Tour de Yorkshire

Photographing the Tour

Photographing the Tour with Simon Wilkinson

Simon Wilkinson and his team at SWpix.com are the official photographers for the Tour de Yorkshire. Not only have the photographed the Tour de Yorkshire but they also photograph many of the world's biggest races including the UCI Road World Championshops and the Tour de France, including in 2014 when the Grand Départ started in Yorkshire.

We caught up with Simon to talk about the art of capturing the perfect picture, what planning goes into getting these shots and how the team work on race days:

Can you talk us through how you identify the places in which you take photos – do you recce the routes beforehand and what key things do you look for?

I have this phrase "not taking pictures, making pictures" and there's a big difference. Making pictures is where you really have to plan beforehand. To a certain extent, anybody can take pictures and everyone does take pictures and that's great, but making pictures is where you almost know what the picture is going to be, weeks and weeks before you actually take it and you can only do that by actually driving the route and recce'ing it. 

I think it's quite interesting on this year's Tour as obviously we're going through roads that we have been through in the past and you've still got to take that iconic picture, you've got to repeat yourself a little bit. I remember on the first Tour de Yorkshire, lots of fantastic pictures coming along Marine Drive (in Scarborough) with the sea and the castle and you've kind of got to re-do that. Sometimes it might not be as good as it was three years ago, the sun might not be out, the crowd might be smaller, but sometimes it's the opposite too. 

It's really about studying the route, especially on Day 3 of this year, as it's when the race can get blown apart and you want to get that photographed. Interestingly, when I was out on my bike the other day I spotted a picture, and it's not the obvious picture or the obvious place you'd stand to take a picture but I can guarantee that it'll be the best place to stand for this particular shot. I won't tell you where it is though, that'll be a surprise for the race day! 

So there's a lot of planning but one of the crucial things that we've discovered over the years, is that even with the best will & planning in the world, sometimes what you plan for changes on race day. A classic example for this was Whitby a few years ago when the obvious picture was the one with the Abbey in the background. However, you can't leave a man marooned on the side of the road all day, just waiting for one picture, as you'd need a dozen photographers to do that. So you recce it beforehand and work out where you're going to get off the motorbike and take the picture. However, the picture almost moves as more people come, and the spot you thought was "Position A" a couple of weeks ago, suddenly becomes completely the wrong position and when you're doing it from a motorbike you've only got a really short time to re-address and work out how to get the best shot. So now we identify a few key places for each photo.

Where do you think will be the iconic photos from this year’s race?

You've got to think that you're not just photographing a bike race, you're photographing the landscape with a bike race passing through it. I think this is really, really relevant, because to a certain extent the closer you get (to the riders) the same it gets to any photo from any race in the world - it's similar teams in similar kits - so it's stepping back. I think Burnsall will make for a great picture. Haworth you just have to repeat things again, perhaps I'm not as excited about this one, picture-wise, as there are lots of iconic Haworth ones taken previously. Clearly the Shibden Wall climb is going to be fantastic too. We'll be having a good look at Shibden Wall in particular and working out where's best for that photo as I think that'll be the key place, the "Buttertubs moment" for this year's race. Photographically, that will be a big challenge as we might have to commit a man on the ground for that particular shot because it will be so busy. 

One of the best pictures taken last year was just stood at the side of the road, when the sun came out, with a member of the public waving a big Yorkshire flag as the peloton went past. Without the flag, it's a nothing picture but in that circumstance, it really worked. 

What’s the main challenge in photographing a road race?

Clearly it doesn't happen in an arena. That's the problem. The arena is the whole of Yorkshire, which is a pretty big sporting stadium! It's uncontrollable, if you're in a football ground, a tennis court or even a golf course - it's kind of controllable what's in front of you, but not with road cycling. For instance you can work out a great picture beforehand, and then on the day you turn up and there's 17,000 parked cars lining the road and suddenly your picture's not there anymore. Sometimes you don't even take that picture as a result. The space a bike race covers presents a logistical challenge. 

It's also not getting people trapped in places. If you put a person in a fixed position, you need to make sure that they can then get out and get a photo at a different point in the race too. You don't want to lose your staff for the day, unless it is 100% unavoidable. 

How many in your team on a usual race day?

It depends on the race a little bit. I tend to over-resource things as I think you have to throw as many as is financially-viable at a race to get the best pictures possible. I remember with the Grand Départ there was a total of 8 people working for us and I think for the two Tour de Yorkshire's we've had about 6 people. One or two of these might be covering the starts, the teams signing in, the finishes etc and the rest dotted around the route. It's quite a few people, if you consider that Reuters or AFP send maybe one or two to the Tour de France, it's quite an operation. But it's our big race. Our Wembley, almost. So we throw the resources at it. 

You obviously take photographs all over the world at different races, from your point of view what makes the TDY stand out in the cycling calendar?

I just think it's got the atmosphere of the Tour de France. I wasn't up Buttertubs during the 2014 Grand Départ, but hand on heart whilst I can't imagine it being as good as Alp D'Heuz where I've been a few times, it must have come very, very, very close. I think a lot of very high profile bike races, apart from the Tour de France and the Spring Classics, just don't have the fans that Yorkshire has. Yorkshire turns out and is proud. It's like when you see some lower league football match sometimes and the crowd just isn't there, there's no fans, I don't think that's got the correct atmosphere. Sport needs fans. If it's got fans, it becomes theatre. So Yorkshire excels there. 

Do you have a favourite photo from either the Tour de France Yorkshire Grand Départ or the two Tour de Yorkshire editions?

I live in Ilkley, so that one on the wall down there (see below) is one that I love. There was a lot of planning that went in to a picture, not that picture but the picture that we thought was going to be the picture about 5 seconds before that one was taken! It was the junction of Brook Street and Leeds/Skipton road in Ilkley which from the Olympic Torch Relay had been absolutely mobbed. I remember taking a picture of that and when I found out that the Tour de France was coming through I thought "this is a great picture" and thought it was going to be mobbed again. 

Ilkley

When it came to it, we got a position, above Duttons for Buttons, on their balcony and I remember my colleague Alan ringing me and saying "there's nobody here, there's nobody on this junction". So I suggested he looked down to his left and he was like "ohhh yes, there's a few more people there" and that became the shot. And it really has just the bums of cyclists in it. Weirdly cycling is one of the few sports where you can actually take photos from behind. You'd never take a football picture of two blokes with the ball running away from you and that's the same in many other sports, but yet it works in cycling. I think that this picture just sums up the Grand Départ. People everywhere. All you can see is people. Fans at the roadside. 

Grinton

Also there's the Grinton picture (above). I woke up at 4am the day before (Stage One of the Grand Départ) and thought, I'm just going to drive this route again. Me and my colleague Alex got in my car in the early hours and went out again, "come on, let's do it one more time", and we were back in Ilkley having breakfast at about 8am later that morning! When we got to Grinton, we parked up and had a walk around the car. Alex got out and was pointing his camera trying to find the perfect position and I got my phone out and Alex was stood at a particular spot. I took a picture of him from the front and front the back and sent it to Shaun (another of our team). Shaun rocked up the following morning and pretty much stood in that spot and took this iconic picture for us, which was a bit of a work of genius I thought. 

What was really great about that, was I didn't really know what was going on. I did the start in Leeds and the finish in Harrogate and was caught up in working. I got a coffee, turned on my laptop and I remember opening it up, going on my own website and seeing this Grinton shot that Shaun had added. I just thought "wow, look at that picture, none of us will get a better one" and that was before Stage One had even ended. 

On a personal level, when a sports picture goes on the front page of a newspaper, not the sports section, that's a great feeling which only happens a couple of times in a career. It was a deserved reflection of a Team SW Pix's day at the races. We did it.

Simon will again be the official photographer for this year's race, so keep your eyes peeled for his images. You can follow Simon on Twitter and you can see Simon and his team's work at SWpix.com

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