"I've Experienced Worse Things." Max Riese on the Journey to the Ultracycling Olympus
Max Riese is a 32-year-old ultracyclist from Salzburg who recently finished the ultimate Hellenic Mountain Race in Greece in 3rd place and Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan in 11th place, both on his Joyseat. What was it like to navigate through mud and snowdrifts on a bike? And how did Max even transition from road cycling to extreme unsupported racing? Max revealed it all during a lengthy phone interview.
Pay attention to what you follow on Instagram. It can change your life, at least according to Max Riese, an ultracyclist and Joyseat ambassador. One day, Max, still a road cyclist at the time, stumbled upon the Silk Road Mountain Race's profile on social media, one of the toughest unsupported ultraraces in the world. And he was instantly captivated. He immersed himself in photos, was enchanted by the beauty of the Kyrgyz landscape, learned about a new culture, and followed the movement of pins on the racers' map.
Before they reached the finish line, he knew – this was the race for him. He wanted to participate. He trained hard for an entire year, leaving everything else aside. So few participants make it to the finish line... and he wanted to be one of them. So, in 2019, he lined up at the start – and succeeded. 1700 km, 31,000 meters of elevation gain, 11 days, 6 hours, and 44 minutes later, he could wear the finisher's jersey. And that was in a year when DNF (Did Not Finish) was the fate of nearly 50% of the starters. Among other things, he realized on the way that he could be faster next time. He also decided to not just live with cycling but make a living from it. He left his job, changed his training regimen, and founded GRAVGRAV, an online magazine dedicated to mapping interesting cycling tourist routes in various regions of Central Europe.
What fascinated Max about racing? "I feel at home within the ultracommunity. I've never experienced anything like it in road cycling or mountain biking. When you start with ultracycling, everyone else seems like superhumans achieving the unattainable. And suddenly, you're at the starting line with the best; you're one of them," he says. "This doesn't happen anywhere else. You can't just participate in the Tour de France because you want to. It's different in ultrasport. At the beginning, I was shy and wondered what I was doing here. But nobody made me feel like I was new here," Max reflects.
From Kyrgyzstan, he went on to race in Morocco at the famous Atlas Mountain Race. Initially, he managed two to three events a year, but today, the number has settled at five. That's the maximum his body can handle: "During the race, I completely exhaust myself, and I need at least fourteen days of rest before I can train a bit again. I accumulate a huge sleep deficit and lose a lot of weight, so recovery is crucial. I sleep and eat as much as I can. The most important thing is to regain everything."
Recovery is one thing, but how do you prepare for a race where you don't sleep for several days, barely eat, and no one can help you? When Max raced on the road, he had a coach, and everything was structured. Nowadays, it's a bit different: "I'm sponsored by Wahoo, I train according to their plan, and when I need to, I can consult with them about anything. But in essence, training is relatively straightforward – I combine long easy efforts with two to twenty-minute intervals. I go to the gym three times a week, where I don't lift heavy weights but focus on strengthening my core and stabilizers. The key is to pedal as smoothly as possible and maintain a fixed position for a long time. Many people have issues with neck muscles, which can be resolved through exercise. I also focus a lot on stability, which makes it easier for me to move in terrain," Max reveals.
One of 2023’s ultra event Max participated in was the highly watched Hellenic Mountain Race – a 938-kilometer route through the Greek mountains with an elevation gain of around 29,000 meters. Besides the challenging terrain, participants had to contend with exceptionally harsh weather. Cold, rain, mud, snow. Cycling forums were flooded with photos of exhausted riders trudging through snowdrifts. "We knew in advance that the weather would be bad," Max remarks. "We received a message to adjust our gear accordingly. I took a warmer sleeping bag just to be safe," he continues. "It was much colder than you would expect from Greece. There was snow on the mountain ridges, but it was actually okay. You just had to be careful not to slip. The organizers also cleared the path for the slower riders. There was a lot of mud, the trails were challenging, and it was slippery. It was more technical and much slower, but somehow it worked out," he evaluates. He also emphasizes that the situation looked much more dramatic in photos than it did in reality.
Max arrived at the finish line on his Cervélo ZHT-5 hardtail equipped with Joyseat in third place and talks about his participation almost like a walk in the park. However, we dare to say that not many people would want to be in his shoes: "I didn't have any crises or serious problems," he laughs. But he immediately begins recounting how he mishandled a trail and ended up in a river: "I slipped and plunged into the river. I got completely soaked, but it was during the day, and it was relatively warm... but other than that, I basically completed the race without any issues. Only in the last 120 km, my brakes were failing me a bit, and the derailleur was acting up due to the mud. That's about it. It was fine," he says with a smile. And he vividly illustrates the mental attitude one must have to handle such a race.
"On other saddles, you might find yourself sliding around, but with Joyseat, I discovered the perfect position immediately. It truly helps me prevent saddle sores and maximize my power transfer to the pedals, resulting in increased efficiency."
– Max Riese about Joyseat –
The truth is that this year's adverse conditions played into Max's hands. He says that the worse the conditions, the better he usually performs. He rides lighter than others. Now, on his bike, he carried 1 bib shorts, 1 base layer, leg and arm warmers, 1 insulated and 1 waterproof jacket, waterproof pants, two pairs of gloves, and a sleeping bag rated to -8°C, which assured him he would survive. But if it really got tough? Races take place in the wilderness, far from civilization. Would competitors help each other? "I wouldn't say we are competitors in the traditional sense. There's a friendly atmosphere among us, we talk, but we're not allowed to help each other. We race without support, so if someone gets a flat tire, I can't lend them a pump. But if I encountered someone injured, I wouldn't leave them there. I would help them even if it meant I would be done with the race," he explains.
He is more than satisfied with his performance in the Hellenic Mountain Race, where he finished third. He didn't expect to podium in such a highly competitive field. As he puts it, "It's a relatively short race, but due to the conditions, it was exceptionally tough. Many people dropped out. There are definitely harder races, but I rank this one highly. I'm really glad I made it to the podium. It surprised me in this competition. Besides, we rode through stunning landscapes; it was an amazing experience."
Max enters every race with the goal of being faster than others, but he always primarily focuses on himself. He has his plan, rides his race. And when something unexpected happens, which always does during multi-day tough races, he says that the most important thing is to keep a cool head and not panic: "No matter what happens, you always tell yourself that you've experienced worse things."
All photos copyright: Nils Laengner