In cycling, you usually hear legends about solo breaks, record climb times or nail-biting sprints. But not this time. This is a story of survival, of riding through a sauna for eight hours, of drinking 16 litres of water and still not being able to pee, and of a famous German photographer who found himself in California. As savage as it sounds, get ready for a hell of a good ride.
It wasn’t turning out quite like I’d planned. When Canyon first whispered details about the launch of their new Ultimate, hinting that it wasn’t just a thoroughbred racer but an opportunity for fast-paced adventuring, my mind started whirring: How could we turn an imminent California trip into the road ride of a lifetime? The first idea involved 450 miles of the legendary Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to LA, with a brief detour to Santa Cruz, before ticking off the 17-Mile Drive in Monterey, Big Sur, complete with elephant seals and steep cliffs. Option two offered more of sufferfest on Gibraltar Road in Santa Barbara, featuring obligatory wine tastings at one of the 70 wine producers in the Santa Ynez Valley (at least one!), California’s take on Tuscany. I briefly considered a roadie escape in the Yosemite National Park, before a more concrete plan with Paul Ripke for company began to take shape.
On the day that Paul and I set off on our ride from Newport Beach, even the most committed road riders raise their eyebrows. Are you kidding? Have you not seen the mercury? But here we are. Ready for an adventure of our own choosing, a 190 km S&M-style rodeo ride from the coast to the desert, in an escape room without an escape. A don’t-try-this-at-home-kids sort of ride.
Disclaimer: This story is not intended for re-enactment and should not be considered inspiration. It was carried out by professional stuntmen, with full support (thanks Lynus), and could otherwise lead to fatalities.
Is Paul Ripke taken? Are Karo Kauer and Paul Ripke a couple?
In Germany, GRAN FONDO’s home base, Paul Ripke needs no introduction. Go ahead and google him. But we warn you; you’ll come across more questions than answers: Is Paul Ripke taken? Are Karo Kauer and Paul Ripke a couple? How old is Paul Ripke and why is he famous? A skim of his Wikipedia page is enough to determine that he’s a German fashion and sports photographer born in 1981, known for pointing both a stills camera and a video camera at some of the world’s most famous people. In Paul’s words, it’s far less glamourous: “There are better out there doing this than me,” he says bashfully, despite having captured some of the most iconic sporting moments and faces of countless global stars in his lens. There are better photographers, more influential influencers and brand ambassadors that are easier to deal with than him. He’s refreshingly casual, but that doesn’t change the fact that Paul is one of the best-known influencers in Germany, hosting one of the biggest German-language podcasts: ‘Alle Wege führen nach Ruhm’ – All roads lead to fame. He’s also got his own fashion brand called PARI and publishes RIPKYTCHEN, a series of his own cookbooks. In short, he’s in-demand. Brands like Porsche, American Express and IWC choose to work with him. And he’s a road rider with a genuine love for Canyon. Alongside his Ultimate road bike with custom tires from Schwalbe, he’s also got a handful of eMTBs from the German direct-to-consumer brand, but there’s no partnership deal in sight. Could there be? Who knows.
In answer to your questions, Paul is in a relationship, but not with influencer Karo Kauer; they’re just friends that collaborate on a lot of projects. Along with his three kids and wife Theresa, Paul moved from Heidelberg, Germany, to Newport Beach in 2016.
From paradise to hell
The breeze is in our face as we ride towards Newport Beach on a pair of e-beach cruisers. Out in the waves, there are some surfers making the most of the rich, red glow that the sun is casting over the Pacific. What looks like the happily-ever-after ending of a Hollywood action flick is actually the calm before the storm. Images of the imminent suffering and soon-to-be incessant sweating flash in front of my eyes. Even in normal conditions, riding 190 km from Newport Beach to Palm Springs – the coast to the desert – would half resemble a suicide mission. But these aren’t normal conditions. It’s hot, very hot. Excessive heat warnings for South California have been reverberating for days, with temperatures way exceeding 40°C even on the coast, where it’s always notably fresher than the desert. As I’d driven down the Californian highway to meet Paul, the Extreme Heat Wave signs had been hard to miss. ‘Stay inside & cool. Don’t use power from 3–9 pm.’ What had I let myself in for?
Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, Op. 15 – What’s your pre-ride ritual?
The alarm goes at 4:30 a.m, but I’ve been awake for a good thirty minutes, robbed of sleep by a toxic mixture of respect, apprehension and the thought that this could be a really terrible idea. We’re meeting before sunrise at the Pari Clubhouse in the hope of benefitting from the cooler, early morning temperature of around 25°C. Paul has invited a few friends to join us, giving them a hall pass to bail as soon as the sun gets strong and we start the real climbs.
Pari Clubhouse is Paul’s office, podcast studio, showroom and location for his Pari Souplesse rides. Alongside the obligatory coffee machine, there’s also a grand piano, which is where I find a barefoot Paul at 5 a.m, tapping away at the keys for Schumann’s melancholic Scenes from Childhood, Op. 15. Isn’t this how everyone starts their rides?
Maybe it’s not so hot after all!
Getting started before dark means the conditions are at an acceptable limit—including the temperature. There’s a stretch on the road before we’re onto the Santa Ana River Trail, one of the most popular bike paths in the USA. The vibe in the group is more Sunday-chill than kamikaze; I’m tentatively optimistic it’ll stay this way. The bike path parallels the riverbed, reminding me of out-of-control chases in Grand Theft Auto with grey concrete. At one point, there’s a golf course in the middle of the riverbed as there’s rarely more than a trickle of water here. It’s quite surreal.
Just before we left, Paul had the smart idea to borrow the temperature gauge from his sauna, so we’re obsessively checking the mercury. We’re making good progress—but at this time of the day so are hundreds of other road riders and runners with bronzed, ironing-board stomachs. It’s the picture of LA that’s so often rammed down our throats. As we ride, we chat about the other side of the city, the huge number of homeless people, drug addicts and those left behind by society. You don’t see them on the TV or in the tourist brochures, but they’re visible in big parts of the greater region of LA, and in many other parts of the country. It’s a situation that Paul’s friends refer to as a ‘failed society.’ In contrast, Newport Beach feels like a crime-free oasis, where anyone would be happy to settle.
In retrospect, I’m glad we chatted so much so early on because there wouldn’t be much conversation happening later…
Why doesn’t Paul Ripke age? His recipe for success
The fact that one of the highest-paid photographers in the world is willing to work for free at times is not because Paul no longer sees himself as a photographer, but because of a gut feeling that dictates whether he’ll accept a job. Because, you see, Paul values his time very highly – who he spends it with, and what he spends it doing. Other people aren’t always that picky when it comes to commissions; they do what brings in the money, and make logical and rational decisions. But how can your own work inspire others, if you are not inspired yourself? How can something be extraordinary if it is done without extraordinary enthusiasm? It’s a refreshing mindset.
We’re so used to people making rational, calculated decisions once they’ve reached a certain level of fame, some sort of attempt to hold onto what they’ve achieved like a security blanket. But Paul’s different. When things might be at their shiniest, he can turn things away, end partnerships, walk away from projects, and shed off past successes – this ruthlessness is what’s brought him so far. It takes courage to walk away and prematurely end big dollar contracts like his Formula One gig following Lewis Hamilton. He’s not afraid to throw himself at the unknown. “By walking away from things, more and more doors have opened,” he says matter-of-factly, “Being able to move on is just as important as striving after your goals.”
It doesn’t take long to realise how much of an influence Paul’s dad has had on his life, instilling an understanding in his son to invest in the now. That’s why he doesn’t worry unduly about the future, or about building a fortune to pass on to his children. And hell, it sounds a bit reckless but he’s not totally without care; he has a family and all the usual worries, but he’s confident that he can face whatever comes his way. Embracing uncertainty keeps him young—younger than most, anyway—and gives him the life he wants to live, one that’s not weighed down by things that sap his energy or don’t feel right.
Having faith in your ability to start a project from scratch and see it through isn’t an everyday thing—but Paul isn’t your everyday guy. This 41-year-old is still a child at heart, with a playful approach that doesn’t give away how driven he really is. As the saying goes: curiosity keeps you young.
Timing is everything – but not this time!
By 9 a.m, the sun is out in force. But instead of pushing on, we stop for breakfast at Fantasy Café. We take a Mexicoke (like the usual coca-cola, but sweetened with real sugar rather than corn syrup), an American-style (and American-sized) omelette and French toast with bacon. Not ideal ride food, but up until now things have been going so smoothly that we figure it’ll work out. It leads Paul onto the topic of timing, which he pinpoints as another key to his success. While other photographers get bogged down waiting for the perfect symmetry and light conditions, he’s all about the moment. It’s part of Paul’s gift; not just his visual appreciation of cause and effect, but a knack for timing. Sure, it helps he’s in the right place at the right time, but he has a skill for capturing emotion and the sheer brilliance of sporting history being written. Think of Germany winning the 2014 World Cup in Rio, Nico Rosberg becoming Formula One World Champion in 2016, and Lewis Hamilton, too. The list goes on…
It takes more than timing to get these shots though—you need access. And that takes trust, trust that’s earned over time. A good photographer has to be a good friend. Fortunately, Paul’s easily likeable. Charming and personable, he possesses an uncanny—but not sly—ability to get people to open up, which is exactly how he’s able to capture intimacy in his shots.
Time flies in the café, and with it, any advantage we might have had against the clock. The sun is beating down on us as we swing a leg back over our new carbon fibre whips. Here’s where Paul’s friends say goodbye and it’s just the two of us heading onwards, desert bound. Two realisations hit us hard: it’s about to get tough, real tough; and perhaps we could have chosen a more sensible mid-ride breakfast…
Pari Souplesse Rides – Paul Ripke’s vision for social rides
Wearing Birkenstocks on a road ride? Squeezing into lycra without a WorldTour-worthy body? Unshaven legs? Paul is committed to showing there’s another way of doing things. He wants to encourage us to try new things and break whatever apparent limits we might have in our heads. It worked for him, and it’s working with the rest that join on his Pari Souplesse rides.
But Paul isn’t a lifelong cyclist; he only started three years ago. The picture of a MAMIL—a middle-aged man in lycra—with unshaven legs and no real understanding of the world of road riding. Two seasons later, he’s 30 kg lighter and fit enough to outperform me on our ride to Palm Springs. But that’s not all: He just completed a private training camp with Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong. Had anyone suggested back in the 1990s that he’d be training with Ullrich and Armstrong, he’d have thought you were on drugs. But just because something seems unrealistic or even improbable, that doesn’t mean it is. As he reiterates, everything is possible, provided the timing is right. And when the timing is out – like in our case right now? Well, you just need to dig deep and hope for a decent dose of good luck
Hell, meet craziness: Riding into a sauna
We don’t talk much for the next few hours. The sun gets higher in the sky and our shadows are so short they’re directly under our bikes. At every gas station and supermarket, we go straight to the chilled section. Can you imagine the sort of heat in which you’ll drink 16 litres of water and not once need to pee in eight hours? We couldn’t either, but Paul managed it. It was like everything we drank just evaporated.
It doesn’t help that we’re riding straight into the notorious Santa Ana winds, which adds another dimension to the ride. Also known as the Devil’s wind, it’s hot, dusty and dry as it blows towards the coast from the desert. It felt like we were in the middle of a fan-assisted oven, with the heat cranked up to its highest. Our brake levers were almost too hot to touch. Was this going to mean the end of our ride?
Ironically enough, our safety net comes on a climb: there’s a public fountain on the edge of the Sycamore Canyon National Park and we immediately dunk our heads under the luke-warm water. Paul’s sauna thermometer has topped 50°C. Another layer of sun cream, and we’re off. The respite is only momentary; back on a 3% gradient, we realise that we’re riding deeper into hell, using the last of our reserves as we appeal to the gods to give us a downhill. Too excited, too soon: the brake levers are burning, the warm air suffocates us and we’re petrified of fainting on the descent. We make it down at a snail’s pace and couldn’t be happier to find a Mexican woman at the bottom of the descent with a kiosk serving cool drinks and a fruit bowl flavoured with Tajin and lime. We’ll take anything right now. A lot of saunas keep 60°C as their average temperature but that’s what we’ve got now. Cars with air con are pulling over regularly just to cool down, but boy, what would I give right now to be inside a car? Crank it up.
Is he dead? The appeal of a challenge
After the Mexican-themed pitstop, we keep going for another 16 agonising kilometres, complete with an anti-social headwind and a false flat that’s not in our favour. A train passes by, giving a friendly blast on its horn – they can feel our pain. I’m on the edge, desperately seeking shade and proclaiming that I can’t go on. Paul’s stoic, like a bear – if bears have qualities, then that’s surely their trait. He just wants to keep riding.
Eventually we make it to our predetermined lunch spot. It’s now 16.20, and we’re three hours behind schedule. Who cares. Paul orders two large beers to boost our spirits. I’m hit by cramps and close to throwing up – it reminds me of my hangover recovery ride in Taiwan, which was also a slightly mad ride, but this one is different. While I try in vain to get my body to cope with the heat – it is stubbornly resisting – Paul entertains his followers with humourous content. I need 15 minutes, I’m barely human right now. How the fuck does he keep his cool?
When I open my eyes 15 minutes later, Paul has ordered another round of beers and our food is being served. I nip to the bathroom (nope, still not ready to wee) then return to our booth feeling a lot more normal. How messed up is this endeavour? But at least we can laugh about it. It makes us giggle. Paul leans over with his phone and shows me the worried messages from his friends that had turned around earlier: Have you checked his pulse? Is he dead? We’re properly belly-laughing now. Why do we do this to ourselves? I wonder how many road riders have been through the same thought process. We ride ourselves into the ground, right to the limit and beyond, repeatedly. I don’t have time to think about it too deeply though – we’ve still got 30 miles/50 km to go and the gauge reads 50°C.
Good timing, round two – Margarita time!
A mixture of elation and relief coincide with passing the Palm Springs sign. We’d survived, been to hell and back. Would we sign up for a repeat of it? Probably not. Would we recommend it? Hell, no.
Hadn’t Paul made a thing about the importance of timing before? Indeed he had, but I’m not sure how much it would’ve helped us to seize the opportunity in the final 50 km of our DIY adventure – a ride characterised by the worst possible timing and bad decisions, but that was still oddly enjoyable, somehow.
As if death-by-sauna isn’t enough, my superlight race tires (my choice—guilty as charged) that should be gaining me a precious advantage, were struggling to stay inflated on America’s mean streets. Shards of glass, nails, dirt, you name it…
The final few miles along an unloved highway into Palm Springs had so many potholes that our backs got tired of bunny-hopping. The surfaces weren’t great, and that’s me being polite. Fortunately, you can always rely on America for a hit of sugar, so we stopped as soon as we could for another cold refreshment.
Once this worn-out stretch of highway ended, things got worse when we had to join the actual highway. Sure, there was a generous hard shoulder but it was more of a dumping ground for truck debris than a safe path for cyclists. We kept it upright for a kilometre, praying my tyre wouldn’t explode in the next handful of minutes.
Then there was the sun. The ever-present entity, of which we’d had too much earlier, and now not enough. Our original plan had involved arriving in Palm Springs sometime in the afternoon, ripe for a beer and a legendary finish photo taken poolside as we high fived. It sounded like bliss. People don’t just flock to Palm Springs to admire its mid-century architecture, but also to make the most of its gorgeous light. But, true to form, the sun had already gone by the time we reached the city limit. Did this mean there would have to be a next time?
As bizarrely as it had begun, it came to an end with Paul’s cousin Lynus waiting patiently by the car to drive us back to Newport Beach. Given that Paul was taking a flight to Europe the next day, we’d decided against a night in Palm Springs. However, you know the fun is never going to fall short with Paul, and that was why his golf clubs were in the boot. A few tee-offs in the desert seemed like a fitting way after the grand piano recital and the fight for survival on the bike. Just your average day as a roadie, right?
Tested? Ultimate! Not only the machine, but also the human! Unlike us, however, the Canyon Ultimate CFR looks pretty unimpressed, while we are completely screwed. Nice to know that in this case it is not our equipment but ourselves that are the limit.
It was probably the most out-there ride that both Paul and I have ever done, will ever do, and would never willingly want to do again. An ode to Type 2 fun and the definition of how non-riders struggle to understand how roadies manage to turn self-inflicted suffering into something positive. How do we still have a good time despite the pain, punctures and problems? How do we end up having luck on our side more often than not? A cyclist’s mantra is that the best time to push on is when everything feels like it’s up against you. Fight or flight. As they say: hard times don’t create heroes; it’s during the hard times that the hero within us is revealed.
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Words: Robin Schmitt Photos: Robin Schmitt, Paul Ripke, Lynus Dosch