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Behind The Lens | Russ Ellis

Strade Bianche - Behind The Lens with Russ Ellis

Russ Ellis has carved out a name for himself as one of the world’s leading cycling photographers. Beginning at local races to becoming the Official Photographer of Team Sky, Russ is also the man behind our own photography in his native Yorkshire. Ahead of this year’s Strade Bianche, Russ gives us his perspective of the race that's now known as the true curtain raiser of the Classics Season.



Last season was my first year covering the Strade Bianche. It turned out to be an epic in many ways.

Firstly, there was the issue of even getting to the race, “The Beast from the East” winter weather was in full swing in the U.K and my first scheduled flight was cancelled due to the snow. My second flight I couldn’t get to, but the third flight, I made it - it only took me 48 hours from door to door!

The same bad weather pattern ended up making the race one of the wettest and best races for photography - so, I can’t complain.

 

 

It's odd with races like the classics - as a photographer, you hope for awful weather. If it isn't sunny with fluffy clouds, then rain, mud and bucket loads of drama will do the job and make for some timeless imagery. That comes with issues of trying to keep your camera kit dry and safe, though so it's not so fun!

The only consideration I make towards my camera gear is keeping the cameras and lenses as dry as possible. I use Sony A9’s and they have been awesome and not let me down at all in some shocking weather last season!

 

 

Trying to capture the atmosphere of every race I cover usually involves just walking around and letting everything soak in for a while before getting the camera out. I like to get images of all the people and scenery around a race rather than just the riders.

I take a street photography approach to my race coverage and cycling photography. As with all the races I cover in Italy the atmosphere was great, even though the weather was really bad the fans were out in force and really enjoying the race.

 

 

It’s funny when you shoot a race you rarely have any idea what’s actually going on in the race itself. You are so focused on just navigating around and getting to the pre-planned stops to get the imagery that you struggle to catch the story of every breakaway or crash.

Typically at a classics race if covering it by car you can get around five or six stops in at various key places on the parcours before then heading to the finish, which means I'm constantly racing to keep ahead of the riders.

 

Part of what makes the Strade Bianche so special is the scenery, it's genuinely amazing but obviously the huge draw is the white gravel roads. They make for spectacular images both for photography and on the live video feeds and with gravel riding growing in popularity over the last few years, it's gone hand in hand.

The gravel roads of the Strade capture the imagination, just like the cobbles of Roubaix - there's something that makes racing on the worst possible roads more compelling.

Another winning feature of the Strade Bianche is the super steep final climb along Via Santa Caterina, right up through the city. Lined with people, it's the last brutal challenge before the drop into the spectacular piazza with all the cheering fans and the soigneurs with a much needed can of Coke.

It makes for unique imagery, riders chalk faced and grimacing, raging crowds and the like. It is probably only bettered by the iconic laps of the Roubaix Velodrome at the end of the Hell of the North... Probably.

Last year's Strade has gone down as a modern classic. It was all about the young Wout Van Aert's first attempt at the race.

I was freezing cold and struggling to keep my cameras dry, waiting for the riders at the top of the final climb. In the back of my mind though I knew that the now dry mud would make for some great shots.

It wasn't Van Aert's day though, and with Teijs Benoot ahead of him as they came in to view, I had a great frame all the way down the road. I had my 70-200mm lens on so that I could capture the riders as they struggled to the top.

Wout was on the limit as he neared the top, you could see his pedal stroke slowing down, fighting the bike to try and cover the last 10 meters.

Then he just slumped on the top tube and fell to the ground with cramp. I just kept shooting knowing it was an iconic image.

Somehow, he picked the bike up and ran cyclocross style to the top of the climb before doing a classic CX re-mount.

He was still exhausted - wobbling all over the road and for a second I thought he was going to fall off again and literally land on my lap as he was so close. I captured it all.

To take the victory in Tuscany, I think you need to be a typical Classics rider; someone who has great bike handling skills, can get over the lumps and bumps and sit and push out big watts all day long. They need to be tough, or, to quote Tom Boonen, it probably helps if they have big balls.

I’m not the best at predicting races, but this year, I would tip Kwiato or Moscon for Team Sky. Outside of that, I think you could see Greg Van Avermaert, or Sagan! Maybe even Gilbert!

Covering the race again this year, Russ will be looking to catch the next moment that goes around the world. If want to keep up to date with his work in the pro-peloton, follow him on Instagram. Alternatively, check out his work on our Autumn Winter 2018 Shoot in our Lookbook.