'We have protocols in place to the aid of everyone': Team DSM sports director delivers impassioned response to claims of team being overly strict

The team picked up eight wins in 2021, three coming at the Vuelta a España

Team DSM
(Image credit: Getty)

Matt Wintson, sports director at Team DSM, has passionately defended the men's team work environment in the face of accusations of strictness and individuals being unable to freely express themselves.

In the past two winters, Marc Hirschi, Michael Matthews and Tiesj Benoot have all departed the Dutch team, the trio all reported to have been unhappy with the processes in place.

In December, Belgian broadcaster Sporza quoted an unnamed team personnel as saying:  “The team doesn't realise 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."

But Winston, who joined the team’s coaching staff in January 2019, said that he couldn’t understand the noise around the team, telling Cycling Weekly that “it’s strange when I see these comments.

“We had a guest rider with us on a recent training camp and his feedback was ‘I can’t believe how strict it wasn’t'.

“The guys in the team are having a good time, moving forward. They don’t say it’s too strict. They understand the way of working and how we go together. 

“When people leave the team, or are looking for a different opportunity and they’re asked for their comments, we have this tag that we’re too strict. But I really don’t believe we are too strict. We have a way of working, a protocol in place, and it’s to the aid of everyone.

“We’re confident in the way we work, we believe it’s the right process. I also really stand behind this: as a team I’d never come to you and say that this rider does this or doesn’t do that. That’s not fair.

“We see this stuff, but it’s not us to respond directly and shoot down a person.”

An oft-reported anecdote is that rider Søren Kragh Andersen was told he couldn’t change his saddle height as that wasn’t the business of the rider.

Winston voluntarily brought up this topic. “It’s often said that people want to change their saddle heights but that they have to consult a few people before changes are made," the Briton said.

“It’s true that we don’t make changes on the spot, but people perceive that as us being too strict. The reason we do it is so that everything is logged centrally.

“A WorldTour rider has six or seven bikes, so when a mechanic is making a change by the side of the road but we have no update that the saddle height has been changed, it causes issues as the rider is not able to think about how he can win the race but instead he is busy with his bike. 

“What we try to do is have a central process. We support the guys with a bike fit and those changes are made with an expert. An expert is paid to advise on what they believe is the best, and they may suggest leaving it for three weeks and see how it feels. That is their job.

“We will continue in the way we believe is the best way forward. We are an expert-driven team, like other teams and federations, and we employ experts in their areas of expertise.

“In terms of nutrition, for example, we employ a nutritionist who has invested their time to learn about that particular field. A rider will give input into how their body is feeling, and the expert is in consultation with them and will take the feedback on board and make the decision. 

“We empower people to deliver their insight into their positions of expertise, just like we empower riders when we are talking about ways to win a race. 

“People are saying it is too strict, but look at it another way: doesn’t it sound like quite a smart way of working? I’m always surprised when I see [these comments]. When people don’t want to buy into that, that’s when we get people talking about us having a super-strict protocol. It’s just a process.”

Addressing the allegation of there being too many steps to pass before a decision can be made, Winston said that “only certain people will say that we’re the bad guys”, before robustly defending the procedures.

Team DSM

(Image credit: Getty)

“In your role, if you had six journalists from Cycling Weekly all calling me, I would be saying, ‘do you guys not talk to each other?” he continued.

“Every position needs a process, a way of working, and we want to hold that line. We have respect for the riders, for the experts, and for other people.”

Of the eight new signings for the 2022 season, only the return of John Degenkolb was a headline acquisition, the 33-year-old German coming back to the team after five years away.

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In his first spell, he won Paris-Roubaix, Milan-San Remo and 10 stages of the Vuelta a España. 

Asked if the narrative around the team had made it hard to bring riders in, Winston responded: “You only need to look at Degenkolb. He left the team but he wanted to come back.

“He knows our way of working. We have constructive conversations with each other, we challenge each other, and ask questions of each other. We might say something’s not possible so we have to go in this direction. We’ll look at it, say let’s change something, make it different and we adapt.

“For a lot of riders it really works. [Romain] Bardet and Degenkolb are two of the best riders in the world an they stand behind our way of working. 

“We’re in a place now with riders who are all on the same page, all moving forward in the same direction and that’s key.”

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