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Tour de France

Getting the shot: Mathieu van der Poel alone against the clock

Time trials offer numerous opportunities to focus on the rider, their effort, and their equipment as they race by, one by one.

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VeloNews and Peloton contributor James Startt, the winner of the 2021 World Sports Photography Awards, is covering his 32nd Tour de France. For this year’s Tour de France he will provide a regular feature explaining how he gets his favorite shots of the day and also what equipment he uses.

I always love photographing time trials as you can really focus on the rider, the effort, and the equipment. And you have numerous opportunities as the riders race by, one by one.

But as I drove recon on today’s stage-five time trial from Changé to Laval, I struggled to find a spot that didn’t have camping cars or traffic furniture that made for a very cluttered background to a potential image. And while I certainly am not opposed to backgrounds, they need to add something to the visual story, otherwise, it just clutters the image.

Also read: Getting the Shot — Maillot Jaune on the Mur de Bretagne

Finally, just before the 15-kilometer intermediate time check, I came into an opening where the road stretched out into an open field, and I sensed my spot.

As the first riders rolled by, I shot with different focal lengths, starting with my 70mm lens, then going down to 50mm, before realizing that today was a wide-angle-lens day.

And the ditch by the side of the road allowed me to get underneath the riders as they sped past, shooting them with a touch of the road and the big sky of the Mayenne region of France in the backdrop.

At first, I was frustrated by the lack of sun and the flat lighting, but I also like the stark white sky. As the final riders approached I worked different angles, although I was also limited by the position each one took on the road.

I had to work quickly, panning each one as they rode by, often in excess of 50 kilometers an hour.

The good thing about sticking to a spot in a TT is that you get time to practice before the final riders pass.

I brought both my Nikon D5 and my mirrorless Z7 with me. And while I like the high resolution of the Z7, in the end, the D5 was the camera of choice today as it is generally better at the high ISO settings required to shoot at a high shutter speed (1600th) on such an overcast day. In addition, I only had a flash for the D7, and after going back and forth between the two cameras, I decided that a touch of flash really helped the colors to stand out.

Once settled on my equipment choice of the day, I waited for the last riders. I was really happy with a profile of Tadej Pogačar in his white jersey against the white sky.

Tadej Pogačar on stage 5 of the 2021 Tour de France.
Tadej Pogačar on stage 5 of the 2021 Tour de France. Photo: James Startt

But in the end, it was this shot of Mathieu van der Poel, digging deep to defend his yellow jersey that resonated the most. And while I was first attracted to a profile shot, similar to that of the Pogacar shot, I preferred this one of van der Poel in the corner of the frame.

I’ve always been a fan of the film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner adapted from the book of the same title by Alan Sillitoe. The film focuses on the isolation of the solitary effort of a lone runner, and this image of van der Poel, riding alone in the white backdrop of the big sky reminded me of the film.

I was pretty stoked to see the Dutch rider defend his yellow jersey one more day. Going into the stage he was skeptical of his chances. But then the yellow jersey has a way of inspiring a rider to new heights. And today was one of those days.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.