About

 

Every morning, rain or shine, winter, spring, summer, and fall, I go for a ride on my bicycle, up at sparrows and out the door for a thirty-mile slice of fresh-cut Sussex countryside before breakfast, double or even triple that on lazy summer Sundays.

I do this purely for pleasure; there’s nothing here of the dedicated wannabe, out there putting in his long, lonely pre-dawn miles, training for the next big race or time trial. I’ve never raced a bicycle in my life. I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to do such a thing. Cycling for me has never been about competition and pressure, the structured regime of training or the intensity of a race; it’s always been my escape from that sort of hustle and bustle, a chance to slip away for a while into a gentler, slower, pedal-powered world, one that is still rich in detail and ripe for discovery. As a photographer I like to bring my camera with me to bring back  images of this pleasant little world and celebrate the beauty, simplicity, vulnerability and solitude of getting about the world on two skinny wheels.

These morning rides are my quiet time, pleasurable hours spent exercising my imagination as much as my legs. I like to be on the road by four-thirty, if I can so I’ll have plenty of time to go long. Four-thirty is a beautiful hour of day to be abroad on a bicycle, spinning along an English country lane, entirely on your own, free, clear and beholden to no one, while all the rest of the world is asleep. In the summer the sky is aglow with a creamy pink light, the sun making ready to rise and a dawn chorus of birds chattering in the hedgerows; in winter its cold starlight, the moon shimmering through bare branches, ice in the puddles and snowflakes swirling in the beam of my headlamp.

Either way, it’s exhilarating. By the time I roll up to the house again two hours later, put the bike away and get the kettle on for coffee, I feel like I’ve been somewhere, had an adventure. And being a writer and photographer by profession and by habit, I want to write and photograph these things, share them with others. Alas, the magazines for which I usually write and shoot have only limited needs for cycling stories, whereas I have ten thousand miles a year worth of cycling-inspired thoughts and images I want to put to print. And so this blog – my outlet as a cycling photographer, and a celebration of cycling photography ~ Roff Smith

My Bicycle (s)

My oldest is a black-and-cream Thorn eXp expedition tourer with about 80,000 miles on the frame and with whom I’ve shared many an adventure. It was built in Somerset in 1999 and over the years it has carried me to a lot of interesting places, from the spice markets in Zanzibar to the grand bazaar in Istanbul to Trieste to the outermost of the Orkney Islands.

In between these jaunts it has been a reliable transport and winter bike, out on the road nearly every morning, racking up many thousands of miles on the lanes in Sussex and Kent, often in the cold and dark and the misty English rain. It is strong, beautifully stable under load and utterly reliable.

My road bike, on the other hand, is a little more flighty and temperamental, but then it’s supposed to be. It’s a Pegoretti Luigino, a classic Italian road bike hand made by one of the world’s most revered frame-makers, Dario Pegoretti, at his workshop in Caldonazzo, Italy. You don’t see many of these around. I am very, very lucky to have one. I ordered it in 2008-just before Dario achieved the near-rock-star fame he enjoys among bicycle cognoscenti today, and also before the sharp rise in the Euro, two factors that have since put Pegoretti frames well out of reach of lowly scribes such as I.

The retro-styled Luigino is Pegoretti’s tribute to the great Italian racing bikes and frame-builders of the 1960s. It has a lugged steel frame, with an exquisite lugged stem, original Campagnolo drop outs and the chrome-plated double-box crown on the fork. It is no lightweight as far as modern racing bicycles go, but being a Pegoretti it is astonishingly swift and responsive. It loves hills. I love hills too when I am riding it.

Last but not least is the classic randonneur-style tourer made by Mark Reilly at Enigma, a small family-run firm of artisan bicycle makers just over in Pevensey, a small village along the Sussex coast not far from where I live. This is my dream bike, and I followed every step of it it’s creation from the first rough hacksaw cut to the final spit and polish. (for more see the essay: My (New) Bicycle and I. With its polished lugs and fleurs-de-lis, and a livery of sable and Parisian pink, is hands-down the most beautiful bicycle I have ever seen.

And I

My name is Roff Smith. Now in my mid-fifties, I’ve had a love affair with bicycles and cycling since I was a kid roaming the backroads of Carroll County, New Hampshire aboard a secondhand Schwinn Varsity. I emigrated to Australia when I was in my early twenties, attended the University of Sydney, bought myself a sturdy tourer and entertained all kinds of visions of trotting the globe on my bicycle once I graduated. As so often happens with life’s grand ambitions, this one never came about. I did the sensible thing, landed a job instead and settled into a pleasant but dull suburban continuum writing for newspapers in Sydney and then in Melbourne.

And so things might have remained but for a wildcat tram driver’s strike in Melbourne twenty years ago. Stuck for a way into work I remembered my old tourer, which by then had long been gathering cobwebs in the shed. (*See Wheels of Chance) and pedalled into the office the day of the strike. And the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.

What started out as a bit of a lark became one of life’s sea changes, reawakening the old ambitions and that jaunty schoolboy sense of optimism, expectancy and self-belief that naturally comes with steering your own course. Things began to happen. Nice things. I quit that dull newspaper job and in pursuit of an old dream went off to Antarctica, and on my return found myself a better job, as a writer with Time Magazine, and bought myself a better bicycle too, another tourer on which I went for long lyrical rides in the South Australian countryside. Still restless, a couple of years later I quit that job and with my final pay-cheque as a road stake set out on a 10,000 mile solo trek through the Australian outback. It was the toughest thing I have ever done, and the best. I was gone nine months, and finished up nearly penniless. But with the buccaneering good fortune that I will always associate with being out and about on a bicycle, captaining body and soul, National Geographic took an interest in my story, which they eventually published as a three-part series – the first in the magazine’s history – and later in book form, Cold Beer & Crocodiles. I have been writing for them ever since, as well as a host of other magazines – Time, Nature, Conde Nast, Islands, National Geographic Traveler, National Geographic Adventure and Lonely Planet Magazine.

Over the years I have cycled on every continent – even Antarctica, riding ‘around the world’ once in under ten seconds while I was at the South Pole on an assignment (*see Pole Position). These days, though, I mostly ride the leafy country lanes here in Sussex, England where I stay when I am not travelling on assignments.

  12 comments for “About

  1. January 10, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    I grew up in a village in Cambridgeshire where my Dad and his father before him had a Raleigh cycle shop and repair workshop…called B.G.Hatch and son. I remember clearly the smell of the workshop – the oil and cigarette smoke and the ranks of repaired bikes propped up outside with carefully written slips of paper to detail cost and what was done to them.

    • Roff Smith
      January 10, 2012 at 7:21 pm

      Wow. That’s pretty cool imagery – it really brings the scene alive

  2. Clare
    February 15, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    Hi there,

    If I had some bike related information that could be of interest to your website, which e-mail address would it be best for me to send it to?

    Kind regards,

    Clare

    • Roff Smith
      February 16, 2012 at 9:00 am

      I can be contacted at: roffsmith-at-gmail-dot-com

  3. Angelos Kiosklis
    March 22, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    Roff, I was hardly a reader of National Geographic or a cyclist or interested in Australia. And then I came across the issues of NG that carried your story. My life has changed ever since in many ways, and not a day passes without dreaming of my cycling tour of Oz. I had been researching the tour itinerary for years, having collected information as extreme as the moon phases, rain days, public holidays, GPS marks for rest areas and their available facilities, distances between every waypoint, telephones of campsites & roadhouses along the way, and so on. I could recite by memory nearly all villages, rest stops and other points of interest for a total journey stretching over 16K kilometers. I had it all planned, for every year that I might get the chance to make my dream come true. And then….the USB memory stick that held all this information just died on me! I did not hold a backup, because I did not want my wife ever to find out about my plans, as the plans did not include her. Now I am stuck into my miserable life and day after day I dream of my tour of Oz. My finances have gone down too, and are not expected to recover any time soon. I may just have to forget about my lifetime dream tour. But the obsession is still there, and it all started when I read your story.
    I may or may not go on the tour some day, but you have inspired me for a lifetime.
    Thank you Roff.
    And ride on!

    • Roff Smith
      March 22, 2012 at 1:40 pm

      Thanks for your kind words. I really appreciate it and am flattered to think that my story made a difference.

      But don’t give up on the dream.

  4. Pamela Netuschil
    July 22, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    Cold Beer and Crocodiles is a wonderful book that I have read numerous times, and the last was yesterday.
    I was born in Sydney in 1941 and when I read your book it brings to mind many happy adventures in the N.S.W. bush. Have been living in Reno NV for over 30 years and will go and visit Adelaide next March.
    Was glad I found you and that you are living well.

    • Roff Smith
      July 22, 2012 at 5:33 pm

      Thank you so much for your kind words about Cold Beer and Crocodiles. I am very glad you enjoyed it and that it brought back some happy memories of the bush. I envy you the trip to Adlaide. i’d love to get back there. It is a lovely city. I still have some nice land in the Barossa Valley I hope to build on one day when I go back there to live.

      Again, thank you very much for taking the time to write.

    • Pamela Netuschil
      July 22, 2012 at 6:01 pm

      My goodness you startled me, I didn’t expect a reply so soon. I am laughing (which I like to do often).
      One of the reasons my daughter and I are traveling to Adelaide will be to look into buying property and to check it all out. 2008 was the last time I visited Australia. We stayed in Sydney (Clovelly) for a week, then went to Townsville and drove (wish I could say rode) down the coast back to Sydney where we hopped on a plane to come back to the States. It was a wonderful month of carefree fun.
      I don’t think of you as an American but an Australian. You have given me many hours of divine reading which I will be forever grateful.

  5. Michael Thompson
    September 3, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    Hallo Roff, Its a funny old world, I bought your book, cold beer and croc’s a few years ago from a charity shop. Excellent story you wrote about your aussie trip. I sometimes wondered what became of you, and now I know, you found yourself in what was once the most picturesque country in the world, but it is sliding away, and it is all the fault of the British mentality.
    But anyway, I would give my hind teeth to have had the opportunity to see Britain either before the great war or just after it, before the German people decided it must all be destroyed.

  6. Jan
    August 20, 2015 at 9:35 pm

    Hello Roff!
    Want to tell you I’m Reading your book Coldplay beer and Crocodiles for the 6th time. The first time was in 2005 and I still Highly enjoy reading it :). Keep it up!

  7. Gabriel
    January 2, 2017 at 6:38 am

    Hi Roff, your stories are truly inspirational. I wish I have the discipline and tenacity to follow in your footsteps but alas, I will probably find an excuse not to! Nevertheless, I will try. Thanks for the great articles. Please keep them coming.

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