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Mastering The Lens: Bikepacking Photography

Finding The Right Tool For The Job

Bikepacking became influential to my photography. It constantly pushes me to rethink my craft.

From waking up in my tent off the Kokopelli trail, or camped on the top of the Eastern Sierras in California. I became in love with photography while documenting the mellow extreme sport of bikepacking & bicycle touring. I’ve been a photographer long before getting into this sport but being on the bike shooting has pushed my work far more than as a street photographer home in New York City.

During my first tour only 4 years ago I was contemplating on what the right tool for the job would be. I brought 3 cameras along with me for that trip. One was a big Canon 5D Mark III with a 24-70mm lens. That was heavy in my Ortileb pannier and mainly used for video and shooting time lapse photography. The 2nd was my mobile phone which was quick and easy to use. However, it didn’t quite give me what I was looking for. The 3rd was my trusty Ricoh GR point and shoot fixed lens camera which I have since replaced with a Fujifilm XT2.

The Ricoh GR gave me the ability to shoot while on the bike. High speed shots that were sharp, had blur and provided that intense action feel that would bring you along for the ride. It was light, rough and easy to pack. It can fit right inside your mountain bike shorts pocket, frame bag or strapped around your neck.

My style of shooting on the bike is dangerous. I would often shoot with one hand on the handlebars while the other is taking the photo. It’s risky but I would often treat my work as if I’m a street photographer just like back home in New York City. I would walk the blocks and just try to find moments. Often times they will find me and I have to be prepared and ready to press the shutter and capture the shot. 

There is no right or wrong way of shooting or camera that performs better than others. It’s about vision and becoming apart of the scene. Whatever tool you choose to use all comes down to personal preference. Over the years I find that for bikepacking and bicycle touring the Ricoh GR performed the best for my use.

Below is a collection of 10 of my favorite images with captions from bicycle touring from a variety of cameras I’ve used. Enjoy, comment, share and subscribe for more journals like these.

U.S. Tour - Colorado/ Ricoh GR
U.S. Tour – Colorado/ Ricoh GR
Ibagué, Colombia/ Fuji XT2
Armenia, Colombia/ Fuji XT2
Kokopelli Trail/ Ricoh GR
Kokopelli Trail/ Ricoh GR
Woodstock, NY/ Fuji XT2
Sierra Mountains, California/ Canon 5D Mark III
Salento, Colombia/ Fuji XT2
Salento, Colombia/ Fuji XT2
Kokopelli Trail, Utah/ Ricoh GR

Colombia Bikepacking Trip Report: Day 2-3

It was a slow ride from Armenia into Salento. Distancing away from the cars we go further and farther away from black top roads and onto the dirt track high into the mountains. You can hear the tires rustle as they transition. The distractions of cars sounding off horns and motorbikes revving up their engines as they pass by slowly quiet. We were then undisturbed. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. It was all new, the same but different. On the trail the Banana trees and large snowflake like plants replaced the usual shrubs from back home, and the palms took up most of the trail dramatically. We were in the wild.

It was a big climb into Salento that took us just under 3 hours. We took breaks in between; no rush it was the first day. The initial plan was to get close to The Cocora Valley so that we can see them first thing in the morning. That soon changed after we decided to stop for a beer after making it into Salento. We then met Zack, a Floridian who worked the bar at Luciérnaga Salento. After hanging in he convinced us we stay right here in town. We booked a night at La Serrana, an Eco Farm Hostel not far down the road. We parked our bikes for the evening and walked back to the bar for a second round of Club Roja

That evening the night was clear, and packed with entertainment close by. Several more rounds of Club Roja, and a late night walk back to the hostel. – (I read my own mind). Tomorrow, a new day, a new ray of sunrise with a new warmth.

The next day was the usual for me. I kept my routine and work up before 5:30am. I didn’t want to but it was automatic. 5:43-5:44 I felt the earth shake. No one believed me, I was the only one up. It rumbled and my heart started pounding after what I experienced. I stayed up for a while quiet with my eyes open, then grabbed my camera and went outside. After breakfast we packed our bikes and took a jeep ride from the center of town over to Salento with our bikes. The plan was to check out the Wax Palms in the Valley and then pickup our route near by afterwards.

The Route that we took was wrong. We were going in reverse for about 45minutes on a downhill course. After a few mountain bikers came down and told us we were going the wrong way we had to leave and head back into Salento. On the way we meet a few mountain bike riders who showed us an alternate route that will take us into Tochê. This was the actual route that was on our map. It was clean in the beginning, but later that evening things took a turn for the worse.

The sun began to fall so we needed to find camp. We setup stealth slightly hidden from the high grass off the route. It was dark by the time our tents were setup. George prepared the stove for dinner. Upon functioning the stove, it combusted and later burnt out. We were out of a stove, and later out of a sleeping back as his rolled down the edge of the ridge we were camped off of. After a combination of hike-a-bike and climbing for 3 hours prior to to this unfortunate event, we decided to descent back into Salento to try and find fuel and a new stove, and possibly a blanket of some sort for George. It was a long day.

 

Colombia Route & Planning

Route Planning is fun, tedious and daunting in more ways than one. First, I come up with this idea of a ride in a particular place that pokes my interest. In this case Colombia, a country I’ve never visited before. I then go on google maps to check out the region, a few clicks here and there at images, and then comes the need of using more advance software to build my route.

On road touring can give you the ability of plugging in a point A & B address to have a line automatically drawn out for you, where as bikepacking is a little more involved because you are using off road trails, fire roads, rail trail, and often times unridden or unmarked paths that don’t always show up on google maps. This was the case when planning the route for Colombia.

Part of my process involves paper maps, online topo maps, and advance mobile apps for mapping. In this write up I will walk you through some of the programs and processes I use for navigation and resources to support my overall bike adventures.

Software:
Garmin Basecamp | Ride With GPS | Gaia GPS | MotionXGPS | Google Earth/ Maps (Streetview)

The software always varies depending on the ride. For local adventures I use basic point A to Point B software like Ride With GPS. I usually build my route referencing it with Google to zero in on my location. This helps if you want to see what the area of your route actually looks like You can go as far as using street view and Google Earth for a closer look.

A fast search online to see if other riders have traversed the area via bicycle is another option. That can help you build your route as well.

Garmin Basecamp software is another great platform with so many tools for building a solid route. You can setup waypoints, notes, gather elevation plots, install dedicated maps and easily export the completed route into different formats like gpx and tcx files to use for navigation devices.

For mobile navigation I am currently using Gaia GPS along with MotionXGPS as backup. Gaia GPS is great because you can plan out a route in the native software or upload your route that was previously built in other software programs like Basecamp or Ride with GPS, and have it sync up directly to your mobile phone. The desktop software works hand in hand with the mobile app with the syncing feature. It’s such an intuitive process for workflow because it shows up almost instantly.

MotionXGPS is a little different and getting your route loaded on to the app requires you to send it via their file sharing software via iTunes. It’s fairly simple to do but a bit of a learning curve. You can also email them your finished route and they will send you instruction on installing the route to the app. It’s fairly simple.

Determining Your Route:
The first step is to determine if your route is going to be a loop or a thru route. A loop begins at point A, circles around your desired region and ends back at point A. Thru route begins at point A and end at point B. Loops are easier to take on. You can get to your location, ride and end up back there however many days later. A thru route is a bit more difficult because you begin at point A, then ride to point B. You then have to figure out how to get back to point A.

While both will be exciting adventures, just keep in mind that you will need to figure out how to get back. Options like, renting a car, hitchhiking, Uber (possibly) or doing your route in reverse are options. For our upcoming Colombia trip we are taking a bus 8 hours from Bogota to Armenia, our starting point. Then ride back to Bogota. This would be considered a thru route.

Starting A Route:
The first route I officially planned was cycling from Poughkeepsie, NY to Woodstock, NY. This was a thru route that we also road in reverse. It’s a total of 70 miles round trip, and was built using Ride With GPS online software. My starting point was at the Metro North Station. The route then leads you through rail trail systems and ends in the main town of Woodstock, NY.

While it’s simple to plug in an address, you definitely need to zero into your route and use other resources to support your route planning. This is when Google Earth and street view come in. These tools give you the ability to view roads to get a closer look at what you’re getting into before setting off on your adventure. As mentioned earlier, it doesn’t work everywhere.

Colombia:
Colombia is a country I’ve always wanted to visit. While the media still reports talk of coca fields, rebels, violent crime, and kidnappings. Most travelers would opt for a location far from here. It’s true the country does have challenges with poverty and other unironed creases, but apart from the media reports, tabloid headlines and negative news bites from blog post, Colombia is a thriving country. It’s grown to be a major tourist destination with improved security. Cost are also low so now is a good time to go.

Colombia is an epicenter for bikes. It’s known for breading some of the top class road & mountain bikers and has an array of overlanding terrain. The rich culture and biodiversity, along with its coffee history drives my interest in visiting here. One of the more popular locations I want to visit is the Wax Palms that seat in the central region of the Andean Mountains in Quindío. The Wax Palms are incredible palm trees native to this region and Peru. They sit in the Cocora Valley spanning as high as 200 feet. So southwards we go.

I plotted this route using Garmin Basecamp software. I then moved it to Ride With GPS for a secondary map overview and finally to Gaia GPS for the mobile app navigation and routing. My dedicated GPS for navigation will be my Garmin Edge 500 which draws a track for you to ride on.

Garmin Basecamp View of Route:

Ride With GPS View of Route:

Gaia GPS View of Route:

Motion X GPS View of Route:

Garmin Edge 500 View of Route:

We’ll be riding from Armenia and heading northeast passing through Salento, with a stop at the Wax Palms, then back to our route heading southeast to Ibague, Giradot, Tocaima, Viota, and finally ending in Bogota. A total of 233 miles of cycling. Below is a route plot for the ride we’ll be taking on trough these destinations. I’ll be posting after the trip is completed with a full report along with the traditional gear breakdown hopefully before departure. If you have question leave them in the comments below.

Dirt Touring Poughkeepsie to Wookstock, NY

A little over 80 miles North of New York City is Poughkeepsie, NY. A connection to the Hudson and Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, and finally the Onteora Trail which will lead you in route to Woodstock, NY. For us, this was an overnight dirt touring trip. A quick weekend getaway that’s mixed with 80% dirt and gravel. I’ve ridden this route solo last July of 2016 on 23mm tires on my full carbon road bike setup for a fast light tour. You can read that write up here.

This trip was a duo with my friend George. A skilled mountain biker at heart with the desire to travel by bike. This is the first trip I’ve went on with George, and certainly not my last. You can sense the companionship through banter, views of the world, and bike stuff. I knew it was going to be a great trip.

The route is mainly intended for travel by rail via Metro North from Grand Central Station in New York City. Once aboard the train to Poughkeepsie you’ll be relaxed for two hours. George and I conversed back and fourth and before we knew it, we were on our bikes and off to the “Walk Over The Hudson”. This will put you directly on Hudson Valley Rail Trail. This 4-mile gravel trail passes through wood forest and creeks before leading you through New Paltz, NY where you will then pick up the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail.

One of the more difficult sections is the hike a bike up to camp at Overlook.

Walkway to the abandoned hotel that burned down several times and left for ruins.

Manual Pedal


Photo: George Regus

Some sections can be ridden while others can’t.

Beautiful vistas at the summit where we setup camp for the evening.


GPX Source: George Regus

 

Kokopelli Trail Report: Day Two – Three

Day Two:
Woke up with a sweaty puff jacket sucking up all the oxygen in my tent. The sun was warm. Stepping outside Mickey was already breaking down and packing up. After a short breakfast and game plan we hit the trail. Lots of hiking over big rocks and steep climbs exhausted us. We were looking forward to getting off this single track and on to some gravel. We were both low on water and Mickey was getting frustrated, I can understand. We met Fernando from Spain who was R/V camping with his family. After chopping it up he let us fill up our bottles so we would stay hydrated for the rest of the ride.

We mad it to camp on time at 5pm. We setup our tents, rest, eat and talk before settling in for the evening. We watched the vast landscape and sun hide behind the mountains. Night fall, rain pounded our tents with strong wind. Sunrise, at it again.

Day Three:
Crazy climbing over mountains. Bike push up, ride down, repeat. Dave the Australian – legend.


















Route Reference: Bikepacking.com – Kokopelli Trail

Kokopelli Trail Report – Day One

A short train ride into NYC, to meet Mickey, then pack up our bikes and board a 3:30pm to Chicago. The journey begins.

It crossed my mind that I forgot my tent poles at home half way to Grand Junction. Convinced by Mickey and a bit of hope that my tent poles were in my frame bag, my tent poles weren’t in my frame bag. We built our bikes at the Grand Junction Union Station anxious to get to Fruita and hit the trail. Time wasn’t particularly on our side so the plan was to find a place to crash for the evening since it was already 6pm and didn’t want to hit the trail and ride at night. We got into Fruita at 6:30pm and made a stop at Over The Edge Bikes to get info on the trail and ask where I can find tent poles. Greg helped us out leading us to a couple stores that didn’t have what we needed. REI was back in Grand Junction so we ended up riding back there and parking at a hotel for the night. I pulled Mickey back to Grand Junction as if we were on TT bikes. We had to push, the sun was dropping out the sky, and the chill crisp air was upon us. We made it to our room, pizza, Discovery channel and route planning was the rest of the evening.

Day One:
Met up with Greg who loaned me his tent poles for my Akto. Shortly afterwards it was breakfast then off to Fruita. Quick stop at Over The Edge Sports for a tube, chop it up with the locals, and on the trail by noon. Bike pushing through technical sections, Mickey went down on some rocks pretty bad. I fell on a cactus scrapping my hand but nothing to complain about. The only way is forward. Exhausted from the biggest star in the sky, doubt started to take hold. GU was offered by Mickey, two bottles of H20 down and 15 miles to camp. What a day.

Route Reference: Bikepacking.com – Kokopelli Trail

Kokopelli Trail & Surly Long Haul Trucker

My Surly Long Haul Trucker reminds me a lot like my old BMX bikes. Swap parts, shave dropouts, smaller chainring sizes & cogs, completely mod the bike. However, still retaining its timeless old school touring/MTB style. So far on the resume this bike hauled me across the U.S. back in (2014), and Virginia Blue Ridge PKWY tour in (2015) where I swapped out the drop bars for a MTB crossbar and XT shifters.

I wanted to push this bike to the limit and see how I can modify it for 5 days riding the popular Kokopelli Trail from Fruita, CO to Moab, UT. The 158mi route consist of of mainly 90% unpaved road, single/ double track, sand, dirt, and tech climbing. One thing I knew I would need right out the gate was bigger tires. My 35c Schwalbe’s soon upgraded to 2.1’s, along with my 44,34,24 triple that went down to a 32,24 double.

After making a short list of items that I needed to convert my bike to a bikepacking machine, I still had to make some serious modifications to fit the tires. Purist Surly owners may cringe after sharing that I shaved my chainstays and fork just to fit the tires. But I was confident enough that this frame would withhold the stress factor I put it through. In and out the shop leading up to our departure, the bike was finally where I wanted it to be.


Mickey grinding down my fork to fit a 2.1 in the front.

Frame:
Surly Long Haul Trucker
Fork/Headset:
Surly Long Haul Trucker, 4130 CroMo
Crankset/Bottom Bracket:
Shimano Deore
Pedals:
Old School MTB Bear Traps
Drivetrain/Cog/Chainring/Chain:
Shimano Deore, Shimano 32/24X10-36 Cassette 10spd
Derailleurs/Shifters:
Shimano XT (front) Shimano XT Long Cage (rear) 10spd
Handlebars/Stem:
Shimano Koyak MTV Crossbar
Saddle/Seatpost:
Thomson Masterpiece, Specialized Toupe
Brakes:
V-Brakes
Front Wheel/Hub/Tire:
Alex Adventurer, 36h rims, Shimano LX T660 36h hubs, WTB 2.1 front
Rear Wheel/Hub/Tire:
Velocity rims on Shimano hub, Specialized Fast Trak 2.0
Accessories:
Outfitted with Revelate Designs bags

Sunday Ride 005

As accustom as I am to the winters here in New York, I’ve slowly grown apart from it’s melancholy and pass my attention to greater ranges of the world where it would be warmer. My vision board just climbed to 3 plus photos of homes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Colombia and Australia. Dwell (literally) became a major contributor of my current collage.

Since winter is slowly becoming a past tense, I no longer need to reflect on the numerous counts it battered us with blizzards and a nor’easter that wiped everything out. In lieu of pretending that riding would continue, it slowed down completely, which isn’t uncommon here.

We had some really cold days, and I don’t mean cold in the conventional sense, like it was brutal. So in effort to make winter somewhat captivating I did as much riding as I possibly could with most of it commuting, riding the local hike/bike trails or my Indoor rollers.

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Nowhere Fast: Bike Touring The Blue Ridge Parkway

It was one of those kinds of mornings when you wake up psyched in knowing the days ahead are going to be super rad. My alarm sounded off at 5 a.m. and I jumped right out of bed, brewed a cup of coffee and watched the sunrise burst through my window one blind at a time. I double-checked my gear before leaving to board a 9 a.m. train to meet Mickey in Brooklyn. Thankfully we pre packed my bike and most of my gear the night before making my commute in a bit easier with just a backpack to carry.

After arriving at Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, I spotted Mickey. We chopped it up, fit the gear in the back of his Volkswagen and we were off for a 7-hour drive to the Blue Ridge Mountains in South West Virginia. Along the way we panned out what the days would look like ahead. Now I’ve never traveled with Mickey before but I know he had a few trips under his belt, and that we both knew the common language of bicycle travel. I knew if anything were to go south, I would be able to develop some alternate plans on the fly but I had faith in that everything will turn out well.

We arrived at Otter Creek on the Blue Ridge Parkway right outside of Lynchburg, VA. At around 6:30 P.M. We unloaded and assembled our bikes, loaded all of our portage and left a note at the range station stating we’ll be back in 5 days. Typically, this is the common thread when riding the parkway and is permitted at most ranger stations.


Image credit: by Mickey Cheng

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After driving all day we decided to ride three miles and setup camp at Otter Creek for the evening. This will be our point of departure for the days ahead.

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We got up early and did a quick breakdown of our paraphernalia. We did what we can, to consolidate the gear for the days we were spending on the Parkway. I had a little less than a gallon of water packed which included two 40oz Kleen Kanteens, my 25oz water bottle and a 20oz reserve.

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After breaking camp at 8:00 a.m. The Blue Ridge Parkway  was bright with light leaks that broke through the trees leaving their abstract branch shadows on the road. It was all too familiar, but so different, quaint and still with the sonic sounds of nature that moved everything. We were riding for about 10 minutes before we were introduced to our first 3000-foot climb. It wrapped us around the beautiful picturesque ridges. When I told Mickey I’d know within about 10 minutes if I were going to be comfortable in the saddle. He said not to think so much about what’s ahead of you, when it comes just take the climb. You begin to develop a rhythm and before you know it you reach the top.

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Image credit: by Mickey Cheng

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We went with the flow. No pressure, no time restraints and no strings attached. Just bike and experience what the Blue Ridge was giving us.

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Image credit: by Mickey Cheng

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We were headed for Roanoke Mountain, which was about 60 miles of climbs and switchbacks. Temps were climbing in the upper 80’s with inclement conditions at higher altitudes, “Keep on pedaling.” We were exhausted at times and took breaks here and there. We circled back to a ranger station where we took a break. After a brief refuel we were off with our legs spinning surrendering to the granny gear up Roanoke Mountain. We were nearing the main city there and decided to get a room at a local motel in town for the night. It was much needed.

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The next morning the road back to the Blue Ridge climbed for several miles before it topped out. We were back on within 45minutes and heading back North towards Jefferson National Forest where we would stay the night.

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Image credit: by Mickey Cheng

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I was awakened by a series of “Koww” sounds from crows that echoed around our campsite. Mickey was wide-awake. I made my way out of my tent for breakfast at the camp table. We shared laughs about the night before, packed our gear and set off for a 34-mile ride back to the car. Each day was different, something like a biking paradise. Steep uphill climbs with long rolling down hill descents. Swath of foliage that wrapped around us as we pedaled the tarmac. And beautiful views on the tops of every mountain. We rode fast going downhill awaiting for the next nuance around the bend.

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5 Day Minimal Gear Packing List

Last year I brought the entire kitchen sink for a 75-day trip across country. This time around, I’ll be going minimal and wanted to share what I’ve packed for a 5-day bike packing trip on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Blue Ridge Parkway meanders for 469 miles from Virginia to North Carolina. We’re planning to start East in Lynchburg, VA to Sparta, NC, and hope to cover somewhere around  200 miles. There are several grades especially when traveling from the east, so swapping my platform pedals for clipless pedals is a must. My camera gear would be the heaviest in my arsenal but I look at this as a necessity. Aside from that, this is a very light collective of gear packed for the terrain we’ll be covering.

VA,Map2

I’ll also be carrying Voltaic’s V72 battery that will keep my electronics charged throughout this trip.

Voltaic.Canon)Battery

In terms of food, I’ll be keeping it simple and light with the exception of a couple of cans of beans and corn. Other foods will include pasta, trail mix, small loaf of bread, peanut butter, jam, apples, avocados, a couple packs of ramen and candy.

cookst

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In addition to my two 21oz water bottles these two 40oz Kleen Kanteens will house my water for the entirety of the trip.

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Nights will be spent getting cozy in my REI Radiant 650 down sleeping bag. It’s rated at 20 degrees for 3 seasons. I often find myself keeping it halfway open if not sleeping on top of it during the fall season inside my Akto

sleeping

 

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Packlist:

Camera/Lighting
DSLR, GoPro
Headlamp
Front/Rear Lights
Batteries

Clothes
Shorts
Thermals
Puff Jacket/Rain
Jersey/ 2 shirts
Bib/Underwear/Socks
Cycling shoes/ Sandles

Tools
Compass
Pump/Tube/Patch kit/Tire levers
Allen key set
Bungie/rope
Knife

Housing
Hilieberg Akto Tent
REI Radiant Plus
Sleeping pad

Misc
Toiletries
Map
Journal