Finely tuned machines: the pro team staff who help push technical innovation

Team DSM Head Mechanic Ed Bekhuis and R&D Expert Piet Rooijakkers work together to give their riders every possible technical advantage. They gave us an inside look at their continuous quest for technical gains, from race day routines to blue-sky projects 

In the sometimes fickle world of professional cycling, it’s satisfying to see the relationships that endure, and especially those which transcend the commercial to genuinely achieve that most over-used of phrases – partnership. Add value; rise together. Improve the product; make the team faster. 

Team DSM began as Shimano-Memory Corp in 2005. In the 16 years since it has been through seven further names and is currently on its sixth bike brand. One sponsor, however, has been constant through it all. The Japanese component giant, Shimano, has been there every step of the way and the closely collaborative relationship is now unique in the peloton, to the point that Team DSM head mechanic Ed Bekhuis and R&D expert Piet Rooijakkers have been hands-on for months already with what is arguably 2021’s most hotly anticipated new product.

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The Mechanic

The majority of WorldTeam level race mechanics have long resumés. Experience, of course, is one of the most sought-after attributes by teams. Few, though, have quite the length and breadth of that of Ed Berkhuis, Head Mechanic for Team DSM.

In a career that already spans over 25 years – he can’t actually remember the exact number – Ed has worked in mountain biking, cyclo-cross and road racing, all at elite level. Within mountain biking, he helped to develop Shimano XTR Di2 and moved through 26- to 27.5- to 29-inch wheels. Notably, he was there for the arrival of disc brakes in each discipline.

More than the technology shifts, it’s the riders that stand out. “It’s really special to think back about the people I have worked with,” says Ed. “Frischknecht, Schurter…”

That’s cross-country mountain bike royalty, 1996 world champion Thomas Frischknecht and eight-time world champion Nino Schurter. On the road side, Team DSM’s previous incarnations include spectacular periods of dominance for Marcel Kittel in the sprints, a Giro d’Italia title for Tom Domoulin, and a brace of Monuments for John Degenkolb. Ed continues to work in cyclo-cross with the Dutch Federation, which, suffice to say, has seen its share of talents, too.

The value placed in his cross-discipline experience is clear in the fact that his first job in road cycling was with this team, having joined back in 2014. Now head mechanic, it’s an intense working life, as Ed explains:

“I’m away from home for 120-150 days in the season, with about another 40 days working at the service course, which is close to my home. The CX season starts as the road season closes, so there’s no off-season for me, just some smaller breaks after the Spring Classics and the Tour. I really like it this way.

“The most stressful days are time-trials. For TTs, you’re setting up all the bikes, getting them on and off the turbo trainers at the start and finish, changing wheels, loading the team car for each of the riders… The start times are all spread out. You’re very busy all day.”

But occasionally, the job gifts a mechanic an easy shift. “If you’re in the second team car when you have no one in the break, it’s really calm. You can sleep a bit!”

And the most rewarding days on the job? “When the team wins, that’s nice, of course, but for me it’s when a day goes smoothly, when everything goes in a good way. We have a really good group at DSM. The team atmosphere is really important – you make long days, you’re away from home. You work at a high level, but you must enjoy it, too.”

To prevent the Groundhog Day effect biting at longer races, the team rotates the three mechanics between the first and second team cars and ‘hotel days’. “These are a little bit of a rest for us,” says Ed, “but then we clean the bikes after the stage and pack the truck ready for the next day.

“Usually, I’m head mechanic. At the Critérium du Dauphiné, for instance, I was second and Martijn Don was the responsible guy. He stepped up and I gave him feedback. The head mechanic is responsible for packing everything at the service course, choosing what to take.”

Most race days follow a similar pattern; starting at 8am for breakfast; then preparing the team cars, which takes an hour and a half. If you ever get a chance, look inside one on the morning of a race. They’re always freshly valeted inside and out, with everything in its place. You’ll never see a DS or mechanic rummaging in the glovebox for that thing they were sure was in there somewhere. 

“When the cars are ready, we do our final checks on the bikes,” says Ed. “We calibrate all the power meters and set the tyre pressures. These are worked out jointly by Piet and our tyre partner, Vittoria, and they’re personalised to each rider’s weight.

“Our evening depends on the race and the transfer to the next hotel, and also the traffic getting off the mountain if it’s a summit finish. On a good day we have around two hours of work to clean and fix everything. We get dinner at 10-11pm, then have a small meeting about the next day and hopefully get to bed by midnight.”

The specifically calculated tyre pressures are just one part of the ‘Expert Plan’ produced by Piet for each stage, advising equipment choices. “The riders can make their own choices, but you hope they follow Piet,” says Ed. “We’re really an expertise-driven team.”

In some respects, the answer is ‘keep it simple’, and surprisingly so in the case of gearing. “All of our lighter C40 wheels keep 11-30 cassettes, and the more aero C60 wheels have 11-28,” says Ed. “We also have 11-32 for extreme mountain days in the Giro and Vuelta, but you don’t need it in France.” 

Is the 11-25 really dead, we ask, even for sprint days? “Riders are used to the gaps now. Honestly, I can’t tell you why they don’t prefer a more closely-spaced 11-25 cassette on flat days.”

Perhaps it’s because super-fast sections, such as the final 5km on a sprint stage, keep getting faster while the powerful riders driving the bunch at 65kph in those moments are still climbing at the same speeds and need the 28-tooth sprocket to offset bigger chainrings. “We have some riders who are standard on 54/40,” says Ed, “and we use up to 58t for a TT.” 

As a mechanic who has worked through all of the most significant technology shifts of the last 20 years, what does Ed think of the latest moves towards tubeless tyres and fully internal cabling?

“I go for safety. When you flat a tubular you can still ride your bike in a good way. They do take a lot longer for us to change, though. I think the future will be tubeless. So far, we’re using them a lot in TTs and in training.

“Fully internal cabling means that it takes a lot more time to build the bikes, but I think it looks a lot better. They are really race machines now. Anyway, if the rumours are to be believed, maybe we can skip most of the Di2 cables.”

Hold the phone! Say what? Has the team seen something new from Shimano, and what can Ed tell us about it?

“Ah, not much!” he responds. “As you saw at the Baloise Belgium Tour we have done some testing with various new Shimano products, and we have seen some very interesting things at the service course,” he says, but for now he can’t say much more. “Shimano always works very consistently, so I think with anything new we’ll see a step forward but something that doesn’t feel too different to the previous iteration.”

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How much testing of the unreleased products does the team generally do? 

“Well, for instance, two riders had a recent Shimano prototype at home,” Ed says, but cannot disclose what sort of products. “Piet chose these riders.”

It’s time we spoke to Piet.

The R&D Expert

No small talk. Tell us about the team’s involvement with the development of new Shimano products, Piet.

“Our riders are always available to do lots of test kilometres during winter training to give our feedback back to Shimano. Shimano looks at the wear on the parts then we move to second and third versions, and then to a version which will be ‘race-tested’ somewhere .”

If there’s one thing you can rely on professional riders to do, it’s ride a lot of kilometres, so this collaboration isn’t too surprising, but the timescale is.

“Our first involvement with Shimano’s current project was in December 2020,” says Piet, indicating that Shimano runs through numerous iterations with teams before hitting the market.

But a more accurate characterisation is that Team DSM simply never stops contributing to new products because communication between the partners is continuous.

“They don’t ask just one time,” says Piet. “It’s constant feedback. They track everything we use so they have a great understanding of what we need and we have weekly contact to discuss projects. I often try to surprise them but it’s really hard to do. They always seem to know what’s coming.

“We are not a team that uses a lot of prototype product in races. Maybe in TTs, to get every advantage early. In a normal road race, reliability is much more important. Shimano likes to keep an eye on the bigger picture and then leave us to execute in the races.”

Himself a pro rider with Skil-Shimano from 2006 to 2010, Piet was perhaps destined for this role. “I was one of the first riders to use Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 in a race so that really got me interested in this side of things.” Piet returned to the team in his new role for the 2019 season.

Liaising with Shimano is only one aspect of Piet’s role as Team DSM’s R&D Expert. “It’s all about faster, more aero, lighter, more comfortable equipment, everything from cleats to helmet, tyres to saddle,” he explains. It breaks down into two parts: product development and product selection.

Part one is future focused. “We develop an idea, we get it ready, we test…” says Piet. “It begins with mapping our product needs. Perhaps we have noticed that we’re missing something. We have two scientists within the team, searching for novelties and innovations to work on with a partner.

“Sometimes the best item isn’t available, so you partner with another brand and look to the future, aiming to develop the best product together.”

If this all sounds a little too sponsor-cosy, be assured that there is real integrity and performance focus behind every partnership choice. When the right partner can’t be found, Team DSM isn’t afraid to go it alone.

“We’re making our own clothing this year because it allows us to go further than we have been able to previously with a partner brand,” says Piet. “For instance, we can apply aerodynamics to more products and make more regular updates.”

The team’s testing is as robust as you should (by now) expect, with carefully managed protocols for both methods and reporting.

“We test equipment in the wind tunnel and rider positions in the velodrome,” says Piet. The wind tunnel is the most controlled environment, allowing for very precise and repeatable tests of equipment across a range of wind speeds and angles. 

However, it can actually be too controlled for testing rider positions because it allows them to get into a position that they wouldn’t be able to hold while putting out big power on the road. That’s where the velodrome comes in, blending enough control of the environment with the opportunity to ride hard. A final validation step is sometimes carried out on the road using a pitot tube – a sensor that measures the wind speed and which can be combined with the rider’s power data to crosscheck the wind tunnel results.

Even this doesn’t satisfy the team. “We have our own research project in partnership with the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. It’s called ‘Ring of Fire’ and it evaluates aerodynamics through a method of flow visualisation called particle image velocimetry.” The project scaled up this method to enable testing of a moving rider, using a laser to capture the displacement of helium-filled soap bubbles as the rider passes through a short tunnel. 

Compared to that, the second part of Piet’s role seems straightforward, though it’s anything but.

“Part two is that I produce what we call the ‘Expert Plan’ for every race. This is a set of recommendations for gearing, wheels, helmet, clothing and tyre pressures, to give our riders the best equipment for the day. 

“I study every parcours for our Elite team, usually with two squads racing at the same time in different places, our Women’s team, and our U23 team. I look at the profile, the total climbing, the road surface and the weather. We know the weight and the CdA of every piece of equipment, and we have a computer model to simulate the effects of changes of equipment.

“As a former rider, it’s a little easier for me to speak with the riders about their needs. Afterwards we compare the performances of riders who made different choices using the power data and this helps us to develop our process.”

When you see Team DSM at the Tour de France this July, consider the depth and intensity of the work that went into equipping the squad. They don’t just rock up at the start line, you know. Technological knowhow is crucial in the modern peloton. And Shimano is at the cutting edge.

Produced in collaboration with Shimano

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