I was reading the most beautiful essay by the art critic Peter Schjeldahl. This one particular line standing out as being so acutely relevant to my view of the world: ‘Nothing can be wholly lost that lives in Art’.
And this made me think about the time when I was living in New York and visiting the MET. A tiny still life by Cezanne tucked away in a corner depicting some apples and pears that had me standing with tears rolling down my cheeks.
Because it’s these emotional responses that stay with me. Moments in my life when I’m riding my bike and I feel my heart is going to explode because it simply doesn’t have the capacity for all that beauty.
Krysten Koehn has just returned from a solo ride to the west of Amsterdam and is now sitting in the window of her first-floor apartment with the spring sunshine lighting up her face. Currently waiting for a new passport after applying for citizenship in the Netherlands, this is the latest in a series of moves that have been a feature of her personal and professional life to date.
Brought up in Colorado, in her early twenties Krysten spent six months backpacking through Europe where she felt immediately at home. Her goal of once again returning in a more permanent fashion influencing her decision to study a Masters in Art Education that initially led to a teaching post in Kuwait.
‘I was able to travel a lot and it was a very rich time. I’m really thankful that I went and really thankful that I’m not doing it now [laughs].’
Another move to accept a position teaching at a Swiss boarding school coincided with her introduction to road cycling. As she was living in a tiny ski station high in the Alps, an uncompromising baptism of fire with Krysten describing the roads as going either straight up or straight down with very little in between.
‘I would probably still be there if I hadn’t been accepted to the Yale School of Art. And then, when I arrived, I didn’t touch my bike for the whole of the first semester; it just sat in my apartment with flat tyres, gathering dust. Not only was the course crazily overwhelming but I was also readjusting to life in the States and the transition from being a teacher back to a student again.’
As things began to somewhat settle, Krysten learnt that the Yale cycling team held weekly open rides and decided to join. Recruited onto the women’s race team, she now had a coach and structured training; a set of clear, measurable goals that considering the pressures of her course she found to be a salvation.
‘After graduating, I moved to New York where I met a couple of guys riding in Central Park,’ Krysten remembers. ‘We got chatting and they explained how they raced for the Rapha NY team before inviting me to join. This came at a really fortunate time because finding a community in New York isn’t always that easy and life can be lonely even though you’re living in a city of twelve million residents.’
‘The next couple of years were spent travelling between my home in New York and a job I found as a guide with a luxury cycle tour company based in France. But it was an Arctic Circle artist residency that decided where I would next be living. Based on a tall ship sailing out of Spitsbergen, I met a Dutchman on the crew, fell in love and that’s how I ended up in the Netherlands [smiles].’
Although not together any more, Krysten has settled in the small city of Haarlem to the west of Amsterdam where she teaches at the American School at The Hague and continues to work as a practicing artist. Her feelings on riding her bike when first moving to the Netherlands perhaps a little surprising in a country renowned for its cycling culture.
‘I was actually really uninspired by the landscape and almost stopped riding completely for a couple of years. After guiding bike tours in the Alps and Pyrenees and growing up in Colorado, the Netherlands felt like the flattest country in the entire world. And it’s not like it doesn’t have its own unique beauty and charm but there’s just no elevation and the weather sucks. It’s very windy almost all of the time and it’s often cloudy or rainy. I was still a Rapha ride leader for those couple of years – forcing myself to go out now and then to fulfill my responsibilities – but I just wasn’t feeling it. And then something possessed me to sign up for a three-day Rapha ride from Amsterdam to Paris. I tried on multiple occasions to get out of it but the RCC coordinator just wouldn’t have it.’
As things turned out, the experience completely changed Krysten’s cycling life. The shared suffering and group camaraderie made her view riding in Amsterdam from a fresh perspective. That although she didn’t have the same towering landscapes, the sense of community was equally as important. And finding that once she’d found that community and immersed myself in it, all Krysten wanted to do was to ride her bike.
‘In the Amsterdam area it’s mostly wide open polders with a network of canals. Pastoral farmland very much like a Flemish painting. Everything is flat; even the light is diffused because there’s so much moisture in the air. And then when you get closer to the sea, the paths through the dunes are really beautiful. The rippling movement of the sea grasses with all the colours very muted. A unique kind of beauty that just needs you to scratch the surface in order to appreciate it.’
Looking at Krysten’s body of work, this sense of landscape and movement appears fundamental to her creative process. A way of both thinking and feeling that’s not only provoked by her immediate surroundings but has strong ties to another location where she feels equally inspired: Girona.
‘Girona is like an amusement park,’ Krysten suggests. ‘Just magical; like nowhere else in the world. There’s obviously a reason why two thirds of the pro peloton live and train there and it’s easy to talk about the quiet roads and considerate drivers. But for me, it’s all encompassed by this general sense of belonging. A golden Mediterranean light that softens everything from the mountains down to the sea. Roads that unfurl like ribbons; undulating so perfectly with a satin surface.’
Spending the summer of 2019 working as a creative consultant for the Service Course, Krysten built another community centred around her friends Christian Meier and Tristan Cardew and the mechanics she rode with after they finished work. A new bike build – a custom steel Speedvagen – providing a link between the two cities that was heightened after Krysten returned to the Netherlands and was hit by a car barely 50 metres from her place of work.
‘I was very lucky and thankfully I could stand up and walk away but there was a part of me that died when I first saw the bike. A lot of well wishers expressed the view that it was more important that I wasn’t seriously injured and while I obviously agree with that, this bike is so much more than just a recreational tool or method of transportation. To me, it feels like an extension of my body. The primary tool of my artistic practice. When I ride it’s as if I’m drawing lines on the Earth; helping me to feel connected wherever I go which as a transient person is so very important. And because my bike is easily the most prized of my possessions, seeing it warped and splintered absolutely broke my heart.’
Now fully restored, Krysten describes her bike as feeling at home in Girona and more of a showpiece in Amsterdam, where its paint scheme provokes an unfailingly positive reaction. And as it’s fabricated from steel rather than featherweight carbon, it suits the flat, windy riding of the Netherlands but will still happily climb all day in the hills that surround the Catalan city.
‘My bike was a tangible way of connecting these places when last summer I planned to ride the 2000 kilometres that separates them. I had a ten-day window between finishing for the school holidays and starting to work with the Service Course, so I just decided to ride there. Why not?’ Krysten says with a smile. ‘Because when you’re carrying whatever belongings you need on your person or attached to your bike, that frees you to live completely in the moment. Allowing you to be 100% present in where you are and what you’re doing.’
‘I’ve previously been on bikepacking trips but this one was all about efficiency. And to motivate myself, I’d broken the route down and pre-booked accommodation. Some days had over 4000 metres of climbing and others were almost pan flat. But every day had its own unique feeling and moments which were super poignant.’
Deciding that she wanted to create an artistic response to her journey, on arriving in Girona she immediately sat down to paint a series of watercolors that captured a selection of her most salient memories.
‘I wanted to preserve those remarkable experiences; to burn them in my mind in terms of the colour and linear movement. Because in art, nothing is forgotten, and these paintings are a permanent reminder of those moments in time that I rode between my two cities. Moments that happened then and happened there. And that’s where they live.’
All artwork by kind permission of Krysten Koehn
Watercolour commentaries first published in Soigneur
This interview was first published on the Far Ride journal