The Sa Calobra cycling route, a 700m climb over 9.9km through Majorca’s Tramuntana mountain range, offers some of the most breathtaking views on the Balearic island. Towards the summit, you glimpse the vibrant blue of the sea through the jagged silhouette of the landscape and, looking back, the sinuous movement of the road, full of tight hairpin turns, snaking through the rocky scenery with a zigzagging motion. This is where, to celebrate the launch of MR PORTER SPORT, we took Mr Edmund Fowles, the London-based co-founder of architecture practice Feilden Fowles and a keen amateur cyclist.
“There’s something quite unnatural about hauling your body over a mountain,” says Mr Fowles. Unnatural it may be, but such climbs – on two wheels – are currently Mr Fowles’ speciality outside office hours, whether he’s in London’s hilly Highgate squeezing in some interval training before work or on a week-long trip to conquer one of the world’s most famous – and formidable – cycling routes. “I’ve never ridden in Majorca but it’s renowned among cyclists as this sort of playground for riding, and a lot of the pro teams go there and train just because of the amazing climbs,” he says. He particularly likes coming to Europe to train and compete – there is, he says, a sense of cycling culture on these roads. “There are so many manifestations of cycling in Europe, painting on the road, monuments by the roadside… unlike tennis or football, cycling allows you to compete on the same terrain, the same forum as your sporting heroes.”
Mr Fowles, who’s been cycling since he was four, is precocious in his professional life too. Where most architects work in the field for a decade or more before going it alone, he set up Feilden Fowles, with partner Mr Fergus Feilden (a fellow cycling enthusiast), in 2009, just two years after they both graduated from the University of Cambridge. Their first project, completed that same year, was Ty Pren, an eco-house in Wales, which received acclaim from the likes of The Architects’ Journal (Britain’s biggest architecture weekly) for its sensitive reinvention of local building traditions and materials. Subsequent projects have included exhibition design for the Jewish Museum (2014’s Other Primary Structures) and a range of educational buildings including last year’s RIBA National Award-winning Lee Centre at the Ralph Allen School in Bath. He’s also collaborated with his brother, Mr Oliver Fowles, the co-founder of stylishly minimal watch brand Uniform Wares, designing a new showroom and studio for the brand in mid 2014. And next up is a new gallery and visitor centre for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, one of the UK’s foremost art institutions.
For me, the important qualities of a good cyclist, which also align with the qualities necessary to be an architect, are persistence and perseverance in endeavour
According to Mr Fowles, cycling is not just a hobby but a counterbalance to the pressures of his professional life. “For me, the important qualities of a good cyclist, which also align with the qualities necessary to be an architect, are persistence and perseverance in endeavour,” he says. Demonstrating both of these, he trains several times a week, rising as early as 5.30am to train in the mornings and, as summer progresses, competing in evening races. “I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily competitive against other people,” he says, “but I push myself hard. I’m competitive against myself more than anything.”
As a self-avowedly “humanist” architect, with a particular interest in vernacular (or, local forms of) architecture, he finds plenty of opportunities to work cycling into his day-to-day activities. By cycling to site visits outside of London (admittedly, sometimes with the help of a train journey), he says he can work in an extra 100 to 150km riding per week. These journeys, he says, help him to get a deeper understanding of the land and locales with which he’s working. “It’s a pace that allows you to think through places. You get to observe the build-up of development, the cross-section of a place, as opposed to arriving in the station and having a little walk around.”
This sense of discovery is only amplified when he travels abroad to compete in amateur events on some of the courses traversed by the world’s cycling greats, such as Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the Ardennes region of Belgium, or the Cent Cols Challenge in the Dolomites, which involves more than 50,000m of climbing over 10 days. How does he have the energy? Conquering such altitudes, he says, “just comes through practise – mentally training yourself to clear your mind, focusing on a spot in the distance, just pushing through it.”
Such techniques were naturally put to the test in Sa Calobra – watch the video above to see Mr Fowles test his mettle against this incredible route.
Film by Mr John Balsom