Fabian Cancellara was the Rolex of cycling: accurate, perfectionist, dripping with establishment class. He epitomised his nation’s reputation of being industrious, reliable and predictable. He had a disconcerting perfectionist streak.
It is a reputation hard earned, but engineering perfection and having everything running on time – all the time – can make things a little soulless. Where are the imperfections, where are the quirks?
At the headquarters of wheel company DT Swiss there is no deviation from the stereotype from the moment you step from the cool Swiss air through the automatic doors and into the foyer.
Most factories in the cycling industry look akin to each other and DT Swiss is no different in that regard; a cuboid block of warehouse, factory floor and office space dangles on the outskirts of a small town like dozens of others across Europe.
But this is taking the Swiss stereotype to the extreme. The ‘cycling factory’ has been put through a filter to remove all traces of dirt and imperfection and replace them with pristine white walls, dark wood floors and a coating of aluminium and concrete.
Right angled yellow lines have been painted onto the factory floor and machines, boxes and crates have been aligned geometrically, right down to the last rubbish bin. Pots of machine grease sit purposefully in their right place. Even the staff locker room is neat and tidy.
Everything in its right place
This is no atelier, no workshop with generations of sweat and shavings ground into the floor by the well-worn soles of master craftsmen. It’s the love-child of an architect’s studio and optimised design and construction process.
It’s possible the pornographic calendars, dry humoured graffiti, keepsakes from home and photos of loved ones were tidied away out of site; it’s more likely they were never here to begin with.
Biel/Bienne (its official name since it stands on the border between Francophone and German Switzerland) is a town wrought from the steel industry. It is now home to many of the country’s biggest watch brands.
DT Swiss used to make wire for fencing: D stands for Drahtwerke and T stands for Torsonnerie. Both mean wireworks. Wireworks Wireworks Swiss. Be still, my beating heart.
Between the wars DT Swiss started making spokes, a logical extension of making wire. However the company was close to bankruptcy in the early 1990s when current boss Daniel Berger – a man who can tell you everything you want to know, and a lot you don’t, about spokes – joined the company.
Berger and the new investors ditched the fencing, focussed on cycling, and the roof in Biel/Bienne has grown to house the industry’s foremost authorities on ball bearings, rim aerodynamics and quick release efficiency. A high-tech hub for engineering, this is now the sort of place where canteen chat covers the relative merits of 54 and 18 tooth hub ratchets.
Here the very best wheels, like the brand new ERC 1100 Dicut, are assembled by hand in a room that looks like it was designed for laboratory experiments rather than wheel-building. Paintstainkingly tweaking and twisting the spokes until the rim sits true, they can produce around 150 wheelsets per week.
Meanwhile on the factory floor sits a row of machines that can turn a coil of wire around a vast wooden spindle into a finished spoke in five seconds, using a mesmerising, boxed machine and a feeding machine that rocks shakily back and forth like an animatronic droid dug out from the original Star Wars prop room as it guides wire into place.
Bladed spokes take 21 seconds, as pre-cut round spokes are passed by hand through two enormous machines applying 60 tonnes of pressure, enough force to make the solid concrete floor ripple with the shockwaves and give the factory the soundtrack of a heavy Phil Collins drum introduction.
Those two machines are today mounted on hydraulic supports; when they were first installed the engineers soon discovered that the machines were applying so much force that they had very quickly begun to dig their way into the solid concrete floor.
It’s an uncharacteristic hiccup in a place where everything has been done in the name of efficiency, a place where substance trumps style.
But flying down a mountain at 50mph or bounding along the cobbles into a howling gale straight off the North Sea, would you really want it to be anything else at all?