After taking an early race lead, a final non-stop stint of riding saw Mattia de Marchi less than 100 km from the finish line of Badlands 2021. The virtual field of dot watchers globally urging him on to victory then noticed his tracker had stalled—as if Mattia had pulled up and stopped on the side of the road. What later became apparent was a crash in the town of Murtas saw Mattia dusting himself down and continuing without realising he’d lost his tracker. But rather than any sense of despair when it did finally sink in that his progress wasn’t being recorded, the Italian gravel racer calmly shared his location with the race organisers over WhatsApp before pushing on for the win.
“Even after riding for close to 750 km and without any sleep for the final 48 hours, I don’t remember any moments of panic. But I think our heads have a crazy strength and can do things that we can’t even imagine.”
With this combination of mental and physical resilience carrying the day, it helps frame Mattia’s mention of always keeping a dollar in his pocket. A reference to leaving enough in the tank that, whatever the eventuality, he can marshall reserves even when sleep deprived and at the limits of his endurance.
“There’s a difference in events of about 48 hours where the tendency is to start very strong – almost like a Gran Fondo – and then find a pace that allows you to advance. In multi-day races you look for regularity and minimising your stops. You can gain or lose hours each day depending on your strategy for eating and sleeping. But it’s a delicate balance and you don’t always get it right.”
Growing up near the Italian city of Venice, bikes were always a family passion and Mattia fondly remembers visiting the Udine region to the north where he would ride with his cousins. As an energetic 9 year old, the racing handlebars and coloured helmets were what first delighted but it wasn’t long before he recognised the competitor within.
“I don’t like to lose and I’m prepared to dig deep if I find someone stronger than me in my way. But I was definitely not born with extraordinary gifts. I’ve worked hard and made sacrifices to be who I am now. And I’m not just talking about being strong on the bike.”
This mental strength was needed when Mattia turned professional but didn’t quite make it to the World Tour—a stage win at the Tour of China proving a highlight and demonstrating an innate talent that has continued to reap rewards since a switch to gravel at the 2020 Atlas Mountain Race.
“That first gravel event proved quite a contrast after racing professionally on the road. There, you have mechanics in the car shadowing the peloton but when I broke my handlebars and cut my thumb in the North African mountains, I had to deal with these issues on my own. Even now, I always carry a tube of superglue when I’m racing to help fix things and seal up any open wounds.”
With experience teaching the tactical advantage that paying attention to details offers – in a race as gnarly as Unbound, a cut tyre wall can lead to a significant delay or even a DNF – Mattia would still argue that it takes luck as well as skill to secure a win. And that mental resilience is just as important as the ability to plug a tyre.
“It all stems from the head. If you really want something, you have to go for it. Listening to your body and training makes a significant difference. But you have to be hungry!”
The thought of racing against Lachlan Morton at Badlands certainly appealed to Mattia—the Education First rider, a source of inspiration with his Alternative Calendar of gravel, mountain biking and ultra-endurance events. Morton ultimately chose not to defend his Badlands win from the previous year but the pair did line up at the 2022 Traka and what ensued proved to be an entertaining mix of determination and doggedness. After taking an early lead, the pair battled it out until Morton’s seatpost broke. Fixing it (after a fashion) with a combination of duct tape and prayers, the Australian chased but not before Mattia took his second Traka win in successive years.
“I’ve spent three weeks in Africa with Lachlan. Racing our gravel bikes but also the transfers in between by jeep and bus. And Lachlan is as you see him—genuine, true, and most of all you can tell he has fun riding his bike.”
This sense of camaraderie between competitors is often mooted as a significant difference between the professional world of road racing and the privateer model of the gravel calendar. And looking back at his own road career, Mattia well remembers how his teammates all sat wearing headphones on team bus transfers – himself included – and that sharing a few beers was reserved for the final evening before flights the following morning. Some might argue the antithesis of the simple pleasures that riding a bike affords and one possible point of inspiration that led Mattia and friends to found the Enough Cycling Collective.
“The idea was born from what fundamentally makes us happy—riding a bicycle and sharing this joy with people from all walks of life. It’s our vision to help them grow through cycling in all its different and wide forms. And if you look at gravel, it isn’t just dirt. Gravel is something that every person can experience in a way they like it best. There’s fewer of the boundaries that still persist in the world of road cycling. In gravel, we all line up together.”
This mention of riding together leads to Mattia admitting – with a smile – that he wasn’t brave enough to enter this year’s Silk Road Mountain Race singularly—preferring instead to ride as a pair. Even so, the brutal nature of such an extreme parcours took its toll and Mattia was forced to withdraw. A difficult decision made harder by the thought of leaving his friend to continue on alone.
“I often talk about listening to your body but before the Silk Road Race I didn’t. I hate not accomplishing something and I tried to move forward with my head but sometimes it’s not enough. But you learn a lot from these experiences and in the following weeks I took some time for myself and especially for my body. I’m fortunate enough to travel the world and do events that many people can only dream about. But still, it is not as easy as some may think. You take this year’s wet Unbound—it was a fucking battle. But over the years I’ve tried to work on not being affected with weather conditions. If it rains, it rains on everyone!”
Closing out the season in his first national jersey at the UCI Gravel Championships close to where he grew up, Mattia was pictured pre-race making pizza and chatting informally with his supporters—a lighthearted interlude that reflects his innate capacity to seek enjoyment in life’s simple pleasures.
“I’m constantly travelling from race to race and feel very fortunate that I can discover these new cultures. But I’m also very attached to my home and always like to come back. Maybe I focus a little too much on the bike, so spending time with family is very important. Life is not always straightforward and it’s important to find a balance. And like I say, keep a dollar in your pocket because you never know what might happen next [smiles].”
After setting out from Eastern Europe to cycle across Asia in 2019, Sabina Knezevic and Robin Patijn are currently based in Sweden and training for a postponed Atlas Mountain Race. Having amassed a wealth of stories on their travels, with Farawayistan the couple aim to inspire cyclists from all over the world to embark upon their own adventures—big or small. Here they discuss how the seeds were sown that led to a life-changing journey, their experiences on the road as a couple and how, when it comes to chasing society’s consumer goals, less can indeed be more.
cyclespeak So where did your cycling stories start?
Robin I was the cyclist before we left on our around-the-world tour. It’s the classic tale of playing football and then, when my knee was injured, my father encouraging me to try cycling. So I went out on his road bike, loved it immediately and with my very first paycheck bought my own bike. Years later, I met Sabina…
Sabina On Tinder [laughs].
Robin Quite a modern way of meeting, maybe?
Sabina I was scrolling through Tinder – because that’s what you do when you’re single – and there was this profile of a guy who looked kind of interesting because of all these travel photos.
Robin I must just mention there were no photos of me in lycra [smiles].
Sabina When we started dating, I didn’t ride a bike but I was very sporty. Crossfit five times a week, surfing, yoga. But I had this certain idea in my mind about cycling because in the Netherlands road cyclists have a very bad reputation. We have a lot of cycle lanes that are very busy and road cyclists don’t have bells and can be complete assholes.
Robin It’s a stereotype.
Sabina So I was absolutely certain that Robin would never get me into lycra. But, in the end, it only took about a month before I tried his mother’s bike and it was, fuck, this is so much fun!
cyclespeak And that, in turn, led to the idea of making a trip by bike together?
Sabina Right from the start, we’d always really connected on the travelling part but after a few months as a couple we decided it should be a cycling trip. Perhaps a little risky as the only experience we had before we left was a small test trip in the Netherlands. Riding in a full-on storm [laughs].
Robin Typical Dutch spring weather.
Sabina There was a weather warning but we figured why not just go for it. And we still had fun despite the awful headwind which we thought was a good sign.
Robin That was the very first weekend we’d assembled all our kit – the tent, stove, sleeping bags – and we wanted to test everything.
cyclespeak You’d already decided to quit your day jobs, sell all your belongings and start exploring. Was it difficult to break ties with your regular lives and all your physical belongings?
Sabina At that time we were already in a place where we were really into minimalism.
Robin We were living in a house that the municipality had scheduled for demolition prior to building new ones. So we knew we could only stay there for one and a half years.
Sabina And we were both quite frustrated with our jobs so that also made the decision a lot easier.
cyclespeak Just out of interest, what were your jobs?
Sabina I was working at a publishing company as the editorial manager for a couple of magazines.
Robin My job as an air quality engineer was quite technical.
cyclespeak From breaking these professional ties, you arrived at the concept of Farawayistan. So I was wondering how you define ‘faraway’? Does this necessarily imply a physical distance or is there also an emotional element?
Sabina Robin was already enjoying photography and I have a communication background and really like sharing stories. So we were brainstorming about different names and Farawayistan started out as more of a joke. We wanted to travel far away and ‘stan’, as a suffix, means a country. So you combine the two…
Robin And also, at family meetings, everyone asked where we were going. So we’d reel off Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan – all these ‘stan’ countries.
Sabina There’s also an element of escapism. Which for us meant getting away from the everyday, consumer aspects of life.
Robin But this can be a few miles from home. You don’t have to go to Uzbekistan to go faraway [smiles].
cyclespeak I read your journal piece on persuading your girlfriend to go bike touring. Over time, has that dynamic changed in the sense of who has the ideas or chooses the direction of travel?
Robin I’m a thinker and Sabina is more about acting. Just going with it.
Sabina I can have an idea and straight away say, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ Half of the time not fully realising what I’m getting myself into.
Robin For example, riding the Annapurna Circuit was an idea I was thinking and talking about but Sabina said…
Sabina Let’s just do it.
Robin And it turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.
Sabina But when we first got together and were getting to know each other, it was something we both had to learn how to deal with. To balance out these different aspects of our personalities, so we could make our relationship work.
cyclespeak So what’s it like to spend so much time travelling together as a couple? Does it strengthen or test a relationship? Or maybe a little of both?
Sabina I think I moved in with Robin within a week of becoming a couple and we’ve been together ever since.
Robin Especially now as we’re both working from home. And the weekends are the same as we like to go on short camping trips.
Sabina We’re kind of dependent on each other [laughs]. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not but it works.
cyclespeak It sounds a good thing to me.
Sabina I mean, we do fall out. Especially when we’re cycling and hungry and there’s a headwind. But you talk it out and it’s fine again.
cyclespeak In terms of preparing for your travels, how did that process unfold?
Sabina Robin had been planning this trip for six years. Long before he met me.
Robin Maybe dreaming is a more accurate term [smiles].
Sabina I do remember, well before we left, having a big discussion about panniers versus bike packing bags. On this point I followed Robin’s gut feeling and accepted we needed to carry a certain amount of kit so panniers would make sense. But maybe we didn’t need quite as much kit as we took [laughs]. And then, mid-way through the trip, I changed to bike packing bags and let him carry most of the stuff.
Robin When we left from Tbilisi in Georgia, on the very first hill we knew then we were carrying too much kit. Books, extra pairs of shoes…
Sabina I had never in my life cycled up a hill – let alone a mountain – and in my naivety I thought, how hard can it be? Just go a bit slower. But I soon found out [laughs].
cyclespeak You obviously got the hang of it.
Sabina Overcoming all these obstacles – that seem impossible at the time – is part of the journey. And knowing that sometimes it’s OK to just hitch a ride [smiles].
cyclespeak You must have so many memories and stories from your travels?
Sabina Hundreds. And not necessarily about me and Robin.
Robin We caught up with two friends we made in Tajikistan over Zoom yesterday and we were talking about our adventures and one of their stories in particular that still makes us smile. James, this British guy, was cycling by himself up a mountain pass just a few days behind us. He had severe food poisoning and was delirious so couldn’t go any further.
Sabina It was already dark, he had a puncture and he was completely exhausted so he just stopped and set up his tent. Next morning, he woke up feeling better, zipped open his tent only to find a group of people wearing bulky, protective clothing and carrying metal detectors. And it turned out he’d spent the night camped in a minefield.
Robin He was OK so it’s quite a funny story.
Sabina But looking back on our own experiences, there’s all these little things that made it so special. Like realising in India that tuk tuks are the perfect way to draft.
cyclespeak Your stories often include photographs of the local population from wherever you’ve been travelling. Is this engagement important?
Robin I really like different cultures and interacting with the people we meet. And even though we often don’t share a common language, you can laugh and smile and shake hands and try to have a conversation.
Sabina If I leave him alone for five minutes he’s making new friends. Even here in Sweden in the supermarket and Sweden is well known for people not talking to each other.
cyclespeak So you’ve met some interesting characters on your travels?
Sabina I really enjoyed hitchhiking because we’d spend this time in a truck with someone who genuinely just wanted to help us. Which I suppose is funny because there’s such a misconception that hitchhiking is dangerous. For the most part, these people are alone all the time and they see these weird cyclists by the roadside and they’re just curious even if we don’t speak the same language.
Robin Those moments were really special. Sitting in the cab with the driver and he’s making a phone call to an uncle somewhere who speaks a few words of English and he puts the phone to your ear. Showing photos of his wife and children. Super personal even though you’re with a total stranger.
Sabina There was one particular truck driver who wanted Robin to try chewing tobacco and he got so high [laughs]. He was sweating and had to lower the window to get some fresh air.
Robin But those moments of interaction are, for me, the most valuable.
Sabina Yes. The warmth of the people inviting you into their homes. I think you only get that when you’re hiking or cycling. Travelling in such a manner, people very often treat you so kindly.
cyclespeak Perhaps you’re seen as being vulnerable so people want to help?
Sabina This one time when we were cycling in Georgia’s wine region Kakheti, it was so hot that I was having a hard time. Admittedly it might have been after a wine tasting which kind of explains why I was having a hard time. We couldn’t find a place to pitch our tent so when we saw this family sitting on their porch, I basically just crashed to a halt in front of them before asking for some water. They immediately invited us to join them on the porch where they were shelling hazelnuts from their farm. So I was sitting there helping the family with this task and, at the same time, they were asking family and friends over for a barbecue.
cyclespeak It sounds like members of the local population were overwhelmingly hospitable.
Sabina I think it’s about the simpleness of the way we were travelling and not the clichéd Westerners quickly coming in to look at all the hotspots before immediately departing for the next. When you’re cycling, you experience everything in between with all these aspects of daily life.
cyclespeak So is Farawayistan a job, a passion, a calling?
Robin It’s a passion and I think it will always be so. To start with, it’s something we like to do. We enjoy taking photos and writing stories…
Sabina And inspiring people. To show what fun it is to go out and explore. And, yes, if you travel to Tajikistan you’ll probably have more interesting stories to tell but it doesn’t mean that’s the only way you can have adventures.
Robin It’s not our main source of income but it takes quite a bit of time – maybe even the same amount as a fulltime job [smiles] – and we’re not earning a lot of money.
Sabina From time to time we do a photoshoot and write up a story for different cycling brands. We usually get ‘paid’ by keeping the products that are featured. And we also have a freelance gig at komoot where we write Collections for them.
cyclespeak Komoot and you two must be a match made in heaven.
Sabina It’s a cool company and we really like what they’re doing.
Robin They’re keen to have more personal experiences and not a series of route guides written by somebody sitting behind a computer.
cyclespeak And now you’re both training for the Atlas Mountain Race. That’s pretty gnarly.
Sabina Ultra-endurance racing is something that Robin has always been pushing in my face [laughs]. And the Lachlan Morton videos have also proved inspirational. So being at home now and not cycling as much as we’d like, we decided we needed a goal.
Robin At first I was thinking about riding solo but now we’re going as a pair.
Sabina I’d asked Robin whether he wanted me to join but wasn’t really sure if he was holding back his true feelings. And I still don’t know.
[No response from Robin]
Sabina You see? He doesn’t answer [laughs].
Robin No, no. Of course I want you to be there. I think I can really use your mental strength during the race.
Sabina But I don’t think I’ll be able to draft on that terrain [laughs].
cyclespeak I’m guessing you won’t be using the same Avaghon bikes from your world tour on the Atlas Mountain Race? Maybe the 3T bikes that I’ve seen pictures of you riding?
Sabina To be honest, I was a little sick of my bike because it felt so slow and I just wanted to go faster. But I did really enjoy riding off-road so the 3T Exploro seemed the perfect fit. Really fast but also able to handle gravel and trails.
Robin The bikes we rode across Asia were around 18kg even without luggage.
cyclespeak Nice and sturdy?
Sabina They were perfect for a world tour as my bike did fall off a moving bus in Nepal and it survived.
cyclespeak With the pandemic having an impact in so many different ways, I do wonder whether it’s causing people to reassess what’s really important. Have you any advice for individuals wanting to make a radical change in how they live their lives?
Robin I’m not sure about offering advice but we would encourage everyone to get outside as much as they can. It’s not only fun but it’s also healthy for the mind and body. I do understand that it can be hard when you’ve had a full day and you’re tired and maybe just want to rest in the evenings or weekend. But if you come into our house, at the front door we have a closet that holds all our camping stuff.
Sabina Ready to go.
Robin So it’s super easy to take that spur of the moment trip.
Sabina But if you do want to make a radical change and there’s no extreme financial or emotional fallout – then just go for it. Because, usually, making changes is for the better.
cyclespeak Are there any aspects that you miss about your previous lives?
Robin I’d like to see more of my family but basically I have everything here that I need. I have a few bicycles, I have forests and cycling friends, and I have my camera.
cyclespeak And have your experiences changed you? Are you very different people compared to when you first set out?
Robin Sometimes, when people travel the world, they talk about re-discovering themselves but I wasn’t 18 or 19 when I left. I was 29 and an adult. Yes, I do look differently at things but I wouldn’t say that I’m that much changed.
Sabina Maybe it’s another cliché about getting to know who you really are? That also happens when you get older but travel can speed the process up.
cyclespeak Is it important to be planning the next journey, the next move?
Robin For me, personally, it is. Like we’ve mentioned, I’m a thinker and always daydreaming about the next adventure. I really need that to feel positive and well.
Sabina And I need a challenge. Working towards something that might initially seem impossible is part of that sense of escapism. Like me finishing the Atlas Mountain Race [laughs]. But the ultimate goal for Farawayistan? I can picture us living out of a van with the bikes on the roof, creating nice stories and just making enough to keep on the road. That would be the dream.