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.”
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].
Constantly on the move – camera in hand – from one project to the next, when photographer and filmmaker Sami Sauri decided to commit 100% to her own production company, little did she know what a whirlwind year she would enjoy.
Reflecting on this period of transition in her usual candid manner, Sami considers life’s simple pleasures, why storytelling underpins her way of working and how failure can be a mechanism for growth.
cyclespeak You’re just back from shooting in Austria. It looked fantastic.
Sami It was for next year’s Jack Wolfskin spring / summer range.
cyclespeak But it was snowing.
Sami I know [laughs]. They chose Austria for the location – which was very nice – but maybe next time we can go to the Canaries? Because the first day it just rained and nobody wanted to wear shorts [laughs].
cyclespeak Did you expect to be above the snowline?
Sami No. Not at all. I’d packed a rain jacket but I was wearing normal shoes. And the main story behind the women’s campaign was a hike to a hut at 2100 metres and then down the other side. We were going to spend the night at this altitude – the story was amazing – and the whole crew was female. I turned down two projects just so I could do this shoot.
cyclespeak But the weather wasn’t helping?
Sami We had a mountain guide with us and she advised us to postpone for a couple of days. But when we did finally start to climb, on the first ridge we had snow. But I wasn’t going to stop there—this story wouldn’t make sense if we hadn’t got to the hut [laughs].
cyclespeak So it all worked out in the end?
Sami For me, I had a wonderful experience—I love those kinds of adventures.
cyclespeak The last time we caught up, you were listing all your various mishaps. Your foot had been in a plastic boot and you later tore some ligaments when you were out trail running. How’s the summer been in terms of staying in one piece?
Sami I’ve probably done less this summer than for the last five years. Not because of my foot but I’ve had so much work that I couldn’t find the time for intense bike trips. But I have started running again and trying new sports like motocross.
cyclespeak Your road to recovery after injuring your foot brought to mind the issues you had with knee pain during the Route 66 and Big Land films.
Sami The knee pain comes from riding fixed gear. You can’t help falling and it always seems to be on the same side. And I find it interesting that you get used to sleeping in a position that’s comfortable for your hip and your knee—your body quickly adapts to what feels best.
cyclespeak So it’s something that you can now manage?
Sami I feel that everything comes for a reason and when I started physio, I discovered that I’d been riding all those years and not using my glutes. There was very little muscle and this was the main reason my knee was hurting. So I now realise that I need to exercise in different ways to help relieve the pain—using bands or a simple 20 minute yoga session every morning to activate my body.
cyclespeak So that’s your morning routine sorted?
Sami I’m somebody who finds it very difficult to have constant things in their life [laughs].
cyclespeak That doesn’t fit well with your personality?
Sami It’s more my lifestyle right now. So busy and always on the move.
cyclespeak Is racing the fixed gear scene something you miss?
Sami I definitely miss that sense of community. And I’ve realised that I’m quite competitive. Which is why I often ride alone because nobody is watching and I can go as fast or as slow as I like and really enjoy it. When I go out with friends, I find myself looking back and wondering where they are [laughs].
cyclespeak I saw a recent post where you were riding near Girona and someone had a bloodied knee?
Sami The mountain bike ride? When I put my friends through hell [laughs].
cyclespeak That’s the one.
Sami I felt so sorry for them. I convinced these two girls – one of them is my physio – that we should take out our mountain bikes and just do some easy, smooth trails. Well, oh my god, we had some proper gnarly downhill stuff [laughs].
cyclespeak When you aren’t shredding local trails, you spend a fair proportion of your time on the road filming. What do you miss most about home when you’re away?
Sami I do miss my own cooking. Every time I come back home, the first thing I do is make a plate of my pasta. Maybe this comes from my childhood but I need that plate of pasta.
cyclespeak Do you have a particular recipe?
Sami Parmesan, olive oil and salt. That’s it. I don’t need anything else to make me happy. And I might put on some vinyl and turn up the volume [smiles].
cyclespeak Simple pleasures.
Sami But after three days, I’m already looking forward to the next adventure [laughs].
cyclespeak From the moment you receive a phone call or a message, how fast can you be packed and out of the door?
Sami It doesn’t take me long. 30 minutes?
Sami I pretty much know what I want and what I need—and I don’t need much. But I do always take a pair of cycling shorts because no matter where you are, you might get a ride [laughs].
cyclespeak You sound very organised?
Sami Before, everything was super tight with the packing and arriving at the airport. Massive stress [laughs]. Now, I pack two days before I’m due to leave and arrive at the airport at least two hours before my flight—something I never used to do. And when I get to the airport, I’ve figured out a good spot for breakfast, where I can work. And it means I don’t arrive sweating [laughs].
cyclespeak What would you tell someone just starting out taking photographs or trying their hand at film making?
Sami I do get messages about that—people wanting to change their lives. For me, I was just handed a camera and told to shoot. And I said, ‘Shoot what [laughs]?’
cyclespeak That sounds like good advice.
Sami The first thing I always say to people is just go and do it. Do it, do it and keep on doing it. And fail and do it right and fail again and then see if you like it. You’ll never know when that will be – or whether you will or won’t – until you give it your all.
cyclespeak And where do you see yourself on that journey?
Sami I’ve still not completely figured out what’s my vibe. I didn’t think I’d like commercial photography but these last two shoots for big brands I’ve absolutely loved. They were wonderful clients in giving me free rein – I didn’t have a shot list – so it felt like they’d put their trust in me.
cyclespeak You enjoy an open brief?
Sami Yes. It’s like for a recent cycling collection I’ve just shot. Super commercial but I gave them this idea that we could rent a motorhome, go to the desert, camp out and ride bikes. Basically shooting on the go.
cyclespeak Personally speaking, how much is a sense of storytelling and narrative an important element to these projects?
Sami For me, it’s super important. For the brands, they don’t always ask for it but they all want it.
cyclespeak I love that.
Sami Right now, this storytelling style of shooting is mind blowing. Everybody’s doing it.
cyclespeak Whenever you’re pictured outside – walking, riding, running – very often you have a brilliant smile that lights up your face. And this made me think about a post from earlier this year when you referenced much darker thoughts and feelings.
Sami I’ve spent time on both sides. I’ve been the happiest person ever and the saddest. And I can think of certain people that wanted to drag me down the wrong path but I think that happens to a lot of people. And the only thing that got me through, was opening the door and going outside. Not necessarily to do sports but sometimes it was a matter of just being out in the fresh air. To find my true self, it’s never going to happen inside a house. I could stay inside – alone with my thoughts – and look at the same wall for a million hours and not feel any better. But if you go out and talk to somebody – your friend, your dog, your horse, even someone you don’t know – then this can make a real difference. It’s like a door that opens or stays closed.
cyclespeak I guess an open door lets in light? Which brings me to your recent collaboration with Megamo bikes—a custom Sami Sauri paint job for one of their full-suspension mountain bikes with a theme of ‘sunset’.
Sami I suddenly got this idea in my head about painting a sunset on a bike. To me, the best time of the day because I just love all that colour—not so much on me but definitely on a bike [laughs]. I’m good friends with Megamo and they’ve been super helpful over the past year. Just before I went to Egypt, one of the guys on the trip broke his frame in Barcelona by crashing when we were eating pizza. We got a bike from Megamo in under 12 hours so the trip could go ahead and all their generous help made me want to return the favour.
cyclespeak So what is it about sunsets that you love so much?
Sami I’d much rather ride in the evening. In the morning I’m very active mentally and in a creative mood and want to get things done. But when I finish for the day, I can go out and ride into the sunset – it sounds a little like a movie – and that acts as a reward or a pat on the back.
cyclespeak You’re always on the go – always busy – so how do you unwind?
Sami I’m not sure I do switch off [laughs]. Maybe when I sleep? And part of me thinks that if I stop, I might miss something [smiles].
cyclespeak I think that’s a state of mind a lot of people would recognise.
Sami But I have started reading again—time with no phone or screens. And that’s why I like going on holiday to somewhere simple that doesn’t take lots of decisions to enjoy. Somewhere I can surf or go hiking.
cyclespeak So do you prefer a 5 day, 5 week or 5 month plan for living your life?
Sami Hmmm. Fuck. It has to be 5 day because nothing ever goes to plan [laughs]. I can receive a call today and I’m leaving for somewhere else. It’s crazy!
cyclespeak There’s a post from earlier in the year where you write, ‘Do what you love and love what you do.’ Is that a fair description of how you’re currently living your life?
Sami It’s not like I’ve always known what path in life I will take. But then somebody handed me a camera to film, photograph and ride at the same time. So I’m grateful for those special people that I’ve known—the ones who after years still see you as you are.
It’s not been easy – there were times when I was working three jobs just to eat and put a roof over my head – but I’ve made it this far and I want to live every moment as if it was the last one.
“A couple of years ago I was riding my track bike down the street from my house. I had my hands off the bars adjusting my helmet and my feet were locked in the toe-clips. All of a sudden the seat post broke in two and I cartwheeled off the bike. Landing on my ass, it took me a moment to realise what had happened before I dusted myself down and walked back home—the frame in one hand and the saddle in the other.”
For someone with such a relaxed approach to cycling, photographer and videographer Jean-Baptiste Delorme’s introduction to riding was anything but. After being presented with a new mountain bike at the age of 12, he was sent off to take lessons at a local cycling club. Already skateboarding and relishing the freedom of practising whenever he wanted, Jean-Baptiste (or JB as he’s more familiarly known) disliked the rigid routine of the bicycle training to such a degree that he stopped riding altogether.
“I hated it and still have bad memories of that time. But a few years later, my Uncle invited us for a week’s vacation in Morzine in the Alps. You could rent downhill bikes and this I loved!”
Having discovered how much fun cycling could be, JB took to riding the hills around Auvergne where he lived at that time. A year later saw a move to Montpellier to study architecture and a switch to riding a track bike following a chance encounter with another student from his school.
“I tried his bike, really enjoyed the feel of it and like everyone else was doing, I got my own road-bike conversion. And then one night I saw a group of young people out riding on the street. I mentioned this to my friend and he told me it was a crew called La Nuit Noire* that met up after work. Making contact, I started to ride with them and soon discovered how much I loved being part of a group of friends rather than a traditional cycling club. In a sense, it took me back to when I used to skate—just hanging out and pushing ourselves to see what we could do.”
*The Dark Night
Having previously studied photography before architecture school, JB lost motivation without a defined purpose for the imagery he was creating. But now, with his friends from La Nuit Noire, he discovered a newfound desire to document what they were doing as a crew.
“It was creating images for social media and to make some prints that pushed me to pick up my camera again. And then after graduation, I chose to work in photography and video. My Mum still asks me why I did the studies but never worked as an architect. But I tell her I regret nothing because there were aspects of the course that I’ve since found very useful. Studying architecture, you’re encouraged to ask yourself questions with regard to the process and the endpoint—if I do this, for this purpose, what will be the outcome? So maybe it’s provided me with a way of thinking that I still subconsciously make use of in my work?”
Mentioning the stereotypical cycling imagery of roadsides lined with fans and riders’ jerseys covered in the brand names of sponsors, JB conjures up this visualisation to illustrate why he instinctively prefers a simpler aesthetic and a more minimalistic approach to representing movement—a pureness in sport that he finds particularly beautiful.
“I grew up watching skate videos and they’ve always been a big influence on my work. You see things differently because they use the space in a certain way and there’s a rhythm to the movement. So I try to create a tension in my pictures—a graphic approach that’s pure and free. Much in the same way that a track bike is stripped back, it’s about removing what disturbs the eye from a composition and taking away any unnecessary noise.”
Working in both photography and film, JB believes that both mediums can be used to convey an emotion but expressing this in video is more challenging as it requires a bigger team of people to create a quality product. That unlike photography – where it’s easier to control all the different variables – with film it’s harder to get exactly what you want. An analysis of method that JB extends to how he shoots from two opposing perspectives.
“Static viewpoints are good for more composed images. When I have a specific idea and I say we’re going to do this and this and this. But I really like shooting from a bike because it feels more spontaneous. Like you’re floating with the other rider – a sense of a shared experience – and you can move around to see how the light works from a certain angle. And sometimes you get lost and the photos have an element of surprise. A combination of luck and locality that can add that magical ingredient.”
Preferring to shoot with a mirrorless camera, much of JB’s recent work was captured with a Sony A7iii—the tilt screen proving invaluable in allowing him to position the camera away from his eye when riding.
“What makes a huge difference when you’re shooting on the go – it can get a little sketchy – is knowing your camera is up to the job. It’s important to have really good autofocus but there’s still a certain amount of praying that the images turn out how you want. So if I’m shooting from the bike, I’ll move around from spot to spot, just following the rider wherever they decide to go. When I have the feeling that the light and the environment is interesting, then I’ll shoot hundreds of photos in a short period of time knowing that maybe only one or two will express what I want. Fixing in a fraction of a second a mix of light and attitude that gives context to the moment—a little like casting your fishing line in the hope that you’ll catch something interesting.”
Without my bikes, I wouldn’t get done half of what I do each day. I’d be stuck in traffic.
With an All City track bike for short rides around his home city of Montpellier – rides that JB says put a smile on his face – his main bike is a Bombtrack Hook EXT equipped with a frame bag and flat pedals that he uses for commuting, riding gravel or the bike packing trips he loves to take.
“For me, riding is a lot like skateboarding. A good excuse to create something, to have fun, to meet people and explore what’s around you. But even though my whole world has been built around cycling, it’s not an end in itself. I would rather have a 10km ride to reach a cool spot and the rest of the day hanging out with my friends, than spend the whole day riding but not talking to anyone.”
“It’s funny,” concludes JB, “that some French people watch the Tour de France just to see the countryside. What I want to do in my work, is to give people the inspiration and confidence to ride their bikes for all sorts of reasons and not just for sport. A bike is the perfect tool to live your life and I want to communicate that sense of opportunity and freedom.”
With worldwide concerns over mental health never more prevalent, producer and storyteller Sami Sauri’s first independent film production is a clarion call for the benefits of spending time outdoors. Catching up with Sami from her home in Girona, and with a conversation punctuated with bursts of laughter, we discuss the personal nature of this poignant and beautifully realised project, her own lessons from lockdown and how it feels to see yourself on screen. So sit back and enjoy a thrills (and some spills) tour through Sami’s past year.
cyclespeak The last time we spoke over a call was way back in March when Spain was in full lockdown. And I was wondering, looking back over all this time, how was it for you?
Sami Fucked [laughing]
cyclespeak That bad?
Sami I think maybe it’s been tough for most people? And in some aspects, I’ve been fortunate. Lockdown didn’t make that much of a difference because I was already working from home. I’ve since changed to having a co-working space so I can separate the professional and personal aspects to my life. But back when we were in the strict lockdown, I basically had to solve all my problems and had the time to think. To think about a lot of things [laughing].
cyclespeak Possibly too much time?
Sami That, for me, can be very difficult. Because if I have things on my mind, normally I would just throw myself into activities. But we couldn’t even go riding and I’d been training really well. I tried to keep the intensity going but I don’t really like to ride inside on a trainer. It’s not really my thing. So riding-wise I was a little bit down, but I still wanted to move my body, so a lot of yoga. And I suppose the biggest outcome of all of this, is that I really know how to be alone. Before, it was a hassle, but I’ve learnt how to be by myself, in my own space. And as I’ve been injured for the past four weeks, it’s fine. I can deal with it. Before, I would have freaked out by now [laughs].
cyclespeak Over the past year, I’ve listened to a few podcasts featuring professional cyclists who tried to keep to their training blocks but on the smart trainer. And then two weeks became two months and they needed to alter their mindset when it came to their levels of fitness. They found they couldn’t maintain such a rigorous training regime without some defined goals.
Sami Totally. There were some strong people that could do it, but not me [smiles].
cyclespeak Even though the impact of the pandemic has been quite unprecedented, it did encourage people to be very creative in the way they approached cycling—ideas such as Dirty Kanzelled which had a massive impact. An event that you’d actually raced the previous year.
Sami That was Laurens ten Dam. The cleverest outcome from a cancelled race you could imagine. It was insane how much reach he got. Super, super smart and maybe an approach we’ll need to take this year if things turn out the same?
cyclespeak I was fortunate that, even during lockdown, I was allowed to do a solo ride once a day. But you couldn’t exercise outside at all. That must have been difficult?
Sami 52 days in total without outdoor sports. And then, when we could go outside, we had to stay within our own municipality.
cyclespeak And I’ve seen your recent posts with you on crutches and wearing a big plastic boot. What’s been going on there?
Sami As I said before, 2020 wasn’t exactly my best year [laughing]. Back in October, I was going out horse-riding and it was a young horse and he just took off with me on top of him. We were in a parking lot so he could get used to the noise of traffic, and something must have spooked him. His ears were back, which is never a good sign, and he was running towards the road so I tried to turn him and lost my balance and fell. But rather than just falling off, my foot was caught in the stirrup and it was just like a Western movie with me being dragged along [laughs].
cyclespeak I guess it wasn’t so funny at the time?
Sami It took a big hole out of my knee and the first time in my life that I’ve needed stitches. I had to wait 10 days to have them removed before I could ride again. But a few days later I was out on my bike and I was stupidly looking at my phone – swapping it between hands – and I crashed.
cyclespeak So that’s injury number two.
Sami I was booked on a flight to the Canaries a couple of days later but had to postpone the trip. When I did finally make it out there, I had 20 amazing days working on a new video project before flying home. But then my foot slipped when I was out trail-running and I broke some ligaments.
cyclespeak Horse, bike, running. You’re kind of covering all bases?
Sami That was my 2020. And it’s funny because I’ve just signed with Merrell as a partner for their running shoes. Super cool and we were working towards the release of the collaboration and the irony is that I’m on crutches [laughs].
cyclespeak You mentioned a new video project. That sounds exciting.
Sami Well, I’ve kind of got this history of working with video. Both in front and behind the camera. And somebody just suggested that I do something for myself. My first reaction was, naahh, there’s no way. But I kept coming back to the idea for six months until I thought that maybe I should. You always hate your look or your voice when you see yourself on a video but I decided to go for it.
cyclespeak So what was the first step?
Sami I contacted a photographer called Sergio Villalba in the Canaries. He does amazing surf shots, and I knew he was starting to do videos of cycling. So we got in touch and I explained that I wanted to do this inspirational film to empower people to engage in outdoor sports. He was immediately onboard with the idea and we decided to shoot the footage on Lanzarote. It took three days, and we’re now ready to release the film.
cyclespeak You must feel so proud?
Sami It’s really hard when the project is about you [laughs]. And to be honest, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. David Millar helped me by looking over the text but even as recently as yesterday I had a complete freak-out. Asking whether he thought it was correct? If the video even makes sense? Does my accent work, speaking in English?
cyclespeak So you produced and directed the film. Did you script it too?
Sami I wrote a long text with notes about my feelings. It was originally twice as long as the final version. But I decided it needed some gaps otherwise it’s basically just me chatting. And even though it’s still quite personal, there was a lot of insight into my life and it was like, oh shit, maybe that doesn’t need to be included [laughs].
cyclespeak But you still took the decision to refer to your childhood in the narrative?
Sami I feel like a lot of people can relate to this. And one of the most difficult things is not having regrets, right? So this all leads into the message of the project. That no matter what, the outdoors is a healthy way of recovering and filling you up with good energy.
cyclespeak Did you write the script and then fit the shots? What was the process?
Sami The basic idea of encouraging people to enjoy being outside came first. Then I wrote the script before sharing it with Sergio. From there, we worked on a list of shots, and he knew so many amazing locations as he’s from the Canaries. All these different aspects were then tied up to match the mood of the moment.
cyclespeak The result is really beautiful.
Sami We used an actual 8mm camera – that’s not a filtered effect – which looks really cool.
cyclespeak How does it compare producing someone else’s film to your own?
Sami Good question [laughs]. If it’s not your project, you’re not necessarily working with a style you want. On this project, I had the freedom to experiment and try out different approaches knowing that it was my own time.
cyclespeak It’s quite a journey from first featuring in films to now working on your own projects. Does that feel satisfying?
Sami Totally. The idea is that this project will lead to more adventures for me this year. So this film is the first but definitely not the last one [smiles].
As Komoot’s community manager for Spain, Sami Sauri has recently settled down to a comparatively 9-5 routine (if you count Sufferfest collaborations with Wahoo and making plans to ride with Specialized as everyday life). And finding she had some vacation time over winter but wanting a holiday rather than a new project, Indonesia was decided on as the destination. With no filming schedule or post-production commitments – Sami just taking a camera to capture her days on the road – this was to be a biking holiday with her friend Jack and an opportunity to soak up and experience an unfamiliar culture.
Now back in Girona but housebound due to the Coronavirus lockdown, Sami took time to reflect on her trip and chat candidly about the intense heat, her interactions with the local population and why it’s perhaps inadvisable to eat in low lit restaurants.
Oh, man. I enjoyed every single moment of this trip. Well, nearly every minute [laughs]. It was my first time in the Far East and my first time riding in such a humid environment. And they drive on the other side of the road which also took a little getting used to. So everything was very different but also incredibly photogenic. I just wanted to stop everywhere to take a picture. Which can sometimes get a little tricky if you actually want to complete your journey [laughs].
But if you see something amazing, you kind of want to document it?
It’s a balance because we did have a plan. An A to B route with a flight to catch when we got to our final stop. So we couldn’t not get there.
How did the idea for the trip come about?
I’d talked to Jack [Thompson] about going somewhere over winter. He rides as a living so is fairly flexible and I was owed some vacation time so we just decided to go for it [laughs].
And why this particular destination?
Jack had a good contact in the Bali tourism office and we thought it would be fun to spend Christmas somewhere sunny. Not something I’ve ever done before. And because I had a few spare days we also planned to have time on the beach so that I could surf. So we had 10 days for riding and another 5 for Christmas and just chilling out.
You mentioned that Jack rides bikes for a living?
On Instagram he’s @jackultracyclist. He thinks up these crazy challenges like doing three Everestings over three days in three different countries. Or riding 1,200 km from Girona to Portugal in 56 hours non-stop.
With Route 66 you’ve done some pretty big rides yourself, so riding together on this trip, how did your personalities bounce off each other?
To be really honest it was interesting because all my other long trips have been with Gus [Morton] and we’d be filming and working on a project. Indonesia still had the element of photography but it was like starting from zero and learning about each other. And we did have one little meltdown.
Of course [smiles].
Yeah, of course [laughs]. It happened before when [Gus and I] were filming Thereabouts and I think it would still happen if it was just two friends. You’re a little tired and irritable and you need some space but that’s hard to do if you’re travelling together. So we had this one night and then in the morning it was fine again. And Jack’s a very easygoing person in general and he speaks Balinese – is that a language [smiles] – or is it Indonesian?
That must have come in handy.
He was speaking with the locals along the route which was really cool.
Your photographs show a variety of very different landscapes. Farmland and rainforest but also arid and rocky highlands.
Jack had this route figured out that linked together all these volcanoes. The first one we rode up is the most active volcano in Indonesia. Impressive because people are just living right below its ridge. All these little houses and places to eat jumbled together and the most recent eruption was only in 2011.
That’s quite recent?
Yeah, right [laughs]. And we rode right up to the top.
So you had this route planned out but what were your first impressions when you flew in?
It was 9:00pm at night, I wasn’t even moving and I’d started sweating. So I was, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die.’ So hot that I was really concerned whether I’d be able to ride. But then we took a taxi and as we drove away from the airport you could see the people in the street and all this life going on outside. So energetic and vibrant that this sense of excitement took away any worries.
It’s very noticeable that many of your photographs feature the people you saw on the road or talked with in the towns and villages.
Thanks to Jack it was a little easier to communicate. And the first three days we were still in modern Indonesia. There’s a lot of tourism on Bali island so you get the recognisable restaurants and supermarkets. But then we took the boat across to Java. And suddenly, no tourists.
That must have been quite a contrast?
Indonesia has lots of different cultures and religions and in the fishing town where we were dropped off you could see evidence of this in the sights and sounds of everyday life. And then we pitched up and I’m wearing a t-shirt and shorts – it’s super hot – and girls would stop and ask to have their photograph taken with me as this was the first time they’d seen a woman with tattoos.
The centre of attention?
Absolutely. We’d be riding and people would pull over their car to take a photo. Some of them could speak a little English and everyone says hello. Wherever you ride in Bali and Java; hello, hello, hello [laughs].
The colours in your images are also incredibly vivid.
The landscape was super varied as we rode. A lush green that gradually changed to the oranges and browns of rock and sand the higher we climbed. A very sensory environment with woodsmoke and the smells of cooking from early in the morning.
Is travelling by bike a common sight?
There’s an established community of cyclists in the big cities. But in the more remote areas, sometimes they’d spot you and shout the whole family to come out and see.
And you were stopping off and eating on the road?
I’ll be honest. It was hard. For me, it was the first time I’d ever travelled to this part of the world. So I didn’t really know what to eat. Jack had more of an idea and he’d recommend this or that. And we ate a lot of ice cream to cool us down [laughs]. One evening we were in a restaurant on the beach and it was pretty dark. We’d ordered this plate of rice mixed with different types of vegetables. Everything is usually covered in chillies and I’d asked if they could keep them separate. But then what I mistook for a carrot…
I can see this coming.
…was this huge chilli. And I hate spicy things. I just can’t deal with it. And this blew my mouth wide open and next morning I woke up with a massive allergic reaction. My face was blown up like a balloon. And this was also the same day I had the meltdown with Jack [laughs]. But we had a flight booked so I had to keep riding and then we had this torrential rain so it really couldn’t get any worse. Rivers of water flowing down the streets; it was impossible to ride. So we just took a taxi and headed back to Bali where I enjoyed a few days of surfing. A nice way to end our holiday.
Looking back at the whole trip, what were the most memorable moments?
The friendliness of the people definitely stood out. As for the riding, we had some steep-ass climbs but then you’d get an awesome downhill section. An unbelievably beautiful landscape where we’d turn to look back and see a volcano rising up out of the rainforest below. The spicy food I’m not going to include in this list [laughs] but everything else was pretty amazing.