Lewis Ryan only recently turned 18, but that didn’t stop the mountain biking and off-road triathlon star from wrapping up the 15-19-year-old division of the Xterra Asia-Pacific Tour in Langkawi, Malaysia, in May. He just may be the friendliest guy in adventure sport, but he doesn’t rest easily on his laurels. Just last weekend he raced to the overall victory at Xterra Lake Tahoe, California. It was his first overall win in this intense off-road triathlon genre. We caught up with Lewis in his hometown of Rotorua before he jetted out for his first leg of international events.
With his trademark big smile he describes Xterra racing as being like your standard triathlon “on ’roids”.
“It’s all off-road and instead of swimming in sheltered areas it’s quite exposed – rough water ocean swims and in Hawaii last year it was through genuine surf,” he explains. “The first time I went, we were all lined up on the beach and one of the lifeguards caught a wave as he was paddling out to his lifeguard spot.”
“Then after the swim you’re all dizzy and they throw you out there for a real tough mountain bike ride – usually about 30km – so about an hour and a half – really battling. The climbs in Hawaii are massive and it’s pretty hard to hang in there. You have to survive the climb in the heat to hopefully make it through to the 10km run at the end. That’s a bit of a death march by that stage – an absolute mission running through dried up creek beds, over rocks – pretty raw courses with lots of scrambling. It’s pretty intense.”
"Rotorua has everything you need ... all the lakes for open water training and what I think are the best mountain bike tracks in the world in the Whaka Forest. Plus, there is a real riding culture in Rotorua."Xterra athlete Lewis Ryan Share
For the past 20 years Maui, Hawaii, has hosted the Xterra World Championships in late October.
“It is a wicked place to have a race – it’s a couple of weeks after the Hawaiian Ironman and there is a really cool vibe going on.”
But things didn’t go Lewis’s way in 2015 despite finishing the event in seventh place.
“I had an absolute nightmare in Hawaii last year, but it was good learning for me,” he considers. “I got a bit caught up in it all and I pushed way too hard on the bike and suffered with heat and dehydration, which rattled me mentally. Anything that could go wrong did go wrong. At the end of the day I was 17 and you’re going to make those mistakes at some stage. Let’s just say I have some unfinished business out there and I’m looking to right a few wrongs this year.”
Local Whakatane racer Hayden Wilde won the 15-19 age group at the World Champs.
“If I can’t win it then it is great that there is another Kiwi up there,” he offers. “It’s cool to have someone like that around – we push each other. It’s nice to have another Kiwi flying the flag on the world stage. The future is pretty bright for New Zealand in off-road triathlon.”
Xterra Rotorua takes place each year in April around Blue Lake and it doubles as the New Zealand National Championships.
“It’s one of the easier swims and I have the local advantage of riding on my home tracks in Whakarewarewa Forest,” he smiles.
Lewis has won National Secondary School Championships in mountain biking in the past and I ask him if this is his strength off-road.
“I think now to be competitive in triathlon and Xterra you have to be strong across the board. You can’t even be really good at two of them and alright at one – you have to be strong in everything. I think the saying used to be ‘swim and bike for show and run for dough’. That probably isn’t the case anymore. I grew up racing mountain bikes and it has been cool to translate that into Xterra, but it’s a completely different style of riding.”
Lewis describes himself as an “old school lycra bandit”, but said he still raced the odd enduro when he could.
“We all ride the same tracks, but I guess we have to do all that serious training and we really have to put the miles in. Mind you these top enduro riders and even the top downhill riders really put the work in as well – the whole sport of mountain biking has become way more professional.”
Almost seven years ago, the people at the helm of Skinnies saw an 11-year-old kid racing mountain bikes and decided to offer their support. The fledgling Kiwi sunscreen brand took Lewis under his wing – Lewis even called himself Lewis “Skinnies” Ryan on race entry forms.
“Skinnies has been with me since the word go,” he smiles while wearing the brand’s t-shirt. “I’ve been really fortunate to have their support – it has been really amazing for my growth as an athlete and as a person as well. It is an awesome product with no preservatives, no water, no parabens – and for me doing endurance sport it doesn’t wash or sweat off.”
He said living in Rotorua was the perfect training ground for Xterra racing.
“We have everything you need here: a 50m training pool, a 25m pool, all the lakes for open water training, and what I think are the best mountain bike tracks in the world in the Whaka Forest,” he shares. “We maybe don’t have the hills that some of the Europeans have, but we make up for it with everything else. Plus, there is a real riding culture in Rotorua.”
A big part of his training was trail running and he said that was always fun in the forest.
“I know most of the people out there riding and I hear them every time asking me in jest if I’ve had my bike stolen,” he laughs. “A bit of banter out there never goes astray.”
He said he didn’t think he accomplished as much in mountain biking as he could have.
“I was a lot more naturally suited to the world of Xterra, but who is to say I won’t go back and give it a crack at some stage. I’m only 18, but right now, I am exactly where I want to be.”