To Hell and Back on a Bike!

Words & Photos: Jacques Marais

Shooting a mountain bike stage race set within remote and rugged surroundings makes for phenomenal eye candy. Check out these amazing images from the EcoBound Hell & Back Extreme MTB Stage Race in the Swartberg Mountains.

Splish Splash! I was Taking a Bath

The Shot: Every so often I do not want to endanger one of my Nikons, but my Go-Pro HERO 2 makes for the perfect ‘stunt cam’! In this case, I wedged it between some rocks at a water crossing to grab the attached high-speed aqua action.
The Specifications: Auto Settings – GO-PRO Hero II
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Escape from Hell

The Shot: More than 350 riders negotiate the tortuous ascent out of Gamkaskloof, forming a three-kilometre long velo centipede along the S-bends of Elands Pass. Due to major contrast differences caused by patches of morning sun, I set D-Active lighting to the max, and adjusted Shadow and Highlight detail in Lightroom.
The Specifications: 1/2,000th sec @ f8; Nikon D800 +
80-400 mm lens; ISO 640; WB Setting (Auto); AE Setting (0 EV).
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Grunt of a Climb

The Shot: A super-low angle blurrs the foreground to allow the riders to shimmer above the out-of-focus gravel strip of the road into Gamkaskloof. Get down on your belly and focus – the rest is pretty easy.
The Specifications: 1/640th sec @ f5.6; Nikon D600 + 80-400 mm zoom lens; ISO 200; WB Setting (Sunny); AE Setting (0 EV).
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Pedalling the Pass

The Shot: The leading peloton cruises up the steep incline of Swartberg Pass, with the farm lands of the Great Karoo in the far distance. I jumped onto a rock outcrop above the road to get a great angle of the road snaking away into the distance.
The Specifications: 1/250th sec @ f2.8; Nikon D600 + 16 mm fisheye lens; ISO 100; WB Setting (Sunny); AE Setting (0 EV).
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Aloe! Aloe!

The Shot: Ambush shooting is the name of the game at adventure sporting events, as you want to capture unposed images of the riders in action. I hid amongst some aloes to shoot this wide-angle view, and applied a monochrome filter in Lightroom.
The Specifications: 1/200th sec @ f8; Nikon D600 + 16 mm fisheye lens; ISO 100; WB Setting (Sunny); On-camera SB-910 flash set to Tilt and Diffuse; AE Setting (-1 EV).
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Lone Rider

The Shot: The back markers cruise into Die Hel along the aloe-lined Elands Pass. A high vantage point on a cliff gives a helicopter-like view of the landscape.
The Specifications: 1/800th sec @ f5.6; Nikon D800 + 80-400 mm lens; ISO 160; WB Setting (Auto); No flash; AE Setting (0 EV).
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Rocking the Ride

The Shot: Young Gert Heyns leading the pack on day one up the steep Swartberg Pass. I isolated the leader using a narrow depth of field and the longest zoom setting on my lens.
The Specifications: 1/400th sec @ f5.6; Nikon D800 + 80-400 mm zoom; ISO 250; WB Setting (Auto); No flash; AE Setting (0 EV).
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Guarding Die Hel

The Shot: Two aloe ferox tower high against the sky as a rider zooms along the downhill into Gamkaskloof. A fish-eye lens and medium aperture ensures enough depth of focus to allow the whole scene to be in sharp focus.
The Specifications: 1/160th sec @ f11; Nikon D600 + 16 mm fisheye lens; ISO 100; WB Setting (Sunny); On-camera SB-910 tilted to light up the aloes; AE Setting (-1 EV).
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Some mountain bike races are classics, and ECOBound's Hell & Back certainly rates as one of these. Not only does it have the distinction of being SA's first ever extreme MTB stage race, but this year also saw the 18th edition of this amazing race from De Hoek (near Oudtshoorn’s Cango Caves) into Gamkaskloof. Also known as 'Die Hell’, this historic valley can only be accessed via a dead-end pass winding through the rugged and inhospitable Swartberg Mountain ranges.

It takes guts to navigate the tortuous 65 km route on a bike, but even more gumption to pedal out again the next day after spending most of the night tossing and turning while the vertiginous curves of Elands Pass haunts your dreams. Ask me, I've done it on a couple of occasions, and there's bound to be some serious suffering in the calf department. This year, every one of the more than 350 riders who rode in cranked it out again, albeit with a little bit of blood, sweat and tears along the way.

Youngster Gert Heyns dominated the race on day one to such an extent that even though he dropped to fourth place on day two, he still emerged as the overall winner, albeit with Timothy Hammond, Schalk Boonzaaier, Jacques du Plessis, Franso Steyn and the rest of the wolf pack breathing down his neck. The ladies race belonged to the ever-green Ischen Stopforth, who certainly never seemed challenged during the course of Hell & Back 2012.

A special 20th edition event is in the pipeline for 2014, with Cape Nature, Squirt, Safari Braai and Clover partnering EcoBound once again to bring you this phenomenal event. The following are just some of my images from the event.

More information on the event is available on


For more photos visit the gallery link: