“Quiet legends”: Fergus Coyle gives us an insight into the long-distance cycling subculture, Audax
The Bristol-based photographer sheds a light on the sport, which has roots as far back as 1897, and its wide array of (very) determined participants.
- Olivia Hingley
- 14 November 2023
Most people would probably separate cycling into three (sometimes overlapping) camps: commuters trying to avoid sardine-tin-like public transport; more serious hobbyists who can often be found clad in lycra heading out into the countryside on a Sunday; and the few who exist in the sleek, fast-paced sphere of professional cycling. But much more exists beyond these standard cycling tropes – including the unique world of Audax, a form of long-distance cycling that’s about endurance, rather than ‘winning’.
The photographer Fergus Coyle is himself a keen Audax participant, and a few years back – upon noticing how few people knew of the subculture – he decided to begin documenting its participants. Fergus explains that Audax is traditionally completed in courses made up of control points under a time limit dependent on distance (typical distances are 200, 300, 400 and 600 km) with a personal brevet card being stamped at each control point. “When all four are completed in a season, riders gain the coveted Super Randonneur award,” Fergus explains, earning participants the nickname of Randonneurs.
One recent subsection of Fergus’ ongoing project is Moonrakers and Sunseekers, named after an overnight 300 km Audax that takes place each year. Riders leave Bristol at 10pm, make their way south to Bournemouth, then Poole Harbour where they stop off at Lilliput Sea Scouts control for basic food, rest and to have their brevet card stamped.
It was at this rest point that Fergus stationed himself between the hours of 2-7am, photographing riders who came through. “It’s a strange time to be awake and I was interested to see how that might affect the interaction between photographer and sitter,” Fergus says. “When riding at night, you’re acutely focussed on a small pool of light emitted in front of the bike, reading the road and watching out for dangers such as potholes.” It’s this intensity that Fergus sees translating into the images – palpable in the riders’ eyes as their portraits are taken, staring into the camera, or in some cases beyond, and the atmosphere of the sparse blue-and-white harbour setting. “There’s a monastic silence, broken only by the sound of cutlery against plates and cycling shoes tapping in and out of the door.”
During the shoot Fergus encountered a few “celebrities” within the Audax community who were “hailed for quietly and consistently putting in the miles”. Like Dai – one of the few cyclists with a large smile on his face in his portrait. Known for his heavily laden fixed gear and broad Welsh accent, one significant detail of his portrait (and something Fergus sees as setting him apart from road cyclists) is the fact he’s wearing two Paris Brest jerseys from separate years on top of each other. Fergus also has a soft spot for Zlatamira’s portrait. It was the last photo in a roll of film and she blinked, but the resulting image is one that resonates, as “a serene, meditative moment before she continued on into the early hours”.
One of the portraits from Moonrakers and Sunseekers has been nominated for the Portrait of Britain awards, that of sitter Liam. In a red cap, buff, and black-and-yellow Audax jersey, creating a satisfying colour scheme when placed against the blue-and-white wall of the pool harbour. In the portrait, Liam looks beyond the camera into the distance, appearing consumed in thought. Interviewing Liam, Fergus discovered how important Audax was to him. “In 2016 I had major heart surgery, saving my life,” he told Fergus. “18 months later I rode a 200km Audax and cried when I got to the end; the fear of losing cycling was terrible!”
It’s interactions like this that move and inspire Fergus. By sharing the community of Audax participants, he hopes he can push people to challenge themselves to something new and maybe even sign up to an Audax. “Randonneurs are very much ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” he says. Finally, he hopes his work might help to humanise cyclists, off the back of increasing mistreatment. “There’s a serious culture war between road users and cyclists who often get put down as simply Middle Aged Men in Lycra, ignoring the benefit cycling has to body and mind,” he says. So if you were thinking of dusting off your bike, getting onto the open road and trying something new, maybe Audax is for you.
Fergus Coyle: Moonrakers and Sunseekers – Early Hours (Copyright © Fergus Coyle, 2023)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.