Only my second time in the Netherlands, I alight from the last in a long day of train carriages that have back-dropped both the Alps and Pyrénées, three countries and two capitals. Of all our neighbors, I always considered the Dutch perhaps most like the British—the beer, the football, the rain, the royalty, the colonial histories—but the thing that typically drew me to this nation of orange was the culture of design. This is the place that actually builds those radical, forward-thinking, brightly colored modern buildings that other nations’ architects dream of making but emigrate to create. This is the home of architect Rem Koolhaas and design company Droog that produces trendy kettles and unusually shaped coffee tables. And, after the Scandinavians, this is the European nation that most liked Saabs.
Words and Images by Augustus Farmer
Driving through the Rotterdam rush hour on our way to the Tacx factory, what becomes immediately apparent is the volume of cyclists. It is said there are two bikes for each Dutch person and this is confirmed from a backseat window, passing train station racks and shop fronts. My hosts Sven Roeggen and Simon Tacx— current commercial director and a third-generation company worker—agree as they explain some of the history of two wheels around here and in this family of cycling: stories of grandfather Koos Tacx repairing bikes for people, his move to his early roller designs and on to the state of a global business in high-tech trainers that Tacx has become. Now in his 80s, he still turns up to work first thing every day as he always did. I ask if the Audi Q7 with the plate “TOUR68” is his. “No, that’s his friend Jan Janssen, winner of that year’s TDF,” I’m informed. “They still hang out a lot here at the factory.”
Smiles and handshakes welcome us through the front door as we head past off ices of quietly working employees and straight into the thrum of the machines. I always imagine when you visit a place like this that the staff have probably been asked to wear brand-new company polo shirts and grins that perfectly spell PR for the camera—but this place is actually a bit gritty and honest feeling. The smiles are there, but they don’t get in the way of the tasks at hand and look to see I don’t either. Outf its are pretty worn-in by what is in some cases decades of service working the heavy metal in these huge rooms. I’m guided to a quieter workshop to the side of the main operation where a genuine grin with warm eyes and a northern Euro style f lattop haircut eagerly greets me. Edwin Vreeswijk explains this is his domain, the experimental brain of the machine. They make things happen in here in order to make things work out there. Even the tools and molds are created that make all the trainers’ parts and give “Made in Holland” real provenance. I was aware these things were known to be made here—but quite this made, that’s come
as a bit of a surprise. You expect a level of outsourcing or procurement but as the day unfolds it becomes clear that for Tacx you have to try and make it all in house if possible.
Design, tooling, molds, small nylon bits, huge steel parts, magnets, electronics—pretty much the whole lot is created within these walls. Edwin shows me small copper molds for initial part trials, tiny pieces of the puzzle deep within the product you’ll likely never see but still designed here, made here. Global success stories are born in this room. Wrapped and lined in old oilcloths on steel workbenches, they seem like ancient alphabets from the printing presses of old civilizations—bright copper with black, scorching scars recording their part in the company’s history. Objects of beauty themselves and often prettier and more interesting looking than the thing they create, they sit clumped in groups like a DNA pattern, piecing together the blueprints of Tacx from the bottom up.
Advancing toward the growing background noise, we pass conveyors collecting drinking bottles spit out by molding machines that then drive them around in figures of eight like model railways. Slow and steady, they trundle off to get lids or logos or photographs applied. These will end up with images of local racers across them—which, I wonder, could be expanded as a custom program to be able to personalize your bidon… “No reason why not, I suppose” came the answer. Brain cogs start to turn as I picture-edit from memory for a new venture before being snapped back into the room by a team of welding booths spraying out sparks and the sharp blue light of metal joinery. “Don’t look at the arc through a long lens, don’t look at the arc through a long lens…,” I remember, just in time. Busy hands in huge gloves stained almost as if made of steel themselves transfer smoking tubes between wooden crates. Bluntly plonked on top of each other, they actually stack up really neatly—piles of carefully bent shapes, raw in their silvery-gray hue and heat-treated patterns, they are almost organic looking, as if the whole process was designed by the late H. R. Giger.
There must be easier and cheaper ways to get those bright blue metal arms of a Dutch cycle trainer into the shops, but again it’s clear this is about control of a process, of knowing that the local steel is being used, the guy working it has been doing it for more than two decades, and feeling a pride in saying it is all made here in the Netherlands. I can’t help thinking they could perhaps bang on about that a little more though. Often, as is the way with companies building mainly in-house, the reason is genuine and so the marketing potential seems of secondary importance or in some way a little brash to brag about, but this is seriously impressive and it feels like people really ought to know.
Teams stand around asymmetric steel cores constructing the new Neo trainer by hand, one by one. Area managers and accidental double act, Ed and Fred, show me around this part of the factory explaining that each and every one is individually tested again at the other end of the process before leaving the building. This new training machine strikes me as more than just a clever piece of engineering; it’s one that actually looks like something you could leave in your living room when you’re done with it. Furniture or ornament is not perhaps the traditional consideration for the indoor trainer with all the cables and struts and arms but this thing is actually really nice to look at. Simple, black, free of clutter, it even kind of resembles an Imperial Shuttle for those with a penchant for “Star Wars” in their homes, something Tacx may or may not own up to having already considered, but seeing the spaceship blueprints of it on the Neo boxes bound for America in the next room it does seem plausible.
Making it all here in Holland is clearly a big deal. The past and a pride in it are a large part of it, obviously, but there is a real focus on the future here. Tech is everything in this game and it’s a playing field scaling up for a bright future. Home training is big business. Riding like a pro in your own living room means something. Having Greipel or Gesink 500 miles away in their living room doing the same thing as you sells trainers. Having California hills and sunshine roll out in front of you while you do it adds fun and engagement. Doing that while inclined at 15 degrees and standing for an immediate sprint of a famous climb on a treadmill that reacts lightning fast to bunch attacks and will not let you ride off the end while you are completely unsupported, free to ride your own bike unchanged from yesterday’s ride in the rain is, well, frankly, mind blowing.
The as-yet-unnamed machine—but we’ll just call it “mental, death-defying conveyor belt of 15-degree genius/lunacy treadmill thing” until they come up with something better— is a real step forward as it were. This new treadmill, about the length of a bike and a half, with its landing lights either side starts up with a magic-wand wave of Sven’s iPhone and off he goes cycling pretty steadily into the Dolomites completely unaided and unsupported at whatever speed he wants. It’s incredible how completely unintuitive it is to watch and yet how easy it seems to use. Your brain is saying “this can’t work, you will end up in that wall,” and yet over and over again I watch him stand and sprint, immediately jumping to large chainring and dropping the imaginary peloton, and still he remains not installed in the wall opposite, the machine not letting him go off the front.
“It is cool to watch, right?” Simon says. An incredible faith in technology, I suggest, you’d have to be pretty sure you weren’t in line to become an ornament on the opposite side of the room. This thing could lead to so many YouTube “fail” videos if they get it wrong, but he seems utterly confident. “This is a final prototype…it’s taken over five years of development and it works well; it will be an important part of the future of training. Robert Gesink has been testing one this year and developing it with us.” My suggestion that they can keep my name for it if they struggle for one before the launch is laughed off as the conversation heads out of the door, switching off the lights as we leave. The potential is clearly huge. It’s a big enough game changer on its own for a club HQ or serious cyclist’s living room, yes, but imagine having them side by side for club training, or even wide enough for a group all together. Perhaps that could be carnage too, but this is still just the beginning and the Dutch have got there first by the looks of it.
A fitting nod to the future as I pack up to head back to a series of trains and my little French village a thousand kilometers away. I leave feeling confidence in this small company with a big heart, its family name on a plaque on the wall as if in a suburban cul-de-sac and yet cutting-edge technology, indeed the future of pro training, sat just feet away behind the front door. I’m left with an impression of genuine belief and a pride in what they do but little feeling of any arrogance about it; a great ability to design and a quiet confidence in the outcome, a knowing. It’s the sort of cultural mindset that might appreciate a Saab.