Because one lifelist trip a year is never enough
There are certain places all American mountain bikers have to get to at least once in their lives: Crested Butte, Moab, Sedona, to name only a few. Problem is, though, you do a single trip to any of these meccas, and you’ll soon realize once is not enough. Not even close. You gotta go back: There’s so much more to see, so many lines to get dialed, so many swooping descents to drop just a bit faster. But barring a drastic rearrangement of your life (bye bye, job; hello, road), a normal work or school schedule won’t allow it. Steve Mokan is like all of us, but unlike most of us, he found a way to ride more than 200 days a year–and get paid for it.
In 2004, Mokan moved to Colorado from the east coast in search of pow. But like so many ski-town transplants, he stayed for the summer and his mountain bike soon out-ranked his skis in the gear shed. He made ends meet with a desk job in Boulder’s tech industry (gaining logistics and planning experience that would soon prove valuable) and with photography side gigs with bike-tour companies.
After nearly a decade of this, Mokan decided he had what it took to blend his professional talents and personal passions into a career, so he launched Chasing Epic Mountain Bike Adventures. He now spends 200+ days a year in the saddle and has become one of MTB Project’s top photo contributors in the process.
We caught up with Steve to talk photography, trails, and what it’s like to live the dream.
Describe the moment you knew you’d be riding the rest of your life, do you remember what trail you were on?
You know, it’s funny; I wasn’t actually on a trail, I was on a road ride—and I am not a roadie! I had been putting the pieces together for Chasing Epic for a while, but it all clicked when I was on a photography assignment in Croatia for my friends at Experience Plus, a European road bike tour company. I witnessed first-hand how the business provides such an amazing experience for their customers and I said to myself, “This could work for mountain bikers, too.”
There were a lot more things that went into starting Chasing Epic from that point on, but I knew if I did things right, it was going to be an awesome way to earn a living. I had a lot of brainstorming sessions by myself when I was riding the Dirty Bismark in south Boulder! I should also thank a couple of my old employers for letting me slack off and get out for regular lunch rides.
On top of being a guide and instructor, you’re a great photographer. Got any photo tips for an aspiring shooter?
The biggest tip for photographers is that it’s all about the light. That said, I’m a little bit lazy myself, and I don’t like waking up for sunrises all that often. So in lieu of talking about light, instead I’ll throw out a couple other pieces of advice.
First, convey a sense of action. Mountain biking can be tough because you usually have to shoot with very high shutter speeds, so even the fastest riders can look like they’re barely moving. Try to shoot the rider when they’re pinning it on a climb, or railing a bermed corner—something that shows they’re hauling ass.
Secondly, give your photos a sense of place. We ride through some pretty incredible landscapes, and it’s the photographer’s “job” to show how vast, different, or special those are. It’s funny you asked this question, I actually wrote an article on this same topic last summer with a few more pointers.
What’s your all-time favorite ride so far—and the #1 trail on your lifelist?
I think my favorite ride was one we did in Crested Butte last fall during peak aspen season. We managed to combine Reno-Flag-Bear-Deadman’s and Doctor Park into one all-day epic. We made it easier on our clients by shuttling the first section, the 5-mile climb up Reno Road. From there, it was a 25-mile ride with almost 18 of that being downhill. We ended with one of the best descents anywhere in the US, the 6-mile ball-buster on Doctor Park.
That downhill has it all: Super chunk, the Jedi Woods, and high-desert technical sweetness as you get down close to the Taylor River. The leaves were changing, the weather was perfect, and we had an awesome group of riders on that trip. I’m not sure that ride will ever happen again in that form. Our shuttle driver wasn’t all that happy about banging up the 4×4 road with his outdated van!
For your second question, it’s funny—I really don’t have a “bucket list” of rides I want to do. It’s more of a bucket list for places I’d like to ride at some point down the road… in which case, I’d love to make it to New Zealand and then to Iceland. That might be a bit of a reveal too, as we’re thinking about possibly doing an international trip in the winter of 2018.
You use MTB Project in an interesting way—tell us about that.
I actually use MTB Project a few different ways with Chasing Epic. First, I love being able to embed custom maps into my website to show visitors and potential clients all of the riding options in the areas we serve. It really gives them a sense of the possibilities because we don’t always hit the big-ticket rides on each of our trips, and each itinerary is unique.
Secondly, I use a lot of the trail and ride pages for our pre-trip itineraries. Some of the rides we’ll do on our 4-day trips already exist on MTBP, and it’s a great way to show our clients what to expect: distances, elevation profiles, etc. I also really love the photos, since they can visually see what to expect as well.
I like contributing my own shots, too, since I like to return the favor to the MTB Project community. We use it on our trips too. My clients download the app so they can whip out their phones during a ride to see where we are and how far we have left, regardless of cell reception. We ride some pretty far-out places.
You must meet some interesting people—what’s the most fun you’ve ever had with guests?
This one’s easy. My first trip last year, we had a huge private group come out to St. George, UT from Georgia, and they were a blast all weekend. By the time they left after four days, it was like we were all old friends—some of the jokes we told on the trail that weekend definitely should not be repeated. Their group flew in on a private jet and when I met them for the first time out on the runway, they were unloading cases of beer and handles of vodka. I knew I was going to be in for a wild weekend. It turns out one of the guys was a co-founder of a big brewery in Athens, and they all knew how to drink. But the best part was, they all knew how to ride too—those guys could rip! They’re coming back in mid-April for another trip in Moab, their third with us. I can’t wait.
When YOU vacation, where do you go?
When my wife and I go on vacation, we like to explore places off the beaten path where we can get away from crowds. Most of our vacations are planned around adventure and exploration to naturally beautiful areas: lots of hiking, kayaking, etc., and plenty of photography (but not much mountain biking).
We’ve been to some really, really cool places recently: Iceland, Croatia, French Polynesia, Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii, Belize, Costa Rica. We just booked a cool vacation for this June that I can’t wait to do: 9 days in Newfoundland, Canada. The top of my bucket list includes places like New Zealand, Norway, Patagonia, the Swiss and Austrian Alps, British Columbia and eventually back to French Polynesia. I know my wife really wants to visit Australia and Africa too.
[Ed. note: Quotes have been edited for length and clarity. All photos courtesy of Steve Mokan]