Photos: Mike S.
They say that good things come to those that wait! And in this case, that saying is totally on point, this interview with Mike has pretty much taken a year to complete. One of the all time flatland’s greats, the stylish Michael Steingraeber, or “Mike S” as many of you now know him, has been killing it on the scene forever. Nowadays he would considered a contest veteran, always in the finals at the major events when he competed regularly and more often than not on the Podium, add to that Multiple X Games medallist, amazing parts on Props Groundwork, and the Intrikat videos. With that in mind, I felt it was well and truly time we did an interview! Respect!
When I look at the flatland scene in general Mike there’s not many that have been riding steadily as long as I have, but you have been around since I can remember, I think the Trier Worlds 1991 was the first time I met you, when did you first start riding? Give us some background about how you got started
Yeah, I guess you’re right about that: I have been riding forever!
I first stumbled across BMX in 1983. For some reason or other I started riding 20″ bikes that fall, not yet BMXs. I had inherited what we called a “Bonanza Bike” from my older brother and just started having fun with that. The younger brother of my brothers girlfriend at the time had a BMX and that’s been my first experience with a real BMX. Mind you, BMX was very popular at the time, E.T. Had just come out at the movies, you’d see pictures of racing on cereal boxes and the occasional article would pop up in a mainstream magazine. So I started to hang out with my new friend with a BMX, we rode everything we came across and all I wished for for Christmas that year was a BMX bike. I guess I must have been a good boy, because my wish came true. Luckily my brother understood my passion for BMX right away and gave me an issue of the German BMX magazine at the time, BMX Speed as a present. It had a “how to” in it: front wheel hops! So I tried that over and over. It was quite difficult to be honest! But I never looked back, bought issue after issue of that magazine, tried to learn all the tricks they had how to’s of and just lived BMX. I still do I guess…
Can you remember when you started, if there was much of a contest scene, and did that help your riding progress?
Where I grew up, a small town of about 10000 people, an hour north of Hamburg there was not much. No ramps, no race track, no contests or jams. It was three riders for the most part and a school yard. That’s all there was. No videos, no Internet, nothing. So we tried to collect everything we could find, watch every sports program on TV just to make sure we didn’t miss that one show where they’d have a report about something BMX related.
I did once make it to Hamburg to watch a GT BMX demo with Eddie Fiola and Dave Breed. And it got rained out. What a disappointment! However, that show had been organized by the same bike shop that would later start Dranonfly, one of my first sponsors. Pretty cool actually.
And I finally met the Hamburg locals at some point, met Christoph Huber for the first time and started riding with him and the other Hamburg locals. A big city an hour away was a long way away at the time, but I tried hanging out with them as best I could, tried to be part of the scene. My first trip to a contest was with those Hamburg locals, too: 1987 or 88 I think, we took the train down to Cologne for one of the infamous Jugendpark Contests. What an adventure that was, and I finished second in the beginner flatland class. Back then you’d get a trophy if you finished top three, so that was the first of many to come! Good times!
Who was your first sponsor?
My first sponsor was Mutation Clothing, followed by Dragonfly shortly thereafter. I’ve had a couple of shoe hook ups through Mutation, then finally ended up with Vans in 1998. They’ve been pretty good through the years, still giving me the occasional pair of shoes.
What year did you start using the no stem handlebar combo?
Not sure! I think I’ve had it in 1995. Went to The USA in 94 for The first time and changes my bike setup after that, running my bars way backwards. Then I made the first pair of my handlebars the following year.
Throughout the whole time you have been riding, was there a point when you felt most inspired?
Most inspired in which way? I’m sure it’s safe to say I felt very inspired by the Dorkin’ in York videos by the Plywood Hoods, late 1980s to mid 1990s. Then I guess even though I always feel like Kevin Jones laid the foundation for the tricks I do, Edgar Placencia’s part in “Wheelies” gave my riding a certain direction and pushed my style.
Throughout my years competing, I always remember you would make funny hand gestures at the crowd, they always made me laugh, brought across your personality to the contest run, did you use those gestures to relax yourself, I always curious about that, had to ask!
It felt right at the time…When you ride in a contest, in front of a crowd, you are not just a competitor, but also a performer, an entertainer of sorts. People watching you shouldn’t be bored. I guess it was part of me trying to be entertaining.
When I think of you Michael, and all the memories, certain things spring to mind, Trier, funky chicken whip to switch foot locomotive, Aalborg Denmark 92 the elephant glide whips sitting on bars, the X Games in Philly when you were in the lead until Martti’s last run, and when you took your riding “Switch”, all combos both ways? What moments stands out to you, over your riding career?
You remember well! Trier in 1991, a flawless run if I remember correctly, finishing off with probably my first original switch, chick whip to x-footed locomotive. That felt great! And the X-Games silver medal in 2002, leading after the first run, watching everybody else do their second runs and not beating my score. Such a strange feeling sitting there thinking: “Oh, I’m guaranteed 5th!”, then 4th, 3rd and…second. Couldn’t beat Martti’s run. But silver was great!
Looking back I’m just really stoked I got to do all the things I did, competing all over the place, seeing the world, riding my little bike.
I haven’t made too many bad choices, really, always been free to do what I like, not too much pressure from my sponsors. Most importantly staying real, just riding a little kids bike having fun!
How long did you ride for Dragonfly for?
Phew, a long time! I guess they picked me up when they were a distribution in Germany, not even really a bike company. I believe that was in 1995. They have supported me for a long, long time, and I basically stayed until they were gone. I started talking to Christoph at Mankind about riding for him, designing a frame in 2010. That’s when I officially didn’t ride for Dragonfly anymore. They had basically left the scene a year or two before that. No more new products, oh well! About 15 years then, pretty cool. I’ve always tried to build good relationships with my sponsors, not going from one to another all the time. It’s pretty hard to believe a guy telling you his bike is the best, then next season another brand is the best and so on. That’s just not my style!
Moving onto sponsorship Modern day. How are things going with Mankind?
I love riding for them. Christoph Huber, the Mankind boss has been a friend of mine since the late 1980s and he gave me the chance to design a frame the way I like it, no questions asked. He doesn’t put any pressure on me as far a competing goes. I just ride and have fun using his products. I love it!
When did you make the move from Hamburg to Köln? Why did you move, I heard a rumour that it was purely for the Hyatt riding spot?
After all these years travelling the world I thought I should try a new place in Germany as well. I thought about moving to Koblenz to hang out with my good friend Frank Lukas a lot more. I stayed at his place for two weeks, started looking for a room and tried riding his local spots. And what happened was that I wasn’t happy riding any of the spots in Koblenz and hopped on the train to ride LVR in Cologne a lot. Then I found a room in Cologne pretty easily and that’s how I ended up here. So yes, LVR played a big role in my choosing Cologne as my home spot. That was in 2007, coming to 6 years in Cologne now.
That’s a good story Mike. Let’s go back to the “Switch” riding, what inspired this direction? And what was the time period to learn combos both ways?
There are different aspects to my riding switch. One of them is that as a flatlander, maybe more so when we were scuffing all day long, you stand on one leg a lot and use the other leg for scuffing or balancing a lot. And it’s always the same leg you’re putting all your weight on. That’s not very healthy and my lower back started to act up. So I figured I should try to do my tricks switch. The other reason was that I was trying to figure out the direction Flatland was heading, or which direction I wanted it to head to. I actually really liked the tricks I was doing at the time and I didn’t want to learn a different style of tricks. So I tried learning the same tricks switch. This is a bit strange, but I actually thought I was doing what should be done and that I would be the best teacher doing the same tricks I already did, just switch!
Anyway, it was a long process, when I first started trying a few scuffing tricks, like a lard yard, or a caboose, it felt really difficult. Kind of like when you start riding. But it was a lot of fun, too. I was living in Hamburg at the time, riding the Kunsthalle spot and I would try some basic tricks switch. Then someone wold walk past and ask how long I had been riding, probably expecting me to say a few weeks, and I’d say something like 15 years or so and it would make me look pretty bad at what I was doing. It was funny to me back then! Anyway, once your legs understand what they are doing you start learning tricks a bit quicker. But it still felt strange doing tricks switch. And I loved it, because it felt like a totally new accomplishment!
So aside from your lower back, have you had any other injuries? You always have seemed in good shape, you don’t drink do you?
I rolled my ankle badly falling on a surfer to bar ride attempt in the late 80s. I had to have surgery and was out of riding for about half a year. I’ve had a broken hand in the early 90s, but nothing serious. Wore a cast for a while and that was it.
I know you can get injured riding Flatland, but to me it’s more the mental aspect that makes it so difficult. It just wears you out spending all those hours on your bike, year after year, trying to learn tricks that shouldn’t be possible in the first place. If you want to compete you’ve got to try to dial them in and then pull them off under pressure. It feels great when you do pull it off and it feels horrible when you don’t. Once you start playing mind games with yourself it’s getting a bit too much and might be time for a break.
It always seemed like you placed better in the US then in Europe, particularly with the X Games, how did you feel about that at the time if you can remember?
I didn’t do too bad in Europe, but I guess you’re right, I got even better results overseas. Maybe part of it was me being from overseas, and being the new guy, too. And judging was a bit different at the big contests in the US. You HAD to be very consistent over there.
What I liked about that judging was that it was consistent: you knew how the judges were going to judge and it was always the same. You can’t forget that those big ESPN contests were not just contests, but a mix of that and a TV show. I liked the organisation over there, and I liked the contests in Europe as well, a bit more wild, a bit more real BMX in a way.
Now you don’t compete as much, has your riding style changed much at all? The way you practise?
It has changed a lot. I don’t make money riding my bike so I have to go to work and I don’t have as much time to ride anymore. But it also means there is no pressure to prepare for such and such contest, and I really enjoy to just ride for the sake of riding. I still find myself going through the same links as if I was practicing for a contest. Old habits die hard I guess.
What’s a typical day like for Mike S in Köln?
M.: Right now I’m not back to work, so I just chill through the morning, have a coffee at a cafe, surf the web and if it’s not too cold I go for a ride. Usually I go to work at a photo lab, either early morning shift starting at 6am or late shift working until 11pm. Not the best, not the worst either. Then ride in my free time.
Martti Kuoppa called you the most dialled contest rider in a Flatmatters article about contest preparation, what work did you put in before contests?
Well, I guess first of all thanks Martti! I’ve always tried to be consistent in my riding, just doing my links and combos over and over, not changing them around too much. I do enjoy riding okay in a contest, but the preparation required sometimes took the fun out of riding for me. That’s one of the reasons why I’m not keen on competing anymore.
Come to think of it it’s actually pretty funny that I would try to do my links three times in a session, and it would take a while depending on my balance that day, or my focus. And that’s all, no three in a row, let alone 5 in a row. So I basically never felt very consistent in practice, but it worked for me to be consistent enough in my contest runs. Sometimes anyway…
You’ve had a fair few classic video parts over the years, which part are you most proud of?
Being in Groundworks was great! I guess that’s the one that meant the most to me!
But being in the Intrikat videos probably did the most for making a name for myself. I’m very glad I met Chad and that he wanted to film with me!
Yeah for sure. Now of course you competed last year at the OG Contest in Hungary and you don’t compete much anymore, why did you choose that event? And congratulations on reaching top 3, how did that feel?
It was quite simple: András Pentek told me he had that event coming up and asked me whether he could invite me to be one of the international riders. I hadn’t been to Hungary before and had always meant to go there once. And once I had agreed on riding in the event I felt the old fire again, changing my riding a bit, going back to working on consistency of my links and tricks. I enjoyed that, but I don’t need it all the time. Once at the event I was pretty nervous, as usual. But I pulled a few tricks, and it felt like some of the other guys didn’t really try to do well. Anyway, I was a bit surprised and very happy about finishing on the podium.
The funny thing was that I left a few guys behind me who I was going to judge at Circle Of Balance the following week.
What was your experience like judging the Red Bull COB?
It was great, actually! You know, I had competed in the first three COBs, now I was still able to be part of it, just without the pressure of having to perform. Well, they made us judges come out into the arena doing a trick to introduce ourselves. I chose a simple trick and couldn’t even pull that. Good thing I was “only” judging.
While judging is hardly ever easy, I find battle style contests to be easier to judge than runs. It’s just either one guy or the other. No points, no thinking about how much better was this guy so how big a gap in points does he deserve. And no 25th rider where it becomes difficult to remember the first rider and his run.
And just to have mentioned it: I prefer judging a battle style contest, but I do prefer to ride contests with individual runs. It’s the true form to me!
Besides judging, you did a lot of stuff beside the scenes for the Rebel jam? Do you see yourself doing more of this kind of thing in the future?
I’ve helped out at contests before, helped building the contest area, helped running events, and been judging. I feel like my experience can be helpful and I love doing it. I will always try to be in touch with Flatland as much as I can and try to push it. If you need help, need an experienced judge, hit me up!
We talked about style a lot during the Rebel jam weekend, what is style for you?
To me it’s quite simple: smoothness is a good starting point. Once a rider knows his tricks well, he will start to work on his style. Or he might just have it. To me it’s a matter of not just barely pulling off a trick, but doing it easily…and with style. It’s actually difficult to put in words for me. Just one example: at the Eindhoven Rebel Jam we judged style as well, and one of the judges told me he loved one riders sketchiness and thought it was extremely stylish. While I was highly entertained and very impressed by that particular rider actually pulling his tricks even though it looked like he would fall off, I would never in a hundred years call that stylish. That’s why it’s such a difficult category to judge. And that’s where as an organizer of an event you have the responsibility to chose good judges!
Besides riding, I recall you do take a lot of photographs, and you work at Photo place. Can you see yourself doing this in the future perhaps as a full time profession?
I do want to take more pictures and hopefully have more published. I love photography, but it’s a difficult field to make a living in. We’ll see what’s going to happen!
Any final words of wisdom or thanks to finish this up Mike?
Where to start? The way I’ve come to know BMX I have to say I just love it! I’ve traveled the world, met riders everywhere, slept on people’s floor or couch. People gave me lifts to contests or sessions, people let me take their picture. It does feel like one big family! I sometimes wish there was more connection between Flatland and other disciplines, like in the old days. It’s all BMX to me. But it’s also all good the way things are. We have big
events, great pros, good up and comers. What else do we need?
I have to thank a few sponsors that supported me along the way: Vans, Dragonfly, Mutation, Eastpak, JYKK Japan,
and currently Mankind, Vans, Atmosfair Clothing, KHE bikes, People’s Store. Surely I forgot someone…
Thanks to my friends who ride with me, thanks to flatmattersonline for this interview!
As always: do what you like to do: want to ride front wheel only, do that! Backwheel only? Do it! Both wheels, street, park, dirt? Do it!
Whatever it is you want to do on your bike, just go for it. And if you don’t want to ride for a day, for a week, or a month: just don’t ride. The need will come back, and if you push yourself too hard you’ll destroy it!
Thank you Mike! Was amazing to catch up with you! Hope you all enjoyed this one!