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Words and Photos by Brandon Van Haeren
This is not what I signed up for.
That was all I could think to myself as I parked the van in one of the numerous vacant spaces of the deserted parking lot of the Stryn Sommerski Resort. Most Scandinavians travel south for their summer holidays. Italy, Spain, Greece. Opting for some picturesque restaurant with a patio in the city centre, drinking a cold glass of rosé, and watching the locals aimlessly stroll by while the last rays of light slip through the narrow alleyways between historic buildings. Not me. No, I agreed to head north, deep into the fjords of Norway to shoot some behind the scenes photos for the Control collection campaign.
It seemed odd that I was the only person at the ski resort, until my eyes caught the dashboard clock staring back at me, and my confusion quickly disappeared. “00:09." I looked up at the sky. Still light outside. Or at least it would have been had the clouds not rolled in carrying the days fourth…or maybe fifth?…bout of rainfall to which we had subjected the five riders joining us on the photoshoot. Unwilling to brave the storm for a second more than I had to, I patiently waited in the support van for the sight of the two halogen lights of our media car cresting the peak of the 17km, 1000m climb up to the resort, photographer and videographer stuffed together in the trunk, with a group of five vacant, fatigued faces of the cyclists in tow. The temperature continued to drop until finally the mass accumulation of frost on the van's windows made it impossible to see any approaching lights from outside. I abandoned my warm, seat-heated post and ran outside, taking refuge behind the van from the battering wind and snow, camera in-hand, ready to capture the exhausted expressions of the riders.
As the headlights finally appeared and the whiteout blizzard conditions approached I dashed over to the riders. But rather than faces filled with pain and suffering, I was greeted with smiles and a complete sense of elation. They are actually enjoying this!? I heard the faint voice of the photographer from the trunk shouting out over the howling wind, “This weather is perfect! Can we keep shooting for a bit longer?" Without a second thought the riders jumped back on their bikes and road off into the storm. I stood there, dumbfounded, with my camera in my hand and icicles in my nose. This was only day one. Two more to go…two more to go.
That first day actually started 18 hours earlier. We were not expecting to get any snow, but our weather apps had been predicting rainfall of biblical proportions for the entire week of our residence in the small mountain village of Stryn. And rain it did. Apprehensive about the chance of not riding in the snow, the best replacement we could come up with was to ride to where we knew there would already be snow. Jostedalsbreen, continental Europe's largest glacier, seemed like a promising destination. I drove the car along the lakeside's endless snaking roads, one eye glued on the riders in my rearview mirror as they approached from behind for their close up shots from the photographer; the other peering around the blind S-curves for wheel-hungry potholes and oncoming traffic on the single-lane strip of tarmac barely wide enough for two bikes. Irritated by the look of enjoyment on the faces behind me and eager to relieve some of my own stress, I manoeuvred the car into the strips of standing water which had accumulated in the wheel impressions on the road. I watched, gleefully, as the water sprayed up behind the car and washed the smiles off the faces glaring back at me. “That will look good on camera," I thought, mentally justifying my actions for the earful I was sure to receive once we stopped.
The drive back to our cabin did not require any of my improvised “special effects." The sky opened and the rain came down like the continuous cyclic dumping of a 1000L tipping bucket at the local waterpark. Conditions became so harsh and visibility so poor that the only option was to drive back to the support van parked in the town nearby, load up the bikes, lay down some (white) towels for the mud-caked riders, and head back to the cabin. A quick bite to eat, a change of kits, and once the rainfall calmed we were back out the door, heading towards the aforementioned ski resort and completely ignorant to approaching storm.
Having arrived back to our cabin late into the evening, we were promised a delayed start for the second day, offering up the opportunity to savour the warmth and dryness while we could. As considerate the thought, a full night's rest does not come easy with 04:00 sunrises and the sounds of rattling cowbells as the local sheep enjoy each other's company outside your bedroom window. Drifting down the steps into the kitchen, I started up the coffee. There would not be many chances to simply sit back and take in the beauty of the landscape surrounding us. If that chance came in the early hours of the morning whilst the rest of the group slept, you took it. Breathing in the fresh mountain air, I watched the rain relentlessly fall. It was no wonder everything was so green. Higher up, I could see snow squalls dancing through the mountain peaks and I felt thankful I was not facing that storm again.
Faces slowly began to emerge from behind closed doors, grabbing a coffee a piece on their way as they settled into the cozy nooks of the cabin. Apprehension about riding in the rain had been replaced with acceptance as the restless faces slowly started about with their morning routines. A sudden break in the weather provided an opportunity to head back to Jostedalsbreen to capture some shots for the casual clothing collection we had brought up with us.
As the weather turned from mist to drizzle to complete downpour it was a quick trip to the cabin, change into the kits that had been strategically laid out along the wall of boot dryers the night before, and back out towards the ski resort. Apparently the storm we witnessed on our first evening had continued throughout the night and due to high winds and heavy snowfall the road up to the resort had been closed. Desperate to capture some stunning photos in the snow, I jumped in the back of the van, grabbed a set of Silca allen keys and went to work on dismantling the steel drop arm barrier which was denying our vehicles entry. Frozen bolts, blistering winds, and numb fingers made slow work of the process and eventually an executive decision was made to abort the mission and find a safer, more accessible location further down the road.
We drove higher and deeper into the mountains through western Norway's intricate tunnel network. Each time we emerged from a tunnel, the light would blind our darkness-acclimated eyes until an entirely new landscape came into sight. Massive lakes surrounded by a sea of lush, green trees climbing up the mountainsides. Steep roadside drops into the underlying valleys below. Norway's fjords offered up some of the most surreal panoramic vistas, but they vanished as quickly as they appeared as the darkness of another dimly lit tunnel enveloped our brigade of vehicles on our pursuit for snow.
The exit of the final tunnel presented us with none of these typical views that we had come to expect. Rather, what appeared were two towering mountains of rock and ice on either side of us. Resembling fortified ice walls more than geological landforms, fleeting thoughts of wildings and White Walkers stalking the frozen tundra were close by. Snow seemed to be coming at us from all directions as the rugged landscape conducted the wind into near-hurricane conditions. A smirk grew in the corner of my mouth as I realised this is exactly what we were looking for. Stepping out of the cars and onto the bikes, the rider's vibrant jerseys stood out, yet seemed right at home amidst the sullen, naturally occurring black and white background. All seriousness quickly disappeared as the view for any onlooker became three guys with cameras slipping and sliding on the icy roads, dodging traffic and chasing cyclists up and down the winding roads.
I take it all back. This is what I signed up for.
The final day was promised to be an easy and relaxing one: some close up shots of the riders in kit on our cabin's balcony with a nearby snowcapped mountain in the background, followed by a short gravel ride up said mountain, which started right from our front doorstep. Easy and relaxing were not the words I thought would come to mind for the riders as I drove ahead up the gravel road with our media crew. Our wheels were spinning and struggling for grip as we ascended the 25% loosely packed gravel construction road that traversed straight up the side of the mountain. Feelings of jealously for not being the one riding up this monumental climb vanished as I stood at the roadside and watched the first riders come into sight. I felt my legs start to burn as I watched them reach the top, one after the other, becoming more and more concerned that if the road got any steeper they would start a backwards summersault all the way to the bottom. Screams of pain and malice towards whoever planned this route could be heard echoing through the mountains. “That will look really good on camera," I thought again, feeling the need to justify why we thought this would be a good idea as I felt the resentful stares burning into the back of my head from the riders slouched over their bikes, still trying to catch their breath.
Almost on queue, the rain started again as we descended back towards the cabin. The rest of the day was spent indoors, wrapped up in a mix of extra baselayers and blankets. It would be an early start the next day with dropping off the riders at the airport a couple hours away in the opposite direction before starting the long drive back to Copenhagen, and this was one of those rare moments where I could sit back and simply enjoy where I was. Where I was exactly was squished together with eight other people on one couch, reminiscing and telling our favourite stories from the past few days, feeling reassured that this was better than any picturesque city centre restaurant. I was sure of it now. This is exactly what I signed up for.