10 THOUSAND WORDS
How 10 MTB Images Came To Be
By Nathan Hughes
If one picture equates to a thousand words, 10 pictures logically result in some 10,000 unspoken utterances. You'll be as relieved not to read that much as I was not to write it, even with all this time on our hands. Still the following images do warrant a bit more explanation than that expressed purely by picture power alone and for that I am ready to elaborate. A lot went into these images, some of them at least. For others I was simply present and pushed a button. If that isn't just photography in a nutshell...
For the last 7 years, my summers have involved taking photographs in and around the art of mountain biking. It has allowed me to live a sheltered, happy existence inside the fanciful bubble that is the 'MTB World'. Right now, with the unfortunate restrictions on our movements and behaviours, there seems no better time to show some appreciation for some of the incredible places and people within the bike community I've had the chance to shoot with thanks to Pinkbike. I've dusted the cyber cob-webs off some old hard drives and picked out 10 shots that bring me back on a journey down memory lane for one reason or another. Some old, some new, but all with a little bit of a backstory to while away these surreal quaran-times. And if the much-exaggerated word-count can help me avoid getting fired after a summer without leaving my apartment, it'll be a great bonus.#1: Dark Shadows with Amir Kabbani - Chamonix - France
Silhouettes. Usually a must for any kind of action sports photographer at the end of the session as the detail dies off and the sky glows pink and purple. They're less common earlier in the day, but the French Alps have peaks tall enough to cast a mighty shadow anytime. At the end of last year, I wrote a short Pinkbike story about mine and Amir's mission to shoot a photo for the 2019 Redbull Illume - called 'Illuminated'
if you missed it. As discussed, it wasn't plain sailing producing a suitable image.
En route to the high-altitude lake spot that would become our contest entry, we passed through an area with this classic Chamonix, 'land before time' kind of backdrop. I had my doubts that it would be feasible to build anything here in the harsh terrain and it would have been better as an early morning spot with the sun rising directly behind the ridge-line shown. Besides that, getting up to almost 2000m elevation before the lifts started wasn't too tempting so as a final image location, it just didn't seem to be the one. Anyway let's not forget that the regular old trail without any mods is often enough for a strong shot. With the steep mountain behind me blocking the afternoon sun, the trail and small fur trees were all in deep shadow, but still allowed the rider to jump clear of the hillside in front of the well lit surrounds. A little turn-bar action was all we needed and we had snagged a pretty unique-looking bonus shot on the run.#2: Start Gate Paparazzi with Jack Moir - Fort William - Scotland
A rough start to 2020 has seen many of us without a hobby, a lifestyle, or even a job in the case of the race legends we normally delight in watching. The explosive action we spent several bleak and baron months in great anticipation for are yet to begin. Even if they had have taken to the start line in Portugal last weekend, this was a man we were never going to see. The tall and brilliant, Jack Moir, now an enduro specialist, for the season ahead at least.
The full black-out Mont St Anne start hut maybe the true photographer's favourite, but on those rainy days the wooden eye on top of Aonoch Moor can work too. The 2019 round
was a savage one up in the Highlands and I remember hiding out in the start hut with its leaking roof longer than I should before heading out to shoot the puddles in sideways rain. The tiny specks of moisture on Jack's lens are only a small hint of the horrors that were to come in the next days. Still for myself, many racers and fans alike, Fort Bill is the race of the year. When we get to go back, hopefully next summer, we will appreciate its magnificence all the more.#3: Super Sequence with Kurt Sorge - Retallack - Canada
Lesson learned: do not agree to go shuttling with anyone who has won Rampage. Especially not a three-time winner. Especially when you're jet-lagged, you only have your trail bike and when the forest is packed with old New World Disorder movie features.
Still, having survived that Nelson baptism of fire, aka 'mellow afternoon DH', shooting the The King of the Kootenays
with Kurt Sorge, was a trip I won't forget. After checking out the 'Grohman life' at Kurt's Nelson home, only accessible by boat, we paid a visit to his Fest line at Retallack lodge, just a short drive away. What a place and what a rider. Kurt pulled this perfectly extended superman first time to make this 24 shot sequence a keeper. Amplitude and extension defined.#4: Dawn Patrol with Fabio Wibmer & Tibor Simai - Saalbach Austria
5:47am. That's the moment the shutter clicked on this one. Probably by 5:50 sunrise was over as you can imagine from the size of the gap under the clouds. This shot remains one of my luckiest for that short-lived burst of gold at the top of a slippery, but brilliant descent. I had spent the night in a little hunter's cabin with Fabio and Tibor while shooting an 'off the beaten trail' photo-epic called Hunting Head Space
Arriving in the pouring rain after a long day on the hill, our schnapps-assisted sleep was short and very disturbed by a family of 'siebenschläfer' - adorable little rodents that were apparently delicacy in ancient Rome if you Google them. By the time the 4am alarm went off, we'd certainly thought about eating them too. Still, more important than rest, as any ski resort marketing manager will tell you, is shooting sunrise to sunset and most of the waking hours in between. True enough, if you want special images you have to be out there both ends of the day and this photo reminds me it's worth setting the alarm. The dead fur tree, inversion layer in the valley below and some dynamic body positioning from Tibor and Fabio are all icing on the 'Kuchen'.#5: Hardline Battlefield with Adam Brayton - Dinas Mawddy - Wales
I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking, 'I'm so glad Redbull Hardline came into existence'. Hats off to the Atherton clan for making that happen. Aside the enormous, always ominous features and the opportunity for both speed and style, Hardline brings a very rare thing to an MTB event... Purity.
No race-tape, few marshalls, big crowds only in certain places and incredible Great British terrain. This shot of Adam Brayton going to war across the Welsh battle-scape is what it's all about for me. In fact here you can't even see the trail, let alone the tape. It's simply man and machine versus the Snowdon landscape... and the weather.#6: Flat Earth with Erik Irmisch - Brandenburg - Germany
The 21st of December - aka 'winter solstice'. The shortest day of the year. Not the most sensible date to plan an afternoon of bicycle photography in the northern hemisphere. Nevertheless, that's exactly when East German talent, Erik Irmisch, decided to come up to my local woods in Brandenburg hoping to shoot some bangers on his brand new YT Jeffsy. I had been working on a 1km woods loop to make the most of the long German winter where I was living at the time. There was a short, but pretty flowy descent at one point and I'd built this small shark-fin with both photos and fun in mind.
Needless to say Irmisch crushed it much harder than I had been doing on my solo missions and he obliged to scrub off it 7 or 8 times while I shot from every-which-way. The 'fish-eye from the side' was probably the coolest looking angle and the style was about as immaculate as possible for anyone without the surname 'Frixtalon'. The satisfaction of starting from the very beginning without even so much as a trail and finishing with an image that you can be sure no one else has will keep me reaching for the shovel for time to come.#7: Swiss Scale with Hugo Magnusson & Hilton Poultney - Fiesch - Switzerland
If you go and visit a new riding area and don't get started until way too late and finish up lost in the dark, did you really go mountain biking? This was an unmistakably classic day of mountain biking in the Swiss Alps last autumn. We'd heard from our good friend and fellow Chamonix photographer, Luke Jarmey, that the largest glacier in Europe was just a hop, skip and a jump away (read: 3 hours). It had better be pretty massive and pretty impressive we thought, or why leave the valley (we are extremely spoilt like that). Well after the usual horror show of faff whereby you miss the hourly cable car because somebody lost a through-axle and nobody brought lunch etc, a long climb from the top station took us high above the tree line.
Suffice to say we were blown away. The trail was long, winding and with the Fiescher glacier looming large in the background for much of it. As it was late September, the heather was fully ablaze in bright red, popping against the rich greens of the rest of the mountain. Damn was it a sight for sore eyes. Of course with two photographers in the crew, we were doomed from the start. There was no way were we making it down that hill in a timely fashion. Only when our grumpy, exploited friends got sick of us barking at them to push back up, did we begin our unexpectedly long and steep descent to the valley floor. In pitch darkness. The day proved two things; first, it was an excellent reminder of how head-torches tend to smooth out very un-smooth and unfamiliar trails. Two; it's always worth going the literal extra miles to explore some new territory, no matter your own backyard. #8: Kanpai with Bernardo Cruz & Hiroshi Ato - Yamanashi Prefecture - Japan
Arigato gozaimashita! Anyone who has visited Japan will still have all the variations of 'thank you' still ringing in their ears. You say it a lot, you hear it a thousand times more. The Japanese are an incredibly friendly and appreciative bunch and I can whole-heartedly recommend flying 'Far East', whether it's with skis, with a bike or without either. There's so much to see and do and everything is so drastically different. This shot was from our last morning at an amazing forest location not far from Mount Fuji, whilst shooting another Pinkbike photo epic; Land of the Riding Fun
For some reason, I felt like I'd been forcing the shots too much, always worrying they didn't look very 'oriental'. This was one of those moments many photographers should recognise, when you haven't been 'seeing the wood for the trees'. When something right there in front of you is a great photo waiting to happen, but you're overcomplicating things and looking too hard further afield. Well, this huge and ancient torii (shrine gate) was the perfect example. Yards from our accommodation, the most Japanese scene this side of a sumo arena and I hadn't even shot it yet. Bernardo popped this rad manual with the point at our host, Hiroshi, and we moved the road trip along feeling right back on track.#9: Top Gear with Andy Vathis - Stelvio Pass - Italy
Four little wheels, not two obviously, but still I wanted to include this one in the mix. This photo came about as a result of another summer spent on the road following the World Cup circuit. Headed from Val Di Sole to Lenzerheide for the World Champs last year, PB colleague, Andy Vathis, and I saw our chance to drive up and over the famous Stelvio Pass. It's usually too inconvenient for us to travel to the races with a bike, but Andy had his board and we were both keen to shoot some fusion of cool action and landscape for the next WC trackwalk story.
Huge storm clouds rolled away just in time for some scenic shots from the top, with a powerful rainbow building before last light. I had my drone, still a novelty at the time, but we quickly found the perspective was much cooler shot with a regular camera from one of the huge fortified hair-pin turns a short way down the pass. Just about every car photographer who's visited Europe will have shot here, probably this exact turn and most likely it's been done with a skateboard many times too, but that didn't make it any less of a memorable afternoon for us both. Suffice to say, if every photo we took had to be completely original, we wouldn't be picking up our cameras very often. #10: Indiana Irmisch with Erik Irmisch - Prague - Czech Republic
How to find your next spot to shoot something more unique? Of course, riding around your local mountain is a top contender, with the added benefit of getting out for a spin. But that method is slow and potentially very unsatisfying. Once the trail ends and you're hiking around on ankle-breaking sticks or bogging down in a swamp, you might find your enthusiasm for the scouting mission quickly tail off. So why not use the tools God more recently gave us... like Google and Google Earth?
I started with a simple search. I think it was 'crazy Czech landscape'. At the time, living in east Germany, the Czech Republic was local to me and I'd done some amazing shuttle runs there previously. It's mostly thickly forested terrain, usually with a mystical, Lord of the Rings, sometimes plain 'creepy' atmosphere. You never know when you might stumble across a very vampiric looking church or castle, abandoned railway or huge open mine-shaft in the woods. Anyway, I knew it had all the potential for something different and I quickly found some artwork and old photos of a place that looked promising. Google Earth showed it to be close to the road at the top of a hill with red, sandy looking dirt. And it was called 'The Devil's Heads' in English, so we had to go and see.
Arriving quite late in the day to hard rain, we quickly found the spot. We couldn't believe there was nobody else around, especially considering these huge, bearded cliff carvings were over a hundred years old. Where were the lights, the fences, the ticket office that would surely be there if it were in any other European country? We set to work building a small jump on the trail up to the heads, that we could quickly flatten if anyone official or overly concerned came our way. Completed before dark, Erik took a few runs, but the fading light wasn't doing it justice. We knew we had to come back early doors the next day even with a 90-minute drive each way.
In the morning light, Irm nailed the style and we got the shot we were hoping for. The warm sun on the amazing carvings in the background brought an unexpected tribal/Indiana Jones feel to the shot. It's easy to imagine arrows shooting across the frame or a giant boulder rolling up behind Irm as he escapes his nemesis on a Cube. Well, maybe that's just me.