– Interview by Victoria Philpott
Eric Benjamin is a professional photographer that fell in love with cycling. As well as satisfying his own ‘adventuremonkey’ by cycling 200 miles a week across various terrain he also runs tours combining cycling and photography in the Flint Hills of Kansas. We managed to get him to brake for long enough to answer a few important questions…
On your website theadventuremonkey.com you talk about feeding your Adventure Monkey, what exactly is this?
Instead of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I imagine a barrel of monkeys inside of us. If any one of these monkeys doesn’t get fed, it gets hungry and becomes irritated, antagonizing our other monkeys within, causing psychological problems. We have all kinds of monkeys inside, like the love monkey and creative monkey, but while riding my bike and noticing an overall improvement in my psyche I concentrated on the Adventure Monkey.
The Adventure Monkey is inside of us all. Without feeding our Adventure Monkey we get at the minimum restless, and at the worst clinically depressed. Some people feed their Adventure Monkeys with daredevil X-game types of adventures. Others feed them with travel, meeting new people or starting a business. There’s an unlimited number of ways to feed our Adventure Monkey. If we don’t, we end up with a stale, tasteless and boring life that lacks the excitement we all crave. Ever feel that way? It’s because your Adventure Monkey is hungry or worse yet, starved.
Feeding your monkey starts when we turn off the TV, get off the couch and begin to live the life of adventure we are meant to live.
How important is cycling to your overall health?
Very. I ride at least three days a week and would ride more if my life would permit it. I have gotten to the point of riding in endurance gravel road races in the Midwestern US. I feel great and get a little edgy when I am lacking saddle time.
Do you stay in hostels on your bike rides? Can you suggest any good ones?
I have yet to have a hostel experience. I am still in the planning, wishing and hoping stages of that one big bike ride where I could stay in a hostel.
What’s the biggest cycling challenge you’ve faced?
Finishing the Dirty Kanza 200. It’s a 200-mile gravel road bicycle race in the Flint Hills of Kansas that you complete in one day. That’s been the most painful, but the California bikepacking trip through the mountains was the biggest overall challenge. It was 300 miles and one of the most rewarding trips I’ve ever done.
I am really working on planning a big ride that would take me across the country or a mountain range. I dream of riding overseas too. Right now my life – kids, wife and “real” job – make that difficult.
What are two of the most common problems you have on your rides?
Since we are riding in the Flint Hills of Kansas, which is know to have sharp flint rock on the roads, we do experience flats from time to time. We bring tubes and tyre levers of course, but the best thing to do is prevent the flats with good, durable tires. A tyre with durable sidewalls and some kind of protective layer inside works great.
Another problem we’ve had is making routes that a wide spectrum of riders can handle. Kansas is also know for its winds. We have worn some people out a couple of times when the ride was supposed to be pretty chilled. We have people come on tours with us that are very experienced while others are more interested in the photography. To combat this, we have split the tour into a long and short version. We are trying that on our next Fall tour.
How often do you manage to get out on your bike?
At least 3 times a week for around 200 miles.
You’re a father, do you cycle with your child riding pillion?
Yes, but only short trips around town. Another dream of mine is to take the entire family on a cross country bike trip.
Do you go cycling by yourself or in a group?
I’m usually riding by myself but I always enjoy a group ride. I like the solitude and beauty of riding through the countryside by myself. I also ride solo because I don’t know a whole lot of others that want to ride as far as I do!
You organise and lead photocycling tours in your surrounding area, is this a popular thing? I’d never heard of it before.
I am a professional photographer that fell in love with cycling. On my blog I ride my bike and share the pictures and stories with my readers. I wanted to lead others on bicycle trips and since I started out as a teacher, I also wanted to teach people how to take better pictures. Cyclists get to see the most beautiful parts of the world by bike. Most of them wish they could take better pictures. I decided to start Photocycling Tours to meet that need. It is a new thing, but growing in popularity.
So far the best thing about the tours is getting to meet great people and riding with them for a weekend. We plan to expand these tours to other parts of the country next year perhaps.
What are the benefits of photographing from a bike tour, rather than say a 4×4 tour?
The best way to experience the world is to go by bike. It’s the perfect speed and you get to experience the land with all your senses. It’s easier to be more observant of the subtleties and beauty of the area when travelling by bike. I am definitely biased in this area.
What kind of camera do you use?
I mainly use Nikon SLRs, but that doesn’t always work out well on a bike, especially a lightweight bikepacking tour. An SLR is just too big and heavy. I have moved to using better point and shoot cameras on the bike to save weight. Cameras are getting smaller and smaller these days. Plus, I like to have the ability to shoot without stopping. But as I tell everyone, it’s not the camera, it’s the shooter. The best camera is the one in your hand. I try to teach composition at my tours to get people to “see” the image before they shoot. A well composed image will be good no matter what the camera, especially these days.
What do you want participants to get out of the bike tours?
My goal is to get the participants to learn to shoot their camera in manual mode and learn what the settings do for them. I also want to get them to think more about composition before they shoot an image. We do this while riding together through beautiful country, enjoying each other’s company and getting away from the real world for a weekend.
How hard are they?!
People should feel comfortable riding at least 45 miles of hilly gravel. When we first started, our “easy” day of riding turned out to be very hard because of the heat, cold and/or wind. I saw some of my participants in the head down position just trying to survive the trip back to the camp. That’s no way to enjoy the countryside so we changed things to include an easy five mile ride to a local cafe for dinner and two routes on the long day to give both the hard core cyclist and the more intermediate cyclist a fun ride.
I want the tour to be challenging, but not hard. I want the participants to be able to stop and take pictures along the way, so it’s pretty chilled. The difficulty will be determined by the area we ride in, so if we have a mountain photocycling tour in California next year, riders will have to be comfortable riding in the mountains before attempting that tour.
I really enjoyed reading the ‘Things learned from the saddle’ section of your website. Which point would you say is the most important?
Hmm, good question! Without reservation, I’d say the first lesson is the most important in cycling and in life. You have to get on the bike. You won’t get anywhere or do anything without first getting off the couch and getting on the bike. The first thing to do in your journey to greatness is to simply get started.
How do you prepare yourself for an epic bike ride?
Until theadventuremonkey.com becomes a multimillion dollar company (it’s in the plans) I will have to continue to work my corporate art job in a cubicle. It makes training difficult. I also have a family so finding riding time can be tough. I have three days a week that my wife lets me ride and I stick to that religiously. I ride a short 30-40 mile after work ride, a longer 50-60 mile ride and a big century ride every week. That keeps me in shape. Other things include finding the right setup on the bike and dialing in my nutrition needs for an epic ride.
What are the essentials you wouldn’t leave without?
I love my Revelate Designs frame bags to keep all the weight off my back and to keep the overall weight down. I enjoy ultralight touring or bikepacking and those bags are perfect. I have a lot of other stuff with me, but the most important after food and water is, of course, a camera!
And what do people normally take that they just don’t need?
Too much clothing or other niceties. I learned from a trip with Joe Meiser and Jason Boucher of Salsa Cycles that less is more. I’m still learning to par things down and keep my gear light. I do like to sleep in the protection of a tent or bivy, rather than a tarp because of bugs though.
Do you have a dream cycle route you’d like to complete?
The Tour Divide, The Pacific Coast, and I am a poor American with dreams of travel, so I’d love to ride through Europe, but would never turn down a good ride anywhere.
Do you listen to music when you’re cycling?
I usually don’t. It sounds a little cheesy, but I love the sound of riding and hearing nature all around me. When I do listen to music it ranges from heavy metal to grind up a hill, to worship music to take in the beauty of the natural world.
Is there anyone or anything that influences you greatly whether in cycling or in photography?
I am influenced by any image that takes my breath away. There are so many good photographers out there, but the late great Ansel Adams was one of the first that really influenced and inspired me. In the cycling world, I read many blogs of people doing amazing tours around the world, some with their whole family. They all inspire me. I found myself initially inspired to do more in this world by bike from reading the musings of Alastair Humphreys, Jason Boucher, aka Gnat, the Fat Cyclist, Aaron Teasdale, Jill Homer and Darren Alff of Bicycle Touring Pro.
Thanks to the best photographer/cyclist in all the land Eric Benjamin from theadventuremonkey.com for the absolutely incredible images!