Marathon Man - Bike Magic

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Marathon Man

Enduro/marathon events are the current big thing in the UK, at least in terms of participant numbers – the major events are getting 1,000+ riders. The Merida MTB-Marathon Series is the biggest enduro series and pioneered the new wave of long-distance non-competitive UK events. 2006 will be its sixth year (although it’s changed its name a couple of times…) and it seems to be going from strength to strength. And who do we have to thank? Mostly a German rider who came to the UK and wanted to do the same kind of event that he was used to back home. Say hello to Michael Wilkens…

Michael Wilkens takes a break from organising marathons to ride at SSMM

How did it all start?

When I cam over from Germany at the end of 1996 I was quite disappointed to find no marathon events in the UK. I had already been racing mountain bikes for a few years and there was a massive marathon movement in Germany – as a rider it was simply more my cup of tea. I was a rubbish starter and was no good at riding aggressively. I was better sitting there and rolling the field up from the back with consistency.

In 1999 I was working for GT and was just about to take on the Schwinn brand as a brand manager for the UK. That summer I was at the NPS race at Builth Wells, sitting at John Lloyd’s van, just chatting about stuff. At some point I asked him if we could organise a mountain bike marathon, fully expecting for him to say no – but within half a minute or so he said yes! That was the beginning – in the summer of 2000 we had the first Schwinn 100 in Builth Wells with more than 800 entries.

I guess it is the attitude of “let’s stop talking about it – let’s go out and do it” that made events like the Exposure Lights Big Night Out and the new Merida TransWales possible. It is really great to work like that.

How do you and John Lloyd work together?

John was already very involved in organising races like the NPS or the Welsh rounds and always had it in the back of his head to do a long distance/endurance event and when I came along and said it out loud the deal was done. We divide the jobs – John looks after the courses, the sorting out of facilities and that we have enough marshals, ambulances etc at the event at the right time and in the right place. My job is to let people know about what we are up to, look after the sponsors and the press, try to make the event weekends and the event village as vibrant as possible and make sure that everybody has a start number and a finisher T-shirt.

Why are marathons so popular?

I think because it is more about riding together than riding against each other. Also they are challenges rather than races against the clock so people come with the attitude to finish and have a good time rather than being on the podium. I like to think that we look after the riders well by providing a pasta party, finisher T-shirts, all inclusive camping and hopefully a great course. There are always things we can do better but as we are fundamentally a two-man band that is sometimes quite tricky.

What’s coming up in 2006?

We have been seeing lots of “left behinds” in and around the event village over the years, which made us think that there are probably lots of people out there who would like to give it a go but that 50 or 100km are just too much to get started with. So for 2006 we have four different course lengths at the event with the new 25km long Mini Marathon. The Mini Marathon is very much for beginners and families who would like to give it a go without overdoing it first time round. The event is open for 12 years upwards and the courses are not just shorter but also technically less challenging. The uptake so far has been really great so I have the feeling that we hit the nail on the head there. We are doing a little bit more with the families and beginners by working together with CycleActive who will provide skills courses and tuition so that everybody can polish up on some technical skills on Saturday and put them into practice on Sunday.

Why should people ride marathons?

First of all it is great fun and even when you think “this is bloody hard work” half way through, the feeling of achievement when you come over the line is second to none. Besides that you see some of the nicest parts of the country with breathtaking views. It is also a very sociable affair. People do ride together and I think that quite a few friendships have started at the Merida 100 events. To do an endurance/long distance event I believe is easier to enjoy even when you are not at the front. XC racing can be rather intimidating especially when you are struggling but that is different at the marathons where you get lots of encouragement from your fellow riders and from the people along the course. Simply give one a try and you will find out yourself.

Is the UK MTB public still keen for more big endurance events?

Good question. We have been growing for years but I am not sure that will carry on. I think there will always be a demand for them as people do like sporty weekends away, challenges and events in general. Going by the first responses this year it will be a good one and looking at the entries to the TransWales I believe there is still a healthy future for the next few years.

How important is Merida’s support?

Great, absolute fantastic. The whole company is into it. They help us in getting the whole thing off the ground and always try to give us an extra helping hand when we ask for it. It is great to see when they all turn up at the weekends and have a great time – even when it is work. I believe that it helped Merida to make their name better known in the country and they so deserve that.

The TransWales multi-day event is the first of its kind in the UK. How is the preparation going?

Really good, lots of hard work and long hours but it is coming together nicely. We are almost 90% full and had lots of interest from abroad which is cool. In fact we have two teams coming from Hong Kong which I never expected. I like to think that we have everything 100% covered but then I remember the first Schwinn 100 we did and how much improvisation it was. But that was six years ago where we had very little in fact no experience in doing this sort of thing – should be all different this time around.

Finally, any last thoughts on the general MTBing scene in the UK?

I have been in the UK now for almost 10 years so this place is very much my home but I still keep a close eye on the German events in particular and try to do the odd event over there. Every time I go over I think how much more fun it is over in the UK. I love the 12 and 24 hour thing as it suits me as a rider. I obviously love the marathon/endurance thing as the courses are so much better over here and the atmosphere is far more relaxed. So all around great! I hope that we can keep contributing to the scene and hopefully make it a little bit better.

Just one final note – we have just finished our new MTB Marathon Guidebook that has for the first time a big section about the TransWales in there. It goes out to our complete database but in case anybody is out there who is not on the list and wants to get a copy just send us your address details to [email protected] and we post one out. And if you want to read up a little more or enter about the Merida 100 MTB Marathon Series then go onto and it the Merida TransWales is more your thing check out


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