Sunrise to sunset
(and all that’s in between)
Specializing in cycling and travel photography, it’s fair to assume that documenting the Atlas Mountain Race would be the perfect project for Jonny Hines. As things unfolded, the sensory richness of Morocco added another dimension to his beautifully observed images of competitors pitting themselves against the challenges of an unforgiving race route.
Reflecting back on his time following the race, Jonny sat down to discuss his experience on the road, his impressions of a warm and welcoming people, and how he balanced a desire to capture the riders’ travails with an emotional investment in their wellbeing.
I’d already established a relationship with PEdAL ED after they got in touch last year to ask if I wanted to shoot the Trans Pyrenees. And then race director Nelson Trees contacted me with a view to doing something similar on the inaugural Atlas Mountain Race which they were sponsoring.
I remember how burnt out I felt after the first couple of days of Trans Pyrenees. The front riders were so quick that to keep pace, I was also having to survive on an odd hour of sleep here and there. With my plan for the Atlas Mountain Race, I was able to manage my own needs more easily. Obviously, you want to shoot sunrise and sunset, but we were pretty remote, and it isn't that easy to find accommodation. So, we'd plan to be somewhere nice as the sun went down and then stay over at a guesthouse or home stay, waking up each day and checking the riders' tracking dots before heading out once again.
Flying into Morocco was pretty much as I expected—a lot of familiar faces with everyone seeming to know each other. They'd done the Silk Road Mountain Race or Transcontinental, maybe spending time together during these events and forming friendships. It was really interesting to witness this sense of camaraderie but still noticing the potential front-runners eyeing each other up—everyone being friendly but sussing out all the different bikes and wondering who had the best setup and whether they, themselves, had made the right decisions [laughs].
As the riders got underway, we had a police escort out of Marrakesh, which was really cool—motorbike outriders shepherding us through the suburbs until we left the city behind us. And even though the race route took us through some pretty wild and remote regions, you’d find that someone would just pop up walking along the road. Lots of Berbers and shepherds with flocks of sheep and goats, which makes you wonder how people manage to live out there because the riders had to be very conscious of where they could get water and supplies. If you missed these points, you could be in serious trouble as it's a truly unforgiving environment.
I was following the race in a 4x4 pickup with my friend and PEdAL ED designer Matteo D’Amanzo and Stefano, who was creating podcast content. It was pretty cramped [laughs], and there were parts of the route which were undriveable, so we were constantly having to re-route. Even the sections that we could use were incredibly slow going with our average speed often not that much faster than the riders.
At one point, we were driving back down a mountain pass that we couldn't cross. It was pitch black, and we’d been trying to stay on course only to find ourselves in a dried-up riverbed. So then you have half an hour of reversing, and you're super disorientated because there's no point of reference. The riders obviously had it far tougher, but it was an adventure for us too [smiles].
As we’d planned on following the middle-to-back group, we kept seeing the same riders over the course of the first few days before the race got really strung out. It became a running joke with two of the guys after we’d bumped into them a couple of times at breakfast and wished them 'good morning'. But when it came to people struggling, I tried to take some close-up shots without them realizing, just to capture the moment before asking how it was going, treading that fine line of building up a rapport without interfering with the race.
Obviously, it's very different comparing the front and back of the field. Because at the front, the last thing they want to do is stop and chat. They’re in the zone and doing their thing. But at the back, the riders are racing against themselves, and the ones we were following couldn't wait to tell us about their adventures: the crazy bike 'n' hike section they'd just completed or the lady and her family who invited everyone that passed into her house for tea and peanut butter on toast.
The local population was a feature of the race that added enormous interest and color. As we left Marrakesh, we had children running alongside the riders, everyone high fiving, and there was definitely a sense that people were interested in the race. From our perspective in the car, what we remember are the smiles and waves of everyone we passed. Through every small village, we'd drive with our windows down so we could say 'hi'.
On the first evening, when we'd reached a fairly narrow section of road, we came up to a large group of cars blocking the way through this small settlement. We could see someone waving at us to come up and when we did, they showed us where we could wash our hands before ushering us into this house—the women all in one room, the men gathered in the next where we sat down to this huge leg of lamb followed by roast chicken and another dish with almonds and prunes. Everyone was digging in around this large central platter, right hand only and no plates.
In terms of goodwill from the local residents, Morocco was very welcoming. The terrain, however, was less hospitable, and a sizable proportion of the field was forced to scratch. The amount of walking required caught some of the riders out in terms of their timings. And tire choice proved crucial, with the wear and tear on drive trains due to the sand and dust another huge factor, because it wasn't gravel roads in the sense that we understand the term in Northern Europe. These were seriously rocky trails which can drop your average pace to 10 kph.
I had my own worries regarding the landscape in terms of how to shoot it. Would all look the same? But you just try to find different angles and perspectives to tell the story, mixing up big landscapes with the small detail stuff. It is a real sensory experience with the smell of the tagines cooking and the call to prayer floating across the villages and towns throughout the day. So much so that you feel totally immersed in a different culture, which is a reason for entering this race in itself.
On reflection, I do wonder whether maybe I went in without realizing quite how big the Atlas Mountains are in terms of elevation. I'd seen pictures and thought, yeah, that looks really cool. But the beauty of this region is quite breathtaking with the folds of the Earth clearly exposed and laid bare, not green like the Alps, but varying shades of orange and yellow. And then you'd follow a bend in the road and come across an oasis, the shock of open water surrounded by cherry blossom trees after miles of dried-out riverbeds. It was just like I'd pictured it from the adventure books I used to read as a child. I can only imagine how it must have appeared to a race competitor on the edge of exhaustion.
"The beauty of this region is quite breathtaking with the folds of the Earth clearly exposed and laid bare."
It was interesting – considering the grueling nature of the race – that the riders kept asking how we were doing, and there's us with a car [laughs]. It might have been bumpy and my back kind of hurt a little bit, but the individuals competing were the true celebs, bedding down under the stars whilst I was sleeping inside after a hot meal.
Finally reaching the finish, you can’t help but feel happy that everyone's crossed the line safely, that you haven't driven off the side of a cliff and none of the riders were seriously hurt. Because these types of races can be really dangerous, and the terrain we'd all been crossing was unforgiving. It can very quickly all go very wrong.
From my perspective, I wanted to shoot images that truly reflect the experience of the riders rather than my own. But when you keep bumping into the same riders throughout the course of the race, you can't help but will them along, hoping that they're OK. What I found interesting, because I come from a background of working in the guided tour business with Rapha Travel, was the almost instinctual need to help. Obviously, you can't interfere with the race, but there’s definitely a sense of emotional investment.
Would I line up on the start line myself? This is something we talked about every day in the car. I'm basically a road rider but, being on the race, you get involved and start finding it all rather cool. I'm a bit of a geek, as most cyclists are when it comes to their bikes and kit, so it's really interesting seeing all the different set-ups on the start line. So maybe I could be persuaded. Maybe I need to experience this type of race if I'm going to carry on photographing long distance events—to truly understand what it feels like. But if I ever did decide to give it a go, it would be as a pair. I've got no interest in spending twelve hours a day with my own thoughts. That would be the first reason to scratch; I'd just get bored. Cycling for me is a social thing, and I'd probably feel less anxious riding with someone. Not very rock 'n' roll, I know [laughs].