The Ultimate Storytelling Bike for the Ultimate Storyteller - Gary Perkin's Santa Cruz Flippertower 3

Learn the inspiring journey of Gary Perkin. Also known as Flipper, he is one mountain biking's greatest photographers and storytellers and just happens to have a new Hightower with hand-drawn graphics from Sam Needham.

The Ultimate Storytelling Bike for the Ultimate Storyteller - Gary Perkin's Santa Cruz Flippertower

As we approach our 10-year anniversary here at Vital MTB, we're stoked to showcase this story about Gary Perkin. Flipper, as he's affectionately known, was part of the original Littermag World Cup DH slideshows with Sven Martin, and eventually brought his photo skills and caption wit to Vital when we swapped the URL at midnight on July 31, 2009. There are very few more experienced, kind and giving in our industry, and we're honored to have worked with Gary in the early days. The writing below about Gary's life and career helps us appreciate our favorite gentle, passion-driven storyteller that much more.

As you read the words, get lost in the hand-drawn artwork of Gary's "FlipperTower." Seb Kemp at Santa Cruz says, "Sam Needham knocked it out of the park. It's 100% hand-drawn. All of it came about through Gary's fireside chats. He even had to find extra-special lacquer that wouldn't kill the Sharpie. That job was done by Fat Creations in the UK because they were the only one with the capacity and ability. Even Sven said it's the best bike he's ever seen, which means he's sulking because it's not his." That last bit made us chuckle. -gordo

Thanks to Olly Forster and Santa Cruz Bicycles for the writing and to Gary for the bike photos. YEAH FLIPPER!!

Capturing and communicating something as complex and open to interpretation as mountain biking requires more than the latest camera equipment and editing software. The ability to apply context to something which not only happens in the blink of an eye, but on the side of a mountain, demands a degree of artistry. Yet, without life experience, this artistry doesn’t come easily. For photographer Gary Perkin, a life well-traveled has not only influenced the way he works but how he views the world and the sport he’s spent over two decades documenting.

MIND-MELTING

The open landscapes and comfortable climate of South Africa couldn’t be any further away from the confines of inner-city Glasgow in the 1970s. Growing up in Scotland’s largest city, “hemmed in by tall buildings and the ‘grayness’ of a landscape devoid of the open spaces kids need to go crazy,” for a young Gary Perkin, the nearly nine-thousand-mile one-way trip to his new home at the bottom of Africa was a defining moment and an “eye-opening experience of the outdoors."

Getting his first bike for Christmas in 1979 and learning to ride remains one of Gary’s first experiences of freedom and independence. “The moment [my dad] let go of the saddle, it was absolutely mind-melting. I still get goose-bumps thinking about that moment today.” From his formative years in small-town South Africa, exploring the open spaces around him on two wheels to becoming a naturalized citizen, Gary now age 16, was faced with military conscription.

Inspired by his parents, who served in the Royal Navy in Scotland, Gary followed suit and joined the South African Navy. Keen to maximize the opportunity, Gary signed on four years, as opposed to the mandatory two years for officer training. Gary eventually became a navigator on a missile boat. While the daily grind and structure of military left an indelible mark upon Gary’s character, his experiences in the Navy also sparked a desire to travel and explore.

THE HIGH SEAS

After undertaking a 44-day trans-Atlantic yacht race from Cape Town, South Africa, to Lisbon, Portugal, on behalf of the Navy, Gary knew what he wanted to do after the military. Age 21 with a taste for adventure, he quit the bar work and lifestyle that he’d picked up after his four years of military service and hitchhiked from his home in Pietermaritzburg, south to Cape Town with a specific dream; join a boat building crew, complete the build, enter a yacht race and get back onto the ocean.

Given the unrealistic nature of this endeavor coupled with Gary’s naval credentials as a navigator, he quickly found favor among Cape Town’s yacht club elite. Within a month he was back on the high seas and sailing to Rio de Janeiro, before Uruguay, and then on another yacht to Argentina. After returning to Cape Town, “through the Southern Ocean and the Roaring 40s,” he was soon back in the South Atlantic, hitchhiking his way to the Caribbean from Florida.

While staying in Turks and Caicos (a group of islands south of the Bahamas) and enjoying an innocent day out on a, “big 60-foot speedboat that apparently used to be owned by Formula One driver, Nigel Mansell,” the British Royal Navy - on a routine anti-drug running patrol - viewed such activity as highly suspicious. “We were doing 40 knots and the next thing we see is this helicopter circling above with a machine gun pointing at us. It was very very Miami Vice.”

Boarded and cuffed in zip-ties, Gary’s gung-ho skipper couldn’t help but make matters worse. While the patrol was tearing the boat apart, unsuccessfully looking for non-existent narcotics, skipper says, "you guys want any Coke," before explaining the bubbly cola was in the fridge next to the lemonade and ginger beer. “That didn't do us any favors,” reminisces Gary, who’d soon pack his belongings and head over the Atlantic to see what Europe and the Mediterranean had to offer.

BACK ON TWO WHEELS

From regular run-of-the-mill yachts in the Caribbean to the ‘superyachts’ of Cannes, France, Gary’s time in the Mediterranean would not only conclude one chapter of his life but introduce him to the next. “The skipper of a yacht I was working on had a mountain bike and said I could borrow it whenever I wanted,” It didn’t take long for Gary to find other like-minded individuals who collectively began exploring the hills and trails behind Cannes on two wheels.

All good things come to an end, and after four years at sea, Gary decided to head home to Pietermaritzburg and with him, the bike he’d been borrowing while in Cannes. Back on home soil and with a mountain bike scene in the making, it didn’t take long for Gary to see the potential of this new-fangled off-road bicycle. “I'd ridden and raced road bikes when I was younger, and then all of a sudden, I could go into the forests, find trails, explore dirt roads and just link stuff up.”

At the time, Pietermaritzburg was already ahead of the curve as far as South African mountain biking was concerned. The owners of the surrounding tree plantations could similarly see the advantage of “getting people into the outdoors and into the forest.” After sourcing a RockShox Judy suspension fork, Gary would soon find himself absorbed into the local racing scene, competing in both XC and downhill - the mountain bike bug had well-and-truly bitten.

GARY AND THE GOAT

One of Gary’s many responsibilities as the navigator of a naval vessel was that of ship’s photographer. Purchasing his own camera, as the Nayv-issued device left a lot to be desired, Gary began to experiment, mastering the skills that would later serve him well. After neglecting to take any photos throughout his adventures on yachts, “because film was so prohibitively expensive,” a request from a family friend soon reacquainted Gary with his trusty Canon SX50.

Already a renowned motocross racer in his age category, the rising tide of mountain biking in Pietermaritzburg had caught the attention of someone who’d later put his town on the map. “I’d known Greg [Minnaar] since he was six years old,” explains Gary. Greg, now in his teens needed some help to secure sponsorship and Gary was drafted to take some photos, beginning a collaborative friendship with the rider which remains in full force, some two decades later.

At the time, Gary was a self-proclaimed “World Cup super fan” and recollects spending countless hours pouring over the official UCI World Cup book, aptly titled, the Mountain Bike Guide. A forerunner to the likes of Hurly Burly today, the MBG was a big, glossy print magazine which would hit newsstands before the season started to inform fans - in a world before the web - about who was riding for who and where the series was going, round by round.

For Gary, it was the photography of Malcolm Fearon, Tom Moran, and Mark Dawson which re-inspired his passion for photography. Access to mountain bike media at the time was difficult at best, something which Gary puts down to being “quite isolated in South Africa.” From worn VHS tapes of Eurosport’s World Cup coverage and second-hand magazines, if anyone was traveling to Europe or the US, it was an opportunity to source what wasn’t freely available at home.

For Gary and Greg, 1997 would be a year to remember as the UCI World Cup visited South Africa for the first time. Loaded into a pickup truck, they traveled the 30-hour round trip to Stellenbosch, in South Africa’s Western Province, from their home in Pietermaritzburg. “We just immersed ourselves in this thing,” Gary recalls. “I hung around in the pits getting all these autographs and watching everybody on the hill racing. It was just phenomenal.”

WORLD CUPPIN’

By the time the World Cup rolled back into Stellenbosch in 1998, Gary was a reporter for a local newspaper and Greg, age 17, was racing thanks to some special dispensation from the UCI. Greg would finish his first World Cup in twenty-seventh, (he’d later win the series in 2001 just three years later) and Gary would meet Martin Whitely for the first time - the UCI delegate for mountain biking and in the years to come, Greg’s first team manager and one of Gary’s clients as a professional photographer.

Between ‘98 and ‘02, Gary returned to the UK, working in London’s burgeoning digital industry and buried himself in the progressive British mountain bike scene, which was blowing up around him. Racing nationals and regionals while traveling into Europe to support Greg at the World Cups, Gary would return to South Africa with a plan. Still dabbling with photography and with the knowledge and experience gained from his work in London, Gary’s mind was made up.

“I knew I was too shit a rider to race at the World Cups, but I knew I had to do something to get into that group,” confesses Gary. In 2001, Martin Whitely formed Global Racing, a team focused on supporting athletes from every continent. Greg was an obvious shoo-in as the first fast African, and with him came Gary as the team’s official webmaster. Now working closely with idols Malcolm Fearon and Mark Dawson, who were supplying photos for the team, Gary had a front-row seat to the action.

“I wasn’t necessarily learning how to take photos, but how to plan your day and how to think about telling a story,” says Gary, who would later make the jump behind the camera. “There was a shift in the mid-2000s, going from pure print to the start of digital. Because of my experience with the internet and working on the web, I was already ahead of the curve, quickly delivering my photos - all tagged and organized in a library with a login system - after a race.”

FLIPPING SWITCHES

Between ‘05 and ‘11, Gary was the official photographer for the UCI and a gamut of top tier trade teams. but the years prior to this period of success were not only a struggle financially, but creatively too. “It just got to a point where we'd been to the same venues too many times, and it just wasn't appealing anymore.” Such sentiments are frequently echoed by photographers and athletes alike, collectively battling in the pursuit of results.

For Gary, having traveled extensively throughout his life, the inspiration that would reignite his photography would come not from some far-flung Alpine region, but a little closer to home. Out of the blue, Kevin Vermaak (who coincidentally lived a short drive away) contacted Gary with a proposition - “I'm starting this eight-day, point-to-point mountain bike race. How do you think we could work together on the photography and visuals?"

The event in question was the Cape Epic, arguably one of the most famous and influential multi-day races on the mountain bike calendar. “It flipped a switch for me, more so than going to all the World Cups over the years,” sites Gary who coincidentally skipped the World Cup for the entirety of 2004 to find his flow again. “It was just mind-blowing and such a formative experience. The idea of putting bikes in a landscape like that, it was just so wild and crazy.”

Gary would continue to cover the Cape Epic and the World Cup for a number of years, but the circus’ appeal had worn thin, and by the end of 2011, Gary was looking for a new challenge. His daughter, then three years old, had spent half of her life away from her father, something which didn’t sit well with Gary, or Santa Cruz’s Rob Roskopp. “Just come and work for us full-time, and we'll make it work,” was Rob’s solution. In January 2012, Gary joined the team.

 

EXPANDING HORIZONS

Free from the creative confines of World Cup photography and working for a brand with stories to tell, Gary could now focus his energy and creativity towards all manner of projects. From bike launches to catalog shoots and adventures overseas with athletes, Gary’s nomadic life and unique perspective on the world have not only served to create memorable imagery, but have influenced the lives of those lucky enough to accompany him on these adventures.

For Gary, two such memorable moments that stick out from the crowd are the 2015 Hightower product shoot with EWS head honcho Chris Ball in Chile, and the 50to01 Japanese road trip in late 2018. Both trips served to test Gary’s resourcefulness and skills as a storyteller, opening up these distant parts of the world and sharing their unique landscapes and cultures. Similarly, Gary’s affinity for travel and adventure flourished in tandem with the rise of Trans- racing.

VALBERG, France - 17 June 2019 during the second day of the 2019 Trans-Provence between Colmars & Valberg. Photo by Gary Perkin

From old favorites close to Gary’s heart, such as Trans-Provence, to events he’ll be attending for the first time in 2019 like Trans-Cascadia, Gary’s under no illusion as to the appeal. “It's quite a thing when you throw in the clock with the efforts required to do multiple days with thousands of meters of climbing plus thousands of meters of descending. It's such a unique experience where the outside world just fades away,” instills Gary.

“You’re in this bubble with these people - some you know, some you don’t - for a week and any sort of reintegration into society is quite a strange moment.” But ultimately, away from the clock and competition, is something special and not unique to such events. “It's that bond you get with somebody you've just met and just gotten to the bottom of a gnarly trail with, and you're throwing high fives and hugs and you're super hyped. It’s a special thing”.

Yet after all of Gary’s travels and escapades on distant mountain ranges, he remains stalwart as to the real value of what mountain biking truly represents. “It’s the simplicity and the ease of getting out there You don't have to go to the top of the Alps to get that release of endorphins or the mindset shift away from the rat race. It reminds me of when my dad let go of my saddle for the first time. I just instantly go back to that first moment every time I jump on a bike”.


Get full details of Gary's Hightower build in our Bike Check section

Vital's review of the 2020 Santa Cruz Hightower

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