>- Words and Pictures By Darrell Parks –
For the past 3 years I’ve covered the Amgen Tour of California from start to finish. Each year, in the weeks leading up to the 8 day event, I look forward to following the race in its entirety. But by the end of the second day I start to remember just how demanding it is to photograph a bike race that traces almost 700 miles of back roads in just over a week! Throw in 12 hour days, lugging around 25 pounds of camera gear, dealing with road blocks, bad weather, and lack of sleep and food, and you start asking yourself “Why, am I doing this?”
As I review my images recorded at the race I realize the true beauty of the sport, and the incredible determination of the riders and fans is what keeps me coming back. I’d like to share my experience with you as well as some of my favorite images and the background behind them.
Prologue – Tom Danielson on University Street. Tommy D emerges from the trees and cycling fans lining University Street in downtown Palo Alto. This shot was taken from an overcrowded overpass after several very nice fans relinquished their spot – it never hurts to ask…
Prologue – Michael Ball and the Rock Racing Podium Girls. After the race I came upon an interesting scene. Michael was lambasting one of the race organizers for disallowing his full team to start the race. He used every expletive in the book as Tyler Hamilton and the girls looked on. After a couple of minutes Mr. Ball paused briefly, seemingly disgusted to no end. It’s at this point that I jumped in and asked “Hi Michael, I know you’re really busy right now, but would you mind if I get a picture with you and the girls?” To my surprise he graciously obliged and even put on a happy face!
A typical day’s “work” starts by mapping out the day’s activities. Depending on the start time and where I slept the night before, this may require getting out of bed as early as 6 AM. What time do I need to get to the start, find parking, and not have to hike 30 minutes from my parking spot? More importantly, does my parking spot leave me with a good exit route? After the start I’ll need to make a beeline for my next shooting location on the course, not stuck in traffic choked off by the race caravan and roadblocks. Even though I have media credentials, it seems each individual California Highway patrolman decides whether or not your credentials are good enough to let you through his barricade.
Stage 1 – JJ Haedo Takes a Triple Celebration win in Santa Rosa. A sprint win by a large enough margin that allows 2 other teammates to celebrate with you is phenomenal – especially when the lead out man wears the yellow jersey.
Stage 1 – Hincapie checks his wounds. Just a case of being in the right place at the right time. I was a little slow in starting my race to the photographers’ pen to cover the awards ceremony. As such, George came across the finish being swept up by the highroad staff and consoled by a teammate – practically right in front of me.
Once I’ve driven to the next shooting location, I need to hope I’ve arrived well enough ahead of the peloton to park, get to a good shooting spot and then actually take the shot. After the race goes through, it’s time to rush back to the car and attempt to beat the race to the finish. This is usually the biggest gamble, as most of the fans have already been at the finish for hours. They’ve likely taken any and all legal and illegal parking spaces within a 20 minute hike of the finish! Sometimes I can convince the guards that my media credentials do allow me access to the VIP parking area.
STAGE 2 – Peloton arrives at the Sacramento Tower Bridge. This shot almost didn’t happen as I arrived only minutes before the peloton. I was certain I was not going to make it as I hit a roadblock just on the other side of the bridge. I knew I was only about 15 minutes ahead of the race but decided to wave my media credentials at the guard. To my disbelief, he flagged me around the barriers and onto the race course. By the time I got across the bridge, found parking, and got to the spot, the motorbike photographers were “In the front row”. I attempted to shoot around them with my telephoto lens but the camera just stopped working! I grabbed my backup camera just in time to snag a few images. The downside of stopping for this shot was making it to the finish just minutes after the race ended.
Depending on the stage my drive to the race finish could be anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. Twice during this tour I missed getting to the finish in time to shoot the sprint. The portable GPS system I was using forgot to “detour” me around the race course. There’s always a gamble between taking shots out on the course and beating the traffic, roadblocks, crowds of fans, and race barricades to get to the finish. In the case of a circuit finish, I try to stake out a position that allows me to photograph the cyclists on at least 1 lap before having to race to the finish line to catch the sprint.
Stage 3 – Sprinters group climbs Mt Hamilton. Gruppetto, Autobus, Laughing group – all names given to this group of “non-climbers”. The rider’s band together in an attempt to tame the mountain and make the time cut. Haedo, O’Grady, Dominguez, Boonen, Cipollini. All of them minutes down on the climbers but any one of them can easily take the stage if it comes back together. Bicycle racing is simply remarkable.
Stage 3 – Fredy takes the Rock Racing Rolls Royce to the cleaners. Fredy Buraye is the personal body guard of Michael Ball. Anyone who’s tried to get behind the barriers at the Rock Racing camp knows Fredy doesn’t mess around. While walking back to the car after the stage, I glanced over to see Fredy getting the Rolls washed. Apparently one of his many duties is to keep the car clean and he was happy he found this car wash right behind the Stage 3 Finish Line! I asked if I could take a picture of him getting the car washed. He assumed the Rock Racing Pose and then asked if I would send him the picture ~.
Shooting the sprint is somewhat challenging in itself. First I need to make sure I’ve acquired a Photo Vest from the media director before trying to get onto the course. My media credentials alone aren’t good enough to get me out there. And while it’s true I get to be right across the line from the peloton that’s streaking towards me, so do about 50 other photographers. If for some reason I don’t make it to the finish early enough, now I must shoot the sprint through, over, or around all the other media that got there ahead of me. Furthermore, once we all assume our positions, it’s inevitable that the media director will make us move. This is typically due to the “Versus” TV guys complaining that we’re blocking their shot.
Stage 4 – Peloton at Rocky Creek Bridge. Most people will mistake this bridge for its bigger and more photographic brother “Bixby” just south of here. I had left the start in Seaside about 30 minutes before the stage began. This allowed me enough time to beat the road blocks and drive the 20 miles to my target for the day – Bixby. When I got to Bixby and opened the door of the car I was simultaneously sand blasted and spray washed. The Big Bridge was very exposed to the 30MPH headwind the riders would be facing for 7 hours this day. It was raining off and on and I decided to back track a little and check out the smaller bridge at Rocky Creek. I found a place to park and realized the southern end of the bridge was somewhat protected from the wind. I scurried about 200 yards up the hillside and composed my shots. While waiting for the race the sun peeked through several times offering up spectacular lighting and a rainbow. This superb lighting tease continued right up until just moments before the peloton seemed to float across the bridge.
Stage 4 – The Peloton Not Quite Yet at Rocky Creek Bridge. Timing and a little luck is everything.
Stage 4 – Dominique Rollin Solos to Victory. After over 7 hours of racing in the rain, in 40 degree temperatures and with a 30+ MPH headwind this was truly a stage of attrition. What you don’t see here is the multitude of creative ways a photographer can attempt to keep his camera protected from the rain. Personally, I like the $7, use em a few times and toss em, camera gear covers. I saw everything from fancy $200 specialty covers to good old plastic grocery bags and rubber bands.
After shooting the sprint I’m faced with another choice. Do I follow the stage winner past the finish line and try to snap some post race shots? Or do I rush to the awards podium and try to be one of the first corralled into the photographers’ pen? If you’re one of the last shooters into the “Pen” then you end up shooting from the sides or from behind all the other photographers. Fortunately for me I’m tall enough to shoot over a good portion of the others. Shooting the podium awards is usually straightforward, unless of course there’s champagne involved…
Stage 5 – Cipo gets Religion. I happened upon this church on my way out of town last year and found it hard to leave. I really love the architecture and the setting. Snatching Mario as he rolled by offered a nice contrast between the serenity of the church and the outrageousness of the Rock Racing Kit.
Stage 5 – Mavic Guards the Castle Entrance. A little farther down the road from the church is this small park. The town of Solvang has some very interesting Danish influences. I thought this was a great background for the Mavic neutral support station.
Now that I’ve taken anywhere between 500 and 1000 pictures during the stage, it’s time to do some sorting and editing – and remember the PEZ would like to post his feature story, recounting the day’s stage, before anyone else does. He’d like to have 10 to 15 shots to choose from and he’d like them 30 minutes ago when the stage ended. I could go to the car, get my laptop, head to the press room, find a spot, and try to upload my stuff through the very, very, very, slow link provided by the media director. But remember I’m under a deadline so… I go straight to my car, open up my laptop and get busy. I have a high speed mobile card I use to get out my pictures to the PEZ in short order.
Stage 6 – The Angel and the Pope. Stage 6 is probably my favorite stage of the race. Not only do I love Santa Barbara, having lived here for 8 years, but the fan turnout on Balcom Canyon is incredible. You know it’s a great party when Angels and the Pope make the guest list.
Stage 6 Peloton Over Balcom Canyon KOM. All the rain California has had this winter has turned the hills into a fluorescent green that almost looks unnatural. One of the local bike shops has worked out a deal with the KOM landowner to throw a private party. If your name is on the guest list (or you happen to be the PEZ Cycling News photographer) you’re entitled to a bike valet, barbecue, beer, and a great view of the entire climb!
Done for the day? I wish. Now I’ve got to get to where I’m spending the night. Is it nearby or do I need to travel closer to the start of tomorrow’s stage? Once there, be it a friends house, or a motel, it’s time to back up the pictures, charge camera and flash batteries and figure out how I’m going to attack tomorrow’s stage. Did it rain today? If so I’ll need to clean and dry all the equipment. I also need to sort through the days shoot again and pull out some images for my other clients. Depending on the stage it could be well beyond 9 PM by now and usually is. I usually take this time to try and find a place to get some lunch….
Stage 7 – Riders on the Storm. Rule #1 when renting a car to follow a bike race – always get a hatchback. This way you can protect yourself and your equipment from the elements while getting shots of riders in a downpour. I would not want to be the cameraman on the moto…
Stage 7 – Race Concludes with a Rainbow. The race concluded just minutes ago and we had all been shooting George Hincapie winning the stage in the pouring rain. We were now all crammed together in the pen shooting the awards. Suddenly the sky opened up and this rainbow appeared behind us. I turned and grabbed this shot while the balloons were remarkably positioned in my favor. The perfect shot to end an exciting week of chasing the Tour of California.
Please visit my website at www.darrellparks.com to see more of my work and keep clickin’ into PEZ for what’s cool in pro cycling.
For larger versions of many of these shots and more, be sure to click into PeloPics