Constantin Gerlach: onthenorway

Berlin-based photographers Constantin Gerlach and Laura Droße document a shared passion for slow travel with their online cultural magazine onthenorway. Capturing the beauty of natural landscapes, the visual stories that result offer a fascinating insight into the culture and traditions of the regions the pair explore.

Here Constantin discusses the inspiration behind onthenorway, how exploration allows the couple to truly connect with life and why an appreciation of any locality is easier to achieve with a free spirit and open senses.

Your website lists a number of different professional roles. Have you always worked in the creative industries?

Originally I’m from Frankfurt; right in the centre of Germany. I studied a design apprenticeship at a specialist art college that focused on print before working mainly on layout and packaging projects at an agency for a few years. Around this time I’d started taking more photographs; discovering that this was more satisfying than sitting in front of a computer for 8 hours a day and eventually leading me to quit my job and a move to Berlin to study photography.

You describe onthenorway as a cultural magazine focusing on northern destinations. How do you define north? Is it a physical locality or a state of mind?

In one sense it’s the roughness of the landscape. And not necessarily to the north of Berlin because there are plenty of places in the south that share the same characteristics. But, purely from a personal perspective, I’ve been travelling to the north for as long as I can remember and I’m still drawn back to these places.

And your decision to call this project onthenorway?

I understand that it might be a little confusing as the name references Norway [laughs]. But in the ancient times this term also meant the way north and this is how we chose to use it.

OTN_cyclespeak_01

You work on this project with your partner Laura. How did you both originally arrive at the format?

The way we earn a living is very client-focused and necessitates following a brief. Onthenorway is all about doing what we want to do and how we want to do it. Without any compromises and a need to explain why.

On your website it mentions visible beauty but you also refer to the north’s roughness. Why is this so significant?

It’s honest. It helps you feel closer to your environment but also to each other. If you’re sitting in a tiny hut and a storm is raging then this bonds you together somehow. And I always get the impression, from the people I’ve met on our trips, that it results in a warmness and a willingness to help because they understand the unique challenges of where they choose to live.

So this connection with the natural world is very important?

In terms of onthenorway there’s definitely something liberating about leaving your comfort zone. Deciding whether to camp out in a tent when it’s -5°C in the middle of nowhere because you want to get a nice shot as the sun comes up in the morning. And, in terms of cycling, if it hurts and you really need to push yourself then these are the days you always remember. Which is why we go north and get wet and dirty. I feel the images we make are more true when you have to endure in order to take them.

And this leads to more lasting memories?

A friend of mine from the UK tells me it’s character building [laughs]. Like when I was bike-packing a few years ago in France on a fixed-gear bike; riding more than 1,000 km along the north coast and on occasion feeling absolutely destroyed. Looking back I wonder what made me even consider this to be a good idea in the first place but it’s something I will never, ever forget.

OTN_cyclespeak_14

Do you see a relationship between how modern society functions and a need for individuals to seek out adventure?

I get the impression that too often we watch from a distance rather than actually experiencing things at first hand. I recognise in myself that I spend far too much time scrolling through Instagram. Time that I could use in a more productive fashion. So it’s good to occasionally slow down and really focus 100% on things; totally immersing yourself in the moment.

Any aspects of modern living that you feel are particularly challenging?

For us it’s the expectation that you need to engage with social media almost on a daily basis. It takes us ages to select even a couple of images for Instagram so this pressure to post and maintain your digital presence is something we could easily do without. So much so that we made a conscious decision to only engage on our own terms; prioritising our photographs for the website or editorial features rather than putting all our energy into such impermanent platforms.

When you say you love to travel slowly, is this in a literal sense or a metaphor for how you choose to engage with your environment?

In a way it’s a bit of both. On one level we physically take our time on a trip but it’s also the curiosity that drives you to go where you’ve never been before. To do what you’ve never done. Taking you to the edge of the world or sometimes as simple as taking a different route home from work on your bike. And as soon as you start talking to the people you meet, the sooner you get an insight into their lives which allows you to truly connect with that locality.

Are there examples of northern culture, behaviour and habits that particularly resonate?

It’s the people that we’ve met; how they have this instinctual habit of keeping to themselves. They’re never loud in that look at me sense. And I suppose I recognise the same trait in how I feel and behave which is probably why I’m so bad at social media. And I’m addicted to cinnamon buns. Very Scandinavian [laughs].

OTN_cyclespeak_16

How do you define your relationship with the weather? Especially northern weather?

Bad weather can be super interesting in terms of photography. There’s this quote I can never quite remember that talks about a lack of epicness under a bluebird sky [smiles]. When we were in Ireland the weather was changing every 10 minutes, so it would rain and then the light that immediately followed would be just amazing.

You state that you don’t seek picture perfection, so what criteria do you apply when selecting images for onthenorway?

The most important thing is whether an image transports a mood. We have two sections on our website – the visuals and the journal – and in these galleries we try to share with our audience what we ourselves felt.

Any plans for exhibitions?

We’re showing some of our work this autumn in a Berlin bookstore. Which we feel fits nicely because the partner country for this year’s Frankfurt book fair is Norway [smiles]. We both love paper and feel that photographs are meant to be printed and hung on the wall. The bigger the better. And it’s always interesting to see a group of images that tell a story – whether that’s in a book or magazine – as opposed to scrolling through individual pictures on a screen.

You live in Berlin; working in a variety of creative fields. Is that by design or chance? And is it important to have these multifaceted roles?

For me, it’s important. I quickly become bored if I’m doing the same things and I think you get better at what you’re doing if you practise related disciplines. And working with other people is also very interesting.

Speaking of collaboration, you have a number of partnerships that are linked to your trips.

We started onthenorway two years ago and we’re still fairly small. So we’re not influencers – that was never our goal – but we understand that it’s this aspect that attracts brands. We approached all the partners we have right now by making a portfolio that we could present alongside a concept of what we wanted to achieve.

And why these particular partners?

We like to work with people that think like we do. Topo designs, for example, are based in Colorado and manufacture outdoor gear but are very environmentally focused. You can send your stuff back so it can be repaired. And with Mini we did a road trip in one of their hybrid cars which we found really interesting.

OTN_cyclespeak_13

What do you ride when you’re not travelling with Mini?

My current favourite bike is kind of a cross and gravel mixture that I had built last year by Cicli Bonnano; an Italian guy who lives and works in Berlin building steel frames. My road bike is also steel. I like steel [smiles].

And your camera?

Usually a Canon 5D Mark IV but for Norway we had the chance to use a Phase One camera. Medium format and insanely expensive but what was really interesting was how it perfectly suited the way we travel. The camera itself slows you down because unlike the Canon with its super quick autofocus and frames per second, the Phase One requires you to really think about what you’re doing. It doesn’t work for street photography but for portraits and landscapes it’s amazing.

So onthenorway has changed how you approach your photography?

In terms of focus, yes. With onthenorway it’s about less rather than more. Slow rather than fast. Working commercially on cycling related shoots you’re doing all these things at once: thinking, talking, directing, checking your shot list. And I love this because a certain amount of pressure makes you feel alive. But I also enjoy spending time on just that one image.

This is a recurring theme I’ve noticed in creative individuals. Navigating the balance between earning a living – with the compromises this can entail – and personal projects that express exactly what you want them to do.

The biggest challenge we face is the trips themselves because they are expensive. We were considering getting a campervan so we’d be pretty self-sufficient which means we could slow down even more. And we’d love to grow onthenorway; have our content in print. Maybe a limited edition collector’s magazine for each trip that we take?

Your website states that you’re aiming for perfection with your cinnamon buns. Just how good are they?

We get pretty good feedback but they’re still a work in progress. Like with my photography, I’m always trying hard to improve and maybe they could be a little more fluffy [laughs].

onthenorway

All images with kind permission of Constantin Gerlach and Laura Droße

 

Standert not standard

‘Max was studying industrial design here in Berlin and working part-time as a messenger. He wanted a bike that would do it all in the city. Responsive yet durable, classic looking but still modern. And when he couldn’t find what he was looking for he decided to design his own frame to be fabricated in steel. Really focusing on the basic needs that the bike had to fulfill.’

I’m speaking to Benedict Herzberg, Standert’s head of marketing and PR, and the Max in question is the company’s founder and CEO, Max von Senger und Etterlin. Back in 2012 and following this fruitless search for a new bike – clearly necessity can be the mother of invention – Standert opened their first shop with a vision of offering a range of cycling products alongside sales of coffee, soup and ice cream.

Whilst ice cream isn’t now available the range of Standert bikes has steadily grown to encompass race, urban and cross. ‘Models,’ suggests Benedict, ‘that reference industry trends but in essence we’re still building bikes that we want to ride. We might be influenced by external factors such as the current popularity of the gravel scene but then we build a gravel bike how we would imagine it.’

Bikes_01

With this discussion of identity, I’m prompted to satisfy my curiosity regarding the brand name following a rather puzzling response from typing Standert into Google Translate. Benedict laughs as he explains the derivation: ‘It’s a slang word. Used to describe something that can be common but is still awesome. The Berlin version of Hell Yeah.’

An interesting play on words considering the Mitte location of their original shop. Back in 2012 an up and coming region of the city, Benedict now describes it as the centre of hipness with a lot of young people and families making it their home. And with the opening of a second showroom in rapidly developing Kreuzberg, the decision has now been made to split the models on display with Mitte retaining the urban bikes and Kreuzberg showcasing the performance range.

‘You have to work hard at keeping a brand alive. People go into business with a lot of passion but it can all too easily become just a job. You need to keep that flame burning and that’s what we want to do with our bikes. A cursory look at their clean lines might give you the impression that our designs are very simple but actually they’re not. Definitely more Standert than standard [smiles].’

Sock_wall_and_supersonic

‘It’s important to be authentic,’ continues Benedict, ‘and in terms of how we communicate to our customer base I feel people appreciate honesty in marketing; that we’re not selling our bikes based on claims we can’t substantiate. Basically, when someone walks into our showroom we’re not going to pretend that our bikes have been tested in a wind tunnel and they’re zero zero point two milliseconds faster over 40 km. But you will ride our bike faster because you’ll love it.’

With this talk of communication and brand ethos, it’s fair to say that the Standert shop has always been a hub for Berlin-based cyclists; the increasingly fluid international workforce often using the shop rides as a way of making social inroads when first relocating to the city. And with many finding their way to the rides through Instagram or Strava, Benedict was amused to hear from a group of visiting Australians that the Thursday Feierabendrunde is known globally as a very fast shop ride.

‘We do get pros showing up,’ he confirms, ‘and as we give out sprint and GC points it is competitive. But everybody knows that we stick to the rules of the road and it’s still loads of fun; individuals giving it a go just to see how long they can last.’

Version 2

A competitive edge mirrored in the company’s sponsoring of a factory racing team; Benedict explaining how their aluminium Kreissäge race bike was completely developed with input from Team Standert. So much so that although the first iteration was only available as a 1x model, subsequent feedback suggesting that the ability to add a second chain ring would be welcomed led directly to a design rethink.

‘It’s important not to think you have all the knowledge as there’s always people better than you at something. It’s like the assumption that a product has to be manufactured in Europe to be any good. Our lugged steel-framed urban bikes are made in Taiwan because you simply can’t do it better for the quantities we’re ordering. Contrast that with our aluminium race bikes that are hand-welded in Italy and you can see our approach. We build the bikes where we get the best quality.’

This theme of assumptions that Benedict discovered applies equally to Standert the company; people tending to think they’re a lot bigger than they actually are when the reality is only 10 individuals in addition to the showroom staff.

Regal_05

‘We want to grow but in a very organic way. If we get too big too fast then there’s a danger we might lose control of the process. That attention to detail and focus on quality that’s at the core of what we do. And we’re very much rooted in Berlin so we know that our bikes resonate within this setting. Max and I grew up here and so much of what influences the Standert design language comes from the city in the form of art, design and architecture.’

‘There’s naturally a certain price for quality,’ Benedict continues, ‘so it’s not a cheap product that we’re selling. But what our customers have in common is a desire to ride a cool bike and not just something off the shelf. Performance is important but they have a certain look in mind. A product that represents their individual style and that isn’t mass produced. Not a status symbol but a statement nonetheless.’

With a disc version of the Kreissäge and a stainless steel Erdgeschoss just two from a series of exciting model launches planned for the coming year, Benedict suggests that this will enable Standert to reach the sweet spot in their model range.

Workshop

‘We don’t have it written down but the goal is to be a mainstream player offering bike designs that you can’t get elsewhere. But because people know who’s behind Standert and it’s easy to relate to the brand, when you think about growth it’s important to consider how that intimacy can be maintained. How you can keep that spirit alive and still grow.’

There’s a slight pause as Benedict considers his previous statement before qualifying it further.

‘Not niche or mainstream. But on the border between the two maybe [smiles].’

All images with kind permission of Standert

Jochen Hoops: A desire to document

Speaking in a quiet, calm manner from his home in Hamburg, creative producer Jochen Hoops is reflecting on the decision to leave for Paris after growing up in Germany’s second city. Initially signing up for French classes, enrolling on a photography course led to a job assisting a fashion photographer; subsequently helping him decide that he didn’t want to follow the same path.

‘I wanted to earn a living and to be a photographer in Paris you need to work for a couple of years for little if any pay. So I switched over to the commercial side as a representative; working for an agency connecting clients with photographers. Promoting their work, organising the shoot; all that kind of stuff.’

‘For 15 years,’ he continues, ‘I was working with individuals with backgrounds in fashion and advertising but not cycling related at all. And I came back to my own photography – after not touching a camera for years –  when I met some guys in Paris and started to document our rides. I like the idea that people can recognise themselves in the images; not literally but if it makes them want to be there, to want to ride, then that’s great.’

Jochen Hoops - @here_are_wings-2496

With cycling one of life’s constants, Jochen’s passion for this process of documentation is evident yet he feels somewhat uncomfortable calling himself a photographer. He accepts there’s a narrative to his work but when pressed is happy to leave it there. Maybe a question of semantics but this does place an interesting spotlight on the creative process and where the balance lies between commercially imposed restraints and photography as an art form.

‘Having the right gear doesn’t replace a good eye but in some sense photography is a craft because you have to learn how to get the results you want. And I also know many commercial photographers that have side projects that might be termed art but not if there’s a brief. You can have a certain style which is why clients book you in the first place but nowadays it can be difficult to express yourself with absolute freedom because you’re expected to stick to the editorial plan. And very often when you look at brand related content you’ll notice that it’s always sunny and everyone is smiling. Not my kind of work [laughs].’

‘I like to take my pictures from the bike when out riding,’ Jochen goes on to explain. ‘And I really don’t mind if the person isn’t well lit. I can do that if it’s asked for but it’s not always interesting for me. What I do find interesting is quite instinctive; a constant evolution. Patterns of light and dark, buildings and tunnels; shooting someone descending at full speed. And because it’s important not to disturb the ride I have to capture the image in that moment. There’s no going back to do it again.’

Jochen Hoops - @here_are_wings-0429-2

An approach perhaps at odds with the world of commercial photography where models are directed according to a pre-planned brief; a process that Jochen knows all too well from his agency role representing photographers and organising their shoots.

‘I’d scout a location, book a stylist; basically everything right through to post-production. And keeping an eye on all these various aspects means you develop a lot of experience of working with clients and creative directors. For me it’s all about being effective and time sensitive which for them equates to saving money. So sometimes it’s important to keep control of the process; some people know what they’re doing whilst others need guidance. And this understanding of the advertising process enabled me to offer advice which ultimately led to Creative Hub Paris.’

As a network agency producing bespoke editorial content with a cycling and lifestyle focus, Jochen enjoyed working collaboratively and recognised the benefit from having an input of ideas from a range of different viewpoints. But even though he understands the initial temptation to accept every commission after first founding the business and acknowledges that he worked on some interesting projects, over time his attitude saw a subtle shift in direction.

Jochen Hoops - @here_are_wings-0455

‘I still think – with my expertise and professional background – that I can collaborate with brands as a creative consultant to produce great things for the cycling industries. But the joy of documenting rides myself means I don’t want to work solely in that way any longer. I did it for a while and I’m still involved from time to time but for now I’m re-structuring how this all fits together.’

A refocusing of priorities that led to a long break from Instagram and a reconnection with concert going and viewing exhibitions; a reaction to what Jochen terms fast living where pictures posted on a feed last only a few minutes before they’re gone.

‘I like it when I’m occasionally asked for a print of my work or an editorial story. In the sense that it’s a slower dimension and people have time to really look at things. An image on a screen is somewhat removed but with a print there’s a lasting sense of appreciation; a permanence to the work compared to how we consume the majority of our media.’

Jochen Hoops - @here_are_wings-3489

With Jochen still limiting the time he engages with Instagram to a brief look in the morning over coffee, he confirms that here_are_wings references a book find in a Parisian flea market and resonates with his feeling on the bike. The sense of freedom and wellbeing he achieves when out riding with friends; a way of life that he enjoyed in Paris and is currently rebuilding after relocating back to Hamburg.

‘It’s been 20 years but for both professional and family reasons it feels really good to be back. Good to be riding in and around the city with my girlfriend and rediscovering those once familiar roads all over again. Professionally I have some plans because if you don’t then nothing will happen. But that doesn’t mean you have to stick with them. I think of it as a bike ride; you might set off on a certain route but then bump into something great and decide to change direction. Taking another road that you really didn’t expect. What’s clear is that I want to continue documenting my rides. I really love doing this kind of photography but I don’t want a financial need to do that. I want to enjoy it.’

‘I’m kind of a quiet person,’ Jochen concludes. ‘I have my own opinions but I don’t feel the need to talk for the sake of it. I prefer to be more of an observer and if I can continue to inspire people to go riding and discover places; well, that would also be good.’

 

All images with kind permission of Jochen Hoops

Roger Seaton / TransBromptonental

One of the world’s most arduous ultra-distance events, the Transcontinental is an unsupported cycle race that saw competitors on the 2018 edition roll out of Geraardsbergen in Belgium on Saturday 28th July before crossing the finish line in Greece some 4 checkpoints and 3,900 km later.

So deciding to race across Europe on a Brompton might seem an unusual choice of bike for such a challenging feat of endurance. But ask Roger Seaton to recount his experience – he can list the individual weights of his equipment down to the gram – and you soon begin to appreciate his serious intent when entering such an extreme event.

Now back for a 7th edition with an East / West route, in his own words Roger describes the decisions that led to a second Transcontinental start line, the preparation required to race a bike across a continent and why – no matter what challenges lay ahead – he was intent on having as much fun as possible.

I rode throughout my teens; in and out of trails around London. Seeing where the bike could take me on casual trips with friends. Even years later never really losing that sense of adventure you get every time you set foot across your own doorstep. And thinking back to my first attempt at the Transcontinental during the summer of 2017, I suppose I was looking for a challenge; something on an epic scale.

Both riding regular bikes, I’d entered as a pair with a fellow Rapha Cycling Club member but to be honest I’d pretty much coerced him into doing it. He was very unsure as he’d never tried sleeping wild before. In my opinion a minor detail because you don’t need much experience to lie down on the ground after riding 250 km. If you’re tired, you’ll sleep. It’s that simple [smiles].

cockpit

A week out of the start he’d decided to pull out but I still felt good so re-classified as solo. And then barely a day into the race I bumped into a fellow rider and he asked if I’d heard about Frank Simons who, as I soon found out, had tragically died following a hit and run incident shortly after the start in Geraardsbergen.

My family back home in the UK had learnt about this on Facebook and immediately tried to contact me. 17 or 18 missed calls later they finally got through but by that time my children in particular were increasingly concerned and upset. Especially as 6 weeks before the start of the race I was the victim of a hit and run driver myself when someone knocked me off my bike leaving me unconscious on the roadside with lacerations and broken ribs. The seriousness of these injuries preventing my doctor from signing me off to ride but fortunately not detering my dog’s vet from passing me fit [laughs].

After speaking over the phone I told them I’d think it over before calling the following morning. My daughter was still very tearful after a sleepless night so I decided then and there to scratch from the race. I’d lost my ability to focus entirely on myself and what I needed to do in order to complete such a mammoth undertaking. Not an easy decision as I was feeling great but it was the right thing to do and I don’t regret it. In my mind it’s only a bike race – a fun run – and if your journey isn’t a happy one then why would you do it?

When the 2018 edition was announced I decided to give it another go but this time riding a Brompton. To some maybe an unusual choice but it’s all about your frame of reference. A Brompton has smaller wheels but the geometry isn’t miles off a normal bike. And I wanted to ride the Transcontinental again but on my own terms. Yes, it’s a race, but I wanted to stop and smell the flowers along the way and the Brompton is a bike I always associate with maximum amounts of fun. Just as importantly my family felt the same way which helped alleviate any concerns left over from the previous year.

descending

I use a Brompton every day as transport and CHPT3 – the company ex-professional cyclist David Millar and some friends founded after he retired from racing – had produced this pimped up and modified superlight version. I’d arranged to pick mine up from the Brompton Junction in Covent Garden and when I arrived David was there; chatting to the people who’d bought the first run of these bikes. I remember making this off the cuff remark that I was entering the Transcontinental again and, if I got a place, I was thinking of doing it on my new CHPT3 Brompton. He was very nice about it and suggested I get in touch if I got a place. So when my confirmation came through from the race organisers I sent David a message to let him know I was in and to ask if they were still interested. From there it went very quickly to full team support.

The individuals behind CHPT3 are super fun but my entry in the Transcontinental was treated with absolute seriousness to the extent that we immediately planned several long weekends away to put the bike and kit through its paces. Basically a series of big days – 250 km back to back – that included a fair bit of mixed surfaces as I’d already decided to vary my race route to make the riding more interesting.

The route planning is such a crucial part of your preparation. Make or break in some senses and the more time you spend on this aspect the better the ride experience. The checkpoints determine your general direction but it’s down to each individual competitor to plan from there. You’d think that cycle paths, for example, might seem appropriate but they can be very variable in surface and you need to constantly slow down to avoid other cyclists and pedestrians. But you wouldn’t want to travel the whole way on dual carriageways with trucks thundering past you day and night. And that’s before you factor in the ban on using tunnels and whether there are places to stop and refuel because on a big day you’re burning 11,000 calories. One thing I quickly discovered was that nearly all French cemeteries have a tap that you can use to refill your bidons.

bike profile

Luggage was one of the easiest considerations when prepping the bike. Apidura’s seat bag fitted perfectly on the rear rack without any need for modifications and that’s all the storage I’d planned on taking. In terms of sleeping there’s two schools of thought. If you book hotels then it can be expensive and you need a fixed route which can be an added complication time-wise. But a hotel room means you can easily power up devices, wash your kit and generally have a good night’s sleep. I wanted a more fluid approach and didn’t start with any preconceived plans. If I was at a hotel at the right time and the right price then I’d take it. If not I was going to sleep rough.

Not including navigation, my kit came in at just under 2.5 kg. Very pared down but when your equipment is good then this allows you to make tough decisions in the sense of what not to pack. You take my CHPT3 1.21 jersey for example and the moment I’d opened a tin of mackerel and managed to tip the whole contents of oily tomato sauce all over me. I washed it out in a stream with some soap, it dried within minutes and didn’t even smell. Superb quality kit that will take a good beating yet still functions perfectly.

With the start day fast approaching I crossed over on the ferry from Hull and then rode the 110 km from Bruges to Geraardsbergen ready for the off. A useful distance to make sure everything was working in terms of both kit and rider [smiles]. I was feeling apprehensive that it would seem a little disrespectful to be rolling up on a Brompton but the reality was I meant business. As it turned out the reception I received was great and people were genuinely interested. Some, it must be said, thought it was absolutely crazy but the bike was clearly kitted out for adventure and the camaraderie I enjoyed with the CHPT3 team was such an important aspect. Constant messages to motivate and reassure me to such an extent that even David’s mum had texted to wish me good luck.

The race got under way at 22:00; a parade lap before immediately climbing the Muur and its 20% cobbled ramps. It’s very frenetic with all the riders charging ahead in the heat of the moment but the Brompton was just sensational. And one of the most profound experiences of the race was hearing people shout my name as I climbed – individuals I’d met the day before or who’d seen me on local news programmes – until you reach the top and it all quietens as the race itself gets underway. For 30 to 40 km you’re riding alongside the other competitors before, one by one, they gradually veer off to follow their own routes into the night.

kit bag

The first few days went better than expected as I pretty much settled into a rhythm from the off; riding my own race. The Brompton felt fast and I just needed to keep on top of my hydration as it was very hot. And this also makes keeping clean one of the hardest things to manage as you sweat with a corresponding build-up of salt. One evening I’d pulled up in a forest and got my kit out ready to bed down but the moment the dew point changed all this dried salt became slimy. Not particularly pleasant as you climb into your bag [laughs].

For me, the secret was breaking the day down into manageable chunks; both physically but also mentally. At times the temperatures during the day were unbearably hot so why wouldn’t you sleep for a couple of hours after midday before making that time back later when it’s cooler? And I’d already decided not to bury my head in terms of counting off the kilometres. I swam in streams, stopped to take photographs of the amazing scenery and I’ve got quite a sweet tooth so if I passed an open patisserie… [smiles]

Approaching Checkpoint 1 I’d pulled in at a McDonald’s. Not my usual choice of restaurant but there’s power to charge your appliances, toilet facilities and WiFi. I’d checked the map before leaving but managed to end up on a really fast dual carriageway before backtracking down my alternate route that brought me to a 20 km gravel fire track through a forest. Serious off-road sections that would’ve been great on a mountain bike but were decidedly sketchy on my fully-laden Brompton. So there I was, roughly 8 hours outside my plan and having to ride all night through thunderstorms and torrential rain to get back on track; making the checkpoint with a good four hours to spare to receive my first stamp after roughly 800 km and 3 days of riding.

silvretta

It was on the Silvretta-Hochalpenstraße with its 34 hairpin bends that I first heard an odd clunking sound that I assumed was just something touching or rubbing a wheel. I had a good look but couldn’t see anything amiss before noticing that even on the flat I was 2-3 kph down on my average pace and it was becoming harder and harder to pedal. Still not being able to work out what the issue was I decided to carry on but over the next 200 km the noise got considerably louder. I was in the Tyrolean Alps at this stage and the effort required to keep moving was just horrendous. So I phoned the CHPT3 guys for advice, we diagnosed a failure of the rear internally geared hub before realising that as I couldn’t retrofit a standard hub my race was over.

Obviously very disappointing and whether it’s unfinished business is yet to be decided. I still have faith in the Brompton as a valid choice of bike for this event if we can just overcome the issues with gearing. And I came away with wonderful memories of all the people I met: fellow competitors, the race organisers and those random individuals you encounter along the route. Then there’s the mountains, the breathtaking views; even the extremes of weather. That overnight effort to reach Checkpoint 1 fuelled on tinned ravioli with the road ahead briefly lit by each lightning strike. Little things like the message from home asking why I’d stopped before suggested I get moving again – they were dot watching and tracking my progress – that make you smile.

There’s a quote that I find particularly appealing that mirrors how I feel about my experiences on the Transcontinental: ‘Blessed are the curious as they shall have adventures’. Yes, I was very sorry to pull out but it’s not the end of the world and now there’s the next journey to plan.

vista

Image of Brompton descending by courtesy of CHPT3 and Alex Rory Jacobs

All other images with kind permission of Roger Seaton

Transcontinental

Karly Millar / Keep keeping on

Karly Millar is no stranger to challenging cycling conditions; an innate hardiness helping her ride year round in Scotland where she lives and works. That being so, she clearly remembers a certain sense of trepidation when signing up for the 2017 Rapha Manchester to London; an event that involved riding north to south on a demanding 220 mile route sandwiched between Peak District climbs and the rolling hills of the Chilterns.

Back for 2019 with a revamped format and registration now open, in her own words Karly reflects on that Sunday in September when she left the Manchester Velodrome at dawn and rode south to London in a single day. An honest account of a physical and emotional journey that tested her to breaking point.

I wanted a challenge. Something so big that I wasn’t absolutely sure I could do it. An 80 km club run would leave me totally empty and eating macaroni in the bath with a bottle of flat coke to recover; so I genuinely didn’t believe I would make it all the way to London.

I’d tentatively floated the idea quite early in the year; initially to myself before discussing it with friends until the more times you mention something the greater the social contract that says you should probably follow through on what you’ve been talking about.

In terms of preparation I just kept on riding. I think subconsciously pushing the distance but my biggest ride before M2L was still only 120 miles. Well short of the 220 mile total that I would be riding on the event. But I remember talking to a friend about long distance cycling and him suggesting that once you reach a certain point – as long as you’re putting fuel in the tank and you keep turning your legs – then it’s different. It’s all mental.

img_4169

In the final few weeks running up to the start date I felt a little bit sick if I thought about it too much. But as the weeks turned to days I grew calmer. What would be, would be. I couldn’t change anything; couldn’t train any harder. My only concern was letting down everyone who’d sponsored me. They’d been so generous and I didn’t want to feel that I might fail them. But my partner pointed out that simply rolling up at the start line was big enough. And I kind of found my peace with that.

At the pre-ride party you could feel a real sense of nervous energy in the Manchester clubhouse. The magnitude of what we were taking on suddenly hitting me and that I was part of it. And then standing on the start line at the Velodrome; actually feeling very irritable with the degree of faffing around in my group but more likely because I’d been up since four in the morning after only a couple of hours sleep.

The ride itself I broke down into the feedstops. Manageable chunks of effort. And I felt really good when we rolled into the first at Carsington Water after completing a hilly 50 miles through the Peak District.

By the second – 90 miles in – my mood had definitely dipped. It was the first time during the day that I actually wondered whether we’d make the time cut-offs. It had started to rain and I was feeling the pressure of all those miles ahead. But we pushed on, into the headwind that had dogged us all day and it was a special moment when we reached the halfway point.

img_4141

I can picture us pulling into the third feedstop at this grand stately home but the rest of that section was rather a blur. I knew I hadn’t eaten enough and what lay ahead would be tough. In hindsight we should have taken a little longer to eat the hot food on offer rather than grazing on snacks. That would have been a wise investment in time.

You’re physically tired but more so mentally. And as we set off once again I was steeling myself for the hard slog into the night. Running on absolute fumes, I knew we still had 77 miles to go and the thought of carrying on made me want to cry.

But we worked together – following Simon Mottram’s [Rapha CEO] advice to ‘just keep on keeping on’ – until we finally reached the last feedstop. Feeling absolutely broken but with a realisation that this might actually happen.

On that final 25 mile stretch I was bargaining with myself when I was allowed to press the backlight button on my Wahoo; trying to guess how far we’d gone from the last time I’d checked. Mind games to ease the passing of those last few miles until, almost without warning, we were out of the dark country lanes and riding under street lights. Crossing the line in tears; a mix of emotions that I’d never experienced before and I wonder whether I ever will again.

And although I felt such a huge sense of accomplishment, it took until the next day’s train ride home before it all sank in. When I sat down with my helmet on the table in front of me and the passenger opposite asked where I’d cycled from and I answered Manchester and the look in their eyes when I told them it was in one day. I’d spent the past 48 hours in my M2L bubble and this was the first proper acknowledgement from the outside world. That we’d finished. That all the doubts and soul searching were now behind me.

img_4144

Experience has since taught me that if you put your mind to something you can do it. And I think, previously, I’d underestimated myself and I walked away from M2L with a far stronger ‘can do’ attitude. I don’t feel like I need to prove myself anymore. We did good.

As for highlights? Riding as a team; each looking out for the other. The guy who rode it in an Elvis costume. Those random acts of kindness from the helpers at each feedstop. And if I had to advise anyone contemplating signing up for this year’s L2M? I’d tell them to do it. 100% commit because you will never know unless you try.

And just remember to eat. Eat all the time.

Now in its sixth edition, following last year’s ‘win’ by the North the route will reverse and for the first time riders will set off from London; just one of the new changes introduced for the 2019 Rapha London to Manchester.  More information and sign up can be found here.

Image of Karly arriving at the 2nd feed stop with kind permission of Jess Morgan

Karly Millar

 

Jules Saint Gerome / Fairmean

Movement is a common theme in conversation with Jules Saint Gerome. Softly spoken and politely intense, he speaks in a stream of consciousness that mirrors the passing wake of a sailing boat. Ripples of nuance and insight that link a peripatetic working life with a thoughtful consideration for how we engage with our natural environment and the challenges this can bring. Playful in his questioning of the human condition, Jules draws on a rich raft of experience when describing the origins of his bike bag brand; the name chosen as a reference to the Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner’s championing of an ascent of Everest ‘by fair means’ without recourse to supplementary oxygen.

‘I grew up in the Australian outback,’ Jules explains. ‘By the age of 7 I was rounding up livestock and spending most of my time outside, alone. And I suppose Fairmean originated in this pretty much unbounded environment.’

It was while majoring in sculpture at the Royal Institute of Technology in Australia that Jules bought various examples of 1950s furniture that he could refurbish before selling on; discovering during the process of deconstructing and reupholstering that he was subconsciously reinterpreting the designs as he went along. A creative approach to life that’s encompassed opening a café in Melbourne, a move to London and time spent in a motion graphics studio before another relocation to Tokyo where Jules enrolled in film school. The idiosyncrasies of train travel in Japan providing the inspiration for the first iteration of the Fairmean bike bag.

‘For me, the design process starts with desire. My first steps with road biking go back to when I had someone visiting me in Japan. I’d bought an old 80s racer – super minimal in the sense of two steel triangles – and once I’d experienced riding it with my friend in the mountains I was encouraged to do more. And then somebody lent me a bag so I could travel with my bike but it proved to be totally inadequate. Too bulky and difficult to use. I could have put my bike on the roof of a car and driven out of the city. But it’s really something to just leave the house, spin down to the station and an hour later you’re climbing a mountain luggage free. So one of the biggest challenges was the antagonistic relationship riders had with the use of these bags. Traditionally just a square of black nylon with some straps, invariably difficult to use and even, in some cases, causing damage to your bike.’

fmxfr01

‘I knew there was no reason why the bag couldn’t fit inside a jersey pocket and the process of easily covering and uncovering the bike would enable you to get on and off a train without difficulty. So I started with a mouthful of pins, some paper, a bike on the table and a desire to travel in a fluid, smooth manner. I used to sail so I’ve spent a lot of time around fabric; considering what it can be and do. A sewing machine and some silk and you’re jumping out of an aeroplane. You can cross an ocean or shelter from the elements on Everest.’

First with his own bike before making bags for the people he knew, Jules approached the problems and solutions dictated by different frame geometries and tyre sizes; the initial bags starting out as fully custom with a bike being dropped off at his house where he’d make a pattern before a fitting process that minimised the volume of material needed. Gradually over time Jules began to see ways of generalising the design without losing the distinctive silhouette – instinctively understanding that this served to identify the product without recourse to a brand name – with the design of each bag utilising every square centimetre of fabric and the form very much deriving from its function.

‘In the same way that Messner describes the act of climbing a mountain as so very elemental, any piece of equipment that allows you to travel unimpeded demands a certain respect. There’s nothing superfluous and this goes to the heart of the cycling experience itself.’

‘When I look at Fairmean,’ he continues, ‘and take a value analysis approach to try and understand my own brand, I suppose it comes down to asking what people are actually doing when they use my product? Simplistically they’re covering a bike and putting it on a train. But on another, deeper level, it’s about riding with other people; having, creating and sharing an authentic experience of making that journey. And it’s this idea of self-reliance that is super pertinent with regard to Fairmean because as a society we’re becoming increasingly reliant on things other than the self. I don’t necessarily mean technologically but also mentally. So the very core of what I do with Fairmean is to design and make products that augment travel and self-reliance in a minimal, direct way.’

Manufacturing every bag personally, Jules has considered adding other products to his Fairmean brand but, at present, believes his bike bag does something so very specific that he doesn’t want to diverge from this focus; to make something that somebody else has already created.

33982219402_b1f4c63ab6_o

‘I’m the entire team [smiles]. But, in another sense, it’s me and everyone who uses the product. Every time someone purchases one of my bags it’s like an extension of this family. There’s times when I’ve changed the design of the bag after a particular piece of feedback but I see that as a strength.’

A collaboration with Rapha Japan led to Jules supplying several bags for the Tokyo and Osaka clubhouses before another relocation to where he’s now based just outside of Paris; Jules deciding to temporarily take down his Japanese website after the move to France so that it could be re-modelled. But the orders never slowed down with customers sending him messages through Instagram; the quirky nature of this current business model not lost on Jules when he considers more mainstream methods of marketing and sales.

‘I forward the product information as a PDF and we go from there. It’s ridiculous, crazy, archaic. In lots of ways it would be much easier to have a website where customers could simply choose a colour and size before hitting the ‘buy’ button. But by inserting this commercial layer I don’t get such an extended surface area of contact with people which I find invaluable. I get information that I wouldn’t necessarily be privy to if orders were placed online. I’m not going to know who you are, what you’re riding and where. And at this stage, it’s still not too extravagant to invest that sort of time with people.’

‘The challenge is scale,’ Jules points out. ‘Demand doesn’t like to move predictably so I like to keep a modest inventory. Maybe this attitude is holding me back but at the same time the initial responses to a product and a brand are not something you can buy or craft. So at the moment, at least in my mind, I’m still in that intimate phase of staying close to the people that are using my bags. A few iterations away from something I’d feel comfortable having several hundred units manufactured.’

‘The bag has changed a lot since the very beginning but it’s still hard to be satisfied with a standard range of bags if you want them to be lightweight and fitted without any excess fabric. Maybe it’s a little sadomasochistic but I’ve come this far and never had a bag returned. So it’s working and my customers are really satisfied with the bags I produce.’

fmxfr03

In answer to who these customers are, Jules confirms that in Japan he still has strong links with the Rapha Cycling Club and their community of riders; very diverse but with a shared demographic. And as bike bags in one form or another have long been a utilitarian object due to the transit rules, Jules discovered his Fairmean version was quickly adopted but, in considering the transfer ride itself, he believes there’s a subtle difference between Japan and Europe in how people actually use his bag.

‘A typical scenario out of Tokyo would be a Saturday morning, family commitments later in the day, so you’re up at 5:00am to catch the train ready for some good riding. It sounds a little cliched but it’s very much about a compact experience; minimise the junk miles, maximise the good stuff. Europe is so super connected that my bags are used by people commuting between cities, even countries, for work. They might have a 3 day business trip and they’re planning on getting in some riding so they’ll want to take their bike with them on the train.’

At present his own riding centres around a twice-weekly trip into Paris and occasional loops through the forests surrounding his home; 160km there and back routes with a church spire forever on the horizon. Riding, as Jules terms it, where you need to go. With nothing in your head for a few hours save the simply pleasure of travelling through the landscape. Another reference to movement that’s picked up in one particular example from the cultural icons he chooses to feature on his Instagram feed.

‘I posted a portrait of Keith Richards because I feel he’s a beautiful example of how to make a living by being yourself. His authenticity – the turbulence that his ‘wake’ leaves behind – is so very thought provoking. And, for me, design should be that way too. An emotion; a movement through your own appreciations and fears and doubts. The challenges of Fairmean have always been my own limits. Simple limits like just being tired or coping with the occasional disappointment that design throws at you. But I look at Messner and, in a sense, he wasn’t climbing mountains but climbing the human experience. And Fairmean excites me because it’s a way to connect with people. Yes, it’s a business, but if you’re willing to limit your volume then you gain a degree of liberty. Maybe I’m idealistic but I’d like to think that’s possible.’

fairmean

All images with kind permission of @leebasford except for the pink bag shot taken by @streetviper

 

A Safe Harbour / Rapha Copenhagen

For many the summer of 2018 will be remembered for endless days of clear skies and soaring temperatures; cyclists living in Northern Europe enjoying the luxury of riding without recourse to a rain cape and overshoes. But seasons come and go with autumn giving way to the cold and grey of winter months. And as individuals return from a ride seeking shelter from the elements, the warm welcome offered by Rapha Copenhagen carries through to the clubhouse emblem having an historical allusion to a ‘safe harbour’; a reference that clubhouse associate Karl Owen understands all too well now that he’s experiencing his first Danish winter.

‘We’ve just enjoyed one of the best summers in living memory but when it does turn cold and wet then it’s important to have somewhere to go where you can get a cup of coffee and warm up.’ This comment best illustrated by his description of clubhouse light fittings regularly festooned with drying helmets and gloves when a wet ride returns. ‘The Danes,’ he continues, ‘are very, very good at gritting the roads because everyone is pretty hardy and still wants to ride even when there’s a deep frost or snow falling. All that salt and grit means bike maintenance costs can be high but you can ride year round.’

20160924_RaphaRCCride_3306

With the clubhouse located just off Strøget – one of Copenhagen’s busiest shopping streets – it’s conveniently situated as a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city centre yet still only a 15 minute ride from the outskirts of the city. And as many members use the clubhouse on a regular basis, there’s grown a close-knit community of Danes bolstered by international members either based in Copenhagen for work or those visiting who want to take advantage of the bike hire scheme. ‘What’s nice,’ suggests Karl, ‘is how the clubhouse encourages all these individuals to meet and interact. The Danes have a reputation as being a little reserved – as do the Brits – and whereas inhibitions are often eased over a drink I like to think that a shared love of cycling replaces the alcohol in allowing people to get past any initial awkwardness [smiles].’

Originally based in Manchester, Karl got to know his future colleagues on regular visits to Copenhagen before finally taking the plunge and relocating. Having now experienced cycling in the Danish capital he’s come to realise how differently he rode back home in the UK; taking a primary position and almost behaving like a car. So much so that it took a while to transition into the Copenhagen way.

20160924_RaphaRCCride_3456

‘Very often you ride separately from the cars using the extensive network of bike lanes and there’s a very definite set of rules. You overtake on the left after looking behind and often there’s room for three cyclists abreast so it acts almost like a motorway. And it’s because there are so many cyclists that you’re expected to adhere to these nuanced set of rules. There’s not the free for all that you find in some other major cities. The pace is generally quite consistent and it can be really beautiful in the sense that the city simply flows.’

‘I feel there’s a worldwide understanding that the Copenhagen way works,’ he continues. ‘You can fit 10 bikes into the space taken by a single car so the result is a city centre that isn’t choked with traffic. The box turn takes a little getting used to but this avoids the need to cross the road in front of moving vehicles. Here you put your hand up as you approach a junction to indicate that you’re slowing before turning 90° and crossing with the lights.’

20160924_RaphaRCCride_3465

In terms of clubhouse riding, a typical route sees riders setting off north towards the lakes before heading up through Nørrebro to Mosehuset; a traditional meeting point if you’re not starting out in the city centre. ‘From there you can head out towards Gilleleje on the northern coast before turning towards Helsingør with the sea and Sweden on your left shoulder. On a good day very beautiful indeed,’ Karl confirms.

‘Saturday sees a couple of differently paced open rides heading out with a training ride on a Tuesday that includes intervals and is aimed at more advanced riders. Wednesday has two alternating rides. The ‘Look pro, go slow’ that sees riders wearing their best gear and riding out at a very social pace for a coffee or ice cream depending on the season. Or there’s the ‘Find it in 50’ which, as the name implies, involves a 50 km route ending at one of Copenhagen’s many craft beer bars. Both, perhaps unsurprisingly, very popular rides [smiles].’

20160924_RaphaRCCride_3975

The explosion of the gravel scene is also reflected in the number of rides now offered that include off-road tracks and trails with Hansens, a local ice-cream manufacturer, organising a 130 km gravel ride during the summer months with ice-cream at every feed stop. ‘One of my favourite day’s on the bike,’ Karl comments. ‘And during winter when the wind picks up and temperatures drop it’s nice get off the road and seek the shelter of woodland paths.’

With an active social scene complementing the clubhouse rides, in summer when evenings are drawn out it’s common for RCC rides to start with a loop before ending with the riders sitting out on a grassy corner with a couple of beers. According to Karl, very much a Danish way of doing things and another aspect of Copenhagen cycle culture that he’s learning to understand and appreciate.

20160924_RaphaRCCride_3878 crop

‘I’m still trying to work out some of the more idiosyncratic references. A couple of minutes turn on the front, for example, is described as ‘Swedish shifts’ and I love the fact that almost everyone – even if they’re riding a super expensive race bike – will have a bell. Very useful when you consider it’s quite acceptable to be travelling at 40 kph in a bike lane and there’s so many other users.’

This mention of the bikes his members ride prompts Karl to confirm that lightweight carbon bikes are extremely popular but with a move towards fatter tyres and a mindset of having a single bike that can cope with a variety of terrain and surface.

20160924_RaphaRCCride_3238

‘There’s this Scandinavian concept of Jantelagen which basically boils down to not showing off. And maybe this accounts for fewer individuals going down the custom steel route and why you’re far more likely to see one of our members riding an understated black bike. Even to some extent influencing what items sell well out of our clothing range. Our customers tend to favour monochrome kit so we rarely sell a Rapha-pink jersey [laughs].’

In terms of other clubhouse trends, a cortado or flat white are the most common coffee orders with spicy tuna or avocado a popular choice of sandwich. And out on the road, Karl is often tempted by a tebirkes; a pastry filled with sweet marzipan and covered with poppy seeds. ‘Not particularly easy to pronounce,’ he adds with a grin, ‘so even when I’m in a bakery and pointing with a finger at the same time as asking, the sales assistant will still look quizzically at me.’

20160924_RaphaRCCride_4328

‘What’s fun about riding out of Copenhagen is getting back to discover you’ve just done 200 km at a healthy average speed. It’s flat which helps but our cycling infrastructure means you don’t have to stop and start quite so much as you would in other countries. And then there’s the view across to Sweden from Strandvejen; a road that hugs the coastline north south out of Copenhagen. This proximity to the sea that, in the summer, let’s us finish a ride with an open water swim. And what’s not to like about that.’

All images with kind permission of Erik Jonsson

Rapha Copenhagen

Karl Owen

 

Holly Carter / Fixed ideas

Designer, bassist, magazine lover and bike racer; Holly Carter talks frame building and the art of keeping things simple with reflections from Adeline O’Moreau on what it takes to turn a bike dream into bike reality.

_________________________________

In a way this build started 3 years ago. Every time I entered a hill climb I was taking stuff off my then bike to make it lighter but that got to be a real faff. So I considered getting a carbon frame and building it up to be super light. Fixed gear to save weight and the expense of a full group set and because it just looks so simple.

But I was struggling to find a frame that had the right balance of lightness and strength until a London-based friend mentioned Adeline O’Moreau and her Mercredi bike brand. I got in touch and we met at Euston before going for a coffee and discussing what I was trying to achieve. Classic looks, horizontal top tube; a bike that’s as beautiful to look at as it is to ride.

Working with Holly was really inspiring. Before this project I had little if any knowledge of hill climbing so learning about it in conversation with such a passionate rider was amazing. And then seeing Holly’s reaction when she first rode the bike was priceless. Can you think of a better reason to build a custom bicycle?

Adeline listened carefully to these ideas before taking some time to figure out the geometry and the tube set she’d need. Whether to go with tensioned dropouts, a bridge on the seat stays; all the specifics of what it did and didn’t need. Meanwhile I went for a bike fit with Tony Corke. Replicating a 12% gradient with a view to the bike’s geometry feeling ‘normal’ in those conditions. Optimising its performance for a very defined purpose.

All these measurements and design considerations were distilled down into drawings together with a spreadsheet that we could both access so – as I researched and sourced the parts I needed – they could be added to the build specification. American Classic rear hub, Easton carbon cranks, Planet X ultralight front brake, carbon saddle. Some new parts; others with a little history to them like my stem. Nothing fancy but it’s been up every hill climb I’ve ever entered so it seemed apt to carry it across to my new build.

The fit was pretty special. Tony hacked the jig to put Holly in a simulated hill climbing position although we were really in the basement of a bike shop! The design allows her to use different seat post setbacks and stem lengths / angles to fine tune the bike for ranges of gradients. I used Columbus XCR for the frame and one advantage of using stainless is that the bike can be ridden without the weight penalty of a paint finish. Jack Kingston did a fantastic job of bringing out the Mercredi vibe simply with different levels of polish.

When the frame was finished I went down to London and headed over to the workshop carrying my wheels and a bag of parts so we could assemble the bike together. Adeline had a box ready that I could use to transport the bike back to Manchester but I didn’t want to waste a single second; spinning down to the overground to catch the city service and then smashing it up Swain’s Lane. Not easy in the dark with 40 x 16 gearing but I was just laughing and loving the feel of the bike as it climbed.

The next morning I caught the train back to Manchester; getting off at Adlington before pinning on a number and racing up Brickworks. And what I found interesting considering it was my first time competing fixed on a hill climb was that at no point was I thinking about the bike. Instead of looking down at my gears I simply attacked the course. I stood up, I sat down. Two gears I suppose [smiles].

Having Holly building up the frame in the workshop with me was so special. That sense of energy and excitement as it neared completion. There’s been so many skilled individuals involved in the making of this seemingly simple bicycle and then finally handing it over to Holly knowing it will be raced up the country’s steepest climbs was extremely fulfilling and actually quite emotional.

I like everything in my life to be as straightforward as possible. When I cook it’s one or two pans maximum. And when I design things for the house or the shop*, the simpler the better and it has to work. Otherwise you start covering up any inadequacies and making things more complicated. The whole point of this bike is that it’s just perfect as it is; ‘good vibes only’ as it states on the seat tube. The culmination of a year spent working with someone – someone you really respect – and knowing that you’ve got 5.8kg of the best bike you’ve ever owned.

@hol_car

mercredi.co.uk

*Holly co-owns Rare Mags in Stockport

 

 

Ride Like A Girl / Race Series

Amy Cuthbertson (pictured right) and Elle Haigh are both fairly new to the sport but have big ambitions for where their cycling journey is taking them. Responding to the current provision available to women wanting to give racing a go, these passionate individuals sat down to discuss the reasons they ride, why they’re both tired of ‘mansplaining’ and how this in part led to the launch of @ridelikeagirlrs

Amy

Until just shy of two years ago I hadn’t done any cycling since my paper round when I was 10. I got the hump because my other half signed up for a Leeds to Manchester charity ride and didn’t even bother asking if I wanted to do it [smiles]. My first ride after deciding to buy a bike was a whole 3 miles before I stopped for coffee and cake and then went home. But since then I’m joined some clubs, worked at getting stronger and started to enter time trials and hill climbs; discovering in the process that I’m actually quite competitive.

Elle

For me it was all on a bit of a whim. I was looking for a way of fundraising for a charity and everyone knew I didn’t particularly feel comfortable riding a bike so I decided to sign up for a mountain bike ride across Kenya. It initially didn’t go that well – I went down a couple of days early and managed to break my hand – but I still had the best time before realising when I got home that I didn’t really know how to cycle on the road. So in April this year I bought a bike and went out on my first ride. I’d already decided to join a club so that I’d be motivated to keep riding and within the space of a couple of weeks I had an effective fitness regime and a whole new group of friends; especially important as I’d just moved back to the UK.

Amy

And then you decided to ride from London to Paris just a few months after getting your first road bike [laughs].

Amy climbing Holme Moss

Elle

Rather a baptism of fire as I kind of threw myself in at the deep end but I’d already decided to be a cycling ‘yes’ person and then find solutions to the rides or events I’ve chosen to do.

Amy

For me, riding my bike is all about the exhilaration of exertion. I’m a project manager and I’ve worked from home for the last six, seven years; doing absolutely nothing with my day beyond getting up and walking to my desk. I snowboard and cycling takes what I enjoy about that – being outside with my friends – but on a day-to-day, year-round basis and without the need to fly out of the UK in search of some snow. When you’ve been sedentary for so long, the physicality is a really addictive feeling. That sense of tiredness; of pushing on and making your body do what it’s meant to be capable of doing.

Elle

In some ways it’s been a little overwhelming. My life has changed quite dramatically since I’ve started cycling. I’ve made new friends like Amy and I’ve discovered a place where I can be myself. I climb onto my bike, I clip in and even if I’ve had a particularly rubbish day my mind clears. I sleep better and generally feel uplifted.

Amy

We’re both members of the Rapha Cycling Club and I very much appreciate the opportunity to go out on women’s rides that are a little stronger and faster than what I’ve previously experienced. A lot of female-specific cycling is focusing on getting more women on bikes and I wouldn’t be here today chatting about my riding if it wasn’t for those initiatives. The RCC also offers this same provision of introductory sessions but with the progression of more challenging rides.

Elle

The discipline within the RCC is good as well. Everybody rides how you should ride on the road; everything is kept really tight which is nice because it gives you that security blanket that comes with working together. If someone’s new to road cycling there’s plenty of friendly advice and support to overcome any initial worries or concerns. And because I spend so much time travelling through my work as transatlantic flight crew, I find I have this instant friendship group at whatever clubhouse I visit across the world. I can easily rent a great bike so I don’t have to lug my own along with me and I know I’ll be riding with a like minded group of people. There may be different languages and cultures but they all share the same connection of wanting to ride their bikes.

Amy

And there’s coffee at the clubhouse before we roll out [laughs].

Holme Moss

Elle

Getting to know Amy, pretty much one of the first things she mentioned was her determination to race before explaining that she couldn’t find the right platform to achieve this goal. As a friend I found this really frustrating as I knew she was a strong rider and had been competing in local time trials and hill climbs. But in terms of road or circuit racing, she couldn’t find a 4th category only event. There are 4th category fields entered in races alongside the elite 1st, 2nd and 3rd categories but our gut instinct is we’d just get in the way and it would be massively intimidating. And even if you have the self-confidence to enter a mixed category race you need to finish in the top ten to score points and that’s potentially against elite riders assuming enough sign on and the race isn’t cancelled.

Amy

Every time a race day arrived and I asked why there was a men’s 4th category race but the women were all lumped in together, I pretty much got the same response: there’s not enough interest and women don’t want to race.

Elle

And we both know incredibly strong riders that compete in triathlons – mastering three disciplines – and have the mental toughness to enter these gruelling events but baulk at the thought of racing on a circuit. So we decided to launch @ridelikeagirlrs and explore ways that women can give racing a go.

Amy

It can be a question of confidence. I had something similar myself a couple of weeks ago when I said I was going to enter my first crit race and people – actually they were all men –  suggested that maybe I should work on my skills first; that it was too dangerous. And I honestly don’t think a man would have had the same response. It would have been, ‘Cool, go for it.’

Elle

Elle

There is this problem of ‘mansplaining’ to women. Very patronising and something we’ve both come up against throughout our lives. Especially when you’re young and you hear comments that you run like a girl, throw like a girl. This derogatory term for a girl being worse at something than a boy and it’s usually a boy that’s saying it. So we’re turning that back round by saying that if I ride like Tiffany Cromwell, Hannah or Alice Barnes, Marianne Vos; then, hell yeah, I ride like a girl. And a lot of people have responded really positively to this idea because they understand where we’re coming from.

Amy

It’s all snowballed really quickly with a Q&A session planned for the end of September providing an opportunity for women to ask anything and everything about bike racing. Off the back of that, once everyone’s hopefully had their questions answered, we’ll be organising coaching sessions before we run our inaugural race that’s pencilled in for November 3rd. This will involve a 60 minute coaching session followed by a 20 minute Go Race around the Brownlee Centre’s cycle circuit. And because it’s a Go Race event with no points available there’s also no need for a race licence but we do have a friendly commissaire who’s volunteered to run it in the same format as a 4th category race so riders can understand how everything’s organised. Time trials and hill climbs are all well and good but it’s that first across the line feeling that we want to address.

Elle

That’s the whole point. It’s for anyone who’s ever considered competitive racing whether that’s for her own fitness or to satisfy an urge to test herself against other women.

Amy

In the same way that you have a social ride run by your cycling club, it’s not always about being the fastest but taking part in something a little different. An opportunity to learn a new set of skills and have some fun alongside a great bunch of women.

IoS

Elle

As individuals, we sometimes talk ourselves out of stuff but as a group we’re really good at building ourselves back up. So I think our message with this @ridelikeagirlrs campaign is to just give it a go.

Amy

To be honest the response has been a little overwhelming. You can expect a degree of interest from friends and fellow club members but within the first few hours of launching our Facebook page we had hundreds of requests from people we didn’t know. Responses from coaches; even from British Cycling themselves saying they want to get involved. And what’s also exciting is the messages we’ve had from race organisers to tell us what they’ve done, that it’s not worked before asking whether we have any ideas of what they can change. We’re not setting ourselves up as experts but there isn’t a massive number of women fighting for women’s racing and we both want to be part of that journey.

Elle

We’re building this network of women that want to race, can support each other in doing that and if race organisers want to tap into that interest and work with us that would be perfect.

Amy

Currently there’s a huge focus on getting women on bikes which is just brilliant and there’s fantastic things happening in professional women’s racing with the Tour of Britain and other high profile events. But it’s the gap between the two that we’re looking at. What do you do once you’ve got all these women on bikes? So in one sense it’s me being selfish. I wanted to race but couldn’t find a suitable event to race in so we’re creating our own.

Elle

And this isn’t our job. We’re not doing it to make money. It’s born out of a passion and in some ways it’s kind of an experiment but with the knowledge that if we go out to achieve something together we’ll be totally fine.

 

For more information on the Ride Like A Girl // Race Series

@ridelikeagirlrs

Vincent Engel / Lines on the landscape

Offering endless possibilities for capturing a moment, it’s perhaps fair to suggest that photography has the potential to tell a story in a single image. But what if this ability to frame and then reflect on the world we inhabit is used as a fulcrum for personal growth; a mechanism for change that involves doing what you like the most in a creative response to earning a living? Questions currently concerning Amsterdam-based Vincent Engel as he seeks to live life with a camera in one hand and the other on his handlebar.

_______________________________

There’s a sense of boundless space that pervades Vincent’s images of his native Holland. In many ways a man-made landscape – architecturally graphic in the angles of the waterways, pathways and pylons – the painterly quality of his work references the rising mist and falling rain; the sun’s shadows and the light off the sea. Subtle layers that draw the eye to the details of the riders framed within.

‘I sometimes get good-natured teasing from my friends when they want to see more close-ups of themselves in my images,’ comments Vincent with a grin. ‘But I find it interesting to see the riders as an aspect of the landscape. To view this relationship in context to where they’ve been riding. To set them against a broad brushstroke of land, water and sky.’

DSC5394

Not that people don’t frequently feature in Vincent’s work; in part due to his involvement with Rapha Amsterdam since returning from a 10 year stint living and working in Saudi Arabia where he founded his design & build company Orange Identity.

‘My interest in photography originates from my background as a designer. I used to do 3D renderings to visualise architectural plans; taking the pictures of the textures I needed – wood, tiles, brickwork – to use in my computer-generated models. So I was pretty obsessed with my surroundings; how light is reflected and patterns are formed.’

‘The change from using the camera purely as a tool to one where I was making an emotional connection to the subject happened in Saudi Arabia. There was only me, my dog and my bike. And if I had some spare time I’d jump in my Jeep and head out into the desert and shoot landscapes. Capturing the solitude of the moment before I gradually began to combine these wide open spaces with a moving object.’

DSC1059

‘Interestingly I find photographing people far more difficult than those architectural images,’ Vincent explains. ‘My original pictures felt very mathematical but there’s an emotional element to shooting someone riding a bike that I find more challenging. Landscapes in a sense stand still and yesterday, for example, I went for a ride with a couple of friends and I shot over 100 images but they didn’t quite work. I suppose I’m too much of a perfectionist [smiles].’

After selling his company in 2015 and a subsequent return to the Netherlands, Vincent immediately fell into riding with Rapha Amsterdam; feeling such an instant connection with his fellow riders that he describes them in terms akin to a family.

‘For me, it just feels so comfortable. I came to cycling from a racing background but it’s not all about speed and we enjoy our coffee stops. There’s such a variety of routes that we have on offer. Out to the coast, local loops from the city centre or gravel adventures. Riding with a range of people from different backgrounds but there’s still a connection. We do the same rides – we suffer the same – and Rapha makes it possible for this to happen on a number of levels.’

DSC5464

As there’s no escaping the impact of water on the Dutch landscape, Vincent acknowledges that the weather too can bring its own challenges with winters that are cold, wet and windy. Conditions he argues that only make you feel more alive when out riding; to such an extent that he prefers to shoot in the rain rather than bright sunshine.

‘The weather has a significant part to play in the realisation of the images I create and I guess it’s about telling a story by contrasting all these individual elements. Which is why I rarely take a close-up image of someone on their bike because it’s the landscape that informs the narrative as it frames their movement.’

‘In the Netherlands,’ he continues, ‘I’m always looking for strong lines in an image and I thought before travelling out on a recent trip to Switzerland that I would, through necessity, be taking a different approach. But then I began to notice how the mountains overlap and bisect the horizon with strong diagonals in the foreground formed by the roads, trails and even the tracks we made in the snow. So I still had all kinds of lines that draw your attention to the detail in the image [smiles].’

DSC0142

Since returning to his homeland, Vincent now has the time to pursue photography on a more commercial basis and the past 6 months has seen him commissioned by a number of different clients all sharing the same admiration for his photographic style.

‘I’m still learning how to really direct people because I don’t naturally feel happy to be in the spotlight. By me telling someone what to do on a shoot I’m taking myself out of my comfort zone. But I enjoy working to a brief because it implies a certain level of trust from a client and I can take on-board their needs before going out and putting my own interpretation on the content. And I’m just as critical – more so – with my commissioned work as with my own. It’s kind of like my signature on an image so there’s more pressure to deliver. Pressure that I put on myself.’

‘It’s all about a happier life,’ Vincent concludes, ‘and that’s my biggest challenge at the moment. To find something that makes me happy that involves a creative response to cycling. In the past I’ve been fairly financially driven but money isn’t everything. Cycling has always been a constant in my life – since I was very young – so to combine that with photography was an obvious next step. They’re both great passions for me and it feels kind of like an exploration. Finding the new Vincent; making a bigger picture.’

11speed.nl

All images with kind permission of Vincent Engel

Hiroki Mitsui / Rapha Tokyo

Visit any city for the first time and there’s a period of adjustment as you stand and take your bearings. Often at the exit to the airport terminal – leaving behind the recognisable architecture of the arrivals hall – you’re immediately faced with a multitude of sensory clues to your new environment. The sheer sense of scale when arriving in Tokyo – home to 13 million – might on face value make this process of acclimatisation more of a challenge but according to Hiroki Mitsui there’s a sense of order and calm to be discovered that balances the busy city streets.

In his role as Rapha Cycling Club (RCC) Chapter Coordinator and with a 35km commute by bike from his Funabashi home in the Chiba Prefecture, Hiroki is perfectly placed to understand the rewards of cycling in Japan’s capital.

TOKYO_386A4486_Gogo

‘When you’re living in Tokyo,’ he explains, ‘you can do everything by bike. It’s faster moving from point to point than by car. Even if you decide to take the train, you can reach your destination just as quickly by cycling. And when riding you get to enjoy all the interesting architecture and everyday Tokyo streetlife. Our Rapha clubhouse is located close to Harajuku; a district popular with young people due to its shops, cafés and karaoke bars. But there’s a hidden aspect to this area if you start to explore the narrow side streets where it’s very quiet and peaceful.’

Not that Hiroki and his RCC members eschew public transport altogether; finding trains useful if they’re planning a longer ride outside of the city centre.

386A0532_edit

‘We tend to travel for an hour or so out into the countryside before starting our route. We call this ‘rinko style’ in reference to the nylon bag that you need to cover your bike so the train carriages are kept clean and safe for other passengers. It’s a legal requirement but also shows good manners. We’ve been collaborating with Fairmean to produce a super lightweight version that’s easy to use and it’s surprising how stylish and beautiful a bike looks when it’s covered and sitting on the train platform [smiles].’

Although the suburbs and open countryside offer quieter roads, Rapha rides in Tokyo are not restricted to the city’s outskirts and Hiroki is viewing with interest the proliferation of new bike lanes in preparation for Japan hosting the 2020 Olympic Games.

386A3113_edit

‘You can take a train out to the Boso and Hannoh areas as these both offer routes with plenty of climbing and beautiful scenery. Or there’s the Arakawa river-side bike path that winds its way out from the heart of the city with car free cycling and even distant views of Mt. Fuji on a clear day. If you prefer to ride from the clubhouse there’s a night ride we do that passes through the Meiji Jingu Gaien Park before skirting the Imperial Palace and crossing the Kachidoki Bridge; colourfully illuminated with views of the river and the city skyline.’

‘The Imperial Palace along with neighbouring Akasaka Palace,’ Hiroki continues, ‘are also the locations for Wednesday night laps and there’s a strong racing scene with crits especially popular with our RCC members. Winter brings the cyclocross season which offers racing for all abilities and there’s a lot of interest in long distance cycling alongside our regular social rides.’

386A5642_edit-3

Like other Rapha clubhouses, Tokyo is open to all with customers calling in for a coffee or lunch; Hiroki hosting a popular monthly RCC social evening that gets an average of 40 members attending.

‘Our members are from a variety of backgrounds but all share a love of cycling. Mainly they ride on the road because they don’t want their beautiful bikes to get too dirty and the gravel in Japan is much rougher with a mixture of large rocks and stones so it’s not for everyone. In terms of the weather there’s a rainy season during June and the mid-summer temperatures require us to escape to the higher mountains where it’s cooler. But for the majority of the year we can ride really easily.’

386A3687_edit

The vending machines outside convenience stores are another aspect that characterise Rapha Tokyo rides; Hiroki including them in his routes so his members can easily replenish their ride supplies without the need for a long wait. ‘These vending machines are found everywhere; even in the remote countryside where you can get a can of hot coffee in mid-winter. But cafés are a popular feature on city loops,’ Hiroki comments with a smile. ‘Although our riders rarely order an espresso. We tend to want to stay for longer and chat over a latte or flat white.’

Cultural considerations that imbue any visit to Rapha Tokyo with a richness of experience in part deriving from the delicate balance the city holds between both contemporary and traditional values. A vibrant cityscape that embraces technological innovation yet still functions daily according to an unspoken set of social rules. A contradiction not lost on Hiroki as it even extends to the official cycling laws that are arguably ignored on a daily basis but stipulate a potential 20,000 Yen fine for riding two abreast.

386A1025_edit_2048

‘Our rides – especially on the busier city streets before we reach the suburbs – can seem quiet because officially we can’t ride side by side. You follow the person in front and when you stop at the traffic lights you catch up on your conversation. But you can see from what they post on their Instagram feeds that they enjoy the social aspect of riding with other members. We might be quiet in our pace line but there’s plenty of laughter and smiles when we stop.’

All images with kind permission of Lee Basford

Rapha Tokyo

Hiroki Mitsui