Chasing Fabian Burri

What’s a day, an hour, a few seconds, or a month?
What’s the point of time if it’s still and untouched?
Where are we now, and can it be then?

I woke up that morning from sweat and fears, dreams that fade away in the blink of an eye but a feeling that takes longer, lingers around, just for a while. I had a crash but it left no rash.
I met Fabian over a year ago, in Oman, at a race, he was wearing skinny black stuff and had a lot of tattoos, he had a mustache and looked a lot like bike messengers, or my friends from Brazil.

Lander and I immediately felt drawn to him and we knew he was gonna be chill. We counted on the messenger family thing to get a friend already. We were on our very first shoot and had no idea, or actually, maybe we did when I think about it now. I remember we went to sleep early and bought tons of fresh veggies to store in the car. We also had no beer until the end of the race, we were shy, we were stressed, we were organized, we were pro!

By the end of the race, we were drunk with Fabian.

Rwanda, February 2020, the Race Around Rwanda

If you go to races, you’ll meet this guy, there is no other way, he races more than he breathes. This is the story of how I rode 420 km to have a coffee with him while he was racing on the Bikingman Portugal 2020.

It’s not about us, it’s not about us riding bikes. It’s about the world around us, and how it morphs into something else when you become a cycling zombie, for better or for worse. It’s how the vision shifts, the mood switches, the empty minds, the over-saturated feels, the constant motion, how the land escapes, the moving figures, fleeting souls, all that surrounds you so ever briefly and yet touches you so deeply.

The wheels keep turning, the eyes keep peeling, the winds keep breathing, yet all is still, I tried meditation too, it didn’t work but this, it found me.

Rwanda, February 2020, Race Around Rwanda

September 2020 Portugal

The adventure starts where the heart shivers, for me that was only about 30 km down South, I never went further than that in such a long time. I love riding my bike but even more traveling by bike, loops are fun but also dull when compared to straight lines towards the unknown. I love riding but leaving for more than a few hours, that’s the difference between sport and adventure. And am not really a sportsman I reckon.

So there is my side of the story. I was supposed to do that race. It’s a big part of what kept me sane during the last few months. I trained for it, not well, but still, I trained. It’s a special thing to prepare for an ultra race, you can easily go to sleep every night with the same tire question in your mind, you can check up your route in all kinds of details for more than a month. Prepping for an ultra-distance race is a very solid way to keep yourself busy, the training is probably the easiest bit.

The genie got out of the bottle and took a good look at Fabian: “Son, I’ll grant you three wishes so chose wisely!” Little Fabian looked at the genie and said: “Well I only got one, I wish for my dreams to come true.”

Rwanda, February 2020, Race Around Rwanda

Oman in 2019, we were at a grand and fancy hotel, it was such a strange place after an ultra-distance race, we sat on the side of the pool. Fabian, Lander, and I for an interview. We have been chatting with Fabian before but not really properly. Fabian’s voice reveals itself, slow and charming, crooner-like, smooth as a brandy candy bar for breakfast in the throes of a bad hangover.

“We have the responsibility to travel, to see the world, to meet other cultures that are different and far from us. Maybe it’s cause I am from gypsy origins but yeah, I see this as a sort of duty, it really matters to me and it is something I want, need, and have to do.”

These races, they’re like a kid’s bedroom, Fabian sleeps there, plays there, dreams there hangs out with his friends there, it’s his sanctuary, his favorite playground, and he’s not willing to grow up fast and be out of there any time soon.

Portugal 2019 Bikingman, Fabian on the Omnium cargo

I hear people complain about Fabian. No hard feelings though, ’cause everyone loves Fabian.

But. Some. Eventually.

When racing and sharing the time to stop at a cafe with Fabian, he could become a bit impatient.

“We stopped at that bar, we were doing great progress, going fast, it was really good fun to ride alongside him, we both needed to refill and use the toilets, but Fabian ordered a coffee and then another one, he kept talking and even had a smoke and he was acting super chill. I was like come on man let’s go, this is a race we are on! It doesn’t feel like you are really in a race with him, more like a very long coffee ride… However, I don’t know how it happened but in the end, he finished the race way ahead of me!”

This is the last year of Fabian’s racing here from February 2019 to February 2020:
-OMAN Biking Man
-CORSICA Biking Man
-LAOS Biking Man
-PORTUGAL Biking Man
-JAPAN The Japanese Odyssey
-ITALY Veneto Gravel
-TAIWAN Biking Man (second place, must have run out of cigarettes!)
-CHILE Inca Divide
-CHILE Race Across Andes
-RWANDA Race Around Rwanda
-MAROC Atlas Mountain Race, scratched

11 races, 1 podium, 1 scratch, and then Fabian also rides back home in Switzerland.

20,000 km a year. Yes, a Fair Bit.

Portugal September 2020

Last-minute, I look at the tracker online. If I make the decision fast enough, I am going South towards a point going North, last minute. If I decide fast enough, I can catch him before he turns west. I can even have a break and wait for him at that turn. Now, which bike do I take? Last-minute and it quickly gets way too long… throw stuff in a bag, look up the tracker again, I am wasting time, I am hesitating.

last minute, I jump on the bike, the tailwind is pushing me up the hills, the evening air is warm and soft, the road welcomes me with open arms, I am floating down upon a cloud or so it seems. Soon it gets flat and I am cruising past the Tejo river. I will catch Fabian after sunset, at night with the gypsy, but soon my cable will snap, a killer bee will hunt my flashlight while I try to fix it and all will change in the blink of an eye.

Why pack a spare cable? It weighs nothing. I guess I will go single speed for a while. I will need to get it fixed and I will need to change my plans. I had seen myself riding for quite a while with Fabian but in the end, I will have to cut it short, drastically so we will only have time for a coffee. 425 km for a coffee with a friend, Fabian is worth 425 km for a coffee, it makes total sense that I should ride this long to have coffee with him.

Portugal 2020 on my way to Evora

Portugal September 2019

“This land is hilly as the unmade bed of a big fat ogre” I think as I am extracting myself out of the hilliest part of this race and entering the Alentejo. I received a text message a few minutes ago: “hey! See where we are on the tracker? We’ll stop here and have a nap while you catch up to us, see you in a bit.”

Philip and Fabian are way ahead of me. I had four flats on day 1, I was doing ok and then I was doing nothing.

The last race I took part in was my very first race, it was the almighty Transcontinental, not the same beast, 4000 km against traversing the whole of Europe with ridiculously hard checkpoints making it longer and harder than it should.

I scratched halfway through, some 2000km in, I decided to turn back to Brno, Czech republic cause my back felt like it was about to give up. Because I was drained from it, cause it had been 75 percent awful and 25 scary, cause I had lost my mind over it, and cause it was ugly.

As I was approaching Poland, the roads became nasty and nastier, the traffic was awful, it was hot, I was down, I had been lonely for too long, and I was not really able to enjoy that race. The thing that really got to me was the loneliness, for during the whole race I had met one rider, briefly, and that was it. I was too far behind, I had the worst strategy to stop on the first night and try to get a good night’s sleep while my heart was pounding and my nerves were tense. I didn’t close my eyes, I tried for more than six hours.

It was one of the most stupid nights in my life, everyone was probably enjoying the warm night and riding in a long procession of red fireflies through Belgium and France. I was alone in the strange Airbnb of a bus driver and a school teacher not sleeping, not moving, not doing anything useful for my race, not making sense, not making the smallest sense. I left stressed and tired and that early state was gonna define my whole trip.

It was a total waste.

I tried stopping early again for the second night, thinking I’d better catch some sleep and so I booked a hotel after an awful first day of rough routing mistakes and dehydration. I had yet another sleepless night, turning off all alarms and thinking “just get some sleep, whatever happens, get some sleep and it can still change for the best. That day I ended in the middle of a nettle field, having lost a trail I had kept trying to follow. Instead, I ending up making circles in the woods. It was just total nonsense made of ruts and thorns.

I walked a mile or two to get out of that, rode a few more and then laid, beaten and empty, on the side of the road, vaguely conscious. I would have cried if I had any tears available, the sound of kids playing about got me back to reality. I remember my brain talking to my mind himself talking to my stomach, “ICE CREAM!”

They. must. have. ice. cream. in. that .house.

I went to knock at the door, amazed at my own bold and needy attitude, a young man opened, looked at me, listened to me, excused himself for a minute, came back with a box full of kid snacks, cookies, candies, chocolate but no ice cream.

I hope I managed to hide my disappointment, the next fifteen minutes were spent back on the ground in the shade. I remember laying down on the gravel, eating, drinking then suddenly the most urgent, most surprisingly powerful need to go for number two and nowhere to do it in privacy, no hiding spot. I was on a suburban street with a lot of green but no hiding spot.

I had to go knock at the same door. It was then that I found that my energy drink and energy bars – my racing diet – mixed with no water, and the natural dehydration that follows with then a layer of sugar and snacks had turned into the strongest ever diarrhea.

I emoted a body of the smelliest emptiness in my generous host toilets and left with more shame than relief but less shame than gratitude.

Long story short, I ended up my pitiful attempt at TCR further down the road up North after a few better days in Slovenia, the Dolomites, and through Austria. It was painful, the wound still feels open, a proper letdown, I have never gotten over it but I have had many acts of revenge and I still collect them.

My first one was that day when Fabian and Philip waited for me. We did part of that race together, that was my biggest revenge; a dish served cold as they say in French. well, it was a vegan bowl, some beers and smokes shared in the beautiful coastal village of Comporta, then a morning departure together again, and some chill, but long riding on the Bikingman Race.

It was not really much of a race for the three of us, more of a long and beautiful ride, and for me, revenge, smiling revenge on that solitude I had endured on TCR. During that race, Fabian was riding a cargo omnium cause something had happened to his bike. That says a lot about Fabian, he’ll ride 1000 km on a cargo bike rather than cancel a race, although, we did put a lot of snacks on that rack.

Germany 2018, Transcontinental Race

Laos 2019

We rented scooters and headed to a spot with waterfalls and a little restaurant. We sat and chilled by the river and looked at dragonflies dancing in front of us. I ask Fabian how it all started for him, how he got on a bike in the first place.

“I was riding bikes since I remember. My friends were skating, most of them. I was riding BMX most of the time. Then I got a cross country bike when I was… dunno, a bit later and I used to go to the woods with my father. It was not competitive yet. And then I started four-cross but my father was a soccer fan so he really wanted me to do that more than cycling. I couldn’t stand football, to be honest, not my thing, so I stuck to cycling and started racing when I was fifteen. I Always had shit bikes cause my dad didn’t wanna push it too much. They had bad suspension, mechanical disc brakes. These were heavy bikes. Eventually, I stopped cycling for years when I got into music and at 22 I started again with a fixie, being a messenger, going into alley cats and stuff.”

It seems Fabian trusts his memory just as much as he trusts his skin and all the ink on it, maybe less, as each tattoo tells the story of a trip. On his left leg, there is a rather straight forward and simple line: “Souvenir de la Corse”.

Fabian teaches me Vegan 1.2, he doesn’t even eat honey because it’s made by bees and for bees and it should have stayed this way.

He never preaches about this, just answers all the questions I have for I am fascinated by vegans. When it comes to ultra racers even more…

Portugal, September 2019, post-nap cigarette

We are riding together now. Strange how memory works. I took these roads a year ago, exactly the same roads. I recognize the places where I took photos and clearly remember taking them. Some other spots, I do recognize but they have been lost inside my brain. It’s almost like I am visiting my own memory labyrinth. I didn’t remember them and yet they are so familiar. I think to myself: “you ride a thousand km and you only remember, at best, the equivalent of 15.”

Better print some on your skin or engrave them on film or something…

I think I might have ridden a maximum 30 km with Fabian in the end, and these took me a total of 420 km and 32 hours. With lousy attempts at sleeping that didn’t work but spared me some time on a bed, a shower, toilets, and the only real meal I’ve had on this trip, the hotel breakfast.

Here’s a good tip. On long distance events or just rides, always consider hotel breakfast buffets. The buffet is never more than 15-20 euros which can sound dear but is actually the best value you can find, as you will be able to eat and drink plenty and you will have healthy options.

I found that out in Italy during TCR on Brenner pass. I had the most luxurious breakfast in my life for 12 euros. There was even a juicer with all kinds of exotic fruit.

And as a Bonus, in fancy hotels, it seems no one wants to use the toilets near the restaurant, after all, why would you when you have your own private bathroom?

So you can do all your business there, must certainly undisturbed.

We rode from Evora towards Comporta. I turned back very soon with no real regret except maybe to see Comporta at day and maybe stop at that place where we had those vegan bowls and beers the previous year. Anyway, the light wasn’t there – for pictures – one gear was enough for this part but the following could become tricky as it was a very small road in the middle of nowhere. These roads look like they were designed purely for cycling. I just turned around and rode back to my hotel room in Evora, looking forward to the buffet.

Portugal 2020 At night with the gypsy

“My mom came as an orphan to Switzerland, from a gypsy family, my father is Swiss, my parents met in school and got married in their twenties. My mother always needs to move, she stays in a place for one year until she feels restless, unhappy, uneasy and she needs to move to another place so yeah, during my childhood we moved more than ten times, no kidding. As a kid, that was really tough for me and annoying, as you have to change schools, friends, and everything. I think it’s in my blood to travel around and feel at home nowhere or somehow everywhere. I guess that’s the gypsy spirit that I got from my mother, moving around all the time, in my case I do it by bike, that’s the only difference.”

Fabian works as a painter, when he started doing ultra-distance races, he quickly got hooked and nothing was the same ever. So Fabian moved to a smaller apartment and spends a smaller fraction of his salary per month. The focus is on making money to go to races, nothing else. He’s gonna be working hard to race hard, or well, party hard, and the party happens to be on a bike!

“It the simplicity of it you know, I can’t get over that, you’re there with all you need, packed on your bike, you cross countries and cover huge distances just relying on your body and it’s unconceivable how much your body can take, you do all this traveling with no luxury yet that’s the hole luxury of it! Freedom is luxury, travelling is luxury.”

“I always do the same mistake, I ride hard the first day, too hard, too long, so I am destroyed after that. Day 2 is usually really hard and then there’s day 3, open legs, every time, I ride uphill faster at a slower cadence and breathing easily. Maybe I should go to race on the bike and start already on day 3, I dunno but it’s always like this!”

Laos, May 2019, Bikingman

Maybe one of the incentives for racing is the external push it provides, when touring you might push for a shelter or a refuel or reaching your home, but on a race, you will push all the time and you will push further than that, you will push your limits. It’s easy to compete with others and even easier to let them make you compete with yourself. And at the end of the day, you are your worst or best opponent.

“The first real race was Oman 2018 and before I did a few hammock tours with my friend Treto and we fell in love with long-distance riding. I always loved the simplicity and independence of having it all with you on the bike, all you need, it’s again probably really fitting to a gypsy mentality. Oman was a big shock because of the racing, I just really love this type of racing, it’s hard to explain”

I left Fabian early morning, the sun had barely shown itself yet. I was happy not to be racing, I was happy that my big ride had been to say hi and have a coffee with him. I was happy to know him and have the chance to escape the whole social distancing through a very long distance ride to socialize in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, at a safe distance that got us very near. This was a great escape.

For a moment, I had forgotten about the outside world, reality, the new normal, and all that shit.

I got back to Evora, I had breakfast in that hotel and then I randomly called a bike shop to fix my rear derailleur cable “come at 10, we’ll be open… yes Ultegra, sure no problem” Welcome to Portugal. The guy greets me in front of the shop, brings a stool out and then a bottle of water, fixes my bike first thing, ten minutes, ten euros, I wanna tip, he declines, again and again, Welcome to Portugal.

Forget about Girona, Majorca, and all the cycling destinations you heard about, Portugal is the place, no comparisons. Remember how it feels to wake up after your first massive party, the hangover, the depression, the deflation, and the headache. I am on my way. They’re just around the corner waiting for me now that all the hype is gone.

It’s been 28 hours now since I woke up. That whole route I did with a tailwind and I am gonna do it with a headwind now. Those very long straight roads that felt so nice and safe and deserted at night, in the dark, they are now dry, boring, and there is fast traffic. A lot of trucks and did I mention a horrible headwind? Everything is reversed, and the reverse version is much less fun, nothing really works anymore except my rear derailleur.

When I get back over the river in my 70km radius region, the night is falling, this next section is the most beautiful part of the route. It’s also the hardest, with steep hills, and it’s raining now. It hasn’t rained for a long time so the roads are very slippery. I lose traction on my rear going uphill, and so I go full brake downhill but never breaching 15 km/h.

Never, actually, I think the last 30 km will take me 3 hours, as I have no more food, no more water, no more will, and I have left is an electrolyte tablet which I’ll end up eating, hoping it will help me for the last 15km… it didn’t.

The hallucinations kicked in, obviously and strongly after 41 hours with no sleep, 30 on the road, no real meal since breakfast, and no more food left in the bags or tank, they’re as bright as the night is dark, as vivid as the night is quiet. I see a giant rabbit sitting on the side of the road watching me pass by.

I hear church bells that never stop and see scarecrows climbing up on floating branches in the trees, I see someone following me but it’s the reflection of my rear light on the asphalt. I scream at dogs but they keep chasing me and they don’t seem to catch me ever, even though I am really slow. I am hallucinating under the lashing rain, it seems I didn’t need to race to get a proper taste, my brake pads are almost gone, I chew the stem and bite the bullet.

I guess am here to learn something new but I still don’t know what.

At night with the gypsy.