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

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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

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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

 

Vladimir Balahovsky / Equilibrium Cycleworks

‘I was living in London when the fixed gear scene began to boom. Steel bikes all over the place with their cool, simple lines. And straight away I wanted to ride. But more than that, I wanted to make one myself.’

Growing up in a Russian-speaking region of Latvia, it took the 1991 secession from Soviet rule and the resulting relaxation in visa rules before Vladimir Balahovsky could travel to London in search of work. On arrival he accepted what would be a series of temporary jobs; the bikes he saw on the city streets inspiring him to purchase an old Raleigh fabricated from Reynolds 531.

‘I loved the freedom of riding my bike. And that encouraged me to customise the paint scheme and swap out different components. All the time on the internet researching different frame builders. Which was kind of ironic considering I’d never had any interest in building anything myself before then. I could break things but not make them [laughs]. My father was a machinist and worked in a big factory that manufactured tractors. He’d built our house himself and he could fix his car. Almost anything. But I was a really bad boy when I was a kid – just wanting to be entertained – and I can remember looking at my father and thinking, no, I’m different.’

‘But then meeting my future wife in London; that proved a pivotal moment. When she returned to Japan after her visa expired I decided to follow. Moving to Tokyo without really anything; just a couple of secondhand sweaters and a few more bits and pieces. And when I arrived I was so broke I couldn’t even afford the cheapest bike. But this made me realise that because nice track frames went for such a lot of money, then maybe it could be an opportunity to earn a living. So I began looking for a supplier and found this guy in Italy who had connections with a bike shop that had dozens of old frames and wheels stacked up in its backyard. I arranged to have these imported and sold them on Japanese eBay; finding I could make pretty decent money.’

Working out of the couple’s one-bedroom apartment – Vlad fixing up and customising his vintage finds on a tiny balcony high above street level – the government’s decision to change the law and prevent individuals from riding on the streets without brakes signalled an end to the burgeoning track bike scene. Questioning what to do next jobwise coincided with the generous gift of his wife’s grandmother’s house in downtown Tokyo. Subsequently rebuilt as a new property, Vlad finally had some dedicated space on the first floor for what his wife teasingly described as his hobby.

‘It was only a small space but that didn’t matter. I would have slept with a bike if required. And looking back it was clear I had reached a crossroads. Should I decide to look for a regular job or try and pursue my dream of building my own frames?’

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‘But my whole story has been a series of coincidences,’ Vlad continues. ‘And I wonder if it ever really depended on me or whether it was destiny. I wanted to learn to build frames but, at that time, the interest was too high. Everyone was riding steel bikes and the frame-building courses had waiting lists of 2 or 3 years. But somehow I still believed that if I could connect with cycling I could make it my future job. And all the time that I was selling on eBay I was researching on the internet about the different steels and components. Constantly educating myself; I couldn’t think about anything else.’

Able to communicate conversationally in Japanese, Vlad had visited a bike workshop in his local neighbourhood to arrange for a couple of repairs. The proprietor, Mr Ohtaki, was a passionate and well-respected NJS frame builder and when Vlad decided to take the plunge and ask if he would teach him how to build a frame, without hesitation the master craftsman gave Vlad a list of the tools that he would need to get started before explaining where he could source them.

‘I’d tried to prepare myself with my research but dry knowledge doesn’t allow you to grasp the intuitive aspects of the build process. So I’d stand for hours and just watch how Mr Ohtaki moved; how he used the file. And by watching him I was becoming attuned to his world. If you can see the precision of a professional craftsman’s movements – how calm they are – it’s the most beautiful thing to behold.’

‘I spent weeks at Mr Ohtaki’s workshop where he showed me the various aspects of fabrication; building a couple of frames together before it was time to work on my own. Brazing tubes together, over and over; just practising. The process is very strict and if you don’t know what you’re doing, it can be a disaster. You have to be really confident and that requires time. Many, many hours of practice. And in the beginning my standards were really high. In the work of Mr Ohtaki I had a mental image of how it was supposed to look. Everything visually sharp and crisp.’

Years later and with his own frame-making brand now firmly established, Vlad views the help and encouragement he received as a priceless gift that considering his Eastern European background was quite extraordinary. He understands that his ability to communicate in Japanese was crucial but Vlad recalls many conversations with machinist shops in the neighbourhood that although polite never led to a working relationship.

‘You’d say hello and they’d acknowledge you but that was about it. Perhaps they’re a little shy or embarrassed that they can’t communicate easily. Especially if they don’t speak English. But the Japanese have quite rigid views and don’t always feel particularly comfortable dealing with foreigners. So me learning from Mr Ohtaki was so very unusual that it’s hard to believe it actually happened.’

Setting himself such high standards for the frames he fabricates, Vlad is not an individual easily pleased or willing to rest on his laurels. Each completed project brings a certain sense of satisfaction but these are fleeting moments before the process starts all over again. A sense of forward movement that he considers, on balance, to be positive and driven by a desire to never simply repeat. A professional drive for perfection now supported by a fully-equipped workshop but rooted in the lessons learnt at his mentor’s side.

‘At some stage not having the proper tools is just a waste of your time. You need to embrace the efficiency and time-saving qualities they bring. But in the beginning, you risk missing out on the opportunity to learn at a deeper level. When I first started building I had to cut all the tubes by hand and then master the proper filing technique. So the most precise and efficient tool is yourself. Your eyes and hands. At least in my opinion [smiles].’

When the time came to establish his Equilibrium brand, Vlad intuitively understood that any implied considerations of balance related to not only the rider’s experience and the bike as a physical object but also to his own emotional engagement.

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‘Building a frame; you can’t rush and you can’t be angry or upset. The perfect pace and state of mind is vital otherwise you start screwing things up. Your inner-self attuned to the object you’re creating; allowing your senses to express themselves in harmony.’

A holistic approach that he extends to the fabrication of each frame and beyond. Vlad viewing the bike and rider as part of a shared journey that is referenced in the headtube badge. Two intertwined letter Es that represent the coming together of the various facets of the build process to create one whole experience.

‘The only true opinion that matters is when an individual rides one of your bikes. It’s then that you find out if you’re on the right track [smiles]. And the standard of the competition is very high so there’s a requirement to constantly invest in refining your skills and technique. I started TIG welding a year ago and it was so difficult that I just had to stop and focus on learning to do it really well. I didn’t build any customer frames for two months because if you aren’t practising for one or two days you lose any proficiency you’ve gained up to that point. A considerable cost in not doing your regular job for so long but how do you put a price on the time you spend in education; for trying new things?’

New directions that account for Vlad’s recent decision to also build in titanium after years working solely with steel and the reason for the welding lessons.

‘The ride quality is really amazing and there’s so many advantages to this material that makes sense for a cyclist. The power transfer is so efficient. You push the pedal and the bike simply goes. It works with you; every single effort is rewarded. So smooth in absorbing vibrations it’s as if you’re levitating above the road. And throughout my career, what I’ve always aimed to deliver is a sublime ride experience. But to be honest, that’s regardless of the frame material. Maybe one day I’ll build the perfect carbon bike or even one using bamboo [laughs]. If it works, then why not?’

‘I never want to stand still,’ Vlad concludes, ‘and I suppose that’s why I’m always asking questions about the bikes that I build. 6 months before my father passed away I built my first junk bike. He saw it and we spoke and he knew I was going to continue in this direction. But I really regret that when I was younger I never took advantage of his valuable knowledge. That I didn’t take the opportunity to learn. So I think this accounts for the passion I now feel. In a sense, like it’s a sport and I’m competing against myself. Keeping it fresh because I can’t build the same bike every day. I’ve got some stock models and even with these I’m thinking about how I can improve this or that. And that’s why I can’t work for somebody else. I remember in the past when I had a normal job but with zero interest. The frame building was the first time for me that I felt energised. I can wake up early and work for 12 hours and it doesn’t matter. Because I’m enjoying every single minute that I spend in my workshop.’

@equilibriumcycles

equilibriumcycleworks.com

All workshop images with kind permission of Lee Basford

Bike gallery images by equilibriumcycleworks.com

Stuart Clapp / Matters of Desire

Stuart Clapp is by nature a talker. His unabated responses to my questions – punctuated by frequent bursts of laughter – leaving me a little concerned that I’ll ever manage to interject. Fortunately we soon find our conversational rhythm and I’m regaled with energised reflections on his role as Desire Editor for Rouleur Magazine, his considered views on cycling etiquette and why it’s sometimes better to spend more but buy once.

You’ve been riding?

I went out earlier this morning but if I nod off it’s because I’ve got a puppy that keeps getting up during the night. It was so nice during the Rouleur Classic as I got a lie-in every day.

Do you have house rules for the dog? Are you firm but fair?

Not exactly. I think he sees me as an equal [laughs]. He tries to bite me all the time as if I’m on his level and he’s trying to get pecking order. Which is funny considering I’m losing out to a five-month-old Italian Greyhound that weighs about as much as one of my wheelsets.

You mentioned the Rouleur Classic. I guess a particularly busy time of the year?

I’m always really busy but I never really have a clue what I’m supposed to be doing. I did know that I was podcasting from around the show and there was some social media stuff but generally people just ask me if I want to do this or that and I just say yes [laughs].

Sounds very chilled.

It can be but when the schedule came out for this year’s Classic I noticed a Desire Presents listed on the stage timings and I thought, hang on a second, before having this massive anxiety attack. But when I messaged Ian Cleverly, our Executive Editor, he told me not to worry because they’d got someone to do that spot properly and he’d just see me at the bar [laughs].

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How did you end up working for Rouleur?

I was at this wedding. Sharing a place with Ian because we’ve known each other for years and go to football together. And he asked me whether I’d seen the magazine recently and if I wanted to come and work on it and do the Desire section. He explained that he was asking me before we got too drunk because he wanted to have some sort of business chat. And that was two and a half years ago.

Good years?

Very. It’s been fun to see it grow bigger and bigger.

What kind of qualifications does an individual need to be a Desire Editor?

My background was in PR. I’d launched the Extreme Sports Channel – working in skate-boarding for years – and then I left to become PR Manager for Evans Cycles. I did that for a bit before getting another job in skate-boarding. Evans Cycles, as you know, are based in Gatwick but this new job offer was from a company with a head office in Los Angeles. So you do the math on that decision [laughs].

So you found yourself out on the West Coast?

A bit like cycling, skate-boarding goes in waves with these 10-year peaks and troughs. My little boy was due to be born in January and I got made redundant the day after the Christmas party. Perfect timing [smiles].

That can’t have been easy?

Fortunately I had a couple of mates at Factory Media. One of them was David – at that time the editor of Bicycle Buyer magazine – so I worked there before managing the first Rapha pop-up cafe on Clerkenwell Road. And then another job came up when I was contacted by my friend Albert at Madison. I got to know Ian and the guys at Rouleur through that job and at the same time was reading the magazine, loving it, and wondering how does anyone go about getting a job there. How do you write for Rouleur?

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So the question is, what does a Desire Editor actually do?

Dunno [laughs]. How a magazine works is that we have an editorial plan for the whole year. From there I’ll be given a number of concepts for different issues that originate with just one word. I then go away and figure out what we can do with that. Because we don’t just want another series of shots of someone riding a bike.

That’s been done to death?

Exactly. So I’ve got this idea and then I’ll talk to Benedict Campbell who does our photography and also happens to be bloody amazing. Because the pictures are all him; I just provide Benedict with the initial idea. It’s like he’s the painter and I roll up with the easel and some paints.

Is there an element of narrative? Of telling stories?

There is because we’re not reviewing the stuff we feature. And when the Desire section expanded from 16 to 25 pages, that also meant I had to start writing stuff [laughs].

It’s fairly high-end, the products you feature?

I know that a lot of the stuff we feature in the Desire section is ridiculously expensive. But in the same way I can’t afford the £20,000 watch that you’ll find in GQ, it’s still nice to look at.

So how do you define Desire?

I was talking about this the other day in the office. For me, it’s whether – even with unlimited amounts of money – you’d still desire a particular product. There has to be an element that transcends what an item costs.

Could it be argued that desires are best left unfulfilled? That the wanting is a more satisfying and interesting state of mind than the having?

That’s an interesting concept [smiles]. Looking back at the photoshoot we did with all the supercars; wanting those cars is very different than actually living with them. And because we don’t actually review the bikes, stylistically it’s more like a fashion shoot. We’re not concerned with shifting product and we wouldn’t include anything because we’d been approached by a particular sponsor or brand. If it’s featured in Desire, it’s there on its own merit. If someone tells me that something has to go in, then that won’t happen. I’m freelance; so fire me [laughs].

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Considering the cycling trends that come and go; are these encouraging a throw-away society? Does that concern you?

No, not really [laughs]. I’m just thinking whether something looks cool. And a lot of the kit that we feature isn’t exactly cheap but it is high quality and therefore very long-lasting and the sort of stuff that you invest in and keep.

So a case of spend a bit more but buy once?

Yes. 100%. Because as cyclists, we spend a lot of time hanging around in cafes. A ride I did recently had a moving time of 1 hour and 30 minutes but the elapsed time was over 3 hours. And we talk about kit quite a lot and there’s this general agreement that if you go for a good quality manufacturer then you’ll have clothing that not only fits and performs well on the road but also has a longevity that cheaper brands can’t deliver due to the materials they use.

Is this an important message that manufacturers need to convey to their customers?

It’s an interesting point because some of the more established brands, though still technically excellent, if they launched today as a new business they’d run the risk of being lost in the market. And Instagram has definitely changed the way we interact with brands in terms of telling a story rather than just presenting a certain look. When Rapha first produced their Continental films you saw yourself in the riders that were featured. In a sense you’re recognising that it could be you riding those roads. In a lot of ways you’re buying into a lifestyle as much as a particular product. So it’s a far tougher market place in terms of the sheer range of what’s on offer but brands have social media and influencers to drive sales.

You mention influencers and I’m interested in where you see Rouleur sitting in this respect? I’m thinking of the reference on your website’s About us section that refers to Rouleur magazine as the world’s finest road cycling journal for the most discerning of rider.

With Rouleur, I think in the past that was fair comment. But now? I see us as being quite subversive. Because if you look at it and break it down it’s all a bit bonkers. Desire is very tongue-in-cheek and we can have loads of fun with it because no one really tells us off [smiles]. So rather than elitist I believe it’s evolved to have its own style and a unique voice. Yes, we have in the past commissioned two-part articles on DT Swiss spokes that were pretty hard work. But now, there’s a sense of humour and no one’s thinking check us out.

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So what does your working week look like?

Well, I’m not actually based in the office. I work from home and go in once a month. I’m told the next Desire theme and then I contact Benedict to ask when he’s free.

Sounds like a cool job?

Yes, it’s really cool but there’s also a massive amount of trust from the editorial team that I’m actually doing something [laughs].

Has it ever gone completely wrong?

Well – I can’t believe I’m actually telling you this – there was the Spitfire shoot [laughs]. This was arranged through a PR who does a lot of stuff with National Trust buildings. I told him we needed some Spitfires and he said he knew the guys at Biggin Hill and that he could get the new museum for us. So I told him that was fantastic and we set a date.

It was all arranged?

This was a Thursday and the shoot was the following Tuesday – all a little bit last minute – and then I get a call from the PR guy to say he’d been listening to my podcast, had heard me talking about the Spitfires and just wanted to mention that he hadn’t got any [laughs].

Not the sort of news you wanted to hear?

Especially because I’d been proactive and Google-imaged the Biggin Hill Museum and there’s loads of Spitfires all lined up. But he pointed out that I’d been looking at the Heritage Hanger which we hadn’t got. At this point I put the phone down and I’m sweating. We’d booked everything, I’d done about three podcasts all banging on about doing a photo-shoot with Spitfires and we hadn’t got any planes.

So what happened next?

The PR guy calls me back to say I need to speak to this chap and – you couldn’t of written this – it turns out he’s a subscriber to Rouleur [laughs]. So I phoned him and he sorted everything out.

And the Spitfires?

When we got there, he’s telling us to move them around for the photographs if we need to. I mean, these planes flew in the Battle of Britain and I’m thinking that we can’t just climb all over them? But it turned out that we could and the shoot went really well. A real squeaky bum moment but it came off and one of the images even made it onto the front cover.

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Speaking of front covers, could Rouleur ever be digital only?

In my opinion it’s a premium product and people still like to buy nice magazines. It’s like when I’m trying to describe Rouleur to someone and I always compare it to a coffee-table book rather than a cycling magazine. Cycling Weekly is a good read but not many people keep them forever. People still get misty-eyed over certain Rouleur issues and my little boy loves the cover we did with Sagan’s plasticine head. But what do I know? I still like buying CDs which my wife thinks is just plain weird [laughs].

If you were writing an etiquette guide to cycling, what advice would you offer?

Where do you want me to start [laughs].

How about some style tips for on the bike?

For me, helmets and shoes should always match. So if you’re wearing white shoes you need a white helmet. That might sound a little OCD but it’s just that I’m quite particular. On a similar theme, big sunglasses are great but there has to be a gap between them and your helmet. And if you’re wearing a Gabba or an equivalent item from another brand, then you have to wear arm warmers with it.

Why?

I don’t know but it’s just wrong not to [laughs]. And it’s the same if you’re wearing knee or leg warmers. These should only be worn with arm warmers otherwise it looks like you’re wearing a t-shirt and jeans. And, for me, that’s a big no no.

Dare I mention jersey pockets?

Obviously anything you put in them has to be arranged symmetrically. Middle pocket I have a micro-pump and spare tube. I don’t use CO2 canisters because you can get them so wrong. Then it’s tyre levers, wallet and keys on the left; phone on the right.

I guess you want to avoid overloading your pockets but this time of year it does get trickier?

But that’s going back to what we were saying about investing in good kit that functions well on the road. And you obviously want to keep both arm and leg warmers on for as long as possible [laughs]. Tao [Geoghegan Hart] said to me once that it was 18°C before he gets his legs out.

And mudguards?

That’s a bone of contention so I’ll choose to answer with another question. Has Mario Cipollini ever ridden a bike with mudguards [smiles]?

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Does all of this advice apply universally?

There are always exceptions. It’s not uncommon to see cyclists on the Continent wearing full pro kit. But that’s OK because it comes from a football thing. And I’ve never seen a British cyclist wear a sleeveless jersey. Go to Europe and you’ll see loads. And if you’re ever in Mallorca and passed by a bunch of riders wearing head-to-toe Rapha and riding S-Works; it’s a good bet they’re from England.

But it’s these little differences that matter. Our own sense of identity?

Or mistaken identity. At this year’s World Championships up in Yorkshire I was lucky enough to be riding with some of the pros and actually got to sign my first autograph. I was standing with Pete Kennaugh and David Millar and this guy had a cap he wanted signing. But because I’d never signed anything before I just wrote my name in block capitals. So amongst all these signatures from individuals who are actually famous, it looks like I’m shouting my name [laughs].

Talking to you, what comes over is a real love of life.

I know it means I can be a pain in the arse but I’m really the happiest person all of the time. Annoyingly upbeat according to certain of my colleagues [laughs]. And it’s important to be thankful because shit things happen to people; they’ve happened to me. But you know what, I’ve got a pretty good life and a job that I really enjoy. So on balance, I’m doing OK [smiles].

Stuart Clapp

All images with kind permission of Benedict Campbell

Rouleur

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lee Basford / Creative movements

Perspective can be found in a variety of forms. In terms of a design rendering, it might provide the viewer with an intimation of depth in relation to other objects. But apply this in a cultural sense and the viewer’s own position – both geographically and emotionally – can have a significant impact on the insights offered. As an English designer and art director living in Tokyo, Lee Basford has spent many years defining his own perspective in a series of movements; movements that have resulted in a richly creative professional life and a connection with the city he now calls home that he’s beautifully captured with his camera.

‘I originally studied at Bournville School of Art before a move to Central Saint Martins in London. Focusing mainly on design although the Visual Communication course crossed over into Fine Art and very much encouraged exploration and original thinking. Even from the very start of my working life, a design solution not necessarily meaning a graphic representation. If it answered the brief, it could be in the form of a sculpture or some other form of communication.’

Following graduation, Lee began working as a designer and art director; often creating things by hand as a relief from time spent behind a computer and enjoying numerous personal projects that embraced elements of both art and photography. A chance email from a friend asking for contributions to a new lifestyle and culture magazine coinciding with the first in a series of visits to Japan where he made lots of new friends, won a UNIQLO design award and featured in a number of exhibitions. An enjoyable period of work that eventually led to Lee’s decision to relocate to Tokyo in the summer of 2013.

‘The day before I was leaving for Japan, I received an email from a friend who’d also been part of the Ride BMX, Level and Dirt MTB magazines. He was starting a new cycling website and global club called Nowhere Fast and arriving in Japan with my bike gave me the incentive to start creating content for them. So much was new and interesting to me and I suppose that being behind the lens as an outsider gave my images a unique perspective. And it was through these stories that I began working with Rapha; initially photographing and writing content before art directing larger projects like the three Japanese-themed Rapha Rides films.’

Although he enjoys a collaborative process – working alongside people who share a common connection and vision – Lee’s previous role for his UK-based design agency involved a series of big campaigns but offered little control over the choice of clients. Music sleeves, video games and movie posters; work that he was proud of but leaving him with a desire to determine the types of projects he would choose to take on.

‘After moving to Japan and starting up by myself, I found I could pursue work that fitted more with my own sensibilities; directing design solutions and outcomes from a more personal perspective which I think helps to keep things interesting. And whether it’s photography, illustration, sculpture or writing; very often there’s a crossing over – a meeting point – where these disciplines come together.’

Spending his spare time documenting Tokyo street life and cross-country journeys by bike fed into his professional relationship with Rapha; the British cycling brand having already cemented a strong photographic identity through the images of Ben Ingham. A body of work that Lee found visionary and influencing his decision to make photography a more integral part of his creative process.

‘My photography is definitely more of a documentary style. A desire to be real; to interpret a true moment. I imagine subconsciously my design background affects how I see things but I’m usually looking to show something that’s not posed or set up. And I prefer to keep moving and blend into the background. With documentary photography it can all happen very fast – especially if it involves bikes – so if you stop you miss things.’

‘I think narrative is important,’ Lee continues, ‘but something I tend to focus more on when I’m editing a story. Depending on the shoot I usually have an idea of the variety of shots that will be needed but, other than that, it’s more important to be focused on what’s actually happening at the time. Because it’s often the little things you didn’t expect that make the best photographs.’

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A sentiment perfectly illustrated by Lee’s capturing of the Nobeyama Supercross. Freezing temperatures, mud, snow and rain; a true sense of a body emptied in the hunched shoulders of a competitor. An emotive response to a subject echoed in a poignant set of images taken in Tohoku. The scene of a devastating tsunami to which Lee had travelled along with an aid team a month after the disaster and has returned almost every year since; a conversation with Paul Smith after a photo-shoot in Tokyo leading to a commission to document the region once more by bike and exhibit the photographs in the fashion designer’s gallery. This sense of cultural connection heightening the longer Lee has lived in his adopted home.

‘Living and working in Japan has now become very normal for me but I can clearly remember my first year and the surprise of a blue sky on most days. And being in Tokyo obviously has the advantage of being one of the world’s cultural and creative centres. Having access to that on your doorstep is not to be taken lightly. But much of what can be eye-opening for a first time visitor can so easily become the norm when you’re concerned with the everyday as most people are. Obviously being an outsider to some degree gives you a different perspective on things which can be advantageous in many ways. And the energy and pace can be very intense with a high-speed turnaround of everything. Perhaps too fast and wasteful at times but for a designer, it means there are always opportunities.’

Considering the work culture in Japan – a subject Lee believes is often discussed negatively – he recognises that long hours are an everyday aspect of professional life but not that dissimilar to the fast-paced design environment in England. An understanding of societal nuances that he extends to cycling with Lee appreciating how the Japanese are by nature accepting and non-judgmental.

‘Saying that,’ he adds with a smile, ‘being perfectly turned out in your cycling kit – even for a first time ride – is not uncommon. Similarly with bikes; the standard and quality is very high at most levels and there’s a lot of custom steel.’

With rinko bags a common sight on station platforms – transit laws requiring cyclists to completely cover their bikes when travelling by rail – Lee describes how riders will avoid the junk miles getting through the numerous suburbs by taking an early morning train out of the city to the nearby mountains. Or those choosing to ride from the Tokyo city centre enjoying the 50 km Tama River route towards Okutama and the views of Mt. Fuji.

‘I’ve seen the Rapha scene in Tokyo grow from early pop-ups to the clubhouse first opening. Building in strength each year with the Prestige rides a particular highlight. Bringing together people from all across the country to ride some of its most spectacular and challenging landscapes. And the RCC rides are increasingly member-led; the constant flow of overseas riders appreciating the welcoming atmosphere and advice on local routes.’

As for his own riding, Lee enjoys meeting new people from different backgrounds but also long solo rides when he’ll explore places both in the city and beyond.

‘Tokyo is so rich and varied that it still feels fresh every time I go out. And I love discovering new routes and relish the freedom to stop and explore whenever the mood takes me. Often getting lost in the outer edges where the gloss is removed and deeper parts of the city are revealed. Places I would never have found had I planned where I was going.’

‘It’s a city where you really don’t need to drive and I enjoy cycling everywhere with my 4 year old daughter in a child seat. It’s a heavy bike and she weighs almost 20kg so the pace may be slow but it’s still a good workout. And it’s so much better to be connected that way too; experiencing the city and chatting along the way together. When you navigate the city by train you get an unrealistic idea of its geography; by bike you really get to know the city for itself.’

 

All images with kind permission of Lee Basford

Created for Rapha, Papersky Magazine and weMove

leebasford.com

humankind.jp

Return to Tohoku

Rapha Rides Tokyo / Osaka / Kyushu

 

Sanne Hitipeuw / Journeys of the self

On the evening of June 21st, Sanne Hitipeuw stood on the start line of Den Store Styrkeprøven. Translating as The Great Trial of Strength, ahead lay a 540 km race from the Norwegian city of Trondheim to the capital Oslo; a tough enough proposition before even considering the requirement to cross the finish line in under 24 hours.

Driving up to the event from her home city of Amsterdam, Sanne admits to burying any thoughts of trepidation beneath her default position of ‘it will be alright’. But as the race unfolded and the worsening weather contrived with an unforgiving route to slow her progress, an overall time of 29 hours left her with a sense of disappointment rather than feelings of elation at completing such an audacious undertaking. A reaction to this epic feat of endurance that speaks of Sanne’s steely spirit but also an ongoing search for balance between a determination to meet self-imposed expectations and the happiness that riding her bike brings.

After studying a Master’s degree in Corporate Law, Sanne joined a large, international law firm in 2014; an adrenaline-filled, high-pressured work life that left little time for outside interests and not at all what she’d previously envisaged as a potential career path.

‘Even though I’d enrolled on the course I never seriously considered becoming a lawyer. But when I was still studying, my father got sick with a very aggressive form of cancer. 6 months later he passed away.’

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‘My method of coping was to block all of this out and not focus on the emotional side of how I was feeling. Throwing myself into my studies which then resulted in a job offer; such a high-paced environment that I could easily work in excess of 80 hours a week. Keeping myself so busy, I guess, that I wouldn’t have to feel anything.’

It was at this time that Vincent Engel returned to the Netherlands after working overseas and challenged her to buy a bike and ride up Mont Ventoux with him. Conquering the climb after a mere two days of training, Sanne enjoyed the experience to such an extent that it prompted the purchase of a good bike and a determination to use cycling as an opportunity to reflect and discover another side to herself. A change in focus perhaps best illustrated by her decision to spend a couple of months riding in Jakarta and Bali before then planning a solo transfer ride between Amsterdam and Berlin.

‘After my father got sick and passed away I’d been focusing only on others. Trying to help my family and friends – feeling responsible for them – but in the meantime I was losing grip; rushing through life without being able to stop, enjoy and appreciate. Suppressing all my feelings didn’t help so I decided to take some time for myself. To try and find some peace of mind. To go riding.’

‘My trip to Indonesia and then Amsterdam to Berlin,’ Sanne continues, ‘was an extension of that. To focus on myself and get back to who I really am. Being alone on the bike; totally independent without anyone wanting something from me.’

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Over the 800 km route to Berlin, Sanne discovered that the freedom of moving from one place to another and the new people she met on the road all gave her a real sense of living in the moment. But the ride didn’t come without its challenges.

‘There were minor mistakes such as telling myself that I couldn’t stop for lunch until I’d crossed the German border and then, after 180 km, being so tired I didn’t eat enough; decisions that with hindsight you realise were rather foolish. But there was also a navigational mishap that sent me down a gravel track into a forest; no internet connection to help me re-route and after flatting twice it started to go dark. You’re in an unfamiliar country, you don’t speak the language and it’s easy to feel lonely and scared.’

‘But looking back I now realise that overcoming these obstacles is something to be proud of and was quite an achievement. Rationally you might argue that you can’t afford the expense or the amount of time travelling but life can be short and my emotional side now says do it. That is what I learnt from my trip to Berlin.’

With such a gifted photographer by her side, Sanne has a wealth of captured moments with which to reflect on past journeys. Vincent’s images taken on a trip to Switzerland in which she’s pictured pushing her bike through heavy snow particularly resonating; Sanne feeling they have a pure quality that perfectly defines exactly what cycling means to her. The challenge of discovering places that are almost inaccessible but not quite enough to discourage a desire to see what’s around the next corner. Or the overcoming of obstacles that extends to the inclement weather which can be a feature of riding over winter in the Netherlands; the wind whipping off the North Sea and driving the rain almost horizontally across a rider’s path.

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‘There’s this picture taken in the snow which we very rarely get in the Netherlands. That particular day we had a Code Orange weather warning which means you should stay indoors where it’s safe. But we decided to go out and enjoy the city from a whole different perspective. With a snow-storm blowing, my hands were burning with the cold but we still wanted to take that picture because it can feel good to meet the conditions head-on. Of course we prefer sunny days and feeling the heat on our skin, but life can be boring and monotonous and it’s not always a good thing to stay at home and wait for the comfort of easier times.’

With this love of adventure, Sanne prefers the thrill of discovering new places to simply riding a familiar loop. Choosing to pressure herself to reach the limits of her endurance in the knowledge that she can still dig deeper and carry on. Sharing her time with a close group of friends, exploring gravel paths, stopping for coffee; simple pleasures that riding a bike affords but a stark contrast to the challenge of Den Store Styrkeprøven.

‘Ever since I learnt about this Midsummer race I’ve wanted to give it a shot. It sounded impossible but I just couldn’t get it out of my head and decided to make it happen. I got talking to people with a view to riding with someone but no one wanted to do it. And when you consider the numbers then maybe they’re right [laughs]. But with every new challenge it’s not just about the thinking; there’s also the doing. And that’s partly why I travelled to Norway because it doesn’t always come to you. Sometimes you need to seek out adventure; to make life happen.’

In her friend Cyril Chermin she finally found someone who – according to Sanne – was crazy enough to agree to partner her. He’d cycled to Japan from Amsterdam so shared the same need to experience new places and both decided to treat the race as a journey that they could then write or talk about. As it turned out, they had plenty of stories to tell when almost from the off their carefully-laid plans began, one by one, to fall apart.

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‘Our original idea was to form a larger group and take turns on the front. But this just didn’t happen and we ended up riding on our own. And the first 100 km is basically all climbing before the road plateaus across the top of a mountain for another 40 km; fully exposed to all that the weather was throwing at us and seemingly never-ending. We pulled into a feed station and everyone was wrapped up in those foil blankets. Not a good vibe and we still had such a long way to go. Mentally we were close to being fried as it was taking far, far longer than we’d imagined and I’ve never felt so up against it when riding a bike.’

‘But you re-group and carry on. I felt like crying at some points but the thought of stopping never entered my head. I did wonder how on earth we’d manage to finish but we were always going to finish. Vincent was following by car and taking pictures but never once did I consider climbing off my bike. And I do recognise in me this sense of perfectionism that doesn’t always make things easy. We completed the 540 km in a moving time of 21:59 but I’d set out to finish the ride with an overall time under 24 hours. I didn’t do it and I felt disappointed.’

‘In my family there’s a history of debilitating depression and it’s something that I also have to struggle with. Each day asking myself why am I alive? Do I like life and facing up to the responsibility of making those necessary changes if the answer is a no. And that’s why I push past my comfort zone. Why I still want to finish Styrkeprøven in under 24 hours.’

Although there’s still a sense of unfinished business, allowing time to fully reflect has also resulted in Sanne framing her experience in a sense of personal empowerment. Whether an individual decides to ride 500 km or 50, that it doesn’t have to be about the numbers because the experience is just as important. Maybe even more so.

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‘Most of my life I’ve allowed my decisions to be dictated by my rational, ambitious side; following my head rather than my heart. That’s how I ended up being a lawyer which in the beginning I really liked but it reached a point where I felt I was rushing through life and becoming increasingly unhappy. Using work to distract from the grief of losing my father that I’d never really processed and still haven’t. So when I consider why I love riding my bike so much – even though sometimes I can be pretty hard on myself [smiles] – it’s my emotional self that’s been buried for so long at last being allowed to surface.’

Now working as a freelance legal consultant and project manager, Sanne’s professional life is by necessity hectic but she is trying to prioritise time spent on the bike and the balance in her life that this brings.

‘I try to live my life now – I owe it to my father – knowing that I don’t want to regret the choices that I didn’t make. Which is why, when I look at the images of the trip to the Swiss Alps that I made with Vincent, there’s a realisation that being in an environment where I can be with my own thoughts – exploring new places, taking on challenges and doing the seemingly impossible – is helping me put my feet back on the ground. That the sense of being I achieved pushing my bike through the snow made me feel alive again.’

‘Simply put, I need cycling to make me happy. It gives me the energy and drive to explore new places and plan the next adventure. That’s why I travel so much and take my bike wherever I go. I want to ride new roads and meet new people along the way. For me it’s all about connecting. But not only with others. Mostly with myself. Making me feel alive; helping me find peace on an emotional level. All of this, I guess, the reason why I ride.’

 

Sanne Hitipeuw

All images with kind permission of Vincent Engel