9 Things I learned while shooting from the back of a motorcycle — The Tour of California

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This post is dedicated to those photographers out there who on occasion "fake it, till you make it".

#1 - DO NOT Sit Backward

Contrary to popular belief (or just my own) photographers don’t sit reverse on the motorbike to make images during the race.  After I suggested this backward theory to my driver, he politely corrected me, hinting that the best photos are often made off the bike.  The bike is simply a way to get around the course faster than everybody else.

 
 A stretched out peloton passes over Carson Pass in the central Sierra Nevada during the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske 

A stretched out peloton passes over Carson Pass in the central Sierra Nevada during the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske 

#2 - Not All Helmets Are Created Equal

I don't ride motorcycles, so I found helmet shopping to be quite interesting, because you make your choice based on "how much do I like my face?".  Once I realized I do indeed like my face, I went with the full face helmet. I got home, threw it on to show my girlfriend and realized I couldn't get my camera up to my eye because of the added protection.  With receipt in hand, I returned to the store and got the only helmet that works — the café racer helmet.

 
 Café Racer helmet.  Notice the lack of horns.  Photo / Greg Mionske

Café Racer helmet.  Notice the lack of horns.  Photo / Greg Mionske

 Football helmet (with horns).  Not great for riding a motorcycle.  Photo / Greg Mionske

Football helmet (with horns).  Not great for riding a motorcycle.  Photo / Greg Mionske

#3 - Dress For Hitting The Pavement

Here's the thing about helmets and riding clothes.  They don't really matter until they matter. Like I said: I don't ride motorcycles, don't own riding gear, and didn’t plan on making the investment.  Instead, I opted for jeans and long sleeve layers. If I were to make a career out of this, I would want the riding kit.  Laying a bike down on the pavement is inevitable.  Having said that, one of the most famous cycling photographers in the world wore a short sleeve shirt most days.

 
 Side by side with world renowne photographer Brian Hodes during Stage 5 of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske

Side by side with world renowne photographer Brian Hodes during Stage 5 of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske

#4 - Simplify Your Kit

Bring two bodies: one equipped with a 24-70mm and an on-camera flash, the other a 70-200mm.  I also kept a 14-24mm ƒ/2.8 in a small hip bag.  No need for anything else, you would have a hell of a time swapping lenses on-the-go. My choice was the Nikon D850 with a Nikon 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 and a Profoto A1 shot though the magnetic dome diffuser.  The flash provides a really nice quality fill when shooting midday during a bike race. My second body was a Nikon D4s with a Nikon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8.

 
 Motorbike essentials include the Nikon D850, Nikon D4s, Profoto A1, Nikon 24-70mm ƒ/2.8, Nikon 14-24mm ƒ/2.8, Nikon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8.  Photo / Greg Mionske

Motorbike essentials include the Nikon D850, Nikon D4s, Profoto A1, Nikon 24-70mm ƒ/2.8, Nikon 14-24mm ƒ/2.8, Nikon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8.  Photo / Greg Mionske

#5 - You Get Close, Very Close

When the race bottlenecks at the bottom of a tight and steep climb, you may find yourself nearly bumping elbows with riders in the peloton.  Definetly do not elbow anybody, but do continue shooting!

 
 This image was shot at 28mm to give you an idea of just how close you get.  Photo / Greg Mionske

This image was shot at 28mm to give you an idea of just how close you get.  Photo / Greg Mionske

#6 - Plan Ahead

Research the route on Google Street View to get an idea of any specific shots you might want.  Realize that aside from the actual cycling race, the photo motorbikes are in a race of their own.  Many photographers share a similar creative eye and “getting the shot" might be difficult if your fellow photographer has already zoomed ahead of the race to poach the best spot. It's also worth chatting with your driver prior to the race to develop a plan and to hear their recommendations.  They’re often better versed on the route than you.

 
 The peloton races through downtown Placerville, California during the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  I arrived in Placerville 15 minutes before the peloton which gave me enough time to find roof access.  Photo / Greg Mionske

The peloton races through downtown Placerville, California during the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  I arrived in Placerville 15 minutes before the peloton which gave me enough time to find roof access.  Photo / Greg Mionske

#7 - Watch Key Players

A professional stage race is chaotic and it's not always obvious how the race is developing even when you are on a motorcycle right in it.  Do your research and know the difference between a GC contender and a sprint finisher. This will help you decide on which rider to focus on during each stage.  Once you know who the heavy hitters are, you must get into position. All motorbikes are cleared out with 10k to go and as the race approaches that mark all of the photo-bikes will be cycling through jockeying for position.  The race officials have the final say on who gets to be where for how long, but sometimes you just get lucky.

 
 Team Sky rider Egan Bernal makes the breakaway move during the final kilometers of Stage 2 of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Bernal went on to win the stage and eventually the entire race.  Photo / Greg Mionske

Team Sky rider Egan Bernal makes the breakaway move during the final kilometers of Stage 2 of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Bernal went on to win the stage and eventually the entire race.  Photo / Greg Mionske

 Team Sky Rider Egan Bernal celebrates his victory as he crosses the finish line of Stage 2 of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske

Team Sky Rider Egan Bernal celebrates his victory as he crosses the finish line of Stage 2 of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske

 Team Sky Rider Egan Beral depleted atop Gibraltar Road after winning Stage 2 of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske

Team Sky Rider Egan Beral depleted atop Gibraltar Road after winning Stage 2 of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske

#8 - It's Not ALL About The Riders

Cycling fans come from all over to watch races.  They spend hours driving, walking, and biking just to see their favorite riders pass for a split second.  Don't forget these people. They're the other, often comical, half to the bike race.

 
 Eager fans chase an elite group of riders up the Gibraltar Road climb during Stage 2 of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske

Eager fans chase an elite group of riders up the Gibraltar Road climb during Stage 2 of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske

#9 - Shoot Something For Yourself

Every shoot requires you to create images curtailed for your client.  Naturally that’s the priority, but don't forget about what you enjoy shooting. Be sure to capture images that keep you psyched and inspired!  If you like cycling, spandex, or just me go ahead and click over here to check out my full edit from from the 2018 Tour of California.  

 
 Hagens Berman team riders prepare for the time trial stage of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske

Hagens Berman team riders prepare for the time trial stage of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske

 Hagens Berman team riders ready to race at the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske

Hagens Berman team riders ready to race at the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske

 A bird's eye view of Stage 1 of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Bird included.  Photo / Greg Mionske

A bird's eye view of Stage 1 of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Bird included.  Photo / Greg Mionske

 Team Quick Step water bottles lined up in the team area during the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske

Team Quick Step water bottles lined up in the team area during the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske

 Stage 4 Morgan Hill Time Trial underway at the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske

Stage 4 Morgan Hill Time Trial underway at the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske

 Team BMC rider Tejay Van Garderen exits the green room after winning Stage 4 of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske 

Team BMC rider Tejay Van Garderen exits the green room after winning Stage 4 of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske 

 Bora Hansgrohe rider Peter Sagan works his way through the crowds en route to the start of Stage 4 of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske

Bora Hansgrohe rider Peter Sagan works his way through the crowds en route to the start of Stage 4 of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.  Photo / Greg Mionske