The morning mist was slowly clearing over the lake at Bielle in northern Switzerland, a town well known as the centre of the renowned precision Swiss watch making industry, and there was not a single cuckoo in sight. It had been years since I’d last by-passed the region, and as the mist cleared I was beginning to wonder why I’d never stopped off before.
There is something special about this place; the Jura Mountains, smaller northern cousins of the Alps, rise up from the sparkling waters of the numerous lakes of the region, making for am amazing backdrop, while the hillsides are all neatly and precisely terraced with vines. All well in order – like everything in this chocolate box country. Weaving between these clustered vineyards are miles of narrow and twisty service roads, and numerous meandering mountain climbs. These are roads that have for a long time not only serviced the vines of the region, but that have also been the home-grown testing ground for the finest Swiss bikes and components, as this is the base of both BMC and DT Swiss, two of the most respected names in the bike business.
Today I was about to find out a whole lot more about DT Swiss, a company whose name meant the finest spokes in the world to me, and to be honest nothing much else. However, company “spokesman” Daniel Berger was about to open my eyes, and much to my surprise, enthral me with the whole DT phenomenon.
The company has two premises in the town; one being the original company building which dates right back to the days when the company was part of a general metal company, and a newer factory on the edge of town, where many of the newer products in the DT catalogue are produced. Following future expansion this will become the sole base in Bielle. The company also now has a spoke production facility and warehouse in Colorado, USA, and an office in Taiwan, the centre of the world as far as bike manufacturing goes. Not in the case of DT; just about everything here is totally Swiss made. Taiwan is currently more of a base for dealing with the supply of DT Swiss products to the endless list of manufacturers who now use them on their bikes.
Over a double espresso Daniel ran me through the basics of DT, but neither of us could take our eyes away from the clearing mist; ”What a great day, maybe we should give you a CD and we could go on our bikes?” He grinned hopefully, and for a moment I almost faltered. The guys at DT are real enthusiasts, and regularly have lunchtime rides into the local hills. This enthusiasm for the product is always good in a specialist market.
Although DT have been around for decades, the “new and evolved” DT has only been in existence since 1994, when some of the then employees pushed through a management buy out and set about expanding the business. For sure they had always had a great name for making top notch spokes, and still do. However, they wanted more, which has lead to DT currently being one of the highest calibre wheel building companies in the world, and almost unique in manufacturing just about everything themselves.
I guess I’d never really given too much thought as to how spokes were made, but when I started to think about, it my mind boggled. DT produce most of their spokes here on the premises. They import expensive high quality material on huge reels from Sweden; these reels then feed the coiled steel through machines that forge and cut the spokes and create the heads. The unique and highly secret DT system for forge butting is the envy of other manufacturers, meaning that the spokes turn out incredibly strong and precisely butted. It is really quite amazing to see. From here the spokes are threaded and cleaned before being packed.
By now I was thinking about nipples, or DT nipples I should say. These are also produced here to keep standards high. Coiled metal is fed through great red vibrating machines; inside rapid firing cams shoot away, and at the other end millions of nipples appear ready to go into the next machine, from which they emerge fully holed and threaded. It’s hard to imagine exactly what goes on inside the machine. Next, some nipples go into another machine where Loctite is injected into them to form the DT Pro Lock nipples.
Just a year after the management buy out (in 95) DT brought out small Swiss hub manufacturer Hugi, and set about producing Hugi- and then DT-branded hubs. From their early beginnings as MTB hubs things have moved on some, and the all-Swiss hubs are now recognised as some of the best in the world. Using their own manufacturing facilities in conjunction with some of the local watch making precision engineers for bearings, as well as specialist local carbon fibre development facilities (as used by BMC), the hubs have now been adapted for the road market. They also form the basis of the DT road wheelsets that are used by many top pro riders and teams.
Although the wheelsets themselves are manufactured on the premises, the actually final wheel build happens at a specialist facility close by. Here the hubs and rims are made (except for the carbon products). Long strips of aluminium are run through extruding machines and the rim is formed and cut. These are then hand fed through a series of machines to join the rim, finish off the joint and make the spoke and valve holes before being cleaned in a giant “dish washer”. The last process here is applying the labels, which is still done by hand. All product batches are highly tested on site too, by an array of machines that stress, measure, and push tolerances to the limit, ensuring the precision and quality you would expect of DT. The next stop is the open road.
It had been an interesting visit to DT, but what really impressed me was not so much the process that transforms bundles of wire into spokes and nipples, but the end products. The DT Swiss name is not only supplied in its own right to many of the leading bike manufacturers. Despite its relatively high price tag, it has also for many years been a supplier to many other leading brands such as Bontrager and Rolf. So it would be very fair to assume that not only did Floyd Landis “win” last years Tour on DT branded wheels, but that at least some of the previous Lance Armstrong victories were also achieved on products rolled out of this same DT factory.