Well – you blink and…

you realize that it has been almost a year since you've posted to your blog…

To add insult to injury – the last post was an introduction into what should have been an article about shooting the pro peloton from the back of a moto… but I left you all in suspenders.

To say that the past year has been busy would be an understatement. I've shot quite a few more pro races, got sent to NW Oklahoma to shoot sand cars and P-51 mustangs on assignment for a magazine, and covered my first race internationally.

Since I seem to have a few minutes, and I feel a sense of obligation to end some of the suspense from the last article, I'll go into a few more thoughts from Missouri. Down side is – not sure I'll have the time to add any photos to the post tonight – I may update it in a day or so when/if I get a chance.

 

St. Louis – Circuit Race

Well – just because you're shooting for (arguably) the worlds leading cycling photographer, you don't get a free pass to a moto for the week.  Might have been the "new guy" on the block syndrome, but it was also compounded by the conversion of one of the photo motos into a tv moto – but – shocker of all shockers – there were more shooters than there were motos for the opening stage.

Now don't get me wrong – I'm far from bashing the organization - it is their need to get as many folks onto bikes as possible, getting the local media involved to stir up support for race for the upcoming week.  Also – to be candid – I didn't think I'd be losing too much by skipping a lap or two of the 10 scheduled for the day. Ten laps of the same circuit can make for some limited variety in shooting situations for scenics.

The plan was as follows – head out for a first lap – recon the course, get dropped off at a good "set shot" locale, and then let the driver head back to the start/finish area to collect a local for a lap.  I'd discussed this with the moto coordinator, and it made sense that this happen early so the chances of missing a key move on the day would be minimized.

I'd met my driver for the day, went and shot some of the riders signing in, etc, and then found Dean and we buzzed the course to get an idea of where I should be dropped.  To speed the process along, I figured I'd have him drop me on the first lap since recon was done, and I'd chosen a spot with the Budweiser brewery in the background… nothing says St. Louis like the arch or beer, no?  The day went off without a hitch – I got a descent shot of the peloton coming past brewery… got some good images of the breaks, etc, and even got a good shot of the peloton on the second to last lap as things were stringing out.  It wasn't till the second day that I really got a chance to get settled in w/ my driver.

Youngin's…

Seems it was Dean's first race driving a photog, he'd done others as a marshal, or driving the time board; but this was new for him.  I too had some experience, but it was shooting smaller races w/out caravans, escorts, commissars  on course in cars, and so on… so I guess it made sense to put us together.

It wasn't long before I knew I could a) trust Dean as a driver, and b) realize that my job was to shoot and leave the driving to him.

Missouri stages ended up looking a lot alike – rolling hills, attacks over the first 20-30k till a group of 3 or 4 folks who were non-factors in the race got up the road, settle in till 30k to go, reel in the break, and then line it up for a bunch sprint.

You have to understand the undertaking that is a pro bicycle stage race.  It is an amazingly well coordinated rolling road block/closure that has a distinct structure. A pair of lead police motos, followed by a police cruiser. A publicity van (vehicle wrapped in imagery w/ a speaker on the roof ala Blues Brothers, with two guys announcing how far back the race was, who was in the break, thanking folks for being there, oh – and handing out swag too), then a few marshals (including the "Dog Whisperer" – one of the marshals who's job it is to catch dogs off leash so they don't run into the road ahead of the racers – yeah – he has snacks in his moto's saddle bags, and dog silhouettes on his helmet like a fighter ace). Then neutral support cars/motos, more officials, vip cars, press cars, oh yeah – the riders, then more commissaires, medical, and the team cars, some more police, an ambulance, a few more cars and the broom wagon.

As we (my moto driver and myself) move through this rolling circus, we (essentially) are lowest on the priority totem… The riders get to ride where they want to (they are the top of the totem), the comms, medical, etc, and all the team cars, drive along in the right lane.  The left is for passing (most races are on non-divided two lane roads), and that is where the photo motos usually go – so long as there isn't "other" traffic… As an example, if a rider needs support (raises their hand and drifts back to the back of the peloton) a commissaire gets on the team channel and calls for that rider's team car to the front for feeding/clothes/flat-fix, etc.  That team car pulls to the left, and with seeming disregard for other cars, etc (actually the drivers are incredibly skilled) they move up and help their rider.  We have to get out of their way.

Usually this isn't a big deal as we try not to linger at the back, and are usually aware of when the roads are narrowing, or when we have to be ahead of the race (such as the last 25k or so to the finish) and getting up to the front of the riders is where we want to be – that is where the action is, and most magazines, etc, want to buy photos of the faces of the riders, not the backs of their heads…

Okay – sorry for the digression, but some of that was needed so you'd understand that each time we would get up to the commissaire behind the peloton – we have to ask that official (the UCI official in the car) for the go ahead to pass.  

If it is early in the race – lots of attacks are going on, so usually no dice until there is a break up the road and the riders have settled in.

If it is near the point at which teams can start servicing their riders, again – no dice as there are too many riders moving forward and back to have a moto getting in the mix.

If the riders are bunched side to side on a climb, if the road is twisting too much, and so on… you would think there would be few times to actually be allowed to pass, but it all works out.  Besides, it is in the race officials, and the race organization's best interests to get us up the road to clear the back of the peloton so cars can service their riders, and so we can get images to promote the sport… 

Once you get the green light to move up, the key is that you are to progress up past the peloton. This gives me a chance to single out some specific riders, stars, the riders for the teams I've been hired to shoot, the jersey leaders, etc. and get some candids of them in the pack.  It also lets me get a feel for where teams are in the pack, who might be setting up for a move, and so on. (This was REALLY handy in California this year – but I'll save that story for an upcoming post).

Riders usually ride along on one side of the road, making the pass pretty easy for us – but when the rollers start, the "random" factor kicks in… throw in curves in the road, and the random factor goes up again… usually on a road curving to the left up a hill, the riders will all be in the left lane, maybe 2 or 3 abreast, and we can go up the outside – usually… but for no apparent reason, they'll drift to the right, taking the longer line and working up that extra little bit of gradient, and we'll get pushed to the right and slowly fall back as the line follows their leaders. Settle back at the back, the line stings out again, and you try to get past on the left…

Next thing we know, the whole peloton has decided to fill both lanes in an instant.  We're now literally surrounded on three sides, going up the hill at the same pace as the pack. I switch to my camera w/ the wide angle and shoot some of the riders around us. Just as I'm looking ahead to the right, I see two riders touch wheels (it is early in the race and in the stage – not quite all settled in yet) and I know riders will hit the deck…  I expect to see riders veer around the crash and – since we need to yield to them – that we'll veer to the left as well… right off the road.

The thought "well – guess Dean and I are about to end up in the gutter on our side" runs through my head, in the same split second as I also think "well – I may as well just shoot the crash" and as I capture that moment, the peloton does what it seemingly always does – it melts around the crash like school of fish around a coral outcropping, and only two or three riders go down.  Others have to stop, but Dean keeps us on the n'th edge of the road and upright.  He slowly eases backwards to yield to the riders and we share a laugh about pucker factors, who needs to clean out their drawers, etc… 

It was then it anchored – he drives – I shoot… It also anchored that if I stress over what may happen, it still won't keep us upright… that's his job… lesson learned.  Don't get me wrong, I know that the moto folks won't just take anyone, and you have to prove yourself (to a point) before you're driving photographers – let alone the tv camera shooters. And I also have been on the back of enough motos to know a good driver from a bad one within the first five minutes – and I knew Dean was a solid driver.

The rest of the week was a series of us educating eachother. I was learning when and where I could go from him, and he was better understanding where I needed to be (and when) to get the shots I needed.

There was one other close call when another photo moto got forced off the road just ahead of us by the peloton switching sides of the road quickly… but at that point, I was letting fate handle the worrying, and I just kept on shooting.  Fellow photog Jonathan Devich was on the moto that went off the road and had a video camera going and he caught the action and included it in this video. He gets run off the road about 2:50 or so into the clip. I'm on the moto that passes him just as his moto gets back on the road.

So you'll get to see me as I Dean and I wait for some more riders to pass, then for the peloton to stretch back out so we can scoot up the right shoulder (followed by Jono and his driver Chris Monroe).

I think this'll make for a good stopping point… More as I can get to it!

If there are specific questions I can answer – feel free to ask via the comments below, or use the "contact" link above.

Thanks for reading! 

- Will

 

Video by Jonathan Devich – epicimages.us

Shooting Tour of Missouri from a Moto: Part 1 – Getting there…

I'm sorry that it has been so long since I've posted to the blog, but there has been so much going on this year, I've been too busy to have the time to write. So many folks have asked about my week of shooting at Tour of Missouri, I felt I had to be sure to write about it.

San Francisco Grand Prix 2002I guess this trip really started years ago. I've been able to shoot a variety of races. From US Postal racing in San Francisco at the SFGP in 2002, through Lance and other racing at the Dirty Du outside of Austin, to the Tour of California in 2007 when I followed the whole race w/ course credentials (via GrahamWatson.com – long roundabout story not worth boring you with) but without a moto. A good friend, Brian Dallas, and I covered Tour of California that year together. He wrote a blog out of Ventura, CA called Ride Ventura. It was the first multi-stage race that I've ever "chased". Brian and I alternated getting rides in media cars, or other vehicles for better access to the stage. 2007 Tour of California: Stage 1 - Santa Rosa The other person would drive the car to the finish w/ the luggage and gear, and would try to catch a shot or three at one or two places along the route. That year worked out really well as I captured arguably theimage of the race that year: the pile up in Santa Rosa during the finishing circuits of Stage 1. Just after the stage finished I saw Graham and showed him the sequence I'd captured; he was instrumental in helping me sell the shots to Velo News. I ended up with a two page spread in the Off the Front section, the sequence for their website, and they used one the post pile-up pictures for an article about the controversy that came from the neutralization of that stage… after the stage had finished. Not bad for my first outing at a multi day stage race…

Suffice to say, this got me hooked…

I continued to shoot as much as I could. I entrenched myself at the local Velodrome – the Superdrome in Frisco, TX – and was soon dubbed their "official" photographer. That work gave me incredible experience. Shooting 12-15 races a night for 1-2 nights a weekend, 3 weekends a month over the late spring, summer, and early fall for a few years can add up to a LOT of shots. I learned how to frame my shots faster, learned the controls of my camera by touch, and learned to really trust my instinct. I got pretty good an knowing when a jump was going to happen in a match sprint, I got to learn the riders and some of their habits, and so on.

Perhaps most valuable of all was how I gained speed and skill in post-processing images. The day shots were challenging enough – shooting on a 250m track w/ 44 degree banking is one thing, but to shoot in the evenings with ever changing light raised lots of quality issues. So, as the sun is setting, the flood lights are kicked on and they slowly mix in to replace the fading daylight. It isn't bad at first, the sun setting creates great shadows to play with and you get great contrast when a rider is in the sun, but the track is shaded. But as the sun sets, the track's two very different types of flood lights bathe alternating stretches of the track with two very different "temperatures" of light - I had to get good at color balancing. Also, the pure volume of shots made it critical that I learn to cull out the "bad" shots and to not agonize over decisions between similar shots. That is wasted time that can add up and increase processing time by hours. This translates very well over to a multi-day stage race – you need to be able to get your shots selected, tweaked, and published to websites and/or image services quickly or someone else may sell their shot to a potential client first.

I also made a point to get some moto time. I needed to find out if I could sit on the back of a bike, twist my body around, and shoot w/ accuracy and a steady hand… Oh – and not get motion-sick in the process. I knew I could shoot from a helicopter both air to air and air to ground, so I was pretty sure I would do okay, but I didn't want to show up at a pro race w/out having shot from a motorcycle. I was able to do some triathlon shooting that got me invaluable moto experience, thanks Kristen and Todd!

I did shoot some other pro racing. TX Tough Grand Prix in Dallas brought some top criterium pros to Dallas in 2008 – I got another off the front shot in Velo News… I was also able to make it out to shoot the last three days of Tour of California this year… That brought back the fun of 2007 – and all the old questions I had from my previous AToC… If it was this much fun to chase a race for the starts, some middles, and the finishes; what was it like to shoot from a moto in a pro race? What does it take to get those key shots? How do the best folks end up being in the right place at that right time?

I got a lot of my answers during 7 days in Missouri…

Planning:

There was a lot of leg work that went into planning for the trip. The first part was ensuring I'd have the credentials - shooting for Graham Watson made this process much easier. By shooting for him I was bringing a global audience exposure to the race via Graham's daily race updates. I was also then shooting for the publications that utilize Graham's work who didn't have another shooter under contract at the race. An email to the race organization soon had a reply that they'd remembered me from 2007's Tour of California and they were looking forward to having me out for the week. Check…

2009routemaparticleThe other half of the planning revolves around how to not only figure out where to stay each night, but figure out how to get your gear from place to place given the fact that you'll be sitting on the back of a moto from the start to the finish, and there is only space for you, gear hanging off of you, and perhaps one of the moto's two panniers – but you also may have to stuff a 300mm prime and some rain gear in there, along with water and lunch. The solution is to have a friend be your assistant for the week, driving a car from start to finish w/ luggage, laptop, extra gear, etc. Their payoff is long hours, an adventure, and a set of media credentials for the week. A good friend, Kevin Cooper, was kind enough to help me out for the week, and was an added value as he is also a shooter. He was able to provide some backup coverage for the race by essentially doing what I'd done in California in 2007 – shooting the start, the finish, and perhaps a spot or two along the route.  Kevin also figured out the route for getting from stage to stage as well as where to stay each night. I was swamped with a few other projects at the hotel "planning" time, and I also figured that since he was going to do the bulk of the driving – it would be sorta odd for me to tell him where we needed to be and how to get there.

A huge wrench was almost thrown in the works as a battle in the Missouri government developed between the Gov and Lt. Gov about if the pre-approved and allocated sponsorship money for the race from the state was actually going to be provided to the race. As disappointing as it would have been to have something cancel this opportunity, I realized it was out of my control and just hoped that cooler heads would prevail and things would all fall into place, which they did.

Equipment:

Next on the list was to go over in my head, and in my budget, the equipment I'd need for the race. My gear bag was pretty complete for starters, but who couldn't always use something else. My bag contained a slew of Canon gear. Two bodies, a 1D Mark IIn and a 5D Mark II; with a solid range of glass – 17-40 f/4L, 24-105 f/4L IS, 70-200 f/2.8L IS, and a 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS. Plenty to cover pretty much any situation, but I figured a few more pieces would help fill the gaps in the bag. I really felt a second sports shooter body would come in handy – a 1D Mark III, I also wanted to get a great fast prime – the 300mm f/2.8 IS was top of that list, and to get the last piece of the puzzle – a 15mm f/2.8 fisheye.  A quick request to the fine folks at Canon Professional Services had the equipment scheduled and due in the day before I left for Missouri.

A new game show - name that gear! LOL

All the other camera side stuff was already "in the bag". Cleaning gear (blower, lens pens, sensor pens, cloths, etc), memory cards, external storage, laptop, spare batteries, chargers, flashes and so on. I did pick up a Turbo battery for the flash to speed recycle time, but there wasn't much other camera equipment to get.

Moto gear was another story all together… I didn't have a helmet, no riding jacket, nor a great rig to not only store and arrange the gear on my person as I was on the bike, but also a way to ensure that a camera strap wouldn't slip off a shoulder and result in anywhere from four to six thousand dollars worth of glass and camera body bouncing down the roads of the midwest.  I'd considered a traditional photo vest, but I figured it would lack large enough pockets for the larger lenses, and would be too hot across my back. I also looked into just a belt system that would allow me to use the cases that came w/ some of my canon lenses, but I wanted to get the stuff off of my waist, thinking it might be uncomfortable to have all that weight on my belt. The next thought was to look for some sort of web-gear setup like the military uses. I think that solution would have worked really well, but at a bit of a price as ammo pouches and so on can run the tab up pretty quickly. The winning solution was one passed along to my by friend and fellow Canon shooter, Liz Kreutz; she pointed me to NewsWear.com logoNewsWear.com. I'll do a review of the vest soon, but I went with the medium chest vest – only $95 and it worked extremely well… A trip to a local motorcycle shop w/ another buddy, Greg, soon had me sportin' an AGV Blade helmet. Again, I didn't want to break the bank, but wanted to get something I could actually try on and ensure not only fit, but would allow me to hold the camera to my face with flash mounted and still be able to get my eye to the viewfinder. Quite a few helmets had slick integrated visors but the front of the helmet was now so thick, I couldn't get the eyepiece to my eye… Hmmm… is it important to be able to see to shoot? The last budget saver - a friend of Greg's was my size and had plenty of extra gear. A nice mesh bodied light gray jacket w/ back, shoulder and elbow/forearm panels completed the gear list. Okay – a few last things – some sturdy over the ankle hiking boots (from Oakley, gotta love their gear), some rain gear, and various other supplies like sunscreen, etc… sorted.

Missouri Bound:

So Saturday the 5th arrived and it was time to load up the car and head north. Kevin showed up and my place and we soon all of the gear loaded, a tank full of gas, and only 650 or so miles later, we arrived in St. Louis.

IMG00224-20090905-1834
More to come, I'll try to not keep you all in suspenders too long.

Thanks for reading!

- Will