London to St. Petersburg by bike
September – November 2002 – Exhibited Galleri Kontrast, Stockholm, September 2003
After having my fill of living in London and a long distance relationship with my girlfriend in Stockholm I made the decision to move to Sweden. For as low as $20 (plus tax) I could fly with Ryan air to Stockholm. To take my bike would cost me almost an extra $100, instantly the wheels in my head started spinning, how unfair, there must be a better way. Why should I be taking the bike to Stockholm, when the bike should be taking me. As usual the idea started in the Pub over a pint and by the time the glasses were all empty the plan had evolved and gone slightly off course; So I took my bicycle and camera on a cycling vacation 3000km across Europe from London to St. Petersburg. I did it for the exercise, a complete workout of mind, body and soul. Losing myself on quiet country roads across Holland, Germany, Poland and the Baltics which provided seemingly endless opportunities for reflection and day dreaming. Creatively as a photographer the journey helped me erase some preconception of what my images should look like. As the season changed drastically around me so did my ability to recognize beauty . With a fresh curiosity and a new perspective everything looked new and exciting.
In a way I was lucky. Riding from Shepherd’s Bush in West London, across and out of the city was extremely nasty. No respect for cyclists at all. But it was the first day of the trip and I was just happy to be finished work and carefree. So I couldn’t complain. It turned out that riding across London was the worst traffic I would encounter on the whole trip, so after London everything was rosier.
Lacking the time to overly plan the route before my departure, I had to figure it out along the way. Part of me was probably thinking the route was a given, like the Trans Canada Hwy, just get on and go east. On a bike however highway riding is not so much fun. It’s dangerous, usually boring, noisy, and since the roads are bigger I feel like I am travelling even slower than I am. On a peaceful country road, everything is tighter and the scenery can wizz by up close. Finding the right roads was a challenge at time but a fun one.
The actual bike riding took a little to get used as well. Getting conditioned mentally and physically was challenging at first but once I found my happy place and my legs figured out which way to spin, it all became second nature. My happy place was found mentally after overcoming the fear that the task at hand was overwhelming. Part of the problem was that the map I set out with covered most of Europe. The lack of fine detail not only got me often lost on my little country roads but was also demoralizing. It made me always look at the big picture and the fact that I was only travelling 3 cm a day towards my goal was not encouraging. Upon this realization I prescribed myself the necessary placebo, very fine detailed maps. Soon I was averaging almost a map a day and travelling up to half a meter. My goal had become where I would have lunch that day, and then the next break etc, instead of Leningrad. Friends are often astonished when they hear how far I rode and I try to explain to them that it actually easier to go 3000 km than it is to go 400 km. Like pushing a car it , may be difficult at first but once its moving its much easier to keep up the momentum.
My route ended up taking me from England to Holland via the ferry between Harwich and the Hoek von Holland. Holland is often regarded as one of the most bike friendly places on earth and its true. Smooth bike paths seemed to form a tight web over the country connecting every town and community together. Naturally I got the most lost in Holland because I couldn’t always figure out which was the next little community or town I wanted to be heading to. Why they don’t mark there signs with a simple “this way to St. Petersburg, Chris” I don’t know. But most of the time the bike paths were like cruise control, just put your feet up on handlebars and watch the greenhouses go by. Once in Germany and for the remainder of the trip I mainly kept to side roads, trying desperately to avoid the shoulder’s of busy highways. The route was primarily flat, with mainly farmland with the occasional forest and broken up with week ends in Amsterdam, Hamburg, Gdansk, Kaunas, Riga and Talin.
With this series of photographs I wanted to produce a more honest representation of my trip. In the past my “travel photography” consisted mainly of interesting looking people and attractive attractions. The typical makings of a splendid vacation. This time the journey itself was the vacation. The land rolling by was my tourist attraction. The travel guide telling me what to see was to be replaced with a set of curious voyeurring eyes looking for the lost gems.
To accomplish what I wanted photographically I knew that I had to force myself to change my way of looking for a photograph otherwise I would be halfway to Russia with very little to show for it. To accomplish this I played a game with myself. With every hour on the bike I had to take at least one photograph, no matter how boring the area seemed to be. It was very difficult at first. I was still struggling with preconceived notions that around every corner I’ld find weird barns, or rustic looking farm equipment or dramatic scenery. I needed to let go and let my eyes surprise me. Slowly I was able to erase these envisioned photos and was able to accept what the rolling scenery had to offer. Joy and genuine entertainment was eventually found in the simple and everyday things that were previously overlooked.
I can recall ten years ago borrowing Uncle Bruno’s orange Opel Cadet and spending 10 months driving around Europe. I would curse every power line that ran across my viewfinder. Thinking “this would be such a great angle to photograph the castle from if only that damn power line wasn’t in the way”. Now the power line was king.
From early morning to late in evening, my days were spent on the bike with nothing else to do but slowly and carefully watch the world go by and let my mind go on a vacation of its own. As I rode towards Russia, I also rode towards winter and I noticed the landscape gradually changing around me. Not changing so much in its basic appearance, for I found farm land looks very similar across Europe, but changing in seasons. The further east and north I rode, I was riding into the cold and dark weather and architecture. Putting more and more layers of clothing on every day till there were no more and I would struggle then to keep good circulation as temperature dropped sometimes to minus 10. Shorter days, constant grey weather, bitter cold, and the death of fall was here. Bright colours sliding into autumns hues, and then all colour itself seemed to fade away. All that was left was barren frozen fields, and skeletons of trees, and fallen rotting fruits. Abandoned soviet factories and deteriorating square apartment blocks accompanied the weather everywhere I went. The cities of Riga, Vilnius, Kaunas and Tallin seemed however oblivious to the seasons and bubble over with life, and growth and big colourful ads selling everything you want and nothing you need. In the cities my cycling legs were replaced with my dancing, drinking legs, which in Baltic countries proved to be a harder than the cycling.
In many ways the trip was a very solitary experience. With long days alone on the bike, I sometimes went weeks without a real opportunity to have a conversation with anyone else. Especially in eastern europe people didn’t seem to know what to think of me. Everyone would just stare blankly. I’ld smile and nod, and they would stare. Of course sometimes people would be friendly and chat. In Germany a sweet retired couple put me up for the night. Dogs gave me plenty of love along the way. When ever they saw me coming they’d talk up storm. And if I looked a little slow and tired, they were always willing to give me a kick start and run along side eager to get a piece of my well exercised buttocks. As a result the photos didn’t contain any people, I wanted to convey this feeling of peace and solitude in the series, and take a break from soul stealin.
In the cold and snow at the start of November I rolled into St.Petersburg. All of a sudden it was over. Yes I was exhausted but I was ready to celebrate, dance and drink like a fool, have a drunken conversation with someone else than myself. St. Petersburg is a perfect city for all that and more. For many a night to come I ‘ld close my eyes and go to sleep convinced the road was still rolling underneath me.
KM TOTAL – DESTINATION
110 Harwich, Hoek Von Holland
210 Den Hagg, Amsterdam
127 Groningen Nordladen
2985 St. Petersburg
P.S. – If you think this is at cool – you have to check out a cyclist who had a true adventure which makes my ride look like a dash to the shop for milk – www.roundtheworldbybike.com