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Markus Riese: Portrait of a driven man

Markus Riese is a bit like Q from the James Bond films, except for the German bicycle industry. In 1993, together with his friend Heiko Müller, he founded the bicycle manufacturing company Riese & Müller. Portrait of a driven man.

© Ramon Haindl

Who would come up with an idea like that: after the intermediate examination, quickly go to Africa for a 4-week, 3000 kilometre long bike ride to ponder how to improve the cross-country mobility of two wheels. Originally the trip was supposed to be to the Himalayas. But Markus’ friend Heiko convinced him that they would be carrying their bikes more than riding them in the impassable high mountains. So Tibet turned into Tunisia.


And who would come up with an idea like this: a full-suspension folding bicycle that combines the suspension with the folding mechanism. “The bearings for the suspension arrangement are simultaneously used for the folding process and are arranged in such a way that the swivel bearing in the main frame can be dispensed with,” is how it was worded in the application filed with the German Patent Office on 3 November 1994.


That pretty much marked the birth of the now legendary full-suspension folding bike, the Birdy. It was still a rocky road from then to founding Riese & Müller in their parents’ garage. But at least the beginning had been made. Thanks to inspiration and engineering.


The company’s creative genius

And “a lot of trial and error” as Markus Riese admits. At the new company headquarters in Mühltal near Darmstadt, Germany, Riese & Müller now assembles up to 320 bicycles a day – still the Birdy, but also a whole range of E-Bikes and E-Cargo bikes with similarly high technical standards and a plethora of original ideas.


The mechanical engineer is still the creative spirit of the company, as an innovator and tinkerer, but also as a bike buff and “grandmaster of speed” – fighting the discrimination against fast E-Bikes by the bureaucrats in Berlin and Brussels.


He is only too happy to leave the business, marketing, sales and finance side of things to his friend and partner Heiko Müller – the one he went to Africa with – as well as to Müller’s wife Sandra Wolf, who has been responsible for corporate strategy since 2013. The division of tasks works well, with the company experiencing years of rapid growth. With sales of around 50,000 high-priced bicycles per year, R&M is already one of the largest manufacturers of premium E-Bikes today. The new, ultra-modern company headquarters in Mühltal, which the company moved into in January 2019 as planned, can in theory manufacture 80,000 bikes.

© Ramon Haindl

Ever curious

“It’s amazing how the company has developed,” says the co-founder as he enters the factory cafeteria where we agreed to meet, running a little late. On his way through the extensive production hall he had lost track of time chatting with workers: “There’s always something to improve.” His shirt hangs loosely from his trousers, he wears work shoes on his feet, his thinning hair is a little tousled. And he’s probably got a multitool secreted somewhere in the pockets of his washed-out jeans. The lank fellow sitting across from us on a plastic chair looks more like a student than a business leader, despite his 50 years of age. Oil residue on one finger proves that he’s still very hands-on.


At least he’s here. According to one employee, Markus likes to “disappear” for a few days in the development lab when he has “one of his ideas”. “He has never lost his child-like curiosity and his love of tinkering,” says Sandra Wolf a few weeks later at the Eurobike bicycle fair, partly in admiration, partly in amusement. Sometimes Heiko has to gently slow the inventor down – not every idea is equally marketable.


Others have been so successful that even the inventor himself was amazed. For example, the ear warmers for bike helmets, which he invented during his studies in Darmstadt and which became a hit under the name Hot Ears.


“My passion burns for technology and for the subject of mobility,” Riese openly admits, while he restlessly slides back and forth on his chair, reviewing the company’s history in catchwords.


He talks about his parents’ trust in the chosen path (“even though Dad often couldn’t sleep because of it”), about the welding and paint work on the first prototype of the Birdy in the garage and under trees, the concept of a first cargo bike back when he was still at school and about the failure of the first attempt in 2001 to find buyers for such a cargo bike (“It was a total flop”).


All the more reason for the “man of conviction” (as Riese describes himself) to be pleased about the growing acceptance of the bicycle as a means of transport – and the willingness of consumers to reward the art of engineering in bicycle construction, too: Riese & Müller E-Bikes start at 3000 euros. “We can’t do cheap,” says Markus Riese, suddenly every bit a salesman.


Functionally and technically they are a world apart from most other manufacturers. “Riding comfort and braking, safety and range are of the utmost importance to us. No one should be afraid of a pothole in the road when speeding downhill at 50 km/h.”


For a long time this was also reflected in the design of the bikes, which abided by the classic form-follows-function principle: for the German engineer, safety is traditionally more important than beauty. Riese has now hired four young designers “with excellent technical understanding”. This suggests that he himself has identified a certain need for correction in terms of aesthetics.


E-bikes to replace the car

The pedelec boom makes him very happy, not only as a businessman but also as a bicycle fanatic and environmental activist. “E-bikes,” he lectures, “are not a replacement for bicycles powered solely by muscle power, but rather a replacement for the car.” The father of three children aged between one and eight still owns a Volkswagen camper van, but like his wife Heike he covers most of the distance travelled during the week by bike.


And the Riese family has a fair few of them – with and without electric drive, but always with full suspension. His business partner Heiko also likes to chauffeur his offspring to kindergarten on a cargo bike, but also uses a Tesla Model X for business trips: they are all electric mobility fanatics, through and through.


“We want to develop a mobility concept for urban needs where the E-Bike plays a central role and the car is largely superfluous,” says Riese, putting his vision into words. He would like to give his bikes more powerful motors and see the limit on pedalling assistance of up to 25 kilometres per hour abolished.


The fact that, under EU law, the faster S-pedelecs mustn’t use cycle paths, can only be ridden with a driving licence and are not allowed to pull a trailer, irritates him no end. “The potential of technology to reduce car traffic is not being exploited and cyclists are being unnecessarily pushed into illegality.” Barely anyone comprehends the strict rules. He regards the call from some politicians for compulsory insurance for slower E-Bikes with the same scorn: “Utter madness.”


He would much rather talk about his latest ideas, about proper weather protection for cyclists, electric saddle heating or heated handlebar grips – only a creative genius could come up with ideas like that.


Author: Franz W. Rother
Date: 10.01.2019
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