Mountain bike photographers tend to be a pretty rugged lot. Their job requires them to ride long distances, chasing some of the world's strongest riders up and down technical trails–often burdened with a hefty camera pack. Negotiating tough terrain with the so-called 'Angry Midget' tugging at their shoulders turns most of these lensmen into ultra-fit, singletrack-slaying machines, ready to venture wherever they need to capture the images that define them as artists.
The biggest assignments–those involving multi-day death marches through remote and inhospitable backcountry–call for a special breed. They demand a photographer with an extraordinary ability to withstand the elements, to cope with extended exposure to sun, wind, rain, snow and hail, invariably running on minimal food rations. They require refined survival skills, wilderness knowledge and an unflinching ability to keep a cool head when everything goes wrong. But by far the most important trait is a truly unquenchable thirst for adventure.
Few photographers embody these qualities more than Margus Riga. On any given day, the Estonia-born Canadian transplant is more likely to be exploring an untrammeled corner of the Chilcotin Ranges than enjoying the comforts of his North Vancouver home. Rarely seen without his camera, the restless 44-year-old spends most of his days in the mountains, scouting scenic locations from his backyard Coast Mountains to the far-flung vastness of the Yukon. And in recent years, he's become known as one of the go-to guys for the most arduous of missions.
"If you want to go on a real adventure, Riga's your guy," says none other than the Godfather of Freeride, Wade Simmons. "It doesn't matter how gnarly the conditions are, you don't have to worry about Riga. He's done so many adventures and has become so efficient. He's got it all whittled down to an art."
It wasn't always this way. Born in Tartu, Estonia, when the tiny Baltic nation was still part of the Soviet Union, Riga emigrated to Canada with his mother at age 7, following the death of his father.
His mother re-married another Estonian who was living in Montreal, Quebec, and shortly thereafter the new family relocated to Toronto, Ontario. Riga grew up as an urban rat, rarely straying far from the confines of his adopted childhood city. After graduating from high school, he moved to the Canadian capital, Ottawa, to attend the prestigious Carleton University. Shortly after embarking on what promised to be a fruitful academic trajectory, however, Riga became bored with college life and dropped out of school in 1991, heading straight to Whistler, British Columbia, to become a full-time ski and mountain-bike bum.
"I guess I wasn't ready for school yet, and I just wanted to be outdoors and spend time in the mountains," Riga explains.
And that's exactly what he did. For the next eight years, he skied and rode in these mountains, honing his skills and developing a deep appreciation for the great outdoors. Riga eventually decided he wanted to parlay his love for nature into a career in photojournalism, and in 1999 he returned to Toronto to pursue a two-year degree in magazine journalism at Ryerson University. It was here that he bought his first camera, a Nikon F401, and became hooked on photography and the fine arts.
"After I finished at Ryerson in 2001, I moved back to B.C. with the intention of running an adventure magazine called Epic," Riga recalls. "I got one issue out and couldn't afford to run it anymore."
He went on to work as the publisher of a quarterly fine-arts photography magazine called Ripe and spent the next four years struggling along in the business world. "Running that magazine was what made it concrete that I actually wanted to be a photographer rather than a magazine publisher," Riga says. "I'd really been influenced by photographers like Blake Jorgenson and Dave Heath, and their work really started to stoke the fire that I could make a living out of it. I folded Ripe in 2007 and then starved my ass off for the next two years. At first I had to shoot for free."
Increasingly specializing in mountain-bike photography, Riga began submitting his images to Bike, and in May 2011 he landed his first cover–of Brett Tippie and Johnny Smoke attempting a harebrained first descent on the bald face of B.C.'s Yak Peak.
"When Bike published that photo, that was the icing on the cake, and I told myself, 'Yeah, I can do this,'" Riga says.
Though he shoots everything from contests to company product catalogs to earn a living, his heart belongs in the backcountry.
"I like the raw, survivalist feeling of a big backcountry adventure," he says. "For me, it doesn't all have to be 'fun' to be fun. I like that whole battle of always having a lot of shit working against you. The loss of control and the whole feeling of the unknown is always exciting. I love the adventure as much as the photography."
Any rider who has spent time in the wilderness with Riga will attest to his outstanding outdoorsmanship and relentless work ethic.
"He's so badass, he's so fit, he never whines and he's always in a good mood out there," says Squamish-based ripper Kenny Smith. "This is important, because when you're out there in the middle of nowhere if someone gets whiny and a little negative it's bad for the entire group. And you can't go home and cry to mommy, because you've committed to this shit and you're out there."
Riga is at least a decade older than most of the athletes he shoots with, but this doesn't prevent him from keeping up.
"I find him really inspiring because he's an older dude, but he just loves being out in the middle of nowhere and he's still so motivated to get out and do crazy shit," Smith says. "We call him 'Raptor Riga' because he can have a 40-pound pack on and still somehow claw his way up a big mountain. Ol' Raptor Riga can climb, he can descend and he can shotgun beers."
Riga's riding abilities extend beyond strength and endurance. Many high-level pros consider him to be one of the most technically gifted of all the mountain-bike photographers in the industry.
"He absolutely kills it on a bike," says Smith. "We'll be out shooting with James [Doerfling] around Williams Lake, and we'll drop into these insane chutes and he'll just bomb down them after us. He's like a kid in a way. It's really inspirational."
In turn, Riga chalks up much of his talent to the fact that he's spent so much time riding with pros in the prime of their careers.
"Many of the people I've grown up with and evolved with are pro mountain bikers, and when you're shredding with the world's best riders you're going to pick up a thing or two," he says.
Having earned the respect of so many big-mountain pros, Riga has become a role model of sorts, and his passion for wilderness adventure has spread to several freeriders, providing them with a potential future path that could help prolong their careers.
"I used to be into just doing the gnarliest lines and building the craziest shit," says Smith. "But Margus really opened my eyes to these big wilderness trips and the adventure side of mountain biking, which is the best part of it for me these days."
Riga's influence extends far beyond his positive attitude and abilities, however. More than anything else, it's his images of riders enveloped in stunning landscapes that have the most impact.
"Not only can Margus get out and do the adventure, he can artistically capture what many others cannot," says Simmons. "He can move so quickly through an environment and still capture the very essence of the place."