Dan Milner needs little introduction.
His documentation and exploration of mountain biking is arguably the most authentic and adventurous in the realm of self-propelled knobby tires. And he’s been at it for a good deal longer than most of us can even claim to have ridden a bike. From chasing faint trail through South American deserts and jungles, to the oxygen-strained mountainous locales of Afghanistan and Nepal, or simply exploring his backyard in France’s Chamonix Valley, Milner has carved a niche by using his bike to craft beautiful images—and then by pairing them with humorous, humbling and witty storytelling that only the mind of a crusty old Brit could produce.
I first met Dan years ago on a snowboard trip to Chamonix and later travelled with him again in the Dolomites. Snowboarding is also something he’s dabbled in documenting over the years, yet mountain biking is his thing, something he’s “tried to make look good since 1985.” While mountain bike travel for most of us consists of a long weekend road trip here or there, Dan’s quest for the unknown and the un-ridden is a source of inspiration and aspiration for all of us who ride. The following pages feature a collection of some of Dan’s favorite images and his insight from over the years. Enjoy.
Rob Dean and Josh Ibbett, Italy. (Opening photo)
A few years ago, I shot the Lavaredo Ultra Trail running race for The North Face in the Italian Dolomites. I was blown away by the scenery and instantly worked out a way to go back with the bike. I planned a mission to ride and shoot the same 65-mile loop the runners had done, roped in two sponsored riders and pitched it out as a story. Originality sells, so it was snapped up and I was committed. I then realized I hadn’t done my homework as thoroughly as I should have. The race went through absurdly steep climbs up precipitous mountainsides, cramming 16,400 feet of climbing and descent into two days. It was mental, and one of the toughest things I’ve ever done, but we completed it. When we finally finished in the dark, we drank more than one bottle of red that night.
Dan Milner, Nepal (Above right)
Recently I got into shooting photos of people at the conclusion of an epic adventure, to try to capture the jubilation, relief, exhaustion and sense of achievement from what we have just completed. In 2012, we rode a 12-day out-and-back through the Uttrakahand region of India, a steep mountainous area tucked under the Himalayas at the edge of the Nepalese border. I shot a portrait of each of our nine-rider team, two minutes after we rolled out of the very last descent on the last day. Then I set up my Leica M9 and handed it to one of the group to shoot me. Somehow I look like I’ve just finished a Sunday ride, so that clearly didn’t work this time around.
Seb Liljeberg, Nepal.
Rivers always add some excitement to an epic. They stall proceedings, soak gear, freeze feet and occasionally wash out a whole trip. You can have a group of riders that are all different speeds and abilities on the trail, but dealing with a river is the great leveler. When we got to this bridge on the way out of a 10-day Upper Mustang ride, we drew straws as to who would go first. Seb lost. Crossing stuff like this is no big deal…until you have a bike on your back.
Tracy Moseley and Lucy Martin, India.
This trip to India involved a series of firsts for me. My original idea had been to ride to the source of the sacred Ganges River. Learning that the trail we’d try to follow would likely be a thick bushwhack, my British contact at mtbkerala.com in India suggested I join his guided trip to the Pindari Glacier instead. Being guided is a pretty alien thing to me. Maybe it’s pride or stubbornness, but most likely it’s just that I like to go shoot places that aren’t already established. I decided I’d go and join Tracy Moseley and friends for a 12-day ride through the Himalayan foothills. It ended up being one of the best bike adventures I’ve ever done, on one of the most unique trails I have ever ridden. Free from the pressures of constant map reading and logistical worries, I could exclusively concentrate on riding and shooting instead. It was great.
Hans Rey, Argentina. (Left)
When you’re riding a point-to-point adventure with little idea of what comes next or how much effort you’ll need to finish the day, it’s sometimes hard to gauge what to shoot along the way. After all, around every turn there is usually a worthy shot, but there is also an incessant pressure to get the shot quickly and to keep moving in case you get stranded in the dark. On day three of our Argentina mountain traverse earlier this year, we came across these incredibly aesthetic red rocks. The days so far had been long—we’d finished in the dark twice already—and now deep in jaguar country we felt a definite pressure to keep moving. But there was something about these rocks that had to be shot, and having trials-legend Hans along meant we could do something creative with them. This turned out to be my favorite shot from this adventure, because of the simple beauty of the setting we were lucky to be riding through. We made it out in the light, with no jaguar attacks.
Hans Rey and Tibor Simai, Argentina. (Right)
Hans Rey asked me if I had any interesting adventures we could do together. I had a bunch up my sleeve, but the one that came together was a three-day traverse of the mountains in the northern desert of Argentina. We’d actually gone to shoot a big ride following an old railway line, and added this three-day trip as a second shoot. It finished at an old UFO crash site, but we gave up on the UFO theme after realizing it would actually be a frustrating, machete-wielding epic. Instead, we immersed ourselves in a truly organic adventure—starting in the 10,000-foot peaks of the desert and finishing three days later in the rich, green jungle of the Calilegua National Park, it turned out to be one of the top-three adventures Hans has ever done. When you’re working on a plan, it helps if people are on the same page. Hans and Tibor exude the kind of genuine enthusiasm and energy you need when the going is almost certainly going to get tough.
Colle Melogno, Italy.
Adventures teach you things, not the least being life skills. Three days trying to follow 100-miles of European trekking trail means packing light and washing your shorts at every opportunity. This was the second night, and as I religiously pack two pairs of socks, the shutter of our refuge window became my drying rack. The next day, we’d ride a 35-mile section of incredible trail to finish at Ventimiglia on the Mediterranean Sea, but not before we’d climb 4,500 feet and descend 9,000. Those are nice stats.
Rob Story and Seb Liljeberg, Nepal.
After years of hankering, I finally made it to Nepal in 2009. When I reached the little village of Kagbeni, I looked north into the restricted area of the Upper Mustang, and I knew I needed to ride there. A single dotted trail on the map led the entire way, and it was the only access to the “city” of Lo Manthang on the Tibetan border. I was hooked, and returned in 2010 accompanied by journalist Rob Story and Swedish friend Seb Liljeberg to try and ride this trail to the remote Upper Mustang capital. By all accounts, we were only the second foreign mountain bikers to try this route, but to us this mattered little. More important was the stunning scenery, unrivalled hospitality, inexhaustible supply of chai, and the incredible singletrack we rode for 10 days during our 200-mile out-and-back. I shot this image of the guys from inside one of the teahouses that punctuate the trail.
Greg Watts, France.
I like to use refuges and hostels on most of the adventures I shoot. Even though you’re restricted to where you stay, it’s just way easier to carry less on the bike, especially when you’re already encumbered with camera gear. On this ride, however, we packed for a bivouac instead. Doing an overnighter in the Chamonix Valley isn’t the most exotic adventure I’ve had, but the fact that the chairlift I usually use to access my chosen bivi spot was closed meant a tough six-hour ride and hike-a-bike to reach our spot. If you have ridden in Chamonix you’ll know the terrain isn’t very forgiving, so by the time we unrolled our bags we were spent. The knackered guy lying down is a mate, Greg Watts. It was actually his 40th birthday and the other guy standing is Keith McIntosh, who had hidden a whole bottle of wine in his pack to surprise Greg. Keith went over the bars a couple of times on the final descent, but the wine survived. The next morning we woke to a full 5,500-foot singletrack descent. We lost Keith to an avalanche six years ago. He left a big hole in our lives.
Mike Foster, France. (Left)
Corsica doesn’t get much press, probably because the riding there is uber-tech. I hit the place 10 years ago, to shoot a story about trying to traverse the mountainous island following an old hiking route. Hiking paths are usually my first port of call when researching an idea for a trip. Sometimes they don’t work out, but usually they do—if you’re willing to put in the legwork. Ten years ago this one destroyed us, riding hardtails and trying to ride point-to-point. It was stupidly tough, and in reflection so much of it would have been better in the other direction. So three years ago I went back and we cherry picked those sections and rode them the right way, helped with six-inches of suspension. This trail, a spiralling mule track that drops steeply for 2,000 feet into the Spelunca Gorge, was one of those sections that gave us a really hard time the first round. I can’t say it seemed that much easier the second time, but it was a blast all the same.
Mike Foster and Guillaume Bouveron, France. (Right)
For me, adventure is how you look at things, not simply a distant place on a map. I’m lucky; I get to ride and see and shoot amazing places on the planet. But if you look at it in a different light, adventure can also be in your backyard. In Chamonix, we ride the same trails again and again. But if you’re willing to hike a few hours to that less-accessible trail just as the day is ending, you suddenly have a sample of the pressures, commitment and rewards that make up any trip to anywhere in the world. This autumn ride is accessed by a 5,000-foot climb, including an hour of bike carrying, and is up there on the list of epics. The fact that we forgot how quickly autumn darkness falls in Chamonix and ended up finishing in the dark, stumbling down steep rooty switchbacks while using cell phones as lights, could have been a factor, I guess.
Pindari Glacier Trail, India.
Remote adventures aren’t for everyone. So many factors conspire to make it hard work, not least the accommodation options. Taken on its own, a “hotel” like this could be brushed off for a night. But add it into the mix the exertion of several days of high altitude riding, extreme temperatures, unfamiliar trail, dodgy digestion and hours of bike carrying and you realize why so many people prefer to live vicariously through the pages of magazines. That’s their call; I wouldn’t have it any other way. Still, when I am away, I often really want to be home, but when I’m home I want to be away on the next trip. I am a really screwed up person.
Jez Wilson, Spain.
To get a story commissioned by a mag you need a good “hook,” so for the last 30 years I’ve been researching trails that could be an interesting read and using them as an excuse to go on bike trips. Some are ridiculously remote and others, like this one on the Spanish island of Majorca, are relatively close to home. Few people would think you could ride an epic in a mainstream holiday destination like Majorca, but that’s the key. So many places have such incredible riding just out of view of the sun-tanning, beach-sprawling tourists. It’s amazing where you can find real adventure. This was a four-day traverse of the island’s mountains on a long distance hiking trail, staying in refuges along the way. Packing for four days on your back means having to use your Lycra undershorts as swim trunks when it comes to the dip at the end. There are more important things than modesty.