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Behind the lens: The business of cycling photography

Cycling photographers are constantly balancing creative expression with business decisions. It is an art in itself.

Editor’s note: This article was published in the November/December issue of VeloNews, prior to the announcement of Graham Watson’s retirement.

Jim Fryer rouses and props himself up in bed, his face lit in the dark hotel room by a laptop screen displaying the last of yesterday’s haul. As is often the case, the late-night photo editing process has turned into an early-morning one — clients are hungry and must be fed. Another Giro stage will start in approximately six hours.

Fryer clicks through a gallery destined for VeloNews.com, full of Marcel Kittel after a pair of stage wins. He sends a Dropbox link and turns on a travel coffee kettle just as his partner in life and work, Iri Greco, begins to stir. She works the late shift, he the early one. Thus begins another day spent shooting the worlds biggest bike races, one of more than 200 days they will spend on the road this year.

The world of pro cycling photography is one of contrast. For every professional rival there is a vital alliance. For each new sight or beautiful vista there are a dozen dingy hotels and gas station lunch stops. It’s a profession torn between art and business, creativity and practicality, one that is evolving rapidly as it is disrupted by technological and social change.

Yet it’s still governed by decades-old tradition and hierarchy. Being a professional cycling photographer is not as glamorous as it appears from the outside, nor is it as heinous and exhausting as it can often feel from the inside. It’s addictive in the way many difficult yet exhilarating things are. Those who have figured out how to make it work — and there aren’t many of them — say they can’t imagine doing anything else.

“WE DON’T SKIP BREAKFAST, breakfast skips us,” Greco says, correcting Fryer as he describes their early morning routine. With that, the duo comprising BrakeThrough Media exit the hotel and are off. They arrive at the stage start 20 minutes later.

Greco and Fryer estimate there are about 25 regular shooters on the professional circuit, with 15 of those covering the majority of the season. Less than 10 cover all of cycling’s major events. At the profession’s core is a group Greco affectionately refers to as the godfathers, photographers who sit on the backs of motorcycles from January to October. They are Graham Watson, Tim De Waele, the Bettini family, Stefano Sirotti, and Yuzuru Sunada. Other photographers dip in and out of the moto group, mostly from big agencies like Getty, the Associated Press, Agence France Press, or l’Équipe at the Tour de France, but those five individuals are at the center of this world.

There are two ways to photograph a bike race. One is on a motorcycle, embedded inside the race and its caravan. The other is from a car, stopping at the start, then at two or three spots along the course, and then at the finish. BrakeThrough is almost always shooting from a car; it suits Fryer’s and Greco’s style. The godfathers are on the motos, always. In fact, that’s what makes them the godfathers.

It’s a fitting term. Moto access is a source of financial stability due to the limited supply of seats. (You can have only so many photographers on motorcycles zipping along a course at any one time.) The positions are often kept in the family. Luca Bettini is taking over for his father, Roberto, and Stefano Sirotti took over his father Emanuele’s seat before the elder Italian passed away.

“When I first started way back in ’78, ’79, I was driving a car or even a bicycle,” says Brit Graham Watson. “You chose your place to stop, you figured out what’s going to happen, and three out of 10 times you get a great shot that motos don’t get. But that moto access has been everything for my career. Without the motorbike access, you’re grounded.”

Pulling into the day’s start area, Greco and Fryer have a brief discussion over where to park. Ahead of the race or behind? Do they want to leave before the start of the race or after? The choice is dependent on where they want their first on-course stop to be — and how much time they need to get there.

It’s settled. Ahead.

Most teams haven’t shown up yet, but the photographers are here. Trios of cameras as expensive as a good used car are slung over shoulders with nonchalance. Each photographer has a numbered bib or vest, colored to designate rank and seniority. These bibs and vests are a visible manifestation of a political process. Different colors denote different types of access, from a ride on an in-race motorcycle (brown fitted vests) to the last row at the finish corral (cheap white bibs).

The team buses arrive an hour before the start and bring with them the first frenzy of the day. Greco and Fryer split up, one heading to racer sign-in, one walking toward a team bus.

Cycling photography has not been immune to the winds buffeting all media in the age of the Internet. Where Watson and De Waele were once developing film and physically mailing images to clients, they can now upload shots straight to the cloud before they even take their motorcycle helmets off. Client requests continue to shift. The reality of multi-client worklists, a packed race schedule, and an increasing demand for immediacy means photographers are often obligated to be in two or three places at once. Here, BrakeThrough has an advantage: There are two of them. For those working alone, the pressure to deliver requires collaboration.

“There are these alliances and collaborations that are created when photographers work together for the benefit of their clients,” Greco says. “We work with Sonoko Tanaka so we can get more coverage of the race. We shoot some for her clients and she shoots some for ours. Then we share. That benefits her and her clients, and it benefits us and our clients.”

Watson has an alliance with Bettini. De Waele uses more of an agency model, hiring photographers to attend races he can’t get to, or, at major races, to get a different angle from his own. Some arrangements are more formal than others. Walk into the photographers’ area in a Tour de France pressroom after a stage and you’ll spot a daily game of memory card musical chairs.

“It can get convoluted,” Fryer says. “Maybe [Watson] is responsible for providing an image, but he’s not there, or he was in a different spot. Normally he’d get it from Bettini, but Bettini’s not there. Bettini sometimes works with Cor Vos. So that image with Graham’s name on it was shot by Cor Vos, who Graham doesn’t even necessarily work with.”

Of course, this turns photographs into commodity, not art. But this is a business. For many, perhaps most, the art is very much a secondary concern.

THE FIRST STOP OF the day for the BrakeThrough duo is out in the countryside, between two long hedges. Greco grabs a wide-angle lens, Fryer a telephoto. What are they looking for? A good scenic, and a shot of one of their client’s riders who is in the breakaway.

There is a tug-of-war between creative expression and business, one that every photographer contacted for this story acknowledged to be a struggle. Though the rise of social media platforms like Instagram has allowed for a bit more freedom, and more direct self-promotion, there are still commercial realities.

“People pay you for pictures they want, not what you want,” Watson says. “Someone wants Trek pictures, someone else wants Cannondale, CyclingWeekly wants British cyclists. There’s very little room left for doing anything creative or artistic.”

To be a full-time cycling photographer takes a large client list — five to 15 recurring buyers, plus many one-off sales. Each client has demands. Teams want the money shot — their rider crossing the line, hands raised. Bike brands want glamor shots of their equipment being put to use. The stunning, dramatic image of an anonymous rider from FDJ riding alone 20 minutes off the back of the peloton is something only media outlets will buy.

You’ll see many of those shots in this issue: a Tinkoff rider brushing his hand against the snow bank; a lone rider coming through the dust. But for most photographers, selling such images to media does not pay the bills. The greatest challenge is that mix of art and business. It’s not easy to create stunning and sellable images.

“In my next life, I’d come back and just go to the Tour de France and shoot for myself,” Watson says, somewhat wistfully. “I’ll just take beautiful pictures. Nobody will buy them, but at least I can take them.”