Swiss wheel mastery
Signs for Rolex and Omega glow against the sky, as my train whooshes into Biel/Bienne station. Here some of the world’s most prestigious watches are made. The Swatch Group, which owns marques such as Breguet, Blancpain, and Jaquet Droz, and manufactures the ETA movements that make many more luxury timepieces tick, has its factory in town, as do a number of makers of specialised medical, automotive, and telecommunications equipment. I’ve come to visit DT Swiss.
Switzerland has long been renowned for its precision manufacturing. In the 16th century, Huguenot refugees first brought clockmaking to the country, when they fled across the border from France to settle in valleys sheltered by the Jura Mountains, where Calvinism had taken hold. Under Calvin’s rule, all displays of wealth were forbidden, so craftsmen had to turn their hands to making products that could be put to practical use instead of jewellery and other luxuries. A cottage industry soon arose. Isolated for long months at a time, when winter made tending to cattle and land all but impossible, folks in the valleys began to create intricate timepieces and scientific instruments to pass their time.
By the 17th century, trade in their inventions was booming. Entrepreneurs invested more and more in their workshops. The Swiss were well on their way to accumulating the technical expertise and manufacturing prowess they are known for today.
At DT Swiss, that ethos is still very much in evidence. Once per second at their pristine factory near the Tissot Arena, green, iron machinery bends and cuts Swedish steel wire into a spoke and finishes it with a thread. Those made for racing undergo a secret butting procedure that compresses the centre section, so the metal becomes stronger. A heavy press flattens straight-gauge spokes into blades to better slice through the wind. Workers check the spokes to make sure their measurements meet DT Swiss’s rigorous standards. Although the company now has factories in the United States, Taiwan, and Poland, each of which operates according to the same processes, a significant proportion of its components are still made in Biel, especially those at the top end of its range.
Most of the company’s research and development happens in Switzerland too. Above the factory floor, engineers pore over CAD drawings and prototypes, testing different configurations to uncover possible ways to make improvements. Downstairs, the company’s extensive testing facilities run 24 hours a day. Heavy weights drop onto carbon rims to ensure that they can handle impacts. A special machine tests the tensile strength of spokes by pulling them from each of their ends till they snap.
Mechanical roads—large hollow drums that can simulate thousands and thousands of kilometres of wear on different surfaces under different loads—are used to test wheels. Flecks of tyre rubber patter against the protective window as we watch. Many of these machines were created in house to allow the company to test its products more extensively than its competitors.
The aim is to simulate real-world riding conditions as closely as possible, with all of the irregular forces and shocks that riding on a road or trail entails. That way, they know that their products will last, which is, after all, the basis of the brand’s reputation. Alex Schmitt hands me a finished hub and begins to tell me about the history of the company.
In 1994, DT Swiss was spun off from the Biel-based Vereinigte Drahtwerke, a high-end manufacturer of components for watchmaking, cycling, and other industries, which was one of the first makers of metal wire, when it was founded in 1634. Entrepreneurs Frank Böckmann, Maurizio D’Alberto and Marco Zingg acquired top-of-the-line machinery and developed a special cold-forging process, which they used to set up a fledgling business as a producer of spokes, which they sold both under their own name and to other brands.
As the company established itself, it gradually expanded its own portfolio to include a range of top-notch hubs, spoke nipples, rims, and complete wheels, as well as suspension for mountain bikes. It was a matter of making products that endured and were second-to-none in terms of performance. The Hügi hub, for instance, is built so that all of the teeth of its two interfacing ratchets engage at once, so power is transferred more directly to the wheel and load is spread over a wider area. This results in greater efficiency and reduced wear, as compared to a traditional pawl hub, which only ever engages a couple of teeth at a time. All of DT Swiss’ hubs make use of this technology. Engineering comes first at DT Swiss.
That makes it an exception.
Compare it to its watchmaking cousins in Biel, for instance. Mechanical wrist watches were once ubiquitous. The Swiss made beautiful timepieces, but their reputation was founded on the accuracy and reliability of their movements and the quality of their craftsmanship. Form followed function. Quartz movements changed all that. To remain competitive, the major manufacturers had to turn to massive marketing campaigns, celebrity endorsements, and plastic products. Their watches became showier, even ostentatious. Calvin must have been rolling in his grave. A few boutique watchmakers still exist, but, like so many consumer goods, function now follows advertising appeal for most of the trade.
Michel sits down to his truing stand. A master wheel builder at DT Swiss, he carefully measures and adjusts the tension of each spoke of every wheel that passes through his stand, until he is certain that the wheel will remain strong and straight and spin perfectly. It’s not rocket science, he says. It takes a lot of practice, excellent materiel, and good training. He is glad to teach the younger builders at DT Swiss his art.
They are eager to learn. Every year, the company holds an annual race up Le Chasseral, an iconic climb in the nearby Jura, for its employees. Most take part. So, they know that the fastest and most efficient way of racing up a climb is the most elegant; that, when you’re descending, the whir of the free hub on a perfectly true wheel is musical; that the bicycle is a machine. At a time when the bicycle industry so often seems to be obsessed with glitz and gimmicks, they know that form therefore follows function. As employees of DT Swiss, they know that well-functioning bicycles are born on the factory floor.
More and more, they are proud to be making components under their own name.
I turn the hub Alex had passed me around in my hands. Each click is smooth and precise. If it’s well looked after, its teeth will engage a baffling number of times during its lifetime, like the mechanism inside a fine watch. Swiss watchmakers have recently begun to turn back to their roots and focus above all on watchmaking.
Lasting quality will succeed in the end.
Images by Martijn Pols