From a Kid on a Bike to an XC Racer
Joonas is a Finnish enduro rider with a more than a decade of high-level riding under his belt. For the past couple of years enduro riding has been the main focus for Joonas, although his competition experience reaches all the way to the World Cup downhill events. Well before that, his resume included several podium finishes in the national enduro and XC youth cups. What makes Joonas and his situation unique and a story worth telling are the challenges he has to tackle on a daily basis. To get the full picture, it's best to start from the beginning.
Who is Joonas Riihelä?
• Nationality: Finnish
• Age: 28 years
• Riding experience: 13 years
• Most notable results: 2nd in National Enduro Youth Series in 2006, 1st in National Enduro Youth Series in 2007, 3rd in National XC Youth Series in 2007, 6th in National level Downhill Series in 2011 and 4th in National Enduro Series in 2016.
• Interestes besides riding: Videography, car simulator games
• Sponsors: Pole Bicycles
• Favorite food: Hamburgers, of course!
As for many of us, Joonas swung a leg over a bike when he was a young kid. His bike was his vehicle for freedom and speed which had been untapped until then. Eventually, Joonas knew his local trails as well as, or even better than his backyard. The sections that provided even just a little bit of airtime in the form of a banked stone or even a built jump or lip were known to the millimeter.
One thing led to another and in 2005 Joonas spent (or invested, depending on how you want to see things) his hard-earned summer job money on a proper mountain bike. Soon after he entered a national level XC race in Lahti, called Finlandia MTB. A spark burst into a full-sized flame next year in the form of XC racing and early forms of enduro riding. Interestingly, mountain bike enduro was most likely born in Finland although the format was slightly different than it's today. Slightly might be a bit modest term, since most of the races were held on flat(ish) tracks and the segments could be as long as 10km! Pacing strategy was naturally the same as today; start all out and hang on to your dear life and hope that the finish line arrives before you run completely out of steam. If the old format would have remained unchanged, it might be that enduro would not be as popular as it is today but that's a subject of a whole another conversation. With a combination of the limitless energy that adolescent boys have and pure hard work, Joonas earned the national champion title in the XC youth category in 2007.Gravitational Enlightenment
Soon after things took a turn which is most likely not too unfamiliar to most of us. XC started to feel boring, even a bit dumb. Why pedal your arse off and turn yourself inside out when even more thrilling speeds can be reached with the help of good ol' gravity? Joonas raced downhill first time during 2008 and soon enough XC bike started to gather dust in the corner of the garage. This set the tone for the things to come; bikes equipped with a chainguide were in and ones with front derailleur were definitely out.
The time between 2010 and 2011 was especially prolific and Joonas gained a lot of pure race pace speed. In his own words: “I made very good progress and made a clear leap to the next level when it comes to track speed and bike control.” The recipe for this was simply hard work and plenty of time on the bike. During the winter months in 2011, Joonas rode several times a week with a friend who was considerably faster than him. It's no secret that it's one of the best ways to develop as a rider. According to the saying, you either rise or fall to the level of your peers, no matter the domain. It's also worth noting that riding during the winter time was no easy task. To get a session in, it more often than not required shoveling the track clear from snow. This effectively doubled the amount of time that was needed for riding. To ride couple of hours, snow shovel was put in good use for at least the same amount of time. No dig, no ride, no matter if it's about dirt or white stuff that falls from the sky during the winter months in the northern hemisphere.
Joonas raced with panache during 2011 season. Calpalinna (a legendary bike park for us Finns) hosted the first race of the season. A good run during the qualification resulted in the fastest time of the day which was big confidence booster. Things got even sweeter later in the evening when Joonas received a text from a rider who he had always looked up to saying: “I suppose that there's a storm brewing when it comes to your riding.” Podium finishes were not to be during that season however. Small mistakes during race runs, bike and equipment related problems meant that placings from 4-6th were a common occurrence in national cup races. The season wasn't limited only to domestic races though. Joonas gathered plenty of vertical meters abroad in the iXS cup and even downhill world cup races held in Leogang and Val di Sole. When Crap Hits the Fan
A promising season was ended with a seriously low tune. At the beginning of 2012, Joonas started to suffer from gastric refluxes and severe stomach pains, which resulted in extensive examinations and hospital stay. The first suspected diagnosis was lymphoma which – luckily enough – was turned out to be false soon after. One of the symptoms was heavily swollen spleen which is dangerous since even a slight impact can cause it to burst. Unfortunately, any sports that involved high speeds and the accelerating effect of gravity were out of the question.
Slowly and steadily Joonas started to feel better after the initial symptoms. Anyone who knows Joonas will attest that he is not a one to sit still and fall into despair. Since he could not ride, he needed a new outlet for the time and energy he had on his disposal. While recovering he decided to build a house – an obvious choice for any 22-year old. The courage to tackle a project of that scale is something to wonder, since a typical mountain bike is most likely still eating dirt in the playground that age. Skipping forward a full year and plenty of eventful times, the house was ready. Exactly one month after the house was finished, his left knee got badly swollen which was soon after followed by similar symptoms on the other knee as well. Off to the hospital he went for a new set of examinations. A New Nemesis
The symptoms in the knees quickly spiraled to almost full body level. Both knees, ankles and the right shoulder got inflamed and except for the shoulder, got heavily swollen by unexplained liquid retention. A doctor in the rheumatology department diagnosed the condition as psoriatic arthritis, which is an autoimmune disease with unknown cause. Looking back, Joonas suspects that the house project could have been too much because of the stress it caused. We continuously learn about the negative effects of chronic stress and its possible unwanted effects to all sorts of health problems. Even though Joonas is made of stuff that you rarely see these days, he says that the house project was stressful at times. This can be translated without a doubt, that it would have brought a lesser man to his knees several times.
The condition was first treated with cortisone injections, which provided some relief. Although the injections dulled the pain somewhat, this type of treatment comes with its own set of problems and less than desired side-effects. Cortisone can weaken the tissues where it is injected to and make them fragile. There are rumors that some former professional road cyclist had to pay dearly after their career because of “generous” use of this particular substance. To sum it up, cortisone treatments weren't the answer, just a short-term fix for the symptoms.
Treatment of arthritis includes always a long and tedious testing to find the right treatment. Last resort is usually a new type of biological medicine, which are called biologics for short. They're often times effective in pain relief and they can go a long way in restoring patient's function. Is there a downside? Yes, a hefty price tag which will make mountain biking seem like a cheap sport in comparison. Costs of treating arthritis with biologics can rise up to 20,000 EUR per year. Luckily Finnish national health care covers most of the financial burden, but it goes without saying that all other paths and options are tried first.
The battle with the newfound disease continued all the way up to 2016. It is worth noting that the word battle isn't used lightly here since the disease made even everyday tasks a challenge at times. Think of an occasion when you hit your knee and it was sore the following morning, so sore that flexing it caused pain. This was and still is the situation that Joonas encounters every morning. He needs to make the steps from the bedroom to downstairs with a straight leg since the knee is always stiff after overnight immobility. Eventually it and the rest of the body warms and loosens up as the day progresses. Not the most pleasant way to start the day, but you gotta make the most of it, as Joonas says.Back on the Bike
As it often times happens, a turn for the better came in a form of a friend. A long-time friend was interested of trying his hand at riding and asked Joonas if he could provide some guidance. Recognizing the limitations of his situations, Joonas still agreed. A substantial factor in his decision was that he could be in similar state 10 years from now, whether he rides or not. Why not to make the best of times ahead? Joonas started riding with his friend during the winter of 2016 and 2017 and as one could guess, enjoyed his time on the bike immensely. Although the speed wasn't at the level where it used to be, riding was fun and rewarding. Anyone who has had a long unwanted lay-off from the can surely attest to this.
In the beginning of 2017, Joonas made the decision to race again. He went back to the roots in a way since the chosen discipline was enduro. Much had changed in ten years though since the original debut in the sport (and for the better, one could argue). Although the races are still physically demanding, they don't make yourself question the fun of doing it in the middle of the race several times a minute. Joonas set himself a goal of finishing in the top 30, got into structured training and tackled the challenge. The end result was more than a positive surprise – he finished 4th in the national series by the end of the year! This is a no small feat considering that he had been off his bike for two years, still dealing with the medical condition and modifying his training heavily around it.
In the middle of the 2017 season, Joonas tried the Evolink from Pole Bicycles for couple of laps in his local bike park. Being 189cm tall, he's always been challenged by finding a proper sized bike. This time the match was as good as the contact between a proper pair of flats pedals and the sticky soles of 5.10's. When the Evolink came out, some were questioning the sizing and if even the L-size was just too big of a bike. Nowadays Joonas rides happily an XL-sized frame and the results speak for themselves that he has the right tool for the job. It is no exaggeration to say that Joonas can ride a hard packed berm faster than anyone else in the country. A proof of this was a comment from a former professional downhill rider who said that it was plain scary to follow Joonas on tracks of this type. Last runs of 2018 before Sappee Bike Park got its snowy cover. Taking It Day by Day
Early last year Joonas made an extended trip to Spain. Riding felt fast, and most importantly good and confident. Unfortunately, from the beginning of the two months stay In Malaga with his girlfriend, the troubled knee started acting up again. Inflammation in the knee escalated so badly that Joonas was unable to ride any trails or segments that included pedaling. At this point the knee in question was the source of most the troubles. It needed to be drained regularly to keep it in somewhat working condition. Doing this once in every 2-3 weeks in Finland was an ordeal itself and proved next to impossible abroad. Nevertheless, Joonas made most of his stay in sunny Spain while other Finnish riders were plowing snow from their home trails, or just staying inside to avoid the frigid temperatures.
“If I want to race during the weekend, I need to get the knee drained around Tuesday and hope for the best”, Joonas says. Getting scheduled appointments from a skilled doctor is next to impossible which leaves the private sector the only option. To keep himself competitive, Joonas needs to do quite a bit more than just training and his bike in a working condition. He's not the one to complain though, on the contrary.
Costs of getting the knee drained are equal to getting the suspension fully serviced. Doing that several times a month gets on top of just about anyone's wallet.
Many people and close friends have asked how Joonas can ride even when he can't walk around couple of blocks. To this Joonas replies that riding downhill is surprisingly static and you can get away with very little lower body movement when the gradient is favorable. There's an inherent risk though, especially if a crash occurs. Joonas hasn't been able to flex the problem-causing knee past 90 degrees for a long time and he's dreading about the thought what happens if it's forced past that range of motion during a crash. Yes, riding always carries inherent risks, but at the moment Joonas is rolling with an increased risk factor.
On same rare occasions, Joonas might wake up without any considerable pains which makes him feel that he could jump straight up and run a marathon. Of course, he hasn't done any silliness like that, since every bike rider knows that running is acceptable only if being chased (and only with the speed that prevents being captured). At the moment Joonas is waiting in line to get a surgery on his knee. It needs to be cleaned up after the constant and ongoing inflammation. Things are not this simple though. Joonas caught whooping cough that lasted almost 3 months because of the changes in medication that made his immune system temporarily weaker. To get as high a probability for success as possible, he has to be 100 % healthy when getting to the operating table.
If all goes well, we might see Joonas in the Finnish national enduro race circuit in 2019. Give him a thumbs up and a kind word. Although Joonas is not a one to give up, it will make a difference. This is true for anyone who is battling with a serious health issue.