I sit down with photographer Simon Gill in his cycling café, Musette. He’s had virtually a year away from the camera to take a leap of faith and start his own business. But the classics are calling and he’s about to once again embark upon the emotional rollercoaster that is; being a cycling photographer.
Simon is a cyclist himself, albeit in his mind a very understated one, but in my mind, a cyclist all the same. Not long ago he completed an epic ride from Tring to Tromsø. That’s from where he lives, right up to the arctic circle. I’m informed he didn’t have to go as far as Tromsø, but he thought it had a nice ring to it.
I appreciate anyone who does something crazy in the name of alliteration and a bit of poetry.
Simon did the ride in just over a month, including a four day stop in Copenhagen, and three days trapped somewhere in the middle of nowhere. This all seemed very casual and he shrugged when I exclaimed that it was quite impressive. He did however reveal that a bit of crying did take place when he got lost (hence the three days trapped in the middle of nowhere).
With everything soaked Simon knocked on a random door, looked sorry for himself (which he ensures me was not hard) and ended up staying in a kind stranger’s log cabin for the duration of the storm. With a total lack of a common language there was a lot of smiling, gesturing, drinking tea and eating soup together. “Despite it being the real low point at the time it turns out to be one of the best bits. If for nothing else than it restores your faith in humanity. “
It was an absolute joy to meet Simon. Not just because he fed me tea and soup (hopefully not because I was looking sorry for myself) in his lovely new café Musette, or because he had some interesting stories to tell. But because his eyes lit up in the same way mine do when I asked him about that adrenaline rush you get when the best riders in the world fly past your nose.
I find it’s always a challenge explaining to those not in the know, why I got so out of my way to watch professional cycling live in the flesh. They’re always like, “what you walk for hours to a place, then stand there for hours, in the middle of nowhere, to watch some lycra clad men whizz past you? You spend all that time, for what’s over in a matter of seconds?”.
I mean to me it’s obvious. The beautiful locations, the passion of the fans, the chance to be centimetres away from your heroes, what’s not to love? The toil of getting there is all part of it. And it’s a truly thrilling couple of seconds when they do finally fly by.
I never get my camera out when riders are near me. I say it’s because I want to ‘live in the moment’ but really, it’s because my hands are shaking so much my pictures would be terrible. I just presumed photographers had nerves of steel and had done it so many times they wouldn’t get the rush. It was great having Simon confirm that that isn’t the case. If anything, it goes beyond that, into something close to fear.
For Simon, it all starts when he hears the helicopters. That very first sign the riders are coming. The moment of truth getting nearer and nearer. After meticulously planning the shots he wants to get, its time to see if he can execute them. If he can take the photo that could change his whole career. Or, if it all goes wrong and he comes away with nothing.
That’s why the sound of the helicopters is “terrifying”. Because, “if you get something there’s no better feeling. If you’ve thought of an idea, and it works. It’s is the best thing ever. And then the next day it could all go wrong again. And it could be the worst thing ever. It’s an emotional rollercoaster. Which is why its good. That’s how you want life to be. Ups and downs are good.”
I find it fascinating hearing about how unpredictable life as a cycling photographer is. I hadn’t realised how dramatically different one day could be from the next. And that there can be a lot of luck involved.
Of course, it’s not just luck, it’s reacting to the moment in a skilled way. Ideally, with a lot of planning. Simon looks at the road book in the morning to identify dodgy corners, somewhere the peloton will look good, a nice vista etc. and plans his day on where something might happen. He’ll see the start and then try and see the rider’s multiple times after that.
Trying to capture as many moments as possible is key to ensuring you come away with something. It’s all about “trying to tell the story of the stage as best you can.”
“It’s knackering. If you’re working for a team you’re really under pressure to get loads of photos but on your own at least you can take it a bit easier. And you know it’s a privileged thing to be there. It always seems to work. You’re always expecting something to go wrong with the whole circus of the Tour, with the spectators and bikes, but it’s always just fine.”
Well, he says fine, but Simon does go on to talk about how things rarely turn out how you thought. “You think about it for an hour before and then it’s never like that. Like you think a cyclist will be on one side of the road because of the way the road goes, and they’re just all over the place, or they’ll look the wrong way and you’re like, you fucker you’ve ruined my whole day just by looking the wrong way at the wrong moment. It’s ridiculous really, you’re just chasing them around for 300 km just for one shot. If that.”
As a casual observer you don’t realise how high the ratio of good to bad is. I look at Simon’s photos and presume every one he takes is at least pretty good. It makes them all the more special to know that’s just not the case.
I picked out my five favourites and got him to tell me a little bit more about them.
This was taken looking back at the finish on Mount Etna. Simon doesn’t tend to do the finish line as the organisation provides that shot for free and they tend to be pretty generic. Instead he’ll walk further down the road with the aim of catching someone attacking. It’s why it’s always seemed a bit baffling to him that so many photographers sit at the finish to get that shot, it “seems mad when you’ve got the chance of getting something more interesting further away or beyond the finish when you get the emotion afterwards.”
Apparently, the chances of getting this face (which I found hilarious) are higher than you expect. This was taken on a really misty day in the clouds. Simon put the flash down firing into his leg to make it a bit more dramatic. It’s not taking as much of a chance as you’d think with his equipment as fans are so engrossed they don’t usually see it! “You just put it down and hope for the best.”
This was taken not at race time but when Simon was there with his mates from The Cycling Podcast. Doing some interviews and cycling, taking some shots, drinking some beers, it sounds like a great trip to me. The daisy’s made him think of the newness of spring but also the oldness of the knackered track.
This was taken on the horrible bit of road riders fly down after they’ve been up the top of the Oude Kwaremont. Simon tells me if you’re really quick you can see them at the top of the hill, and then can catch them zooming down as an extra shot. He remains sceptical about whether this is a good photo, thinking perhaps he overuses this technique with the flash. I of course think he’s mad and that it’s great! It’s a quick blast of flash and panning it to try and track the rider. The flash will fire and then hopefully it freezes the cyclist. That’s how you get the blur.
Despite Simon not usually taking photos of fans, I think this one is brilliant. He liked doing it too as “you can take the photo and not worry what the people think. They’re less likely to tell you to fuck off.” Which of course led me to asking him if he had ever been told to fuck off? And yep, he had! Mark Cavendish once told him to, “fuck off you fucking prick”. I mean I’m not exactly surprised, but I am still appalled and intrigued.
Simon was doing a job for a magazine and asked to cover Cavendish. He was shooting him quite a lot and Cav kept clocking him, all the time getting more and more annoyed. And finally, he just snapped. Simon didn’t seem at all bothered saying “its fine, apparently it’s a rite of passage”. It’s happened to many people.
Note to self, don’t ever try and interview Mark Cavendish.
Simon’s keen to get back into photography this year, particularly as he’ll be achieving one of his life goals; being on the back of one of the camera motor bikes at the Tour de France. He says he’s desperate to get some fresh content because he’s sick of looking at what he’s got.
He wants to create something timeless this season. As everything changes pretty fast in the cycling world, with new kit and new teams, that’s the trick, getting something that transcends all that. Going beyond the man on a bike sort of photo. As Simon postulates, “is it art? Would you want it on your wall? Probably not because it’s just a man on your wall who you probably don’t know.”
So, he’s aiming to get something innovative like his Rouleur cover which had never been done before.
I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.
All photos can be purchased through Simon’s website http://www.simongillphotography.com. If you ever find yourself in the Tring are check out his fantastic cyling café Musette, I’ve also written a piece on it; Two wheels and tea in Tring.