Bas Rotgans and the Wheelrunner

The dutch ultra cycling legend speaks about bikes, bikepacking adventures, and his secret passion.

If you are in the Ultra unsupported scene or you follow it you probably heard of the name Bas Rotgans. He is everywhere. The hardest, most remote and exotic races, preferably off-road, he is there so you can dotwatch. But who is the person behind the dot? What can you learn from him? And what does he do when he’s not on a bike? We will not let you wait any longer!

Ok, Bas, where did it all start? How did you get to riding bikes?
Well… Being from the Netherlands I can’t even remember a time when I was NOT on a bike. I must’ve started riding when I was about four or five. I just rode to primary school, not even sure from what age and never stopped riding. I had always looked at mountainbikes with great interest when they came up in the beginning of the nineties, but never really had the money to buy one. When I was about 24, a friend introduced me to the mountain bike route in Schoorl on a rental - which to this day is still an amazing XC route in the dunes right on the coast -, after the weekend I straightlined to my local bike shop to get a second hand Specialized Rockhopper for what would now be 250 euros. That’s how stoked I was on that one ride in Schoorl!

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That story is amazing. So you got hooked. Fast forward to years of riding bikes: What was the craziest experience you had on a bike?
Man… Too many to pick from, but most of them at ultra races. The time at the first Silk road Mountain Race on the second day there was a Dutch couple on the ‘100 kilometer descent’ that was cheering for me by name. They had been following the dots and knew a Dutchie was coming down the pass. “Go, go, go, Bassie!” Hearing your name, when you have the feeling you’re in the absolute middle of nowhere was a weird experience. Or how I had completely missed any mention on how bad Scottish midges are, at Highland Trail 550, and failed to prepare accordingly. I got slaughtered! Or how I came to the first Further with a far too overbuilt bike, and scratched in 24 hours (but that also might be due to partying too much the weekend before at a big music festival). Or that I got a whatsapp from Laurens ten Dam himself that he was rooting for me to race on, while I was puking my guts out at the second night in Transpyrenees.
Oh, and I have to add Cabin Fever in Jönköping, Sweden to this list. Especially because it’s NOT one of the hardest races out there, but it’s an amazing concept in beautiful surroundings. But on the second night out, it started snowing, and I saw Danne kit up in winter boots and I didn’t bring any of that stuff and had to improvise to stay warm. Somehow people seem to overlook this event a bit, but it’s totally worth it to travel to Sweden for.

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How did Laurens even get your phone number?!? Well I have too many questions, but with all those crazy experiences: What was actually the hardest race/event you have done?
I think Highland Trail 550 or Further. They are physically HARD races, with tons of heavy hike-a-bike in raw and stunning landscapes. I’ve learned over the years that these are the races I really love and appreciate: ones where it is already an achievement to reach the finish line in one piece. Race to the Rock in Australia, especially the ‘original’ one - RttR has a new course every year - still scares the living daylights out of me, but I’m also hopelessly fascinated by it. Riding Transpyrenees was also hard, but mostly because I had so much bad luck. I got sick, twice, caught bed bugs in a cheap hotel somewhere and was utterly destroyed at the end of it. After that event I realised my true passion is in riding (mostly) off-road, and I decided that I would focus on that more.

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It is kind of funny, but you only mention memories that most people would not describe as pleasant. And you are clearly not the only one to report about stories like this. Why is it the rough moments, when everything seems to be going wrong, that you will always remember?
Simply because it’s hard. And that’s what makes it worthwhile. Sunsets, beers, playing volleyball at the beach, it’s easy, but it’s not worthwhile in the long run.
If you had to work hard for your beer all day, that beer will feel just so much more worth it! You had to earn it.
I remember seeing this picture of Mike Halls bike and he wrote on the frame: “Nothing that’s worth anything is ever easy.” And that is just so true. If it is easy someone else would have already done it.

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Ok to the point: What does the bike mean to you?
Everything really. Freedom, transportation, meditation, simplifying my life, challenging me. Beauty, enigineering, objects of desire, but also a tool that needs to do a job.

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The Netherlands are regarded as being THE country for bikes where everyone rides a bike in every weather. Would you say you were influenced by the dutch bike culture? Does it affect the society in general?
It does, but when you’re from here you don’t quite realise the extent of it. It’s just there, in every single way. Cycling is so incredibly intertwined with every aspect of daily life in the country and culture, that we don’t realise how special it is. I have a 13 year old daughter who has cycled to school ever since she was four. On safe and fun cycling paths. When I first started ride across my own country, I found out how there are thousands upon thousands of kilometers of incredibly smooth cycling paths everywhere. Not only in the big cities, but also in more rural areas. That’s when I first started to see how big this cycling masterplan is in the Netherlands, and I gained more appreciation for it.

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And I actually know you have another hobby you are quite fanatic about! Tell us about your history in freeriding!
Yeah, man! I love snowboarding and skiing in powder snow. My parents took me skiing in the Spring holidays like many Dutchies do, and I started snowboarding more than thirty years ago. I raced alpine back in the day, but moved to freeriding, and learning about the backcountry after a knee injury kept me of hardboots. And I loved it so much that I even formed a travel concept called Powderchase around it in later years. We would take people out into the best powder that we could find, with the help of local mountain guides. At some point I fell in love with touring, on both skis or a splitboard. And the last few years I have gotten into that more and more, and two winters ago I spent more snow days touring than in actual resorts. I’ve passed Powderchase on to some amazing people now, and they are taking good care of my baby. Although it’s been hard for them for two winters due to travel restrictions. I haven’t been in the snow this winter at all, which probably hasn’t happened in about thirty years.

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Maybe also because you are the owner of a very successful business. The “Wheelrunner”. Tell us about your business. Why is it so special? Why do people come to your shop?
I started Wheelrunner 2 years ago and I’ld like to think our customers come to us because we are helpful, friendly, and knowledgeable. We are a small shop that specialises in high-quality repairs, maintenance, and custom building bikes. We like to define the bikes we work on as “anything with a derailleur”, since there are probably a hundred bike shops in Amsterdam. But almost all of them mostly work on the classic Dutch singlespeed city bikes. Due to my background we have started to become a bit of a specialist in all the stuff involved with bikepacking or ultra-riding and people have started finding us for that niche. Things like proper bag set-ups or good and reliable dynamo systems etc.

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Being dutch I assume you finished school and started a bike shop as soon as possible is that right?
Haha, not really. I attended business school and worked mostly in the intersection of marketing and sports. I spent a few years working with Red Bull in their Sports & Events division, and on a ton of freelance projects that slowly but surely evolved to the bike industry. About 2,5 years ago I was fed up with working behind a laptop and decided that I’ld had enough and wanted to work with my hands more and that’s when I started Wheelrunner. It’s growing pretty fast, which is an exhilirating experience. I’m very grateful with the trust and work we receive from our customers. Oddly enough, with the crazy unavailability of bike parts we now spend a lot of time behind laptops again chasing down bike parts that we need. Haha.

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That is an amazing Story. Probably the dream every cyclist forced in front of a desk dreams of. So the year is still young what are your plans for 2021?
It depends a bit on what’s happening with travel restrictions. I have registered for BBB Race and can’t wait to ride in that part of Europe, but it’s been postponed for now. And although I have a not-so-serious rule about riding an event only once, I have talked myself into Further for the third time running. I’m obsessed with the creativity and slight craziness that organiser Camille puts into this event and it’s one of those ‘hard’ events I like. I have also managed to get a spot on Oregon Timber Trail, which I was very much looking forward to. It’s one of the very few real mountain biking ultraraces out there. But I don’t think I can make it happen. It’s currently impossible to get into the US. I also have a fascination for inaugural editions, and try to make an effort to ride them as much as possible. I love it when the information about suitable equipment or the route is sparse and hard to get by, and there aren’t a ton of race reports online. There’s a certain mystery around it which makes for a better adventure, as far as I’m concerned. So for OTT it would mean that I miss the first edition which I’m a bit bummed about. Although simultaneously I have a harder and harder time explaining to myself why I would fly halfway around the world to go ride my bike somewhere for nothing more than my own fun. I try and keep an eye on the footprint I leave in my life, and it doesn’t seem to add up very favourably.

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One last thing: From “bike legend” to beginner: What is the most important thing if you are just getting into bikes?
Don’t overthink it, don’t make it too complicated. The bike that you can afford will be the right tool for the job. I think the bike industry as a whole is doing itself a disservice by marketing the idea that cycling is an exclusive activity, that you can only do on the ‘right’ bike. Usually one that is quite expensive. Cycling is one of the most inclusive and fun activities you can do. Just get yourself on a bike in whatever outfit suits you and make it an adventure, big or small. You can worry about the expensive upgrades or bikes later, when you have gained the fitness or experience to appreciate them even more. Or you decide to complete adventures on a vintage bike, and take good care of it. And that is fine too.

Wow. I think Bas and I talked for about 3 hours. And well, we could have continued through the night. If you ever meet Bas in real life, you will instantly be hooked by his positivity and in general amazing spirit. There is not a lot of athletes you meet towards the end of an ultra race that smile to you and exchange stories of happiness. Bas is an outstanding example on why the bikepacking and ultra distance scene is so welcoming and addictive. Do you have more questions? Do you want to know about different aspects? Let us know and we will continue this discussion online!

You can listen to Bas on the BroomWagon Podcast here:

Bas would like to thank Komoot, Velocio, and Enve Composites for the support of his crazy adventures.

Photo credits top to bottom:
Bruno Bobbink/Fietsbenen
Tom Hardies/Silk Road Mountain Race
Bruno Bobbink/Fietsbenen
Michiel Rotgans
unknown
Stefan Hänel
Michiel Rotgans
Joris Lugtigheid/Werk in opdracht
Tom Bergman
Vincent Engel/Elevenspeedloser
Cyril Chermin

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