and we had a meeting, hired everyone, bought all of the trucks, got all of the cars, got everything set up and then the team had their first meeting in November. So, from the standpoint of the bike company, we gave them as much help as we possibly could and wanted to be successful as well. That doesn’t mean that me or we from the bike company should be spending all of our time there.

The real link and key to the success is having Damon Rinard there and having a race engineer who can work effectively between our engineers and the team, so that won’t change. I think there’s a lot of value having an engineer there. He’s got knowledge that’s different from the knowledge that the mechanics and the sport directors have.

Slipstream is a forward looking organisation that’s looking for an advantage so it’s a very good fit. They’re not there to say that we’ll ride what we think we should ride, they’re looking for every possible advantage, and Damon will be a big part of giving them an advantage that no-one else has.

Was there ever any talk about stepping back and keeping a smaller organisation of your own?

That was one of the big benefits of the TestTeam. We ran a marketing campaign saying ‘Winning isn’t everything’, so we never said it all had to be about results. That was one of the things that we reinforced to the riders and that the riders got really early.

To have them come to Interbike is a big part of what we need them to do. We want them to ride with our dealers. We want our dealers to see what it’s like and get the first-hand feedback of riding with a pro. We had Carlos Sastre riding with our dealers in Chicago; he came over and rode with the dealers and not too many other companies or teams have ever done that, but it’s a really unique aspect to cycling that we’ve got to take advantage of.

It seems like your hand has been forced away from that mission, by feeling like you needed to be in the ProTour. Is that fair to say?

I think it did actually force our hand a little bit, but at the same time we've always been quite clear that we weren’t looking to be the title sponsor and having our name as the marquee of the team or on the jersey. That was never a goal.

We certainly got value out of it, but we’re a bike company and selling it off to someone who would want to be a title sponsor would have been of more value to them than it was to us. But we started the team in the world’s worst economic recession in 70 years; that’s not the time you want to start a cycling team. So that was one problem.

So, ultimately the economy and a failure to find a title sponsor was the TestTeam’s demise?

No matter what happened – and we were quite clear that we were looking for sponsorship all along – when it came to this next year, and you look at the opportunities and how the sport was developing, this idea of having a partnership with Garmin, someone that has very similar goals and values, that was a smart move.

[We wanted] to continue with the same goals and objectives that we had with a like-minded partner that would be successful and result in the long-term success of what we're trying to do. If it had been a matter of just going back to a sponsorship arrangement with some other team that really didn’t share our values we wouldn’t have considered it.

I don’t see the relationship with Garmin as being that sort of relationship – this is far more of a partnership. The fact that we managed to transfer over the entire women’s team makes it obvious that this is a lot more than just shipping them some bikes.

So, in a way, with Garmin taking your women’s programme and then combining their ProTour and development programmes, you’re achieving more in terms of developing the sport than you were with TestTeam?

The challenge in North America is how to get North American cyclists to make it to the big time. How do we get them over to Europe? And Garmin have done a good job of developing that under-23 squad.

There are a few more rungs in the ladder that we, as an industry, have to develop, but I think that they’re [Garmin] well positioned to make that successful. We’d like to do that as well. I mean Americans and Canadians, there’s still a big wide ocean there when you want to make that jump to Europe and having a team that bridges the Atlantic is a big part of that. It’s much easier to do that with a team like Garmin that has bases on both sides of the Atlantic.

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