“There were photographers from all the publications, but their only access was at the start and finish, and they were also shuttled up to one or two locations during the race in a van. At one location, when we went by, one of the photographers yelled out “ who is that guy?” meaning me in the Marshall’s car.”
The Story Begins…
I spent a few days at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey California last weekend at the 2004 Hyundai Sea Otter Classic to cover the elite men’s and women’s racing.
If you work in this industry taking pictures or writing stories, the key word is ACCESS. You must get close to the action so you can communicate through pictures and the written word what speed, competition and victory mean in the world of professional bicycle racing. The challenge was that race officials were not allowing photographers into vehicles during the race. Instead, our only access was at the start and finish, and one or two locations on the course that we were shuttled to by van.
There it is! The actual car Matt rode in. Here it’s chasing the Women’s Elite race – not the “VIP” sticker on car.
So, fifteen minutes before the race I started asking Sea Otter Officials if I could get a ride in a team car. I know, I’m big on planning. Well, one thing led to another and as the race began, I found myself in the Race Marshall’s car with the entire back seat to myself! (Sorry – can’t reveal my secret negotiating techniques…) Think of the biggest Hyundai you have ever seen. Kind of like a 7 series BMW. That would be my ride for the next three hours plus.
The inside of our Hyundai was completely covered with electronics of all kinds. Cell phones were plugged into every electrical outlet in the car. A stop watch was hanging from the right visor. Blue wires snaked though out the car, under and between seats. Nothing was more important though than a beat up box of transistors and wires that served as the communications hub for all of the other officials and team cars. It sat precariously on the front arm rest between the driver and the race Marshall.
At exactly 12:00pm after the high school marching band played the national anthem, everyone started rolling. The entourage included team cars, an ambulance, the press van over 100 riders and finally that big Hyundai with the Race Marshall and me in the back seat. The race was a rolling start, so for about two miles, all I could see behind me was a sea of bright jerseys, bicycles worth thousands of dollars and young men in incredible shape getting psyched to ride over 100 miles at an average speed of about 25miles an hour.
Picture me if you will; I am about 6’ 2” and 220 with half of my body out of the side rear window snapping pictures as fast as I can focus. It was like a feeding frenzy; over 100 professional bicyclists out of there saddle waiting for the gun to go off, and me reeling off five frames a second trying to capture the moment.
One of countless early breaks has a go at Sea Otter.
Boom! The gun went off, and within minutes the attacks began. First we had the Canadian National team go after the Peloton, then came Sierra Nevada. That didn’t work, so Webcor took off hoping to open up enough time, so the peloton would forget them. Four or five riders would bridge and the negotiations would begin. What teams were high in the general classification? Who was going to work for whom? Strong alliances between teams might mean a break away that could last the entire race. But everyone was suspicious of who was in the break away just to monitor them. Who was the spy in the group? It was all happening within ten yards of our Hyundai.
Our Race Marshall was also very concerned with the space between the break away and the main Peloton. And this is why. When the peloton was together, the Race Marshall was usually in front of the Peloton. That makes sense. Once the peloton lost sight of the breakaway, the Marshall would move behind the breakaway group so they would not use his car as a rabbit. However, if the peloton started to catch up with the breakaway, the Marshall wanted to make sure that the peloton could see the breakaway group and not his car. So we kept moving in front and behind the breaks just to make sure that everything was equal.
With about 20 miles to go Webcor and Monex had two riders that had a real chance to win the race. Lurking behind at about 50 to 60 seconds was the peloton. This is when OLN usually comes on, and Phil starts giving us the odds for a stage win. Although one of us was supposed to be impartial, we started talking about who looked the strongest between the two. I said the Webcor guys shoulders were not rocking as much as the other guys. Our driver thought that the Monex guy had a higher cadence. We didn’t care who won, we just didn’t want the bad old Peloton to catch them.
On the final climb, a nasty ending that went on for about ten minutes, the peloton gobbled up our hero’s. Three laps on the course were all that was left.
Now, there is a turn at Laguna Seca called Andretti’s corner. It’s a nasty 180 with two apexes. At this point Chris Horner is about 30 seconds up on the peloton, and I am leaning out of the rear window like a beached whale, taking great pictures of Horner soloing. All of a sudden our Hyundai hits Andretti’s corner going about 30 and we are accelerating quickly. By the second apex I am flat on my back looking up at the ceiling of the car. Did we really need to reach the sound barrier on that turn? No answer. I struggle to get up, look out the back of the window, and see Horner. He is in his saddle, almost kissing our bumper with his front wheel. Unbelievable!
Chris goes on to win the road race with over a minute on the peloton. Right after the race during interviews he looks content and happy.
If you ever have a chance to go the Sea Otter, do it. It is three days of fun that is well organized. If you want to follow the road race in a team car, one word of advice: Ask a few days before the race.
Note: Watch the OLN report from Sea Otter next Thursday, and you just might see Matt flailing from the back window of the Hyundai!
Check out more of Matt’s photography at his website: