Assos California Climbs Project

It’s always exciting to announce a new project and collaboration but never more so than with one of the oldest apparel brands in cycling  – Assos who make some of the finest cycling clothes in the business and have a long history in the sport. In fact they made the very first carbon bike and more importantly, invented the Lycra cycling short back in the early 1980’s after taking inspiration from skiing.

I had been working with Assos on a few projects previously but in January we started talking about doing a project close to my heart – Mountains. They suggested a road trip, exploring and photographing some of the famous climbs in California from LA to San Francisco which they could use to promote the brand in the US through both social media and in-store through a series of exhibitions and events. I needed little persuasion and in March, I packed my bags and camera and went off to California on a 2 week road trip.

Although I travel quite a lot with my work as a photographer, strangely I had never really spent much time in the States and in particular, California. The Mountains book I published with Thames & Hudson had taken me across Europe over a period of 5 years and to some of the greatest cycling climbs in the history of the sport but never further afield. I had worked with Assos on several projects over the past year in Iceland and Tenerife but when they asked me if I was interested in going on a road trip to capture some of the climbs between LA and San Francisco it was an opportunity not to be missed. Having so much creative freedom and trust only comes with a good, strong relationship with a mature client, such as Assos.

It’s fair to say the climbs in California do not have quite the same provenance as the high mountains in Europe’s cycling heartland but they are really impressive non the less and climbs like Baldy, Hamilton and Diablo which are synonymous with the Tour of California are equally important to the US cycling culture as their European counterparts.

Much of my mountain work has been about documenting the physical landscape with the cycling history it represents. It’s the same process for cyclists which like ride and experience the famous climbs as it brings them closer to the sport and makes the bridge between all those famous duels that have played out on the roads before them. You can only do this by visiting the scene of the battle!

My short list of climbs to photograph for the project was very much focused along these lines and the climbs which held the strongest appeal with the local riding community. However, it doesn’t always follow that these climbs are the easiest to the photograph. In fact, many of the climbs in California rarely exceed 1200m so much of the road is still surround by great pine forests making it difficult to get clear views of the road below. Curiously, forest fires which had ravaged climbs such as Mt Hamilton actually made my task easier by clearing the view to leave black stalks poking out from the charred earth in some parts. This gave a real graphic look to some of the images and a different colour palette.

Probably the most important component when photography landscapes is the play of light and how it interacts with the contours of the land and physical objects within. Low light at the beginning or end of the day tends to be favoured by most photographers and California certainly has some of the best end of day light I’ve witnessed. It’s also the best time to be on a mountain, when it’s quiet and minimal tourist traffic. As a result, my working day consisted of waking up early and heading out at 5.30am to capture the good light.

The process for capturing good landscapes is quite slow and methodical compared to some forms of photography which is why I use a Phase One, medium format digital camera set on a tripod and tethered to a laptop. This allows me to see everything I’m capturing on a good screen and straight into the raw processing software where I can make necessary adjustments as I go along. My work tends to involve a lot of hiking off the beaten track to reach the right vantage points to get shots. There were climbs such as Rockstore in southern California which required some real effort to scramble up the mountainside to reach the best vantage point. This was difficult and quite precarious at times, as the sub soil and rock is very loose and sandy, not ideal when you are trying to get a firm footing whist carrying expensive equipment. Add into the mix, the dangers from snakes (which I’ve never really had to consider in Europe), you need your wits about you.

Invariably by 10.00am the sun would be too high so I would park up and swap my camera for a bike, taking time to ride and experience the climbs I was photographing. It certainly gives you another perspective and is the ideal way to recce the road and plan future shots. Then it’s back to work for the late afternoon light which is probably my favourite time of day. There’s a critical point when everything comes together, and the light makes everything look fabulous. Invariably the views beyond the climbs hold the real interest and it puts into perspective why cyclist like to climb mountains. Roads such as Glendora Mtn pass near Mt Baldy offer the perfect view of California where the various layers of mountains create diminishing layers of tinted light as they disappear towards the horizon.

My route took me north up over the climbs of Latigo, Yerba Buena and Rockstore near Santa Monica and on to Santa Barbara and the beautiful climb of Gibralta which overlooks the city. After a tip off from local café owner and ex pro Aaron Olson I made a detour to visit the underrated climb of Figueroa, a brutal climb near Los Olivos. It was then back on the PCH with the car now smelling of strawberries (purchased from the roadside) and all the way up the coast along Big Sur taking in Bixby Bridge, a landmark of the TOC.

Next stop, San Jose and Mt Hamilton with its iconic observatory pin-pointing the summit, before hitting the Bay area and the climbs of Mt Diablo and Tamalpais. Features in the landscape leave lasting impressions and the giant redwoods and the thick sea mist on Tamalpais are two memories that certainly stick in my mind.

Up to this point the weather had been glorious for 2 weeks but as I drove back towards LA and one last rendezvous with Angeles Crest HWY the heavens opened, and the rain came down unabated for the whole day. Photography is virtually impossible when it’s like this, cameras and laptops really don’t like the rain. With a day sat out in a motel, I woke up early the next morning and headed up into the mountains one last time. Lady luck was on my side and sun was out again. The precipitation was burning off creating swirling clouds above the mountains and the higher I climbed, a new vista emerged – snow! As a photographer you always want to create a body of work which holds together as one but has differences between the individual shots. The snow gave that point of difference in much the same way the fires on Hamilton had done so.

Angeles Crest HWY

California was certainly a great place to visit and photograph. The light and variation in the landscapes certainly hit home when I started the editing process back in the UK and was bought to life when printing the work for the forth coming exhibitions in the various bike stores in CA over the coming month. Hopefully this is the start of something bigger, maybe US Mountains book.

A selection of prints from the Assos California Climbs Project are available here with the full range soon to be added.

See the project come to life over on Assos’ Instagram page here.