Brett Rothmeyer transports us from our desks, our computers, or phones this morning and whisks us away to the 2023 Cyclocross National Championships in Louisville, Kentucky, for an action-packed medium format and 35 mm film gallery full of moments so vivid you can hear them…
With my camera bag loaded with several boxes of 120 film and a brick of Ilford HP5, I pulled out of the driveway bound for Hartford, CT; I paused, wondering how I arrived at this moment. All of the little moves and influences resulted in me lugging two cameras with a combined age of some 75 years to shoot the season’s most crucial cyclocross race. There is a “Butterfly Effect” moment in our lives that leads us to our current state, and somewhere amongst the mud, dust, and thousands of shutter actuation is mine.
Years ago, when I expressed my aspirations to become a cycling photographer, a very talented friend helped me put things into perspective. “Remember,” he said, “What you are trying to achieve is the equivalent of wanting to be an NFL photographer while living in Japan.”
I knew what he was saying was not to discourage me; he had also worked for various cycling outlets over the years, writing and occasionally shooting with well-known names in professional cycling. His frequent flyer miles were piling up, and it was merely a side hustle. “You can do it,” he told me, “but as someone once told me, you must accept living like a dog.”
Having been a resident of western Pennsylvania for my entire existence has given me a supernatural view of real mountains. I understand that they are real, but part of me doesn’t grasp how something so magical and awe-inspiring is there for us to become a part of whenever we choose. Perhaps having grown up in a society where things like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus were so embedded in our childhood has permanently skewed the collective vision of what is real instead of an illusion. Even when I’m touching the snow or granite rock, the concept that it is me, in the physical form present, and not a dream or a postcard, takes a fair amount of internal dialogue to accept the reality.
Each visit to the Croatan National Forest leaves me a little more enamored with its leggy pines and dirt lanes. The properties bordering the forest with their wooden barns and houses are often centuries-old, their tin roofs rusting from the continuous salty breath of the Atlantic Ocean. The early spring smoke lingers amongst the pine trunks from controlled burns like a ghost. It is haunting as it is soothing in the early morning sun—Dogs bark in response to a rooster crow. The water of the inlets lays black and calm but even in its most still hours, the forest whirs with insects in tinnitus effect. I can’t help but feel that I have entered through some portal into a Faulkner novel.
As I sit here looking through the rolls of film shot at this year’s Cyclocross Nationals in Chicago, IL, the feeling is bittersweet. Traditionally, Nationals marks the end of the domestic racing season, but as I wandered through the parking lot catching up with old friends, it felt more like the beginning of something. After two years of canceled events, postponements, and isolation, gathering in Chicago for this year’s race almost felt “normal.”
If you’re not from Pennsylvania there’s a good chance you have at least heard of Johnstown. Maybe it was from the lyrics of a Bruce Springsteen song, or the pages of your history books. Sitting in the Conemaugh River Valley, Johnstown was the site of a devastating flood in 1889, and then again in 1936 and 1977. Given the city’s notoriety for flooding, the staging of this year’s Higher Ground Hundo event put on by the fine people of Hope Cyclery was mildly concerning.
There is often a delicate dance when multiple creative minds collaborate on a project. Let’s take a look at the world of music for an example. The combination of two or more tyrannical artists can often be lackluster if not outright disastrous. Think of all the countless “supergroups” that have fallen decidedly shy of expectations; out of respect for the bands and the fans, we can each conjure up our own lists. There are occasions, however, when minds meld in harmonious magic. There’s a push and pull where something is born amongst the friction that otherwise was improbable. Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy come to mind immediately; the brief brilliance of Uncle Tupelo a friendship rooted in creation with a dash of competition, each vying for center stage. Of course, that same recipe would result in the demise of the band. Even as both would achieve tremendous success in their following projects, it’s arguable if it was better music.
I’ve lost hours with a pen in hand staring at the empty page in a notebook. A cursor on a vacant screen blinking, daring me to try and recount our days from Pittsburgh to D.C. without a single mention of Covid. Alas, I couldn’t even make it two sentences without avoiding the dreaded C word, and rightfully so. Covid-19 and the pandemic we are currently in the grips of have dictated all aspects of our daily lives and certainly dictated this trip’s timing. Without Covid, the three of us would likely have been on the road in some capacity or other. Steph has been touring with bands big and small, managing their merchandise sales. Ed has been a touring musician for the better part of six years and was getting ready to embark on another tour just before the pandemic striking. As for myself, I would have oddly enough found myself in Washington, D.C., just the same, camera in hand, shooting the annual DCCX race.
Tobin Ortenblad isn’t your typical 22-year-old, nor does he fit the mold of most professional bicycle racers. Sure, he has a coach and a training plan, but that’s where the path begins to blur. Tobin was born and raised in Santa Cruz, California and spent most of his formative years riding BMX bikes, building jumps and eating burritos. Fast forward a decade and he’s fresh off winning the Under 23 Cyclocross National Championship in Asheville. This year, racing in the Elite category, his results have proven that the off-season wasn’t squandered at the beach. He’s finished consistently in the top ten (or top five) at UCI C1 races and a top thirty at both World Cups. Most impressive is that he’s currently doing all this, without a pro contract. We wanted to catch up with the privateer and see what he’s been up to since his big win in January.