DSM at the Tour de France.

‘Soviet regime’ or team-first mindset? Reports paint complex picture of the DSM approach

Media reports shed light on the internal workings of Team DSM.

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With the DSM team back in the headlines this week as Tiesj Benoot officially joined the likes of Marcel Kittel, Tom Dumoulin, Michael Matthews, and several others in leaving the team before his initial contract was up, reports from both Wielerflits and Sporza have shed some light on the internal workings of the organization and the way its methods are perceived by those involved.

A number of individuals either currently or formerly connected to the team offered their perspectives across the multiple reports. Perhaps unsurprisingly, team manager Iwan Spekenbrink defended the team’s approach in an interview published by Wielerflits, and some of those quoted by Sporza also spoke to the laudable aspects of the team culture as well. Others were less kind in their assessments, with several criticizing the strictness of the environment at DSM. One anonymous source went so far as to liken the squad to a “Soviet regime.”

Over the past few seasons, the machinations that have led to the various departures of high-profile riders have typically been kept out of the public eye, but comments from current and former pros have often painted a picture of a rigid team structure at DSM, formerly known as Giant-Alpecin and Sunweb. At times, the organization’s successes have suggested that the team’s methods could bear impressive results; at other times, riders evidently found themselves incompatible with the team’s culture.

Judgments about just how strict and uncompromising the team really is, and how effective or not its approach can be, will of course all vary depending on whom you ask, and the differing opinions expressed by those interviewed by Wielerflits and Sporza this week confirm that some see great value in the DSM approach, while others find it untenable. In an in-depth interview with Dutch cycling news outlet Wielerflits, Spekenbrink addressed the notion of his team’s rigidity, while several riders, some named and others anonymous, gave their perspective to Sporza in a two-part piece from the Belgian network.

Spekenbrink defended the atmosphere at the team and gave his perspective on why DSM continues to work the way that it does.

“The only thing we are strict about is respect for each other. And we insist that we need each other,” Spekenbrink told Wielerflits when asked about the notion of having a “strict vision” at the team. “Everyone in his role must make the other stronger. If that becomes ‘fighting’ each other’s responsibilities, we are expending energy on the wrong things and we are intervening. Everything else is negotiable. And that’s what we want.”

The opinions of those interviewed by Sporza were more diverse. Longtime team member Bert De Backer, who closed out his professional career this season after four years at the B&B Hotels-KTM squad, was one of those who did have some good things to say about the DSM model (in addition to offering criticism).

“Introduce 80 percent of what Team DSM does to other teams and those teams will all become top teams,” De Backer said, according to Sporza.

“DSM focuses on science and standardizes everything. Each rider’s water bottle contains the same content, regardless of the staff member responsible for it. The chance that your first, second, and third bike will be equal at DSM is much greater than with other teams and so on.”

DSM racing the team time trial at the Tour of Britain.

Zico Waeytens, who retired in 2019, also noted that “learned a lot” regarding training and leading-out from his time at the team, which stretched from 2015 to 2017.

Several anecdotes, however, paint the picture of a team whose insistence on governing even minute details of rider life went beyond the norm.

“The rules were extreme, especially in the clothing area,” an anonymous source told Sporza. “On certain occasions you had to wear a long jacket. On the starting podium you sometimes had to wear gloves, other times no one was allowed to keep their gloves on.”

Waeytens echoed that sentiment.

“After the Clasica San Sebastian, the team called me once: ‘You’ve worked well. Tom Dumoulin was super happy with you,’ it said. ‘But we did see that you didn’t have your podium cap on when you started signing the start sheet,'” Waeytens explained.

“They were whining about all those little things. But as a rider you don’t want to be involved in that. You mainly want to train and compete.”

At least according to some, the team’s rigid application of its methods seems to stretch across a wide variety of areas of rider life.

“Riders are also not allowed to deviate a millimeter from their training schedule. “Woe to you if you had trained a little bit differently for a day,” an unnamed rider told Sporza. “You immediately got on the phone with an angry staff member and you had to justify yourself.

“They had a protocol for everything. It was really extreme. And every year new rules were added. Rules that get on riders’ nerves.”

Further anonymous sources described a feeling of being “treated like little children.”

Stories about the need to jump through proverbial hoops simply to get the team’s approval to raise saddle height have already circulated for months, and Waeytens confirmed having had a similar experience, while De Backer said that “if you thought you needed more powder in your water bottle, that had to be investigated first. You then had to undergo all kinds of tests that had to show that you effectively burn more energy during an effort.”

Others directed more pointed criticism at the team.

“The team doesn’t realize it’s working with humans instead of robots. They want 33 riders who all 33 do the same and think the same. But actually you are dealing with 33 individuals,” Sporza quoted one anonymous rider as having said.

“Each rider has a different character and a different position within the team. For some this works and for others that works. Riders should actually be treated differently within a team.”

Another unnamed source went even further.

“Cycling is a team sport. But at DSM they focus on the whole in such a way that your personal ambitions are not fulfilled,” that source said. “The team actually felt communist, there is a Soviet regime. The individual does not count, everything revolves around the big picture.”

For many of those with negative opinions on the way the squad is run, the inflexible nature of management seems to be a sticking point, compounded by what some see as management’s unwillingness to see themselves at fault.

“If you have a discussion with Spekenbrink and [sport director Rudi] Kemna, you will not reach a compromise,” said one unnamed rider. “With every counter-argument you make, they keep repeating their same point of view. After a while you think, ‘They don’t get it.’

“As a rider you no longer feel understood and you lose the courage to talk to the sporting leadership. People leave the team because they no longer feel understood.”

Those rider departures, of course, have been the source of increasing questions being asked about the team’s management in the cycling media. In his interview with Wielerflits, Spekenbrink noted that his objective is team unity, and that it is not uncommon for athletes to come and go from teams in other sports.

“In all team sports, there are times when an athlete is dropped from the roster or even pushed for an outbound transfer to protect group dynamics and the passion to deliver. Usually those moments are valuable and even contribute to the development of the athlete. But sometimes not, and then we know and accept that it will end in an exit,” he said.

“It’s easy to just give someone what they want and keep the athlete so happy. But above all, we want to keep the entire group that wants to go for that goal satisfied. That is why we occasionally draw such a line. So in essence it is no different than in all other team sports, but in cycling it is indeed a bit more unusual.”

He also addressed the topic of how much of what goes on behind the scenes is – or isn’t, as tends to be the case – made public, and the way that lack of information contributes to perceptions of the team. Marc Hirschi, for instance, left the squad for UAE Team Emirates roughly one year ago, and did so apparently having signed a non-disclosure agreement, leaving questions about what caused the split unanswered.

Asked why the team would not say why Hirschi left, Spekenbrink responded, “Because we are loyal. That is also one of our qualities. We’re not just going to throw the athlete under the bus. Nobody is perfect. It is human for a rider or colleague to function less well, and therefore he is not a bad person. Team DSM loves cycling and the people who devote their lives to it. So we’re not going to embarrass anyone publicly. But that’s why it’s good that we can explain this to you again, even if we don’t mention names.”

Whatever specifics led to the departure of Hirschi, Benoot, Matthews, Kittel, Dumoulin, and the rest, it seems clear that Spekenbrink isn’t planning to overhaul the team’s approach. Some question whether the squad can still attract top talent while sticking to the same methods. As one anonymous rider quoted by Sporza put it, “Which rider or manager still dares to go to DSM to sign a contract there?”

Spekenbrink, however, was optimistic about the future in his conversation with Wielerflits, even after a challenging 2021 season in which the team accrued fewer UCI points than any team on the WorldTour, and even with several talented riders leaving. He seems confident that the team has put together a roster that will have “a very good season next year” after the team’s first offseason training camp.

“We looked very carefully and thought about what we needed,” he said. “At our first meeting I noticed a very good vibe, mindset and dynamics.”

Only time will tell whether DSM can bounce back from a down year in 2021, though Spekenbrink has reason to be optimistic based on the team’s track record. Up-and-comers like Kittel, Dumoulin, and John Degenkolb blossomed into stars with the team over the past decade, and as recently as 2020, the squad racked up four Grand Tour stage wins and saw Jai Hindley, a rider hardly mentioned as a contender in pre-Giro d’Italia previews, finish second overall in the race.

In the “what have you done for me lately” environment of professional sport, however, DSM’s underwhelming 2021 campaign coupled with its frequent appearances in the headlines as a team that one rider after another have hastened to leave early may have turned up the pressure to produce results.

Whether or not Spekenbrink and Co. can keep things running smoothly in 2022 and get back into the headlines for winning bikes races – and not for bidding farewell to big names – will be a major storyline to watch as the next season unfolds.

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