UnBRAKEable, Patrick Seabase
A two-wheel surfer, a pilgrim of the Alps portrayed by the photos and words of Phil Gale
A raindrop falls, landing on a mountain pass. By chance, it lands exactly at the summit. The ensuing splash sees part of it drain down one side of the pass, and the rest down the opposite. At the exact same time a cyclist rides through the light shower, passing from Southern Europe to Northern Europe, crossing the alps for the second time that day, oblivious that these droplets of rain landing as he passes are being split, one part now draining to the North Sea, the other to the Adriatic. But that is the thing about riding in the mountains: if you don’t take the time to look around, and gain an in-depth knowledge of the giants that you’re riding through, you miss the majority of the story.
And that story is one that lies at the heart of this fixed gear track bike rider from Bern, Patrick Seabase. A story of the mountains and how they are central to what he does. But at the same time a story linked to the history of these high rocky outcrops, because they are equally as oblivious to the drops of water as they are the passing of man.
3am, Innertkirchen Dorf, Canton Bern. Silently, Patrick readies himself for the ride ahead. He checks the chain tension of his fixed gear track bike, turns on his lights, and heads onto Grimselstrasse. His support car pulls out seconds later. The town watches these moments unfold with a silent passive dominance. The slumber of its residence bears down on those present.
There is tension within the group, surely due to what lies ahead rather than the unseen sleeping spectators. 333km with close to 8500 metres of climbing, on a route that crosses the Alps twice, jumping between North and South Europe, passing through cultures, languages and climate zones. Patrick, as always, would be doing all of this on two wheels, with one gear, no brakes, and no freewheel.
When you think of Switzerland, one of the first images that will come to mind are mountains. This small country sits not only at the centre of Europe, but also at the heart of the Alps. With a spine of rocky monoliths running through it, there is no wonder that its history is so steeped in these high peaks. From local farmers to energy companies, military strategists to athletes, mountains are the unnoticed dominant force here.
Mountains are also something that are central to Patrick, an ex-pro skater who is known for his escapades in them on his fixed gear track bike. Don’t let the thought of a fixie turn you off, leading you to conclude that he is a hipster-esque character, or, even worse, an Instagramer. That would be to sell this polymath far too short.
Dig a little bit deeper, and you’ll find a creative, someone who uses the fixed gear track bike, or as he puts it “the purest form of the bike” as a tool to communicate the aesthetics and mood of amazing locations, through incredible feats of endurance. “If I was born in a country with a coast I know that I would have been a big wave surfer. Instead I ride mountains. They are my waves, my bike, my board”, Seabase comments.
But so often as the photographer, journalist and friend who follows Patrick, the focus lies always on the athletic endeavour of this individual, rather than the location. Location is something that Patrick never leaves to chance, an encyclopaedia and connoisseur of the most amazing roads, to look at only his athletic performance does him a disservice. So rather than find out about the why and how (there is a 20-minute video on that), let’s focus on the where, because it is the passage through a landscape that is the easily overlooked part of any journey.
Grimsel Pass: Moving through the darkness of the early morning, the climb seemingly passes in a moment, almost as though the energy of the night had dragged Patrick to the summit. The lower, wilder and humid sections gave way to the man-made structures, so common a sight on this ascent. Tunnels gave off their tungsten glow, almost chasing away the chill of the night dropping down from the mountains that surround this pass.
When you talk about this iconic climb you can’t miss one thing: energy. Though used as far back as the Roman times, today this areas water drainage is the reason why the Kraftwerke Oberhasli is so linked to this location. Dams, reservoirs and a massive network of underground tunnels make the road what it is today. Why? Because the summit marks the convergence of two drainage basins, the Northern slope run down to the Rhine and via the source of the Aare river, whilst the South side drains to the Rhone. It is this movement of water that generates the hydroelectric energy created by KWO.
Something potentially overlooked by those who climb the pass, this drainage has shaped the road as we know it today. The enduring image of Patrick’s single light trail passing below the main dam, lit like a James Bond villain’s hideout as the 24-hour shift kept working testament to this. The lone rider once again passes through the landscape, skirting past the deep black pools of water, unseen, unnoticed, because life continues in the mountains. The rich hues of browns, greys and burnt greens at the summit are unseen in the darkness, the Alpenflage of this pass affected by the extreme climates it faces year-round. All these elements were unseen, but their ambience was felt through the night.
Simplon Pass: As a road this location holds a long history with Patrick. Second up on his ride, it was climbed after dawn had broken. With the sunlight streaming into the valley below, the lower steep sections were soon ticked off, leaving us to look down on the city of Brig below. As ever the high peaks surrounding this road towered over us with a dominant force, and, as ever, once through the first set of tunnels the real mood of this road was felt.
The Simplon Pass is of huge economic importance to the region, because it links Southern Switzerland with Northern Italy, so the road is large and normally full of traffic. From an aesthetic standpoint, the Simplon Pass sits at the junction of imposing nature and massive engineering. High, twisted outcrops of rock, blend into the more organic curves of the pastures closer to the road. These forms are interspersed with the hard lines of human engineering. From the Ganter Bridge to the numerous tunnels, the road’s trajectory is set in such a way as to maximise the chance that humans might have at defeating winter’s cold grip, as this road needs to stay open year-round. The line of tarmac taking such a direction as to almost complement the formations of rock that surround it.
Patrick’s passage was occasionally an inconvenience to the traffic, but at most it was a small dot in the history of this region. He was yet another person darting through the jagged gorges on the Italian side of the pass, that could be classed as the definition of a natural border.
Gotthard Pass: After a short journey in Italy, passing Centovalli and the long drag through almost the entire length of Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton, Ticino, the real crux of Patrick’s route was now on the horizon. Three massive passes starting with the fortress of a mountain that sits below the Gotthard Pass. Having past bastions of religion and mass transit en-route, huge road bridges and even bigger tunnel entrances, the Gotthard Pass, via the Tremola, takes you back into nature. It is only the garrison seen upon exiting Airolo that hints to the bunker hidden within this mountain. Touted as one of the most strategic places in Switzerland, there are very few signs that this was once part of the WWII Redut for this country’s military.
The cobbled Tremola snakes its way up to the pass, where thanks to the conditions of the day we are reminded once again that we are crossing between two climates, as an icy northerly wind cuts down from high. Statues at the summit remember a time that once was; monuments to an epoch when the mountains were feared, the hostilities and risks of life up high reserved for hardy shepherds, mule train drivers looking to make their fortunes, and evil spirits.
For the first time during Patrick’s ride we get a hint of traditional mountain life. Where those living in these high pastures adhered to rules that are generations old. Wood stacked as it has been for centuries, the elements as unpredictable as ever. The only change being the ease with which these areas can be reached. But as the day started to close out and the sun sank low in the sky, we were left here with little company other than the mountains looking down on us, as they had done all day and through all the ages.
Furka Pass: Arguably the most remote and least adapted road on the route. Following the valley that heads West from Andermatt this feels like a location for locals only. Narrow and without a guard rail it teases you with its first few hairpins, before dragging on for what seems a lifetime, slowly taking you to its pass, after traversing some very rural villages.
This road harks back to a different time, when alpinism and the natural world were not what they are today. Closed hotels by the roadside monuments to travel via buses, where the rich would come to see the mountains from these extreme roads. Today, thanks to climate change, the most spectacular sight of this road – the Gletsch Glacier – has retreated. But we were not here for tourist shots. As night arrived and the mist fell, Patrick was focused on closing out his loop.
Oberaaresee 10.20pm: It was only fitting that Patrick’s route would finish at the source of the Aare river. For this Bern native, the Aare cutting its deep blue loop around the Swiss Capital is hard to miss. Now enveloped in black, the narrow road to the Oberaarsee meandered along the side of the crest, heading to the basin where the highest dam of the KWO system is found.
Patrick lit, by his support car, continued pedalling, in such darkness, the aesthetic was now gone; it was just the ambient and athletic side of his endeavour to feed us. Normally surrounded by the same Alpenflage colourway found at the close by Grimsel pass, we could see nothing, but our senses were attuned to the presence of the mountains around us.
Rolling through the mist, the endeavour of Patrick the athlete came to an end. The numbers collated and the goal achieved. But for something like this, as with any ride by Patrick, it’s not just about the sporting aspect, because like a big wave surfer without waves, this fixed gear cyclist’s feats are integrally linked to the locations where they are done. It is that collision of environment, aesthetics, ambient and athletics that make Patrick Seabase a true individual in the world of two wheeled sporting endeavours.
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