Pedal to the Sons
Despite never having been on a bike trip and confronting feelings of self-doubt, Samantha Saskia Dugon couldn’t shake the idea of riding from the UK to Belgium to photograph a concert by one of her favorite bands. She hit the road after seeking advice from other solo female travelers and borrowing an assortment gear, and an immensely rewarding experience followed. Find her story here…
Words and photos by Samantha Saskia Dugon (@saskiadugon)
“El, I’ve got an idea and I want your advice.” I first brought up the idea of cycling from the UK to Belgium to photograph a gig to my friend El as we sat in her kitchen. “Go on,” she replied with both laughter and apprehension in her voice. “I’m thinking of cycling to Belgium next week… to photograph Rival Sons.”
“Okay…” El laughed, not the least worried as she knew (even if I didn’t) that I would be capable of it and safe. “Why?” She asked.
Why indeed. Why did I come up with the rather absurd last-minute idea of cycling all the way to Belgium to photograph a show? I’d never done any proper bikepacking. I’d never ridden more than 60km in one hit. I was petrified at the thought of being in another country, on my bike, all alone, carrying not only everything I needed to eat and wear, but also all of my camera kit.
I originally had planned to drive over to Antwerp to see Rival Sons with my mum, but after she changed her plans, I slowly came to accept (albeit resentfully) that I wouldn’t be able to go and see them. Especially with my dwindling bank account, there was no way I could afford to power the townhouse (my van and humble abode) across to Belgium with the amount of expensive fuel it guzzles.
At this time I was struggling with working remotely, living nomadically, and not having a reliable income. I was finding it particularly difficult to maintain a healthy balance of socialising and “me time.” My habits swung between feeling overly independent and taking the attitude of “I can do it all on my own, I don’t need anyone!” and “why wasn’t I invited?”
I began to feel very lonely and isolated. This, coupled with the catch 22 I was in where I couldn’t afford to head to a coffee shop to do some work, and having to turn down opportunities to go see friends to the point where the invite just didn’t reach me anymore. I started thinking of ways that I could remind myself that being on my own doesn’t need to mean I’m lonely.
I looked into ways I could get myself out to Antwerp without my van. Maybe the train? No, too expensive. Coach? Too long and I’d probably lose my shit at someone if I had to sit next to a stranger for hours upon hours. And then the idea came. What if I rode my bike there?
My heart raced a little and a smile made its way across my face. I felt equal parts scared and excited at the idea. Thoughts swirled around in my head: “I can’t really do it by bike, can I? On my own? I don’t even know what route I’d take. Would it be safe to cycle on my own?”
I turned to a female adventure group on Facebook and asked for some advice. Before I knew it, comments were rolling in from women about their experiences cycling across Europe, both with friends and alone. They shared advice on how best to navigate it and best places to stop. I went from feeling very lonely and isolated in my van to feeling excited, nervous, and comforted that so many people were willing to share their experiences and advice.
I started making a list of what I’d need and quickly realised that I was wholly unprepared. I messaged a few friends and asked if I could borrow some kit, and some advice whilst I was at it. After a crash course in what to pack and how to pack it, I loaded up bags and prepared to begin riding.
With a super early start, I packed up the car and headed to Dover. I’ll admit I had a little cry as I parked. I was extremely nervous about the whole thing, but as I was sat there doubting what I was about to do, I scrolled through Instagram (because isn’t it now an automatic reaction that when you pick up your phone, the first thing you open is Instagram?) and saw a post from Alastair Humphreys titled “10 tips for getting your project off the ground.”
Talk about perfect timing, eh? When I was doubting my idea the most, I read through his list of tips. I even left a comment that I was about to embark on my first solo bikepacking mission abroad and the post was exactly what I needed at that time. I got out of the car, put my kit on, and headed to the ferry port. France, here I come!
I laughed most of my way to the ferry, surely looking like a lunatic. A girl, on her own, on what felt like the world’s heaviest bike, parked up waiting to get on the ferry amongst all these massive lorries and coaches. Tourists made their way off of the coaches and past aisle upon aisle of lorries. Then there was me, a small dot in between these long distance haulers. I don’t blame them for giving me strange looks, I’d have done the exact same thing.
I must admit, being on the ferry was a bit daunting due to all the truckers who sat staring at me. Being the end of February and nowhere near any student break or holiday period, the boat was full of truckers and not much else. I moved a number of times to somewhere I felt a bit safer and downed some chocolate for some last-minute energy before I began pedaling.
With Calais in sight I headed back down to my bike. It was here for some reason that I became overly emotional. With Rival Sons blasting on my speaker, I waited for the lorries to empty off before I could ride off. While waiting I became overwhelmingly sad thinking about the fact that my dad, who is no longer alive, wasn’t around to see what I was doing, as an avid cyclist and music lover himself, I know he would have been entirely on board with everything I was about to do. It was a bittersweet moment, despite the fact that it should have been one filled with excited anticipation.
As I stood there I noticed a female trucker waiting to go. She looked down towards me and gave me the biggest smile and a wave before she headed on her way. That really stuck with me and gave me an odd little boost of confidence.
The first day was a whirlwind, and by the end of it I was completely depleted of energy. As anyone who’s just ridden their first 100km would do, I went and bought a massive pizza, had a shower, and passed out in bed.
The following day, I passed through Bruges and Antwerp. At some point I started thinking about that post from Alastair Humphreys again. Part of his second tip asked, “Will you mum let you go?” As it happened, I’d decided not to tell mine until I was either safely over in Belgium or back in the UK. Arriving in the center of Bruges, I couldn’t resist, and decided to message her.
Mum: I’m okay, why?
Me: Okay, don’t kill me.
I pulled up Facetime and called her, she glared at me before saying anything.
Mum: Where are you, Sam?
Mum: You’re in Europe, aren’t you? Where’s the van? Who are you with? Where’s Trigger?
I turned my phone around to show her my fully loaded bike and the sunny scenes of Bruges before turning the camera back around and showing that I was there with just me, myself, and I. Thankfully, she took it well once she realised that I was safe. In fact, she was thinking of how she could go on her own adventures within a few minutes.
I was on the outskirts of Ghent when I took a break and checked my Instagram. One of the members of Rival Sons had been told about what I was doing and had checked out all of my updates. The band had just arrived in Antwerp and all of a sudden I had a second wind of energy that saw me pedalling my ass off to get there. I got to Ghent and took the quick option to do the last small leg of the journey by train. Pulling into Antwerp, I headed to my Airbnb, showered, threw on some fresh clothes, and headed straight into the centre to have a celebratory beer by the Cathedral.
I rested the next day to save my energy for the gig in the evening. I did what I had looked forward to doing when back in Antwerp: stocking up on my favourite tea and relaxing in my favourite coffee shop. After a quick afternoon nap I made my way over to the gig, meeting up with some new friends there. I got to the photographers pits, set up all my gear and waited. It was absolutely worth everything it took to get there!
I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing Rival Sons live. The amount of raw passion and energy the band emits is addictive and thrilling. It’s been six years since I first saw them play and I’ve still not been able to put into words how their music and gigs make me feel, which is pretty poor form for a supposed writer, but I think it goes to show how much talent and love they have.
With an early ferry on Friday morning and a wedding to photograph in South Wales first thing Saturday, I promptly jumped on a train straight back to Calais. Once on the ferry I grabbed out my laptop and cameras, imported all my photos, and took my first look through what I had captured at the gig. I had been too scared to look back on my camera up until this point. What if everything I had taken was shit because I was too preoccupied with going, “oh my god, oh my god” as I tried to photograph the lead singer as he leant down to my camera and sang right in front of me? I put my headphones on, played Rival Sons, and flicked through the photos, reliving the gig with the biggest smile on my face. I must have looked like an idiot, but by then I was used to it.
As I cycled off of the ferry I passed where I stood waiting to get on just a few days earlier. I looked at the spot and smiled to myself. I was now feeling a whole lot more confident in my abilities on my own on a bike and in another country. I felt proud of myself for persevering and doing the trip, and that’s a feeling I’ll savour for a long time.
I’d like to thank Genesis for helping me out with a bike for my adventures this year, Tailfin for supporting my crazy ideas, El for being a wonderfully supportive friend when I approached her with the idea, Owen Street for helping me out with missing kit and advice, Owain for looking after my dog, my mum for being supportive when I told her, and my other half Owen, who despite being abroad for the whole of this very last minute trip, put up with my phone calls going, “Are you sure I should do this though? Like sure sure?” Also, Alastair Humphreys for sharing his seemingly endless wisdom and experiences, and Rival Sons for just being who they are, following their passion, and creating some truly special music. Thank you.
About Samantha Saskia Dugon
Samantha Saskia Dugon is a professional photographer, currently living a Normadic lifestyle in her Ford Transit van with her dog in tow. She can often be found photographing mountain bikes, music festivals, and weddings. Away from the camera, Sam enjoys heading out on two wheels for cycling adventures on all kinds of bikes. Find her on Instagram @saskiadugon.