Middle of the peloton, behind the lens

March 10, 2011 | By Bryn Lennon | Olympics, Sport

MENDE, FRANCE – JULY 16:  Bradley Wiggins (c) of Great Britain and Team SKY crosses the finishline closesly followed by World Road Race Champion Cadel Evans of Australia and the BMC Racing Team on Stage 12 of the 2010 Tour de France from  Bourg-de-Peage to Mende on July 16, 2010 in Mende, France.  (Photo 102934124, Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Team SKY has now just started their second season in professional road racing, and it’s been an exciting experience to be able to shoot for them – whether in the studio, training in Majorca, or at the Tour de France. I’ve been shooting for Team SKY since their creation at the end of 2009, although I’d done some work with British Cycling before then.

 I’ve cycled since I was 3, raced a lot when I was younger and still ride as much as I can when I get a chance. It’s astonishing the speed these athletes can ride uphill, the technology involved and the way an entire race like the Tour de France moves around the country on a daily basis.  It’s an amazing sport and the riders are incredible athletes. Going over the top of the Alps or Pyrenees with the crowd only centimeters from the riders (and therefore yourself, too) all screaming and shouting… there’s nothing like it.

 That’s not to say it isn’t challenging, though. To that end, I’d say the biggest and most important thing to learn is how to shoot comfortably from a motorbike.

 I generally work with two camera bodies (lens – 16-35mm f2.8 and 70-200mm f2.8) and usually one flash, also ultra wide 14 or 15mm lens in pocket. The rider’s faces can become very dark either through poor weather and enclosed terrain or with a high, midday sun creating shadows under their helmets, so in a race like the Tour de France some fill-in flash is sometimes necessary.   There’s also room to carry a small amount of equipment like a 300mm in the motorbike panniers — including waterproofs.

 You are not allowed to sit facing backwards, so I spend a lot of time twisting round, or sliding off to one side.  We’ve got a very experienced motorbike pilot, Koen Haedens, who is particularly calm when it all kicks off. In 2008, on the climb to Andorra Arcalis, eventual race winner Alberto Contador attacked up the climb (to drop Lance Armstrong and other rivals) onto our back wheel. As I was shooting him, Koen let him get closer and then accelerated away just as he became too close to us – and the photographer’s regulators sent us away. It turned out to be one of the defining moments of the race.

 You literally are part of the peloton at times, particularly if you are shooting at the start of the stage or a quieter part of the race and the regulators have allowed you to slip back into the peloton to get some pictures of the riders. It’s an incredible privilege — and virtually unprecedented access to a sport. Or, if you are trying to pass the peloton, a turn in the road can leave you in the middle of a group of 200 riders – literally centimeters from them. On a Tour de France stage last year, Australian World Champion Cadel Evans took hold of my arm to help pull himself past us as we sat in the peloton, trying to overtake them.

 If you read the race correctly and get yourself in the right time and place, you can literally be closer to the defining moment of the race than anyone, even the race leader’s rivals. I can’t think of many sports with access like that.

LONDON, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 22: Team GB ride around the 2012 Olympic Track at the unveiling of the London 2012 Velodrome on February 22, 2011 in London, England.  (109345965, Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

I also shoot track cycling, and I’m really looking forward to the 2012 Olympics in London. Yesterday I went to the opening of the 2012 velodrome – the first 2012 Olympic venue to be finished and opened. Team GB rode the track together and underlined that the 2012 Olympics are on their way! Also attending was Sebastian Coe, London Mayor Boris Johnson and Tommy Godwin a double bronze medal winning track cyclist from the 1948 London Olympics – 90 years old.

Track cycling is a completely different discipline, and good action photos come from learning the different races to know where and when you need to be. The European velodromes are often very dark and dingy, which is not great for working in, but it was good to see that the 2012 one will be brighter with plenty of roof lights and hopefully summer sunshine falling through them! The first time I shot in a velodrome was at the Athens Olympics and I remember shooting Chris Hoy winning the kilo (effectively a 1km flat-out sprint).  Before he started, he knew he had to break the world record to win gold and the force he seemed to be putting through the bike looked enough to rip it in half. When I was shooting him I used a 400m f2.8 from the outside of the track, he then lapped the track celebrating with his helmet off looking up to the crowd.

 I’ve done quite a lot of work with Team Great Britain over the years, and I look forward to starting some new projects on the run-up to next year. A lot of it comes down to earning the respect and trust of the athletes, so that you can work closely with them but not interfere or disrupt their training or racing. The team management and coaches are keen on a discrete presence… and rightfully so!

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 19:  Azizulhansi Awang of Malaysia lies on the track after crashing out of the Men’s Keirin Final and sustaining a splinter through his leg during day two of the UCI Track Cycling World Cup Classic at Manchester Velodrome on February 19, 2011 in Manchester, England.  (109298573, Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Sometimes a moment just shocks you, no matter how long you’ve been a cycling photographer.

I recently went to Manchester to shoot the final round of the UCI Track World Cup (SKY – track team – commissioned one day – the rest we covered editorially).  In the Keirin, as Chris Hoy approached the finish line to win, a crash happened behind him.  Azizulhansi Awang’s calf was skewered by a shard of pine from the track, he remounted his bike and rode across the finish line to take third (he then went to hospital rather than the podium!). He then collapsed in agony, just beneath us with his calf pierced by about 20cm of wood before he was taken away on a stretcher. It was when the medics (God knows why) tried to pick him up that we noticed he still had the wood in his leg.

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  • Anthony Collins

    I had a closer view of proceedings as a photographer inside the track I held him up until help came. Google Road CC Awang to see my account. as pasting a link is disabled here

  • http://www.mybikecodes.co.uk Bike codes

    Anthony I think I would have been violently ill on the spot if I’d have seen Awang take that splinter. Always amazed how photographers can stay so impartial and just get on with their job in times like that.