Tour de France 2020

The Shot: The beautiful unpredictability of cycling fans

BrakeThrough Media look for the perfect opportunity to juxtapose crazy fans with racers in the Tour de France's stage 18 time trial.

The Shot: 2016 Tour de France, stage 18 uphill TT, Sallanches – Megève, 17km

Controlling the frame with several uncontrollable elements: That’s what it comes down to when you aim to capture the fans in tandem with the riders. The athletes and the spectators are each intrinsic to bike racing but mainly at odds with each other as photo objectives. For stage 18, the uphill individual time trial in the Alps, we were initially hoping to get clean action shots of the riders against the mountains’ natural backdrop. But the reality of the course — one mostly lined with fans, guard rails, houses, power lines (so many power lines!), cars, and general clutter — meant a change of plans. We decided to work with the atmosphere on the ground rather than struggle against it and make the fans integral to the story.

Of course, there are all the usual factors that come into play when composing any image, even at a bike race. Lighting, framing, background, emotion, negative space, general art direction are all pivotal in capturing the moment and telling a story. As a general rule, we LOVE what the fans bring to the sport of cycling and how we document a bike race. Fans can easily make a shot with their energy and expression and passion, but just the same, they can kill a shot by running through your frame and destroying what would otherwise be a perfect shot.

Iri and I found a section of the course that was littered with groups of fans, musical troupes, BBQs, and a general melange of costumed performers disguised as cycling fanatics. We decided to leverage these characters to create our action shots. The complicated part was controlling how they appeared in our frames. Iri gravitated to a gang of Vikings from Denmark who were enthusiastically cheering for only the Danish riders — Lars Bak, Michael Valgren, Jakob Fuglsang. She convinced them to cheer for other top riders like Tony Martin. It was a very hot and humid day and in between their favorite riders, they would de-robe and remove their wigs and helmets. She had to go back to them periodically and remind them who was coming up the hill, giving them five-minute warnings to get back in costume. It was a ridiculous choreography but in the end, the images created a sense of the energy on the hill.

I found a young storm trooper lurking about the crowd as I was walking up the hill. I immediately wanted a shot with this kid side-by-side with a rider flying by. He was shy, but I thought I could coax some action out him. I approached him, discovered he only spoke French, and so in my best charades performance, I motioned exactly what I wanted him to do as the next rider would pass by in less than a minute. I set my frame, shutter speed, exposure, and was all set to capture this little storm trooper jumping up and gesticulating. As the rider climbed through the crowds, reaching my spot, my mouth dropped with a mix of disappointment, laughter, and appreciation. This tiny storm trooper stood there looking right at me, oblivious to the rider, and decided to just give me a thumbs-up. It was truly priceless and underscored the beauty of the fans alongside the riders: You never know what you will get from either one.

That’s bike racing.

Key image specs (storm trooper)
Canon 1DX
Canon 35mm f/1.4 II USM
Focal Length: 35mm
1/2000 sec @ f/1.4 ISO 160
File format: RAW

Photo: Iri Greco / BrakeThrough Media |
Photo: Iri Greco / BrakeThrough Media |

Key image specs (Viking)
Canon 1DX
Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II USM
Focal Length: 30mm
1/640 sec @ f/4.5 ISO 160
File format: RAW