The Photog’s View: Chasing California!
Another AMGEN Tour of California is in the books and once again I’m glad I had the privilege of covering the complete race – and I’m also glad it’s over so my mind and body have a chance to recover. Hats off to the photographers who have what it takes to cover a full grand tour! Here’s a look back at my fave pics…
By: Darrell Parks
Several new factors contributed to the excitement and challenge of photographing this year’s race. First there was the additional stage which stretched the event out to nine days. We now had 9 straight days of racing to capture more miles, and cover more of the state, than in previous years. The rental car company may have thought twice about the “unlimited miles” policy if they new I was about to log over 1,800 miles on their vehicle.
Then of course we had a little more precipitation to deal with than in years past. After being under prepared for the foul weather last year, I came loaded with an arsenal of protective gear for myself and my equipment. Apparently three straight days of driving rain is no match for the camera raingear used by most photographers. I was lucky enough to have my equipment start working again after drying out. I heard many others shooting the race were less fortunate.
The last new element to this year’s race worth mentioning is “The Lance Factor”. Even with the atrocious weather the tifosi showed up in numbers far exceeding previous years. I have to believe the huge increase in the number of fans that turned out to watch the race can be directly attributed to Mr. Armstrong. Furthermore, they all seemed to defy warnings from race organizers, police officers, and in some cases bright orange barricades as they would swarm to Lance as soon as he came into view. I can’t tell you how many shots of Lance I took that ended up being nothing more than the back of a crazed fans head – their timing was impeccable! Lance Armstrong is not merely a person but much more of a phenomenon.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the images I captured for the race coverage on PEZ. I’d like to share a few of my favorite images from the race and the background behind capturing them.
ATOC Prologue – Levi TT caught in motion blur.
Prologue: Two Places At Once
I was pleased that I was able to capture 2 completely different perspectives of most of the top gun prologue riders. The question I kept being asked about my Prologue shots was “how did you shoot the same prologue rider in stop action and motion blur?” There’s just not enough time to compose and take 2 shots, with 2 different shutter speeds, with the riders speeding by at nearly 40 MPH. Even with switching between 2 different cameras it would be challenging to get consistent results. The secret to my success did require 2 cameras and a bit of luck and determination on my part. The prologue course designers had the route turning back on itself on the first turn. Spectators filled the 20 foot wide median separating these out and back legs of the course – except for a street intersection a block from the turn around!
ATOC Prologue – Levi caught in stop action.
The course marshals were keeping the intersection clear of spectators for safety reasons. I strolled out to the very center of the intersection and took up a low shooting position in clear view of both legs of the out and back section. As soon as I did this a marshal started towards me and I figured I was about to be kicked back to the curb. Instead he planted himself next to me and said “I’ll stand here next to you so you’re more visible”. From there I had just enough time to shoot a low shutter speed pan of each rider’s outbound leg, switch cameras, and then get a fast shutter speed, stop action, shot of the same rider on the return leg.
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. I may even need to skip the start completely if major road closures are planned for the stage. 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 – Let the Rains Begin
Once again I made sure this year’s rental vehicle was an SUV with a hatchback! This shot was made with the riders in the pouring rain as I was nestled in the back of my SUV protected from the elements. The challenge of this shooting method is finding a place to park so you’re far enough off the road for the riders safety yet still have a clear view of the riders on the course. Keeping others from pulling in behind you and obstructing your view can be even more problematic.
Stage 2: Rain on My Parade
I skipped photographing rider sign in and the start for this one. Most riders are more apt to pay the small fine imposed for not signing in on race day than to sign in and wait around for the start in the cold and pouring rain. Of course I had to stake my claim early for a prime vantage point to shoot the peloton crossing this iconic bridge. After waiting in the chilly rain for over an hour the peloton finally paraded across the bridge. I grabbed a few shots and then sped off to intercept them at the KOM…
Once I’ve driven to the next shooting location, I 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! Occasionally I can convince the Guards that my media credentials do allow me access to the VIP parking area.
Stage 3: Jacket Required
Astana rider Gregory Rast decides to don his rain jacket on Calaveras road. I watched in awe as he did this with the greatest of ease. Yes, it was pouring rain and the road was super slick. Yes, it was so steep that all the big men of the peloton were standing on the pedals. Yes, one slip and down he would go, taking out the race leader and a certain Mr. Armstrong. I guess if I spent as much time on the bike as the pros do I might not have thought twice about this dangerous maneuver either.
Depending on the stage my drive to the race finish could be anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. This tour I had the good fortune of making it to all but 1 finish. Unfortunately it was the last stage resulting in no capture of the final awards ceremony. I had made it through several police barricades and onto the course ahead of the riders. Unfortunately I ran into that one officer that decided it would be best for me to pull over and wait 20 minutes until the riders came through than to move his orange cone aside and let me off the 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: Trent Lowe Prepares For Snorkeling
Third day in the saddle and the rain has been relentless. It looks like Trent would rather be anywhere but on a bike right now. Not even the fact that his hands are warm and dry in his scubapro dive gloves can wipe the misery off his face.
Stage 3: Once Around The Block
The finish in Merced consisted of one short lap around the town center. It was late in the day and the rain had settled down a bit but the skies were still threatening. This made for some exquisite light falling on this building located on the corner of the first turn. The huge windows were casting reflections of the stormy sky. The peloton was strung out as they chased the break through the turn.
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 photogs 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 – Break in the Sierra Foothills = Long.
Stage 4: 3 Places At One Time
We just barely made it out in front of the race before they closed the roads down. My friend Evan was riding shotgun today and helping with navigation duties. We needed to scout out a spot on the course that would give me the most image diversity from a single location. As I crossed this bridge and saw the clouds and the snow covered peak to my left I knew I had found the spot. I could shoot long at the riders as they came over the bridge with the telephoto setup.
Stage 4 – Peloton in the Sierra Foothills = Remote.
After they passed I could shoot them from behind with the wide angle capturing the snowy grade and intense clouds in the sky. And then I could shoot them from the side of the bridge with the latest addition to my arsenal – my remote controlled setup. The 3 resulting images look like they were taken at three different points on the course – but all 3 were taken from the same spot within a 20 second time span!
Stage 4 – Peloton in the Sierra Foothills = Wide.
Stage 4 – The Cavendish VS Boonen Showdown
The road surface of this finishing stretch was more yellow than black. The fans had been living strong with their free yellow chalk all afternoon. When the lead motorbikes came flying through the finish they kicked up a mighty chalk dust storm. At first I thought the dust had dashed any hope of a descent finish shot. It turns out it added a nice smoky effect to the Big Guns showdown.
Stage 5: High Compression
After shooting the rider sign in I planned to get out on the course ahead of the riders. It turns out the location I was gunning for was also the spot most others had in mind. Hugh crowds had already formed on both sides of the road making a clean shot of the riders impossible. I noticed the snow covered mountains in the distance and searched for an opening in the roadside void of buildings and trees. I figured I would shoot with my telephoto for two reasons. First, I could shoot the peloton at a distance keeping all the fans out of the shot. Secondly the telephoto would compress the image and give a feeling of the mountains being much closer than they really are. This turned out to be one of my favorite images from the race.
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 somewhat tall and can shoot over a good portion of the others. Shooting the podium awards is usually straightforward, unless of course there’s champagne involved…
Stage 6: The Wine TTT (Time Trial Tour)
I’m very partial to the Solvang TT Stage since I used to live just down the road in Santa Barbara. I’ve ridden my bike on most of these roads and I’ve done my fair share of wine tasting here as well. The winter rain always makes the grass a bright fluorescent green this time of year. The late afternoon lighting adds to the great mood and reinforces the lines of this shot.
Stage 6: Gotta Love The Yellow
For the top riders I took up position near the bottom of the hill with the vineyards in the background. I knew the vineyards would reveal an appealing out of focus pattern. This spot allowed me to get a nice full frame shot of the riders as well as a tight crop as they came towards me while I panned. All the diagonals formed between the vineyards, the road, the bike, and the riders add to the vibe of the resulting image. The only regrets I have from this shot is that I didn’t shoot from a little lower angle to put more of the vineyards in the background – and the fact that Levi didn’t coordinate his outfit with matching yellow booties!
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 my publisher 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 7: Zberg’s Coke Boost
I was fortunate enough to spend stage 7 riding shotgun in the BMC team car. This was the perfect stage to get a ride as there was no way to get out on the course and make it back to the finish. The finish circuits would allow me to get dropped off on the first circuit and then shoot the finish. We were number 12 in the race caravan and my driver for the day was BMC DS Gavin Chilcott. Being 12th car back in the caravan meant we didn’t see much of the action at the head of the race. Shortly before reaching the Pasadena circuit that all changed as BMC rider Markus Zberg needed our assistance in the front group. Gavin put the pedal to the metal in the streets of Pasadena threading our support vehicle through bikes, motorcycles and 11 other team cars at break neck speed. It felt just like it looks when watching the Speed Cam video from inside a stock car except with more obstacles to avoid! Once we reached Markus he offloaded his rain cape and took on a coke to give him a boost for the final circuits. You can still see the adrenaline rush in Gavin’s face as he passes Markus his energy boost.
Stage 7 Protecting Levi
After getting dumped out of the BMC team car I took up my spot at the finish. As the peloton completed the first circuit Astana was on the front with Levi tucked safely amongst them! I fired off a handful of shots and managed to get Levi dead center of the Astana train with Lance poking out just behind him.
Done for the day? I wish, as 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 it usually is. I can now take this time to try and find a place to get some lunch….
Stage 8: KOM Crazies
A great deal of controversy erupted over the actions of some of the uber fans at this year’s race. I myself enjoy most of the antics they exhibit as they wait for the race or run alongside the riders. Some of them do tend to get carried away – especially when it comes to the safety of the riders. Strapping long, heavy, pointy things to your head and running through crowds of people is a recipe for disaster. It’s no wonder Mick Rogers punched one of the “runners” in the neck after the runner tripped and nearly fell into him!
Stage 8: Champagne Podium Girls
My finish line shooting spree came to an end on stage 8 this year. It was a good run with only a few near misses. Note to self for next year – Make sure you budget extra time to get to the finish of the final stage of a 9 day stage race! Otherwise you miss shooting the final awards presentation for the entire week’s efforts and even more important the champagne battles! I managed to get to the finish just in time to catch the podium girls leaving the back stage area. Kristen and Joanna gladly displayed their champagne drenched dresses for my final shot of the 2009 AMGEN Tour of California. A happy ending after all – PEZ Daily Distraction style!
Visit my website at www.DarrellParks.com to see more Amgen Tour of California images and keep clickin’ into PEZ for what’s cool in pro cycling!