Dan Milner is a photographer who has carved himself a niche documenting bike adventures in places that you wouldn’t have thought of.
Ethiopia, Afghanistan, North Korea… All countries that might not leap out at you as places to plan your next bike adventure, but it’s places like these with a certain history that catch Dan Milner’s eye.
Pete had a chat with Dan about adventures past, present and future, as well as talking shop about cameras, kit and favourite photos.
Who is Dan Milner?
He’s that bloke who’s always photographing trips to impossible-sounding places.
What came first, bikes or cameras?
Bikes.. or at least I don’t remember having a camera at age 5. I always wanted a Raleigh Chopper and then a Grifter. I got neither. I had a 6 speed road bike instead but I did start snapping photos of family holidays in Anglesey on a Kodak Instamatic 110. Google it (the camera, not my Anglesey holiday).
How did you get into photography?
See above: Anglesey, circa 1974. I started taking photography more seriously during a solo 7-month trip around South and Central America in 1989. The trip was a weird juxtaposition of crazy bus journeys, hiking mountains and getting immersed in riots.
I went there looking to better understand the political struggles going on at the time. It was quite a trip through Chile, Peru, Columbia and more. I finished up working on a voluntary building project in Managua, Nicaragua, building homes for people disabled in the war against the Contras.
The US invaded Panama while I was out there and Nicaraguans thought they were next. Tanks rolled through Managua’s streets, shaking the walls of the house I was in, and there was massive anxiety in the air. This shot of storm clouds gathering above two girls in the suburb I was staying in captures that anxiety.
What’s your background in cycling?
Lusting after Raleigh Choppers (see above) but instead having to throw cyclocross tyres and cow-horn bars on my meagre 6-speed racer and try to ride it in the local woods. I got my first mountain bike — a Raleigh Maverick ATB— in 1986 while at university in Swansea. It had 15 gears and a rear bolt-thru axle made of cheese that broke when I first rode down a set of steps.
They were exciting times, and though skinny by today’s standards, those unprecedented “fat tyres” suddenly made riding everywhere possible. It was mental. True freedom. You could look at a field and think ‘I can ride across that’.
I got into XC racing in 1990 when I spannered at a shop called Bike in Bristol, racing the first Cheddar Challenge and then an early Transalp 5-day race in Italy in 1993 with those 35mm-travel elastomer Pace forks.
It was stupidly hard, but it made me want to tick off the other ‘toughest race’ of the era, so I did Verbier’s Cristalp 130Km-long, 5000m up-and-down, in 2000. I finished in 10 hours but couldn’t sit on a saddle for a week after. I didn’t need to race again.
I turned to bike adventures in the early 1990’s, booking cheap flights or last minute holidays to places like Mallorca or Lanzarote and just turning up at the check-in counter with my bike and go exploring whatever trails I could find. In 1996 I headed off with my partner Angie to cycle tour Argentina and Chile for 10 months. We rode Kona Cindercones and lived out of panniers for months. It was brilliant, but the endeavour nearly killed our relationship though.
When did you realise you could make a go of being a photographer?
The switch from being a part time photographer shooting stories to just pay for a bike holiday, to trying to be professional came in 1997. I’d freelanced some cartoon strips and features I shot in South America to Snowboard UK magazine and wanted to shoot more snowboarding.
I was working in sales at Carratti (the Bristol-based distributor for GT bikes, Rockshox and Camelbak) and decided that job was just a stop-gap so I quit and headed off to Chamonix for the winter and lived with two pro-snowboarders. We went out and shot every day we could. It put me on the photo map but a lack of economic-suss kept me in a ski bum lifestyle for years.
Did you start shooting bikes straight off the bat?
My first involvement in magazines came from mountain bike trips around 1993, before I started shooting snowboarding. They were just snaps really and I soon realised I needed to get better at photography if I was to sell stories from my bike holidays.
Then as the snowboard photography increased I reduced the amount of bike photography as I didn’t want my biking to become work — I wanted it to be the escape from work. Then in 2003 I went out riding in Chamonix one day, threw my Contax G2 camera in my pack (just in case), and shot a selfie riding into the mist during the ride. I shot it on B&W film. I finished the 2-hour ride, got home and developed and printed it in my bathroom’s makeshift darkroom. The photo won Photo of the Year from Bikemag in the USA and made me decide to take bike photography more seriously.
How do you go about picking a new country to visit and getting a trip off the ground?
The seeds of my trips vary in how they are sown. Most come from ideas I have to see and ride in a new place, often inspired by seeing a (non-bike) photo somewhere; My trip to Lebanon in 2016 was catalysed by a photo of a beautiful cedar tree on a wall of a Lebanese restaurant.
Those things are just triggers — they make me curious, so I research such places for any information on hiking trails. And then the long process begins in trying to work out if those hiking trails can be ridden or will make good riding, will make a good, sellable story, are safe and who can help me with some logistics in country. Some trips will take a year or even two from idea to fruition, others can be just a month.
I don’t always need a crazy-sounding ex-war zone for a story. Some of the best stories just need an original slant, like sea kayaking 3 days on Loch Morar in Scotland towing our bikes on inflatable dinghies behind us, or following a 100-year old disused railway in Argentina (more fun and adventurous than it sounds, people).
I used to do a lot of stories with just riding mates coming with me, but times have changed. Most of the usual suspects don’t have the time or money to come now, or the low hanging fruit destinations like Madeira, Utah, Nepal or Chile that used to make ground breaking stories have reached saturation point in the magazines.
Now you have to cast the net wider if you want to shoot original adventure destinations that grab editors’ attention and make it as a freelancer, or you bring on board a trip sponsor to make it all pay, or both.
And the places still unshot in the mountain bike world are usually those deemed as more ‘dangerous’, but then those places often have a more poignant backstory to tell too and I’m more into that now, than just one for adventure’s sake. North Korea, Ethiopia and Afghanistan were suggested (and organised) by Tom Bodkin at Secret Compass but I didn’t need any encouragement to say yes.
Of all the places you’ve ridden, which was the best for getting the best photos?
Every place is different and has its own character or feel, but Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains or Nepal’s Upper Mustang are winners. Both are soaked in stunning scenery and awash with warm, hospitable people and the riding is hard earned so gives the photos an authentic flavour of adventure.
How did the Yeti collaboration come about?
I did a 3-week trip to the USA in 2008 with some mates, starting with a 6 day thrash along the Colorado Trail before hitting Utah and then on to Tahoe. I blagged some support from the Colorado Tourist board and they put me in touch with bossman Conroy at Yeti so some of us could borrow bikes for the trip. We rode demo 575’s and were blown away by how well they rode and how playful they were.
All 3 of us came home with new ones at the end, and then a couple of years later Conroy asked if I’d like to be a brand ambassador. Hashtag: Dream-come-true. Brands seem to see the value in being associated with me or are just genuinely happy to empower my kind of mountain biking.
How have modern bikes made your work easier?
They are a lot more fun to ride than the stuff of old and are way more trail capable which equals less need to get off and walk. Reliability is key in remote places and I’m amazed at how today’s components brush off abuse to keep me rolling.
How do you break the language barrier in the far flung places of the World?
Bikes do that well without any help from me. They turn heads and break the ice and create laughter and amazement. There are so many places we go that I can’t converse, but the bike is almost universally appreciated for what it is: a bike.
People —adults and kids alike— usually want to ride your bike, or want to race you on theirs. It’s the best tool I’ve found for cutting through language, cultural or ethnic barriers. Break down the barriers means better opportunities to see a place authentically.
Is there a rider that makes it easy to take good photos of?
Weirdly the fastest, smoothest rider isn’t always the best for photos. Some can look too relaxed and make it all look too easy. There’s a degree of acting in bike photos needed to help carry energy into the picture. Finding riders for my trips isn’t always easy — most pro riders have no interest in going to somewhere that is popularly (and usually wrongly) seen as dangerous and many haven’t really travelled outside the race circuit with its stability of hotels and team managers.
Most of my trips need riders that can throw shapes on the bike on any trail, and not freak out because we only have a dusty floor to sleep on, or it’s getting dark and we’re still way off camp, or they have just received a North Korean stamp in their passport.
Do you have a favourite photograph you’ve taken?
As a photographer knowing the backstory to each photo you get emotionally attached to certain photos that others might not see with such merit, and I’d find it hard to pin it down to one or two. I remember one night during that Latin America trip in 1989 hearing a ruckus in the street in Ecuador and going out to see what it was all about, camera in hand.
A photo I took of a student stooping to pick up a billowing teargas canister to throw it back at the cops, silhouetted against clouds of gas lit by a streetlight is still one of my favourite photos I’ve ever taken. Or if it’s a bike one you’re after, then this one, snapped in a blizzard while exploring the most southern trail in the world last January is up there. To me now (and to all of us then) it just says “WTF?”.
Who or what inspires you to shoot?
Great light. Mountains. Diverse cultures. Pain. Trees. Resilience. Curving trails. Dark clouds. The tragic comedy of human life. Yurts.
You must own a fair bit of kit. What combo gets overused, and what rarely sees the light of day?
I have a Nikon 85mm 1.4 that I don’t think I’ve ever used, and while my fisheye lens took a lifetime of snowboard halfpipe shots it doesn’t cut it for me for mountain biking. I use Nikon DSLR’s for most of my catalogue work, but I’ve ploughed through a fair few camera systems over the years on a quest to find lighter gear that doesn’t compromise on image quality to shoot the adventure trips.
A Panasonic Lumix G9 mirrorless camera has shot almost all my trips for the last year. I pack with it 16-24mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm equivalent zooms and usually an essential 35mm or 50mm equivalent fast prime for portraits and street shots.
Do you still shoot with film, and if so, what makes digital not quite good enough to kill it off? Do you think film will always have a place?
Digital makes it all so easy, both being able to review immediately or share the picture with a stranger you just photographed (that’s a great bonding and respectful moment in a remote village) and in terms of being portable and convenient. I don’t miss the days of film, of arguing with airport security about X-raying machines, or having to ride for a week with 40 rolls of film filling my pack.
So no, I haven’t shot film for a few years now, but it was fun, if expensive and tricky, learning photography with it. I think anyone who still uses it is either is admirably arty or trying to prove something (many who use it now entered photography post-digital). Film will always have a place as an artistic process, like painting or sculpting, it’s just for me, right now, it isn’t my bag.
You must have some stories from travelling the world, can you tell us your favourite crazy story?
Pissed on by a horse in Afghanistan? Recounting British curry house menu items as the only way to order a dinner from non-English speaking hosts in a remote tea house in Nepal?
Snatching 5 hours sleep in tents pitched on the edge of Polar Bear feeding grounds in the pissing rain in Svalbard, our guide sitting outside with a rifle in his hand? Inadvertently riding into a zone marked with mine-field warning signs in Lebanon? Too many. I’m aiming to have a photo book out late 2019 that documents the craziness of it all.
Any unmitigated disasters?
I once did a story using early Google Earth to look at and find ‘trails’ in Sicily from the comfort of my sofa, and then go and ride them. It was bad. All the trails” I scouted turned out to be 4×4 roads, not singletrack. A bad week, compensated only by good wine.
Most of my trips are crammed with so many special moments, often shaped by our contact and experiences with locals, that could make my ‘top ten favourites’ list. But there is also an overwhelming sense of accomplishment that comes with many projects.
Some of my favourite moments come from reaching the finish line and realising that a plan came together and worked. That the huge mental and physical investment we’ve put in has paid off in terms of shaping who we are.
Where next for Dan? How do you plan to go about getting extra helpers etc. etc.?
As I get older I find it even harder to slow down. Maybe I’m just racing the inevitable existential full stop in life, but I have a few remote ‘firsts’ on the cards for 2019 and more for the year after.
Anybody to thank at this point in the journey? Long suffering spouses/parents/friends?
My partner Angie who has stuck with me for over two decades now and sat through too many of my slideshows. Her support has been unfaltering.
And those brands, both snow and bike that trusted me to make them look good in catalogues and those that have seen the merit in showing people life doesn’t have to be dull. Right now I’m kept rolling by Yeti, Shimano, Mavic, FOX, WTB, Silverfish UK, Crank Brothers, One-Up, Alpkit, Giro, 7idp, Clif Bar, F-Stop packs and Lumix UK. Thanks people.