The stories behind the photo

by Wade Wallace

I’ve had the honor of working with Belgian photographer Kristof Ramon for a couple of years now and showcasing his photos here on CyclingTips is always a pleasure. Not only is Kristof an exceptional photographer from a technical and artistic perspective, but he also knows how to tell a good story.

In this post we feature some of Kristof’s work that might have been left on the cutting room floor, but when you know the stories behind them they take on a whole different light.

Snowflakes at the 2013 Milan-San Remo

One of the most memorable races of the 2013 season was the snow-affected Milan-San Remo which saw riders driven across the Passo del Turchino due to heavy snow at the summit. If there’s one thing good about bad weather, it’s the spectacular imagery that comes out of it. Sometimes the best photos are ones taken by mistake.


The thing with snow is [it messes with the] autofocus system [when] you want to focus on the riders. What happens is you get a snowflake a few metres in front of the riders and the camera focuses on the snowflake.

There’s nothing much you can do – it’s just trial and error – you shoot and shoot and shoot. If Boonen comes back and you miss him because you’re focusing on a snowflake, that’s it.

At the same time I didn’t mind. I saw the pictures afterwards and I really liked the fact it had the focus on the snow. That’s what it was all about – it doesn’t matter what rider was behind it, all of them suffered.

This was one of those situations where you couldn’t go wrong – you just had to have a camera and that’s it. Milan-San Remo was the most extreme race for me and the riders [this year].

Lars Bak’s bidon of warm tea

Over the past few years Kristof has spent some time embedded with the Lotto Belisol team, following them to races, staying with them in the team hotel and providing a behind-the-scenes look at one of the world’s strongest teams.

He was embedded with Lotto Belisol for this year’s Milan-San Remo and took the image below.

Lars Bak (DNK) getting some warm tea from the team car (anything

[The race organisers] were afraid of snow ahead because that morning already there was snow on top of a few climbs before they go down to the sea but all seemed relatively normal. [But then] snow was starting to fall and it got heavier and heavier and thicker and thicker and really extreme really fast.

All of sudden everything gets re-routed and race radios says “the race is going to stop at this point and the break that has so many minutes is going to have those so many minutes when they start further on.”

I [was in] the car of the second sports director and he wasn’t supposed to be in the race. But due to the extreme circumstances the UCI directors let the other cars move behind the riders just to be safe.

All of a sudden everything tactically changed, and planning wise as well. Instead of [going to hand out] bottles we went to a new place and actually drove behind the break [because] Lars Bak was in the break that day.

All of a sudden I’m in a situation where I’m with the break, five minutes or more ahead and I didn’t see any moto photographer or any other team cars – we were just behind the break with the UCI commissaire. Luckily the team had warm tea and they handed that out to Lars.

UCI regulations forbid you from sticking anything out the car windows, except for bottles and food – you can’t stick a camera out or anything. So you’re very restricted in how you can shoot it.

I was in the passengers seat and they were able to get to the break and give out warm tea. And that was unique. I even tweeted [the photo] out and within an hour it was on newspaper websites in Belgium, which I never agreed to!

Philippe Gilbert’s World Championship gold medal

After an amazing season the year before, 2012 started very slowly for Philippe Gilbert. In fact it wasn’t until the world championship road race in September that the Belgian made it to the winners list, but what better one-day race to win?

That particular day was one of ups-and-downs for Kristof Ramon, who took the following shot during the post-race press conference.

See the full gallery of Kristof’s photos from the 2012 World Championships here.

gold man Philippe Gilbert

I know Philippe and I’ve worked with him on the two books he released. I got to know him when he was the biggest rider on earth. That was two years ago. He came to BMC in 2012 and his season was shit – I mean, he went OK for an average rider but for him it was the total opposite of the year before.

I was looking for a way to do the world championships differently because I’m very restricted. There’s only a few photographers who are on a motorbike in the race and all the rest are just carried around on a bus. I didn’t want to do that so I was looking for a way to do it differently.

So I contacted Philippe and I asked him “hey, wouldn’t it be great to follow you from the start of the day, when you wake up, brush your teeth and get your breakfast and get into your kit and go with the bus to the start? Wouldn’t it be great to follow your whole day from your room to your room, whatever happens?”

And he loved the idea. So I met him on the Wednesday at the TTT and he said “it’s a great idea let’s do it.” I didn’t expect him to turn out as world champion – I thought he might just have a chance at it. But I thought the story would be interesting.

But then I had to contact the national team and he was going to do that but after a few days he let me know “this is going to be too hard, getting through the national team”. And he said “you know what, it’s still a good idea, let’s do it some other time during the season.”

On Friday he let me know it was’t going to work for Sunday so we postponed that idea.

I was at the finish line when the announcer said “and there goes Gilbert!” when he was on the Cauberg. And right at that very moment it dawned on me “what an opportunity I have missed!” Really it was one of the biggest disappointments of that year.

He still had one or two kilometres to go after the Cauberg but [as soon as he attacked] I knew it. I was nearly crying – I was really happy for him but I was totally frustrated at the thing that wasn’t, me following him that day.

I was at the press conference an hour later than the finish. I don’t want to do the same shot as everyone else – guys at a table talking with a microphone in their hand. I don’t see much value in that. But one thing I’ve done before with Bradley Wiggins was to go behind the stage and see the backs of them addressing the world’s press.

And I was sitting there just waiting, getting my gear together and then I see Philippe turning towards me when he saw me. I wasn’t ready – I was still getting my gear together – so I just grabbed my camera and shot.

I didn’t have the lighting right but I shot the picture. I had to tweak it because it was underexposed quite a lot. But I got it, and it worked. And the good thing was it was the personal relationship – the picture was from him to me. He was giving something back to me – he remembered and he was saying “I’m sorry that it didn’t go through but here’s your picture.”

That’s not a picture that’s photographically amazing – but it’s the personal relationship and the story behind it that’s makes it a very valuable picture to me. He’s going straight into the camera in a situation he’s not supposed to.

Final shots before breaking a camera

Breaking an expensive bit of kit can be heartbreaking, particularly when you’ve used that bit of kit almost every day for the past six years.

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I smashed my camera in the Eneco Tour. That was one of the last pictures that was on that camera with that lens that’s totally busted. I need to reinvest 7000 euros now. I dropped it.

I love the fact that the photo is of Bradley. I have a total fascination with Bradley.

I’ve had that camera for six years and it broke that day. I’m happy that one of the last pictures I took with it was Bradley. There’s nothing too much to say. It’s hard to say goodbye to that camera – it’s brought me so much; it’s brought me every picture I took.


The Jan Ullrich curse

In 2012 CyclingTips had organised an interview with Jan Ullrich, a former champion who doesn’t tend to do too many interviews. Everything went well, until it came time to listen back to the audio file from the interview. The audio file was blank.

And Kristof Ramon, who’d been contracted to take photos of Ullrich for the article (one of which you can see below), had a similar problem when it came to getting a photo with Ullrich after the shoot.

Jan Ullrich (DE)

He was very friendly. I just wanted to do portraits so I found this little building with white walls and I almost never do this — I try to act professionally all the time so I don’t shoot photos of me with the riders to put on my wall — but I did that day. So I asked somebody “could you please take a picture of me and Jan?” And he very gladly agreed.

I wanted to do a teaser [on social media] — “I found this guy somewhere in Germany” — so I shot the picture and even worked on it. And I don’t know what happened but a few minutes after he left I obviously wanted to post the picture and I couldn’t find it on my phone. I don’t know what happened, but I couldn’t find it anywhere on my phone. I was so frustrated – this was an amazing picture and I didn’t have it!

I checked a zillion times – “where is it?! I’ve seen it with my own eyes!” – even after the photo was taken I was like “thank you! Thank you very much!” because someone else took it with my camera.

A studio shoot with Eddy Merckx

Few (if any) riders in the history of cycling have reached the same great heights as Eddy “The Cannibal” Merckx. And even though Kristof has spent his whole professional life shooting celebrities and other famous people, getting to work with Merckx was still a real highlight.

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It was one of the shoots that changed everything, that got me from being a television director with 10% cycling photographer … into what I do now which is a full-time cycling photographer.

I couldn’t grasp that I was going to do a photoshoot with Eddy Merckx, even though he’s like 15-20 minutes away from where I live. To have personal time, one-on-one with Eddy Merckx is fantastic and the fact is he’s such a nice person …

He lives in a really small village and his house was actually a huge farm and a big part of that was a factory where the Eddy Merckx bikes were made. I think this was one of the last weeks that they actually assembled bikes there.

I love the fact that I took those portait pictures in that place [where the bike-making business] started for him. I had a sense of history that I was there and not in the modern, new facility which would have been a warehouse like anybody else’s. His was just an old farmhouse with buildings here, buildings there.

He enjoyed the shoot. And for me that’s as important as the quality of the picture that came out. It was a really friendly encounter – I did a portrait shoot and then I did a factory shoot, with him walking around and still it’s one of the greatest assignments I’ve had.

Normally I don’t take photos with riders or famous people but I couldn’t resist this one. The nice thing was that my assistant had to check the lighting anyway and I was chatting to Eddy and I said “oh take a photo of us!” so it wasn’t forced. If I really had a photo that was more staged you wouldn’t have the lighting in it.

Eddy Merckx

But I like it that way – it’s more spontaneous. For me it’s the picture of one of the greatest assignments I ever had because of who he is and how friendly he is. He’s simply the biggest rider ever.

Adam Hansen’s peace sign during the 2013 Giro

Being embedded with the same group of people for a considerable amount of time gives you a real insight into the characters in the group. Such was the case with Adam Hansen.

2013 Giro d'Italia.stage 10..Victory Adam Hansen!

I’ve been working with [Lotto Belisol] for more than a year and a half now and I can’t say I’ve had more than five conversations with Adam. But you can easily sense that he’s very at ease and he just doesn’t talk a lot, but I like that.

Apparently he owns three companies and is doing well for himself. He doesn’t have to ride but he enjoys it. And he likes getting a block of racing in so he can focus on his business ventures when he’s not racing.

Three years ago I was a complete unknown – I could photograph everybody at the start or during the race and they wouldn’t see me, and I was absolutely fine with that. I was just there to photograph, nothing else. But by now I know quite a lot of riders and they know me and so we start chatting at the start and I lose a lot of time I could be doing photography.

This photo was taken on a really steep climb and I was shooting from the hip almost. And then [Hansen] saw me and this is what he did. But I like it. Would this image have been any better if he hadn’t seen me and not paid attention to me? I don’t think so. I think this actually makes the picture a little bit better.

Juan Antonio Flecha blowing raspberries during Le Tour 2013

And here’s another case of a pro riders ‘ruining’ an otherwise perfect photo … for the better.

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A lot of the time I’m on the roadside taking action photos and the riders see me and they react to me. And that changes the picture I’m taking at that point, and this was one of them.

I had Juan Antonio Flecha who saw me lying in the grass. He was doing a TT in the Tour that was really hilly. He went into the corner and I was lying in the grass and he saw me and was like [blows raspberry]. I was like “What?! You’re in the middle of a TT, you’re supposed to be giving 110% and the thing you think about is [blows a raspberry]”.

I thought “he spoiled the perfect picture!” but it’s a more personal picture now.

Juan Antonio rode a little bit further up and he looked me in the eyes and he was really laughing hard and so was I so I yelled to him “don’t you have anything better to do?!”

Fabian Cancellara after winning Paris-Roubaix in 2013

Back in April Fabian Cancellara won his third Paris-Roubaix, outsprinting Sep Vanmarcke on the Roubaix Velodrome to take a memorable win. Kristof Ramon was one of the many photographers on hand at the finish and took the photo above. Here’s the story behind that photo.

exhausted (& happy) after winning his 3rd Paris-Roubaix

I’m one of the 500 photographers at Paris Roubaix and at the finish zone there are very restricted areas. There’s only so few places you can go as a photographer. There’s two photographers that do the “pool” system – one of them from L’Equipe at least – and they can go everywhere. On the cobbles and in the finish areas.

I’ve been to Roubaix the two previous years but I’ve stayed on one side of the velodrome at the finish and I never went to the other side so I didn’t know how it was structured. But this year I decided to follow a colleague, and all my colleagues went to the left and I thought “I’m not going to go there – I’m going to the right”.

I was following him into an open field and there was a guy near the fences and I thought “if I’m not supposed to be there he’ll probably stop me or at least ask me for my accreditation”. But he didn’t – he just let me through.

I went in with the photographer before me and all of a sudden I saw Fabian coming into that space and this was ungraspable to me that there were no other photographers there. “This can not be! He’s just won, there’s so much media attention, there’s so many people and I’m the only one here, except for that one guy I followed?!”

But I thought “I’m here – I’m not going to stop now” so I took pictures. And then you have Fabian going down and he’s lying on the ground and I kept shooting and I kept thinking at the same time “where are the other photographers?!”

After that Fabrice, who’s the head of ASO and who decides all the accreditation for the Tour de France and the ASO races, came up to me and said “You know you cannot do this” and I was like “shit!”. And then I told him “I went through that gate and the guy let me through and I followed another photographer.”

Only afterwards did I see that the other photographer was one of the pool photographers who was allowed there. Fabrice told me “if you ever do this again I’m going to pull you out of all ASO races” and I was like “Sorry! Sorry! I didn’t mean to!”.

So I had to make that image available to all of my colleagues – those pictures are pool pictures. At that point, unwillingly, I became a pool photographer and they can use those pictures commercially however they like.

I never wanted to “be pool”. I hate that system because I could not imagine my pictures being used by someone else without my control over them. But that happened in that situation.

So that picture got sold relatively well, a few of those, with other photographers credited for those pictures. And that’s what I hate. I don’t mind it being sold commercially, but to have it supposedly taken by another photographer?

Juan Antonio Flecha at the Team Sky training camp in 2012

While Kristof has spent much of the past two years working closely with Lotto Belisol, he’s also ventured out to shoot other teams, including the shot below which was taken on a Team Sky training camp in 2012.

Juan Antonio Flecha going down

I was there on the island [Majorca] with Lotto Belisol shooting their team pictures. There was one day where we didn’t have anything to do. The new kids from Lotto hadn’t arrived and I couldn’t even go on a training ride with them because there were too many non-Lotto shirts and shoes and helmets. There was nothing I could do.

And I’m there with my moto driver and I knew that Team Sky was on the other side of the island, which isn’t big. So I called Fran Millar [Head of Team Sky’s business operations] who I knew from the year before and said “Hi Fran, I’m on the island. I’m here with a moto driver, would it be OK if I join the team for a training ride?”

And she agreed. What I didn’t know was that I was the first photographer to be with the 2012 team. I was the first guy who took a photo of Mark Cavendish in a Sky world championship shirt, training with Sky and I didn’t know because the first official press day would have been a few days later. So I don’t know why she agreed, but I know she liked me, or she likes my photographs.

I had privileges with the team and I shot with them on a training ride and they went to Sa Calobra on Majorca – it’s amazing. It’s a big climb and then you go down to the seaside to zero level and the only way to get back over it is the way you came – it doesn’t go anywhere at sea level.

It’s amazing – it’s got rock formations, it’s fantastically beautiful. Every rider in Majorca should go there. The first time I went there I was amazed – “wow, this is spectacular!” – and all of a sudden we take a sharp turn and the rock formation really goes up and up and up and the road gets narrower and narrower and I’m on the back of the motorbike behind Juan Antonio Flecha going down.

And I knew instinctively – I took my camera out and opened it and put in on almost full automatic and started shooting. But I wanted a bit of motion in there so I ramped it back down. And it really turned out beautifully.

I had to get up and lean over my moto driver to get that picture and it’s just a matter of seconds and reacting to what you see. I really love that picture. It’s my first ever award-winning picture, for the Nikon Sports Press Award. It’s really big in Belgium and Luxembourg. I never compete but I did in this instance and I won.

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