Bicycles in the Field

While the Co-Habitant and I have separate dayjobs, we also work together as an artist team. The artwork we make is hard to summarise, but, among other things, it involves photography - usually in far-off, remote locations. The distance to the locations, the remoteness, the amount of photo equipment and props we use, and the need to be on location at a specific time so as to get the right light, make driving the most suitable means of transport to the sites. However, we now have at least two photo-shoots planned that are close to Boston, and the distances to these locations (13-15 miles from home) are reasonably cyclable. Prior to doing the actual photo shoot, we normally take a reconnaissance trip to the location - to take test shots, to get a feel for the light, and to try out background compositions. These trips don't require much equipment, and so we decided to try to do this on our bikes.

It took over an hour to arrive at the photo-shoot location on our roadbikes. While we have cycled that distance many times before, it has always been in a recreational context, never for work. Here are some notes as to how this was different:

It was difficult to focus on creative thoughts with my leg muscles working overtime (hills) in the summer heat. Instead, my focus is mostly on the physical process of cycling and on monitoring traffic conditions.

Also, I realised that when we cycle together we tend to talk about cycling-related matters - a habit that proved difficult to break! When we drive to photo-shoot locations, we use the trip as an opportunity to have in-depth conversations about our work. We did not succeed in doing this while cycling, as the topic of conversation kept shifting to bikes - that is, when it was possible to talk at all.

Upon arriving on location, even after a rest, it was difficult to focus on work. We were in a forest, dissected by foot-paths covered in gnarled tree roots and pine cones. The Co-Habitant got excited at the opportunity to cycle off-road. I became frustrated - both because I was too afraid to do it, and because that wasn't what we were there for. I insisted that we walk the bikes and search for potential scene backdrops instead. He agreed, but I could tell that his spirit yearned for off-road cycling and he wasn't truly able to keep his mind on our project.

Finally, we happened upon a grassy clearing with wildflowers, and now it was my turn to get distracted. I was supposed to be taking test shots of the location, but I could not resist the opportunity to take "bike portraits". Neither could the Co-Habitant. We ended up posing our bicycles amidst the flowers and then cycling around the grassy meadow, just to get it out of our system. Pathetic!

In the end, we did take the test shots we needed, and even came up with plans for the perfect backdrop. But the process took all day, and we repeatedly struggled with staying on task. The lesson? Well, I guess that we have a hard time combining fieldwork with long bike trips, as the latter is not only exhausting, but fosters a cycling-specific atmosphere that is difficult (for us) to break out of.

That is not to say that we are giving up and will take the car on such trips next time. Rather, I am trying to figure out how to prevent the same conflict from happening again. As much as I love bicycles, they are (believe it or not!) not the center of my universe, and my artwork is infinitely more important to me. I would like for cycling to be a tool that will help me with fieldwork, without sucking all the attention away from it. Just need to figure out how exactly to make that happen.


  1. interesting observation re: work and cycling. i have somewhat similar experience lately. on the really nice days lately, i've been taking lunchtime rides at work alone, rather than use the time to chat with colleagues over lunch. i thought i'd be able to use the time to process work-related mental tasks and come back to work fresh and focused, but instead all it does is get my mind drifting into bike-dom, and i return completely removed from work, mentally. i find when i return it takes me at least a half hour to regain my focus. this doesn't happen when i simply use my bikes to do errands on weekends, but in the middle of the workday when i'm supposed to be immersed in my work, it actually interferes!

  2. I always have a bike or a sketchbook with me, I never have a bike and a sketchbook with me. Same deal.

  3. I now use my bike so much as my means of transport, that I don't really think about it much, particularly not when doing a routine trip. But maybe only having one bike helps? I actually find I have the opposite problem - I get absorbed in my own thoughts and forget to watch out for traffic etc. - okay on the quiet rural roads, but I have to switch back to my 'bike head' for when I get into town or risk getting squashed

  4. Firstly, I think it's good that bicycles are not the center of your universe! I do see the problem of distraction though, and the off-road part doesn't really make it easier to use the bicycle. Plus, I'm not sure if I would like to transport expensive (and heavy) cameras on my bike, but I suppose for a test shots that doesn't matter so much.
    I'm not sure of how to break such habits, but if you want to carry on like that I wish you good luck. After all, the main purpose of the bicycle is to get you there and back, not more.

    Btw, when I was still running (3 times a week), I always tried to think about work, but it never worked out because I was too distracted and focused on my motions. After a while, however, I figured out that it was much more efficient when I just saw the run as a recreational time (no thinking about work!). Suddenly I managed to be really productive _afterwards. (Hm, maybe I should start running again :-))

  5. townmouse - When I am alone, I don't really focus on the bike so much; neither does riding around the city for work errands cause this. I think when we go together *and* it's long distance, it creates a different atmosphere. The "touring" and "group ride" scripts kick in.

    Anna- I agree that "the main purpose of the bicycle is to get you there and back, not more" as opposed to make life revolve around it. There is nothing wrong with loving your bike, or with having several of them. But I wouldn't want for my bikes to take central stage in my life.

  6. Being a writer, I find that sometimes I need to be focused on something other than what I'm writing. I think that "cleansing" is a part of my creative process in a Zen sort of way (though I don't think of myself as a Zen practitioner.)

    Perhaps it's different for your work, simply because of the equipment and logistics involved. It could be that your and your co-hab's creative processes will change in some way.

  7. Beautiful photos, especially the first one of you and the bikes.

    I had to laugh at the tension between you and Co-H when he wanted to off-road. That sounds like something that would happen with me and Greg. Also, the irresistible temptation to take bike portraits :)

    I don't have any experience with this type of situation, so I have no suggestions, but I really enjoyed this post. Very interesting to read the roles that bikes play in different people's lives.

  8. Somervillain - I have the same experience when I go on bike rides during lunch. Usually I end up really sad to be back in the office. :)

  9. Such lovely photos and idyllic places. I wish the boyfriend would get on a bike and go places with me...but no such luck! London seems to be too scary for some on a bike.

    I totally understand the constantly wanting to go on about cycling and bicycles and other cyclists...but this tends to irritate the boyfriend to no avail unfortunately...though, like you say, cycling is not the centre of my universe either...just a very fun part of it!

    On another did you manage to not get a sore bottom cycling off road.
    I cycled along the Thames path in London (by the river) the other day and it's not the smoothest of tracks...I ended up very sore and am now seriously considering padded cycling shorts...though I'm not so keen on the 'look' if you know what I mean!

    I absolutely love your blog and your bikes by the way. xx:)

  10. W. Typist-consider a sprung Brooks, after proper break-in.

  11. I second MDI. Looking at Alison's picture, I would say you definitely want a wider, sprung saddle.

  12. Woollen Typist - What MDI and Herzog said. I would add that I've tried padded shorts, and after the first 20 minutes they only made things worse.

    Anyone want to buy some secondhand Pearl Izumi chamois knickers?? (I kid, I kid!)

  13. I expect this will get much easier as you have more experience bicycling and you are used to using them purely for transportation without focusing on the hobby aspect.

    I also imagine that at the end of this summer or certainly next year it may be easier to go 20 miles carrying equipment without the same physical strain - this should make it much easier to focus once you arrive.

    Conversely, while in traffic, I think bicycling will always take more attention and awareness than many people devote to driving (they should pay attention driving, but many do not), but once you arrive you should be fine.

  14. Stephen - I already cycle primarily for transport, for the most part. I've been cycling for transportation for over a year now, pretty much daily, without feeling that this conflics with keeping me on task. My trips for commutes and errands are of reasonable distance (under 5 miles 1 way), and I cycle in my regular clothes on an upright city bike.

    In addition to this, I also cycle recreationally when I have the time - taking a faster bike, wearing sportier clothes, and covering far greater distances. I think what happened on the trip described in this post, was that the type of cycling we did activated the "recreational mode" and not the "transport mode". But the only way to change that would be to break the dichotomy in my own mind - which is hard to do, since my pattern of behaviour continues to reinforce it (cycle for transport on upright bike short distance vs cycle for fun on roadbike long distance).

  15. Hello,

    First I'd like to say that i enjoy your blog i just found it yesterday when i got a mixte jetter bike which i tried it today for like 15 miles that's the first time i went so far before the farthest i've ridden a bike maybe 4 miles. haha. that said the photography is really good and i see that you are a photographer which came to my mind when i saw the pics that you've posted. Congrats on this blog and hope theres more to see in the upcoming days.

    Also do you know anything about the mixte jetter bike? it has a front decal that says jetter, somerset new jersey, and its a lug frame. I couldn't find much info about online. Thanks!

    Greetings from Michigan


  16. It's interesting looking back at this post, in which you state that bicycles are "not the center of [your] universe." I wonder how much that view has changed... ;)


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