Only my second time in the Netherlands, I alight the last in a long day of train carriages that have backdropped the Alps and Pyrenees, three countries and two capitals. Of all the neighbours 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 their culture of design. This is the place that actually builds those radical forward thinking bright coloured modern buildings other nations’ architects dream of making but emigrate to create. This is the home of ‘Rem Koolhaas’ and ‘Droog’ of trendy kettles and interesting coffee tables. After the scandinavians, this is the European country that most liked Saabs.
Driving through the Rotterdam rush hour on our way to the Tacx factory what becomes immediately apparent is the volume of cyclists in this country. It is said there are two bikes for each Dutch person and this is born out from a back seat window passing train station racks and shop fronts. My hosts Sven Roeggen and third generation family employee – Simon Tacx agree as they explain some of the history of two wheels in around here and in this family of cycling. Stories of grandfather, Koos Tacx repairing bikes for people, move to early roller designs and on to the state of the global business in hi-tech trainers Tacx has become. In his eighties 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 hand shakes welcome through the front door, passed offices working quietly as we head 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 spell PR perfectly for the camera, but this is actually a bit gritty and real feeling. The smiles are there, but they don’t get in the way of the tasks in hand and look to see I don’t either. Outfits are pretty worn in by what is in some cases decades of service working the heavy metal in these huge rooms.
Guided to a quieter workshop to the side of the main operation where a genuine grin with warm eyes and a flat top haircut eagerly greets. 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 moulds are created that make all the parts that make up the trainers 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 to this lot you have to try and make it all in house if possible. Design, tooling, moulds, small nylon bits, huge steel parts, magnets, electronics, pretty much the lot being created within these halls. Edwin shows me small copper moulds 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 born in this room. Wrapped and lined in old oil cloths on steel work benches they seem like ancient alphabets from the printing presses of old civilisations. 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 that 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 gaining background noise, we pass conveyors collecting drinking bottles spat out by moulding machines that then drive them round in figure of eights 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 programme to be able to personalise your bidon…’no reason why not I suppose‘ the answer comes back. 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 half remember in time. Busy hands in huge gloves stained almost as if made of steel themselves transfer smoking tubes between wooden crates. Plonked on top of each other bluntly they actually stack up really neatly, piles of carefully bent shapes raw in their silvery grey hue and heat treated patterns they are almost organic looking, as if the whole process was designed by 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 the local steel is being used, the guy working it has been doing it for more than two decades, of 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 of, but this is seriously impressive.
Teams stand around asymmetric steel central 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 too at the other end of the process before it leaves the building. This new training machine strikes me as more than just a very clever piece of engineering, 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 sci-fi in their living rooms, something they 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 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 Griepel or Gesink 500miles away in their living room doing the same thing as you sells trainers. Having Californian hills and sunshine roll out in front of you while you do it adds fun and engagement. Doing it while inclined at 15degrees and standing for an immediate sprint of a famous climb on a treadmill that reacts lightening quick 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 but we’ll just call it, ‘mental, death defying conveyor belt of 15degree 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 it’s 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 just 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 were’nt 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.” I suggest they can keep my name for it if they struggle for one before the launch, laughing he says, “We have some ideas on names“. The potential is clearly huge. It’s a big enough game changer on it’s 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 far 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 kilometres away. I leave feeling confidence in this small company with a big heart, it’s 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. The sort of cultural mindset that might appreciate a Saab perhaps.
First published in Peloton Magazine.
© Augustus Farmer 2015