Photo Essay | A thousand-kilometre bicycle journey

After losing his job during Europe’s first lockdown, an Italian living in London desperate to visit his family pedalled across the continent, documenting the isolation of his travels.

When Covid-19 first hit Europe, countries across the continent shut down, changing lives and restricting freedom of movement dramatically. 

Thousands of people from working- and middle-class families lost their jobs and with them their security. As a migrant worker living abroad and far from my family, I felt disbelief, shock and abandonment during the United Kingdom’s first lockdown.

In the past few years, Brexit has made things difficult for expatriates in Britain. Then, in April this year – like so many others – I suddenly lost my job.

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Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking once said that intelligence was the ability to adapt to changeSo, I adapted to the new situation. I fixed my bicycle and started working as a delivery rider on the then-empty roads of London. There was a common feeling among drivers that this new reality meant rich people stayed at home while working-class people brought them things. The worldwide economic crisis only served to further highlight economic disparity.

Summer arrived, and while the European Union was slowly reopening its borders, a feeling of uncertainty was still present in people’s lives. Family members remained distant, and a second Covid-19 wave was imminent.

Pushed by the desire to visit my relatives and to document the journey at this unique historical juncture, I decided to cycle 1 000km from London to my family in Italy. In the last week of August, while the number of cases in France and Belgium were gradually growing again, I left London on a vintage steel bike with a tent and some clothes.

Kent, England: Closed town halls and largely abandoned public spaces, including the empty car park of a usually busy hotel, close to the Eurotunnel entrance in Folkestone. The United Kingdom’s mandatory quarantine period for people travelling to France has meant many cancelled holidays and a financial crisis in the tourism sector.

Empty landscapes 

On my journey, I documented the roads I cycled, the emptiness of European landscapes, the cities and the abandoned buildings. In the usually busy French and Belgium countryside, I came across few travellers and many empty hotels. There was a tiredness in people’s eyes. 

In the warm sun in France, campsites were empty. Many tourist businesses were closed. As a photographer, it was strange not to meet people and take photos of them during the trip. Instead, I focused my lens on what would represent the feeling of emptiness and of time standing still. 

Jorge, one of the few people I met at a French campsite, was travelling in the opposite direction by car. Having worked all of his life as a truck driver, he didn’t mind the long hours driving. “I’ve been working so hard all my life delivering goods all over Europe. It’s a hard job. You are away from your family most of the time and driving for long hours on never-ending motorways. Now that I’ve retired, I don’t want to lose my freedom to visit my family in Spain. Therefore, I drove back and forth from Belgium, where I moved a lifetime ago, to the south of Spain where some of my relatives still live.”

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While making my way south through Europe, France began closing borders and rolling out restrictions. As Italy was about to adopt border entry restrictions, I pushed hard on my pedals and arrived in Lyon. From there, a few hours’ bus ride brought me and my bike to my hometown Turin, just before the second French national lockdown began. 

A journey by bicycle gave me the opportunity to explore places that were off the beaten path in spectacular landscapes, all the while witnessing how small towns and local businesses suffered the most during this crisis. 

It has been a physical and psychological challenge. At times, I felt I would not make it, sure I had underestimated the difficulties of travelling by bike alone through the unknown. Along the way, I encountered storms and bumpy roads, waking with sore muscles. On other days, it was quiet and sunny, and I slept outdoors. Taking unexpected roads, I reflected on solitude.

In some parts of Europe, many hostels were empty due to the current economic and pandemic crisis. Most mornings, I was struggling to cope with solitude and exhaustion.

Many days I almost gave up, but after each one I felt proud and empowered by my achievements. It gave me the strength for what was about to happen: a second wave of Covid-19 infections. 

All over Europe, countries have now renewed restrictions and forced people into isolation again. Now, feelings of abandonment and fear have changed to anger, resilience and hope.

Wallonia, Belgium: Despite the empty campsites and closed restaurants in many towns, here and there people could be seen enjoying the last days of summer.
Grand Est, France: I stayed mostly in campsites during my journey, experiencing cold but peaceful nights. The few other travellers at these sites were also self-isolating, and enjoying peace and nature in the usually busy tourist area.
Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, France: At times, I felt I’d underestimated the difficulty of travelling in unknown places.
Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, France: A moment’s rest next to my fully loaded bicycle.

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