Jan Sprünken / Rad Race

Rad Race? In German, rad means wheel and it can also be a shortened term for bike. But it’s not supposed to translate simply as bike race. There’s a lot more to it than that.

I’m on a video call with Jan Sprünken [pictured second left]; one of the original 12 friends that first founded Rad Race. After I semi-seriously apologise for my store cupboard background, he smiles and suggests that it’s a filter I’m using. A nicely judged off-the-cuff comment that sets the tone for our conversation—Jan responding to my questions with a thread of answers and anecdotes that place a sense of fun and community equally among all other considerations.


Jan
I’m currently living in Berlin but Rad Race was founded in a city called Münster. It’s known as the bicycle capital of Germany because when you arrive at the train station there’s just a shit load of bikes everywhere. And we were a group of friends all with a Münster background—either studying or born and raised there.

cyclespeak
And the initial inspiration?

Jan
Like a lot of the best ideas, this one grew from us sitting round a campfire, talking and drinking beer. Just us bullshitting and saying why don’t we do this or that. But then you never really do whatever you suggest. It’s a campfire thing that feels good in the moment and you’re not really considering all the down sides.

cyclespeak
But, in this case, the idea stuck?

Jan
That was Ingo [Engelhardt]. To give him credit, he’s the kind of guy that gets things done. And the next day when we were sitting in a café, he showed us his phone and there was this Facebook page which he’d created. So all of a sudden there was an idea, a name and a visual identity.

cyclespeak
And from there?

Jan
We set about drawing up a business plan but none of us had any experience with start-ups. So the process was driven by gut feeling. Whatever felt wrong we ignored and what felt right we followed.

cyclespeak
Before the concept of Rad Race was first dreamt up, how were you all riding?

Jan
Some guys had single speed bikes. Some were more road. My background was professional basketball. I had a mountain bike but I only rode it about four times a year [smiles].

cyclespeak
Was there a common interest?

Jan
This was the tail end of 2013 so the fixed gear scene was still peaking and we all loved watching them race and admired the skills they had to control the bike.

cyclespeak
Now that you’ve established your own event series, I was wondering where you see Rad Race in terms of the broader cycling industry?

Jan
It’s not supposed to be this excluding, elitist thing. It’s not one, narrow definition of riding.

cyclespeak
So what would be a broader definition?

Jan
It’s an attempt to enjoy cycling and build a community. To be a platform for people to come together and explore what the bike can offer.

cyclespeak
That reminds me of a quote on your website: ‘We don’t care where you come from and why you ride’. 

Jan
That’s from the early days. But we still like it so why change? And it’s a reminder for us too, that as long as you get a kick out of riding, then that’s the most important common denominator.

cyclespeak
Is this an attitude that needs constant curating?

Jan
Unfortunately, it’s human nature to create an us and them. It happens everywhere so we always want to be open and welcoming.

cyclespeak
I think it’s really cool that you place so much emphasis on people having fun.

Jan
It’s like the first time we organised a multi-stage ride that started in Munich before ending up close to Venice. It was meant to be a race but we did the test ride with a handful of friends and ended up questioning whether it had to be a race? Because why would you want to drop each other? Fuck no. So we turned the whole concept on its head and the Tour de Friends was born. 500 people crossing the Alps together and every night we gather at the finish of each stage and drink a couple of beers. The perfect platform for doing what you enjoy and having a good time.

cyclespeak
You organise a variety of events including fixed gear racing, ultra distance non-stop challenges and multi-stage tours. Is there an element of Rad Race DNA that runs through each and every event?

Jan
There is but it took me a while to understand this myself. At first I only saw these exciting bike events but it was later that the concept of community struck me as a crucial aspect of what we do. I’ve known some of the participants for close to ten years and many are now good friends. They come to have fun, to ride their bikes and to share in something that’s bigger than the individual.

cyclespeak
Races such as Last Wo/Man Standing; I’m guessing there’s an awful lot of hard work that goes into hosting such an event?

Jan
Yes, indeed [laughs].

cyclespeak
And you naturally need a suitable venue?

Jan
The first time we ran this event, we knew we wanted it to be in Berlin. So we rented an indoor karting track in this really hip area of the city.

cyclespeak
And things grew from there?

Jan
A little too well because they kept increasing the fees. Doubling the price each year and demanding they take over the concessions. Especially for this event, the after-show party is off the charts and we can recoup some of our expenditure on the food and drink sales. So we ended the relationship and that proved a liberating moment for us.

cyclespeak
So a good decision?

Jan
It was but we still needed a new place which was obviously a problem. So myself, Ingo and one of our track riders Axel spent a day in Berlin going round all the other karting circuits and writing down the pros and cons. Is there room for spectators? Is the track wide enough for passing. Maybe there’s a bridge with limited headroom that would decapitate our riders? In the end we decided on our favourite and shook hands with the guy who owned it.

cyclespeak
So it all ended well?

Jan
You could say that but we did have one year when he complained that his restrooms had been destroyed. People partying hard and [pause] you know…

cyclespeak
I guess I do [smiles].

Jan
So we immediately asked him to fix it and we covered the cost. It’s a relationship we really value and a venue that works well. In fact one year – just before the pandemic – Fabian Cancellara participated.

cyclespeak
That’s pretty special.

Jan
I can still picture the looks on the faces of the other riders when they lined up with him at the start. But that’s the really cool part too. He’s not automatically the best rider at Last Wo/Man Standing because it’s completely different to what he’s used to doing. Obviously he’s one of the greatest cyclists of all time but he still got eliminated in Round Two by a street messenger guy who spends every day riding fixed and dodging cars on the city streets.

cyclespeak
I’ve rewatched your Final Lap video numerous times and the camera work is mindblowing? How do you capture such awesome imagery?

Jan
It’s a drone.

cyclespeak
But the kart track is inside?

Jan
The operator is a friend of ours. And we explained about the ceiling height, the spectators and all the gantries. But he was confident that he could get the shots we needed.

cyclespeak
You feel like you’re in the race, on a bike, immediately behind the other riders. Simply stunning.

Jan
Watching him navigate the drone was almost as exciting as the race itself [laughs].

cyclespeak
And then I watched another of your videos. Carnage, corners and crashes. And this one made me question what type of rider is attracted to your way of racing? It’s very cut and thrust.

Jan
I don’t know that term but it sounds cool. Actually, it sounds exactly what it is [laughs].

cyclespeak
So maybe not for everyone?

Jan
It appeals to people that love to ride their fixed gear bikes on the street. Who commute in that fashion or maybe earn a living as a messenger. But the people that do well also train really hard. The guy who won this year’s competition – Alec Briggs – he’s not riding his bike to a bar to have a beer and then home again. He’s a legit cyclist and has all the skills.

cyclespeak
Speaking of training, you have your own teams. The Rad Pack and Grl Pack.

Jan
They do race but they’re not really racing teams. They developed after we did trips together where we all wore a specially designed jersey. So we all felt like a team.

cyclespeak
In the team images you have on the website, there’s lots of laughter and smiles and not taking yourselves too seriously? Maybe a little different than the grim suffering depicted in some race photography?

Jan
Our riders are ambitious and want to do well but it’s not their job. If they don’t enter a race for five or six months, that’s perfectly okay. Yes, there are races we participate in but it’s not really a race team. It’s more of an open and fluid definition of team.

cyclespeak
Alongside your race and event series, you now have a physical presence in Hamburg with your Rad Race shop.

Jan
Hamburg happened when we needed to swap this small rented workshop we were using as an office for something bigger. We saw this amazing space next to the fish market which is a really prestigious area down by the river. And because it was a lot bigger, we started thinking how it could be more than just an office and that’s how we arrived at the shop concept.

cyclespeak
So an unexpected outcome?

Jan
More jumping in at the deep end because we didn’t know jack shit about opening a bike store [laughs].

cyclespeak
I notice that you’re hiring. You’re looking for mechanics and baristas?

Jan
Yes. Always [laughs].

cyclespeak
Always?

Jan
We completely underestimated how busy our bike workshop would be. We had a good friend who was a mechanic that we thought would be perfect. He’d get a paycheck and we’d have someone we could trust. But leading up to the official opening we had this pop-up and even at that early stage we could see how busy we’d be.

cyclespeak
Which explains the job advert.

Jan
Because of what we do with the race series, we meet so many people that are enthusiastic about cycling and we often get mechanics asking if they can come and work at our place. And we say, “Yes, you can!” [laughs]

cyclespeak
I work a couple of days a week as a barista but I’m based south of Manchester. That’s quite a commute to your Hamburg shop so I didn’t apply for your position [smiles].

Jan
You could spend your vacation with us. As an intern? You could show us how to fix great coffee?

cyclespeak
There’s a certain Berlin-based bicycle brand that – rumour suggests – has the fastest shop ride in the world.

Jan
I think that might be true [laughs].

cyclespeak
So your Hamburg shop isn’t out to steal their crown?

Jan
We do have rides but we just invite people to meet there and sometimes they happen and sometimes they don’t. From what I’ve heard, the one you mentioned in Berlin is legit [smiles].

cyclespeak
Does this go back to what you mentioned earlier? About just letting things follow their own course?

Jan
What we do and what we don’t do?

cyclespeak
Yes. Exactly that.

Jan
We only want to go in a direction where things feel good to us. And the decisions we make aren’t always financially driven. I don’t think we’ve ever made a single euro in profit with the Last Wo/Man Standing events. It’s actually the opposite but we feel it’s worth it. It’s a fun event that feels good and we know that eventually they’ll be a benefit. We like to earn money too – we’re not angels – but we stick to our way of working because some of the best things we’ve done have happened in this way.

Rad Race

Photography with kind permission of Rad Race: Arturs Pavlovs / Bengt Stiller / Björn Reschabek / Chiara Redaschi / Tom Schegel / Nils Laengner / Christoph Steinweg / Dennis Arndt / Yunus Hutterer

One thought on “Jan Sprünken / Rad Race

  1. Great interview Chris! I’d love to head out and watch Last Wo/Man standing at the some point. I agree the drone footage is just incredible too!

    Like

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