PhotographerSergio Villalba is describing a memory from childhood. Growing up by the sea, he conjures up images of a young boy – maybe five or six – playing in the surf near his family home on the island of Tenerife. A relationship with the outdoors – and the sea in particular – that he would later express through an obsessive desire to capture all those precious moments experienced out on the water.
“I was 14 years old and decided photography was the way to do this. But when I think about it now, I still find that a little strange. My parents had a Pentax point-and-shoot they used for snaps of Christmas and family holidays but that was it. I didn’t grow up in a particularly artistic environment and I wasn’t trying to be creative with my first photographs. I just wanted to document the waves my friends and I were surfing.”
Purchasing a couple of Kodacolor rolls whenever funds allowed, Sergio now recognises that despite not showing the resultant images to anyone, the seeds for his future professional path were sown.
“But then, when I was 18, my parents got divorced and the situation for myself and my sister was unbearable. Longing to escape, I sat down with my mum and told her I was planning on moving to Barcelona. A few months later I left the island where I’d grown up.”
Suddenly thrown into an urban environment and knowing no one, Sergio started to reach out and build a new set of friends. One of these acquaintances was a graphic designer who worked with several music venues in the city including the jazz club Jamboree. Sergio’s interest in photography led to a job offer shooting cover images for the club flyers. With digital photography in its infancy, he had to quickly master the art of capturing fast moving subjects in low light and smoky conditions—Sergio relishing the creative freedom until the appeal of city life began to wane and a return to the island of his birth.
“The ocean was still my passion and I got it into my head to build a career through surfing photography—setting myself the goal of making a living from photography within a year of returning to Tenerife. It was around 2005 and luckily a golden era for surfing with budgets big enough to make a photographer’s wildest dreams come true.”
Over the next few years until the 2009 recession began to bite, Sergio founded a creative agency with another two photographers and travelled the world. With two bags permanently packed – one for cold weather and a second for warmer climes – each year saw eight or nine months on the road. An enviable position for any photographer seeking to build a reputation but eventually costing Sergio his relationship.
“My girlfriend ended up admitting she was used to being alone at home and felt uncomfortable when I was around. By that time, the recession was killing off surfing brands with consumers not willing to pay 40 euros for a tee when fast fashion enabled you to only pay five and get a new one every two months. The dream was over.”
With the hard reset of a recession, Sergio’s photographic style evolved to embrace a more varied range of brands—selling rather than storytelling now the main focus for his strong and visually appealing imagery.
“Even though you’re shooting a product range, you can still be playful and enjoy the process of creating beautiful images. And like everyone else, I love sunrise and sunset. Who doesn’t? But I must admit that the harsh midday light is also very appealing. If you know how to use it, you can deliver some great results and I especially love it for portraits of sweaty athletes or for playing with architecture and projected shadows. With a little bit of imagination you can get the best out of any situation.”
“What I plan is not always what I get and one thing’s for certain: you learn from everything—even from your mistakes. And I’ve gradually grown to understand that I get attached to certain images not because of the photograph itself but the process of making it—how difficult it was to get it or the risk I took to achieve it. But that’s a mistake, I know. Whoever’s viewing your work takes what they’re seeing at face value. So a photograph must speak for itself and – in the best case scenario – tell a story.”
With a self-declared obsession with what he describes as believable images, Sergio is cryptically referencing the professional period that followed his surfing days. Working on tourism campaigns and shoots for luxury hotels, Sergio explains why none of this content was ever posted on social media or displayed on his website.
“Was it good money? Yes. Did it help me through a commercially slow period of my life? Yes. But I got this weird feeling of doing something wrong after every shoot. So I promised myself I wouldn’t do this type of job anymore and that I’d put all my efforts into getting back to what I like the most. And for me, that means documenting a life lived outdoors.”
Describing himself as the quiet guy behind the camera, on a shoot Sergio is happy to let the models do their own thing—an approach he believes pays dividends in the resulting images.
“If you over direct someone you´ll drive him or her crazy and kill any naturalness in their actions. Other times there’s no choice—you have to make it happen so you can get the shot. But as soon as everything is working, I take a step back and become the quiet guy again. But that’s not to say I don’t enjoy the connection of working with other creatives. Photography can be a very lonely profession when you’re doing backups after the shoot and everyone else is drinking beers. So I enjoy working with my own team of trusty professionals who are first and foremost my friends. But it’s also good to maintain my freelance status. As we say in Spain, juntos pero no revueltos. Which in English translates as together but not in each other’s pocket.”
“Sometimes it’s a question of balance and work has been so intense in these post-Covid times that I need a rest from looking at everything through a viewfinder. I love documenting my own life but you need the freedom to touch more, see more, smell more. And though younger people may hate me for saying this, I think travelling is a little overrated nowadays. I’ve seen so many places go from having a stable, traditional life to being overdeveloped in a very short time span. People stop farming and fishing and try to get easier money from the tourists. And though we seek out places like modern day Robinson Crusoes, unless it’s completely frozen or full of malaria then it’s already swamped with digital nomads and content creators living their best life.”
Finding he now appreciates home more than ever and happy to travel less, Sergio recognises how the rise of mass tourism inevitably means it’s not the same place as where he grew up. A situation that prompts collaborations with organisations and individuals campaigning to protect the sensitive socioeconomic balance of the Canary Islands.
“I live a very simple life that I love. I’m the father of two boys and partner of the greatest woman I ever met. I have my gravel bike and live within walking distance of the sea. If you scroll through my Instagram feed you´ll recognize many places that I use over and over again. The little rocky harbour in my hometown, the waves that wrap around the shoreline where we surf, the Teide National Park. Together with my family, all these places are part of my daily life. I couldn’t be a fashion or architecture photographer because that’s not how I live. I have a peaceful, outdoorsy life and that’s what I try to project in my work.”
“I’m working out of my flat – editing from the couch – so there’s the challenge of getting in some steps. Basically, I’m a potato.”
Filmmaker Ryan Le Garrec is perhaps over emphasising this current period of inactivity. Working on the edit of his most recent film – a 1600 km bike packing journey into the Atlas Mountains of Northern Morocco – clearly he’s exercised enough to balance a few days stuck behind his laptop.
Dressed casually with a tousled head of hair and a beard traced with grey, Portugal is now home after a peripatetic life lived on the road. Growing up in Paris with a French father, a Tunisian mother and a British passport courtesy of his London birthplace, Ryan studied in Belgium before taking a job in Sweden where he met singer / songwriter Damien Rice.
“Someone once said that home is where they hadn’t been yet. And for years I was on tour with Damien as a kind of Swiss-Army-Knife video and pictures guy. I didn’t have anywhere permanent to live because it wasn’t necessary. You’re on the bus or maybe there’s a cab ride, but it’s mainly the venue and your hotel room that you see of the city you’re playing in. So I decided that when I was done, I would find a little apartment with a bakery down on the street which I would visit every fucking morning. And since then, I’ve become really hooked on routines. To such a degree that my wife despairs with me wanting to go to the same place to eat all the time. But that’s the point—it’s good, it doesn’t change and that’s reassuring. I didn’t need that before but now it’s increasingly important.”
With routines fixed and a bakery within easy walking distance, Ryan’s days are now filled pursuing his first love as a profession.
“I’ve always wanted to make films. Maybe because I was born into a family that worked in French television. My Dad was a war reporter, my Mum a news producer, my Uncle a news anchor and my cousins were journalists.”
Tasked with describing his style of filmmaking, Ryan recounts – with a wry smile – how his wife tells him that he’s terrible at telling stories. That he often misses the point.
“Maybe it sounds a little pretentious but the word poetry feels appropriate. That fits and doesn’t seem like a lie. Because what I try to do, rather than simply telling a story, is to convey the emotion of the moment. Most people can say how happy or sad they are, for this or that reason. But expressing that in a single shot and without words? That, for me, is where it gets interesting.”
With his current project, it’s this emotional intensity that leaves Ryan visibly upset in the final frames of the film. A powerful and unexpected conclusion balanced by dreamlike vignettes of everyday life – gas stations, city street corners, farmers tending fields – that intersperse the scenes of riding.
“I’d planned to work with three cameras and each had a different role to play. The DSLR in black and white was totally personal. A sort of image journal made up of random stuff that touched me somehow. Sequences that conveyed another layer of the story—my own personal state of mind. I wasn’t depressed before embarking on the trip but I had my own shit to deal with. And what’s interesting is how we process our feelings and the subconscious decisions we then make. Looking back at the Morocco edit, the scenes outside Casablanca speed up after I mention how much I was missing my kids. Something I did during the editing almost without thinking.”
Asked what metrics he uses to measure the success of a particular project and Ryan initially struggles to arrive at a succinct answer. After a momentary pause for thought, he suggests that even if the reaction is negative, it is a reaction.
“One of the first films I made with a long-distance cycling theme featured Josh Ibbett riding in the US. And a lot of people hated it. If you look on Amazon, the reviews are nasty—the film has maybe 2 stars. But there’s also the odd comment from someone who really loved it, so that’s okay. And someone once said to me that if no one hates your film, there’s something wrong with it. You’ve played it too safe. And do you really want everyone saying how nice they thought your film was? Do you want a viewing experience like when you’ve eaten a hamburger and a half hour later your body has forgotten the meal and you’re hungry again?”
Coupled with the vagaries of viewer feedback is the changing way we choose to consume media. The argument that the purposeful environment of a cinema screening allows more creative freedom compared to a project streamed over the internet where the focus is on holding someone’s attention before they swipe to the next video.
“But there’s two sides to every story and streaming perhaps offers an easier path to building an audience. We might not have everyone gathered in one room at the same time but we can release whatever we want, whenever we decide it’s ready. And a cinema release demands a production budget which, in turn, requires you to pitch an idea and have someone put their faith and funds in your hands. YouTube doesn’t give a shit what you’re doing.”
“I do hear complaints that attention spans are getting shorter but people still binge on a television series so if your content is engaging, they will watch. There’s nothing I’d rather do than share my work but if it didn’t find an audience, I’d still be doing it. Ultimately, you make films for myself, no?”
Looking back at his work for television, Ryan would be filming a Japanese chef on one day and a drummer from a rock band on the next. He couldn’t simply start by poking a camera into the subject’s face—he needed to invest some time in getting to know them a little. But with his cycling films, Ryan is literally passing through with a camera so there’s a need for more immediacy.
“Perhaps strangely, considering my job, I find it so difficult to film people. I guess it’s called shooting for a reason but that’s a harsh word with its own connotations. Which is why I’m such a big fan of smartphones and tiny cameras that are way less intrusive. For shy filmmakers like me, they’re such an advantage as they make you look harmless. And whenever people ask me what I do, I say it’s like when you go on holiday and take pictures or record a video—and I just do that for a living. But what do I really do? I have a bike that I ride and I make myself miserable and I try to meet people on the way and I take pictures and then I write some words to go with the pictures. But not about what is happening but how I feel about what is happening.”
Here Ryan is perhaps being a little playful—especially with reference to feeling miserable on the bike. Not owning a car, an electric cargo bike is his chosen mode of transport for picking up groceries and taking his children to school. A lifestyle decision that harks back to how happy a girlfriend looked whenever she rolled up on her bike.
“I was taking buses and subways—usually arriving late and in a nasty mood. But she would have this massive smile on her face as she climbed off her bike. So I got my own bike because I wanted some of that too. Later I became a bike messenger so the bike was also a job as well as my daily transport. And you experience so much more that is pleasurable about city life when you travel by bike—the little neighbourhoods that you’d never discover travelling underground from one metro stop to another.”
“I can’t say that it’s ever been a sport for me but at some point, I did fall in love with long-distance riding. Such an amazing experience the first time I crossed a border and the meditative state you get from passing through a landscape. This interest led to the Transcontinental where you push your limits and learn to deal with shit which in turn inspires you to switch things up in your life. If I can deal with saddle sores for three weeks, maybe I can question my boss about a particular decision. And it was these thoughts that gave me the impetus to quit working in television – where I was so comfortable – in favour of focusing on my filmmaking. So it’s fair to say the bike is my favourite object and if I couldn’t film or take pictures and just ride my bike, then I would do that. I’ve worked as a bartender, a bike messenger, a sailing instructor and I loved all of these roles. But working with stories just adds another level and I can’t not do what I do.”
From snow-capped mountains to desert sands, the past year has seen a plethora of professional projects for photographer and creative producer Sami Sauri. Based in Girona but rarely in repose, her full-gas approach to work and play brings with it a creative energy that enlivens each and every shoot. Open and honest in how she depicts the highs and lows of a life lived on the road, Sami’s innate sense of fun threads through a conversation that casts a humorous light on lost bikes, a rain soaked search for surf and her wishful desire for more hours in the day.
Sami Sorry I’m late.
cyclespeak No problem whatsoever.
Sami I was getting a new bike fitted and it took longer than expected. And then I got home and the bike wouldn’t fit.
cyclespeak Fit where?
Sami In the elevator [laughs]. I had to take the front wheel off and then I couldn’t find my keys.
cyclespeak What kind of bike is it?
Sami A YT Industries. They’re my new sponsor.
cyclespeak We all love a new bike day.
Sami I’ve got a big trip coming up and don’t want to fuck up my body which is why I arranged the bike fit.
cyclespeak Speaking of looking after yourself, did something happen yesterday when you were riding back to Girona from Andorra?
Sami My bag flew off on the second big downhill section. Very strange because I’d checked the straps and I’ve used the same setup on some pretty gnarly stuff. And the funny thing is, I didn’t even realise. I kept going and it turns out there was this car behind me, trying to attract my attention by peeping their horn. But I had my music on and a buff over my ears. Luckily, I had to stop at a red light. The car pulled up and the guy driving explained what had happened. I was like, ‘What!’
cyclespeak If it wasn’t for that stop light, who knows how far you would have ridden?
Sami Exactly. And the bag was holding my computer and hard drives. But another car had stopped and they’d picked it up from where it had fallen. Luckily, on a previous trip I’d been working with a sponsor called Urban Armour Wear that makes protective cases for phones and laptops. So at least my stuff was super well protected [laughs].
cyclespeak And you provided the perfect real-world test.
Sami In Spanish, to be lucky, we say we have a flower in the ass.
cyclespeak The past few days I’ve been busy working out what questions to ask you but there’s just so much to cover over the past year.
cyclespeak And I can’t start a call with four pages of questions. It’s ridiculous. So I’ve had to hone it down as you never sit still.
Sami So it’s the highlights?
cyclespeak That’s right. So starting with the tail end of last year and you were premiering the first episode of Into the Atlantic Islands. Towing a surfboard behind your bike up those Madeira climbs looked hard work?
Sami They were so steep and I did it wearing sneakers.
cyclespeak How was the response to the film?
Sami Looking back, maybe it was a mistake to split it up into little mini episodes rather than one full-length film. And I always find it difficult to edit myself. Hearing your own voice and seeing yourself on camera. And if you think about it in a marketing sense, we shot the film when it was sunny and warm but it had a wintertime release. So maybe a little out of context?
cyclespeak And the audience response?
Sami That was really good and we’re now taking those lessons learnt into our second chapter.
cyclespeak Shortly after your Madeira trip, you went off to Saudi Arabia to film the Dakar Rally.
Sami That was an experience which I would happily do again. But spending 20 back-to-back days filming in the desert, I did really miss my bike. Kind of my body asking what the fuck I was doing?
cyclespeak But shortly afterwards, you posted from Fuerteventura where you were taking a well-earned rest.
Sami It’s a special place for me. Somewhere I go to recharge and relax. I ride but usually spend more time surfing. They have waves all the time so why not [laughs].
cyclespeak And then quite a contrast in landscape when you visited your friend Gaby in the Alps to help celebrate her birthday. Is there a particular emotional connection you have with mountains?
Sami Ahhh. Now you’ve got me. Because I’m finding it more and more.
cyclespeak The call of the mountains?
Sami There was a time when I was seriously planning on moving to Fuerteventura. There’s endless gravel riding and of course the surfing. Two sports that merge really well and work all of my body. Surfing is so chill with no phones or anything and you get a sense of discovery with your bike.
cyclespeak But you decided not to move?
Sami It’s a pretty small island so I’m still happy to stay in Girona for the time being. But the mountains appeal in both a personal and professional way. So I’m not going to say when but I’m already considering a move there.
cyclespeak Andorra maybe or the Alps?
Sami No, definitely the Alps.
cyclespeak I can imagine you in a little cottage on the side of a mountain.
Sami It might not be a place, exactly. Maybe I’ll just get a car or van and move around. I’m in this limbo at the moment trying to sort stuff out.
cyclespeak After saying goodbye to Gaby, you’d planned to ride home but the weather was pretty awful so you decided to take a bus. And what happened next was pretty incredible?
Sami The rain was torrential so I stopped in this middle of nowhere town. There was a restaurant but it only had things with meat available. So I just sat down with a tea and watched the rain get even heavier. I asked them if there was a bus and they told me it was round the corner before helping me find an online timetable.
cyclespeak That sounds a better option than riding in the pouring rain.
Sami The bus was running late so I was waiting at the stop in the freezing cold, wearing every layer I was carrying. There was a girl driving and she helped me put my bike underneath in the luggage compartment. But when I came to pay I realised I’d left my wallet in my bags so, once more, out into the rain and cold.
cyclespeak You paid your fare and found a seat?
Sami 15 or 20 minutes later, the driver suddenly braked and brought the bus to a stop. She was shouting that the door was open but I didn’t immediately realise she was referring to the luggage compartment. And then it suddenly hit me and I raced down the steps and outside – not wearing any rain jacket – to discover my bike was missing.
cyclespeak That must have been devastating?
Sami My bike, my clothes, my computer, two hard drives containing recent projects. All missing.
cyclespeak I can only imagine how that feels.
Sami And then this car pulls up and explains that they’d been flashing us after they saw something fall out of the bus. I asked them to take me back along the road which they kindly agreed to do. And they were saying it was here, or maybe along here, or actually a little bit further. And all the time I was thinking, where the fuck is my bike!!
cyclespeak So you couldn’t find it?
Sami While all this was happening, thankfully the bus was waiting because my wallet and phone were still resting on my seat. So I thanked the car driver for trying to help and climbed back onto the bus to shelter from the rain. I called my friend who was putting me up for the night and I’ve never been so upset in my whole life—breathless, hardly able to speak and sobbing down the phone.
cyclespeak How do you explain to someone that your bike fell out of a moving vehicle?
Sami She offered to come and pick me up but I decided to stay on the bus and she’d meet me when we arrived in her town. An hour or two later – after a few more calls of me crying – we pulled up at the bus station. My friend and I were still hugging when I got a notification on my phone to say I’d received an email. This, it turned out, had been sent from a local police station to let me know they had my bike in detention [laughs].
cyclespeak They’d arrested your bike?
Sami Yes! And when my friend drove us over, there it was.
cyclespeak But how did they know it belonged to you?
Sami They’d opened the bags, powered up my laptop and saw my name on the log-in screen. Searching on Instagram, they’d found my profile and had sent me messages. But checking my Instagram feed was the last thing on my mind as I was panicking about my lost bike so I’d missed them. But from the profile they did manage to find my email and that finally worked.
cyclespeak That’s quite some detective work!
Sami And the funny thing is, the boyfriend of the girl I was staying with has this labelling machine and he made me name labels for everything I was carrying and my bike [laughs].
cyclespeak Not long afterwards, you spent some time in Paris shooting for Rose Bikes. How did you find working in an urban environment with its street culture undertones?
Sami That’s possibly one of my favourite shoots of the year. I love working with El Flamingo Films—the best times ever. And they always seem to use beautifully edgy models and locations that are random, remote and crazy places.
cyclespeak Random and remote in Paris?
Sami We went to this neighbourhood that definitely matched that description [laughs]. And I liked how Rose wanted to tell a different kind of story compared to the usual editorial content. We even featured an actual taxi driver in some of the scenes.
cyclespeak After a spell of surfing and skiing, you signed up for the Gravel Augusta; a 450km route from Barcelona to Valencia with 4000m of climbing. An enjoyable return to long distance racing?
Sami Looking back, my decision to sign up was crazy [laughs].
cyclespeak But you raced it nonstop—the first woman home. Pretty impressive.
Sami I’d been on a ride with some friends and then had lots of wine at a restaurant so I was completely shitfaced when I agreed to do it.
cyclespeak And then the reality sinks in the following morning.
Sami In my head, I had the best day ever on the bike. I hadn’t trained so I wasn’t focusing on my speed or where the other riders were. And then during the night section, I’d stopped for dinner – for an hour and a half [laughs] – when another girl arrived. That’s when I realised I was leading and when she asked if there was food available, I pointed the way inside before jumping on my bike.
cyclespeak And off you went.
Sami I was riding with this group of men but unfortunately they were too slow. It was 3:00am in the morning and I was feeling good. So I pushed on alone until about 6:00am when I thought I was going to die.
cyclespeak Time to refuel?
Sami A coffee and doughnut at a gas station. And that got me through to the end.
cyclespeak Without any focused preparation – only the basic fitness of your regular riding – you cover 450km in one go. Good for you!
Sami But people should not do this [laughs].
cyclespeak It’s a big ask, certainly.
Sami And I do know what riding long distances over gravel feels like. So I would suggest working up to an event like this.
cyclespeak You raced Unbound in 2019 – that’s 200 miles of gravel – and returned this year to photograph the event. Were you tempted to pin on a number and ride it again or happy to stay behind the camera?
Sami The day before the start, I was ready to race it again. I had my bike with me and rode some of the first sections. And whenever I’m not racing, it always feels like I’m missing something. But on the day of the race, I was sooo happy that I was there as a photographer.
cyclespeak Was it the weather?
Sami It was super nice in the morning but then it started to rain. So I was out on the course – wearing a poncho – and sheltering in the car when it got super heavy.
cyclespeak And you got your picture taken by Dominique Powers.
Sami Yes! My God, that girl is amazing.
cyclespeak You had a muscle injury after returning from the US and decided to take a break from Instagram to avoid the temptation of endless scrolling while you were resting up. Did you miss it?
Sami It can get to be a habit so it’s nice to have time away from the platform. But you also have obligations to your sponsors so I’m still searching for that balance. I do enjoy sharing my adventures and I’ve made some great connections and friendships that way. It’s become another tool for messaging and reaching out to people.
cyclespeak Another photoshoot – this time for Pas Normal Studios – took you to Iceland. I thought your photographs were particularly beautiful. A landscape you found inspiring?
Sami The first time I visited Iceland – back in 2019 – I came back with this amazing impression. And the more I work, the more I understand how the right location for a shoot is one of the most important aspects. For me, it works best when I first discover these places by bike, so some of the locations for the Pas Normal campaign were inspired by racing the Rift.
cyclespeak You returned to Iceland later this year for the next in your Atlantic Islands series. The riding didn’t go exactly to plan which you referenced very openly in a social media post. Do you feel it’s important to be honest about life’s highs and lows?
Sami I’m been thinking a lot about this since I came back. Because I do wonder whether there are people that assume I’m flying around the world, living my best life, and it’s all flowers and rainbows. But that’s definitely not always the case.
cyclespeak Is anyone’s life that perfect?
Sami Some people choose to only post about the good times but I’m working my ass off and sometimes things don’t go to plan. And going back to Iceland, it wasn’t the cycling aspect of the trip but the surfing. You depend so much on the weather, which you can’t control. I have a limited number of days and if you don’t have waves, you don’t surf. And that’s basically what happened. I pedalled for 270km towing a trailer with my surfboard. In the rain. And then there’s no waves. I was disappointed and upset and it’s like when you have a partner. You take these emotions out on them.
cyclespeak I think that happens to us all.
Sami Well, in Iceland it was two of my friends. And afterwards I was super sad because I didn’t handle it very well. So after thinking over how I’d behaved, I did post about it. Maybe I was being too honest? Too much drama? But when these things happen, that’s real life. The ups but also the downs.
cyclespeak The way you come across, it’s not contrived. You say how you feel and I believe people appreciate your honesty. Because everything isn’t curated.
Sami The photo that went with the post was taken after riding six hours in the rain, only to find no waves. And my expression says it all—what the hell am I doing here? [laughs]
cyclespeak In another post you mention wanting more hours in the day. Do you find it difficult to fit everything in?
Sami Every single day I think the same. When I’m out of the house – maybe it’s a shoot that starts at 5:00am – then you have a structure and things usually work out. But at home? Today I was an hour late for our call because there’s never enough time—I’m still wearing my kit from the bike fit. So I could definitely do with a few more hours each day [laughs].
cyclespeak Can I take you back to the start of the year when you made a post that mentioned how you were facing some life difficulties but looking forward to new decisions and experiences. And it ended with you reaffirming the joy and strength you get from riding your bike. Can I ask whether you’re enjoying life at the moment?
Sami I definitely feel it’s been a good year in the sense that I said yes to everything I wanted to do and had time for. So I went all in, again, and that’s after promising myself that I would ride more than work. But that didn’t happen [laughs].
cyclespeak Because there’s always the next project?
Sami Maybe now, I’m reaching the point where I don’t feel the need to say yes to everything? And there’s so many good memories from the rides I have done this year. We recently released the film of me and my friend Henna bikepacking above the Arctic Circle—such a fun trip. And I’m heading back to Iceland to pick up where we left off. This time, hopefully with some waves and a happy Sami [laughs].
Harvest hills of golden wheat. A below-table tangle of bare legs and bib shorts. Helmeted heads silhouetted by shadow. Themes that feature regularly in Saskia Martin’s carefully observed and playful photography.
Having spent the past decade documenting her rides in and around London, commissioned projects have followed as Saskia combines her passion for the medium with the professional requirements of delivering a brief.
Interspersing a photo essay of recent work, Saskia frames this creative journey with references to her own riding, the visual language she employs in capturing a moment, and her innate love of telling stories.
This time last year I’d boxed up my bike before travelling to southern Spain. I’d lost my cycling mojo and decided the best place to find it again was riding the Badlands route with my friend Kat.
My mojo proved elusive on the dry, dusty trails so I guess I’m still working through a mid-bike crisis. But treating myself to a new mountain bike has proved motivational in terms of wanting to use it. My first time out, riding up a hill, I had this sudden moment of clarity—like I was sitting in a favourite armchair.
One of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make was leaving my role as Product Developer for Rapha after three and a half, happy years. As you can perhaps imagine, lots of tears.
I’ve left behind what feels like a family of colleagues but it just felt like it was time for a change. And as I’m now working for Apidura, cycling continues to play a huge part in my life.
We’re a fairly small team based in Camden and I just love it. There’s a real focus on functionality – solving design problems which is very much me – and as I ride to work each morning through the city streets I look forward to what each day brings.
Picking up the camera
My introduction to photography was through my iPhone. Taking pictures of friends out riding or at a coffee stop. It’s rather a cliché but I just love storytelling and this translates to certain rulesI have when posting multiple images on social media. They have to be in chronological order and not every photograph necessarily needs to include someone on a bike. I get a kick out of portraying the little details that inform the bigger picture.
I’ve since upgraded to a mirrorless camera system as I transition into commissioned projects. It’s been quite a creative journey since my first ever photographic gig shooting my best friend’s wedding. I felt like I was getting married with the amount of stress I was feeling.
I love making a brand’s vision come alive and delight in the outcome of the process—that first pass through the images and the editing that follows. But then you also have the occasional crisis in confidence which, talking to established photographers, isn’t that uncommon. Looking back and thinking how you would change this or that.
I get a lot of inspiration from how the cinema portrays light and colour. And I’m instinctively drawn to what some might consider to be imperfect images—if there’s a blur or the composition isn’t classically two thirds. I have a penchant for capturing parts of people rather than a full head-to-toe shot. Hands are so expressive and my friends are now accustomed to me photographing their legs and feet.
I’m not one for grandiose statements but, to me, my pictures feel like curated art and artists always title their work. So I do carefully consider the words I use to accompany a post. I’m not particularly comfortable in front of the camera but I’m happy to be seen through my work. And maybe this combination of words and images can engage or even inspire for a moment?
I eat a lot. A lot of pasta [laughs]. Is that the secret? Yes. The Italian secret!
I’m on a video call with photographer Chiara Redaschi but have to pause while she catches her breath. With her phone unable to connect, she’s just run across town to sit on the terrace of her boyfriend’s restaurant where the WiFi is better.
“I live near Milan but I’m spending the summer here in Tuscany. It’s a little town called La California not far from the sea and when I’m not taking photographs, I help out in the restaurant. Lots of seafood and Italian classics like spaghetti.”
With a body of work that combines dramatic vistas with emotionally charged images of faces that fill the frame, now that Chiara’s heart has stopped racing, I ask whether growing up with artistically inclined parents helped determine her own creative path.
“In many ways it was kind of normal for me. My Mom would paint outside on the terrace and my Dad and his brother were both interested in photography. My Uncle passed away when I was 11 but I do remember that he was very experimental—much like an artist. And this might sound a little silly but when I started making my own photographs, it felt like my Uncle was continuing to express himself through me. Like a book with chapters and I’m carrying on the writing.”
Growing up in Novara in the north of Italy, as a teenager Chiara would skip school to soak up the atmosphere of nearby Milan and Turin—the energy of these urban environments finding an outlet in her first runway images shot in the style of a street photographer.
“I was studying a degree in Artistic Management but an internship with a fashion brand made me decide not to go back. The designer told me they needed some pictures taking and then I spent the summer travelling across Europe following the fixed gear racing circuit with my camera. Before I knew what was happening, photography was my job [laughs].”
Hands rarely still as her movements punctuate each sentence, Chiara describes how these first formative years working for a fashion house still influence her current style of photography.
“Researching a shoot for a cycling brand, I’ll often include elements of fashion photography. I love their crazy viewpoints—how they position the models and sometimes add something into the frame to help tell a story or convey a particular emotion.”
Describing herself as instinctual and less of a planner, being present in the moment and getting in amongst the thick of the action is Chiara’s preferred style of shooting—an approach she recently adopted when she was following the Trans Balkan Race.
“You’re so remote – in the middle of nowhere – and then you spot a rider in the distance. And it’s so amazing to be out there, capturing these moments. To me, it feels…[Chiara checks her online translator]…like a magnet! A sense of attraction that’s particularly strong when I take a portrait. All that emotion etched on a face—when I see this, I have to take a picture. I can’t just stand and watch. It’s stronger than me.”
Travelling extensively for her work – Chiara can be packed and out of the door in 30 minutes – this sense of movement reminds her of childhood summers spent visiting Spain and Portugal with her parents. But time spent in Novara is also precious and acts as a counterpoint to the inevitable stresses of a life lived on the road.
“When you’re constantly on the move – something I love to do – you rarely have time to process everything that you’ve done. So home is where I take the time to stop and reset. I open the door and breathe out [Chiara sighs deeply]. I spend time with my parents and visit my grandma. She’s 103 years old and we do the usual Italian stuff—talk, eat and talk some more.”
Sandwiched between work trips and family time, riding her bike is another passion Chiara loves to indulge. So when she’s not at the restaurant, summer days in Tuscany often involve a gravel loop with time to stop and enjoy the view.
“I have my phone but rarely carry a camera. It’s good for me to not always be thinking about taking pictures. And I feel safe away from the cars when I’m riding off-road. In Tuscany we have our white roads so why not [laughs].”
Relishing time spent outdoors, Chiara illustrates this sensibility with a story from a recent photographic assignment in the mountains to the north of her birthplace. Standing by the roadside, taking pictures on the Gavia Pass, a butterfly passed so closely to her ear that she heard the flutter of its wings.
“It was such an amazing experience and it still gives me goosebumps when I think about it.”
A description that leads me to ask whether, when pressing the shutter, Chiara ever has an inkling that the stars have aligned in one particular shot?
“I photographed Petra on this year’s Transcontinental as she arrived at a checkpoint. At first, the riders passing through were racing but later there was a switch to those that were simply fighting to keep on riding. And when I saw Petra – riding alone in the middle of the night – her raw emotions affected me so deeply. I’m crying now, thinking about it. I could feel the pain, the emotion, and I knew that shot was good.”
Pausing a moment – the birdsong of her terrace location a stark contrast to remembered times of mountain tops at midnight – Chiara gathers herself before explaining how she sometimes needs to stop and take a breath when she’s working. How it can be so emotional that her hands start to shake.
“But I know that I have to keep going because I want to capture all these moments—a record of what I see and feel. And I’m laughing when I think it’s my job because it never feels that way. It’s a part of me that was always there. I took my first photograph in Venice when I was five years old with a Barbie camera. And I wouldn’t be doing it as a profession if it was just a way of paying the bills. I want to enjoy what I’m doing—to make something that will last forever.”
Rad Race? In German, rad means wheel and it can also be a shortened term for bike. But it’s not supposed to translate simply as bike race. There’s a lot more to it than that.
I’m on a video call with Jan Sprünken [pictured second left]; one of the original 12 friends that first founded Rad Race. After I semi-seriously apologise for my store cupboard background, he smiles and suggests that it’s a filter I’m using. A nicely judged off-the-cuff comment that sets the tone for our conversation—Jan responding to my questions with a thread of answers and anecdotes that place a sense of fun and community equally among all other considerations.
Jan I’m currently living in Berlin but Rad Race was founded in a city called Münster. It’s known as the bicycle capital of Germany because when you arrive at the train station there’s just a shit load of bikes everywhere. And we were a group of friends all with a Münster background—either studying or born and raised there.
cyclespeak And the initial inspiration?
Jan Like a lot of the best ideas, this one grew from us sitting round a campfire, talking and drinking beer. Just us bullshitting and saying why don’t we do this or that. But then you never really do whatever you suggest. It’s a campfire thing that feels good in the moment and you’re not really considering all the down sides.
cyclespeak But, in this case, the idea stuck?
Jan That was Ingo [Engelhardt]. To give him credit, he’s the kind of guy that gets things done. And the next day when we were sitting in a café, he showed us his phone and there was this Facebook page which he’d created. So all of a sudden there was an idea, a name and a visual identity.
cyclespeak And from there?
Jan We set about drawing up a business plan but none of us had any experience with start-ups. So the process was driven by gut feeling. Whatever felt wrong we ignored and what felt right we followed.
cyclespeak Before the concept of Rad Race was first dreamt up, how were you all riding?
Jan Some guys had single speed bikes. Some were more road. My background was professional basketball. I had a mountain bike but I only rode it about four times a year [smiles].
cyclespeak Was there a common interest?
Jan This was the tail end of 2013 so the fixed gear scene was still peaking and we all loved watching them race and admired the skills they had to control the bike.
cyclespeak Now that you’ve established your own event series, I was wondering where you see Rad Race in terms of the broader cycling industry?
Jan It’s not supposed to be this excluding, elitist thing. It’s not one, narrow definition of riding.
cyclespeak So what would be a broader definition?
Jan It’s an attempt to enjoy cycling and build a community. To be a platform for people to come together and explore what the bike can offer.
cyclespeak That reminds me of a quote on your website: ‘We don’t care where you come from and why you ride’.
Jan That’s from the early days. But we still like it so why change? And it’s a reminder for us too, that as long as you get a kick out of riding, then that’s the most important common denominator.
cyclespeak Is this an attitude that needs constant curating?
Jan Unfortunately, it’s human nature to create an us and them. It happens everywhere so we always want to be open and welcoming.
cyclespeak I think it’s really cool that you place so much emphasis on people having fun.
Jan It’s like the first time we organised a multi-stage ride that started in Munich before ending up close to Venice. It was meant to be a race but we did the test ride with a handful of friends and ended up questioning whether it had to be a race? Because why would you want to drop each other? Fuck no. So we turned the whole concept on its head and the Tour de Friends was born. 500 people crossing the Alps together and every night we gather at the finish of each stage and drink a couple of beers. The perfect platform for doing what you enjoy and having a good time.
cyclespeak You organise a variety of events including fixed gear racing, ultra distance non-stop challenges and multi-stage tours. Is there an element of Rad Race DNA that runs through each and every event?
Jan There is but it took me a while to understand this myself. At first I only saw these exciting bike events but it was later that the concept of community struck me as a crucial aspect of what we do. I’ve known some of the participants for close to ten years and many are now good friends. They come to have fun, to ride their bikes and to share in something that’s bigger than the individual.
cyclespeak Races such as Last Wo/Man Standing; I’m guessing there’s an awful lot of hard work that goes into hosting such an event?
Jan Yes, indeed [laughs].
cyclespeak And you naturally need a suitable venue?
Jan The first time we ran this event, we knew we wanted it to be in Berlin. So we rented an indoor karting track in this really hip area of the city.
cyclespeak And things grew from there?
Jan A little too well because they kept increasing the fees. Doubling the price each year and demanding they take over the concessions. Especially for this event, the after-show party is off the charts and we can recoup some of our expenditure on the food and drink sales. So we ended the relationship and that proved a liberating moment for us.
cyclespeak So a good decision?
Jan It was but we still needed a new place which was obviously a problem. So myself, Ingo and one of our track riders Axel spent a day in Berlin going round all the other karting circuits and writing down the pros and cons. Is there room for spectators? Is the track wide enough for passing. Maybe there’s a bridge with limited headroom that would decapitate our riders? In the end we decided on our favourite and shook hands with the guy who owned it.
cyclespeak So it all ended well?
Jan You could say that but we did have one year when he complained that his restrooms had been destroyed. People partying hard and [pause] you know…
cyclespeak I guess I do [smiles].
Jan So we immediately asked him to fix it and we covered the cost. It’s a relationship we really value and a venue that works well. In fact one year – just before the pandemic – Fabian Cancellara participated.
cyclespeak That’s pretty special.
Jan I can still picture the looks on the faces of the other riders when they lined up with him at the start. But that’s the really cool part too. He’s not automatically the best rider at Last Wo/Man Standing because it’s completely different to what he’s used to doing. Obviously he’s one of the greatest cyclists of all time but he still got eliminated in Round Two by a street messenger guy who spends every day riding fixed and dodging cars on the city streets.
cyclespeak I’ve rewatched your Final Lap video numerous times and the camera work is mindblowing? How do you capture such awesome imagery?
Jan It’s a drone.
cyclespeak But the kart track is inside?
Jan The operator is a friend of ours. And we explained about the ceiling height, the spectators and all the gantries. But he was confident that he could get the shots we needed.
cyclespeak You feel like you’re in the race, on a bike, immediately behind the other riders. Simply stunning.
Jan Watching him navigate the drone was almost as exciting as the race itself [laughs].
cyclespeak And then I watched another of your videos. Carnage, corners and crashes. And this one made me question what type of rider is attracted to your way of racing? It’s very cut and thrust.
Jan I don’t know that term but it sounds cool. Actually, it sounds exactly what it is [laughs].
cyclespeak So maybe not for everyone?
Jan It appeals to people that love to ride their fixed gear bikes on the street. Who commute in that fashion or maybe earn a living as a messenger. But the people that do well also train really hard. The guy who won this year’s competition – Alec Briggs – he’s not riding his bike to a bar to have a beer and then home again. He’s a legit cyclist and has all the skills.
cyclespeak Speaking of training, you have your own teams. The Rad Pack and Grl Pack.
Jan They do race but they’re not really racing teams. They developed after we did trips together where we all wore a specially designed jersey. So we all felt like a team.
cyclespeak In the team images you have on the website, there’s lots of laughter and smiles and not taking yourselves too seriously? Maybe a little different than the grim suffering depicted in some race photography?
Jan Our riders are ambitious and want to do well but it’s not their job. If they don’t enter a race for five or six months, that’s perfectly okay. Yes, there are races we participate in but it’s not really a race team. It’s more of an open and fluid definition of team.
cyclespeak Alongside your race and event series, you now have a physical presence in Hamburg with your Rad Race shop.
Jan Hamburg happened when we needed to swap this small rented workshop we were using as an office for something bigger. We saw this amazing space next to the fish market which is a really prestigious area down by the river. And because it was a lot bigger, we started thinking how it could be more than just an office and that’s how we arrived at the shop concept.
cyclespeak So an unexpected outcome?
Jan More jumping in at the deep end because we didn’t know jack shit about opening a bike store [laughs].
cyclespeak I notice that you’re hiring. You’re looking for mechanics and baristas?
Jan Yes. Always [laughs].
Jan We completely underestimated how busy our bike workshop would be. We had a good friend who was a mechanic that we thought would be perfect. He’d get a paycheck and we’d have someone we could trust. But leading up to the official opening we had this pop-up and even at that early stage we could see how busy we’d be.
cyclespeak Which explains the job advert.
Jan Because of what we do with the race series, we meet so many people that are enthusiastic about cycling and we often get mechanics asking if they can come and work at our place. And we say, “Yes, you can!” [laughs]
cyclespeak I work a couple of days a week as a barista but I’m based south of Manchester. That’s quite a commute to your Hamburg shop so I didn’t apply for your position [smiles].
Jan You could spend your vacation with us. As an intern? You could show us how to fix great coffee?
cyclespeak There’s a certain Berlin-based bicycle brand that – rumour suggests – has the fastest shop ride in the world.
Jan I think that might be true [laughs].
cyclespeak So your Hamburg shop isn’t out to steal their crown?
Jan We do have rides but we just invite people to meet there and sometimes they happen and sometimes they don’t. From what I’ve heard, the one you mentioned in Berlin is legit [smiles].
cyclespeak Does this go back to what you mentioned earlier? About just letting things follow their own course?
Jan What we do and what we don’t do?
cyclespeak Yes. Exactly that.
Jan We only want to go in a direction where things feel good to us. And the decisions we make aren’t always financially driven. I don’t think we’ve ever made a single euro in profit with the Last Wo/Man Standing events. It’s actually the opposite but we feel it’s worth it. It’s a fun event that feels good and we know that eventually they’ll be a benefit. We like to earn money too – we’re not angels – but we stick to our way of working because some of the best things we’ve done have happened in this way.
Working long hours and struggling to find satisfaction, 2014 saw Mike Tucker and his wife Joss sell up everything before leaving the UK with their young family for a new life in rural France. Settling in the Ariège with a view of the Pyrenees, the couple set out to create a base – the Zero Neuf of their 9th department location – for guests to experience and escape in a relaxed and rule free environment.
Fast forward eight years and the various strands of this holistic vision for vacationing all came together in Gather; a ‘leave no trace event’ that saw guests enjoy four days of music, conversation, hiking and cycling, in and around the beautiful setting of the couple’s 19th century farmhouse.
Reflecting back on this community-based festival, Mike talks candidly about his own struggles with mental health, the highs and lows of building their Zero Neuf business and the joys of sharing this country idyll over a long weekend in June.
It’s early evening and the mid-summer sun casts lengthening shadows across the farmhouse garden. Cutting a youthful figure in t-shirt and shorts, Mike Tucker has finally found a spare half hour in his busy schedule to sit and chat. But as he points out with a smile, every day is busy when you run your own business and live on the premises.
Swapping a daily commute through city suburbs for the early morning ritual of coffee on the patio – the stone flags warm to the feet in summer and with a view across snow-capped mountains in winter – this calm, peaceful environment is certainly a contrast to Mike’s previous professional life.
“Prior to our move to France, Joss and I had two very young children and I was working in a particularly intense environment that involved a lot of travel. So I was often away from home and, when I was home, I was absent because of my stress levels.”
“Something had to give and as Joss is half French on her Mum’s side and had spent large parts of her childhood in France, the decision to relocate actually wasn’t that difficult as I just wasn’t coping.”
Putting their house on the market in April, by August the last box was packed and Mike drove south through France after putting Joss and the boys on a plane for their leg of the journey. Initially considering the Loire Valley, the couple had fallen in love with the rural landscape of the Ariège and a stone farmhouse and outbuildings that would become their new home.
With a focus on the simple things in life – good food and company with a healthy dose of outdoor adventure – now that Zero Neuf is firmly established as a welcome retreat for an eclectic mix of guests, Mike is happy to reflect on the nature of their business model but also, perhaps more pertinently, on what it isn’t.
“There’s no need to worry about what you’re wearing, the height of your socks or what bike you’re riding. We’re a very laid back couple and, as a result, the business we run also has a relaxed feel. Basically, you’re staying in our home. We live here, our two boys live here, our cats, dogs and hens live here. So our guests also become part of the family.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Mike admits that initially they took on far too many of the everyday tasks—an approach that left them both exhausted.
“Neither Joss or I had run a small business before embarking on this journey. I still find it hard to delegate tasks and, on the flip side, Joss previously worked for a large corporation which was quite structured and Zero Neuf is anything but.”
“We’re still involved in absolutely everything – from making beds to cooking dinner and serving beers – but now, thankfully, we do at least have some help. I suppose we were just swept along by it all.”
Willing to open up as Mike is, I’m reticent about asking my next question but decide to plough ahead with the caveat that he can always decline to answer.
“What’s it like to be married to your business partner? On the whole, it’s a joy. I guess there aren’t many people who get to wake up next to their CEO before doing it all over again the next day.”
“But nothing is perfect and there are times when it’s incredibly stressful. And because the business has been a success, we’re very busy so perhaps we spend less time as a family than we would doing 9-5 jobs. A little ironic as we live where we work.”
Another interesting observation is the length of time it took for the family to feel accepted in their local neighbourhood. Perhaps a little surprising as Joss speaks fluent French but an aspect of rural life the couple respected and that subsequently resulted in a true feeling of belonging.
“We now feel part of something really special. Very different to living in the UK where we witnessed a lot of keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ behaviour. If anything, it’s the opposite here and there’s a real wholesomeness to our friendships. As a person who’s struggled with their mental health, I really appreciate our local community and the people that visit as they all contribute to our sense of wellbeing.”
This mention of visitors prompts me to ask about Gather; recently enjoying a welcome return after a pandemic-enforced hiatus. An event that grew from Mike and Joss’ concept of a community-led festival and supported by a range of partners with komoot as headline sponsor, tickets are purposefully limited to a lucky one hundred.
“Gather is an opportunity for like-minded people to come together—to meet, mix, learn and share. An event that one of our guests described as a big family reunion where everyone can be themselves and not feel under pressure to be something they’re not. So if you don’t want to ride it isn’t a problem but the riding we do is on beautiful tracks and trails and with a real emphasis on a connection with nature.”
Look through the images shared over Instagram and everyone is smiling and clearly having fun. Whether tucking into a communal feast, listening to talks on the farmhouse lawn, cooling off post-ride in the nearby River l’Hers or enjoying an early morning yoga session next to the saltwater swimming pool—the festival goers appear relaxed as they mingle and make friends.
“Events like Gather don’t just happen in isolation. We work with a wonderful team of friends, volunteers and partners to pull everything together. Very humbling when you consider the time and energy they’re willing to devote to a common goal.”
“So even though we own the Gather name, the event belongs to many. And we’re purposely keeping it small because we want it to remain intimate and personal. It’s an amazing thing to be responsible for, to be part of and to continue.”
Admitting to feeling a little sad as the final guests pack up ready for return journeys home, now that the festival is finished for another year Mike can resume the regular rhythm of each working day.
“My favourite time at Zero Neuf is undoubtedly the morning—that 15 or 20 minutes I get by myself, listening to the birdsong. As for the seasons, I particularly love late spring and early summer when there’s such a vibrancy with everything coming back to life. But what’s also interesting is that back in the UK I used to dread the onset of autumn. Leaving home to commute into the city in the dark and it being dark again on my return. Here I manage to enjoy the winters; helped by our beautiful view of the Pyrenees and the season’s first snowfall.”
Leading such a busy life, it’s the bike that offers a sense of escape. Mike describing how he might be having the worst day possible – which admittedly is now a rarity – but when he clips in and turns the pedals, then all his worries seem to disappear.
“I do feel incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved when you consider we had little, if any, experience in the hospitality industry. Watching Zero Neuf grow and the community we’ve built—in some ways it can feel quite overwhelming. But we’re both very conscious of never getting too carried away or losing sight of what we’ve got.”
“It would be easy to keep growing and adding to what we do here but both Joss and I feel that would be a mistake. Sometimes you’ve just got to accept that what you’ve got is enough. Too often we strive for bigger and better when it’s maybe wiser to take stock and stay where you are. Deep down I know this feels right and my previous life felt utterly wrong.”
After months of winter riding in his native Hamburg, creative producer Jochen Hoops headed south to ride the quiet back roads and climbs of Mallorca. Having documented this migratory escape with his camera, here Jochen muses on the seasonality of cycling; the discipline of dark winter days, the emotional release of springtime and the reasons he chooses to ride whatever the weather.
Am I a year-round cyclist? I don’t think it’s laziness but it’s not easy to ride in the depths of winter. You’re less likely to have company and cycling alone in bad weather has its challenges.
In winter months Hamburg is cold, wet and windy. And the landscape is not very pleasant to the eye—the light is flat and the sky a uniform grey. Maybe that isn’t important to some people but for me it is.
But still, I have to get out – for my physical and mental wellbeing – and usually I end up enjoying the ride. You just need the discipline to step out of the door.
I was fortunate to enjoy two trips to Mallorca—the first resulting from an off-the-cuff remark and a spontaneous decision. A friend from Paris mentioned that he was heading out to Mallorca for a week and had arranged to stay at this little, boutique hotel. Saying how nice that sounded and adding that I also needed to get away, my friend kindly suggested that I join him on the trip.
The hotel only had four guest rooms so it was very intimate and good riding was easy to find in any direction. It was still only February but we’d left a wintery Hamburg to discover signs of spring on the island. Passing through tiny villages – the clink of coffee cups and our freewheels resonating along the narrow streets – by the second day the rhythm of riding had transported me far away from any everyday concerns.
In winter you somehow feel stiff and you need the warmth of more southerly climes for your legs to push the pedals a little easier. So we were intent on catching the sun’s restorative rays, eating good lunches and discovering the island by bike. Simple pleasures.
A training camp comprised my second trip. Arranged every year by the same group of friends, I’d met some of them at a charity ride out of Paris and they’d asked me if I wanted to join them. A little different from my February visit to the island – more focus on effort – but we also found time for fun and laughter.
And it’s these differences – the contrasts between both trips – that make cycling so interesting. The meandering rides with time to stop and stare and the fast paced charges that leave your chest heaving and legs empty. A joy in movement that, irrespective of the season, means the motivation to ride doesn’t really change. Wherever or whenever I’m out on the bike, I clip in and move forward and immediately it just feels right.
In the late summer of 2021, Dominique Powers loaded up her hatchback with camera gear and camping equipment, attached her gravel bike to the rear rack and set off on a three week, 3000 mile road trip. Stopping off at parking lots, trail heads and open prairie, she set up a portable backdrop before awaiting the arrival of each next subject. The photographic series that resulted – The Leaders of Gravel – was subsequently published on The Radavist to great acclaim and set the pulses of commissioning editors and marketing directors racing.
Over a transatlantic call we discuss this breakthrough moment and Dominique’s passion for storytelling. How she fell in love with cycling during the pandemic and, with a life lived on the road, the simple joys of coming home.
Dominique is taking our call at the kitchen table of the house in Los Angeles she shares with her partner Ken. On the drainer sits a ceramic coffee dripper, sunlight is filtering through the windows and if I’m not mistaken I can hear the squawk of parrots. “Oh that’s just LA,” she confirms with a smile.
During the course of our conversation, Dominique mentions a time from her childhood when she left a library book out in the rain. The outcome of a meeting between her Mom and the librarian was deciding between paying for a replacement or volunteering in the library until she’d cancelled her debt. A voracious reader, Dominique chose the latter and it wasn’t until two years later that she found out her Mom had promptly paid the fine on her behalf.
An everyday story but one that illustrates how Dominique, even from an early age, understood the importance of owning the moment. An attitude she applied to her years as a digital technician working on high fashion and advertising campaigns.
“As with anything you do, your past experiences inform the way you approach new experiences. So all the time I was investing in being the best digital technician I could be, it taught me what working hard feels like.”
“But the longer I worked as a technician, the further away I felt from making that shift to being behind the camera. I was taking photographs the whole time but there were months on end when I wasn’t creating images with presence and purpose. And it took a sense of getting a little bit bored to prompt me to make the move.”
Continuing to work as a technician paid the bills and allowed Dominique the freedom to choose the stories she wanted to tell—in many cases the paycheck coming second as she set out to find her own voice and sense of authenticity. A process further guided by Dominique discovering cycling.
“I’m a very competitive person and grew up doing all these different endurance sports. And then during the pandemic, cycling quickly took over my life because what else do you do when you just want every day to pass? You spend hours and hours on the bike and it continues to provide motivation for the work I do now.”
These differing strands of interest and insight eventually coalesced in her Leaders of Gravel series—Dominique setting out from her home in Los Angeles on a circuitous route from one scouted location to the next. But before capturing a portrait with her medium format film camera, she took the time to converse with each subject to better understand their own experiences and stories.
“Trust takes time. You need to know, to a certain extent, the person holding the camera in order to feel comfortable lowering your guard. And I was very open about why I was doing the series and what I wanted from them. They didn’t necessarily need to smile or even be serious. It was all about who they were as a person so it was important to create a safe space where they could be a bit more vulnerable.”
With each subject’s eyes seemingly focusing through and beyond the camera to Dominique herself, she realised the profound impact the body of work had made on her own understanding of the creative process.
“On the road during the trip—even then, I knew this series would be with me forever. It was hard work – so many early mornings – but I felt this huge amount of gratitude that people agreed to do it and made the time. That they were willing to meet me at whatever deserted destination I had decided. And how this sense of magic found a place in the resulting portraits.”
“It came at a time when I really wanted – and needed – to reconnect with myself. An opportunity to explore my own sense of adventure and be present in the moment. I’d brought along my tent – fully expecting to be really roughing it – but the hospitality I experienced meant I only camped out the one time. People were so generous in opening up their homes to me that I just wanted to put that back out into the world. You can’t help but be changed by experiences like that.”
Hanging out at Sea Otter a few weeks after the story came out, every marketing director Dominique bumped into said they’d seen it—one notable outcome that followed involving another journey but one with a transatlantic flight.
“I’m very fortunate to be on a retainer with Giro and I’d mentioned this goal I had of shooting the Tour de France Femmes. They made a few phone calls and the project was given a green light. And then, knowing how establishing a relationship with my subjects is important to my work and that I’d never attended a World Tour race in Europe, we agreed that I’d spend a week with the Canyon-SRAM women’s team in the lead up to Paris-Roubaix.”
Landing in Paris, Dominique picked up her rental car and drove up to join the team on a course recon.
“It was such a blast and I’m so grateful – thank you, Mom – that I learnt to drive on a stick shift. And then once I was settled, every morning I’d show up an hour early to hang out with the soigneurs and mechanics so that on race day I really felt part of the team.”
Not having the same level of direction that she would usually enjoy shooting editorial content, Dominique quickly adapted to reacting to what was happening—building a level of trust with the riders such an integral part of the trip that Dominique was conscious of not getting in the way or asking too much.
“I went with the goal of meeting the athletes and team and to experience the culture of European World Tour racing. In effect, my pre-season training, so that when I return in the summer for the Le Tour Femme I can hit the ground running.”
Although a relative newcomer to cycling, Dominique is well placed to offer an opinion on how the sport is changing. And back home in the US, it’s gravel that is currently all the rage.
“Women want to exercise more and spend time outdoors. They want to create authentic experiences and cycling is the answer in so many ways. And because of the number of cars on the road, gravel is a perfect fit. That was how I discovered cycling and my own journey has taken me to the start line of Steamboat Gravel which was so much fun. Quite a challenge but I went into it wanting to test my metal. To see what I was made of.”
“I believe in ‘go big or go home’ so why not take a risk and roll the dice. I could have decided to line up some e-commerce photographic jobs and get well paid for my time. But I chose to do a photo series of the top women in gravel and then see what would happen.”
If Dominique does ‘go home’, right now that means LA and the house she shares with Ken. A place where she can feel emotionally open and where she disconnects from whatever outward pressures she might be feeling.
“I’m an early bird and generally wake up around 6:30am. I’ll have a cup of coffee with Ken and we’ll do the Wordle together before he starts his first morning meeting. Meanwhile I’ll have breakfast and write out a to-do list for the day. But even if I’m not working, having that early morning hour to greet the day and be reflective is really nice.”
As we wind up our conversation, I ask if she finds it easy to feel a sense of satisfaction in her work? Or whether, like some creatives, she’s always looking to the next project?
“You take the Leaders of Gravel series—that happened over a three week period and once I had all the images I needed and I’d written up the story, it was done. I don’t plan to ever go back and add to it. But I do feel this sense of forward momentum and there’s always something more that I want.”
And more stories to tell, I ask.
Dominique pauses for a second and smiles broadly before answering.
“It’s a massive refinement of small moments that the viewer ends up seeing.”
After eschewing college for a career racing bikes, Ansel Dickey [pictured far right] combined his love of photography and film in Vermont Social—the creative agency he founded that delivers beautifully realised visual media with a focus on storytelling.
Referencing his latest film for Wahoo Frontiers, Ansel discusses in detail the logistical demands and production processes that such a project entails—a freewheeling conversation that takes in barn envy, motorbike chases through Austin, Texas and telling secrets to the camera.
cyclespeak So how are things in Vermont?
Ansel We’re in the middle of a long mud season.
cyclespeak I’ve heard about that. When I spoke to Ian Boswell* he was saying that winter is sort of prolonged but it’s proper snow so you can go fat biking or cross-country skiing.
[*Wahoo Frontiers athlete and winner of Unbound 2021]
Ansel Yeah, I mean winter is actually quite enjoyable but when all the snow is gone it’s still really cold and the dirt roads – which are like 80% of all our roads – are just gnarly and rutted.
cyclespeak And you end up coming back with a filthy bike that needs cleaning.
Ansel If I have to wash my bike after a ride, then I’m not going out. There’s no requirement for me to train on the bike anymore and I’ve been converted to running. It’s super time efficient so if I’m busy I can just do 20 minutes and feel like I’ve accomplished something. But lately I’ve been really missing the bike so I went out on this nice long ride yesterday. The first in five months. It’s finally dry enough and warm enough to go out.
cyclespeak I’m right in thinking you bought a house a couple of years back?
Ansel Yeah. My fiancée Gertrude and I found a place in West Windsor. We’d been looking for a while but couldn’t find anything and then this house popped up. So we jumped on it.
cyclespeak Are people still working from home and wanting more space?
Ansel The remote work environment has been picked up by a lot of companies and people are realising that compared to metropolitan areas, Vermont is still relatively cheap. People understand that their money can go a lot farther. But then they get to mud season and it’s like, fuck, I wanna go back to the city [laughs].
cyclespeak The question is – and this is an important question – have you got a big barn like Ian?
Ansel I wish. His barn is next level. We do have a two car garage but, unlike Gertrude, I don’t use it for my car because my side is full of bikes and crap.
cyclespeak Speaking of possessions, I can see the neck of a cello poking out from behind the couch. Who’s the musician?
Ansel That’s mine but I haven’t played in a while. My Dad is a musician so I grew up playing a lot of instruments. I play more guitar now.
cyclespeak I’ve seen pictures of you with a banjo.
Ansel Yeah. And my dog’s name is Banjo. Unfortunately he just tore his ACL playing fetch.
cyclespeak Is that fixable?
Ansel It is but we still don’t know if it’s fully or partially torn. And it’s a real shame because mud season is his favourite. Especially if it’s been raining. He’s that kind of dog [laughs].
cyclespeak When Banjo was a puppy you were still racing bikes professionally. Can you talk me through your transition to content creator?
Ansel Bikes were always a big part of my life. I started racing when I was 15 or 16, slowly improved and got on the national team. And then right out of high school I signed my first professional contract. So that helped me decide that I didn’t really want to go to college and I’d rather go off racing. I travelled loads and met a lot of great people. But even though I did the Tour of China and raced in Azerbaijan, I never really made it to Ian’s level—never made it to where it was totally justifiable with me making a huge living.
cyclespeak So what changed?
Ansel I had a teammate called Sam Rosenholtz who was also a portrait photographer. We went to a training camp in Spain and I remember watching him carry around his camera and take photographs. I was, okay, cameras are cool and I want to play with them too. So I started just doing it for fun—taking my camera to races when I was travelling.
cyclespeak And from there?
Ansel At the same time I had already started Vermont Social but as a social media marketing company. I was basically helping small business clients like a bike shop in New Hampshire or a beer store in Vermont—running their social media for them while I was abroad racing.
cyclespeak And the photography?
Ansel It was the realisation that a lot of these same social media clients also needed photographic services and that eventually evolved into video. And because I was becoming more invested in getting better at film and photography than getting better at racing my bike, I knew it was time to quit.
cyclespeak Was that a head or a heart shift?
Ansel I think the heart took a lot longer than the head. Analytically, I knew how hard I’d worked at my racing but did I want to waste another five or ten years doing the same races and getting the same results? Or did I want to pivot?
cyclespeak How long did it take for riding your bike to not feel like training?
Ansel Oh man, I think it’s still an issue. Being an athlete at that level, you’re tortured because of this desire to do well. But I also think that anything in my life, when I enjoy it, I enjoy the feeling of getting better. I think that’s why I got into running because I’m not that good at it yet and I can see the progression. When I get on my bike, I’m just reminded of how good I used to be. So it’s tough [laughs].
cyclespeak Why the name Vermont Social?
Ansel I like the way it sounded. Like, pretty cool.
cyclespeak And the brand logo comes from your love of fishing?
Ansel Yeah. I grew up on Cape Cod in Massachusetts where I fell in love with fly fishing. I’ve always liked companies that had a mascot, so I was like, why not just make it a fish? And because I like an organic approach to things, the only native fish to Vermont is the Brook Trout.
cyclespeak And that all came together and just felt right?
Ansel I always thought that with branding and design, things need to look good as a base but beyond that, your brand is really created by the interactions you have with your customers. And like the layers on an onion, it takes years and years to build.
cyclespeak Your latest film for Wahoo Frontiers – 24 Hours in Old Pueblo – is 11 minutes and some seconds of brilliance. Beautifully filmed and depicting these four young women, out racing in the desert and having fun. Can you describe the processes you follow in a project such as this? From conception through to delivery, and how do you use the event to tell a story?
Ansel As you probably know, Wahoo Fitness is a big client of ours and a lot of the original ideas come from them. Once the idea is on the table, then it’s my job to do the research and come up with what the story is. With this film, the idea centres around community and camaraderie.
cyclespeak So you have your story. What’s next?
Ansel Pre-production involves researching the athletes—who they are, their past results and a little of their character. And then there’s the event. How long has it been running? What’s the format?
cyclespeak So for this film?
Ansel The women are four individuals – really good in their own right – so it’s cool to see them come together to form this team in a fun and funky event.
cyclespeak And the logistics?
Ansel We knew the event was way out in the desert. Everyone calls it the Burning Man of bike festivals which I would say is super accurate [laughs].
cyclespeak Which means you were camping?
Ansel We set to work making a list of everything we’d need to take with us and decided to rent a sprinter van so we could camp out with the girls and charge our equipment. It was myself and Josh Bernales—another DP who’s just moved to Colorado but used to live in Vermont.
cyclespeak What about the actual filming?
Ansel The pre-production plan has all the story ideas and interview questions. The production plan is, okay, we’ll do sunset shooting here, interviews over there and we’ll film the race in this way. Beyond that, you’re on the fly. Documenting things as they unfold and constantly looking for opportunities to tell the story that’s always in the back of your mind.
cyclespeak Is that story influenced by what’s happening on the ground?
Ansel It totally evolves and you just have to be okay with that because we don’t want to put words in their mouths. So you have to be ready to change direction, ask another question or reshoot something in a way that helps explain where it’s going. And it’s also important to have fun. We were camping in the desert so you’re hanging out with the girls and cooking with them. You’ve got to build a rapport before you expect to get good stuff on film.
cyclespeak I can see how it would be fun but it also sounds a little intense?
Ansel You shoot all day, dump cards at night. Then go to sleep – or not in this film’s case – and begin all over again the next day. And then you go home and start the editing process and, honestly, that’s where the story really comes alive. You have an idea of what you shot but you really don’t know what it’s going to turn into until you get it onto the timeline.
cyclespeak As I already mentioned, the film runs to just over 11 minutes. But how much footage did you have available to edit down?
Ansel I don’t know the exact length but it was 4 to 5 terabytes. And that’s pretty typical for a project such as this. Basically, if you’re there, shoot it. Because you’ll get into the edit and wish you had it. It’s a massive refinement of small moments that the viewer ends up seeing.
cyclespeak A semi-serious question but who had the tidier camp?
Ansel We managed to keep the inside of our van pretty organised but outside was just trashed. There’s so much going on and we didn’t have a producer on set organising our stuff. We’re helping the girls cook, bringing them a jacket when they’re cold, helping fix their bikes—and all the time trying to film. So cleaning was the last thing on anyone’s mind and it showed at the end. If you wanted to eat something, you would just pick up a dirty bowl, brush it out and find some food to put in it [laughs].
cyclespeak Moving on to other projects, when Ian shared his secret to the camera in your film documenting the 2021 Unbound, I welled up myself*. How do you balance the need to film what’s happening without being too intrusive? But also building these relationships that allow the subjects to share their thoughts and feelings so freely?
[*In the final scene of the film, Ian let slip that his wife Gretchen was expecting their first child]
Ansel Unbound was super cool because Ian won. And he’s a really good friend so it’s really easy to work with him. Beyond that, we try to approach these stories and the humans behind them with respect and humility. You can’t just barge in—you need to wait for them to be comfortable opening up. And it’s also about getting the best out of them as opposed to putting words in their mouths.
cyclespeak I do feel that your films go beyond purely documenting. And I’m guessing the athletes that you feature trust that you’ll take what they do and say and treat this with respect. And I was wondering, now that you’ve been working with Education First, whether there are any challenges particular to the World Tour?
Ansel There sure are [laughs]. The fact that everything is orchestrated and organised around the athletes means you’re a fly on the wall watching things unfold. You’re basically like paparazzi following them around—spraying and praying and documenting that way. But it’s also really cool because I always wanted to go to the World Tour as a bike racer and now I’ve finally made it as a filmmaker which is kind of cool.
cyclespeak You posted a really nice photograph of you and the team taken by Jered Gruber. Do you enjoy collaborating with other professionals?
Ansel Having two cameras, another person flying the drone and someone doing audio—it all adds up to make a much better experience for the viewer. Everyone’s devotion to the craft really comes into play and most of these projects simply aren’t possible without teamwork.
cyclespeak What are your thoughts on social media? Because that’s where Vermont Social started.
Ansel I’m personally and professionally thrilled that I don’t have to manage other people’s social media anymore. That was a 2-3 year period when we did it as a service and it made money but was just absolutely brutal. Anything you did wasn’t good enough and there was always a problem with an angry commenter or the client not being happy with what you were doing. With the film and photography stuff, you’re delivering this product and if you’ve done your job well, when they get delivery they’re like, holy crap, this is amazing [laughs].
cyclespeak Any social media positives?
Ansel On the flip side, it’s relatively easy to build a big audience and you can get your work out to the world really, really quickly and that accelerates everything else. So maybe it’s a two-sided coin and like I always tell people, use it as a tool because that’s what it is.
cyclespeak Any past projects that proved particularly challenging?
Ansel We had fun with both the Colin Strickland and Sarah Sturm Frontiers episodes. It was at the height of COVID during the early fall of 2020. No one was flying at that point but Wahoo Fitness really wanted us to do the projects. So we figured out that if we rented a commercial sprinter van, it would take our air mattresses, camera gear and mountain bikes. And then we drove from Vermont to Texas.
cyclespeak That’s a long way.
Ansel It was a three day drive with us sleeping in the van because we didn’t trust hotels. When we got to Austin ready to start filming with Colin, he just opened up his garage and there were all these motorcycles in a row. Both Nick [Keating] and I ride so, calm as you like, Colin throws us two sets of keys and hands over some helmets. Follow me, he says, we’re going out to dinner. So we’re bombing through downtown Austin, trying to keep up with Colin and it’s like ten minutes since we first met him. Absolutely insane [laughs].
cyclespeak That sounds pretty cool to me.
Ansel And then once the project was done, we drove straight to Colorado to film with Sarah Sturm—still sleeping in the van and still not showering. After spending four days camping up in the mountains with Sarah and her boyfriend, we drove all the way back home to Vermont.
cyclespeak How long were you away from home?
Ansel That was a month-long process of living in a commercial sprinter van that wasn’t built for camping. Just to shoot these two projects during COVID.
cyclespeak Speaking of projects, you’ve got a big day coming up in June? I’ve been sneaking a peek at your wedding webpage and then I saw a super nice portrait of Gertrude on your Instagram feed. In the post’s comment, you describe her as strong, thoughtful, fierce, loving, caring, compassionate, sometimes impatient and always, always beautiful. And I wondered what words Gertrude would use to describe you?
Ansel Ohh man.
Disorganised. Impulsive probably. Serious at times. Maybe overly serious. Motivated. And throw in disorganised again [laughs].
cyclespeak Disorganised twice [laughs]?
Ansel Yeah. But we’re a good match. Gertrude is definitely the organised one and I’m more go-with-the-flow. Or thinking about something totally different – head in the clouds – and not interacting with what’s going on in the moment [laughs].
cyclespeak Does your mind wander to hopes and dreams for the future?
Ansel That’s an interesting question. Because I’ve never really been that good at setting long term goals. I’m very good at setting short term goals and working really hard to achieve them. But long term? I do know that I don’t want to grow Vermont Social into this big media conglomerate. At the moment I get to work with amazing people and tell stories that really interest me.
cyclespeak And on a personal level?
Ansel Long term is obviously to have a family and hopefully build our own house somewhere with a bit more land.
cyclespeak A house with a barn?
Ansel Yeah [laughs]. A barn is key and maybe a couple of border collies and some other animals. I think that would make for a really happy life.
I’ve travelled out from central London to the southwest end of the Northern Line. Exiting the station, a short walk through the surrounding suburbs leads to an industrial estate and the home of Isen Workshop. Pushing open the door, there’s a sudden movement as a small dog darts out and excitedly runs rings around my legs. Caren Hartley follows and greets me with a smile as she scoops up this new addition to the Isen family. The dog’s name is Frieda and it’s her first day in the workshop—Caren obviously delighted with her new companion as she politely asks if I’d like a cup of tea.
After studying an MA in Goldsmithing, Silversmithing, Metalwork & Jewellery at the Royal College of Art, Caren received award-winning recognition as a frame builder with her eponymous Hartley Cycles before partnering with Matt McDonough of Talbot Frameworks to found Isen Workshop.
With the pair carving out a well-deserved reputation for beautifully built bikes in steel and titanium, I spent an enjoyable morning touring the workshop and photographing Caren in preparation for an interview subsequently published on the Quoc web journal—a fascinating glimpse into her passion for making and the level of detail demanded by such a bespoke product.
Click on an image to enlarge…
“I was always making things as a child and I remember my parents being quite creative. Dad was a watchmaker and Mum would make costumes for us out of crêpe paper and cereal boxes.”
“After attending an event where I met a frame builder, I had this sudden realisation that it was a little like jewellery – basically big soldering – and I just needed to start making things that were bike shaped.”