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Behind The Lens | Russ Ellis

Grand Tours - Behind The Lens

 

Each year, the Grand Tours bring cycling's greatest rivalries to the fore. Mammoth three week races across countries, Grand Tours have their own pace, unique narrative and distinctive feel. Ahead of the Tour de France, we sat down with Russ Ellis - a professional cycling photographer who spends his Grand Tours embedded with Team Ineos.


The first Grand Tour of the Year is a bit of a marker. In principal it’s the same as photographing a One Day race - you just take each stage as it comes and go through the usual procedures.

The day starts when we arrive at the start village for the stage and grab a coffee and take a look at the route and work out how many stops we can get before making our way to the finish. I then move around between the team buses and the sign on area looking for shots of the riders, spectators and scenery etc.

We usually leave about 15 minutes before the race in the car and drive to a nice scenic location to take a shot as the riders come past, we repeat this as many times as we can whilst allowing enough time to get to the finish ahead of the race!


This is in essence the format for each of the stages. The differences with shooting one day races is that they tend to be raced full gas from the start and are very unpredictable whereas grand tour stages are pretty formulaic with a break going early and then the peloton just tapping along for most of the stage until the end.

This all means that the picture opportunities on Grand Tour stages are mainly scenic peloton shots and in the one day races it’s usually much more exciting with racing the whole stage allowing for much more dynamic pictures at each of the stops.

 

Covering a race like the Giro, going from town to town and working for five hours out on the road, photographing races it actually pretty similar to riding them - just without the actual pedaling. We are in the same bubble as the riders; we move hotels each day, live out of a suitcase and travel to and from the stages just like the riders.

We move around the stage and see most of the key sights along the way as the riders and I guess we are also feeling levels of stress as well as we try to get good images. In fact to be honest I sometimes feel like I’d rather be riding the Giro that taking pictures as there’s less stress for the riders on most stages I think.

 

 

The worst part of any Grand Tour is rain. I’m not a fan of the rain, I know it can sometimes make for nice gritty images but in reality it’s a total nightmare for photographers, we have a lot of expensive equipment and trying to keep it dry and working when you are out in torrential rain is just no fun at all. Quite a few people had cameras and lenses stop working in the rain at this year's Giro.

 

 

Moving around each day, you see a lot of a country, but, if I’m totally honest, I couldn’t tell you then name of places I've stayed. When I'm embedded with Team Ineos, they sort out all the hotels and transport to and from the stage each day, I literally just get ferried around!

It all just becomes a blur of hotels, autoroutes and autostradas. So far this year, the hotel I remember most was when we stayed in Modena, and that is because Modena is the home Balsamic Vinegar. The hotel we stayed at had 25 year old vintage Balsamic that they gave us at dinner and it was just amazing. My favourite place in Italy is without doubt the Dolomite region, we stayed about 30km West of the Austrian border and it was beautiful.

 



Spending so much time in transit with the riders, you have to get a feel for how to photograph the guys on the bus. It's the riders sanctuary so the main thing is to be very conscious of what is going on and how the lads are feeling.

I try not to stay on the bus to long, I’ll go on and just have a chat with them to start with, I’ll leave my cameras on the dashboard of the bus and just let them get comfortable with me being on there before I start taking pictures. You just need to respect their space and read the situation.

On the road you can obviously just shoot away most of the time, you still need to respect the riders thought at all times and not be sticking cameras in their face if you can see that they look stressed etc.

 

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This year I went straight to the Giro from the Tour de Yorkshire. I have to say, for atmosphere, Yorkshire wins hands down - best fans in the world! I live in Yorkshire, but I’m not biased...The fans at the Giro were great but they have this strange habit of waiting on a mountain for hours and hours to watch the race come up only to start leaving and walking/riding down the mountain after the first bunch of riders have passed! Yorkshire folk stay till the last rider has passed.

 

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The first 10 or so stages of this year's Giro were not good at all for photographers, they are long days on fairly uninteresting roads and the peloton are just tapping along chatting.

Even if you do find an interesting location the images never look that dynamic at the race isn’t actually “on” so it’s usually just a case of getting one or maybe two stops on the road and then getting to the finish and hoping it’s an interesting sprint.

 

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I was happy with a few images this year but for some reason I really like a shot I got on one of the early stages this year, it’s quite a simple image but I think it sums up the Giro quite nicely.

It’s of a breakaway rider riding past two old Italian farmers who had parked their tractor next to the road to watch the race come past. The tractor was a Lamborghini tractor which is just so cool and Italian.

 

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Navigating around the race and trying to get on and off the course is perhaps the biggest difference when covering races from country to country. The local police and marshals in Italy that are responsible for road closures when the race is on often don’t realise that press vehicles and even team vehicles should still be allowed access to the course during the race!

It means we have to allow far more time to negotiate with them and it adds another level of stress that you don’t have to worry about in Belgium for example where it’s far simpler.

 

 

 

The routes and roads you get to see at Tours are incredible. I was gutted when the Cima Coppi was rerouted late on this year to avoid snow at the Giro. It would have been epic for images, however, we still shot the Mortirolo on that stage and the weather was horrendous.

As we were walking back to the car sodden and freezing we all said, thank god that the Gavia wasn’t still in this stage as well because for sure the riders and the photographers would have been in serious trouble.

 

 

The end of a Grand Tour is always interesting. People are either excited to win or itching to get home. Making it to Verona for the Giro, the atmosphere was crazy. I only made it in there after Carapaz had entered, so I was there for the final presentations and it was probably one of the best settings you could wish for.

I went up into the stands to shoot the jersey and trophy being given out so that I could get images that really showcased the scene.

 

 

It's hard to say who is best placed for the Tour de France this year. After big names like Froome and Dumoulin pulled out, the likes of and G and Bernal are going to be the favourites so we shall see!

 

 

Thanks to Russ once more for taking the time to talk us through his life behind the lens at the forefront of Pro-Cycling. Keep up to date with his work in the pro-peloton by following him on Instagram. Alternatively, check out his work on our Autumn Winter 2018 Shoot in our Lookbook.