It’s early evening and Steff Gutovska is relaxing on an apartment block balcony in Altea. Dressed casually with her long hair framing her face, in the morning she’s due to return home to Norway after an extended period working on a number of creative projects. Mentioning how I’d previously spent a few days on this stretch of Spanish coastline and was surprised at how accepting the local motorists were when the training rides returned to the hotel along the autoroute, Steff explains how together with her partner Christian she enjoys spending winter nights in Norway watching British road rage videos. This throwaway comment just one indication of a wry take on life in general and cycling in particular—a considered and amusing perspective that encompasses her views on social media, emerging trends in cycle culture and how riding in the rain can help mend a broken heart.
I’m Ukranian by birth but after a year on a civil engineering course I left to study abroad when I was 19. Instead of basing my decision on really intense research, I went for the university with the nicest looking website. That happened to be in the Netherlands and it wasn’t even a university. It was a Hogeschool – which is more vocational – where I enrolled on their international media and communications programme. So, basically, three years of pouring one glass of water into another.
As these things happen, I fell in love but the guy didn’t. Deciding to ease my pain with consumerism and looking around for something to buy, I had no idea about riding bikes but I did recognise that fixed gear was very popular so I bought an old road bike. It was a 53cm frame—which for someone my size is impossible to ride – and it was autumn – so obviously it was raining. But the raindrops hitting my face mixed with the tears that were rolling down my cheeks and I felt so beautifully bad for myself. Somehow cycling just fitted with this delicious sense of loss and I found I enjoyed riding a little faster than I would on a heavy commuter. Six months later I moved to Madrid, took the bike with me and then, a little while later, I once again met a guy.
He had a café and they wanted photographs of customers with bikes. Deciding that could be me, I kept calling in and locking my bike very slowly until he finally noticed me. We started talking about the fixie scene – I mean, why would anyone ride a bike without any brakes – and two months later I was riding a bike without brakes. But then you hurt your knees and you try wearing lycra and riding a road bike and discovering gears are actually fun. And the boyfriend? The usual happened and I was sad and riding through the rain.
When Erasmus ended I’d already decided that I was never going back, so my parents kindly drove to the Netherlands to pick up my stuff and brought it to me. I now had to enrol in a Spanish university and chose the Business Administration faculty. But studying taxes and finances – in Spanish! – really wasn’t working so I applied to film school, got in on a full scholarship and then called my parents. Drama, drama, drama…
In terms of how I try and portray myself, I feel there’s really only one way to go. If you pretend to be super cool, people are going to be ugghhh. But if you stay humble, they can relate to that because sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down. Yes, I might have this expensive bike and be living in Norway but I also have super shitty days.
I recently posted a story about a bike packing trip through Georgia. I understand that we were six people in fucking lycra riding through the mountains in the middle of Eastern Europe but there was this guy trolling me on Instagram saying it looked like a Paris fashion show. On the other hand, you see certain well-known cyclists riding bikes costing $12,000 and acting like they’re not bothered with their look and just happy to ride in a t-shirt.
There’s a view that pretty much everything on social media is curated in one way or another. So let’s take me as an example. If I’m riding in a beautiful place and I make a beautiful photograph which I then post, is it still authentic or curated?
I feel there’s a lot of tension in the Instagram community at the moment. As if the whole cycling industry and how they use social media is this big bubble that’s about to burst. But even though everybody judges everybody, it’s only human to be liked and to be loved. Right?
I admit that I will post a picture of myself standing in front of a certain colour wall because I prefer to see 2000 likes instead of the 500 I get if I post a picture of my parents. And I have to be completely fair and acknowledge that most of the people that follow me are middle-aged men in lycra. And when they scroll on their phone – sitting in the morning eating their breakfast or having their coffee before going to work – an image of me against a simple white background will pop out more and stand a better chance of getting a like.
So I’m very aware of what drives engagement. And that’s sad but it’s also true. I mean, I don’t cry if a post doesn’t do very well in terms of a response but I have created this little world around my persona. And I’m constantly struggling with whether I should post this or that because I love it or because I want to get some likes. Maybe we should consider why the vast majority of Instagram users make a post?
It can sometimes be a case of, fuck, I haven’t posted anything for ten days and I feel obliged to do it. But on the whole, it’s still fun and a good tool to meet new people and make connections.
A few years ago I was riding with friends down the coast road south of Barcelona. Very beautiful with views over the Mediterranean but so many cars. It was pretty late as we’d been held up, it was getting dark and we didn’t have lights. All the drivers were really pissed off — beeping and overtaking far too close to us. But then, all of a sudden, no one was passing. I could still hear car horns but the cars had stopped overtaking. We decided that someone must be protecting us and then a couple of kilometres later a car passed with someone waving as they drove by. Later that evening after I’d had a shower, I got a message from this random guy who follows me on Instagram saying that he’d seen us on the road and decided to hold back the traffic. And I felt like crying. Such a nice thing to do.
I was already making videos and doing photography and the film school teacher suggested – this will come over as sooo pretentious – that I would be better waiting and entering the second year. Having a couple of months to waste, I was helping out a lot of people with photography which kind of led to little paid jobs and those, in turn, led to some more. I was then approached by a start-up that needed an intern and, by the time my course was due to begin, I was offered a full time position. So it was a case of, hmmm, fuck study.
They were basically trying to be like LinkedIn but with aspects of Tinder. My role was to travel around and make profiles of strange and weird IT companies so they looked attractive to the IT people wanting to relocate to them. But after a while this got boring so I moved to Barcelona to finish my education and did another three years of another bullshit course involving communication and PR.
But one particular highlight from this period was meeting Christian. We were following each other on Instagram and he messaged to ask if I could recommend a ‘cycling friendly hostel in Barcelona’. Reading between the lines, he was checking to see if he and his friend could crash at mine after riding from Salzburg to Barcelona. I said that it wouldn’t be a problem but miscalculated the days—realising that I would be in Slovenia on a Pas Normal trip. So I asked him if he felt like joining – which he did – and he liked it so much that when we’d finished, we travelled together for another ten days. The rest, as they say, is history—with me trying to win over his cold Scandinavian bachelor heart.
Meanwhile I was taking on the odd photoshoot and when my friend and current professional partner suggested we start working together creating lifestyle content for platforms like Shutterstock, I thought, let’s try it, why not. It took off and I’ve been doing that ever since. This new direction also coincided with a downward curve in my cycling career. I still love riding but I constantly struggle with how easy it is to lose fitness. You have a few weeks off the bike and it’s back to fucking zero. That makes you feel like shit which demotivates you even more. And it’s so hard to get back to the point where you go for a ride and think, hey, I kinda feel good.
But when I do go for a ride, I honestly feel I perform better the worse the conditions. I would never choose to leave the house to go riding if it’s raining – who would in all honesty? – but whenever we’re bike packing and it’s really shitty, I’m not going to complain. I will complain if it’s sunny and everyone is pushing and I’m dying. But if the weather is bad, I shut the fuck up, embrace it and go.
Trends and tribes
Compared to some other mainstream sports, I think there’s way more pretentiousness in cycling. Even at an entry level, you need so many accessories. A bike, shoes, helmet – the list goes on – which can be a great starting point for conversations and make it very easy to meet new people because you can always talk about bikes and kit. But on the other hand, it can encourage some individuals to act a little smug. And to be totally honest, we’ve all been there. A few years ago I was all ‘look at me’ in my Rapha or Pas Normal kit.
In terms of what’s next, I think we’re definitely going down the bike packing direction. You see lots of well-known cyclists posting pictures of themselves riding gravel and camping out under the stars—in much the same way that van life so quickly became a thing and now you can’t park anywhere because everybody is pissed at people living in a van and pooping in a park.
Maybe it’s the only way of cycling at the moment that people feel OK about? The simple pleasures of travelling by bike and feeling humble. Not washing for days on end and letting that go. I’m dirty, I smell, it’s fine.
Before, it was all about serious roadies in their lycra or relaxed mountain bikers. But even mountain biking has become really, really expensive. The bikes cost a fortune and that chilled, mud-on-my-face look is very monetised at the moment. Which probably explains why I’m a little tired of the cycling bubble. Over the years I’ve been doing photoshoots for different brands and, especially in Europe, it can get a little samey. Skinny boys and skinny blonde girls riding in the mountains. I kind of want to do it more like the American way; all shapes and sizes and colours. But not all of the European based companies are prepared to challenge their customer base. So if a cycling project is interesting, I’m happy to get involved but otherwise, I just stick to my production stuff.
With the nature of my work involving a lot of travel, I’ve been based in Spain for a few months but I’m leaving tomorrow for Norway. Faced with the difficulty of travelling back and forth during the pandemic, it just made financial sense to stay for a decent length of time rather than keep paying out for the 24 hour Covid tests. And try getting anything in Spain in 24 hours!
I know my partner Christian won’t be happy when I say this but home, for me, is still the Ukraine. Probably because I have a very strong bond with my family and used to visit every few months. Moving to Norway was my choice but I don’t have a degree in IT that would allow me to earn enough to make living in Norway more bearable. Let’s be honest, summer is amazing but otherwise the weather isn’t that great. And the supermarkets! Only two types of cheese. So it was more a conscious decision to move to where Christian works in a nice bike shop. And it doesn’t really matter where I’m flying out from. Barcelona or Oslo—it’s potato, patato. And then Covid happened and it doesn’t really matter what airport I’m not flying out from.
So, for now, I’m just happy to adjust to living in Norway. Especially as whenever you meet someone new, you hope it’s forever and I really want it to be so with Christian. We’d been dating for a while and decided we just wanted to be together. I have a Polish residence card which allows me to live in Europe and that was working perfectly fine in Spain. But then Covid happened before I’d moved to Norway and I already had tickets to go to the Ukraine so I went home and spent a couple of months in lockdown. During that time Norway announced they were closing the borders to anyone who wasn’t Norwegian until the end of August. So I was crying my heart out and Christian – as any first world, completely naïve person would try and do – was going to call the Embassy and figure it all out. But I’m Ukrainian and we’re third world and nobody gives a fuck!
In the end, I drove into Poland with my parents after lockdown was eased. We had to quarantine for two weeks with the Polish police checking on us each day. We were counted – one, two, three – and had to send selfies of us all together at different times of the day.
Next, I grabbed a ferry to cross over to Sweden because they’d declared that Covid didn’t exist and from there I got a train north to where Christian’s mum lives. He’d sent me a bike which I assembled and then changed into cycling clothes before another train even further north, 80km of gravel, a 2km walk through the forest and into Norway.
When restrictions began to ease in the summer, we bought a van and left Norway so that when we returned I would have an official entry stamp on my passport. And then it was like, fuck it, let’s get married! So now I’m legally a spouse and should be able to re-enter. I suppose we’ll find out tomorrow* [smiles].
*Steff managed to safely enter Norway and was reunited with Christian. She’s since discovered waffles with brown cheese.
Images with kind permission of Steff Gutovska, Katia Lavrova and Christian Ekdahl
Stories About Georgia