Photography and bike racing – it’s always good to combine your passions. This year gave me a chance to get to the Tour for the first time since 2007 so I headed to Bordeaux to see a stage finish and, the following day, the start of the final time trial.
Bike racing is quite unique in that the average punter can, with a bit of time and preparation, get right up close. Over the years I’ve tried a few different tactics and each has its pros and cons. In this post, I’ll share some of those experiences.
Roadside on a regular stage
This is probably the easiest option, stages are in the region of 200km which gives you plenty of scope for a front row position. Thing is, bikes move pretty quickly – blink and you’ll miss it. If you’re well practiced at panning you may get a good shot of the day’s breakaway and the peleton as they pass. I’ve always figured two or three good shots is not the best return for a whole day out so have never tried this.
That said, with a good eye you can pull in relevant scenery or landscape to create a dramatic contextualised image. You can be pretty sure that every year Graham Watson will turn out a spectacular sunflowers/peleton shot and every year it’ll be a cracker.
Roadside on a time-trial
It’s still easy to get to the “front row” on a time trial and with the whole field coming past one-by-one, you’re sure to get some good shots. Taking a position on the open road means there’s no need to be up with the sparrows and you can walk along the course a bit to find a spot you like. It’s also a good idea to print out a start list from the web or get hold of the morning’s paper so you know who to expect. I like to mark off the riders I’m particularly interested in getting shots of so I know when I’m happy to be experimenting with technique and when I want to be concentrating on getting specific athletes.
The panning takes practice but you’ll have 175+ opportunities to do so, just be sure to focus on your technique, use the time between riders to assess how things are going and adjust as you go. A monopod can be a helpful accessory on the day.
It’s worth keeping two things in mind. Firstly, you’ll want to try and get the racers with sun on their face so you can see their expression, this means bearing in mind the sun’s position relative to where you’re standing and moving as the sun moves during the day. Secondly, it’s a bit easier if they’re going slower rather than faster so choosing a corner on the course may make it easier to get your panning right than a flat out section of the course. Do it on a slight uphill and you might get some straining faces to add to the drama. Finally, keep an eye out on your backgrounds, it’s no good getting great shots if there’s a distracting colourful sign / street light / etc ruining the background.
This year I found a spot alongside the start gate for the time trial which gave me a chance to get some close-ups of the riders’ faces before they went off. Also, by this time I was sporting a flash as well which really helps get the riders’ faces lit up although it means being more careful about your first shutter press rather than just relying on the burst. Getting a roadside position at the start gate can mean starting early to get to the fences first, packing some refreshments and foregoing the toilet for a few hours.
The final stage in Paris
One of the greatest sprints on the calendar for sure, but if you’re looking for photographic opportunities and you’ve no press accreditation, it’s not the best. I’ve tried this a few times on the principle that the 8 or 9 laps of the Champs d’Elysees will give plenty of opportunity. This is true, but I’ve never had much luck with getting a good position on the roadside. Aside from the crowds which mean you need to be there by 07h00 for a front-row position, there are also trees all along the street and the shadows can play havoc with your chances of getting something decent. I’ve even tried buying seats in one of the galleries which made a great day, but didn’t really present the opportunities I was hoping for.
One opportunity that the final stage does provide is the “victory lap”. After the racing and presentations, all teams do a lap of the Champs d’Elysees to wave at the fans. This can give you a chance for some slower shots. If you can find a kid with an autograph book, he may even attract some of the riders over giving you the chance for close-up portraits.
At the stage finish
Something I tried this year for the first time. I decided to forget about the sprint for two reasons – (1) I’d need to wait hours for a front-row position in order to get a chance at one or two shots and (2) from the roadside, bikes would actually be too close for my 17mm lens and I had nothing wider. I could hope for a position where I looked further down the road but the crowd gets pretty excited and there’s every chance that the punter waving his hands next to me would block the shot. So – I decided to hang around at the end of the finish section, most of the peleton run straight through the finish chute and, at the other end, make their way through the crowd to their team buses. It was a great chance for some candid shots.
At the opening presentation
London’s 2007 Grand Depart gave me the chance to attend the presentation of the riders. With a decent zoom, you’ll get a chance to shoot the guys the evening before racing starts as they are presented to the crowds.
What’s next? Well, one year I’d love to get alongside the road one some of the mountain stages. Also, milling about at a race start might give another opportunity for some candids before the guys get onto the bikes for the day.
Link to flickr galleries of my pro-cycling shots