November 28, 2023 – When living photography legend Dan Milner tells you about his next project, a bike adventure in India, you don’t think twice about jumping onboard. German mountain bike rider Steffi Marth signed up immediately to join Dan and Indian mountain bike rider Vinay Menon for a unique trip. While Dan Milner came up with the idea and documented the trip photographically in his unmistakable way, Thomas Hessmann, in-house filmmaker from ABUS, the project’s partner, captured the journey in moving images. The result is a short film that immerses the viewer deeply in the beauty of an extraordinary region while documenting the challenges that come with such adventure.
You can find the film here: https://youtu.be/hyAlCJBayLs
In the following, the protagonists Dan Milner (photographer), Steffi Marth (professional mountain bike rider), Vinay Menon (professional mountain bike rider) and Thomas Hessmann (videographer) describe their exciting impressions and how they experienced the trip.
How did you come up with the idea for a bike trip in India?
Dan Milner: I’m a sucker for a train journey. Maybe it’s the combination of a slower pace and being at ground level where you get to glimpse life pass by the window, or perhaps it’s the accessibility that trains mean for so many people, especially in places like India. So when I heard about a 140-year old train that was still running through the foothills of the Indian Himalaya, I thought, “hey, I wonder if we could use it as our uplift with the bikes?”
“Steffi, do you want to go on a trip to India with Dan Milner?” What was your first reaction to this request from ABUS?
Steffi Marth: To be honest, I briefly wondered if India was too extreme for me, but when I heard that Dan Milner was part of the trip, I was sold immediately. I didn’t know Dan personally before, but I knew his stories and he is simply an icon when it comes to adventurous MTB stories and he was definitely one I always wanted to work with.
You are from Pune, India and that’s quite far away from Darjeeling region. Have you ever ridden there before or in the area?
Vinay Menon: Darjeeling in West Bengal is way out there from my hometown of Pune in Maharashtra. I hadn’t ridden there before, though I have a few local riding buddies from Darjeeling who always shared rad stories about the trails there. The misty, forest trails are unreal. Having my good buddy Michael McLean from Mountain Bike Kerala as our lead on this trip, great times were guaranteed!
Big mountains, you don’t conquer them, they simply allow you to play on them, so when an opportunity aligned to visit, ride in the mountain maze of the lower Himalayas in Darjeeling, it’s the hills permitting me, us to enjoy the trails there.
What was it like looking over Dan’s shoulder?
Thomas Hessmann: Dan is one of the most uncomplicated people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. He knows exactly what he wants, is absolutely professional, and yet always has that madness in his eyes that you somehow expect from a mountain biker in his class. The work itself never felt like work, because he’s totally committed to the landscape. For him, the focus was always on mountain biking and not the production itself.
When you think back to the trip – which picture or experience do you think of first?
Steffi: The first thing I think of is the highlight we had on the last day: Biking in the sun in front of the snow-covered Himalayan mountains at about 3,500m. The air was so thin, the landscape absolutely unreal and you could just enjoy the experience to the fullest. The sunrise that day was also gigantic. It was bitterly cold and I struggled a bit with the hygiene conditions during the whole trip, but it was all worth it for those moments. India is just awesome, you cannot describe how exotic this country is.
You’ve been to a lot of different adventures all around the world. What made the difference or was special about this trip?
Dan: Putting the train at the center of this adventure gave us a chance to see and immerse ourselves in another side of India that so rarely gets documented in bike trips; the gritty, every day working lives of people who live in the place you’re just visiting and in this case, keep a railway running. The idea came with its own set of challenges though, especially dealing with train guards who had never been confronted with the idea of taking a bike on their train before.
Because of Mountain Biking you’ve travelled and made friends all over the world. How does it feel to host riders in your home country?
Vinay: Being in the sport for over 25 years, I can say mountain biking is my life. The friends I have, are all whom I bonded with because of mountain biking. India and our magnificent mountains are my home, my playground. The awe and excitement I see in the eyes of some of the elites of the sport, when they’re visiting, makes me realize how lucky I am to call India my home. Having top tier riders and photographers enjoying India’s trails puts a smile on my face! I grew up on bike videos and magazine articles and always imagined having India’s incredible mountains being showcased to the mountain biking family around the world. It’s happening now! It inspires more Indian riders to tread down their backyard trails. Once you visit India, you go home a changed person!
You took many great pictures, which is the picture of the trip, that you might not even have on a hard drive but is saved in your very own memory forever?
Dan: It’s probably the mental image of the local porters, sherpas and guides enjoying themselves and letting their hair down over a bottle of brandy we gifted them, and watching them having a dance around the fire in the cold tea house high on the Singalila ridge national park. Sometimes you have to leave the camera in the bag and bank those images for yourself — the moments that remind you that no matter where you are, no matter how remote or different a place, everyone around you is human and we have that in common.
What was the biggest challenge from a professional point of view as a filmmaker and what was the biggest challenge personally?
Thomas: As a one-man film department, you have to do everything on your own, but you also don’t want to slow down the flow or get in the way of the photographer. So: run down the pretty rough trail in front of the bikers, find a spot that’s outside Dan’s radius, find a picture, check the sound, hope that the focus is right and capture the ride properly. Pack everything up, run after it, and do it all over again. And all at an altitude of 3,600 metres after sleeping for 4 hours at -3 degrees in a hut without electricity or running water.
How was the actual mountain biking and would you recommend such a trip?
Steffi: As is often the case in such distant lands, you are naturally on the lookout for cool trails and often it feels as if no mountain biker has ever been on these trails before. That’s exactly what this adventure was all about. We rode through dense bamboo forest, under prayer flags and across wide meadows and mystical forests with really tall, imposing trees. On the very last day we rode 2,000 vertical meter descent, which was a real adventure and took 5 hours.
When Steffi, Dan and Thomas talk about the trip it sounded like a real adventure. Is this also the case for you and was it also special or was it just a normal bike trip for you?
Vinay: Often the toughest journeys lead us to epic summits. This trip is definitely a special one for me! I’m extremely grateful to the team for having given me the opportunity to join and ride with awesome new friends like Steffi, Thomas and with my old bro Mike and the bossman photo master Dan. Thanks a bunch!