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From Dubai to the dunes: The unique challenges facing photographers at the UAE Tour

VeloNews spoke to two photographers at the UAE Tour about the challenges and quirks of capturing the action in suburban sprawls and sandy highways.

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When imagining a bike race in the Middle East, deserts, dunes and dusty roads come to the mind’s eye. You’d think those charged with photographing the racing from race motos and sponsor cars would have no problem capturing dramatic, evocative images.

In reality, races such as the UAE Tour see the peloton rolling through huge multi-lane highways and suburban sprawls that offer a photographer a unique set of challenges.

In stark contrast to the ever-dramatic images of grimacing rouleurs battering over Roubaix’s cobbles or bare-chested climbers scaling the steep switchback of the Angliru, the tarmac expanses and city streets of the UAE Tour can look far from spectacular behind a lens.

VeloNews spoke to two of the men tasked with capturing the action – or lack of it – at this year’s UAE Tour.

More city than sand

Unlike neighboring desert races in Saudi Arabia and Oman, the UAE Tour is largely set in sprawling metropolises such as Dubai, while the race’s trips out through the desert follow wide highways that are more suggestive of civilization than camels. Even the race’s signature summit finish to Jebel Hafeet plays out on a functional, carefully-sculpted highway.

“The roads are wide, and with Armco barriers in the middle – they can look quite ugly and be boring,” said Justin Setterfield of Getty Images, one of the largest photography agencies in sport. “Very occasionally though, it can properly look like the desert on the smaller roads and it becomes clean – but your chances are limited and you need to get lucky. There’s nice pictures to be had, but not as often in the European races.”

Setterfield struck lucky at last year’s UAE Tour, capturing an image that has often been used on, and which the Brit highlights as one of his favorites from the race.

“Towards the end of one of the stages last year, the race moved from wide roads and Armco to a short section where the road narrowed and went through a section with sand on both sides,” Setterfield explained. “The peloton properly looked like it was in the desert on the small roads, and I was lucky to have the time to get in position and capture it. That was the only opportunity for such a shot all race. It’s ironic as I think people think that’s the kind of image you get here all the time.”

Setterfield highlighted this image as one of his favorites from his visits to UAE Tour. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Finding drama in a deserted landscape

The Emirati race, this year cut short by two stages due to an outbreak of coronavirus in the peloton, was raced at a relatively sedate pace. Several riders commented to VeloNews that the first hours of stages were taken at a social pace as powerful teams saved their legs for the decisive finales – whether they be bunch sprints or mountaintop finishes. Attacks were rare and breakaways felt ‘token’ rather than serious gambles at a race win.

Freelance photographer Russ Ellis pointed out to VeloNews that the dynamics of the racing at a sprint stage in the UAE Tour are no different to that at a bunch finish at a grand tour – the breakaway goes, the peloton cruise behind it, the breakaway is caught, the drama compacts into the final five kilometers.

However, with less media interest and lower television viewing figures, the fight to show a team jersey in the breakaway is less fierce, and the battle for control in the peloton behind it is less intense.

Ellis largely works on behalf of team sponsors, and was at the UAE Tour working with Specialized, looking to capture the American brand’s wares in action with teams Deceuninck-Quick-Step and Bora-Hansgrohe. For Ellis, capturing dynamic images of a brand’s gear becomes a lot easier when the racing is strung out and the hurt is on. Finding great opportunities for a client out as an 80-strong peloton pootle along a highway is near-impossible.

“You have to hope you find somewhere scenic where the peloton is passing through, and hope you can pick out the right riders of capture some random excitement,” Ellis said. “It’s so different shooting here to the classics. They’re raced from the gun – the race all splits apart early, which means there’s almost always action, and wherever you stop and take a picture, it will always be interesting.”

In the absence of racing drama, photographers typically resort to stunning backdrops to brighten imagery. The sunflower fields so synonymous with the Tour de France or the sleepy terracotta villages of the Giro d’Italia are testament to this. However, the endless sands and highways in the UAE give photographers fewer chances at capturing ‘that’ shot.

“There’s not a lot going on obviously, just a lot of desert and a lot of sand, or empty city streets. There’s little natural drama,” said Ellis. “It can get a little samey and look very static, you have to think hard about how to get something interesting.”

Ellis is fortunate in that he can capture evocative content away from the racing. “If I can tell I’m not going to find exciting race imagery for my clients, I focus more on going round the buses as riders prepare or cool down instead,” he said. “There’s always something interesting to see at the start and finish zones if you think the racing won’t be interesting.”

Ellis uses the start and finish of races to capture unusual or evocative images. Photo: Russ Ellis Photography

The unique infrastructure of the Emirates

Ellis typcially works on races from a car, sitting in with the directors of one of the teams he’s shooting for. With cars being unable to pass by the racing peloton, he has to carefully recon the route to find locations to work from mid-stage.

“A lot of the stages here are out-and-back, and there’s few arterial routes linking somewhere early in the race to somewhere near the end of the race. There’s just not so many roads here,” Ellis said. “You need to be at the finish in advance of the riders as cars can’t pass the peloton, and so shooting multiple times in one stage is difficult. In Belgium for example, there’s lots of link roads between race routes so you can jump to the next part of the course easily.”

While Ellis works from a team car, Setterfield and his Getty colleagues are perched on the back of race motos. They may not have the comfort of a car seat, but they do have the luxury of being able to pass the peloton as it races – and the wide, straight roads of the UAE offer some advantage in that respect.

“You can gamble a bit in countries like this,” said Setterfield. “The roads are so wide you can gamble and stop say 30km from the end. The big roads mean you have a good chance of finding an opportunity to overtake the race and make it to the finish line before them. In the narrow roads of Europe, you can never take that risk of stopping – you’ll never be able to overtake again.”

While it may be expected that the UAE Tour largely plays out in the desert, much of the action is the suburbs of sprawling cities. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Sunny skies and easy uploads

While it’s clear that photography in the desert can prove a challenge, Ellis and Setterfield both point out it has its advantages. Highly-developed countries like the UAE mean that mobile network is abundant and not compromised by mountains or remote locations. Getty photographers have to send images to a central database for clients to use as the race unfolds, allowing news outlets to provide live reporting.

“There’s never a problem uploading images here,” Setterfield said. “There’s so much mobile network. Sometimes in the Alps or Dolomites, you get no network until the finish, and can’t upload photos – and that can cause a problem for clients.”

And while the racing is more dramatic at a windswept, rain-soaked spring classic, Setterfied has no hesitation in deciding between a soaking in Belgium or a baking in the UAE.

“You get a bit of breeze and getting the sun on you out in the desert races – it’s quite nice,” he said. “Trying to work in the cold and rain is really hard. Your hands freeze, and it’s tough to operate the camera. I’ve had a lot of cameras break mid-race because they became water-logged. We have to try to dry them on radiators overnight.”

Sodden cameras or desolate deserts – all part of daily life for the men behind the lens.