Interview: Michael Wilkens

MTB marathon guru

Michael Wilkens, 37, of MJW Marketing Ltd, is the man behind many of the UK’s most popular marathon events as well as the ‘face’ of Merida Bikes in the UK. We spoke to him to find out how he got involved with cycle events and what is in store for 2009.

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How did you get into the bike industry?

I moved to the UK from Germany in December 1996 because I got a job with Giant. I worked for Giant for a while and then went to (Bristol-based distributor) Caratti, which then became Schwinn/GT.

How did the whole marathon thing start?

I looked after the Schwinn brand. As a way of promoting the brand, I came up with this idea of doing a marathon, the Schwinn 100. A friend of mine, John Lloyd, who I knew from dealer training, said ‘why not?’ so we started doing it. 

You’re not allowed to race on bridleways in Britain so we held it at an army training ground in Builth Wells, which was private land so there were no restrictions on where we could ride.

We started from nothing with 800-odd people so we realised there was a demand. It was a way of making a song and dance about Schwinn without paying for it.

What happened next?

Schwinn ended [in 2001 Schwinn/GT (Europe) went into receivership] and I thought ‘what do I do now?’ I went to a couple of interviews, including one at a bathroom company, but decided I didn’t want to do that. I thought the alternative was to do my own thing.

We started doing more events all over the country. Over the years the event thing kept growing. It’s now 70-75 percent of our work. It was never my plan but that’s how things work out. I thought I’d do more marketing work but I like the fact that I’m the one in complete control. 

As much as I enjoy my work with Merida [MJW Marketing represents the Taiwanese bike firm in the UK], with them I am working as a contractor.

I’m lucky I have a wife, Tracy, who doesn’t give me too much of a hard time, although it does put a fair amount of strain on us.

How have the events changed over the years?

We have to keep reinventing ourselves and adding extra strings to our bow. Over the past couple of years it has been a case of diversifiying.

We’ve brought in shorter distances to ‘open the door’ and bring more people into the marathons – 25km, 50km, 75km and 100km.

And this year we held the first Kona Mash-Up [this saw trails at the Glyncorrwg mountain bike centre, in Afan Forest Park, Wales, split into timed sections which riders could ride as many times as they liked to get the fastest cumulative time].

Michael wilkens: michael wilkens
Michael Wilkens

What events did you put on this year?

We had five Merida Bikes MTB Marathon Series races between April and September, the Merida Bikes TransWales,  Bristol and Cheddar Bikefests and Kona Mash-Up.

The Mash-Up is aimed at people who maybe once raced but now have less time, but are still keen as mustard. To go back into ‘proper’ racing is too much of a commitment but they can enjoy an event like this. If they don’t have a great run they still have a good day out. That’s something that’s definitely going to grow.

What are your plans for 2009?

There will most likely be another five marathons – probably three in Wales, one in Scotland and one in England. The locations are yet to be confirmed.

There will be another TransWales in August – we’re not going to Scotland due to the rise in transport costs.

And the plan is to have three Mash-Ups – two in the summer and a third in December to bridge the gap between the marathons. You can run events outside of the usual season as long as people are prepared to get muddy. The Mash-Up is held on purpose-built trails so conditions are as good in December as they are in May, June or July.

Feedback from the Mash-Up has been good. There were problems [with the timing] but we were aware of them and they should be easy to sort out.

Where do you see things heading in future?

In the long-term, I wouldn’t be surprised if we had six marathons, but made them bigger, in the way that there’s more going on. I wouldn’t necessarily say we should have something like the Malverns [the Malvern Classic bike festival held in Worcestershire in the 1990s] again but it would be nice to have something more like a bike festival.

We want to extend the Mash-up format but, other than that, it’s more a matter of fine-tuning what we’ve got.

How did you get involved with Merida?

I knew Chris Carter [head honcho at Merida Bicycles UK] from his days at Halfords. He always wanted to bring me on board in those days but it never worked out. When he left Halfords to start Merida UK he asked me if I wanted to get involved and I said ‘yes’.  

Michael wilkens: michael wilkens

What’s the best bit of your job? 

As corny as it may sound, it’s really nice when a marathon or anything like that comes to an end and people have had a good time.

I’m probably my harshest critic and it’s always disappointing when people come back to us with complaints.

The fact that riding my bike is part of my job isn’t bad! With Merida I get to ride lots of nice bikes whenever I want to. What’s also nice is that we can put plans into action. If you work for a big company you’re a small cog in the system. In this case I can give things a try.

What’s the worst bit of the job? 

Coming back from an event late at night, not having a place where I can park my car in front of my house and having to carry all my wet stuff up and down the road.

Besides that, the worst part is being ripped apart in forums. I’ve never replied because I figure I can’t win. It’s not that I do everything right, and it’s good to get feedback, but what I get annoyed about is people who don’t have the guts to go to us directly but go on forums and then rip into us. I come back to everybody who comes to me with a problem and try to give them the most honest answer I can.

Now, the most important question of all – what’s your favourite bike?

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Up until three months ago it would have been my Homegrown Factory Ltd Schwinn hardtails but then I got my Merida Ninety-Six 5000 and I have to think it has pushed past them. It sounds like a corporate answer but it’s the truth.