Marten van Riel on the holy triathlon trinity

Published on 20 May 2022

By Catiana Rettenberger

#keepitRiel is the catchy mantra of triathlete Marten van Riel, and he does. The Belgian is a two-time Olympian, placing sixth in Rio de Janeiro and an agonising fourth in Tokyo. In 2018 the now 29-year-old stepped onto the podium at the inaugural European Championships in Glasgow, winning two bronze medals, one as an individual and another in the mixed relay. We talked to the leader in the world ranking about his love for cycling, his dislike for swimming and his goals for Munich 2022.

Van Riel grew up in the small northern farm town Wuustwezel. Somehow the village became enamoured with endurance sport and has built a culture around it over the past decades. The triathlete doesn’t do sport for the recognition. Nevertheless, he appreciates how his small hometown has followed his journey and has been rooting for him from the get-go. “I really love being from a small town and have the support from them behind me.” Olympic rowing champion Fintan McCarthy expressed a similar sentiment talking about his hometown of 2,800 souls when talking to our editorial team.

Early in his childhood van Riel was sure his community would know him for a different occupation. “When I was really young, I wanted to become a zookeeper.” As a child he used to binge read encyclopaedias about all sorts of animals. One of his favourite fun facts is that armadillos actually walk on two legs! [Editor’s note: I had to look this up and low and behold - it is true! They walk on their front claws and hindlegs.]

Swim – the start of his sport career

Swim – the start of his sport career

Van Riel’s father used to compete in triathlons himself, but as he was a terrible swimmer, he decided his children should do better and put all three of them in swimming lessons. Van Riel started these classes around the age of seven but was soon surpassed by all of his peers and left behind in the smaller pool.

The training pensum has changed significantly since then. “In a week I pretty much do every discipline about six times. So, it’s like six swims, six bikes and usually it’s seven or eight runs,” and on top of those two gym sessions. In total that makes for a weekly workload of 20-22 practices, and with that almost three sessions every single day. “For sure it’s very time consuming, especially the fact that we have to do so many trainings in a day.” And that doesn’t even factor in preparing the bike or swim gear.

The professional athlete is an endurance athlete by his own description, and that doesn’t exclude swimming, which is why the initial sprint during the first triathlon discipline goes against his grain. The draft is an additional problem; “if you are just in front, it gets really hard and it really slows you down.” Overall swimming is his most hated discipline, van Riel says with a hearty laugh. “But sometimes after a sprint session [in the pool] like that I usually get a really good feeling of satisfaction.”

It is probably best to get his least favourite part out of the way first, but the race doesn’t end there. “In a triathlon you normally don’t really have to think, you just kind of turn your brain off and try to go as hard as possible and focus. But in a transition, you really have to think about all the stuff you have to do.” Transition practices are more common for van Riel at the beginning of the season, after that it’s mostly just race practice. To save time most triathletes will tie their shoes to the bike with elastics during races. “It all seems like really small things, but it all saves you like two, three seconds if you execute it very well and obviously at this level that’s the biggest difference.”

Bike – his one true love

Despite the professional swimming practices and competitions, the athlete’s first and true love was and is cycling. And this new passion overwrote his dream to become a zookeeper. So, he fashioned himself a new lifegoal at the tender age of 12, that of a professional cyclist. “It was my dream, but it didn’t seem attainable.” Nevertheless, he was basically glued to the television watching cycling tournaments whenever he could, and would later head out himself. Van Riel would retrace sections of the Tour of Flanders and ride the Alps.

But he “never really got into the competitive side of cycling, and that stayed more as a dream.” Thinking about it now, he knows it was best for his parents to bring all three children to swimming classes together instead of them following different paths. So, cycling remained a hobby – for now.

At 16 the teen simply got tired of just swimming. And he found the perfect way to combine what he loved with what he knew under the guide of Marc Herremans. The 1998 and 1999 Belgian triathlon champion and local hero started training his nephew in the sport in 2009 and was in need of company for him.

“For me it’s definitely cycling that I love the most,” among the three triathlon disciplines, reiterates van Riel. The Belgian enjoys exploring new roads, sights, and cities on bike: “Cycling is kind of my way to discover the world.” In comparison, swimming laps in the pool seems stale and repetitive, and just isn’t as exciting to him.

Olympiapark still has to be explored in its entirety by him as well. He has already competed in a triathlon in Olympiapark, but Munich 2022 will bring something new to the table. “I think they can do a really nice course. I really love the venue there, so I am looking forward to it. I’m a little curious what they’re going to do with the bike course, because that’s obviously always an important thing. If it’s a hard course, it’s easier to break it [the group of athletes] up.”

Next to triathlon the mountain bike cross-country (XCO) and BMX freestyle park athletes will also compete on the openly available ground and greens of Olympiapark. Van Riel loves all things cycling, but he wouldn’t compare himself to cyclists. “The one thing we lack compared to real cyclists is mostly technique. So, on the road we can still probably ride quite well,” but not so much when it comes to XCO and BMX, however. “I’ve tried all of them; I’m not very good at it, but I love to watch it honestly.”

A friend and fellow Belgian is set to compete in XCO, and van Riel hopes to get to watch him. “Mountain bike to me is one of the coolest sports to watch as a spectator.” And the likes of world champion Jolanda Neff will make for quite a show. If his schedule allows it, he has every opportunity to follow the competition on site. Because just like triathlon mountain bike cross-country and BMX freestyle park can be watched live free of charge. He cannot wait to watch BMX in person for the first time. And he cheekily admits that partly is because he loves the drama of the competition.

Run – a steady and continuous sprint to the finish

Run – a steady and continuous sprint to the finish

The transitions in triathlon can be just as dramatic, since little mistakes like placing gear outside of the appointed boxes result in immediate penalties. The 29-year-old therefore rehearses the transition to calm his nerves. “A day before, I will be in my hotel, putting on my shoes ten times after each other.” Still the second transition is way easier in van Riel’s opinion. “For me personally, I put a lot of Vaseline in my shoes to make my foot slide in very well,” he explains with a chuckle.

Van Riel’s favourite sessions are obviously the long bike rides on the weekend, but he also enjoys the threshold run sessions. In those practices he runs at a pace he can sustain for almost one hour, in intervals. And he cannot afford to slow down during the run. At Munich 2022 the Belgian will have one goal on his mind during the last discipline, and even now he is keen on his holy grail: “I’m in it to win it. I want to go for the gold medal.” But “there are really many strong Europeans.” In fact, the sport has been dominated by mostly Europeans in recent years, such as Vincent Luis who won the world title in 2019 and 2020 respectively and secured bronze at the Tokyo Olympics.

Van Riel remembers coming third in the inaugural European Championships in Glasgow and Berlin in 2018, and he really loved the multisport aspect of the event. Combining the continental championships increases the importance of each event, says van Riel. It seems as if Aristoteles was right all along and the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts.

The host nation will look to fare well, and it just might. The Belgian trains with the German Jonas Schomburg, who is a really nice guy and has been improving a lot, according to van Riel. Schomburg is especially great at those starts the former swimmer dislikes so much. “He usually goes out like a maniac the first one, two kilometres. He’s always alone at the front.” And the Class of 22 athlete “Simon Henseleit, a young guy, who is pretty much from Munich, he’s going to be super hungry for it as well.”

Munich 2022 might be van Riel’s last continental championship race as he is looking to pursue longer triathlons races in the future, sticking to his strength – endurance. But it won’t be easy: “I’m 100 percent sure there is going to be a lot of hungry guys lining up. It’s promising to be a big, hard race.”

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Munich 2022European ChampionshipsTriathlon