How to take a perfect sports photograph: plan, stay calm and fight for your spot
Shortly after Philippe Gilbert’s win at the 2017 Tour of Flanders, one image of his walk to victory, bike aloft, was retweeted more than any other. It’s a shot by Karen M. Edwards, an Irish photographer who has been making us sit up and take notice of her unique eye since she moved from fashion shoots to the grime of professional cycling.
The photographer’s life on a major race is all about the pursuit: chasing the race and hunting down that one shot. Getting the setup right and speeding over hundreds of kilometres of roads on the back of a motorbike, the eye always alert. So what’s a typical day like for a cycling photographer?
“This was my first Ronde Van Vlaanderen, so I knew it would be special and I wanted to bring the clients and public back a unique take on the race. I am lucky to have a Flandrian moto pilot, Jan van de Walle, who calls this his back garden, so is very familiar with the parcours of the race. We have ‘hors course moto’ permission, which means we have access to the photographer points on the particular cobbled sectors but here’s the thing: we cannot drift in with the race. It’s a race against the race really. We set out 14 points to capture, plus start and finish.
“We met early Saturday morning, the day before the race, sat down over coffee, agreed – and disagreed little, I might add – on spots we needed to get in, and then set off on a recce of Ronde Van Vlaanderen. This is not essential – not everyone does this – but we knew it was going to be insane on the day and wanted to be prepared.
“We took in 290km on Saturday, along with lunch on the Muur, and a beer finally at the foothill of the Taaienberg. For me it’s the whole build up, the fans, the Belgians, the history to soak in – you know this is holy cycling ground. It is really our duty as photographers to capture the history that will happen and be carried down from generation to generation.
“On Sunday we left the hotel at 8.15am, parked and then I began to take in everything around me, trying to portray that back through my eyes. It’s manic at sign-on. You’re trying to divide and break down what you’re seeing. It’s a fantastic opportunity to get close, quiet moments with the riders before the glorious battle ahead. When Tom, Greg, Gilbert and Sagan arrive you know you are witnessing something special about to happen. Gladiators going into battle.
“The start line is a mad rush, cameramen, television crew, the media frenzy trying to grab the best footage. You’re pushed around and I am petite, but I take no notice. I fight my position and corners. Then it’s all guns blazing when the race starts. I run back to Jan and we head to the first stop, which for us was Sint-Niklaas.”
Gilbert finally broke from a group of 14 riders on the climb of the Oude Kwaremont, more than 50km from the finish in Oudenaarde. But it was the climb of the Muur van Geraardsbergen that proved decisive. Tom Boonen, in his final race, drove the pace up the famous cobbled climb and split the peloton, marooning pre-race favourites Greg van Avermaet and Peter Sagan in a group behind. With a 50s lead over the last major difficulty, the Paterberg, Gilbert had 15km between him and glory, with Van Avermaet in ferocious pursuit.
What was the atmosphere like at the finish as Gilbert passed the 10km and then 5km banners and it seemed to be touch and go whether he’d succeed?
“We knew it was tight. We knew it was seconds and we wondered could he hold it out, but he has been in great form of late and a win was imminent, really. The crowds were OMG, just amazing supporting him. It was an arena of the most passionate and emotional fans I have ever witnessed. It must be such an amazing experience for the rider to hear.
“We did the Paterberg and had to take a shortcut back to the finish line avoiding the race route, which we weren’t allowed to take part in. To be honest, it was tight. I jumped off the motorbike, ran to the line and was one of the last to arrive. But I never panic, there’s no point. Just think, look and there will always be something to capture from it.”
Were you aware at the time that you’d captured something special?
“When I saw him alone driving towards the finish line, the three riders battling behind him, then the main peloton in background, yes, I knew it. Everyone knew it. It was hard to breathe. I watched as he turned in disbelief. He dismounted and clipped out, and walked with his bike like a trophy over his head. The sun was hazy, and to see his athletic physique walk to the line with the dark outline of his bike was truly beautiful.”
When you saw the image you’d captured, how did you feel? Did it need any work or was it pretty much there?
“I didn’t want to do too much to it. I try not to crop – a little editing yes. But the image is there, what I saw. I was not in the best position for taking it. But I tried to show that he truly deserved this magnificent win.”