1634. Europeans had barely begun settling North America, the birth of the U.S. was still well over one hundred years off in the future, and the invention of the bicycle wouldn’t happen for another 183 years. Yet, DT Swiss can easily trace its routes all the way back to the first part of the seventeenth century, when a physicist named Scharandi began drawing wire in the Taubenlochschlucht in Biel. This undertaking eventually became United Wireworks, and in 1934, they formally turned some of their attention to the creation of spokes and rims. In 1994, the company was founded as we know it today. I don’t mean for this to start with a history lesson, but there’s just something about that 1634 number.
Words & images: Jered Gruber
Of course, that has about as much relevance to what DT Swiss makes today as me tracing my lineage back to St. Peter, but that shouldn’t cloud the fact that it’s just plain cool. Think of all the companies in cycling today and find me one that can say they can trace some sort of family history back the seventeenth century. See?
It was only in recent years that DT Swiss moved out of the original seventeenth-century birthplace. The new building—all boxy and silver and modern—is adorned with a giant DT Swiss sign and located in the industrial part of town. For a bike nut, it raises the excitement level at least four notches. We pass a food truck in the parking lot, take a mental note to visit when we exit, and head in to meet Friso Lorscheider. Friso’s bright blond mop of hair and stylish glasses greets us with a big smile, and soon we get distracted and start talking bikes. The factory isn’t going anywhere. He started out his cycling life on the road, but left it soon thereafter for downhill riding, citing the oft-repeated complaints of most all that have been chafed by the roadie attitude. It’s not like that on the dirt, he says. I instantly like Friso and want to ride bikes with him, and for the thousandth time, I commit myself to riding mountain bikes, if only to discover more about this fantastic subset of the cycling population.
The day of our walk-through, it was a little more peaceful than the normal workday. It was Friday. Fridays are unofficial semi-quiet days. Two-and-a-half-day weekends. Perk noted.
The very non-factory feel of the offices disappears as the door opens to the factory floor. It is large and spacious, with huge windows across the sides and roof providing ample amounts of natural light. There isn’t that typical cramped, untidy feel of a company that has outgrown its walls. DT Swiss has room to grow, and they’re certainly doing just that. Men and women share the duties; for the cycling industry, it was notable that there almost seemed to be a half-and-half mix. Young people, older, some happy, some stern, some scowling at my little black clicking box. The mix felt just about right.
Faded green machines groan and yell and spout out spokes, while concerned humans scan their mechanical partners, either collecting their products or turning tools in hopes of keeping the trusty, ancient looking machines in fine working order. They succeed. Giant spools of wire spin wildly, unwinding in giant rhythmic rotations. The wire is straightened, then it disappears into a machine where it’s chopped, bent, and contorted. At the end, like donuts tumbling off the conveyor belt at Krispy Kreme, the spokes pour forth into neat little boxes. Every few minutes, a person appears, picks up a spoke or two, checks them against a small jig to make sure they meet the quality control specifications, nods approval, then picks up the full box and replaces it with an empty one, and the cycle goes on. Millions and millions of spokes in every length and shape imaginable plop out of these machines and into the boxes before eventually finding their way into wheels—expensive ones, cheap ones, on-road, off-road, wheelchairs, anything with spokes.
Spokes are the blood of DT Swiss—followed by hubs, then wheels, and most recently, suspension forks. DT Swiss’s hubs are renowned as some of the best available, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to figure out why.
Biel is a great location for making something as small, intricate, and precise as a hub. The area is home to some of the most famous watches in the world: Omega, Rolex, Swatch, Festina, Bucherer, Candino—the list is mind-boggling. It’s no surprise then that the small pieces are machined in the area, brought back to the factory, and assembled in quiet above the raucous party of the spoke floor below.
DT Swiss makes hubs under their own brand, of course, but also for companies like Specialized, Bontrager, and Giant. They’ll work with other companies on an idea for a hub, but if the end product doesn’t live up to their standards they’ll flat-out cancel the agreement. Over.
The prices for their products are far from cheap, which is a difficult point for many companies. They want the best product between their rims, but sometimes, and understandably so, it’s tough to justify the price. In one amusing tale, a major company had used DT Swiss hubs for years. At one point, they decided they couldn’t handle the cost anymore, and cancelled their arrangement with DT Swiss in favor of another hub. A year or so later, they returned quietly to DT Swiss, following the insistence of unhappy consumers. There’s a moral in there somewhere.
DT Swiss is particular about which parts for the hub clients can get. Better put, clients can’t get parts for the hub. You simply get the whole shebang from DT Swiss or you don’t get anything at all. The inner workings of their hubs, the measurements, everything that makes a DT Swiss hub a DT Swiss hub—its DNA—that’s DT Swiss’s trade secret. The same is true for the exact concoction that makes up their stainless steel spokes. Don’t even bother asking.
With some clients, like BMC and SCOTT, the collaboration is, in fact, a two-way street. They work together on a project, each company proposing ideas or modifications, and in the end they together they create a better product. It seems simple, and it sounds like it should be the norm, but it’s relatively rare.
We ramble through the vast halls, watch straight pieces of metal being bent, welded, and sanded into fine rims. We talk about their perfectly Swiss sponsorship with Switzerland’s team, IAM, which Friso gives a thumbs-up verdict to. We also chat about carbon work moving from Switzerland to Asia. There turns out to be so much to discuss, so many different facets of a company I hadn’t spent that much time paying attention to in the past.
We left with a kindled interest and a newfound knowledge in spokes, hubs and suspension forks, and a promise to ride mountain bikes. We left Friso at the end of a warm Friday, the weekend approaching rapidly, and sped off in the direction of a bike ride. But first, we stopped at the food truck. They had next to nothing left. Turns out, DT Swiss likes their food truck, so if you want some of the goodness, show up early. Next time.
From Issue 25. But it here.