I first got to know Vincent Engel a couple of years ago when I needed some images to illustrate an article on Rapha Amsterdam. Vincent’s beautiful photographs of riders set against sweeping Dutch landscapes perfectly illustrated the clubhouse cycle culture. At the time, however, he was still transitioning into his new career as a photographer and even finding it difficult to use that particular term. Fast forward to 2020 and Vincent is now busy balancing his time between working for Rapha and his own photographic commissions. The reason we’re once again sitting down to chat now that he’s returned from riding the roof of the world.
So, a good trip?
After I got back from Tibet I immediately left for Mallorca and the Rapha Summit so I’ve only recently had time to process my thoughts and feelings about the experience.
You were working with Serk; a cycling company based in Beijing, China
I have an architect friend who was over in China when I was still working in Saudi Arabia. He’d mentioned that one of the company’s co-founders, Shannon Bufton, was giving a lecture about cycling in China. Shannon’s an Australian, an architect and was living and working in Dubai before going back to Beijing and setting up Serk with Liman Zhao. I was intrigued so asked my friend for his email address and sent him a message.
And he got back to you?
Shannon was keen to have me over in Beijing to see what Serk was doing so he invited me to accompany one of their Everest trips and take some photographs.
What an amazing opportunity.
It certainly was but at the same time I was thinking Everest? Cycling? This was something I had to carefully consider and by the time I’d made a decision there was a problem with getting the correct permits. An opportunity of a lifetime that I’d just thrown away and a hard won lesson that you should just say yes and think about things later [laughs].
So where did it go from there?
We kept in touch and when a friend here in the Netherlands was planning an Everesting challenge I suggested that he join one of Serk’s trips and ride to Everest itself. He liked that idea and thought it would be good if I came along too.
And this time you said yes?
I did [laughs]. Shannon was really happy with this arrangement but just needed to square the funding. This led to him designing a complete clothing set for each rider made from yak wool instead of merino and these sales allowed me to take a place on the trip with a green light to do the photography.
So how do you prepare for riding in Tibet?
You really want to know, Chris?
Yes, Vincent, I really want to know [laughs].
I completely didn’t. I was so busy with work for Rapha that I never seemed to have any spare time. And that was combined with my worst year on the bike – only riding 2,000 km – and a sense of nervousness because I knew that a photographer that accompanied one of Serk’s previous trips had the flu and really got into trouble because of the altitude. So I was very aware that you needed to be fit and healthy but maybe didn’t fully expand on my lack of ride preparation with Shannon [smiles].
I suppose it’s difficult to know quite what to expect on such a trip?
It is because I didn’t have any reference points. Especially when you consider the extreme altitude. And then I also had to decide whether to shoot from the bike or from the support vehicle.
And what did you decide?
Well, I didn’t take a bike with me so I guess that’s pretty self-explanatory [laughs]. And Serk has its own titanium range so I knew I could borrow a bike if needed. But then I caught a cold immediately after arriving in Beijing. Just what I was afraid might happen and accompanied by some serious teasing from the group in response to all these photographers – past and present – falling by the wayside [laughs].
So you had a dilemma?
Yes. To go with the group or pull out. Weighing up the options of joining a trip, literally, of a lifetime or playing safe.
Was the latter really an option?
Thanks to a medicine called Diamox that treats altitude sickness, no [smiles].
From the outset you weren’t planning on travelling by bike but you had other equipment to think about. Did the climatic conditions affect your choices?
The Leica SL system that I use is so robust that I wasn’t particularly concerned; even though the weather in Tibet can be one of extremes. It can be very hot but we also had a few days of snow. And it can change every 15 minutes so that was the difficult aspect. The most commonly asked question that was directed at the guides concerned what the riders should wear. And the answer was always the same. Just bring everything because, at some point during each day, you’ll probably need it [smiles].
Can you tell me about the ‘onesie’ suit that one of the riders was wearing?
He was the youngest cyclist on our trip and a little bit of an extrovert. He had this one-piece suit for wearing in the van to warm up if the day proved wet. But on one particular descent in the worst weather ever – rain, snow and hail – he decided to wear it on the bike. It made for an interesting image [laughs].
Looking back on your pre-arrival expectations, when you landed in Beijing and then took the internal flight to the start of the first stage in Chengdu, what were your first impressions?
I was expecting it to be a spiritual journey as well as a road trip. Shannon had already mentioned to me that everyone, at some point, cries. They get so overwhelmed by Everest and the surrounding region. And because I was looking at the group rather than riding alongside them, I could more easily observe their reactions and the effect of the altitude. That riding 50 km at 5,000 m feels more like 150 km. How breathing becomes so difficult that even walking takes more effort. And I was running out and back from the van to get the shots even though our guides kept telling me the number one rule at Everest base camp is to go slow. But I didn’t want to miss a single moment even though it was exhausting [laughs].
How did the days work out? What was the rhythm of the trip in the sense of the riders and guides?
We had two vehicles; one to carry riders and a mechanics’ van to hold the spare bikes. The mechanics always drove behind the group to attend to any issues and sweep the tour along. For the majority of the time I travelled with the lead vehicle so I could work out the best vantage points before the riders approached.
So each day started with breakfast?
A simple Chinese breakfast of rice or noodles before the group set off riding. Each day we rode higher before descending a little to the next hotel. So, overall, the trend was a gradual gain in height to acclimatise to the altitude. Very different compared to riding in the Alps because we were starting out at 4,000 m and could still see the tops of distant mountains. Never more noticeable than when we reached base camp at 5,600 m and Everest was towering above us [smiles].
And the landscape?
This was super varied. Every day a change of scenery. Sand dunes and wild rivers; lush green vegetation and mangroves.
It must have been pretty special when you got those first glimpses of the high mountains?
I’m not one of those guys that really lives in the moment. Not a personality trait that I’m particularly happy about because it takes me until I’m back at home before it begins to sink in quite how amazing an experience was [smiles]. But the actual moment of reaching Everest? I just felt like I had a job to do.
I can understand that you’re very focused. But looking at the shots you took, there’s such beauty in those images. A reaction that I would suggest reflects a deep emotional response. As if you’re inviting the viewer to almost reach out and touch the texture and form of the landscape.
That was the most interesting aspect of this trip; the fact that nature dominates when it’s set against the reference point of a rider.
But you also managed to combine these stunning vistas with shots taken in really quite extreme weather. Bodies covered up against the elements with their hunched shoulders and bowed heads.
They were all strong cyclists but it was a tough trip and you’d need to be superhuman not to get tired. And that was the case; some good days and some not so much. Riders completely wrecked due to the altitude with everything feeling fucked. The usual ups and downs that were exacerbated by the challenges of the region we were crossing.
Were you able to get a sense of the people and their communities?
It’s an ancient and fascinating culture. And it’s always fun to engage with the people you meet so you can pick up some simple words and phrases in their language. I wanted to visit one of the Tibetan monasteries but was a little late so decided to walk around the outside where you can see all the prayer wheels decorated with colourful pieces of cloth. I later found out that you have to turn them clockwise but I was mistakenly walking in the opposite direction which explains why individuals were trying to help me change direction. A very warm and humble people.
Any issues with flying your drone?
I actually didn’t use the drone that much. You’re already at such a great height; standing at 5,000 m and shooting down. But they’re such a fan of switchbacks over there that I did use the drone to capture those quite remarkable sections of road.
Any images that you’re particularly happy with?
There are and they usually have a disproportionate use of scale. Rider small, landscape big [smiles]. Possibly not the most popular ones because people naturally prefer a close-up of themselves but they’re the ones that I personally like.
A trip that you’d recommend to other cyclists?
We saw these advertising signs rising 10 m high in the skyline that left absolutely no doubt that Tibet is part of China. Depending on who you speak to, the political situation has its supporters but also opponents. But going to Tibet in general I’d very much recommend. It’s changing very rapidly and we travelled through small villages on gravel sections between concrete curbs waiting for the road to be laid that I’m guessing are now beautifully smooth tarmac. And if you’re a fan of wide-open views then it’s definitely the country for you. But maybe a complex trip to organise. Serk made our trip incredibly straightforward with their familiarity regarding arranging the hotels, transport and guides. And then there’s all the passes and military permits that you need. So to do this on your own can’t be easy.
Any other challenges that spring to mind?
We started our trip from one of the world’s highest airports at around 3,000 m. And when we reached base camp at 5,600 m there’s only 50% of the oxygen at sea level. But riding at such an altitude; you really start to view yourself in a different way. You hit the wall much easier so it’s interesting to see how you react as an individual.
But worth the effort?
This group all knew each other so they really worked well together. When it got tough and the weather worsened they looked out for each other and there was a strong sense of camaraderie. But talking to Shannon, there’s been many occasions when riders sign up individually and then leave after a week’s tour as best friends. The act of facing these extremes together has bonded them and forged lasting relationships.
For you, personally, what were the highlights?
I just felt so humble that I was able to witness this trip. But my most proud aspect? You know I arrived with a cold and for two weeks I was a little bit sick and struggling with the altitude. But the day we were scheduled to arrive at Everest base camp I told the driver to drop me off before grabbing one of the spare bikes from the mechanics’ van and riding the final leg with the group. Of all the stages, the one that I most wanted to do. I didn’t have any cycling shoes or bib shorts. Just my Rapha trousers and down jacket, a pair of trainers and a camera on my back. And that’s how I rode the final 65 km up to 5,600 m. Something I just had to do [smiles].
In some ways this was a trip of extremes. And I remember thinking when we spoke previously that you’d reached a certain point in your professional life where you needed to take a leap of faith. So how does this trip sit in terms of that personal journey?
From a designer’s background I have a passion for aesthetics and telling stories. And carrying a camera helps validate my life choices. As a way of learning about yourself, photography is wonderful in that it reflects your world back at you but it can also be a harsh tool. It was asking me to make a choice between using it to earn a living or keeping it for myself only as a hobby. In the end it demands passion and sacrifice. Long hours with both ups and downs and a requirement to stay excited and energised day after day.
The distance from home, the cultural differences, the altitude. Did you learn anything about yourself as you rode into base camp? Has it changed you in any way?
What I actually gained was a greater confidence in myself as a photographer. That’s the real difference between now and when we discussed this a couple of years ago. At that time I was just starting out and exploring whether I could actually make it in a professional sense. But now? I don’t do anything for free anymore. In the beginning I did work just for the exposure but that doesn’t buy your bread or pay your mortgage. So I’ve been able to discover my sense of worth. Still a very difficult business but it’s good to let go of these doubts [smiles].
Images with kind permission of Vincent Engel