My grandparents had very few modern domestic appliances in their home. They were modest folk, but hanging on the wall in pride of place was something better than a washing machine: a Swiss weather barometer. This wooden souvenir was fashioned into a small chalet with two doors. A man popped out of one door with an umbrella when it was cold and wintry, and a jolly-looking milkmaid with pigtails behind the other predicted dry and sunny temperatures.
My grandparents lived in Birmingham, so most of the time both miniatures, like us, were stuck indoors. For some reason, I was fascinated by the piece; perhaps there is something innate in the budding cyclist that attracts us to such simple mechanisms, or that predicting the weather is a cyclist’s main obsession.
But I’m pretty sure that everybody (apart from Herbie Sykes) has a weakness for something Swiss: chocolate, watches, pocket knives, architecture, fondue, skiing, bib shorts, weather chalets, or even bicycle components.
It can be argued that Switzerland has a lot in common with England. On the European nations’ popularity chart, we’re both near the bottom, but for some strange reason everybody around the world loves the stuff we make. Whether it’s Brooks saddles or Bentleys, chocolate or chronographs, the words Made in Britain or Made in Switzerland with the addition of the associated flag motif still have considerable clout.
Alright, it’s fair to say that bicycle components aren’t perhaps the first thing you’ll think of when considering Swiss engineering, and when speccing a new bike, Italian or Japanese parts will be top of most lists. But travel back a few years, to the mid-’80s to be precise, and there were a few more options available to the bike builder.
The Freewheel catalogue – the glossy and colourful alternative to Ron Kitching’s monochromatic pamphlet Everything Cycling – was published by fledgling UK bike distributor Madison and contained a selection of cycling bits for the coming season. Me and my riding mates would read and memorise it. Wish lists of parts and frames where duly assembled, what frame we’d have with what bits – none of which we’d ever buy – but top of all our lists was the Swiss-made Edco Competition chainset.
To say this was a thing of beauty was an understatement. Where Campagnolo and Shimano had the gears sorted, Edco’s crank had smooth modern lines and space-age tech. It was almost sculptural.
With this, Edco established the Swiss flag in bicycle lore, and along with Assos aero rims, pedals and bib shorts, the more utilitarian Weinmann brake and the incredible work of Zurich-based ICS Design (they customised Campagnolo and similar Italian parts), Switzerland quickly developed a stable of soundly-made bike bits.
As a company, DT Swiss came a little later to this burgeoning Swiss cycling tradition. Housed in an old steel mill in Biel at the foot of the Jura mountains, DT was founded in 1993 through a management buyout of metalworking company Vereinigte Drahtwerke AG, which made a multitude of different metal parts, mainly with wire.
In the new brand name, the letter D stands for Drahtwerke, which is German for “wire works”, and the T for Tréfileries, which is French for “wire works”, so DT reflects the origins of the modern Swiss nation and those of the company.
The wire works that DT took over had already been going for more than 50 years. Much has changed at the factory, but there is still a river that runs through and under it which used to feed into an attached water mill originally used to power the forges and machines in the factory. These days the melting snow, rapidly on its way towards the lakes of Biel, Neuchâtel and Murten, adds power to the national grid.
Next to a flamboyant Italian paint finish, chrome spokes were one of those things that made your bike look pro in the ’80s. Chrome double-butted spokes were the thing that separated your average racer from a real racer’s bike, even if they did fail and fatigue after a few seasons’ use. Galvanised steel was the dull alternative, but along with sprint mudguards and centre-pull brakes, they were of the budget mainstream, only for utilitarian racing bikes.
One of the first rites of passage towards becoming a true racer was a pair of racing sprint wheels – tubular rims laced on to Campagnolo hubs with chrome spokes, all of which would be assembled by a craftsman, your local wheel builder.
Perhaps the most underrated of cycle technicians, the wheel builder was the person who would lace and dish, glue and inflate, true and balance, and present you with a pair of hand built wheels, made especially for you. Sometimes they are custom-tweaked to suit a purpose, and the trouble a wheel builder will go to is something you will struggle to match with a pair of average factory wheels.
Like a mechanically wound handmade watch, they will last longer, roll sweeter and bring a smile to your face every time you look at them. Call me a Luddite if you like, but these things, as all professional riders know, are good for morale. While chrome-plated spokes sparkled magically in the sun, they cracked and rusted in the wet, so stainless steel slowly took over as spoke companies realised it was a far more durable material to hang rims on.
Stainless wire is impossibly strong, so butting the stuff took a fair level of investment and machinery to perfect. But there was only one choice in stainless steel spokes when I started building wheels: DT Double Butted Competition.
In the same way Reynolds steel tubing did decades before with 531, DT developed a unique butting process. They can make a spoke with thick ends and thin centre sections, or just a single butt. They can flatten the centre section for aero wheels and they can make spokes of varying diameters along its length. This butting process is unique to DT, and it is the only company able to produce triple butted spokes.
Other manufacturers machine the spoke threads or draw them through tools, whereas DT’s method is a process of cold forging and rolling the threads onto the wire. This process also makes them exceptionally strong. The raw material that DT uses is an 18/10 mixture of stainless steel (18 per cent chrome and ten per cent nickel) made in Sweden and delivered to the factory in huge rolls of wire. It is the highest possible grade that DT can get for spoke.
What’s really remarkable about DT, though, is the consistency, care and precision it puts into all of its spokes. It is hard to see why a piece of wire could be such a complex component, but as any wheel builder will tell you, DT spokes are faultless.
DT now makes and delivers around 200 million spokes every year, which equates to around 6,250,000 wheels. But as spoke demand shifted from small wheel builders to huge factories, DT realised early on its business needed to shift too. William Hügi took much of what Mavic had perfected with sealed cartridge bearings and added lighter internal parts to create radical hub designs which had an immediate impact on wheel builders.
Hügi’s hubs where especially popular with the mountain bike fraternity at the start of the 1990s, and he also invented the early ratchet freewheel system which uses a pair of facing plates with serrations in them rather than the usual pawls that most of the competition use. This means that the freewheel is nigh-on impossible to wear out, it can easily be serviced and replaced, and with some clever milling and machining it can be made impossibly light, which helps to make the current 240 road hub set one of the lightest available.
In 1995, DT bought the Hügi name and patents. Although the freewheel can be a little noisy, this is another silent success story for the company, because many wheel manufacturers trust its hubs. Bontrager, Specialized, Lightweight and Oval, for example, use DT hardware, and lots of others use its spokes and nipples. The DT name is always clearly used in wheel catalogues for the simple reason that a wheel built with their hubs or spokes holds considerable cache.
I thought I knew a fair bit about bicycle wheels until my wheel building world was turned upside down a few years ago at a Gerd Schraner master class. An elderly man with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy, Gerd is a former Six-Day mechanic and builder to some of the biggest stars in professional cycling. He showed us how to lace wheels, how to bed spokes in and how every wheel’s spokes must be tied and soldered.
He taught us why spoke washers are a good idea, why spoke tension must be measured with a spoke tensionometer and how in-bound spokes must be wound tighter than outbound spokes. I could go further if we had the space, but it took a couple of days for Gerd to pass on all he knew about what it takes for a wheel to “stand”.
Much of this was terrifying to me, especially watching him smash the spoke elbow ends into the hub holes with a nail punch, but as Gerd says: “This is what I do and I know my wheels stand. Take what you like from what I do, but whatever happens, a wheel must stand.” He made a very good point, and although building a pair of wheels only takes a few hours to do, it takes years of practice to get them to “stand” and to keep them standing.
But what is important in this quest for true rolling wheels with longevity? Spoke, hub and rim selection isn’t as diverse as it once was because many manufacturers have now, sadly, pursued the complete wheel option, which has meant rims and hubs are less important in their ranges. But south London’s Bob Arnold, another wheel building guru, once told me to forget all you know about component choice, as it is not the key issue.
What really matters is the spoke length: get this part right and the wheel will be strong and serviceable. Do not compromise this element of the build and you’ll have a great pair of wheels. You can have the finest hubs, tyres and rims money can buy, but if they are poorly assembled by an amateur, the result can be worthless.
As bike science becomes more advanced, I am probably not alone in realising that much of the wheel choice debate is based more on a rider’s taste than real technical know-how and understanding. The psychological advantage a pair of prototype wheels can have on a peloton of equipment obsessed riders is immense.
I’ve seen pro riders stare wide-eyed at fellow competitors’ bikes when “wearing” something new, and they can behave like envious drag queens at a parade. And the fuss team mechanics take over wheel preparation for specialist races, especially the cobbled Classics, would bemuse Elton John’s florist.
At the Classics, wheel choice has always fascinated me, as standard wheels are still the choice of most pros, whereas the deep section aero wheelsets are saved for sunny roads and Grand Tours. But why? I always thought that the standard kidney-shaped sprint rim for tubular tyres was more comfortable because the cross-section shape was more “springy” than a clincher rim or a deep-section aero wheel. And I was always led to believe that a radial laced wheel is less forgiving than a wheel built with three crossing spokes.
The thought is logical enough, but it now appears I was very wrong. Campagnolo and the University of Padova have done extensive research into wheel comfort and rolling resistance. The results are particularly intriguing for stalwarts of the traditions of wheel building, and their findings are based more on the size and quality of the tyre than the wheel.
They conclude that tyre choice is the main factor in comfort, with rim construction and wheel components bearing very little influence in the overall feel of the wheel. Scientific studies by many other wheel manufacturers concur with Campagnolo’s findings that the wheel shape, rim section, spoke count and the like aren’t the biggest comfort factors because most wheels, regardless of design, deflect impacts a similar amount. And it is a very small amount, because most bicycle wheels are very strong indeed.
Contrary to popular belief, the wheel’s rim weight seems to be the issue when rolling across rough ground because a lighter wheel bounces more frequently than a heavy one. In simple terms, the bounces are less frequent and a bit longer with a heavier wheel, hence the feeling of comfort.
Now add in the accepted knowledge about aerodynamic wheel rims, where experts say that the deep section wheel will help the pros bridge gaps faster with their aerodynamic advantage but that in all situations a solid, strong wheel which doesn’t deflect in any direction is better.
So if you ride the cobbles in anger, your wheel needs to be strong and your rim reasonably heavy, yet many tests of hand built standard wheels next to their deep-section counterparts are certainly not always favourable of the old ways when it comes to strength. The result is that more of the riders and mechanics are now thinking more about the tyre profile and using a fatter one, so supple tyres and the new tubeless ones are being fully tested by professional teams. Sadly, the days of 32-hole Ambrosio Nemesis rims, Dugast tyres and silver hubs at the spring Classics may perhaps be coming to an end.
This is turning into a bit of a wheel obsessive’s confessional, and I’m struggling a bit, too, as there isn’t any science at all to my previous theories. But you won’t be surprised to hear I’m not completely convinced. The science may be well researched and accurate, but there’s something about a hand built wheel that feels different to a deep section race wheel.
The realisation of the above facts is pretty tough too, as I don’t care to remember how many times I’ve written about the wheel comfort issue and seemingly got it all arse-ways up – it’s all been an assumption, so apologies if I misled anyone in the past. Nevertheless, as far as I am concerned, a good pair of supple tubs on an old pair of favourite hand built wheels makes me smile. So it’s clearly all about morale.
With all this shifting in wheel philosophy, what about the future for the humble stainless spoke? When we visited, DT’s quirky old factory was a month or so away from closing. Its new plant will be an impressive purpose-built facility, away from Biel’s town centre, right next to the huge, green marble-clad offices and laboratories of Rolex watches. All the high-end wheels and rims are made here and will continue to be this way for the foreseeable future.
DT is open about the fact that it makes spokes in Taiwan for all those pre-assembled wheels that appear on lower-end mainstream bicycles, their Asian plant is equipped with the same Swiss designed machines for butting and the result is akin to what is produced in the Biel facility. But as the red and green boxes of spokes pile high in their spoke store, I can’t help but hope that builders like Bob Arnold and Gerd Schraner will be around for a little while longer.
As Cav’s front wheel folded in half at the finish line pile-up in Wettingen on stage four of the Tour of Switzerland the following day, I wondered how a hand built wheel would have fared in the same circumstances. Post-crash, his bent bike was propped up against the crowd barriers, and it was hard to tell what had happened. It looked in pretty good shape, and apart from a few pulled stainless spokes, the wheels still went round.
Of all the elements of the bicycle, in the years to come it’ll probably be the spoke that remains the same, just as it has done for decades. It’s the last steel part of the bike and the one that’s changed the least. You can’t really make them from anything else – just ask Mark Cavendish.