Sierra Road Ascent – Stage 4 – Lessons in Cycling Photography

Flanders leads the break to the KOM Race Director

I get to the hill early, real early. I find a nice S-curve with a floating city backdrop, park the car off the road, and work the angles playing various scenarios out for where the riders will appear and what line they're likely to take. I anticipate photo and tv bikes getting in the way. While I'm doing this three CHP motorcycle officers come up and tell me I should move my car. I politely show my credentials, explain I'm off the road and listen while they get a "decision" over the radio... "I should move"

With hours to go before the race, I'm annoyed but agree. They peel off and head back down to the start of the climb, they won't make another appearance all day. I leave my flash gear lashed to a pole and blast the one mile to the summit in the Audi. At the top I encounter more nonsense about media parking (I'm the only one there at this point) before talking my way into a decent spot. Note to organizers, you've got to do a better fucking job explaining to volunteers and police why "we" are there.

Climbing Solo

I suit up with my ThinkTank Modulus, grab two cameras, a couple of filters, pocket wizard, spare battery, 100, 50 and 20-35, two waters and hike my way a mile down the road to my spot. It's not a bad walk and there's still no one on the hill. Half way down there's another location that looks even better. It takes fifteen minutes to reach my original position, and guess what... three cars are parked in the very spot I've just been told to leave. Son-of-a bitch. They remain there undisturbed throughout the race.

I joke with the parkers about the cops and answer the requisite questions about my 200 f2 - I swear that damn lens gets more attention than a hot girlfriend - then I shoulder my flash rig and march all the gear half a mile back up the hill to the new position. Did I mention the gear weighs a lot.

Once again I work the angles, run the scenarios, test my flash before turning it all off, hanging my cameras on a fence and waiting. There are two and half hours till the first riders in the break will appear. Riding spectators start to show, first in ones and twos and then in the last hour a steady stream grind their way up the unrelenting 10 percent plus slope and past me to the KOM line. Then to the detriment of all my hopes for a clear background they begin to bleed back downhill into the picture.

If I could arrange a Hollywood costume department to dress them they might add to the scene but invariably I seem to attract a delegation of optic-yellow wearing tandem riders. And if only they'd take off their helmets. There's nothing more incongruous than the juxtaposition of climbing riders against a background of downward facing (and helmeted) fans.

Thus begins the second challenge for any photographer at a public event, negotiating with everyone who shows up much later than you did asking that they not stand immediately in front of you. "Yes, you could stand anywhere on this hill, as I have for the past two hours before you came, you can stand beside me, you can kneel in front of me, hell, you can balance your point-and-shoot or your cell phone camera on my shoulder, just please don't stand in front of me." Oh, and to the guy standing behind me, do you really need to hold onto the pole that my flash rig is lashed to so that it keeps moving. And so on, and so on till the race blessedly puts an end to the dumb behavior.

The big guns ride 10-wide to control the race

Damn that bastard on the photo bike spoiling my main group shot. Double damn him because that should have been me.

Cervelo duo playing catch up Garmin Front and Center

And finally, one last humorous anecdote that sums it all up. A guy appears with a little point and shoot while I'm still standing virtually alone on this section of the hill. He asks me if I think people will come down this far because he'd like to get some shots of the riders without people in the background. I tell him he's unlikely to get his wish. He then proceeds to walk twenty yards downhill into my background. The irony clearly escapes him. That's him standing against the pole in the shot of the Flandrain flag bearer. I'd like to send him a print, he really adds something to the composition don't you think?

28 Responses to Sierra Road Ascent – Stage 4 – Lessons in Cycling Photography

  1. Jon Moss says:

    A compelling story of patience and frustration!

    Regardless, some lovely shots again.

    I am also feeling the frustration as my recording of the Eurosport coverage has cut off early 2 stages in a row, so missing the sprint!

  2. Dustin says:

    You have great shots regardless and those of us looking can see it, don’t worry if there weren’t spectators then people would think no one watches cycling. Keep it positive!

  3. vectorbug says:

    Your experience with this race photography reminds me of my frustrations getting started in criteriums.

    Everybody get out of my way. That apex would have been perfect if you hadn’t locked up your wheels. Why are we accelerating on this lap? Why aren’t we pulling the breakaway back? Why did you come unclipped? Why do you have two water bottles for a 30 minute flat race? etc…

    • Vectorbug,

      You had me laughing there…

      If only the world worked the way we wanted it to all the time I’d have 3 Pulitzers and a house in France.

      I’m still trying to bend spoons with my mental powers though.


  4. BR says:

    Michael…you need a Tazer, a dead blow mallet that won’t leave a mark, heavy duty Tie Wraps, and my 12′ pruning ladder. I had the opposite experience….rode over to the start, chatted with Steve Bauer, Hincapie, saw some cronies, Lance what’s his name almost t-boned me as he bolted from his groupies to the start, etc. I then rode out 13th Street to KM2 after they let them go. The best part is that I had my FLIP Video and as I was riding away some dude in a wheelchair was hustling down the sidewalk. He was so disappointed when I told them he had missed the race going by. I then let he and his 4yr old watch the 2 minutes of video which he was very appreciative. I also saw a couple I know and they had their two very young kids with them. As they were waiting by the HTC rig Cavendish came out and immediately rode up to the start line. One of the HTC crew offered to walk the Dad and the 2yr old (named after Reyder H) up to Mark and he happily posed for a photo and an autograph – on the start line! Great PR for these guys and another vote for Cav being a good sport.
    Of course I TIVO’d the stage and did not get home until 10:30pm. The stage went late and I missed the conclusion. I have never seen less of a race so close to home in my life

    That media whore Landis? How clever….the ToC moves South towards his home and he surfaces with information we all knew all long. I am referring to his admission and not the accusations of the other riders. I don’t have any illusions about dope & bikes but this ass needs to fade away. I have more respect for reformed riders like Millar, Basso, etc that stepped up early, took their penalties and rejoined their profession. Vino? Still not clear if he admitted anything but he seems to be on a good wave.

  5. ed yancer says:

    I love your b+w photo’s they have a really nice tone. remember most people only
    care about themselves, so getting in your way is no concern of there’s.really like your website
    looking forward to more t.o.c.

    • Ed,

      I’m actually pretty friendly with spectators at the time and try not to be confrontational. Most folks are reasonable when they realize what I’m trying to do and end up laughing when the next guy comes down and plunks himself right in front of them.

      It’s all part of the game.

      Barring moto access for a stage, that’s it for me this year I’m afraid. The credential process got a little screwed up and it was too late for me to coordinate travel to the final stages.

      there’s something equally good just around the corner, details soon.



  6. BR says:

    …and anyone that runs up a steep rode in the path of a cyclist is a complete jack-ass with absolutely no clue what is really happening. Cheer, yell, whatever but don’t make the riders work harder as they process what you are doing. The wenkers that run next to a rider and scream into their ear with messages of motivation, tips, advice, local trivia, whatever? Guess what shitheadeous moroneous HE IS DUTCH AND SPEAKS NO ENGLISH ! Where can I buy a bean bag shotgun? THAT would be fun.

    • Actually that guy with the Flag was totally cool, he kept well ahead of the break and his little boy loved it.

      • BR says:

        So he taught his kid how smart and cool it is to run in the path of professionals while they are making a living? Hey I can fantasize about sharing the road with the pros with the best of them but I’m sorry – Dude is a WENKER and a road hazard in my book. Once the gun goes off get out of the way and let these guys work.
        Love the pics of the actual riders though.

  7. Josh says:


    Are you following the race all the way to Thousand Oaks?

    • Unfortunately no. Unless I score a moto spot for one of the last stages I’m done. Too far to travel for one or two cracks at the peloton and a couple of minutes total shooting time.


      • Josh says:

        Aww, was looking forward to meeting you tomorrow in Palmdale.

        How does one even get a moto spot?

        • Josh, sorry we won’t connect.

          Securing a moto spot depends on a number of factors but it ultimately boils down to how big a media audience you are serving. To date I’ve not won the ToC lottery, but I’ll keep playing till I do. Like many things, once you are in the “club” it’s easier the next year.

          • Josh says:

            I’m looking forward to the day when you get your shot on the back of the moto. Your shots are way better than a lot of the other media outlet photographers.

  8. Michael, bummer about all of the frustrations but as usual you make it all work well :-) I can safely breathe a sigh of relief that I wasn’t the one in your background, but unfortunately the reason is I have not been able to catch a single stage of the race :-( But thanks for the great photos and commentary!

  9. Malk says:

    Yeah thats me in the flag photo….I remember you…nice shot baldy!
    By all means send me a print of the photo, could you also send me a copy of the velodramatic annual 2009…I will supply my address.
    Regards, Stripey Trousers.

  10. Travis says:

    As always, exceptional pictures.

    So… I don’t know much about race photography, and I know nothing about securing moto spots. But one thing to consider is that if you’re trying to convince someone to let you ride on one of those motorcycles, posting the kind of complaints you did in a public place – and, assuming your blog is related to you trying to get a moto spot – and that the people making the decision should be looking at it – you know… it might not be the best thing complain about that kind of stuff…

    If you had that many complaints about the management of the race while you were only actually in the presence of the racers for a short amount of time, imagine all the complaints you’re going to be posting after you’ve been on the motorcycle riding through it all day long.

    • Travis,

      That’s probably sage advice, but I call them as I see them. Having photographed the race for three years there’s definitely room for improvement in the way the process works, and I made no mention of the behind-the-scenes difficulties I encountered this year. Stuff like the CHP moving me and others parking in the very same spot minutes later is part and parcel of the job. Photographers the world over deal with those obstacles every day. Not being able to complain about it would drive me crazy. If that ruffles feathers and means I don’t get a moto spot, so be it. What you don’t appreciate is that I invested five hours to get a two minute opportunity to shoot the race. If you don’t defend your turf in that situation, you don’t get any pictures. Being embedded in the race on a motorcycle is a totally different scenario. You have hours in contact with the race to shoot from the middle of the road without obstruction, to jump off whenever it suits you, to experiment.

      I think the media liaison people are savvy enough to understand the difference.

      Having said all that the piece was intended to be somewhat humorous, perhaps I should have tagged it that way. I thought it was pretty funny.

  11. Travis says:

    Whoops.. I should have proofread that before posting. I think you can still get my point

  12. jean1113 says:

    Regardless of the frustrating obstacles you had to work around(and yes, the pun is intended) you still got some great shots, as usual.

  13. jj says:

    great description of your frustrations – so much goes into getting that perfect shot…
    I cannot stand those idiot fans (like the one running along with the flag) who get in the way of the racers…
    I actually shout at the TV when i see them on the alpine stages of the TDF getting in the way and running along shouting “encouragement” at the riders. I think more of the riders should give them a good slap for getting in the way – or the cops should get them out of the way instead of bugging photographers. Thanks for letting me get that one of my chest :)

  14. Dave Wyman says:

    At first, I didn’t notice the guy standing next to the pole. Now that you’ve pointed him out, I think both he and the pole add something to the composition.

    The pole and the sign at the top recapitulate the shape of the stick and the flag. And the position of the right arms of the point-n-shooter and the flag bearer line up nicely, too.

    While you could use that new cloning tool in the latest version of Photoshop to clone out the shooter, as well as the sign, I like the photograph the way it is. And of course all the rest of your photographs show us what photography looks like when photojournalism is married to art.

  15. You’re probably right Dave. Acknowledging he might have done something positive didn’t work with the direction of my rant though ;-)