Cian Oba-Smith: riding out and popping wheelies with the pedalheads

The photographer who shot our New World Biking magazine feature on the challenges of keeping up with a gang of superfit city cyclists.

Cian Oba-Smith shot the ace photo feature New World Biking that appears in the new, Winter 2020 print edition of THE FACE. The north Londoner’s interest in the worlds of biking – both motorbikes and pushbikes – began in late 2014, after he graduated from the University of West of England with a First Class BA (Hons) degree in Photography.

I started a project about Bikelife, the dirt bike scene in London,” says the 28-year-old. I had a friend who was a part of that scene. He would go riding round industrial estates in far north London. It’s interesting – in the pushbike scene now, a lot of the people who are really into are from that sort of proper suburban area.

He followed me on Instagram, and I saw pictures of him on a motorway doing wheelies. Which was a bit mad, but it was cool as well. So I got in touch with him and he hooked me up with the people down there, and I started shooting this project.”

As he writes on his website: In the industrial estates of London, there is a fast growing phenomenon of rebellious youth who choose to spend their time riding dirt bikes and mopeds around on one wheel. They are fathers, brothers, talented riders and mechanics; they are the bike life community. With injuries being commonplace and deaths sometimes occurring, they risk their lives every day for the thrill and freedom of riding on one wheel. To them, it’s not just a passion, it’s not just a hobby, it’s a lifestyle.’”

An experienced street photographer with a relaxed, intimate but also dynamic style, Oba-Smith was, then, the perfect choice to shoot the young London pedal bike scene for the magazine.

How did you cast your shoot?

I put together a little group of cyclists. The main thing was making sure it represented that scene. So I didn’t want it to be just kids, even though that’s a big part of it. Little Spartan is the youngest – I think he might be eight – and the oldest is late twenties. I also wanted to have people of different backgrounds and different genders. Although it’s obviously quite a male-dominated scene, there are women involved, and I wanted to show that.

Presumably they had to be sick cyclists, too?

Yeah. It was important to show that this is an amazing skill. What they do is incredible. Most of us would never be able to do anything like that. So all the people I picked were very good at what they do.

You shot in Regent Street, on London Bridge – and outside Buckingham Palace. How sketchy was that?

Because of Covid, they’ve locked down the whole roundabout outside Buckingham Palace, but it was pretty chilled out, actually! The police drove past at one point, but it wasn’t specifically for us, they were just patrolling.

Why shoot in the middle of London?

It was important to show that. One of the things that scene does is a ride-out around central London, so it made sense to shoot in those locations. I also liked the contrast between these iconic spots and how these real London kids are. Again, that representation is important.

How challenging was it capturing the energy and dynamism of the bikers?

I was just cycling round after them with my camera on me – and it was quite hard work! They’re all superfit cause they cycle all day. Also, I shoot on a medium format camera, an RZ, which is pretty bulky. I didn’t use the tripod, obviously, but it was still hard work. But it was fun at the same time.

From a photographer’s point-of-view, what’s the aesthetic power of these guys and their bike work?

It looks cool, the athletic feat of it. So visually, that’s great to document. I made portraits as well, more detailed shots, trying to capture the wider sense of what that culture is about. And we can all connect with trying to do a wheelie at some point in your life. So when you see someone doing that while standing up on the seat and holding on with one hand, we can really appreciate how tricky that is. Anyone passing by was just amazed – we had loadsa people standing on the side of the road just gawking.

What’s the appeal to the bikers themselves?

From what I’ve gathered, part of it is, it’s accessible to anyone. You don’t have to have a great bike. One of the things they talk about online a lot is not taking the piss out people who can’t afford the fanciest bike. So it creates a bit of a level playing field. And here’s that camaraderie and bonding. Some of those people I organised for the shoot hadn’t met before. But they became good friends and I’ve seen them on Instagram out riding together.”

Then there’s the other side to it, as seen in the BikeStormz ride-out that Stormzy writes about as a preface to your feature. Their slogan is Knives Down, Bikes Up.

That’s a campaign where they’re trying to keep kids off the street. They’re channelling energy that could potentially be used in a negative way into something positive, and something you could actually grow a skill out of.”

What kind of bike do you ride?

It’s just a single-speed Globe. I’ve had it for about 10 years. It’s kinda similar to what they ride, but a lot thinner framed. A lot of them ride without gears, which is what I do, but mine is more like a racing bike.”

Can you pop a wheelie?

Not on that bike! I actually gave it to one of the kids and asked him if he could do one. But even he couldn’t, so I didn’t feel too bad about not being able to do one.”



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