The Best Seat in the House: Part 1 – A View from the Back

I am back home from another great weekend of shooting, this time at the Ironman California 70.3 at Oceanside. Over the years this event has been the unofficial beginning of the North American long-distance triathlon season and as such always draws an impressive international field to appropriately do battle over the rolling hills of the Camp Pendleton Marine Base course.

Probably the one thing that makes me most recognizable to the athletes is that not only do I shoot from the back of a motorbike, but I am sitting backwards.

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2013 Hawaii Ironman, thanks Sebi Kuhn for the photo!

For the athletes who know me, this is certainly not an unusual sight, but for spectators and others I see around the course, we are constantly getting comments like: You must really trust your driver! And the answer is: YES, as a matter of fact I do. I have to, not only for my safety but also for the safety of all of those around me. Being on the course among the athletes is a skill that should not be understated and is certainly not for the inexperienced. It is hard to imagine anything more risky than an inexperienced driver with an inexperienced passenger.

I sit backwards because I believe there is really less movement than constantly twisting side to side to get the shot.  Here is my view of the course:

2013 GoPro Ironman World Championship - Kona Hawaii

2013 GoPro Ironman World Championship – Kona Hawaii

In late March there was a tragic event at the Flanders Classics Bike Races where a rider who with four other riders crashed was struck by one of the race Motos and later died from injuries. There have been a number of articles including one by Casey Gibson who has been shooting cycling from motos for decades. Included in the articles are comments about limiting the number of motos on the course and about driver training. Although there are a few groups of professional drivers that support races, in the US the drivers at Triathlons are for the most part staffed by volunteers.

Now that the 2016 triathlon season is well underway I feel it is important to talk about the attributes of the types of motorcycles are best suited for race use and even more importantly the skills and communications required to safely work as a team on the course. While my comments are from the standpoint of a photographer, similar issues must be considered for race marshals and spotters.

My hope is that this blog may also serve as guidelines for volunteer Moto Captains as they are recruiting drivers.

There are really two schools of thought on how photographers and drivers interact. One is that the driver is your chauffeur. You tell him where you need to be and he takes you there. The other school of thought, which is how I like to work; as teammates!

I first met Bruno Desrochers in November 2011 at the Ironman Arizona where is wife Chris was competing. The day before the race, we had the meeting to pair the photographers and the drivers as well as to review the race rules. As planned, I arrived early walked around looked at the motorbikes, saw a BMW R1200GS and asked who owned that bike and then started to talk to Bruno and we were paired for race day. I had always been a BMW wannabe, they are smooth and quiet, and their drivers generally care more about the German engineering than the American noise.

In addition to pre-race briefing Bruno and I spent time reviewing how I liked to shoot, a basic communications protocol, drafting rules and most the most important rule of all: No matter what I ask him to do; he is in charge!

There are a few critical rules to keep in mind:

  1. Safety first!! The safety of the competitors, the spectators and our safety;
  2. Don’t be in a position where a cyclist can draft. In other words if we are too close to the riders, they might be able to obtain an unfair advantage. If they are too close to us, they will be assessed a penalty, which at a professional level can be the difference between being in or out of the money.
  3. Lowest on our priority is getting the shot. I take a couple hundred thousand shots a year and to the best of my knowledge not one of them has cured cancer. If we miss a shot, we will take another one!
  4. Finally: Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. We plan, we maintain a schedule and we neither have to rush or panic.

Being both a photographer and now also a motorcyclist, I am very particular about what I ride and whom I ride with. I own two BMW’s and as a member of the BMW Motorcycle Owners Association, I have almost always been able to recruit a great driver from the club with the right moto to work with me on the course. Not only have I had a teammate for the day, but also in most cases have developed friends I have stayed in touch with throughout the seasons.

There is only so much I can do and I start by taking care of my own needs. Having said that the Volunteer Moto Captains, most of which are motorcyclists need to understand the roles on the course and that one size / style of moto does not fit all.

Here is Bruno and my moto, which we used in Oceanside and will use in St. George. Although we have made small changes they are significant for me. The rear passenger grab bars have been removed and the passenger foot pegs have been replaced with platforms, which give me additional stability when I sit backwards.

Ironman 70.3 California

Ironman 70.3 California

 

There were only two other motos available for the Media on Saturday morning at Oceanside, both BMW Sport Bikes, one of which was a S1000RR. Keep in mind the S1000RR was originally built to compete at the 2009 Super Bike World Championship and only later sold as a production bike with a rear seat added.   This is not something I would really even want to ride as a passenger around the course, let alone try to shoot from. The image below is from the BMW Motorcycle website. It’s a great bike, but really out of place on a triathlon course, simply the wrong tool for the job. The other moto was a S1000R, a more street friendly version of the above, but still inappropriate for being on the course with triathletes.

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 12.08.44 PM

Driver competence is my highest priority. After all, I am trusting my life to the guy in front and I want to be sure that I am sufficiently comfortable to do my job and concentrate on getting the shot, without being concerned about my safety;

  • It is much easier to drive a motorcycle fast, than it is to be smooth and stable when we are going slow, particularly when you have a passenger who may be moving around on the back; and
  • Finally is the motorcycle, is it practical and comfortable to sit backwards? Is there a top case that I can use both for stability and for a work surface and finally is it relatively easy to mount and dismount during the race so I can shoot both from the moto or get off to get a different position. Three wheeled machines are just as inappropriate as sport bikes. They are just too wide and not sufficiently maneuverable.

Communications is also critical and I use a Sena 20S Bluetooth intercom to work with my driver.

With clear communications, we can easily adjust position for the shot, make sure that we have sufficient distance between an oncoming cyclist and ourselves and truly work together as a team both to stay safe and to get the shot.

There is an element of risk anytime you get on a motorcycle. Combining the normal riding risk, with an inexperienced passenger, possibly inappropriate equipment and 2,000 cyclists on the road further escalates the risk.

The easy answer to this is to only use professional riders. Easy yes, practical no; there very few groups of professional media drivers and the cost would be prohibitive for most events.

I think a great step would be to have definitive guidelines for the moto captains as to what the specific needs are of each group of riders: Media / Spotters / Marshals. In addition, a moto meeting the day prior to the event to pair teams, practice and review race rules and protocols. In addition, to have minimum guidelines for appropriate apparel for passengers, including: long pants, long sleeve shirt / jackets, over the ankle boots, protective eyewear and of course an appropriate helmet. Open face helmets are really the best option for shooting.

In reaching out to the BMW Club of Houston to prepare for the upcoming Ironman Texas, I connected with the race Moto Captain, Jerry Matson. As luck would have it, Jerry is also a past President of the BMW Club of Houston. He sent me a link to complete a very quick Google Form about my experience and needs. Nice work Jerry!

I have been the lead photographer for the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon since 2003 and the number of motos on the course has varied from 1 to as many as 10, I assumed the responsibility as the Moto Captain. My rationale was simple and purely self-serving, I didn’t want someone else’s lack of understanding to screw things up for me.

At the marathon we use 6 BMW GS’s, two for photographers and four for live streaming videographers from USA Track and Field. Each of our drivers has decades and hundreds of thousands of miles of riding experience. In addition, we hold a driver / media meeting the afternoon before the event to pair the teams, discuss protocols, and have a practice ride. On race morning, it’s simple: coffee at the start and then get to work!

In conclusion, it is not about taking risks, it is about understanding and mitigating the risks. Although having motos on a racecourse will never be without risk, it can be minimized with proper planning, the right equipment, training and communications.

All of what I have included above has been derived from my level of trust and comfort. I think the best information regarding riding skills and experience must come from my partner Bruno Desrochers.

Coming up in my next blog will be the thoughts of Bruno who has driven for me since 2011 and David Ashe who drove for me for the first time in San Juan in March.

5 thoughts on “The Best Seat in the House: Part 1 – A View from the Back

  1. Insightful and fascinating. I had no idea so many moto drivers were volunteers. Partnership and safety priority is obviously key, as you stated; I appreciated your willingness to let the shot go in the face of higher priorities. That’s gotta be a tough and quick call in the moment. The stories you could tell!

    • Indeed – it is an acquired skill set, to do it best requires the right bike and a great driver.

      Although my blog has been pretty dormant lately I am about to get geared up for the season. You might be interested in my upcoming travels to the California Superbike School in April and the shooting and blogging from the Isle of Man TT in May and June. cheers!

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