Somewhere in the Baja California desert, a group of bowlegged gringos stand around, swigging glass-bottled Cokes in the shade of a general store, their fat-tired bicycles propped politely against a sun-baked wall.
Days earlier the group, along with almost 100 other riders, were in San Diego, the start point of the Baja Divide. It’s a 1,700 mile long route along the Baja California Coast, mostly on unpaved dirt tracks winding through valleys and mountain ranges, that these people tackle sometimes with very limited provisions along the way—all by bicycle. The route was originally mapped out by two experienced cycle tourists: it’s a rigorous test of endurance, where even the most experienced mountain bikers push their bikes uphill.
Now the Baja Divide has become an annual tour where a group of wiley cyclists appear to spin their way up hills and make lunchtime stops in the company of bearded lizards in abandoned Spanish Missions. They ride on mountain bikes fitted with bags carrying everything they’ll need along the way: tents, sleeping bags, slingshots and maybe an extra pair of underwear. Strapped with gear and equipped with fat tires, their bicycles look like vehicles lifted off the set of Mad Max—and so do some of the riders. The crowd of Baja Dividers is a mixed bag—there’s more denim than lycra in this peloton, and a general favor of steel over carbon.
We spoke with Spencer Harding, photographer and professional bicycle tour leader that took some spectacular shots of the 2017 Baja Divide. He practically spends half of his life in the saddle, and his photos document the pedal-powered adventures he goes on.
What came first for you, bikes or photography?
Photography came first. I took a few photo courses in high school, but I was mostly drawn to photography in the beginning as a way to document me and my friends skateboarding. I decided to continue my studies in college and received my BFA in fine art photography from Cal State Long Beach in 2010. Throughout college I was a part of the budding fixed gear bike scene of the early 2000s. One day I caught a friend’s presentation about bike touring across France. The fact that I could go biking with my camping gear kinda blew my mind at the time. I’ve been going on at least one long bike tour every year since then.
“Sure, the riding and scenery were beautiful, but the truly unique part of this grand depart was the posse of wonderful humans who showed up.”
What was your first big bike tour?
My first big tour was riding from Seattle, WA to Santa Cruz, CA in 2009. I had little to no idea what I was doing, I had done some backcountry camping before that, but bikes were still kind of new to me. Being a total novice I decided to bring my bulky and heavy Hasselblad camera in lieu of a tent for the trip. When I got home and developed the film, I found I had pretty much only shot portraits on the whole trip which spurred a several year-long portrait project, To Everyone Who Hoped It Might Be True. My longest tour was probably when I rode a tall-bike, two bikes welded on top of one another, from Portland to Salt Lake City by way of Glacier, Yellowstone, and the Grand Teton National Parks. That tour was somewhere around 2000 miles and double that since I kinda rode two bikes.
As a bike tour guide, how do you manage spending so much time doing what you love and “normal” life?
My job schedule is punctuated by long stretches of work and conversely time off. I will sometimes spend 4-6 weeks working straight, but then have 2 months off. When I’m at work I’m mostly riding road bikes and staying in fancy hotels so when I finally get some time off I just want to jump on my mountain bike and go roll around in the dirt and camp. It seems to balance itself quite nicely. As for “normal” life I don’t even know. For the past few years I have been just floating in between large periods of work, though recently I purchased a small camping trailer that I have semi-permanently parked in the backyard of a friend’s house in Oakland. I guess I’m settling down.
How was it shooting the Baja Divide?
I approached the Baja Divide trip as more of a social occasion than a bike tour, which I believe informed a different outlook on photographing it. Sure, the riding and scenery were beautiful, but the truly unique part of this grand depart was the posse of wonderful humans who showed up. I was shooting with a camera that was relatively new to me, the Fuji X100s, so that posed some challenges. It took me about a week to adjust from a full-sized DSLR to a small fixed lens rangefinder. During the trip I was bumming on the images I was getting, but when I got home and really started to dig through the raw files I was astounded at how capable that little camera was. The camera as a whole is much less serious than a DSLR and lends itself to a more casual feel. It has a similar effect that I’ve noticed when shooting people with a DSLR vs. a medium format camera, the style and even how you hold a camera can ease people’s attitude.
The Baja Divide 2017
“It’s a fun idea and a fun group, and a way to shift focus away from the many quantitative metrics that are present in cycle touring and bikepacking.”
Seems like you have a community of friends that appear in your photos often, how did you create this community around you?
Oh man, that posse of ding dongs. I have spent a large portion of the last decade rambling around and running into kindred souls. This has been expedited in the last few years with the advent of Instagram. A lot of the posse from the Baja trip were part of an adventure me and my buddy Kurt organized last summer called DFL the Divide. Over beers and a campfire on another bike trip in Colombia we schemed to ride part of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Banff to Missoula to arrive for a celebration of the Adventure Cycling Association’s 40th anniversary.
We sent out a brief Instagram direct message to some folks we knew personally and a few we just wanted to meet and ride bikes with. When it came for the trip almost 20 people showed up from all over the world and it was pretty damned magical. I’m going to have to quote Nicholas Carman, one of the trailblazers of the Baja Divide, to explain this one, “It is a loose association of friends that rode a section of the Great Divide route this past summer, they called the ride ‘DFL the Divide’ as a way to emphasize their aim to take their time. As you can tell, the group (a loose concept), enjoys many varied extracurricular activities. It’s a fun idea and a fun group, and a way to shift focus away from the many quantitative metrics that are present in cycle touring and bikepacking.” I think he accidentally wrote an artist statement for us.