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.


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