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Tour count down

The nights are longer, the days are warmer..that can only mean one thing…its almost July, the peak of summer. That, in turn can only mean one thing it Tour time.

I’m making a big assumption, which sometimes is a poor assumption, that when i say the Tour (note the capitalisation) that people know what i am referring to. It’s not overly helpful that the french and english words for tour are exactly the same, when you say the Giro or the Vuelta and the strange word raises eye brows and a question.

More often than not, people know that i ride bikes and also know of the Tour but   its clear from the follow up questions that might not entirely understand the concept. The conversationsusually goes

“i’m away in july at the Tour”

“wow you’re riding it”

“i’m not riding it…i’m working…taking photos”

So with only a few weeks to go its time to put the finishing touches to all the prep work, double check all the accommodation and make sure we’re not going to spend a night sleeping in a car, count how many changes of underwear you have.

For me i’m also working out what days i’ll get to ride my bike and try and engineer them to maximize those rides for the most fun, which mainly equals mountains.

 

Calm in the eye of the storm…

It feels like i’m opening myself up to the criticism du jour but i find life stressful, i find the modern work place harder and harder to subjugate myself to. The pressure that i feel means that i no longer consider the modern work place to be a Dolly Parton kind of place…less 9-5 and more 9-9. Having the ability to check emails any time and any place and given my role working in IT designing systems meaning i can work any time and any place. Most days it feels like i am my own worst enemy creating the prison that i seem to willingly put myself into everyday.

So the question is, how best to maintain the work life balance or at least how best to distract my brain from thinking about work and exploding. Everyone has their outlet and coping strategy and mine is riding a bike.

I find that the training ride the best way to sort through the day, the week and solve problems, bimbling along the quiet sussex country lanes with only the odd pothole to focus the mind. The legs turn without thinking, riding on auto pilot leaves my brain free to think about what ever is troubling me that day and hopefully solve it or at least accept it.

What if i want more than that, what if i need to stop thinking about all of it, well racing is the way to go once you pin a number on that is all there is to think about.

A time trial is good start, but unless you are a complete glutton and do more than 25 miles its only going to distract you for an hour or so and i find the solo nature of it can lead to the mind wandering. There isn’t enough else going on to detract from the pain you are trying to inflict on yourself.

Road racing is the way to go, there is no chance of getting distracted, the wheel in front the wheel behind and the wheel on either side really focuses the mind. In a truly hard race the intensity of effort can be enough of a distraction, the surge of the peloton, the sprint out of the corners and then rise of the road. Trying to avoid the intensity can also be hard, watching the wind direction, following the right wheels and positioning yourself in the right place to smooth out the surges. At this point the brain enters a zen like state, what you are having for dinner is gone, the amount of unread emails in your mailbox and all the meetings you have the next day are obliterated. If you are truly lucky and this will last until you make it to bed when your legs are so tired all you can do is focus on refueling, cleaning and resting.

From the outside it might look like chaos but there truly is some calm and tranquility to find in the eye of the storm.

Post Roubaix wash up….

Figuratively and literally a requirement after this year Hell of the North..

The normal weather punditry leading up to this years was spiced up with quite a few days or rain meaning the recon for the riders were quite the mud bath. But the Sun was ignoring the fan (and all those who weren’t riding, driving or generally working) who were baying for Mud. A few days of sunshine baked the worst of it into the normal dust storm with the odd patch of damp to keep the riders honest.

Modern cycling, certainly at Grand Tour level is sometime reduced to numbers, Watts, VAM, Vo2Max one day racing bucks against this trend and Roubaix is the pinnicle of that.

The only 2 numbers that matter at Roubaix are 29 and 54.4 (at least for this year) as its the number of cobbled sectors and the total number of Km’s that will be spent bouncing over them. That’s not to say bike technology doesn’t play a part, tyre pressures, light weight wheels capable of withstanding the rough roads and aero bikes to make you slide through the wind. You only have to look at the luck of Team Sky to know this can be wiped out in an instant. A crash on on the first cobbled sector robbed Geraint Thomas (a former Junior Winner of Paris Roubaix) of the chance to contest the race.

2018 Paris Roubaix 116th Edition - a muddied and battered Gerain

It seems that the same is true for photographers as well, or at least for me, i’ll spend the night before planning, going over previous years photos either looking for something different or even something the same if its worked well previous years.

The plan was out of the window on the first planned stop, the normal farmers field with adequate parking space was fenced off and i was left to drive on trying to keep my on the road and the spectators but also to the side of the road looking for a stopping space.

Had that not happened i might not have seen Geraint valiantly trying to chase back on behind an equally brave team car going hell for leather onto the cobbles trying to stay ahead of him

2018 Paris Roubaix 116th Edition - Geraint Thomas (Team Sky Proc

From that point on the plan was completely out the window, experience has taught me (usually by punishing me) not to correct the plan to, just skip the step and move on. If i was on a motorbike then this wouldn’t be quite so costly but in the car there’s a limit to how many good stops you can make, there’s plenty of mediocre stops you can make.

Just when i thought it was back on track…bam another hit, a missed deviation sign meant instead of shooting from the side of the sector..i was on the sector!

With a small amendment to the plan…a stop resulted in this photo

2018 Paris Roubaix 116th Edition - World Champion Peter Sagan (B

Ok, back on track, a cheeky little stop in Cysoing just like so many other year and then onto the finish, well almost. Thanks to the joys of arriving with minutes to spare and more cars than parking spaces…as i ran into the velodrome i could hear the cheer go up…guess that’s the finish then. That’s the first time in 11 years of covering the race I’ve missed the finish…I’ll add that to my list of lessons learned…now its time for a shower!

 

2018 Paris Roubaix 116th Edition - Taylor Phinney (Ef Education

 

 

Spring Classics prep work..how much is too much stuff

There a parts of any job which are less fun than others and as a photographer there are a few “less fun” parts that could easily put you off, standing in the cold and the wet, standing in the blazing sun, standing in the snow, standing in the mud…and sometimes for less than 30 seconds worth of action

Because i am a delicate flower and i like to know i can stay as dry and warm as possible it means i am very susceptible to Over Packing Syndrome. For the frequent incredulous looks at how full my bags are i try and convince people that my time in the Cubs and the Scouts meant that “Be Prepared” was an important and sensible motto to live by.

If i add a ride into a trip as well, add another wardrobe to take as well, you never know what the day might bring. Spring can be so variable that I’ve gotten soaked one day and been in bright sunshine the next.

When you combine this with photographic gear it can make for an eye watering luggage cost when flying or a house moving effort to load and unload the car.

Looking around i can see there are two schools of thought the minimalists and the maximalists, the former looking smug as the stroll around unencumbered by 4 camera bodies, 2 Telephoto lens, a monopod, a tripod and a seat and those that are trudging round buried under more kit than they could use.

Whether this leads to better photos or not i am not sure, i’ll see if i can do some surreptitious research at the Tour this year…

On that note its Roubaix this weekend….time to do some packing

 

 

Off season fun…or lack there of

As soon as the sunshine vanishes from the U.K. (no need for jokes about it never appearing required) my enthusiasm for social media wanes.

Turning green with envy is never a good look but it’s hard not to when you have winter and summer sports you love both participating in and photographing.

It’s starts snowing and the skiers start coming out and the desire to bring skiing and also taking pictures of pristine snow or even that chance to catch top level athletes being awesome. This is even harder in an Olympic year when the worlds best athletes and photographers pop up to hammer the awesomeness home.

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At the same time our Antipodean cousins start enjoying their summer. Training and racing before it’s warm enough to want to ride outside should be banned.

The closer it gets to spring and the formal start of the Northern European season the harder it is. The Warmer winter training camps kick off and the Sandy Classics start in the Middle East.

We know being a pro definitely has its down sides, living out of a suitcase, weeks away from home and family…but its easy to forget that when all you see is summer kit and all you see when looking out the window is rain, grey skies or if its cold enough snow and ice.

Don’t worry though the spring classics always have the potential to give you a reality check, 2016’s Liege Bastogne Liege certainly managed that snow storms in April

The Peloton rolls past the snow fields that have lined the early

I’m looking forward to what climate change brings us for this years Spring classics…and as i plan on some training on the day before the race i’d like at least some sunshine.

Duo the fun…Duo the pain

The Christmas break is fast approaching but sadly so is the cold weather which means my trifecta of conditions i won’t go out in happen pretty much every day…Cold, Dark and Wet. But on the plus side i have logged quite a lot of Zwift hours and also cracked through quite a lot of christmas movies while training.

But at this time of of year the Pro’s are starting to find the areas of warm, or at least warmer weather to make everyone jealous and Instagram is full of people loving the Australian summer. Once i get rid of a very jade skin tone i start thinking back to the highlights of last season and days of sunshine and fun rides.

One highlight of the year just gone was the Duo Normond, having tried and failed to get myself organised with a partner this year it finally came together. With the help of  teammate Andy some great accommodation was sorted and with Aaron as a keen partner all i needed to do was get there.

With the challenge of limited leave allowance it meant a less relaxed journey on the friday rather than the other guys and my external optimism or more accurately my innate ability to underestimate how long things take meant i arrived in the wee hours of the morning. By a miracle navigation and some careful instructions not only did i find the house with no issues (the collection of TT bikes in the shed gave me some confidence of being in the right place) but i also found my bed and snuck in quietly without waking a soul and pretty much passed out.

Previous visits to the Normandy area of France didn’t give me hope of a nice dry weekend but waking on the Saturday morning to glorious sunshine was the best start to the weekend. I would say the “gentle spin” to Marigny was pleasant but get my teammates on quiet sunny roads on TT bikes that aren’t exactly flat leads to a very generous definition of “gentle”.

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It was the ride back with just Aaron and I that the realisation of just what i was letting myself in for, a combination of a 58t chainring and a him being few kilos lighter made for a challenging climbing pace. The pressure of not letting him down was definitely starting to weigh down on me and really helping the nerves start building up.

When Sunday morning came all was looking promising for a lovely day, the first pair from the team were off early and set a great bench mark for the day in great weather but as noon came around and our start time drew nearer the clouds were starting to thicken and the biblical downpours i’d seen pictures of from last year threatened again.

Having been and photographed quite a lot of Pro TT’s the start ramp was not an unusual site, but actually going down one was, the prospect of going down one and straight up a hill was not making it any easier on the nerves.

As we set off my prediction of pain came true all too quickly as i struggled to keep pace with my younger and faster partner, holding back the panic and trying to compose myself into “the zone” i merely grunted to ease back as we crested so i could tuck in and get settle into the pace. As we gently eased (from a cornering perspective definitely not pace) through the bends of the flattish opening km’s my red line definitely passed i was left wondering how much harder it was going to get, respite came in the form of a mini disaster and Aaron unshipping his chain which afforded me a minute or two of coasting.

This was to be the last respite of the day as he then proceeded to push well past my limit for the rest of the course, i feel this image typifies my memories of the ride…Aaron on the front, my desperately clinging on to his wheel.

 

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With no course recce i was riding entirely blind, but my team mates had only given my words of warning for one decent that was “a bit tricky”, sadly this was the one decent i misread the road entirely and narrowly avoided the bush with some effective breaking, which on new carbon rims was an experience in of itself.

Somehow we made it round the “hilly” part of the course in one piece and rolled through Marigny to start the final 10km’s of the ride. At this point my legs started feeling a bit better, as i realised at the final turn it was mainly because it was slightly down hill. The sprint out of the dead turn extinguished whatever fire was left in my legs but thankfully by this point Aaron and i were matched on tiredness, having done the lions share of the work evened us out. With a sense of numbness we pushed the last bit of energy out in the downhill sprint to the line and sought somewhere to collapse

As you can probably tell from the post race photos…one of us was the hammer and the other was the nail, and if you need a clue i couldn’t string a sentence together for 10mins afterwards)

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Photo credits to Mike Smith for capturing Aaron and I hurting ourselves for 33miles

 

Damp Hill Climb Fun

As the summer racing season draws to a close its time for the winter racing to take over and unless you are Australian then its time to think mud and hills and possibly both together. Combine the British  cycling cultures love of time trials and short, steep climbs making up for the countries general lack of mountains and you get the unique Hill Climb season.

Generally starting in late September/early October they take the risk of running foul the British weather, last years was cold but sunny…sadly this year was pretty damp but thankfully a bit warmer.

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As you can see umbrella and Hi-Viz definitely required for all the Organisers

Only being the second year and perhaps affected by the forecast it was a little under subscribed but those who were able to make it put on a good show for the camera.

I never like shooting in poor weather, mainly because my technique is never quite good enough and when you are working next to some of the full time Pro’s it tends to get embarrassing. Today was no exception but at least they mostly came out well, at least when i gave up on a long lens and swapped to a widie and some flash

 

Hopefully avoiding a clash with another local Hill Climb an afternoon start time we can convince some more people out….especially some women would love to need a Top 10 results sheet for it.

Tales from the Tour…sweaty sunflowers

While sleeping with your face 50cm from the ceiling may not be ideal, getting up early to ride your bike on warm sunny day on some fairly quiet roads does make up for it.

It was as i headed out on my ride that i realised how close we were to the start for that morning as i had done barely a mile and came across proper race barriers. In a desire to avoid a start village i looked around for something to head for in a different direction and having seen a spire poking above the tree line i pointed the bike uphill and headed onward.

If i had had a chance to read more of the tourism section from the Tour road book i might have known what i was heading for. La Motte being a small chapel that crowns the hill of the same name and the top affords fantastic views of Vesoul and the surround area. To outline how hard and steep the climb was my slightly over geared pace did leave me vulnerable to being overtaken…two runners doing intervals up the paths overtook me…but they were collapsed at the top, when i finally got there

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As a distraction from the beautiful views i was a little concerned by the presence of these signs and very quickly took my photos and headed back down

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with a bike ride out the way and a filthy McDonalds breakfast beckoning it was time to start thinking of photos and some proper bike riders.

With a plan firmly set for the day, map points planned for navigation we headed to the start to bake a bit in the sunshine as the riders started turning up…shame the panoramic shot was ruined by a giant cherry picker lift

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Having done the start and headed out from the start it became clear the “plan” had gone down the toilet the moment we left…one missed turn and a badly programmed sat nav sent us just far enough in the wrong direction that is cost us our entry onto the route, which in turn probably killed off at least 1 stop for the day.

A combination of good navigation, some tiny French roads and some luck we managed to get round and ahead of the bunch and came across some Gendarmes tat were feeling generous to let us past their barriers.

Having got on course and worked out we only really had one opportunity and a hard cut off point where it would be straight to the finish we were desperately scanning the surroundings hoping to see something photogenic. We were almost at buckling point of either shooting with some tall brown grass or just sacking it off and going to the finish when i saw what i was hoping for…a big enough patch of sunflowers.

Now i am not going to lie, these aren’t anything compared to the glorious fields of yellow further down south, but given how frequently i have missed those opportunities i wasn’t going to pass this up . The  only challenge now was finding a shot that worked, and when its hot enough that sweat is pouring off you and the sunflowers surrounding you are actually taller than you it becomes a little stressful. Having changed my mind at least 4 times and fought my way much further into the field that i had really planned the peloton came and went and the race was on to firstly get out of the field, which was a little challenging, but to the finish in time. After the poor show of navigation from the start of the day we lifted the standard for the afternoon with the only spanner in the works being this level crossingIMG_2786

A decent sprint finish and quite a few other good pics rounded out the day nicely.  All that was left was to find our accommodation, eat some food and hopefully some beer…

Tales from the Tour….hurrah…Mountains…kinda

Most cyclists are slightly obsessed with the mountains, doesn’t really matter what ones just so long as there is a road up and down them, it doesn’t even matter if they are suited to climbing they will still drag their arse up even if its only to go down.

The same could be said for photographers, the vistas can be just stunning

Cycling - Tour de France - Stage 18

No more trying to scrape out a scenic picture that doesn’t quite work or when you are really desperate going for the poor mans scenic of a bridge (not that i haven’t done that)

Liege Bastogne Liege 2016 102nd Edition

As excited as we should be for the first summit finish when its combined with a really short stage and a shuttle bus to the finish it actuality it meant a pretty dull day. Having spent most of the day driving to make sure we caught the shuttle, to then spent another 40 mins in a bus that was actually hotter than most saunas i have visited didn’t set me up for feeling cool and collected.

Walking the final 400m up to the finish wasn’t exactly a picnic…it was the steepest part of the climb…never felt such an urgent need for a shower, the only consolidation was that almost everyone was in the same boat, but at least the view was worth it.

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This kind of stage is a great illustration into how little of a race/stage some photographers see despite being lucky enough to be within the bubble of the race. For once i was a bit lucky that there was a giant screen in view of my finish line position, but if not for this i would have seen the last 30 secs of the race as they crested the climb for the last meters to the line.

With the race done it was time to head back down with all the normal joys of getting off a mountain after a tour stage, at least on the way down i was able to sit in a car with the AC on rather than sauna it up in the shuttle bus.

The hotel was definitely on the lower end of the glamours scale so it wasn’t quite the conventional twin room – double bed with a single bunk over the top.  Over a fairly average dinner my travel companion Pete magnanimously offered a game of bowling to decide who took the bunk. Not being a great bowler i didn’t old out hope of taking the win and reduce the risk of headbutting the ceiling in my sleep. All was going mediocre until Pete realised what the little lines on the lane were for…this outstanding revelation ensured him the win and double bed..Ah well, by that point i was so tired it didn’t really matter!

 

 

 

 

Tales from the Tour…ticking off another stage

There is always a risk that the first week of a Grand Tour can get boring, from everyone’s perspective. Flat/Sprint Stages designed to put the leaders Jersey on a non GC rider, the transition from the Grand Depart to home country roads. Its important to race organisers to visit as much of their country as possible but logistics constraints don’t often make for the best stages.

With not much to going on at the start i fall back into my default, which is gawping at and photographing the nice bikes , although my normal photo companion isn’t too keen…i like to sneak a few in…surely every one likes a nice shiny pro bike

Tour de France 2017  Stage 4 Mondorf Les Bain Vittel A view of G

As has been the theme this year, security is much more visible and present at this years races, but in a change from the armored trucks and machine guns today it was shown in a much more lovable form, who doesn’t love a happy looking puppy

Tour de France 2017  Stage 4 Mondorf Les Bain Vittel Security is

Contrary to my thoughts at the start of the day it wasn’t going to finish as a damp squib, there was excitement inbound for the race and also for me, although potentially curtailing some for the remainder of the race.

Despite looking like he was going to be the dominant force in this years sprint stages Marcel Kittel was noticeably absent from the bubble of sprinters charging at the finish line. but given the events it was potentially a lucky happenstance to miss out.

With Mark Cavendish desperate to salvage a season marred by injury and illness with some success at the Tour any stage without Kittel in contention was going to be an opportunity not to be missed. Baring that in mind you could possibly apportion some or most of the blame on the Manx Man for the resulting crash when trying to fit two cyclists in a space only meant for one. The race jury seemed to take the opposite view laying the blame squarely on Peter Sagan for what seemed like a deliberate elbow. Not sure i really agree but the still image doesn’t really do him any favours, either way it left the race poorer by two great characters one disqualified and the other injured.

Tour de France 2017  Stage 4 Mondorf Les Bain Vittel Britains Ma

With that bit of Drama out the way it was time for some excitement of my own…

There is always a margin of doubt when booking accommodation for the tour, you often end up in the middle of no where, well outside the comfort zone of any city or large town hoping that you can find the place, its actually open when you arrive and that they have your reservation.

I was hoping that this was not the case today, it was so close to the finish and start the next day it was almost too good to be true, the Sat Nav got us there with no problem and it was open, that was two big tick boxes filled. The final hurdle almost toppled us, despite presenting printed confirmation of the reservation, the original emails there still seemed to be an issue. I am not sure quite how Pete and I managed it but eventually, seemingly reluctantly took us to the room he had for us…mission accomplished!

Possibly the worst thing was seeing the proprietor try and do this to the next two parties to turn up, one pair gave up almost instantly and drove off in search of alternative accommodation, the other (a fellow snapper) did not give up so easily. One very heated phone call to booking.com it was finally sorted and had was allowed to have a room.

Thankfully the 2nd beer really toned down any potential awkwardness of watching this unfold knowing we had a bed for the night

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