Let’s get this straight: adventure shoots are not the same as photoshoots. In one you can ask the rider to ride it again and then again, and ‘oh, just once more’. You have the luxury of planning timings and playing with the light, to recon’ the locations, deliver gold and send an invoice in afterwards. In the other, you have little idea what is ahead or how much time you can afford to spend on one shot, no idea even if you’re going to reach camp before nightfall —or sometimes even if you’ll reach camp. There are no luxuries in adventure photography. You get one chance to make it work, whatever the sun or rain or snow is doing, however the rider feels, however your guts feel. There's no going back, just instant decisions to tell the story of how, what and why the heck you are there, trying to ride a trail through the back end of nowhere, and whether you can make a living from the outcome.
So, I'm sure you agree, they are not the same. But they are both equal parts of the photography career I’m lucky enough to have carved out for myself, and each hail different glories, bless ‘em.
Looking back over the last decade —about a third of the years I’ve spent ‘adventuring’ in different corners of the world— it’s a hard ask to pull out the key images that, in just 1/1000th of a second, will define those adventures and so define my most recent decade of mountain biking. I’m driven by the idea that travel broadens the mind and that the stories I return with have the potential to do good, whether that’s by challenging popular misconceptions of a country or its people, or by just encouraging others to go learn about themselves through embracing their own adventure. Certainly looking back, a decade can seem a long time, especially in politics, geography, and technology: cameras evolve, handlebars widen, politicians come and go, previously safe destinations become no-go zones... and sometimes previously no-go zones return to being safe destinations.
Of course, it’d be a lot easier to simply post ten years of my most head-turning nugs, but many would come from commercial shoots or backyard rides —and while they would make fine eye-candy, they just don’t have the same depth of story. Unless you want to hear how rider X was late, or how we stopped for a cappuccino again, or that time the product samples were three sizes too small. Okay, so maybe I’m making that 'other' part of my work sound a lot easier than it is and doing an injustice to photographers out there, who know how equally demanding any photoshoot can be, especially with the commercial hand that feeds you hovering overhead and the pressure to deliver bang for the client’s buck.
But it’s adventure that defines me — it always will. I return to it every year, drawn by its unknowns, its challenges and the opportunities it brings to learn about myself in situations that have drifted way beyond control.
So I've dipped into past adventures to share a snapshot of a decade of riding, pushing and carrying bikes into wild (and often previously un-ridden) corners of a world that is constantly changing. Of course, sentimental attachment to an image can get in the way of objective editing, but I hope the following pictures tell a little more about the real, honest, beautiful world that’s out there if you throw a little caution to the wind and have a taste for an adventurous ride. Here’s to the next decade.
2010: Nepal, Instagram and an Icelandic volcano
Camera: Leica M8. Bike: Yeti 575. Gears: 3x9. Handlebars: 670mm
When Apple launched the iPad and new 4G networks meant we could use them anywhere, I took a trip to Nepal’s Upper Mustang Kingdom, one place where both iPads and 4G would still be inconsequential.
A year earlier I’d been in the Annapurna region and looked north from Kagbeni into the restricted access zone of Upper Mustang. Learning that a road was planned through the region and the likely loss of much of the one trail to Upper Mustang’s ancient walled capital Lo Manthang (population 300), I returned in 2010 to shoot a story on riding that trail before it disappeared. The 10-day ride took us to Lo Manthang and on the Tibet border and back. Shooting these kind of rides at 4000 metres altitude meant being drawn towards the smallest, lightest camera set up I could find —a quest that is ongoing.
2011: England, Arab Spring and Snapchat
Camera: Leica M8. Bike: Yeti 575. Gears: 3x10. Handlebars: 700mm
Exotic travel and alien culture underpins many ideas of adventure, but the reality is you can find adventure’s buzz close to home too.
Pressing pause on the final episode of Game of Thrones, we embraced an ambitious plan, spearheaded by Tracy Moseley’s bloke, James Richards, to ride a 4-day traverse of the north of England. Starting in the Lakes and crossing the Yorkshire moors to Bradford would be no walk in the park, and it wasn’t. We battled the British weather most of the way. This ride shot was from a very windy first day; we were blown off our bikes several times.
2012: Morocco, Italy and Tinder
Camera: Leica M8. Bike: Yeti 575. Gears: 2x10. Handlebars: 720mm
While the world was getting jiggy with Gangnam style, Facebook bought Instagram and boffins found the Higgs boson particle, I returned to both Morocco and Finale Ligure in 2012, with the idea that you don’t have to venture too far off the tourist circuit to find genuine adventure.
A 4-day hut-to-hut ride along the Alta Via dei Monti trail from the hills above Finale to Ventimiglia gave us a taste of another, empty side of Liguria, a world away from the beaches and bike shuttles.
Meanwhile, in Morocco I found that merely venturing a single valley over from the tourist gites of the Ourika valley led us through villages that oozed authentic Morocco where traditional mud houses sport satellite dishes, and handicrafts are noticeably absent.
2013: Afghanistan, Gran Canaria and BlackLivesMatter
Camera: Leica M9 & Nikon D600. Bike: Yeti 575. Gears: 2x10. Handlebars: 700mm
While the final episode of Breaking Bad was screening and Snowden was leaking, I embraced two of the most spectrally diverse trips I’ve ever done.
In June, Matt Hunter joined me on a pioneering 12-day bike traverse of Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor — a remote and peaceful panhandle of Afghan soil that is as wild and unspoiled a place I’ve ever been. Scaling altitudes up to 5000 metres, and dealing with blizzards, 30C+ heat and raging rivers to ford, the Secret Compass organised expedition was tougher than any of us had expected. It took me a month post-trip to really start appreciating what we had done, and what we had accomplished.
Meanwhile in the other corner of 2013 was a 4-day traverse of the Spanish island of Gran Canaria. It was the yin to the yang of Afghanistan, delivering amazing trails that were 95% ride-able and comfortable beds overnight. Of course, the two trips had overlap, notably amazing scenery and a deep sense of fulfillment. I based this trip on trying to ride the route of the Gran Canaria Ultra Trail race.
2014: Argentina and Selfie Sticks
Camera: Nikon D650. Bike: Yeti 575. Gears: 2x10. Handlebars: 720mm
I’m a sucker for South America, a place with such diversity of landscapes and culture it has lured me to return 6 times since 1989. Each time it has delivered completely fresh adventures.
At about the same time that online streaming dispatched the last Blockbuster video rental store and an ISIS blot appeared on the Middle Eastern radar, I headed back to Argentina with Hans Rey and Tibor Simai to shoot a couple of stories. We rode a disused 100-year old railway line for 3 days, entertaining a whimsical notion I had had the this would make a great adventure (it did), and then spent another 3 days descending a single 85-kilometre long trail from the high desert mountains to lush, green jungle.
Hans Rey and Tibor Simai in jaguar country
2015: Ethiopia, Menorca and Star Wars VII
Cameras: Nikon D600 and D750. Bike: Yeti SB5c. Gears: 2x11. Handlebars: 720mm
2015 was another year of contrasting adventures, each equally as rewarding in their own rights and both a lot better than The Force Awakens.
Many people of my maturity will picture Ethiopia as the famine-ravaged subject of Geldof’s Feed The World anthem. Luckily, today it’s a different place. In the year the USA embraced same-sex marriages and liquid water was found on Mars, I headed to Ethiopia to ride a 9-day loop through its visually gob-smacking Simien Mountains National Park. Our route, leading us to the top of its highest peak, Ras Deshan, produced photo-gold at every turn, but the many rubble-littered trails and bruising altitude meant it was all hard-earned.
Karen Eller and Julia Roberts, Menorca
In contrast to Ethiopia’s exoticism, a 4-day circumnavigation of the Mediterranean island of Menorca produced the kind of ‘achievable-not-aspirational’ closer to home story many editors look for. The Cami de Cavalls trail way exceeded expectations, becoming one the best all-mountain rides I’ve done. The trail packs in over 4500 metres of climbs and descents along its 186 km length of singletrack — no mean feat for a ‘flat’ island.
2016: Lebanon, Italy and Brexit
Camera: Nikon D750. Bike: Yeti SB5. Gears: 1x11. Handlebars: 750mm
A day is a long time in politics and equally long if you have a bike on your back. But the art of adventure is the art of embracing unknown’s or at least knowing that however hard the going gets, there will be an end to it. 2016 was the year of the endgame.
After a year of planning, I made it to Lebanon, a country that had emerged into peaceful co-existence after three decades of layered conflict and war. My idea was to ride select sections of its long-distance Lebanon Mountain Trail, a trekking path constructed to unite villages once divided by religions and politics. While the UK realised its partisan Brexit decision, we rode and carried our bikes for 6 days through a beautiful Middle Eastern country that offered only warm, friendly welcomes.
Meanwhile, in a stunning corner of Europe near Aosta, Italy, the art of bike carrying took a new turn to reach a 3127m high alpine bivouac. A tiny tin hut reached by 1600 metres of steep ascent and suspended above a sea of ice, became our home for a night and the focus for the story about cost and reward.
2017: Lesotho, Chile and Trump
Cameras: Nikon D750, Fuji X-Pro2. Bike: Yeti SB5. Gears: 1x11. Handlebars: 760mm.
The idea of exploring new places drives adventure, but for me, this privilege is often a chance to tell a deeper story too.
In the same year that turned the tide on ISIS and the MeToo movement turned the tide on silence, I shot a story in Lesotho
that looked at what mountain bike tourism can do to help turn the tide on rural poverty in one of the poorest countries in Africa. Our 6-day traverse of Lesotho’s southern mountains, led by the young traditional horseman Lephuthing Isaac Molapo, threw us amazing trail riding as well as a glimpse of the positives of sharing our wealth. Meanwhile one of the richest men in America took the Presidential office.
On another continent, I returned to Chile’s Torres del Paine National park to explore if and how this busy Patagonian hotspot could meet the expectations of us mountain bikers. Since 1996, when I cycle toured and camped freely through Torres del Paine, I’ve watched tourism and regulations here grow. But we found empty, permitted trails to ride on the fringes of the park, and a couple of nugs right in the heart of the action too.
And finally back in Asia, I veered away from the usual Himalayan focus of Indian mountain biking to see what the tea plantations and steep Ghat mountains around the southern state of Kerala have to offer instead. It’s possibly the greenest place I’ve ever been to. And the best food I’ve ever eaten.
2018: North Korea, Sub Polar islands and Greta Thunberg
Camera: Lumix G9. Bike: Yeti SB5. Gears: 1x11. Handlebars: 760mm.
‘Hot’ is always subjective, and that can apply to travel advice too I've learned.
Following Trump’s historic meet with Kim Jong-Un, we pioneered our own trip to North Korea, using bikes as our excuse to see inside this little-known country. Some people would argue that we didn’t see the “real” NK, and that’s an understandable opinion. But the logistical challenges for our guides of having bikes at the heart of our trip, and the reach a bike has, both in terms of going farther and connecting with strangers, opened up dozens of unexpected moments and unplanned encounters. The result is that we got a glimpse of a system few outsiders can comprehend or understand, and delivered perhaps the most uniquely rewarding bike trip I have done in three decades. The riding was more challenging.
Meanwhile as Space X began its dash to escape our planet and Greta Thunberg reminded everyone else of the importance of our planet, I decided to try to ride the most southern trail in the world.
Perched on Navarino Island, off the tip of South America, this trail is one of the wildest and most rudimentary trails I’ve ever explored. Bathed in unspoiled beauty, shrouded in schizophrenic sub-polar weather and devoid of people, the trail struck a real contrast to the almost sacrificial anode of tourism that is Torres del Paine a few hundred Kilometres to the North. The riding on Navarino is challenging for sure, but it is impossible to leave here without a very real appreciation of how very beautiful our planet is.
2019: Iraq, Russia and an impeached President
Camera: Lumix G9. Bikes: Yeti SB5 & SB140. Gears: 1x12. Handlebars: 760mm.
'Ramping up' is perhaps a good way to describe the end of the twenty-tens, a decade that seems to be running towards, who knows what?
Despite the advent of 5G networks, fortunately, there are still plenty of places left that don’t even have a cell-signal, and that added isolation just adds to the adventure. One of them is the wild, rugged and empty sprawl of mountains that surround Mount Elbrus in Russia. This 6-day circumnavigation of Europe’s highest peak threw myriad challenges at our team left to conquer 4200 metre high passes. Of course that lack of cell-signal meant wondering how we could liaise with our support team who would meet us each night. Sputnik phones, as our fixer calls satellite phones, “not work here”.
Amidst mention of a president’s impeachment we ventured to northern Iraq to explore the peaceful trails of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. Having shared a student house with an Iraqi Kurd in 1986, listened to his stories and learned from him how to cook rice properly, I have always been keen to see Kurdistan for myself. While trusted logistics on such trips means it’s rare to feel unsafe on such trips to seemingly ‘risky’ places, rising frictions between Iran and the USA did raise anxieties in the group during this trip. The reality though, is that the Kurdish welcome we experienced was as warm as you’d find amidst your own family. The fact that we found and rode a few choice trails was, as always a bonus.
Adventure, after all, is always unpredictable, but it is always rewarding.
Thanks to Yeti Cycles, Shimano, Fox, Mavic, Crank Brothers, WTB, SilverFish UK, Giro, Alpkit and Lumix for their support.