The native Berliner and former bike shop owner on gentrification, abandoned architecture, and his trusty Contax T2 camera.
Whether it’s because of the slow pace of life, lack of opportunities, or the desire for something new, many of us grow up wanting to move away from the places where we were born. But for Mortimer, rapid change in his home city was the reason he decided to leave. “I was born in West Berlin in the seventies. I remember seeing the Berlin Wall and visiting the east side many times,” he recalls. “It’s pretty impossible to compare Berlin to those days. Since then, the city has been an ever-changing construction site.” Mortimer is, of course, referring to the onslaught of development and rising rents that have been much reported in Berlin, leaving people who have moved to the city in the last few years feeling like they’ve already missed the boat. “It seems like American coffee chains and fashion brands are taking over the city and pushing the young and creative out of the center,” says Mortimer. “I hope that Berlin will realize that it needs individual ideas to stay special, otherwise Kreuzberg will become the new Williamsburg. I’m worried that it’s already too late.”
Mortimer has experienced the effects of gentrification first hand: his cult bike shop, Keirin Berlin, was forced to close last year after the landlord doubled their rent. Based on Schlesisches Tor and named after a form of motor-paced racing from Japan, according to its owner, Keirin was seen by bike community as much more than just an outlet for purchasing equipment. “The idea was to open a place to hang out with friends and drink coffee all day, and at the same time promote bicycle culture through different art exhibitions,” he says, explaining that the concept was inspired by the Jet Fuel Coffee Shop he went to in Toronto when visiting for the Cycle Messenger Championships in 1995. While track bikes were Keirin’s main product “there was also drinks, snacks, lots of books and magazines. We even screened the Tour de France live and showed BMX videos.”
“I hope that Berlin will realize that it needs individual ideas to stay special, otherwise Kreuzberg will become the new Williamsburg.”
But despite the community focus and subsequent cult following—and the fact many friends sent him more affordable storefronts in the hope he would reopen Keirin elsewhere—when it came to Keirin Berlin’s closure, Mortimer decided it was time to move on and do something else. ”So I closed the shop, put lots of stuff in storage, and decided to ride to Japan, the birthplace of Keirin racing,” he explains. “I was just ready to be by myself in countries that hadn’t been through the gentrification bonanza yet and to see the world one more time before it’s all the same everywhere.”
Leaving in mid-May and arriving in Tokyo in October, Mortimer selected his route due to the vast array of countries, cultures, and cuisines he could experience along the way. “I would ride for five or six days, take a day off and then continue,” he says. “I would try to chill a bit too, but mostly I kept going and couldn’t really relax. I guess I’m not a real tourist,” he continues, explaining that he always tried to get out of cities as fast as possible to avoid getting too comfortable.
Along the way, Mortimer documented his trip using disposable cameras and his trusty Contax T2 film camera—given to him by his grandma “back in the day”—in order to allow him to capture some of his favorite elements of each country he visited. “I liked the bus stops in Ukraine, the Issyk-Kul Lake with the Tian Shan mountains in the distance in Kyrgyzstan, the mountains in Mongolia and the never-ending roads in Kazakhstan,” he describes.
The fruits of Mortimer’s labor were exhibited upon his arrival in Shibuya, Tokyo—at his friend’s gallery Mess Crib—and are also displayed on his Instagram account along with short stories about experiences on his trip. “A lot of people have messaged me after seeing my photographs on Instagram and have told me that I should make a book,” says Mortimer, who, alongside creating a publication, hopes to stage further exhibitions of his photographs. “I like to think that by showing my pictures, more folks will realize that bicycles are not only means of transportation, they can be a tool to help you explore the world.”
Five defining moments of Mortimer’s epic Berlin-Tokyo cycle
“I really like abandoned buildings and architecture. A lot of the countries I visited used to be part of the Soviet Union, and, as a result, much of the architecture I saw was influenced by this period. One of my favorite structures was the abandoned velodrome in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I don’t really know why. It could be me being romantic, or it might just be because I like derelict and unusual architecture.”
Staying with friends
“I couldn’t have done the trip without the people who helped me along the way. In Wroclaw, I stayed with my friend Kasia, then I continued to Ukraine where I stayed with Taras of @zulu_fixed who designed the bags for my trip together with me. I stayed with some school friends of my friend in Magnitogorsk, and in Korea I chilled with the folks of @farridemag and @bikesmakemehappy. In Japan, I knew folks all over, so I was able to visit them. As well as seeing people I already knew, I also managed to meet a lot of new people. I got a lot of messages on Instagram from other fixed gear riders who wanted to meet up and cycle with me.”
“Arriving in Korea was like coming home. It may be really far away from Berlin, but, compared to all the other places I visited, it is not a developing country. It’s clean and rich, but the downside of this is it makes it pretty too expensive for a bike traveler! It’s not as chaotic as some of the other places I visited, but then with this came more rules.”
Battling against adversity
“The potholes in Armenia were so big you could park an SUV in them, but the hardest country to cycle through by far was Kazakhstan, with its long straight roads and headwinds that at times lasted all day long for 200k or more. It’s so big, but there are hardly any villages or hotels. If I ever struggle riding nowadays, I just think about how tough it was cycling along the Kazakh Steppe and laugh!”
“There are some stark contrasts when you cross borders. The most surprising change was cycling from Kazakhstan to Russia. The Kazakh population is probably around 70% ethnic Kazakhs with 20% Russians, but after crossing the border at Troitsk suddenly the Asian influence disappeared completely. This being said, there are also similarities all around the world, which is probably a result of globalization, and all countries increasingly becoming more similar. There are shopping malls, skyscrapers, and condominiums everywhere. I feel like Russia especially is going through a massive change at the moment, with huge buildings being erected, while old wooden houses are being burnt down right next to them.”
Mortimer was the former owner of Keirin, a bike shop in Berlin complete with an in house coffee shop and gallery. To find out more about his five-month cycle journey, follow him on Instagram where he regularly posts pictures from the trip.
This interview was produced as part of our new series In a Nutshell. Head over to read more articles where creatives around the world talk us through objects that inspire their work. Or, if you fancy reading more cycling themed stories on FvF, why not check out this article which documents photographer Spencer Harding’s mountain bike tour along the Baja California Coast?
Text: Emily May