My other pair of eyes and hands
To add to the blog entry (http://blogs.reuters.com/photo/2007/11/07/my-second-pair-of-eyes-ii/) by my colleague Jerry Lampen, more often than we realise we depend on somebody else to enable us to do our job. Generally we think of this profession as individualistic but repeatedly we use the help or the goodwill of others – press and communication managers, security agents, helicopter pilots and drivers.
I would like to make a brief tribute to Olivier Thetaz with whom I take pictured here in action. He is a professional driving instructor training the likes of police or ambulance drivers. He is also a retired amateur race driver and sometimes I think he still has a bit of racing in his blood. I have been sitting on the back of his motorbike on and off for the last 15 years covering cycling, running, triathlon and bikes races.
The pictures I take are a result of our special relationship. As the races we cover are not too busy compared to those of the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia we are a bit less pressured but I still need to be fast in making a decision to ask him to stop on the side of the road.
I have to look forward and backwards, take into account the sun, the background and the possibility to quickly jump back on the bike to stay ahead of the riders as it is quite difficult to overtake. We try to prepare his position on the road before so we can make the best of the little time we have.
He also needs to be quick and precise. He has to place the bike in position in front of the riders – we are generally only allowed to shoot for a few seconds and then leave our position on a rotational basis.
We are in constant communication via a bluetooth radio device on our helmets which is a technological improvement compared with the days when we had to scream orders at each other.
Even so, we had to find a way to communicate with short words and I would always talk with his view in mind – not mine : left, right, up down, level with the yellow jersey or the emergency shout “Dégage !” (Move out !) when a rider tries to use the wind tunnel created by us to leave the pack more easily.
He also has my safety in his hands. In Switzerland, roads are only closed to oncoming traffic a few minutes before the arrival of the race.
As a rule we have to drive on the left hand side of the road, facing the oncoming vehicles that security didn’t manage to catch before the arrival of the race – I can recall two accidents involving other drivers, fortunately neither resulting in bad injuries.
I have to trust him as I can only concentrate on the race and I’m relieved to say I very rarely get a bad feeling about his driving. He only lets me know later in the evening when we were close to a crash !
This usually happens when we drive down a pass following the pack – then the technical cars are the biggest danger as we all have to speed up to more than 100 km/h (60 miles/h) to keep up with the riders as they are quicker in the curves and have the priority anyway.
On some sections of road we are also allowed to overtake the pack but it can only be done with the goodwill of the riders – sometimes they get too close and touch the bike but fortunately we’re travelling at the same speed. Inevitably there is also some swearing in various foreign languages as we choose the wrong side to overtake….
The strangest day we experienced was certainly the 21st June 2007, it really proved to be the longest day of the year. We were in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland in Bellinzona for the Tour de Suisse cycling race. It was stage 6 out of 9, and we went to the start as usual 90 minutes before to get a good coffee and wait for the cyclists to arrive for some portrait shots.
Some gathering black clouds on the mountain tops convinced us to wear our rain cover as the stage was about to start. Wearing this outfit means you are almost waterproof (apart from your camera) but you have to wear it over all your clothes.
Any movement is a struggle so turning around on the bike to shoot is far from easy. It started to rain big drops, then the drops became hailstones and very quickly the road was covered in white.
The driver had already stopped and was lying on the fuel tank of his motorbike trying to prevent any damage. He also refused to drive back to the riders as we were cruising 1 km in front of the pack when it happened. I then had to run back to find some cyclists and take some pictures.
The stage was stopped and soon a new start on the other side of the mountain was decided. I decided to quickly send some images as my phone was ringing with editors asking if we were on the spot – but the region proved to be badly connected with no 3G phone signal and we had to rush to drive the 80 kilometers left to the second start.
Only a few kilometres before the end of that stage, I was sitting backwards on the bike for my convenience, and he shouts in the radio that there is a horse running loose on the road. I try to turn my body and managed to get a few frames before the animal exited down the nearest side road. It is a day we still remember and joke about with colleagues.
So far in 2009 we have covered the Tour de Romandie and Tour de Suisse cycling races in Switzerland.