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A new start after 60: ‘I was a globetrotting photographer. Then I stayed home – and my world expanded’ | Life and style

Roff Smith’s photographs show a solitary cyclist – Smith himself – in a painterly landscape. His wheels appear to turn briskly, but really the bike moves as slowly as it can without a wobble. As a writer and photographer for National Geographic magazine, Smith, 63, visited more than 100 countries, but now he has squeezed the brakes and shrunk his world. His photographs are all taken within a 10-mile radius of his home, and yet travel has never felt so rich to him as it does now.

Before the pandemic, he had already begun to feel jaded: air travel made “the world everywhere look the same”.

Then in March 2020 he returned from an assignment in Ecuador to St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, to join his wife and two children, who are 18 and 20. The world shut its doors behind him. Madrid went into lockdown hours after he passed through; England soon after he arrived. After decades of flights, “There was nowhere to go.”

Instead, during lockdown, Smith took his camera, tripod and timer on bike rides locally. A distinctive style evolved in which he would ride slowly into his own frame, usually in “the blue hour” that precedes dawn.

Red sky in the morning … Roff Smith and his bike before sunrise.
Red sky in the morning … Roff Smith and his bike before sunrise. Photograph: Roff Smith

The images look serene, but making them was not. Smith had to master “the right body language, the bicycle language”, pick his outfits and time his entrance. “You can’t have your head disappearing in shadows. You’ve got to find yourself,” he says. It sounds like a spur to self-discovery, this practice of looking at an empty frame and imagining the space he would occupy. Does he see himself differently? “You become aware of how many shots have this sense of introspection, solitude,” he says.

Smith has been a keen cyclist for as long as he can remember. Momentous rides have acted as milestones in his life. His father died when he was nine and he was raised by his mother. He was often alone for whole days, cycling from the family house in White Mountains in New Hampshire “to Bearcamp river, a fabulous distance away” at 12 miles, with its beaver ponds, forests and swamps.

He was a voracious reader of books about explorers, and fancied himself on adventures too. “Even a bend in the road took on the quality of a chapter in a book. I thought, travelling the world is going to be as exciting as this.”

National Geographic, to which he subscribed, thrilled him – especially a story of a bike trip along the Alaskan highway, which led him to write to the magazine, offering his services. He was only 17; they politely declined.

At 22, he emigrated to Australia. He wanted to go “far, far, far away”. Was there something he wanted to escape? “I just felt like I needed to strike out on my own,” he says. As the mining reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald, he jetted around the gold mines of Australia.

It wasn’t till he was 37 and recently divorced that Smith set off on his own epic ride “around Australia – a 10,000-mile solo trip”. It took him nine months, in the course of which he sold a series of his travels to National Geographic – “literally a childhood dream” – and, at a youth hostel in Perth, met his future wife. Although they moved to the UK and made a base together in St Leonards-on-Sea, Smith “jumped around a lot”, on assignment and also visiting his children from his first marriage in Australia.

Although his movements have shrunk since the pandemic hit, his world has expanded. Just like those early trips to the Bearcamp river, “miles mean something” again.

He cycles home “with a feeling that I have been places. I’ve seen the sun rise, listened to the aquatic life in the marsh or wildlife in the trees. I’ve got more of a sense of travel than if I were to hop on a plane.” He has not flown in nearly two years, and has no plans to do so. “It’s nice to be home,” he says. “But in a way it’s unsettling because you think, do I live here? In Europe?” He has American and Australian citizenship, but is really a citizen of his own two wheels: “I think I’m starting to identify with just being on my bike.”

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