The mountain polymath
WITH ONE GEAR AND NO BRAKES
There is something distinctly inseparable between a shoot with Patrick Seabase and a certain track. Call it the theme tune to the shoot. They’re played numerous times, very loud, becoming a central part of what is created.
Take the impressive might of a mountain pass, a road carved through rock and snow by the hard work of people to connect one lost village perched on high to another. Add to that the most stripped-down version of a bicycle, a single speed and fixed gear track bike. Then weave in the varying strands of a polymath, an ultra-creative individual driven to communicate a love for riding in the mountains in a way that satiates his creativity and you get some way to picturing Swiss track bike athlete Patrick Seabase.
Within this unlikely concoction of minimalism and performance, there’s an image at odds with the status quo: one gear and no brakes against a world of compact gearing and 165mm rotors. And that’s without mentioning the mood-clips and the unsettling puffs of smoke emitted from his tyres as he skids. Seabase is an ex-amateur skater turned fixed gear star, creative mind and music connoisseur, bike shop owner and cycling team manager, but above all he is someone wholly in love with the mountains.
Palermo, Italy 2014 – Nine Inch Nails: Closer – The Fiat Multipla taxi races through the narrow streets of Palermo. It houses three people in the front. I’m riding shotgun, Seabase sits in the middle next to the animated chauffeur. Sat somewhat more calmly in the back are the client and videographer. Keen to show off his limited English, our taxi driver regales us gleefully how his phone, attached to the car’s sound system via an auxiliary cable, can access any music. Having only met Seabase for the first time days earlier, I already knew he would take the helm here to put on something apt for the evening’s rapid drive to our recommended pizzeria. As the repetitive bass drops, everyone’s energy increases. The sound system is pushed to the limit as the chorus sounds out. I look out the window at the grubby streets rushing by and wonder how this guy has the audacity to play such a track at such a volume in such a car.
Seabase didn’t take a classic trajectory into cycling. Even though his home city also boasts Fabian Cancellara as resident he has never raced. He got into riding a fixed gear track bike for something else: ‘It was all about the aesthetics, but what I later discovered was quite a profound connection to this device. It simply is the purest form of moving around on two wheels’, Seabase reiterates as we’re sat at his kitchen table, years after first working together. ‘No fitness goals — no performance aims. The simplicity of the bike caught my interest. At the beginning I used it to commute, get around for coffee and cruise around the city. A couple of months later I saw myself trying to leave the city on a 30km loop and I was struggling. After this quite negative experience, I was driven to invest more time into riding. Things progressed and 8 months later I climbed my first mountain pass; the Gurnigel — a 10km climb on a 10% average gradient.’ This baffled me. If an absence of fitness had been a concern, why try riding a fixed gear bike uphill when it would surely be easier with gears? ‘My backyard made me do it. I live near the Alps, so that inspired me to tackle some of those mountains. A natural evolution.’
That first Sicilian commission was a breath of fresh air. I’ve worked with some interesting people during my career, but the energy that comes from spending time with Patrick, as well as his jokes and antics, motivates those who want to push the envelope and join him in breaking new ground. For both of us it was the start of a new era: Seabase entered his first year as a pro athlete, with all the pressure to perform that comes with it, and I began focusing 100% on a career as a photographer and journalist.
#Seabase1910, France 2015 – The Soft Moon: Black – Sat on a bed in a sordid hotel room in the outskirts of Bayonne, a gaunt Patrick reflects on the enormity of the ride he’s just completed. His all-black riding kit streaked with sweat and dried up salt crusted on his face and arms. He’s less exuberant in this setting, physically exhausted after 300km of riding with 7,000 metres of climbing. At odds with his usual expressive self, he’s wholly unable to find the words to sum up the immensity of having just completed his biggest challenge to date: the Seabase 1910.
As he runs his hand through his matted hair once more, it is hard not to see Seabase in a different way, a more vulnerable image, tainted by fatigue.
The 1910 challenge was the first time I followed Patrick on a motorbike and it gave me a new perspective on his riding. The sheer length and difficulty of these sinuous French roads allowed me to see him fully thrive in his own environment. And while it was easy to see that he was not comfortable with the flotilla of bikes and cars following him, the enormity of this Red Bull production necessitated something different to the almost gonzo-style shoots that we’d become used to.
72 hours before this reflective moment, we were travelling to the start of his challenge in an ultra-luxe Mercedes van. As ever, Seabase had soon got his music playing. ‘Wait, wait,’ he’d say, a whirr of scrolling on his phone, ‘this track is amazing. So dark, so deep. I’ve got to use it in an edit one day.’ As the track builds Seabase throws his hands out to the windscreen on the beat. With each movement, there is a flash of the tattoos inside of his fingers. MTNS for mountains.
London, UK 2016 – Rick Ross: The Devil is a Lie – It’s 4am when we leave central London in our wake, returning to a rental apartment in a curious neighbourhood near Heathrow airport. All 5 people in the van are riding a wave of fatigue and delirium after an all-night shoot in the iconic metropolis. From dodging partygoers to yelling at mad drivers, it had been productive but now sleep was on the agenda before the sun rose. The bass tones of Rick Ross rip out on the van’s sound system. This is not Patrick’s music choice, but the bombastic lyrics fit the mood. Seabase gently mocks the music with his own additional lyrics, which builds energy within us all. There’s nothing quite like a guerrilla shoot conclusion, where the sense of achievement is amplified by the knowledge that we moved so fast and shot so well that no-one would be any the wiser. In that moment we are all ‘Bosses’ like Rick Ross himself, flexing at our own success.
I’m coming to realise that there is another major juxtaposition within cycling these days, with the rise of social media influencers coming at the detriment to real athletes looking for sponsorship. Seabase somehow evades this entirely, side-stepping the polemic with an athleticism that justifies all of his sponsors and more. Despite not competing, I’d argue he earns his income fairly from this sport. ‘Sometimes I do have to check myself,’ replies Seabase when I brought up this topic earlier in 2018. ‘With the pressure to complete bigger challenges comes the ability to slip into a world of performance. It can be too easy to get wrapped up in just that. I sometimes train with a couple of the pro riders here, so these guys push me in that sense. But I have to remember what I do and why I do it so that I can continue to be authentic to myself and what I want to get from riding.’
The past few years – 2016 in particular – have taken their toll on his body, and the severity of the damage to his knee through pronounced skidding wasn’t easy to diagnose. Rehab has seen him spending a lot of time at the gym and with specialists, looking at all areas of his recovery. But ask any athlete or artist and they will tell you that setbacks are the only way to progress. Seabase agrees.
Oukaïmeden, Morocco 2017 – Dark Math 4 – We sit around the table in our Riad in central Marrakech, an oasis of calm, mere metres from the bustle of the medina. Our team, two filmers, Seabase, his friend and helper Dave Marshal and I, have all arrived on different flights. The Riad owner is keen to join our group, begging for attention, but we need to focus. This is yet another guerrilla-style shoot — the best kind — where our first victory has been getting our camera equipment into the country unnoticed. On Patrick’s laptop is Dark Math 4, a homemade track that is the inspiration for this trip. This team has worked together on other occasions and all of us feel compelled to create something that exceeds past projects.
The climb of 70km with over 2000 metres of ascent from Marrakech to the ski station of Oukaïmeden showed Patrick in a new light. Funded and organised by himself, this trip highlighted his artistry and dedication to me. More that just an athlete, he is also a one-man marketing agency, equally adept at pitching projects to sponsors and partners as he is skidding a bike into a curve on a mountain pass. Certain influencers could learn a lot from him.
I quiz Seabase about how his relationship with cycling and role within the sport progressed. ‘I guess from my skate days and with the network of creative people that there are in my hometown of Bern it was a natural progression that I started to make videos. After the first mountain pass a core group of riders started to do more in Bern. We were keen to push the boundaries. This really appealed to my creative side; I found that there was something meditative with riding a fixed gear up a mountain. Riding a bicycle keeps me on the ground, focused on the moment and connected to the universe – with no questions left to solve. The effort and rhythm of the climb allow me to concentrate on my movements, whilst taking me into the mountains. Yes, there is a juxtaposition that comes from a fixed gear bike in the mountains; the slow grind that is climbing, contrasted with the high cadence of the descents. For me taking my bike downhill is the purest sensation of all, it feels like you are strapped to a rocket, with even the slightest input being noticed,’ Seabase explains.
Watching him on the descents in his films highlights this. Back wheel skidding sideways, his high cadence on the straight is broken with a decisive stamp, similar to that seen by Flamenco dancers, with each braking force. The mandatory puff of black smoke from his rear tyre adds to the visuals. He leaves temporary scars on the tarmac that last for hours or even days.
Pico de Veleta, Spain 2017 – Idles: Well Done – Travelling from the airport to Granada to start two days of shooting, Seabase drops this track on the car’s sound system. He proudly exclaims to me that I’ve got to hear it and that I’ll love it. Having spent most of 2017 on the road, I was a little off the back when it came to music, but as the vocalist bursts out ‘Even Mary Berry has a degree!’ I’m taken aback: how does this guy from Bern find a track and band so engrained within British culture, and actually understand the meaning of it?
Sardinia, Italy 2018 – Uniform: Night of Fear I’m sat in the open boot of the rental as the rain continues to fall. The roads of Sardinia fly by at high speed while Patrick attempts a form of self-castigation following the slipstream of this people carrier as close as possible. Water from the road shoots forward into the car from his front wheel and I have to perpetually clean the lens of my camera. For motivation we have a small Samsung speaker with us blasting out a fitting track. Harsh and intense, the raw guitar and equally raw lyrics encourage him.
He nods at Nico – driver, mentor, coach, physio, friend – who continues to accelerate the car up to 100 kph. Nico hates the music and shouts in German to turn it down, I laugh and clean my lens once more, thinking that I would have been less wet had I just sat clothed in the shower. Seabase pushes on, preparation and training for a next project in full flow, and who knows what track that will involve.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 19 where it was first printed.