When architecture and travel photographer Ben Richards first relocated to Tokyo, he immediately fell in love with the visual richness of his new home. And choosing to navigate the city by bike has allowed him to discover a different side to Japan that many visitors might easily miss. A ‘slow’ style of riding where every turn offers the unexpected.
When I was living in London my riding style was fixed gear. I rode a Cinelli track bike with the seat high and my shoulders down. For me and my friends, it was all about speed. Getting around quicker than anyone else. But even then it was a way to discover the city. On a bike, you have options to chop and change. To react and respond. And I guess my approach to Tokyo is the same but with a very different attitude to pace.
I’d already been introduced to tokyobike in London. Based on that connection, when I first arrived in Tokyo I met up with some of the team including Ichiro Kanai, the company’s owner. We went for a ride and then a coffee at the brand’s home in Yanaka. They wanted me to experience the city as a local so very kindly offered me a bike to use and my rides have just evolved from there. An ongoing project for both of us.
This is a city full of contradictions and there’s a common misconception that riding in Tokyo is all neon lights and incredibly fast paced. It can be but when you actually live here you soon discover that the neighborhoods are very calm and peaceful. Full of everyday details that when I walk out of my front door never cease to surprise and delight me.
And that’s basically the concept behind the Tokyo Slow rides. All about experiencing a different side of the city that people don’t necessarily see or even know exists. Challenging your perception by taking enough time to observe things at a slower pace. And the bike is the perfect tool to just see what happens. More of a focus on the journey than the destination.
As I shoot a lot of architecture and lifestyle images, I’m always interested in how people interact with the urban environment. I usually pick an anchor point for my rides – an interesting building or an area I want to investigate – but I’ll meander there and back. Following my nose and making turns as the mood takes me.
Coffee stops always feature in these wanderings. The classically traditional not-really-trying-too-hard or the aesthetically contemporary shops that are very considered in their architectural design. But common to both is a meticulous approach to their craft. Maybe a smaller range of drinks on offer compared to European coffee culture but still the same focus on the origin of the beans and the roasting. And very often it’s the space outside that makes your visit so special. Where there’s room to park your bike, order your coffee and watch the world go by.
Whenever I go out it’s with my bike and camera. Never just the one. Whichever is leading, the other will follow. Because on every ride you’ll encounter something new and exciting. The city rewards an open mind with these random happenings.
When I first visited on a two week trip, it was almost a case of sensory overload. Which is why I strive to maintain that same sense of wonder from when I first stepped off the plane. Challenging myself to see everything anew with a fresh pair of eyes.
Tokyo is by nature a very graphic city with the road markings forming patterns and the tops of the cars often displaying letters and numbers. It’s a city of vertically-spaced layers; partly a density thing which in turn forces the architecture to respond. The restrictions inspiring creativity.
But even the everyday aspects of life are surprising and I guess that’s why I fell in love with it all. The subtle differences that make you wonder how many hidden gems there are waiting to be discovered. And my bike rides play into that. Offering me the freedom to slow down and see what’s around the next corner.
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.’
As Komoot’s community manager for Spain, Sami Sauri has recently settled down to a comparatively 9-5 routine (if you count Sufferfest collaborations with Wahoo and making plans to ride with Specialized as everyday life). And finding she had some vacation time over winter but wanting a holiday rather than a new project, Indonesia was decided on as the destination. With no filming schedule or post-production commitments – Sami just taking a camera to capture her days on the road – this was to be a biking holiday with her friend Jack and an opportunity to soak up and experience an unfamiliar culture.
Now back in Girona but housebound due to the Coronavirus lockdown, Sami took time to reflect on her trip and chat candidly about the intense heat, her interactions with the local population and why it’s perhaps inadvisable to eat in low lit restaurants.
Oh, man. I enjoyed every single moment of this trip. Well, nearly every minute [laughs]. It was my first time in the Far East and my first time riding in such a humid environment. And they drive on the other side of the road which also took a little getting used to. So everything was very different but also incredibly photogenic. I just wanted to stop everywhere to take a picture. Which can sometimes get a little tricky if you actually want to complete your journey [laughs].
But if you see something amazing, you kind of want to document it?
It’s a balance because we did have a plan. An A to B route with a flight to catch when we got to our final stop. So we couldn’t not get there.
How did the idea for the trip come about?
I’d talked to Jack [Thompson] about going somewhere over winter. He rides as a living so is fairly flexible and I was owed some vacation time so we just decided to go for it [laughs].
And why this particular destination?
Jack had a good contact in the Bali tourism office and we thought it would be fun to spend Christmas somewhere sunny. Not something I’ve ever done before. And because I had a few spare days we also planned to have time on the beach so that I could surf. So we had 10 days for riding and another 5 for Christmas and just chilling out.
You mentioned that Jack rides bikes for a living?
On Instagram he’s @jackultracyclist. He thinks up these crazy challenges like doing three Everestings over three days in three different countries. Or riding 1,200 km from Girona to Portugal in 56 hours non-stop.
With Route 66 you’ve done some pretty big rides yourself, so riding together on this trip, how did your personalities bounce off each other?
To be really honest it was interesting because all my other long trips have been with Gus [Morton] and we’d be filming and working on a project. Indonesia still had the element of photography but it was like starting from zero and learning about each other. And we did have one little meltdown.
Of course [smiles].
Yeah, of course [laughs]. It happened before when [Gus and I] were filming Thereabouts and I think it would still happen if it was just two friends. You’re a little tired and irritable and you need some space but that’s hard to do if you’re travelling together. So we had this one night and then in the morning it was fine again. And Jack’s a very easygoing person in general and he speaks Balinese – is that a language [smiles] – or is it Indonesian?
That must have come in handy.
He was speaking with the locals along the route which was really cool.
Your photographs show a variety of very different landscapes. Farmland and rainforest but also arid and rocky highlands.
Jack had this route figured out that linked together all these volcanoes. The first one we rode up is the most active volcano in Indonesia. Impressive because people are just living right below its ridge. All these little houses and places to eat jumbled together and the most recent eruption was only in 2011.
That’s quite recent?
Yeah, right [laughs]. And we rode right up to the top.
So you had this route planned out but what were your first impressions when you flew in?
It was 9:00pm at night, I wasn’t even moving and I’d started sweating. So I was, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die.’ So hot that I was really concerned whether I’d be able to ride. But then we took a taxi and as we drove away from the airport you could see the people in the street and all this life going on outside. So energetic and vibrant that this sense of excitement took away any worries.
It’s very noticeable that many of your photographs feature the people you saw on the road or talked with in the towns and villages.
Thanks to Jack it was a little easier to communicate. And the first three days we were still in modern Indonesia. There’s a lot of tourism on Bali island so you get the recognisable restaurants and supermarkets. But then we took the boat across to Java. And suddenly, no tourists.
That must have been quite a contrast?
Indonesia has lots of different cultures and religions and in the fishing town where we were dropped off you could see evidence of this in the sights and sounds of everyday life. And then we pitched up and I’m wearing a t-shirt and shorts – it’s super hot – and girls would stop and ask to have their photograph taken with me as this was the first time they’d seen a woman with tattoos.
The centre of attention?
Absolutely. We’d be riding and people would pull over their car to take a photo. Some of them could speak a little English and everyone says hello. Wherever you ride in Bali and Java; hello, hello, hello [laughs].
The colours in your images are also incredibly vivid.
The landscape was super varied as we rode. A lush green that gradually changed to the oranges and browns of rock and sand the higher we climbed. A very sensory environment with woodsmoke and the smells of cooking from early in the morning.
Is travelling by bike a common sight?
There’s an established community of cyclists in the big cities. But in the more remote areas, sometimes they’d spot you and shout the whole family to come out and see.
And you were stopping off and eating on the road?
I’ll be honest. It was hard. For me, it was the first time I’d ever travelled to this part of the world. So I didn’t really know what to eat. Jack had more of an idea and he’d recommend this or that. And we ate a lot of ice cream to cool us down [laughs]. One evening we were in a restaurant on the beach and it was pretty dark. We’d ordered this plate of rice mixed with different types of vegetables. Everything is usually covered in chillies and I’d asked if they could keep them separate. But then what I mistook for a carrot…
I can see this coming.
…was this huge chilli. And I hate spicy things. I just can’t deal with it. And this blew my mouth wide open and next morning I woke up with a massive allergic reaction. My face was blown up like a balloon. And this was also the same day I had the meltdown with Jack [laughs]. But we had a flight booked so I had to keep riding and then we had this torrential rain so it really couldn’t get any worse. Rivers of water flowing down the streets; it was impossible to ride. So we just took a taxi and headed back to Bali where I enjoyed a few days of surfing. A nice way to end our holiday.
Looking back at the whole trip, what were the most memorable moments?
The friendliness of the people definitely stood out. As for the riding, we had some steep-ass climbs but then you’d get an awesome downhill section. An unbelievably beautiful landscape where we’d turn to look back and see a volcano rising up out of the rainforest below. The spicy food I’m not going to include in this list [laughs] but everything else was pretty amazing.
I first met photographer Jonny Hines in the summer of 2016. He’d travelled up from London for the opening of an exhibition of his work hosted by Rapha in their Manchester clubhouse. A series of mountain landscapes that portrayed riders climbing ribbons of road or caught in repose beside an alpine stream in the shadow of towering peaks.
This focused sense of narrative is once again evident in the images Jonny recently shot documenting the inaugural Atlas Mountain Race. His reflections on following the race offering a fascinating insight into a beautiful but unforgiving landscape that both tested and delighted the race competitors in equal measure.
I’d already established a relationship with PEdAL ED after they got in touch last year to ask if I wanted to shoot the Trans Pyrenees. And then race director Nelson Trees contacted me with a view to doing something similar on the Atlas Mountain Race which they were sponsoring.
I remember how burnt out I felt after the first couple of days of Trans Pyrenees. The front riders so quick that to keep pace I was also having to survive on an odd hour of sleep here and there. With my plan for the Atlas Mountain Race I was able to manage my own needs more easily. Obviously you want to shoot sunrise and sunset but we were pretty remote and it isn’t that easy to find accommodation. So we’d plan to be somewhere nice as the sun went down and then stay over at a guesthouse or home stay. Waking up each day and checking the riders’ tracking dots before heading out once again.
Flying into Morocco was pretty much as I expected. A lot of familiar faces with everyone seeming to know each other. They’d done the Silk Road Mountain Race or Transcontinental; many spending time together during these events and forming friendships. So it was really interesting to witness this sense of camaraderie but still notice the potential front runners eyeing each other up. Everyone being friendly but sussing out all the different bikes and wondering who had the best setup and whether they, themselves, had made the right decisions [laughs].
As the riders got underway, we had a police escort out of Marrakesh which was really cool. Motorbike outriders shepherding us through the suburbs until we left the city behind us. And even though the race route took us through some pretty wild and remote regions, you’d find that someone would just pop up walking along the road. Lots of Berbers and shepherds with flocks of sheep and goats. Which makes you wonder how people manage to live out there because the riders had to be very conscious of where they could get water and supplies. If you missed these points you could be in serious trouble as it’s a truly unforgiving environment.
I was following the race in a 4×4 pickup with my friend and PEdAL ED designer Matteo D’Amanzo and Stephano who was creating podcast content. So it was pretty cramped and there were parts which were undriveable so we were constantly having to re-route. Even the sections that we could use were incredibly slow going with our average speed often not that much faster than the riders.
At one point we were driving back down a mountain pass that we couldn’t cross. It was pitch black and we’d been trying to stay on course only to find ourselves in a dried-up river bed. So then you have half an hour of reversing and you’re super disorientated because there’s no point of reference. The riders obviously had it far tougher but it was an adventure for us too [smiles].
As we’d planned on following the middle to back group, we kept seeing the same riders over the course of the first few days before the race got really strung out. It became a running joke with two of the guys after we’d bumped into them a couple of times at breakfast and wished them ‘good morning’. But when it came to people struggling, I tried to take some close-up shots without them realising; just to capture the moment before asking how it was going. Treading that fine line of building up a rapport without interfering with the race.
Obviously it’s very different comparing the front and back of the field. Because at the front the last thing they want to do is stop and chat. They’re in the zone and doing their thing. But at the back the riders are racing against themselves and the ones we were following couldn’t wait to tell us about their adventures. The crazy bike ‘n’ hike section they’d just completed or the lady and her family who invited everyone that passed into her house for tea and peanut butter on toast.
The local population was a feature of the race that added enormous interest and colour. As we left Marrakesh we had children running alongside the riders – everyone high fiving – and there was definitely a sense that people were interested in the race. From our perspective in the car, what we remember are the smiles and waves of everyone we passed. Through every small village we’d drive with our windows down so we could say ‘hi’.
On the first evening when we’d reached a fairly narrow section of road, we came up to a large group of cars blocking the way through this small settlement. We could see someone waving at us to come up and when we did they showed us where we could wash our hands before ushering us into this house. The women all in one room, the men gathered in the next where we sat down to this huge leg of lamb followed by roast chicken and another dish with almonds and prunes. Everyone digging in around this large central platter; right hand only and no plates.
So in terms of goodwill from the local residents, Morocco was very welcoming. The terrain, however, was less hospitable and a sizeable proportion of the field was forced to scratch. The amount of walking required caught some of the riders out in terms of their timings. And tyre choice proved crucial with the wear and tear on drive trains due to the sand and dust another huge factor. Because it wasn’t gravel roads in the sense that we understand the term in Northern Europe. These were seriously rocky trails which can drop your average pace to 10 kph.
And I had my own worries regarding the landscape in terms of how to shoot it. Whether it would all look the same? But you just try to find different angles and perspectives to tell the story. Mixing up big landscapes with the small detail stuff. A real sensory experience with the smell of the tagines cooking and the call to prayer floating across the villages and towns throughout the day. So much so that you feel totally immersed in a different culture which is a reason for entering this race in itself.
On reflection, I do wonder whether maybe I went in without realising quite how big the Atlas Mountains are in terms of elevation? I’d seen pictures and thought, yeah, that looks really cool. But the beauty of this region is quite breathtaking with the folds of the Earth clearly exposed and laid bare. Not green like the Alps but varying shades of orange and yellow. And then you’d follow a bend in the road and come across an oasis. The shock of open water surrounded by cherry blossom trees after miles of dried-out river beds. Just like I’d pictured it from the adventure books I used to read as a child. I can only imagine how it must have appeared to a race competitor on the edge of exhaustion?
It was interesting – considering the gruelling nature of the race – that the riders kept asking how we were doing and there’s us with a car [laughs]. It might have been bumpy and my back kind of hurt a little bit but the individuals competing were the true celebs. Bedding down under the stars whilst I was sleeping inside after a hot meal.
And then, finally reaching the finish, you can’t help but feel happy that everyone’s crossed the line safely. That you haven’t driven off the side of a cliff and none of the riders were seriously hurt. Because these types of races can be really dangerous and it can very quickly all go very wrong.
From my perspective I wanted to shoot images that truly reflect the experience of the riders rather than my own. But when you keep bumping into the same individuals throughout the course of the race, you can’t help but will them along. Hoping that they’re OK. And what I found interesting – because I come from a background of working in the guided tour business with Rapha Travel – was the almost instinctual need to help. Obviously you can’t interfere with the race but there’s definitely a sense of emotional investment.
Would I line up on the start line myself? This is something we talked about every day in the car. I’m basically a road rider but, being on the race, you get involved and start finding it all rather cool. I’m a bit of a geek – as most cyclists are when it comes to their bikes and kit – so it’s really interesting seeing all the different set-ups on the start line. So maybe I could be persuaded. Maybe I need to experience this type of race if I’m going to carry on photographing long distance events? To truly understand what it feels like? But if I ever did decide to give it a go, it would be as a pair. I’ve got no interest in spending 12 hours a day with my own thoughts. That would be the first reason to scratch; I’d just get bored. Cycling for me is a social thing and I’d probably feel less anxious riding with someone. Not very rock ‘n’ roll, I know [laughs].