Steff Gutovska / A Look Back

It’s early evening and Steff Gutovska is relaxing on an apartment block balcony in Altea. Dressed casually with her long hair framing her face, in the morning she’s due to return home to Norway after an extended period working on a number of creative projects. Mentioning how I’d previously spent a few days on this stretch of Spanish coastline and was surprised at how accepting the local motorists were when the training rides returned to the hotel along the autoroute, Steff explains how together with her partner Christian she enjoys spending winter nights in Norway watching British road rage videos. This throwaway comment just one indication of a wry take on life in general and cycling in particular—a considered and amusing perspective that encompasses her views on social media, emerging trends in cycle culture and how riding in the rain can help mend a broken heart.


I’m Ukranian by birth but after a year on a civil engineering course I left to study abroad when I was 19. Instead of basing my decision on really intense research, I went for the university with the nicest looking website. That happened to be in the Netherlands and it wasn’t even a university. It was a Hogeschool – which is more vocational – where I enrolled on their international media and communications programme. So, basically, three years of pouring one glass of water into another.

As these things happen, I fell in love but the guy didn’t. Deciding to ease my pain with consumerism and looking around for something to buy, I had no idea about riding bikes but I did recognise that fixed gear was very popular so I bought an old road bike. It was a 53cm frame—which for someone my size is impossible to ride – and it was autumn – so obviously it was raining. But the raindrops hitting my face mixed with the tears that were rolling down my cheeks and I felt so beautifully bad for myself. Somehow cycling just fitted with this delicious sense of loss and I found I enjoyed riding a little faster than I would on a heavy commuter. Six months later I moved to Madrid, took the bike with me and then, a little while later, I once again met a guy.

He had a café and they wanted photographs of customers with bikes. Deciding that could be me, I kept calling in and locking my bike very slowly until he finally noticed me. We started talking about the fixie scene – I mean, why would anyone ride a bike without any brakes – and two months later I was riding a bike without brakes. But then you hurt your knees and you try wearing lycra and riding a road bike and discovering gears are actually fun. And the boyfriend? The usual happened and I was sad and riding through the rain.

When Erasmus ended I’d already decided that I was never going back, so my parents kindly drove to the Netherlands to pick up my stuff and brought it to me. I now had to enrol in a Spanish university and chose the Business Administration faculty. But studying taxes and finances – in Spanish! – really wasn’t working so I applied to film school, got in on a full scholarship and then called my parents. Drama, drama, drama…

Instagram

In terms of how I try and portray myself, I feel there’s really only one way to go. If you pretend to be super cool, people are going to be ugghhh. But if you stay humble, they can relate to that because sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down. Yes, I might have this expensive bike and be living in Norway but I also have super shitty days.

I recently posted a story about a bike packing trip through Georgia. I understand that we were six people in fucking lycra riding through the mountains in the middle of Eastern Europe but there was this guy trolling me on Instagram saying it looked like a Paris fashion show. On the other hand, you see certain well-known cyclists riding bikes costing $12,000 and acting like they’re not bothered with their look and just happy to ride in a t-shirt.

There’s a view that pretty much everything on social media is curated in one way or another. So let’s take me as an example. If I’m riding in a beautiful place and I make a beautiful photograph which I then post, is it still authentic or curated?

I feel there’s a lot of tension in the Instagram community at the moment. As if the whole cycling industry and how they use social media is this big bubble that’s about to burst. But even though everybody judges everybody, it’s only human to be liked and to be loved. Right?

I admit that I will post a picture of myself standing in front of a certain colour wall because I prefer to see 2000 likes instead of the 500 I get if I post a picture of my parents. And I have to be completely fair and acknowledge that most of the people that follow me are middle-aged men in lycra. And when they scroll on their phone – sitting in the morning eating their breakfast or having their coffee before going to work – an image of me against a simple white background will pop out more and stand a better chance of getting a like.

So I’m very aware of what drives engagement. And that’s sad but it’s also true. I mean, I don’t cry if a post doesn’t do very well in terms of a response but I have created this little world around my persona. And I’m constantly struggling with whether I should post this or that because I love it or because I want to get some likes. Maybe we should consider why the vast majority of Instagram users make a post?

It can sometimes be a case of, fuck, I haven’t posted anything for ten days and I feel obliged to do it. But on the whole, it’s still fun and a good tool to meet new people and make connections.

A few years ago I was riding with friends down the coast road south of Barcelona. Very beautiful with views over the Mediterranean but so many cars. It was pretty late as we’d been held up, it was getting dark and we didn’t have lights. All the drivers were really pissed off — beeping and overtaking far too close to us. But then, all of a sudden, no one was passing. I could still hear car horns but the cars had stopped overtaking. We decided that someone must be protecting us and then a couple of kilometres later a car passed with someone waving as they drove by. Later that evening after I’d had a shower, I got a message from this random guy who follows me on Instagram saying that he’d seen us on the road and decided to hold back the traffic. And I felt like crying. Such a nice thing to do.

I was already making videos and doing photography and the film school teacher suggested – this will come over as sooo pretentious – that I would be better waiting and entering the second year. Having a couple of months to waste, I was helping out a lot of people with photography which kind of led to little paid jobs and those, in turn, led to some more. I was then approached by a start-up that needed an intern and, by the time my course was due to begin, I was offered a full time position. So it was a case of, hmmm, fuck study.

They were basically trying to be like LinkedIn but with aspects of Tinder. My role was to travel around and make profiles of strange and weird IT companies so they looked attractive to the IT people wanting to relocate to them. But after a while this got boring so I moved to Barcelona to finish my education and did another three years of another bullshit course involving communication and PR.

But one particular highlight from this period was meeting Christian. We were following each other on Instagram and he messaged to ask if I could recommend a ‘cycling friendly hostel in Barcelona’. Reading between the lines, he was checking to see if he and his friend could crash at mine after riding from Salzburg to Barcelona. I said that it wouldn’t be a problem but miscalculated the days—realising that I would be in Slovenia on a Pas Normal trip. So I asked him if he felt like joining – which he did –  and he liked it so much that when we’d finished, we travelled together for another ten days. The rest, as they say, is history—with me trying to win over his cold Scandinavian bachelor heart.

Meanwhile I was taking on the odd photoshoot and when my friend and current professional partner suggested we start working together creating lifestyle content for platforms like Shutterstock, I thought, let’s try it, why not. It took off and I’ve been doing that ever since. This new direction also coincided with a downward curve in my cycling career. I still love riding but I constantly struggle with how easy it is to lose fitness. You have a few weeks off the bike and it’s back to fucking zero. That makes you feel like shit which demotivates you even more. And it’s so hard to get back to the point where you go for a ride and think, hey, I kinda feel good.

But when I do go for a ride, I honestly feel I perform better the worse the conditions. I would never choose to leave the house to go riding if it’s raining – who would in all honesty? – but whenever we’re bike packing and it’s really shitty, I’m not going to complain. I will complain if it’s sunny and everyone is pushing and I’m dying. But if the weather is bad, I shut the fuck up, embrace it and go.

Trends and tribes

Compared to some other mainstream sports, I think there’s way more pretentiousness in cycling. Even at an entry level, you need so many accessories. A bike, shoes, helmet – the list goes on – which can be a great starting point for conversations and make it very easy to meet new people because you can always talk about bikes and kit. But on the other hand, it can encourage some individuals to act a little smug. And to be totally honest, we’ve all been there. A few years ago I was all ‘look at me’ in my Rapha or Pas Normal kit.

In terms of what’s next, I think we’re definitely going down the bike packing direction. You see lots of well-known cyclists posting pictures of themselves riding gravel and camping out under the stars—in much the same way that van life so quickly became a thing and now you can’t park anywhere because everybody is pissed at people living in a van and pooping in a park.

Maybe it’s the only way of cycling at the moment that people feel OK about? The simple pleasures of travelling by bike and feeling humble. Not washing for days on end and letting that go. I’m dirty, I smell, it’s fine.

Before, it was all about serious roadies in their lycra or relaxed mountain bikers. But even mountain biking has become really, really expensive. The bikes cost a fortune and that chilled, mud-on-my-face look is very monetised at the moment. Which probably explains why I’m a little tired of the cycling bubble. Over the years I’ve been doing photoshoots for different brands and, especially in Europe, it can get a little samey. Skinny boys and skinny blonde girls riding in the mountains. I kind of want to do it more like the American way; all shapes and sizes and colours. But not all of the European based companies are prepared to challenge their customer base. So if a cycling project is interesting, I’m happy to get involved but otherwise, I just stick to my production stuff.

With the nature of my work involving a lot of travel, I’ve been based in Spain for a few months but I’m leaving tomorrow for Norway. Faced with the difficulty of travelling back and forth during the pandemic, it just made financial sense to stay for a decent length of time rather than keep paying out for the 24 hour Covid tests. And try getting anything in Spain in 24 hours!

I know my partner Christian won’t be happy when I say this but home, for me, is still the Ukraine. Probably because I have a very strong bond with my family and used to visit every few months. Moving to Norway was my choice but I don’t have a degree in IT that would allow me to earn enough to make living in Norway more bearable. Let’s be honest, summer is amazing but otherwise the weather isn’t that great. And the supermarkets! Only two types of cheese. So it was more a conscious decision to move to where Christian works in a nice bike shop. And it doesn’t really matter where I’m flying out from. Barcelona or Oslo—it’s potato, patato. And then Covid happened and it doesn’t really matter what airport I’m not flying out from.

So, for now, I’m just happy to adjust to living in Norway. Especially as whenever you meet someone new, you hope it’s forever and I really want it to be so with Christian. We’d been dating for a while and decided we just wanted to be together. I have a Polish residence card which allows me to live in Europe and that was working perfectly fine in Spain. But then Covid happened before I’d moved to Norway and I already had tickets to go to the Ukraine so I went home and spent a couple of months in lockdown. During that time Norway announced they were closing the borders to anyone who wasn’t Norwegian until the end of August. So I was crying my heart out and Christian – as any first world, completely naïve person would try and do – was going to call the Embassy and figure it all out. But I’m Ukrainian and we’re third world and nobody gives a fuck!

In the end, I drove into Poland with my parents after lockdown was eased. We had to quarantine for two weeks with the Polish police checking on us each day. We were counted – one, two, three – and had to send selfies of us all together at different times of the day.

Next, I grabbed a ferry to cross over to Sweden because they’d declared that Covid didn’t exist and from there I got a train north to where Christian’s mum lives. He’d sent me a bike which I assembled and then changed into cycling clothes before another train even further north, 80km of gravel, a 2km walk through the forest and into Norway.

When restrictions began to ease in the summer, we bought a van and left Norway so that when we returned I would have an official entry stamp on my passport. And then it was like, fuck it, let’s get married! So now I’m legally a spouse and should be able to re-enter. I suppose we’ll find out tomorrow* [smiles].

*Steff managed to safely enter Norway and was reunited with Christian. She’s since discovered waffles with brown cheese.

Images with kind permission of Steff Gutovska, Katia Lavrova and Christian Ekdahl

Stories About Georgia

Far Away (and back again)

After setting out from Eastern Europe to cycle across Asia in 2019, Sabina Knezevic and Robin Patijn are currently based in Sweden and training for a postponed Atlas Mountain Race. Having amassed a wealth of stories on their travels, with Farawayistan the couple aim to inspire cyclists from all over the world to embark upon their own adventures—big or small. Here they discuss how the seeds were sown that led to a life-changing journey, their experiences on the road as a couple and how, when it comes to chasing society’s consumer goals, less can indeed be more.

cyclespeak
So where did your cycling stories start?

Robin
I was the cyclist before we left on our around-the-world tour. It’s the classic tale of playing football and then, when my knee was injured, my father encouraging me to try cycling. So I went out on his road bike, loved it immediately and with my very first paycheck bought my own bike. Years later, I met Sabina…

Sabina
On Tinder [laughs].

Robin
Quite a modern way of meeting, maybe?

Sabina
I was scrolling through Tinder – because that’s what you do when you’re single – and there was this profile of a guy who looked kind of interesting because of all these travel photos.

Robin
I must just mention there were no photos of me in lycra [smiles].

Sabina
When we started dating, I didn’t ride a bike but I was very sporty. Crossfit five times a week, surfing, yoga. But I had this certain idea in my mind about cycling because in the Netherlands road cyclists have a very bad reputation. We have a lot of cycle lanes that are very busy and road cyclists don’t have bells and can be complete assholes.

Robin
It’s a stereotype.

Sabina
So I was absolutely certain that Robin would never get me into lycra. But, in the end, it only took about a month before I tried his mother’s bike and it was, fuck, this is so much fun!

cyclespeak
And that, in turn, led to the idea of making a trip by bike together?

Sabina
Right from the start, we’d always really connected on the travelling part but after a few months as a couple we decided it should be a cycling trip. Perhaps a little risky as the only experience we had before we left was a small test trip in the Netherlands. Riding in a full-on storm [laughs].

Robin
Typical Dutch spring weather.

Sabina
There was a weather warning but we figured why not just go for it. And we still had fun despite the awful headwind which we thought was a good sign. 

Robin
That was the very first weekend we’d assembled all our kit – the tent, stove, sleeping bags – and we wanted to test everything. 

cyclespeak
You’d already decided to quit your day jobs, sell all your belongings and start exploring. Was it difficult to break ties with your regular lives and all your physical belongings?

Sabina
At that time we were already in a place where we were really into minimalism.

Robin
We were living in a house that the municipality had scheduled for demolition prior to building new ones. So we knew we could only stay there for one and a half years.

Sabina
And we were both quite frustrated with our jobs so that also made the decision a lot easier.

cyclespeak
Just out of interest, what were your jobs?

Sabina
I was working at a publishing company as the editorial manager for a couple of magazines.

Robin
My job as an air quality engineer was quite technical.

cyclespeak
From breaking these professional ties, you arrived at the concept of Farawayistan. So I was wondering how you define ‘faraway’? Does this necessarily imply a physical distance or is there also an emotional element?

Sabina
Robin was already enjoying photography and I have a communication background and really like sharing stories. So we were brainstorming about different names and Farawayistan started out as more of a joke. We wanted to travel far away and ‘stan’, as a suffix, means a country. So you combine the two…

Robin
And also, at family meetings, everyone asked where we were going. So we’d reel off Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan – all these ‘stan’ countries.

Sabina
There’s also an element of escapism. Which for us meant getting away from the everyday, consumer aspects of life.

Robin
But this can be a few miles from home. You don’t have to go to Uzbekistan to go faraway [smiles].

cyclespeak
I read your journal piece on persuading your girlfriend to go bike touring. Over time, has that dynamic changed in the sense of who has the ideas or chooses the direction of travel?

Robin
I’m a thinker and Sabina is more about acting. Just going with it.

Sabina
I can have an idea and straight away say, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ Half of the time not fully realising what I’m getting myself into.

Robin
For example, riding the Annapurna Circuit was an idea I was thinking and talking about but Sabina said…

Sabina
Let’s just do it.

Robin
And it turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

Sabina
But when we first got together and were getting to know each other, it was something we both had to learn how to deal with. To balance out these different aspects of our personalities, so we could make our relationship work.

cyclespeak
So what’s it like to spend so much time travelling together as a couple? Does it strengthen or test a relationship? Or maybe a little of both?

Sabina
I think I moved in with Robin within a week of becoming a couple and we’ve been together ever since.

Robin
Especially now as we’re both working from home. And the weekends are the same as we like to go on short camping trips.

Sabina
We’re kind of dependent on each other [laughs]. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not but it works.

cyclespeak
It sounds a good thing to me.

Sabina
I mean, we do fall out. Especially when we’re cycling and hungry and there’s a headwind. But you talk it out and it’s fine again.

cyclespeak
In terms of preparing for your travels, how did that process unfold?

Sabina
Robin had been planning this trip for six years. Long before he met me.

Robin
Maybe dreaming is a more accurate term [smiles].

Sabina
I do remember, well before we left, having a big discussion about panniers versus bike packing bags. On this point I followed Robin’s gut feeling and accepted we needed to carry a certain amount of kit so panniers would make sense. But maybe we didn’t need quite as much kit as we took [laughs]. And then, mid-way through the trip, I changed to bike packing bags and let him carry most of the stuff.

Robin
When we left from Tbilisi in Georgia, on the very first hill we knew then we were carrying too much kit. Books, extra pairs of shoes…

Sabina
I had never in my life cycled up a hill – let alone a mountain – and in my naivety I thought, how hard can it be? Just go a bit slower. But I soon found out [laughs].

cyclespeak
You obviously got the hang of it.

Sabina
Overcoming all these obstacles – that seem impossible at the time – is part of the journey. And knowing that sometimes it’s OK to just hitch a ride [smiles].

cyclespeak
You must have so many memories and stories from your travels?

Sabina
Hundreds. And not necessarily about me and Robin.

Robin
We caught up with two friends we made in Tajikistan over Zoom yesterday and we were talking about our adventures and one of their stories in particular that still makes us smile. James, this British guy, was cycling by himself up a mountain pass just a few days behind us. He had severe food poisoning and was delirious so couldn’t go any further.

Sabina
It was already dark, he had a puncture and he was completely exhausted so he just stopped and set up his tent. Next morning, he woke up feeling better, zipped open his tent only to find a group of people wearing bulky, protective clothing and carrying metal detectors. And it turned out he’d spent the night camped in a minefield.

Robin
He was OK so it’s quite a funny story.

Sabina
But looking back on our own experiences, there’s all these little things that made it so special. Like realising in India that tuk tuks are the perfect way to draft.

cyclespeak
Your stories often include photographs of the local population from wherever you’ve been travelling. Is this engagement important?

Robin
I really like different cultures and interacting with the people we meet. And even though we often don’t share a common language, you can laugh and smile and shake hands and try to have a conversation.

Sabina
If I leave him alone for five minutes he’s making new friends. Even here in Sweden in the supermarket and Sweden is well known for people not talking to each other.

cyclespeak
So you’ve met some interesting characters on your travels?

Sabina
I really enjoyed hitchhiking because we’d spend this time in a truck with someone who genuinely just wanted to help us. Which I suppose is funny because there’s such a misconception that hitchhiking is dangerous. For the most part, these people are alone all the time and they see these weird cyclists by the roadside and they’re just curious even if we don’t speak the same language.

Robin
Those moments were really special. Sitting in the cab with the driver and he’s making a phone call to an uncle somewhere who speaks a few words of English and he puts the phone to your ear. Showing photos of his wife and children. Super personal even though you’re with a total stranger.

Sabina
There was one particular truck driver who wanted Robin to try chewing tobacco and he got so high [laughs]. He was sweating and had to lower the window to get some fresh air.

Robin
But those moments of interaction are, for me, the most valuable.

Sabina
Yes. The warmth of the people inviting you into their homes. I think you only get that when you’re hiking or cycling. Travelling in such a manner, people very often treat you so kindly.

cyclespeak
Perhaps you’re seen as being vulnerable so people want to help?

Sabina
This one time when we were cycling in Georgia’s wine region Kakheti, it was so hot that I was having a hard time. Admittedly it might have been after a wine tasting which kind of explains why I was having a hard time. We couldn’t find a place to pitch our tent so when we saw this family sitting on their porch, I basically just crashed to a halt in front of them before asking for some water. They immediately invited us to join them on the porch where they were shelling hazelnuts from their farm. So I was sitting there helping the family with this task and, at the same time, they were asking family and friends over for a barbecue.

cyclespeak
It sounds like members of the local population were overwhelmingly hospitable.

Sabina
I think it’s about the simpleness of the way we were travelling and not the clichéd Westerners quickly coming in to look at all the hotspots before immediately departing for the next. When you’re cycling, you experience everything in between with all these aspects of daily life.

cyclespeak
So is Farawayistan a job, a passion, a calling?

Robin
It’s a passion and I think it will always be so. To start with, it’s something we like to do. We enjoy taking photos and writing stories…

Sabina
And inspiring people. To show what fun it is to go out and explore. And, yes, if you travel to Tajikistan you’ll probably have more interesting stories to tell but it doesn’t mean that’s the only way you can have adventures.

Robin
It’s not our main source of income but it takes quite a bit of time – maybe even the same amount as a fulltime job [smiles] – and we’re not earning a lot of money.

Sabina
From time to time we do a photoshoot and write up a story for different cycling brands. We usually get ‘paid’ by keeping the products that are featured. And we also have a freelance gig at komoot where we write Collections for them. 

cyclespeak
Komoot and you two must be a match made in heaven.

Sabina
It’s a cool company and we really like what they’re doing.

Robin
They’re keen to have more personal experiences and not a series of route guides written by somebody sitting behind a computer.

cyclespeak
And now you’re both training for the Atlas Mountain Race. That’s pretty gnarly.

Sabina
Ultra-endurance racing is something that Robin has always been pushing in my face [laughs]. And the Lachlan Morton videos have also proved inspirational. So being at home now and not cycling as much as we’d like, we decided we needed a goal.

Robin
At first I was thinking about riding solo but now we’re going as a pair.

Sabina
I’d asked Robin whether he wanted me to join but wasn’t really sure if he was holding back his true feelings. And I still don’t know.

[No response from Robin]

Sabina
You see? He doesn’t answer [laughs].

Robin
No, no. Of course I want you to be there. I think I can really use your mental strength during the race.

Sabina
But I don’t think I’ll be able to draft on that terrain [laughs].

cyclespeak
I’m guessing you won’t be using the same Avaghon bikes from your world tour on the Atlas Mountain Race? Maybe the 3T bikes that I’ve seen pictures of you riding?

Sabina
To be honest, I was a little sick of my bike because it felt so slow and I just wanted to go faster. But I did really enjoy riding off-road so the 3T Exploro seemed the perfect fit. Really fast but also able to handle gravel and trails.

Robin
The bikes we rode across Asia were around 18kg even without luggage.

cyclespeak
Nice and sturdy?

Sabina
They were perfect for a world tour as my bike did fall off a moving bus in Nepal and it survived.

cyclespeak
With the pandemic having an impact in so many different ways, I do wonder whether it’s causing people to reassess what’s really important. Have you any advice for individuals wanting to make a radical change in how they live their lives?

Robin
I’m not sure about offering advice but we would encourage everyone to get outside as much as they can. It’s not only fun but it’s also healthy for the mind and body. I do understand that it can be hard when you’ve had a full day and you’re tired and maybe just want to rest in the evenings or weekend. But if you come into our house, at the front door we have a closet that holds all our camping stuff.

Sabina
Ready to go.

Robin
So it’s super easy to take that spur of the moment trip.

Sabina
But if you do want to make a radical change and there’s no extreme financial or emotional fallout – then just go for it. Because, usually, making changes is for the better.

cyclespeak
Are there any aspects that you miss about your previous lives?

Robin
I’d like to see more of my family but basically I have everything here that I need. I have a few bicycles, I have forests and cycling friends, and I have my camera.

cyclespeak
And have your experiences changed you? Are you very different people compared to when you first set out?

Robin
Sometimes, when people travel the world, they talk about re-discovering themselves but I wasn’t 18 or 19 when I left. I was 29 and an adult. Yes, I do look differently at things but I wouldn’t say that I’m that much changed. 

Sabina
Maybe it’s another cliché about getting to know who you really are? That also happens when you get older but travel can speed the process up.

cyclespeak
Is it important to be planning the next journey, the next move?

Robin
For me, personally, it is. Like we’ve mentioned, I’m a thinker and always daydreaming about the next adventure. I really need that to feel positive and well.

Sabina
And I need a challenge. Working towards something that might initially seem impossible is part of that sense of escapism. Like me finishing the Atlas Mountain Race [laughs]. But the ultimate goal for Farawayistan? I can picture us living out of a van with the bikes on the roof, creating nice stories and just making enough to keep on the road. That would be the dream.

Sabina / Robin

Photography with kind permission of Farawayistan

Collections for komoot

Sami Sauri / Finding Myself

With worldwide concerns over mental health never more prevalent, producer and storyteller Sami Sauri’s first independent film production is a clarion call for the benefits of spending time outdoors. Catching up with Sami from her home in Girona, and with a conversation punctuated with bursts of laughter, we discuss the personal nature of this poignant and beautifully realised project, her own lessons from lockdown and how it feels to see yourself on screen. So sit back and enjoy a thrills (and some spills) tour through Sami’s past year.

cyclespeak
The last time we spoke over a call was way back in March when Spain was in full lockdown. And I was wondering, looking back over all this time, how was it for you?

Sami
Fucked [laughing]

cyclespeak
That bad?

Sami
I think maybe it’s been tough for most people? And in some aspects, I’ve been fortunate. Lockdown didn’t make that much of a difference because I was already working from home. I’ve since changed to having a co-working space so I can separate the professional and personal aspects to my life. But back when we were in the strict lockdown, I basically had to solve all my problems and had the time to think. To think about a lot of things [laughing].

cyclespeak
Possibly too much time?

Sami
That, for me, can be very difficult. Because if I have things on my mind, normally I would just throw myself into activities. But we couldn’t even go riding and I’d been training really well. I tried to keep the intensity going but I don’t really like to ride inside on a trainer. It’s not really my thing. So riding-wise I was a little bit down, but I still wanted to move my body, so a lot of yoga. And I suppose the biggest outcome of all of this, is that I really know how to be alone. Before, it was a hassle, but I’ve learnt how to be by myself, in my own space. And as I’ve been injured for the past four weeks, it’s fine. I can deal with it. Before, I would have freaked out by now [laughs].

cyclespeak
Over the past year, I’ve listened to a few podcasts featuring professional cyclists who tried to keep to their training blocks but on the smart trainer. And then two weeks became two months and they needed to alter their mindset when it came to their levels of fitness. They found they couldn’t maintain such a rigorous training regime without some defined goals.

Sami
Totally. There were some strong people that could do it, but not me [smiles].

cyclespeak
Even though the impact of the pandemic has been quite unprecedented, it did encourage people to be very creative in the way they approached cycling—ideas such as Dirty Kanzelled which had a massive impact. An event that you’d actually raced the previous year.

Sami
That was Laurens ten Dam. The cleverest outcome from a cancelled race you could imagine. It was insane how much reach he got. Super, super smart and maybe an approach we’ll need to take this year if things turn out the same?

cyclespeak
I was fortunate that, even during lockdown, I was allowed to do a solo ride once a day. But you couldn’t exercise outside at all. That must have been difficult?

Sami
52 days in total without outdoor sports. And then, when we could go outside, we had to stay within our own municipality.

cyclespeak
And I’ve seen your recent posts with you on crutches and wearing a big plastic boot. What’s been going on there?

Sami
As I said before, 2020 wasn’t exactly my best year [laughing]. Back in October, I was going out horse-riding and it was a young horse and he just took off with me on top of him. We were in a parking lot so he could get used to the noise of traffic, and something must have spooked him. His ears were back, which is never a good sign, and he was running towards the road so I tried to turn him and lost my balance and fell. But rather than just falling off, my foot was caught in the stirrup and it was just like a Western movie with me being dragged along [laughs].

cyclespeak
I guess it wasn’t so funny at the time?

Sami
It took a big hole out of my knee and the first time in my life that I’ve needed stitches. I had to wait 10 days to have them removed before I could ride again. But a few days later I was out on my bike and I was stupidly looking at my phone – swapping it between hands – and I crashed.

cyclespeak
So that’s injury number two.

Sami
I was booked on a flight to the Canaries a couple of days later but had to postpone the trip. When I did finally make it out there, I had 20 amazing days working on a new video project before flying home. But then my foot slipped when I was out trail-running and I broke some ligaments.

cyclespeak
Horse, bike, running. You’re kind of covering all bases?

Sami
That was my 2020. And it’s funny because I’ve just signed with Merrell as a partner for their running shoes. Super cool and we were working towards the release of the collaboration and the irony is that I’m on crutches [laughs].

cyclespeak
You mentioned a new video project. That sounds exciting.

Sami
Well, I’ve kind of got this history of working with video. Both in front and behind the camera. And somebody just suggested that I do something for myself. My first reaction was, naahh, there’s no way. But I kept coming back to the idea for six months until I thought that maybe I should. You always hate your look or your voice when you see yourself on a video but I decided to go for it.

cyclespeak
So what was the first step?

Sami
I contacted a photographer called Sergio Villalba in the Canaries. He does amazing surf shots, and I knew he was starting to do videos of cycling. So we got in touch and I explained that I wanted to do this inspirational film to empower people to engage in outdoor sports. He was immediately onboard with the idea and we decided to shoot the footage on Lanzarote. It took three days, and we’re now ready to release the film.

cyclespeak
You must feel so proud?

Sami
It’s really hard when the project is about you [laughs]. And to be honest, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. David Millar helped me by looking over the text but even as recently as yesterday I had a complete freak-out. Asking whether he thought it was correct? If the video even makes sense? Does my accent work, speaking in English?

cyclespeak
So you produced and directed the film. Did you script it too?

Sami
I wrote a long text with notes about my feelings. It was originally twice as long as the final version. But I decided it needed some gaps otherwise it’s basically just me chatting. And even though it’s still quite personal, there was a lot of insight into my life and it was like, oh shit, maybe that doesn’t need to be included [laughs].

cyclespeak
But you still took the decision to refer to your childhood in the narrative?

Sami
I feel like a lot of people can relate to this. And one of the most difficult things is not having regrets, right? So this all leads into the message of the project. That no matter what, the outdoors is a healthy way of recovering and filling you up with good energy.

cyclespeak
Did you write the script and then fit the shots? What was the process?

Sami
The basic idea of encouraging people to enjoy being outside came first. Then I wrote the script before sharing it with Sergio. From there, we worked on a list of shots, and he knew so many amazing locations as he’s from the Canaries. All these different aspects were then tied up to match the mood of the moment.

cyclespeak
The result is really beautiful.

Sami
We used an actual 8mm camera – that’s not a filtered effect – which looks really cool.

cyclespeak
How does it compare producing someone else’s film to your own?

Sami
Good question [laughs]. If it’s not your project, you’re not necessarily working with a style you want. On this project, I had the freedom to experiment and try out different approaches knowing that it was my own time.

cyclespeak
It’s quite a journey from first featuring in films to now working on your own projects. Does that feel satisfying?

Sami
Totally. The idea is that this project will lead to more adventures for me this year. So this film is the first but definitely not the last one [smiles].

Sami Sauri

Photography by Sergio Villalba and Rubén Plasencia (gallery)

Kirsti Ruud / Coming out stronger

In a year that has seen many of us adapt how we ride in the face of unforeseen circumstances, a new plan was needed when Kirsti Ruud woke to snowfall on the first morning of a bikepacking trip in her native Norway. But rather than any lingering sense of disappointment, the adverse weather conditions ultimately led to an experience that was not only breathtakingly beautiful but underlined the return on embracing the fickleness of forecasts.

Along with her companions Sindre Grønli and Øyvind Brenne Nordengen, the group decided on two separate rides in place of their planned overnight stop. Routes that would take them into the six biggest national parks in Norway and a landscape devoid of cars and buildings—a true wilderness of river valleys and mountain ridges, threaded through by the gravel roads they were riding.

Looking back on this experience, Kirsti reflects on the reasons she rides, how it can be rewarding to brave the elements and why the occasional challenge helps build resilience for when the randomness of life derails your best intentions.


Until 2018, I rode seriously. It was all about competition. I combined a little job here and there with my training but then I accepted a full-time position with the National Cycling Federation. I was getting more interested in working with cyclists than being a cyclist myself and the project I lead involves helping recovering drug addicts integrate back into society through cycling.

So in place of a training plan, travelling and exploring have been more a part of my summers and falls for the last two years. When I can, I cycle the hour and a half each way to work. If the weather is good, there’s no reason to sit in a car stuck in traffic. And because I’ve been working from home due to the pandemic, this year I’ve been cycling more than everenjoying riding my bike as much as I can within the restrictions.

After I stopped competing, I hadn’t ridden for months when I was invited to go to Iceland with Rapha. The trip was pretty amazing and it gave me a taste for different kinds of riding. So I asked them to let me know when the next big trip was planned and to count me in. George Marshall – the photographer on the Iceland shoot – had kept in touch, and he contacted me with this plan to ride in the north of Norway. But then he couldn’t come over because of Covid and my friend Marius Nilsen was invited to do the photography. He lives further north than Oslo and works for the National Parks.

The idea was a two day ride with an overnight stop at a mountain hut. That’s how we like to do things – carrying everything we need on our bikes. It’s what makes it a trip. And we’d come prepared with stud tyres in case there was any ice. Usually I don’t use these until December – even with regular tyres, riding in snow isn’t a problem – but we weren’t sure whether it was going to be a mixture of rain and snow and wanted to be sure we didn’t ruin our trip by crashing

But as we left Oslo to drive north, it began to snow really heavily. It was forecast but not that much. Going to bed thinking it would melt the next day, we woke to find 15cm of fresh snow. Figuring that we wouldn’t be able to get over to the cabin before it got dark but still wanting to ride, we came up with a new plan of a different route for each day.

Setting off after breakfast, I was excited. I think the worst part of the year can be the fall when it’s dark and a little gloomy. Because you can’t really tell the different textures from each other. But with the snowfall, the whole day was lit up and the mountains just looked so beautiful. The alternative would have been rain and fog.

Before every trip, I’m kind of worried about my shape. Hoping that I’ll have a good day and not really struggle that much. But even though we had a lot of wind – 17 metres per second which is enough to blow your bike over – we were all happy and laughing and just going with the flow. The light was amazing when we reached the top of a mountain and we just stood there, looking out over the landscape below, as the sun slowly sank behind the horizon.

I think the best rides I’ve had are when we’ve spontaneously come up with an idea. If you plan too much and then the weather is bad, it can be so disappointing. It can take the charm away and it’s best not to be too uptight about how your ride will be. It’s OK to let go of plans and just get out there and ride. To go far or go short—to not really know where you’ll end up.

When I was competing, I had to ride regardless of the weather. Telling your trainer that you can’t go out because it’s raining and 5°C just isn’t an option. Now that I don’t have to ride, I do appreciate the good days when it’s warm and sunny. But you can enjoy amazing experiences because of the weather. If you have the right kit, then you’re able to embrace changing and unpredictable conditions. And I do need some challenges once in a while where you feel like you’re struggling because you kind of come out stronger at the other end.

So I ride now because I want to ride. It’s my free time. My quiet time. An opportunity to reflect on things, for solving problems, to get out any frustration. Just being out on my bike gives me the space I need and I come back feeling like a weight has been lifted. It’s such an important aspect of the way I choose to live my life.

Kirsti Ruud

Images by Marius Nilsen and Rapha

A version of this story was first published by Far Ride magazine

Ben Richards / Tokyo Slow

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.

Images with kind permission of Ben Richards

benrichards

tokyobike Japan / London

A version of this feature was first published by Far Ride magazine

 

Chris McClean / Weathering the storm

With a body of work that beautifully captures the way we engage with the natural world, for photographer and filmmaker Chris McClean the call of the ocean remains the loudest. Training as a graphic designer before a move to Amsterdam, a surfing film followed that went viral. Ever since, the sea has repeatedly featured in images that often depict figures set against the ocean’s rolling waves.


‘The house I grew up in, I could hear the sea from my bedroom window. So it’s always been a part of me and when I eventually moved away, I had this sense that something was missing. Like I didn’t feel as comfortable.’

‘I’d started surfing in my mid-teens,’ Chris continues, ‘and it just connected with me. I can’t think of a better way of making a living than spending your time in and around the ocean. And everything I do, it draws me back, time and time again. Even if it’s a cycling shoot, I end up carrying a surfboard.’

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This mention of a shoot references a chance encounter that led to an invitation for Chris to accompany a surfing trip down the North Carolina coast. An idyllic road adventure on fat bikes that saw the crew wild camping and stopping to surf whenever the waves looked promising.

‘I’d met Robin previously in Scotland at Grinduro. He’d seen one of my other surfing trips on Instagram and we were chatting about how we’d prepped the bikes. Trailers versus racks and such like. Then a year later he got back in touch to ask about North Carolina. Another of Robin’s friends, Gary, joined us together with Bri who’s a local surfer to those beaches. But as a group we’d never ridden together before this trip.’

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Meeting up near Virginia Beach, they loaded up their bikes before heading south; the combination of camping gear, provisions and surf boards requiring a careful balancing act when moving off. Spirits were nonetheless high and the ride companions soon cemented as a group as they passed through False Cape State Park and across the border into North Carolina.

‘Bri was very easygoing. And Gary could talk motorbike mechanics or waves in Baja with ease. But I find that’s generally the case with Americans; they’re usually fun to hang with and the conversation is free flowing. Throughout the whole trip we joked about the southern hospitality we received. People would open their doors and we’d camp in their backyards and join them for beers.’

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Being on the move, most of the days were different but they soon found their evening routine. Setting up camp before a surf or swim and then cooking dinner over stoves as they watched the sun go down. A relaxed pace to the trip that allowed Chris plenty of time to capture each day with his camera.

Travelling with the boards was a little cumbersome,’ he points out with a smile. ‘You don’t get the best of the surf and you don’t get the best of the riding. But by combining the two, you do get a really fun adventure.’

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Stopping to surf if there were waves or putting in a good day’s ride if not, the crew wound their way down the coast with the idiosyncratic place names adding flavour to the route: Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills down to Pea Island National Wildlife Park and then Avon and Cape Hatteras.

‘As we got further south, we were told about the clean-up operation taking place in Ocracoke where Hurricane Dorian had recently made landfall. Robin mentioned this in a message to his Dad who, in turn, had a word with one of the church groups providing relief aid to ask if we could volunteer.’

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As they approached the epicentre of the storm damage, the bigger the piles of rubbish waiting on the roadside to be collected. Piles of wood, waterlogged sofas and personal belongings so damaged they were being discarded. And even though the flood waters had subsided, the potential issues from black mould contaminating the houses meant that floorboards and wooden walls had to be stripped out. A sense of devastation and loss that Chris wanted to capture but with a respect due to the individuals stoically starting the process of rebuilding their lives. A nod of the head or a smile indicating they were comfortable with him taking the shot.

‘The morning we packed up our bikes, we had breakfast with all the volunteers before saying goodbye to everyone. We’d built a bond so quickly and felt like we wanted to stay longer. It’s like you can’t help enough and the rest of the ride was a little bittersweet considering what we’d seen. But we’d also grown closer in terms of our little group on the road. What we’d experienced proved, in a sense, to be bigger than the original idea for the trip.’

 

Images with kind permission of Chris McClean

chrismcclean

Uncommon Ideals

A version of this story was first published by Far Ride magazine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sami Sauri / Bali and beyond

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.


So, Indonesia?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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].

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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…

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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.

 

Images with kind permission of Sami Sauri

Photographs of Sami by Jack Thompson

This interview was first published on the Far Ride journal

 

 

Brad Hammonds / Less of more

English teacher, photographer, frame builder, magazine editor? Trying to pin a label on Brad Hammonds isn’t at all straightforward but goes some way to illustrating a creative journey that mirrors a decade of travel. Reflecting on these interconnected professional pathways, Brad discusses his passion for working by hand, the joy of adventure cycling with Far Ride magazine and why he struggles with our tendency to seek more possessions.


It’s breakfast time in Texas and Brad Hammonds has just got in from walking his rescue greyhound, George. Casually dressed [Brad, not George], he’s tall – rangy in US parlance – and sporting a dark moustache and neatly trimmed beard. Moving to San Antonio with his wife Cary a little over six months ago, he mentions how they’re only just getting round to buying their first items of furniture; for many young couples a fairly commonplace task but perhaps more significant considering Brad has spent the past ten years travelling and working in a variety of different countries.

I’ve wanted to move to Japan since I was in 4th Grade. I’d made friends with a Japanese boy in my class and we’d go to his house after school and learn origami from his Mom. But the visa process was super hard if you didn’t have experience or certain qualifications – of which I had none [smiles] – but South Korea was a little more relaxed and only an hour’s flying time from Tokyo.’

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‘So I accepted a position teaching English at an after-school programme in Changwon; a small city in the south of the country. Looking back, in some ways a surprising decision because I really hate the act of packing everything up and the disruption it causes. But since graduating I’ve moved on average every two years to a different city or country and I’m actually starting to quite like it.’

A self-confessed creature of habit, I’m wondering if establishing a routine is an important aspect of assimilating a new location and culture? Whether he needs the familiarity of his belongings in order to relax and feel comfortable?

‘Having a sense of home is definitely not about possessions. I have the things that I like and I like them very much but those are pretty minimal. Cary and I have been travelling together for over seven years so having her with me is the constant I need with regard to my perception of belonging somewhere.’

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Alongside his teaching, photography has been another element in his portmanteau of professional roles. A camera bought with his first paycheck following the move to South Korea providing Brad with a creative outlet after graduating with a double major in communications and art.

‘At college I had my sculpture and I also did some metal smithing but neither of these were easy to bring with me when I was travelling. And it helped that my brother moved to Korea around the same time and also got a camera. I can remember as kids we’d go out into the woods with one of us dressed up as Big Foot and take grainy pictures that we’d try to pass off as real. So both of us getting into photography at the same time kind of fuelled my passion.’

‘Fortunately or unfortunately – but probably the latter [smiles] – when I first got into photography, precision was super important.  At college I’d work with wood, plexiglass, stone – lots of different materials – but a narrative was almost secondary to getting things to be super exact. So when I started taking photographs, I wanted to nail the exposure and get the edit just perfect. Not a speck of grain with everything just so. But over the past few years I’ve been trying to break away from that and focusing more on the subject and the story I’m trying to tell.’

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With part-time teaching allowing Brad to develop his photography on a professional basis, a move back to South Korea after a couple of years working in the Czech Republic and Spain resulted in another, unexpected, opportunity after he contacted a local frame builder to arrange to take some photographs of his workshop.

‘Somehow my request got a little mixed up because when I showed up, he pointed to one corner of his workshop and explained that this would be my space. I assumed he wanted me to stand there and take the photos [laughs] but when he started discussing ordering materials it kind of dawned on me that I was actually going to be building something. So everyday I’d go to work in the morning for three hours at my school before riding 15 km across the city to the workshop where I’d stay until 9 o’clock in the evening. I’d then ride home, have dinner and go to bed ready to start all over again in the morning.’

With this peripatetic life continuing for close to three years, Brad made a series of frames for himself and friends; the images of these builds depicting a flawless finish that reflects his love of detail. But after moving back to the States he’s now come to accept that although he will at some point return to frame building, it might never be as a sole profession.

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‘Frame building – and by that I mean good frame building – has to be incredibly precise which takes years of getting right. And I began to realise that although I can be super dedicated to something, I’m not the sort of person to be dedicated to just one something. I always have too many interests going at one time and if you want to be a respectable frame builder that has to be your life. I would love to be able to do that and who knows how I’ll feel in a week or a year. But, for now, it’s an interest I want to pursue as a hobby and as I don’t have a road bike at the moment, at some point it will be time to build myself one’.

Describing himself as a one bike guy, being constantly on the move has compounded the difficulties of multiple bike ownership. But situations change and he’s tempted to convert the Surly Cross-Check he’s currently using as a reliable run around into a single speed when his road bike is ready.

‘I think I like the idea of multiple bikes or I might have the same issue I have with my jeans. I tend to buy a new pair every two to three years but it still stresses me out that I’m neglecting the older ones. They’ve got a couple of holes in them but they’re still good. So maybe I’d have similar thoughts if I had more than one bike?’

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The fact that he’s putting so much consideration into bike ownership might have come as a surprise to a teenage Brad. At that time a regular but not overly accomplished mountain biker, it took the move to South Korea for him to first discover the sense of adventure exploring a locality by bike can offer.

‘I was getting tired of using the Changwon public transport so, together with a friend, we bought a pair of cheap mountain bikes. Riding them all around the city and really having a blast. And then later in the Czech Republic, Cary and I met this guy who was reconditioning old Soviet-era steel road bikes that seemed to weigh about 75 lbs. On our first ride Cary got her front wheel caught in some tram tracks and went right over the bars and then on our second ride both my brake cables snapped. A pretty interesting introduction to road cycling [laughs] but it allowed us to leave the city and explore the countryside surrounding Prague and that joy of discovering new places hasn’t left me since.’

With this newfound love of cycling now firmly established, a message over Instagram following his return to South Korea led to an invitation to ride from Hyunki Kim who at that time was working for Far Ride.

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‘I had no idea who this guy was or what he did but we set something up and very early the next morning we met outside the temporary Far Ride office. I’d never heard of the magazine, didn’t know anything about it, but I went upstairs and met the magazine’s founder, Sogon Yoon, who immediately sat me down and started showing me a couple of issues. And I remember just being completely blown away.’

Riding together every week, it was six months into their friendship when Brad was booked to shoot a Far Ride feature in Busan. Coincidently they were looking for someone to help out with distribution and Brad accepted an offer to join the team; working for the magazine in the morning before teaching for a few hours and then riding over to the frame building workshop in the late afternoon.

‘It was all fairly intense but great fun and I’ve been with the magazine ever since. My official job title is Managing Editor & Distribution Wizard; the latter involving waving an email wand at every bike or magazine shop I can find. But now that we’ve established a really good network I’m focusing a lot more on writing, editing and taking photos.’

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With two issues published each year, Brad views this commitment to print in the context of a journey by bike. You could take the car and arrive quicker but the experience wouldn’t quite be the same. And although he acknowledges that digital journalism needn’t be compromised in terms of quality, he feels the physicality of the magazine enables the reader to slow down a little and really appreciate the details.

‘It also places demands on us [smiles]. By committing to this format, it’s not like you can take a story down to make a few changes. But we really enjoy the process of pulling each issue together; appreciating that the journey is as important as the destination.’

Conscious that this might be a somewhat clichéd question, the mention of journeys prompts me to ask whether he has a favourite from the many he’s enjoyed with the magazine. Brad confirming that the ride across Mongolia featured in Issue 8 is the trip that stands out the most.

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‘Setting out on the first day we honestly thought it was going to be a piece of cake [smiles]. We were riding this super smooth gravel and just flying on the 3T Exploro bikes we were testing. We’d allowed seven days for the trip and we were seriously predicting we’d get there in three and were worried about what to do with the other days. But literally within the first kilometre of the second day everything just turned upside down. The wind picked up into our faces and the road just fell apart with the following days nothing but potholes and washboarding. In the end we had broken blood vessels in our hands and I was wearing two pairs of bib shorts. But when we finally crested the last climb and saw the Gobi Desert stretching out in front of us we got so excited that we started sprinting. As it turned out, with no reference points we were still 30 km away and had to slow down [laughs].’

‘In some ways having to struggle is a good thing because if it’s too easy it can be enjoyable but not necessarily fun. And there have been times when I’ve not been 100% sure that I’ll finish a particular day’s ride. But, so far, it’s always been more of a slow down than a stop. And by overcoming difficulties we can address the level of comfort we want in our lives. Before my involvement with Far Ride I can’t remember ever taking a camera with me on a bike ride. I’ve never had a particularly outgoing personality – especially when it comes to strangers – and even though I really enjoy focusing on people in my travel photography, it can be terrifying to get the shot. So the bike was an escape from that and I always left the camera behind. I didn’t want that extra physical or mental weight. But now? I see it as more of a treasure hunt; out riding trying to find that perfect viewpoint.’

With a Far Ride trip to Scotland delayed due to the international travel restrictions and all his photography work temporarily on hold, for the moment life is focused around the couple’s San Antonio home. Cary joining Brad in working at home with the day structured around walking George. A state of affairs that Brad is taking in his stride.

‘We’re busy pulling together the next issue of the magazine and although we can’t travel at present, hopefully once this current situation begins to sort itself out we can start to make some plans. But in terms of where I’m going? I’m really not that picky. I guess it’s more about just going somewhere new and diving in.’

 

 

All images with kind permission of Brad Hammonds

TBH

Far Ride Magazine

 

Jonny Hines / Sunrise to sunset

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.

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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].

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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. 

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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.

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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].

 

All images with kind permission of Jonny Hines

PEdAL ED

This interview was first published on the Far Ride journal

 

Henrik Orre / Cooking and other adventures

In a country known for its cross-country skiing, having a father and brother both winning national cycling titles added a nuanced aspect to a childhood growing up in the small Norwegian town of Tönsberg. Not that Henrik Orre decided to follow the same path and race professionally; choosing instead to enrol in chef school before starting his first cooking job at the age of 18. But cycling nevertheless has been a thread woven through Henrik’s career to date. Initially when he took on the role as chef for Team Sky, through his series of Velochef publications and then, more recently, in the launch of Service Course Oslo.

Now that he’s putting the finishing touches to opening his kitchen to guests and illustrated by images taken from his third Velochef volume, Henrik talks about the hard hours required to achieve the highest level of culinary art, where he rides his bike on his rare days off and how childhood days as a Scout inspired him to take his cooking outdoors.

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‘I never got into racing like my father and brother. I just had an old BMX bike that I used to ride around where we lived. I saw how much effort was required from my brother to race on a national level and thought, yeah, you go do that and I’ll try something different [laughs].’

No stranger to hard work, Henrik’s competitive nature came to the fore when he gained a place on the Norwegian National Culinary Team before going on to win the Culinary World Cup. His experiences working under a head chef who didn’t advocate an old-school approach to kitchen management encouraging Henrik to develop his own style of leadership based on friendliness rather than fear.

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‘I learned a lot and respected that attitude so I guess I was trained in the same mould. Leading by example rather than just shouting at people. And restaurant work will always be special for me. Starting from scratch; taking a new team from zero up to our two Michelin stars in less than a couple of years. A lot of hard work but it’s so satisfying to see the reactions of your guests when a beautiful plate of food is placed in front of them. And to pull this off – night after night – you need a very sophisticated team working at the highest level. From the kitchen right through to front of house; more a lifestyle than a job really.’

Accepting the role of Team Sky chef in 2013, Henrik quickly discovered that although the quantities may be more substantial, professional cyclists appreciate food that tastes amazing just as much as his restaurant guests. The consideration of nutritional requirements just one element of a far-reaching focus on detail that made the team much talked about both in the media and on the professional race circuit.

‘We could even translate Team Sky’s marginal gains in terms of food. Looking at every step of our operations and leading to us investing in a mobile kitchen truck to provide a safer and more efficient environment to prepare our meals. Much more controlled in terms of hygiene as it removed the need to use hotel kitchens. Even down to the way we transported our food in a temperature-controlled vehicle.’

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Mentally throwing a switch to cope with the intensity of life on the road, Henrik describes working in a professional bubble for up to 4 weeks at a time; the circus-like atmosphere of the Tour being a particular favourite race. Plans that were made the previous December implemented during the early season and culminating in victory on the Champs-Élysées. A working culture, as Henrik sees it, where every team member counts towards helping the riders perform at their best whenever it’s needed.

‘I loved my time with Team Sky but it was hard work and when you’re on the road it’s difficult to switch off. My day would normally start around 7:00am when I’d go straight down to my kitchen to start on the breakfasts. The boys would then head off on the bus, leaving us to pack up the truck ready for our transfer. This could involve anything from one to four hours of driving depending on the route with hopefully enough time to do some shopping and sit down to lunch after arriving at the next hotel. But then you’d have to immediately start prepping for the team dinner. Working through the evening and then straight to bed. No chilled time at all [smiles].’

Following a conversation with the photographer Patrik Engstöm in 2015, the Velochef concept grew from Henrik combining his previous restaurant experience with his role at Team Sky. Having worked together previously, Patrik suggested the idea of producing a cookbook that married healthy food and cycle culture. Fast forward a few months and ‘Velochef: Food for Training and Competition’ was published containing 80 healthy recipes based around meals to have before, during, and after training.

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‘We believed there was a gap in the market. That’s why we considered the project in the first place. And if you work at producing a book that looks nice, with recipes that are tasty and you add a few stories about professional cyclists; then maybe you have a better than even chance of it working. Having Team Sky in there certainly helped [laughs] and we both definitely believed that our concept was a good one. But, to be honest, when it was first published we’d have been happy to just sell the first print run and break even. And it still surprises me today how many people still ask about that first book even though it’s currently sold out. A lot of emails before Christmas [smiles].’

Adopting a similar approach to creating his Velochef recipes that he applied to his time working at a Michelin starred restaurant, Henrik describes starting with the main ingredients before considering what to add around them to make a meal. Though admittedly with a different range of ingredients and equipment than his readers would realistically have available in their own kitchens.

‘In a good restaurant there’s few limitations and therefore, in a sense, endless possibilities. With Velochef, maybe I had to go a little slower. But even so, I think people nowadays are generally more aware of what they’re eating. More focus on individuals taking responsibility for their footprint on this world and that’s not just in relation to the food they choose but also in their everyday lives as consumers.’

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Following a second Velochef book with a theme of local recipes and epic rides, recognising the growing trend for gravel riding led Henrik to a new approach by taking his readers out of the kitchen. Inspired by childhood memories of being a Scout when he learnt to cook over an open fire and once again featuring photographs taken by Patrik Engstöm, ‘Velochef: Food For Adventure’ shows Henrik not only cooking over a portable gas stove but also riding his favourite gravel bike across a backdrop of suitably epic Norwegian landscapes. A style of cycling he enjoys whenever he can spare time away from his work and family commitments.

‘I recently moved back to Oslo after 12 years living and working in Stockholm. We have this network of gravel roads that are only 20 minutes from the centre of the city. 550 km of non-stop trails running through the woodland that are used for cross-country skiing in the winter and are perfect to ride in the spring and summer. There’s usually a cabin in the woods where we can call in for a coffee and maybe a cinnamon bun or a waffle. I never do gels or energy bars. If I do bring something I prefer to carry a little sandwich or a banana. I much rather have natural foods to be honest.’

Sometimes accompanying Henrik on these rides, Jonas Strømberg not only features in the images that illustrate the third Velochef book but also recently joined Henrik as partner in a new business venture.

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‘The project first started with Jonas. We’ve been friends for a number of years and because he had his bike shop and I was doing my cooking we always said that one day we should do something together. And then two years ago we were both working on a gravel event in Oslo with a quick dinner planned at his place on the night before. The one glass of wine that we poured to accompany our food ended up being four bottles as we just talked into the night; laying down a plan that would usually form the memory of an enjoyable evening in good company but this time we decided to actually follow through.’

‘I asked a few colleagues in Oslo if they knew of any suitable premises for a combined cafe and bike shop. But even though we really felt our concept was strong it soon became apparent that we didn’t have the required finances and resources to get the project up and running. So the idea of working together was starting to fade until, by coincidence, I had a call from Christian Meier to say that he had investors for the Service Course and whether I was interested in coming onboard. I explained that it all sounded really good but we’d committed to this unfinished project. He came to visit with another of his investors before asking when we could open our very own Service Course in Oslo [smiles].’

With the decision made, everything came together really quickly and the store opened in November 2019 with a cafe soon to follow. Both Henrik and Jonas excited at the prospect of establishing the Service Course Oslo as a destination for cycling, food and coffee throughout the whole year. The strip of cobbles that bisect the shopfloor just one aspect of a strong visual identity the pair have brought to their project.

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‘I’m a devil in the details. But that originates with my cooking and the constant questions and searching for solutions that comes with the recipes you create. Striving to improve on a daily basis; never standing still. And it’s the same with cycling. I’m not a good mechanic but I’m an expert at cleaning my bike [laughs]. I feel it says a lot about you as a person.’

‘Jonas is a stylish guy,’ Henrik continues. ‘Knows how to ride and brings years of retail expertise. And for both of us, the Service Course Oslo is now a full-time job and we’re working together with this common goal. There’s still things to sort out – paperwork that needs to be done, constant meetings and ‘to do’ lists – but I know that I’ll soon be cooking in my new kitchen. And for me that’s the reward. When I can walk in, switch on the lights and go full gas. Serving good coffee and great food. It can’t get better than that, can it?’

 

Henrik Orre

Service Course Oslo

Special mention to photographer Patrik Engstöm for the images he shot to illustrate ‘Velochef: Food For Adventure’

Food for adventure

 

 

Vincent Engel / Riding the roof of the world

I first got to know Vincent Engel a couple of years ago when I needed some images to illustrate an article on Rapha Amsterdam. Vincent’s beautiful photographs of riders set against sweeping Dutch landscapes perfectly illustrated the clubhouse cycle culture. At the time, however, he was still transitioning into his new career as a photographer and even finding it difficult to use that particular term. Fast forward to 2020 and Vincent is now busy balancing his time between working for Rapha and his own photographic commissions. The reason we’re once again sitting down to chat now that he’s returned from riding the roof of the world.

So, a good trip?

After I got back from Tibet I immediately left for Mallorca and the Rapha Summit so I’ve only recently had time to process my thoughts and feelings about the experience.

You were working with Serk; a cycling company based in Beijing, China

I have an architect friend who was over in China when I was still working in Saudi Arabia. He’d mentioned that one of the company’s co-founders, Shannon Bufton, was giving a lecture about cycling in China. Shannon’s an Australian, an architect and was living and working in Dubai before going back to Beijing and setting up Serk with Liman Zhao. I was intrigued so asked my friend for his email address and sent him a message.

And he got back to you?

Shannon was keen to have me over in Beijing to see what Serk was doing so he invited me to accompany one of their Everest trips and take some photographs.

What an amazing opportunity.

It certainly was but at the same time I was thinking Everest? Cycling? This was something I had to carefully consider and by the time I’d made a decision there was a problem with getting the correct permits. An opportunity of a lifetime that I’d just thrown away and a hard won lesson that you should just say yes and think about things later [laughs].

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So where did it go from there?

We kept in touch and when a friend here in the Netherlands was planning an Everesting challenge I suggested that he join one of Serk’s trips and ride to Everest itself. He liked that idea and thought it would be good if I came along too.

And this time you said yes?

I did [laughs]. Shannon was really happy with this arrangement but just needed to square the funding. This led to him designing a complete clothing set for each rider made from yak wool instead of merino and these sales allowed me to take a place on the trip with a green light to do the photography.

So how do you prepare for riding in Tibet?

You really want to know, Chris?

Yes, Vincent, I really want to know [laughs].

I completely didn’t. I was so busy with work for Rapha that I never seemed to have any spare time. And that was combined with my worst year on the bike – only riding 2,000 km – and a sense of nervousness because I knew that a photographer that accompanied one of Serk’s previous trips had the flu and really got into trouble because of the altitude. So I was very aware that you needed to be fit and healthy but maybe didn’t fully expand on my lack of ride preparation with Shannon [smiles].

I suppose it’s difficult to know quite what to expect on such a trip?

It is because I didn’t have any reference points. Especially when you consider the  extreme altitude. And then I also had to decide whether to shoot from the bike or from the support vehicle.

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And what did you decide?

Well, I didn’t take a bike with me so I guess that’s pretty self-explanatory [laughs]. And Serk has its own titanium range so I knew I could borrow a bike if needed. But then I caught a cold immediately after arriving in Beijing. Just what I was afraid might happen and accompanied by some serious teasing from the group in response to all these photographers – past and present – falling by the wayside [laughs].

So you had a dilemma?

Yes. To go with the group or pull out. Weighing up the options of joining a trip, literally, of a lifetime or playing safe.

Was the latter really an option?

Thanks to a medicine called Diamox that treats altitude sickness, no [smiles].

From the outset you weren’t planning on travelling by bike but you had other equipment to think about. Did the climatic conditions affect your choices?

The Leica SL system that I use is so robust that I wasn’t particularly concerned; even though the weather in Tibet can be one of extremes. It can be very hot but we also had a few days of snow. And it can change every 15 minutes so that was the difficult aspect. The most commonly asked question that was directed at the guides concerned what the riders should wear. And the answer was always the same. Just bring everything because, at some point during each day, you’ll probably need it [smiles].

Can you tell me about the ‘onesie’ suit that one of the riders was wearing?

He was the youngest cyclist on our trip and a little bit of an extrovert. He had this one-piece suit for wearing in the van to warm up if the day proved wet. But on one particular descent in the worst weather ever – rain, snow and hail – he decided to wear it on the bike. It made for an interesting image [laughs].

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Looking back on your pre-arrival expectations, when you landed in Beijing and then took the internal flight to the start of the first stage in Chengdu, what were your first impressions?

I was expecting it to be a spiritual journey as well as a road trip. Shannon had already mentioned to me that everyone, at some point, cries. They get so overwhelmed by Everest and the surrounding region. And because I was looking at the group rather than riding alongside them, I could more easily observe their reactions and the effect of the altitude. That riding 50 km at 5,000 m feels more like 150 km. How breathing becomes so difficult that even walking takes more effort. And I was running out and back from the van to get the shots even though our guides kept telling me the number one rule at Everest base camp is to go slow. But I didn’t want to miss a single moment even though it was exhausting [laughs].

How did the days work out? What was the rhythm of the trip in the sense of the riders and guides?

We had two vehicles; one to carry riders and a mechanics’ van to hold the spare bikes. The mechanics always drove behind the group to attend to any issues and sweep the tour along. For the majority of the time I travelled with the lead vehicle so I could work out the best vantage points before the riders approached.

So each day started with breakfast?

A simple Chinese breakfast of rice or noodles before the group set off riding. Each day we rode higher before descending a little to the next hotel. So, overall, the trend was a gradual gain in height to acclimatise to the altitude. Very different compared to riding in the Alps because we were starting out at 4,000 m and could still see the tops of distant mountains. Never more noticeable than when we reached base camp at 5,600 m and Everest was towering above us [smiles].

And the landscape?

This was super varied. Every day a change of scenery. Sand dunes and wild rivers; lush green vegetation and mangroves.

It must have been pretty special when you got those first glimpses of the high mountains?

I’m not one of those guys that really lives in the moment. Not a personality trait that I’m particularly happy about because it takes me until I’m back at home before it begins to sink in quite how amazing an experience was [smiles]. But the actual moment of reaching Everest? I just felt like I had a job to do.

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I can understand that you’re very focused. But looking at the shots you took, there’s such beauty in those images. A reaction that I would suggest reflects a deep emotional response. As if you’re inviting the viewer to almost reach out and touch the texture and form of the landscape.

That was the most interesting aspect of this trip; the fact that nature dominates when it’s set against the reference point of a rider.

But you also managed to combine these stunning vistas with shots taken in really quite extreme weather. Bodies covered up against the elements with their hunched shoulders and bowed heads.

They were all strong cyclists but it was a tough trip and you’d need to be superhuman not to get tired. And that was the case; some good days and some not so much. Riders completely wrecked due to the altitude with everything feeling fucked. The usual ups and downs that were exacerbated by the challenges of the region we were crossing.

Were you able to get a sense of the people and their communities?

It’s an ancient and fascinating culture. And it’s always fun to engage with the people you meet so you can pick up some simple words and phrases in their language. I wanted to visit one of the Tibetan monasteries but was a little late so decided to walk around the outside where you can see all the prayer wheels decorated with colourful pieces of cloth. I later found out that you have to turn them clockwise but I was mistakenly walking in the opposite direction which explains why individuals were trying to help me change direction. A very warm and humble people.

Any issues with flying your drone?

I actually didn’t use the drone that much. You’re already at such a great height; standing at 5,000 m and shooting down. But they’re such a fan of switchbacks over there that I did use the drone to capture those quite remarkable sections of road.

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Any images that you’re particularly happy with?

There are and they usually have a disproportionate use of scale. Rider small, landscape big [smiles]. Possibly not the most popular ones because people naturally prefer a close-up of themselves but they’re the ones that I personally like.

A trip that you’d recommend to other cyclists?

We saw these advertising signs rising 10 m high in the skyline that left absolutely no doubt that Tibet is part of China. Depending on who you speak to, the political situation has its supporters but also opponents. But going to Tibet in general I’d very much recommend. It’s changing very rapidly and we travelled through small villages on gravel sections between concrete curbs waiting for the road to be laid that I’m guessing are now beautifully smooth tarmac. And if you’re a fan of wide-open views then it’s definitely the country for you. But maybe a complex trip to organise. Serk made our trip incredibly straightforward with their familiarity regarding arranging the hotels, transport and guides. And then there’s all the passes and military permits that you need. So to do this on your own can’t be easy.

Any other challenges that spring to mind?

We started our trip from one of the world’s highest airports at around 3,000 m. And when we reached base camp at 5,600 m there’s only 50% of the oxygen at sea level. But riding at such an altitude; you really start to view yourself in a different way. You hit the wall much easier so it’s interesting to see how you react as an individual.

But worth the effort?

This group all knew each other so they really worked well together. When it got tough and the weather worsened they looked out for each other and there was a strong sense of camaraderie. But talking to Shannon, there’s been many occasions when riders sign up individually and then leave after a week’s tour as best friends. The act of facing these extremes together has bonded them and forged lasting relationships.

For you, personally, what were the highlights?

I just felt so humble that I was able to witness this trip. But my most proud aspect? You know I arrived with a cold and for two weeks I was a little bit sick and struggling with the altitude. But the day we were scheduled to arrive at Everest base camp I told the driver to drop me off before grabbing one of the spare bikes from the mechanics’ van and riding the final leg with the group. Of all the stages, the one that I most wanted to do. I didn’t have any cycling shoes or bib shorts. Just my Rapha trousers and down jacket, a pair of trainers and a camera on my back. And that’s how I rode the final 65 km up to 5,600 m. Something I just had to do [smiles].

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In some ways this was a trip of extremes. And I remember thinking when we spoke previously that you’d reached a certain point in your professional life where you needed to take a leap of faith. So how does this trip sit in terms of that personal journey?

From a designer’s background I have a passion for aesthetics and telling stories. And carrying a camera helps validate my life choices. As a way of learning about yourself, photography is wonderful in that it reflects your world back at you but it can also be a harsh tool. It was asking me to make a choice between using it to earn a living or keeping it for myself only as a hobby. In the end it demands passion and sacrifice. Long hours with both ups and downs and a requirement to stay excited and energised day after day.

The distance from home, the cultural differences, the altitude. Did you learn anything about yourself as you rode into base camp? Has it changed you in any way?

What I actually gained was a greater confidence in myself as a photographer. That’s the real difference between now and when we discussed this a couple of years ago. At that time I was just starting out and exploring whether I could actually make it in a professional sense. But now? I don’t do anything for free anymore. In the beginning I did work just for the exposure but that doesn’t buy your bread or pay your mortgage. So I’ve been able to discover my sense of worth. Still a very difficult business but it’s good to let go of these doubts [smiles].

Images with kind permission of Vincent Engel

Serk Cycling