Monday, March 21, 2011

Tour de Murrieta MotoPhoto

Bicycle racing has never been high on my list of spectator sports, for a variety of reasons. Chief among them was that it seemed you stand in one place to watch a group of riders blast by one time and everything's done. How spectator-friendly could that be?

Friends Rod and Alex are going to beat me when they read this. I'm grossly oversimplifying, I know. At the same time, they'll heartily acknowledge what I'm about to tell you is absolutely true: the ONLY place to watch a bike race is ON THE RACETRACK!

Fortunately Rod gave me that opportunity recently without all the pain, training, and expense of taking up the über-sport of cycling. He was in charge of volunteers at the recent Tour de Murrieta and thus was privvy to some inside knowledge of the race preparation.

One of the pro photographers that was covering the race had asked if they knew anyone with a motorcycle willing to ride with a passenger on back shooting pics. Sounded fun to me and after determining the guy wasn't a 300lb sloth, I was ALL IN.

The ride up from Rancho Peñasquitos on Sunday morning was quite chilly and I was in a pea-soup fog until past Fallbrook. Since I arrived about an hour before I was to hook up with the photographer, coffee was on my mind and the donut shop down the street from the Start/Finish line fit the bill perfectly.

Brian Hodes of Velo Images couldn't have been cooler. A wiry fellow, Brian was a former cyclist himself and LA wedding shooter who'd finally snapped to his senses to marry his passion for photography with that of cycling. He talked the talk, walked the walk and when I saw him "high-fiving" some of the Pros, I knew he was the real deal. Plus, he was a Nik user and fan!

His gear was simple and oh-so functional: a sweet D3 Nikon, a couple of big lenses (his fav being an 80-200 as I recall), a wide angle, and a battery pack to fire up his speedlight reliably. To top it all off, he had a GoPro Hero HD camcorder that fit into a special hot-shoe attachment so he could videotape everything he was also shooting (for a documentary film he's working on). This was all carried very efficiently in a utility belt supported by a cross-over-the-shoulder strap system.

With his primary targets the Men's and Women's Pro races, Brian worked the starts, then hopped on the F800GS. The course design was roughly rectangular, winding through some of the ranch land and high end housing areas outside old town Murrieta. A lap around was only about 3.5 mi., but the race length of 46 and 56 miles (Women/Men respectively) gave us plenty of opportunities to work the course from all angles.

Each race was led end-to-end by one of the CHP's finest R1200RT riders, while the refs rode alongside or behind the riders depending on the part of the course everyone was on. It was kind of cool that the two referee bikes were a dual-sport KTM and a BMW R/60 from the 70's.  In some parts of the track, the racers were permitted to span the width of the road - this allowed riders to "break-away" and pass their competitors. Usually when the riders had the whole width, Brian and I would try to ride in front of the pack, or if we were behind would find a spot to set up for the next lap.

In other parts of the course, the racers were confined to the right lane - called the "yellow-line" rule - and here we could easily pull alongside the peloton (group of riders) and snap some great close-up action shots. Coming down one of the hills, the racers could easily be doing 40-45mph and so it was pretty thrilling to be pacing them.

Between both the Men's and Women's races, we probably spent at least 4.5 hours on the motorcycle jockeying for position, speeding ahead or slowing down, finding some clever ways to show the cyclists in action, and more. A series of my favorite shots that Brian was able to capture were the ones taken in the apex of the corners. He would focus on one rider and pan the camera on the rider as he slashed by - anything in the background would be blurry and so give a strong impression of speed.

The winners of each race instinctively knew whom to face when lifting their arms up in victory - Brian was right there at the finish, camera and big lens cocked and loaded to get that "Sports Illustrated" cover shot.

It was great to catch up with Roderick again too - he and his family are only 45 minutes up the road, but it seems a lifetime away sometimes. He was in fine form, radio in hand, astride his single-speed mountain bike orchestrating myriad volunteers like a band conductor. The camaraderie he has with the Temecula/Murrieta cycling community is tight.

With the race day ended, Brian thanked me for the good piloting work and said he'd send me some pics. I promised to hook him up with Nik's new Silver Efex Pro 2. He was off to shoot an 8-stage bike race in Turkey the following week, but I hope our paths cross again soon.

As for me, I flew home on Hwy 15 sunburned, muscles tired but stoked that I'd experienced seeing these amazing competitors up close and personal. Here are some pics Brian shot of the racers in action:

I was a little bushed by this point in the afternoon, but took solace
that the racers were MORE tired!