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Cafe Ride: Cervelo's Maria Benson explains how bikes are developed

Maria Benson is Cervelo's Director of Product Management. On The Cafe Ride, she explains the bike development process, her cycling history, and more.

Written by: Reese Ruland

Published on:

Posted in:Fun

Behind every Cervelo is Maria Benson, the Director of Product Management. It’s her job to have intimate knowledge and understanding of riders and the market in which they sell their bikes. She works on everything from market research to component compatibility. But to her, bikes are more than just the sum of their parts (that she researches). After a tragic family loss in 2005, cycling was her outlet for grief and reflection. She has seen what the power of bikes can do for people and is happy to play a role in that.

The Café Ride is an Instagram Live conversation series dedicated to telling the stories of amazing women, building community, and educating and inspiring fellow cyclists. This conversation series features women from various aspects of the cycling community. You’ll meet and hear stories from women who are recreational athletes, product developers, nutrition experts, or professional cyclists. The goal is to inspire, educate, and connect women from all over the world.

Reese Ruland:
Let's jump right in. I feel like we have so much to talk about. Um, and so a little background, I am lucky enough to be sponsored by Cervelo, which you work for. And when it's such a cool thing to know, like we've never like met in person, but it's so interesting to know, you know, the people behind the bikes I'm riding and it almost makes it like a way more personal experience. And just like knowing now more about your story and how you got into cycling. It, it just makes my experience so different. Knowing that like, it's almost like a meal, right. You know, when like someone like puts love into this creation, you're just like, oh my God, like this is more tastes even better. Yeah. It's way more than like, uh, this is just like fast food.

It's like, oh my God, this person that's behind all of these bikes, like has such a personal connection that like now when I ride, even this morning. Amazing. So yeah, I would love it if you could just, maybe we'll, we'll talk about your personal story into cycling and then, then we can talk about your job. But I think, you know, where you started really impacts, you know, where you're at now and just your, your role is like a product, the director of product management at Cervelo. So yeah, I would love it if you take away and kind of give me a little bit of your background. Yeah, sure. Yeah. Can jump in.

Maria Benson: Yeah. So, I'll try to keep it somewhat brief, but, basically I don't skimp. Yeah, right after high school, I married my high school sweetheart and, he joined the Marine Corps. We moved out to California. We were just kids, you know, kicking around where I grew up in Minnesota. St. Paul, graduated from St. Paul. And you know, we spent almost five years out here initially down in North County, San Diego. When we headed back to Minnesota, I had started riding or, sorry, I skipped a part. I had just started riding basically the year before we moved back to Minnesota. So I was here in California. I had bought like a $200 bike and met this girl that was training for triathlons and asked me to, to train with her as that. Okay. I had already been running a little bit, so yeah I had just started, you know, getting into it a little bit. I knew nothing about bikes or riding. But about a year later, my husband passed away. He suffered from PTSD, having been overseas, Iraq and Afghanistan, both, during operation Iraqi Freedom. And so about a year after we moved back to Minnesota, he took his own life. So yeah.

Reese: I just like, feel so much for you. I cry so easily now. That's really, that's a lot.

Maria: Yeah, it was. And luckily I have a really good group of family around me, my own family, obviously my parents and my sister. But also his parents, whom I'm still quite close to. So together, I think we really bonded. Everybody did, of course, came through this altogether. Yeah, but one of the key things for me is that I had already started riding and I basically spent that summer riding my bike. Like I quit my job and it wasn't, I didn't do anything else really. Riding really became this outlet where, you know, personal reflection. I was only riding alone at the time. I didn't know anything about group rides. I used to ride up to the cemetery a lot and just kind of sit there and look at the beautiful scenery, you know, and say hi, but it, you know, the, there's the emotional part, but there's this physical outlet I think is so important. When you go through something so tragic and a lot of people don't really get that introduction, I think, because it's just not a part of their lives or it's not suggested, you know, you go to therapy and you just talking about your feelings, but having a physical outlet, I think is, has been extremely, extremely beneficial for me specifically. Yeah.

I had bought like a $200 bike and met this girl that was training for triathlons and asked me to, to train with her. I knew nothing about bikes or riding.

Reese: Yeah. I mean, I think like when I was talking to Sarah Taylor, who's the, you know, my point of contact, one of my point of contacts at Cervelo. And I was saying like, God, the bike has like, through the hardest couple of years in my life has been like so crucial because obviously, yeah, therapy is great and like talk therapy, that's a way to process. But I think I'm someone that needs to like physically like feel something or like experience and like put into, put my emotions and like them in like a physical manifestation and doesn't have to be like pain, but it could be like joy of a ride or, you know, physical exhaustion. And so I think like that, that's a way for me to process as well. So like, I think your story like really hits home for me too.

Maria: For sure. And I use it still today, you know, outside of this, you know, subject that we're talking about, but just anytime I need to, you know, reset or clear my head about anything, riding is really the most effective thing. Yeah. I never think of, so ...

Reese: Yeah, it's, it's definitely a good, good way to like zone out or be really present. Depends on what you, yeah. It depends on what you want or need at that time. Exactly, exactly. Which is crazy, you know, so like you've seen how the bike can like influence and like lift people up and like help with mental, mental, you know, struggles or grief or anything like that. Emotional. And so it's just so interesting to know that, like, that is probably kind of like in the background of your mind, as you like, do really hard work as you like research all of these products, that we get to enjoy. And so like, you're like the, like a chef, the behind the scenes person and the rest of us, just get to enjoy this thing. And before we talk about like your, your role, do you ever think about that? Like when you see someone riding a Cervelo, like, do you get like a little sense of like, oh man, I helped.

Maria: Totally. It's, well, first of all, it's just kind of a surreal experience to see something out in the wild, but that you had such a, a big hand in. But to the idea that that person connected with that specific bike, for whatever reason, yeah it's extremely gratifying and it's what makes this job, you know, so exciting and fun.

Yeah. And I think maybe we could talk about like a little bit of an example, and I don't know if, you know, you could run through the, Aspero or something like that, because it was a big bike for Cervelo and personally for me, I was talking to Sarah about it and I was like, this is the first bike that I was like emotionally bonded with. It is now like part of my family. I has been on trips with it. I've been a dumb. I've seen things, it's like seen me at my worst. And so to me, that's like the number one bike where I'm like, oh my God, this is like my thing. And that bike that you had a huge part in, you know, pushing for getting me some, like my best experiences.

Obviously the bike was launched, what it was 2019? Yeah. So like when, when does Cervelo or like, obviously you don't have to give you specifics because it's the bike industry and other, other companies are probably they're like watching, like, oh, how does the, how did they do that? But like, you know, let's say, you're like, Hey, we want to launch in 2019. When did, when do you even start researching? Like, when you think about like, “Hey, we should do a gravel bike.”

It's just kind of a surreal experience to see something out in the wild, that you had such a big hand in. It's extremely gratifying and it's what makes this job so exciting and fun.

Maria: Well, in general, the answer would be 18 to 24 months is a standard-ish development cycles. So depending on the complexity of the project. Yeah. But a lot of times the research, or let's say ideation phase comes before that, with Aspero specifically, or I should say gravel it wasn't a new concept in terms of, you know, should, should we do this or shouldn't we, but it was something that the brand hadn't really ever fully committed to before. That, the caveat to that is that the former C-series actually had sort of this dual personality is a gravel bike or an endurance bike. But at the time of that bike, gravel was not really all that well-defined, it was still kind of experimental. So, you know, we, we, as an industry or as a cycling community have, let's say graduated to a full-on gravel where, you know, you want that knobby tire and just the full slick isn't going to cut it most of the time.

Reese: Yeah. So what does even research look like? Like, do you, cause you know, like in my head, you know, I'm from a science background, like, oh, it's research. Like we go out and see what everyone else is doing or do we like conduct interviews or we look at, what specs are. So what does that process look like? And this is even before there's, you know, engineering specs drawn up, I'm guessing.

Maria: Right. Exactly. I mean, it's, it's kind of all of the above. So, we'll pick out some events to go to and not only observe and participate ourselves, but also to talk to people and, you know, just as, you know, riding alongside next to somebody and being asking them simple questions like, oh, how do you like your bike? What do you like about it? What would you change? You know? And you can get a lot out of that, even from a very small sample set of people, because everybody's so different. And if you start to identify some things that are common that people seem to say, it's something you start to pay attention to. And is it a problem you can solve or is it something we should adopt, you know, into our own design, things like that.

Reese: I'm just guessing the engineers, you get together with them and you're like, all right, here's our feedback. Here's what the people, the people have spoken. They want this bike.

Maria: Exactly. And a lot of times these events as well. So if somebody has been already assigned to the project, you know, they'll come along and get to have the same experience that I do. When we interact with, with riders.

Reese: You're the product therapist. Do you just like, listen to everyone? We're like, oh my God, we need this. We need it.

Maria: Yeah. And it's hard not to interject your own opinion or, I guess opinion is the right word, but you know, if you have a strong opinion about something and then you go out and talk to people and realize, well, maybe you weren't fully accurate, like right. You really might not be the market. Like, I think that's the hard part is like my opinion might be what the masses need. And that's probably really difficult. There's a flip side too. Whereas maybe you have an idea that no one else is really talking about. And so there's an opportunity to, you know, influence things. So that's fun too.

Reese: Yeah. That's super exciting. And so, you do the research, the engineering team comes up with the designs and then what does testing even look like to, I guess like to whatever degree you can talk about it, obviously, like don't tell us any secret things, but I mean, how many, like, do you have like multiple iterations of geometries and then you test those out because, I'm sure there's, well, you can talk about like, there's probably like tons of things to do with like getting models, getting, you know, carbon layups, like that's pretty expensive.

Maria: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it definitely varies. But almost always there's iterations of something that we have to kind of redo or, or if the testing didn't go well, we have to fix it for some reason. In terms of geometry, Caledonia is actually a good example of where we, we had, um, built some mules of aluminum frames, or excuse me, steel, that we had multiple forks from past, or I should say existing bikes that had different offsets. So we would, you know, ride the mules around with different fork offsets to help decide what's the best approach in the geometry, which resulted in, in what Caledonia are today. So, you know, you have to spend the time and you can have a theory on paper, but until you start riding the bikes and actually experiencing it for yourself, it's really hard to yeah, know for sure.

Reese: Man, you guys landed with like the Caledonia. So I went from riding the S3 to the Caledonia, they're obviously wildly different bikes, but the difference like cornering, it was like the first time where I've been like on a descent. And I was like, oh my God, like the bike was, it will like actually just stay exactly where you want it to. And you're just, I was like, huh, this feels so right. So much. And so I've become like way more confident at descending, just knowing and like on turning roads, just knowing that the bike is like full, I can fully trust it at this point. I'm like, yeah, she'll stick this corner. She'll land, she'll stick the landing.

Maria: Yeah. And that just shows how important geometry is. You know, a half a degree in the head angle or a millimeter in offset on the fork, like all of these things make such a large impact to the, how the bike actually feels when you take it out on the road.

Reese: And who's testing it? Like how many people generally test it? And is it subjective or do you guys like fill stuff out afterwards or do you actually have a huge network of ambassadors and athletes, like, do you let them try any pre-production stuff out or do you wait until it's way further along?

Maria: Again, it depends a little bit on the project. There's things that we know, you know, so we're doing what we did, the new geometry didn't change much because we knew that it was good. But then something like Aspero and Caledonia, we definitely try to get it out to as many people as possible because it was a new concept. If we have opportunities to send them to people outside of Cervelo itself, we'll take advantage of that for sure. But the, the biggest value we've gotten so far, at least the few projects that I've been a part of since I joined the brand come directly from people who have a lot of experience on other Cervelo bikes and can really point out the things that are different, good and bad.

A half a degree in the head angle or a millimeter in offset on the fork makes such a large impact to how the bike actually feels when you take it out on the road.

Reese: Someone has asked a question if there's testing price points. So I'm curious, I'm not sure exactly. I guess it would say wondering if you test every, do you test every like price point out, like, Hey, this is the SRAM one-by Force AXS or Red, or do you just assume they'll all pretty much, I'm just curious, like price points, let's chat about that. Yeah.

Maria: I'm not totally sure I understand what the question is. But I could answer it in a couple of different ways. I think, first would be like price point in frames. So like you take Caledonia five versus regular Caledonia. They all go through the same amount testing, you know, machine testing and an actual ride testing. But then when we're talking about different groupsets, we typically get early samples from the suppliers like SRAM or Shimano in this case. So we can hang those parts on whatever bikes we have available and make sure that compatibility is where it needs to be for our, from our side and functionality so that we can decide, hey, is this something we want to use in our line? Or could we ask for maybe some tweaks here and there, or a combination of different parts together could work better for our brand? But yeah, the answer is, in general we do test all the different price points for sure.

Reese: And the thing that I'm curious about is obviously, I mean, I'm a woman, I ride the bikes, I actually ride almost everything fully stock. So like stock, saddle, stock handlebars. And so you've managed to, especially with like handlebars that can pretty small, I ride the smallest size of 48, which means my handlebars are pretty narrow. And, you know, you've got you put on a Prologo saddle, I think on all of them. And I haven't really liked the Prologo saddle you have, but I'm guessing like, how do you end up deciding where like with sizes, like the average, like person that's going to ride that with their shoulder width is like what handlebars they're going to have and then same with the saddle. I feel like that people don't make a decision to buy a bike based on saddle, but for me it's probably my first bike ever owned or like all of them now that have that, that I'm like, I don't change the saddle. It's like just perfect for me. That's awesome. How do you end up like figuring this stuff out? Like how do you know that I'm going to be the right person for that like handlebar and it, it fits.

Maria: Yeah. So we'll start off by saying that touchpoints are really, really hard to get right for a hundred percent of the customer base. Right. So the best we can do is hope that let's say half of the people that buy our bikes are happy with those touchpoints, don't need to need or want to change them. Saddles in particular, as I'm sure you know, is such a personal thing. So, we have to kind of trust the research behind the designs of these saddles experienced them ourselves. Obviously we have to try them out and see if we agree or not. And similar to bike research is, we talk about things like saddles where, how many people do you see out in the, in the wild riding saddles like this, or how many people have tried it and didn't like it, or how many people are unhappy with what they're currently riding. And maybe you can make a suggestion based on what you, in my case, what I'm spending on the bikes. And are they happy with that? The short nose saddles though, I think have been, a little bit of a game changer in terms of that'll comfort across the board. And there's so many brands that have a version of it now. I think they just really make a lot of sense in terms of where you put your body on the saddle and how it affects the rest of your position and, and comfort for sure.

Reese: Yeah. It's super interesting. And I guess, you know, when I think about all the options that you can have for a bike, when you're speccing it, it's not just like, you know, we think of the big players for like components, but wheels and saddles and handlebar, tape and bearings. I'm curious, like if you could like ballpark, how many different things you normally get and have to ride, cause I'm sure. I mean, you have to test them out. You're not just going to be like, Hey, we're going to spec these wheels on this bike. I'll never ride them, but they meet the price point. So I'm curious like how many, how much just like stuff do you have to test out?

Maria: Really good question. I'm not even sure I could throw a number at that, but we've just recently moved our office and I'm sure you're aware that maybe the audience doesn't know, but we moved from Toronto, Canada to Orange County fairly recently.

Reese: To visit. I'm so excited.

Maria: Yeah. We're excited to have people. It's still under remodel, so that's why I'm not there. Or any of us are there for that matter. But the Toronto office, we had various cages in our warehouse, so that was, um, you know, each department had a cage, it was called. And the product cage is filled with all of these parts. So we had boxes and boxes of tires, shelves of wheels. And then all, of course, all the other things saddles and the handlebars. So it was kind of like if somebody was working on a bike build or had a, let's say there was samples coming in, what parts can we put on that, that we need to have some feedback on? And so, yeah, it definitely, I'm not testing every single part myself that would be almost impossible. But everybody rides right. At least to some degree, so we can get feedback on just about anything within a short period.

Reese: Yeah. Nice. I have a few more questions, uh, that I think maybe some other people would be interested, but I'm definitely interested in, the first one is proprietary parts. You've got a lot of times it's like handlebars or stems, something around that, very new like seat tubes, that, that can be proprietary, but I'm curious, is that an entirely different process? Do you develop it with the bike in mind or like, with the chicken or the egg, what comes first? It's a super interesting handlebar stem set up with someone like, I really want this and signed a bike around it or is it like, Hey, we have the, we need to update our bike. It just so happens. We're going to make this funky stem that works.

My role is a little bit of an outsider. The designers are really doing the aerodynamic testing. My input comes in mostly in the beginning of the project. So we'll have goals set, we need to improve aerodynamics and what do we feel is feasible?

Maria: I would say in general it starts with the bike itself. The S5 is a great example because one of the main goals of that bike when it was first started, is, was to have full integration with not only electronic drive trains, but also mechanical. So the stem allowed that cable path to float and see without having any kinks in the cables. And it was very aerodynamic. So yeah, the, the design concept came out of specifically those goals, which was, you know, mechanical shifting and aerodynamics. But then there's bikes like S series or S3 where that handle bar, specifically the bar itself, was an iteration of our five handlebar. Yeah. So there were things that we, we thought could use some improvements on that bar. And so that made it into the design of the S series bar, which just so happened to work with the concept we were working on for cable routing in that system. So it does vary a little bit, but in general, I think the, the bike is the first thing that comes to ideation and then the rest of the part kind of follow.

Reese: Yeah. You've probably got, I mean, I'm assuming that, you know, if we go back to all the way at the beginning, it's like, “Hey, let's take a look at this bike. Like, what is our goal? Is it performing well, can we make improvements?” And then there's a bunch of testing. So my second question, and we can call it, my last was aerodynamics, right? I think you guys made a huge name for yourself in TT and triathlon bikes. Some of our best-selling bikes are Cervelo TT bikes, even from like years ago, because they're so amazing. And so are you involved with the aero testing or do you just get feedback? What does that process kind of look like?

Maria: Yeah, my role in that process is a little bit of an outsider. You know, the designers are really doing the aerodynamic testing. My input comes in mostly in the beginning of the project. So we'll have goals set, we need to improve aerodynamics and what do we feel is feasible? Because we know about the, let's say the previous or the current generation of that bike and in some of the areas that maybe we could've done a little better on, so I'll help to set a goal, you know, let's shoot for X number of grams improvement in the aerodynamic results. But yeah, from there, they, they really take over that that's way more nerdy, so that's good.

Reese: I remember one of my first huge rides on the Aspero and it's meant to be like a really fast gravel bike. It’s fairly aero for gravel bikes. There's not a lot of like random things coming off of it. And, you know, I was riding up to basically 13,000 feet on this bike and like basically mountain biking down the other side. I just remember thinking, I like said out loud, I was like every product developer at Cervelo and all the engineers probably hate me right now. Like absolutely testing this bikes to the limit. I'm probably going to break it. I have like, no, I have like bags on my bike, like a bag on the front of my bike, my jackets flapping. I'm like, I have ruined everything they've tried for. Sorry. I was so nervous I was going to break that bike within like the, well, I mean, it, that bike is man. I, it has seen some stuff and, uh, it handles everything I'm so psyched on it. Um, which is why I'm like attached to it. But I definitely took it off some drops so …

Maria: Well, like people are going to use bikes way. Well, outside of what we, let's say, voice the intention of the bike uses, we test for things like that. So if you end up breaking that, like we should know so that we know what to do next in improvement.

Reese: Theo, the gold Aspero has been an absolute trooper.

Maria: I like that name.

Reese: After a theobromine from chocolate and that just makes you feel really good and see, oh, it makes me feel really good. That's right. Do you have anything else you want to say before we kind of sign off?

Maria: Maybe I'll just give you a little kudos. I think this, the series that you've been doing has been really amazing and it's been really fun to see all these, I mean, inspiring women to tell their story and it's been really cool to watch, so good job. And I look forward to the next ones too. Yeah.

Reese: Thank you so much. And like, it's so, so cool. At least for me personally, and maybe anyone else that rides a Cervelo, like this is the person behind all of like, I mean, there's a huge team behind it, but like yeah, of course it's so cool to meet you even over the internet that like, you play a huge role in my like actual happiness. And you're like with me on every ride and I didn't even know it. But I'm excited and like super thankful that like you're a badass woman behind the bike. There's a ton of bad asses at Cervelo. I'm super excited to come out and like meet everyone, that, you know, it's behind these bikes. So thanks for doing all of this amazing work. And it's it's, it's super inspiring and you've made some super fun bikes for everyone else to enjoy. So that's awesome. Make sure that the rest of the team knows that as well. Yeah. Oh my God. It is like, I am forever indebted to everyone at Cervelo for sure. Well, we're so happy to have you. Yeah. Thank you so much for chatting and hopefully you can see in real life soon.

Maria: Sounds good. All right. Thanks.