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by Shane Stokes
August 19, 2016
Photography by Gruber Images, Shane Stokes, Matt de Neef
If you’ve followed cycling photography for any amount of time, it’s likely you’ve seen the work of the Grubers. Theirs is amongst the most striking in the sport, ranging from panoramas showcasing the magnificence of the mountains to fine human portraits of some of the biggest stars.
Their love for cycling seeps out from every pixel. They photograph cyclists and racing and, when they put the cameras down, they then go ride their own bikes. The passion for both the sport and their craft has helped elevate them to where they are now, amongst the best at what they do.
During the Tour de France CyclingTips had the opportunity to spend a day with Jered and Ashley, husband and wife, being a backseat passenger and a fly on the wall as they panned for gold. The day was stage 19, a 146 kilometre slog up four categorised mountains to the summit finish of Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc.
It was the second-last mountain stage of this year’s Tour. Like the riders, the Grubers were running low on energy and willing themselves onwards towards Paris.
The city was beckoning but not yet on the horizon. Much work still remained to be done. Here’s the story of that day, and an insight into their craft, their methods and some surprising insecurity.
12.30: It’s a warm, sunny morning in Albertville and the Grubers are meeting friends in the Village Départ. They have been embedded with Team Dimension Data and Cannondale-Drapac during the race but while they are often orbiting around those two team buses prior to the start, they have chosen a quieter countdown today.
With the minutes ticking down to the drop of the flag, they head to their van and ready to leave. I bundle into a back seat next to a crate full of photography equipment; two bikes and a scatter of clothing are also packed into the vehicle.
I’m sitting behind Jered, who is in the passenger seat. Ashley is driving, as always.
“It used to be the other way around,” she explains as she pilots the van out of the town. “But I don’t like navigating when Jered is driving…it’s better for our stress levels when I’m driving and he is navigating. He’s good at it, and this way works best for us.”
While Ashley steers, Jered keeps his eyes peeled for the day’s first shooting point. The nature of the course means that there will be very limited chances on today’s route, meaning that each opportunity must be maximised.
The American duo continue to scope possible locations while trickling up the Col de Tamié and, just past the 960 metre summit, nine kilometres into the stage, they pull in.
Ashley manoeuvres the van to ensure it isn’t sticking out on the road and thus complicating things for the riders.
“If anyone does run into this car, it’s because they are crashing already,” says Jered. They both ride bikes regularly and know about life on the other side of the lens, too.
Jered starts pondering the best location for shots. “I’m thinking one of us shoots up here, and one of us walks down two switchbacks,” he tells Ashley. She’s up for the latter, and the three of us exit the van and start heading down the mountain.
Ashley and Jered walk into position on the Col de Tamié, readying to shoot their first race photos of the day.
13.10: A couple of a hundred metres down the hill, there are clusters of spectators. Another CyclingTips photographic contributor, Kristof Ramon, is standing there and we chat for several minutes about the Tour
To Ramon’s left there is a field sloping upwards. Carefully going under what looked like an electric fence – that much wasn’t clear, but I didn’t fancy frying some eggs by stepping over it – I walk up to Jered. He’s standing quite high up in the field and says that he is going to shoot his first set of photos there.
The break appears with approximately 20 to 30 riders in it, including King of the Mountains Rafal Majka (Tinkoff). Jered shoots maybe 100 photos and then, once the group is out of sight, darts to a different part of the field in search of a new vantage point.
I follow carefully, picking my way over the juts in the field, the dried cowpats and the clusters of crickets which spring out of the way. The heat is intense and the sound of insects is everywhere. Jered starts shooting again as the next group goes by; this is composed primarily of Astana riders, likely seeking to give Vincenzo Nibali a platform for a stage win.
They are closely followed by green jersey Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), who has jumped clear of the bunch. The peloton is several seconds behind him, with the riders towards the back already looking strained.
Jered, who transforms into a bundle of nerves and energy when shooting, then quickly turns and starts moving in the direction of the van. I carefully walk down to the road, ducking again under the electric/not electric/not-taking-risks fence, and also get moving towards where the vehicle is parked.
The peloton climbs the Col de Tamié on stage 19 of the 2016 Tour de France, July 22.
13.40: Ashley arrives and opens the van for us. “How did you go?” said Jered. “Better than I thought,” she replies. “I got a cool shot, I wasn’t expecting it…it was the attacks going off the front.”
They wait until the broom wagon goes by – stalling until then is a race regulation – and then start driving briskly down the hill, all the while watching out for spectators doing something unexpected.
The riders are in front of us and as it is forbidden to overtake the bunch, a shortcut is needed.
“There is a spot where we are going to chop off the course,” says Jered. “The turn is a few kilometres from now. On days like this, we have to find ways to cross. And hope the police are nice,” says Jered.
13.53: Getting back in front of the race is essential, but not always possible. It’s a gamble, even with race accreditation. Fortunately, the police are in a cooperative move and we are waved through the barrier. Success.
Travelling with the Grubers is like reuniting with old friends. We worked together on the Velonation site and have also caught up from time to time on races. Still, even so, something I hadn’t noticed before becomes apparent: when chatting, they often finish each other’s sentences when explaining something or recollecting a moment from the Tour.
It shows both their closeness and also how much their working lives are intertwined.
They first met in February 2008 in Georgia. “Ashley was walking home from school, I was riding,” says Jered. “I was about to start my first professional season,” he explains, doing air quotes for the word professional, “and that ended pretty quickly. I moved to Austria for a year, Ashley was studying there.”
Ashley says she didn’t know much about cycling before meeting Jered, but then took up the sport on her dad’s old bike. She also learned about the pro scene as Jered was watching many races while writing up reports.
That in turn led on to their first breakthrough.
“One year, when we were in Austria, our first magazine article was a preview of the Cinque Terre time trial course in the 2009 Giro. The Giro came there that year. We shot photos for that,” she explains.
“I purchased a 400 dollar entry level Nikon D40 and took photos,” says Jered. “Things went rapidly forward after that.
“Once we did the first magazine article, we did more and more. It was a case of finding what we wanted to do. I found what I was good at picking up a camera.”
“And happy at,” adds Ashley.
Photography was, he discovered, his vocation. “You find what you can do. There was no way I could be a good bike rider, but when I picked up a camera, I felt I had an ability for it. I felt, ‘I can do this.’”
However there was still a steep learning curve for both of them.
“At first you say, ‘this is so easy, I love it.’ But then you have clients and realise it’s much harder than you think,” Jered explains.
“You go from, ‘if I get one good picture today, it’s cool,’ to needing to get a lot of good shots for clients. It makes things much harder and brings more pressure.”
“We used to be happy with one A plus photo,” Ashley continues, picking up the conversation. “But when you have clients, you need to have a load of them and that changes things.”
“We both agree that our images have got better. When we look at our images from a few years ago, we are almost surprised they were okay back then.”
14.10: It’s lunchtime, and talk turns to food before returning to other topics. The atmosphere in the van is considerably more relaxed than the start, when the priority was to get moving quickly, find a spot to shoot and then get the images needed.
Spending time with the Grubers brings waves of high focus contrasted with a more chilled vibe, depending on the circumstances.
The shortcut cuts off many kilometres from the course and gives us plenty of time to play with. After driving into a quiet village I nip into a small French shop to pick up provisions. Apples, dark chocolate, yogurts and water are grabbed, paid for and then we get underway again. Everyone uses the time to eat, refuelling in advance of the many hours of work ahead.
We continue to drive the course, passing past clusters of spectators and striking French scenery en route towards the next stopping point.
The talk turns towards the demands of the Tour. We are all worn out at this point, but Jered has been staying up late at night editing images and sounds particularly zapped.
Each of them state more than once that they want the race to be over and to be able to catch up on sleep and ride their bikes. To those sitting at home, imagining what life is like on the Tour, that might sound surprising. However on the race, things are tougher and grittier and more draining than what perception might suggest.
Weeks one and two are fine but come week three, those working on the event are, like the riders, running on fumes.
Perhaps it’s the fatigue, but Jered opens up about how tough it feels at this point.
“This is the Tour de France…it feels like every shot I take is the worst one ever,” he admits, bringing up surprising self-doubt. “I often say the Tour is where creativity comes to die. It’s because of the spectator caravans in the background, the stress. And because it is July, and the light is the worst. It’s too much from overhead.”
Those issues aren’t anything like the same at the Classics or in the Giro. Come July, and the Tour, and things are more complicated.
“As regards the caravans,” says Jered, “the Tour causes that because they don’t let cars on the day of the race. That means people have to come the day before and stay overnight. In fact, they sometimes don’t even let people ride up the climbs, but this year they have been a bit better.”
The net effect is that the race is far tougher than the others on the calendar.
“Every time I leave the Tour I feel like I am going to be fired the next day,” Jered says, referring to their clients. “It’s hard to be confident in your work at the Tour. It’s stressful, we are tired. This is by far the hardest three weeks of our lives.”
Having often marvelled at their images, it is unexpected to hear the self-doubt Jered speaks about. It’s clear that he is both proud of his work and also insecure about it; perhaps that is what fuels a necessary perfectionism.
In truth, their openness is refreshing. That insecurity – which to this observer, and to their many clients and fans is unwarranted – is also something that drives them.
“The worst thing in the world for me to feel is confidence,” says Jered. “Once I get confidence, then I get complacent, then I suck. My dad told me before that he doesn’t tell me I’m doing well at something, because then I’ll stop working hard at it.”
14.40: We drive up the day’s fourth climb, the hors categorie Montée de Bisanne, and stop just over the top. Ashley debates waiting the hour it will take for the riders arrive, then trying to grab a lift to the finish. After five minutes of bouncing the idea around, they decide to press on.
“We’ll probably just go to the finish, unless we see something really cool along the way,” Jered says.
15.05: Being on the Tour is a high pressure environment, and that begs a question. Is it hard to work together as a couple? “These three weeks are hard,” answers Ashley. “But we also have the knowledge that once the Tour is over, things will be much better. We also really like each other, and that helps a lot.”
“I wouldn’t want to do this without Ashley here,” says Jered. “So I take whatever comes with that.”
Both say that the biggest tests come with dealing with the stress of working on a major race, and that they do everything they can to minimise that. This entails researching the course, making a plan and also drawing on the experience that they have build up. Riding some of the roads at other times during the year also helps, giving them greater knowledge of the climbs and the prime shooting points.
15.40: The Grubers don’t spot any compelling locations along the way and press on towards the finish. Ashley is driving up the foothills of the final climb, trying to inch up past wandering spectators without stalling the car. Many are decked out in fancy dress. Both say they generally avoid photographing them.
“I don’t want to reward it,” says Ashley, referring to those who run alongside the riders and cause problems. “It’s great that everyone is here having a good time,” says Jered. “But it’s good when they respect the riders and take a step back to give them enough room.”
15.55: Our passage up the climb is interrupted by the course marshals, who direct the van off the mountain and towards the nearby press centre. A cable car/gondola is situated close by and enables the photographers and journalists to get up to the finish line.
After gathering the equipment we need, we abandon the van and take a gondola towards the summit. Overhead, there are a few rumbles of thunder. Ashley has some concerning news. “Did you see the sign?” she asked. “It says that there is a chance the gondolas won’t run later if there is a storm.”
That is, of course, suboptimal. We all consider the possibility of a long walk back down the mountain, but push on anyway. The finish has to be shot and later will – hopefully – take care of itself.
16.25: The rain starts to splatter down. The gondola is rocking in the wind, which is slightly disconcerting given the big drop below. Jered and Ashley lean against each other, enjoying the quiet time after the chaos earlier.
Jered is clutching a can of energy drink. “I try to not to drink this stuff, but it keeps me going in the last week of the Tour,” he says. “I’d probably be asleep now otherwise.”
Once at the top, Jered begins to walk down the slopes. He will travel two kilometres, but then decide to come back up the climb and shoot about a kilometre from the line.
Ashley has decided to shoot the finish but, after standing for a few minutes at the line, decides to walk behind the spectators who are wrapped around the end of the finishing straight. The idea is to perhaps shoot the finish in reverse, picturing the riders sprinting towards the line, but she eventually reverts to the original idea.
Photographer Ashley Gruber (in yellow) awaits the riders at the finish of stage 19 of the 2016 Tour de France.
17.24: Ashley photographs stage winner Romain Bardet with her telephoto lens and then runs back and starts firing off more shots with her second camera. However, things don’t quite go to plan.
“I think it is really frustrating,” she tells me afterwards. “They had way more police control, but for all the wrong reasons. They weren’t controlling the crowds. It was keeping people who were working, like the soigneurs, the photographers and the media from doing their job.
“Because of that, I missed the podium shots.”
Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) wins atop the final climb of Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc, stage 19 of the 2016 Tour de France.
17.55: Jered returns and gives a guarded thumbs up to his own labours. “I think I got a couple of cool shots at a switchback. The turn broke things up. I shot wide, I shot long, I shot in the middle.”
In all, between the two of them, they ratcheted up many hundreds of images during the day.
That equals several hours’ work for Jered that evening, another stint further eroding his slender third-week reserves.
Still, Paris is just two days away, the final kilometres are ticking down and more iconic images have been achieved.
Race leader Chris Froome (Sky) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) on the final climb of Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc, stage 19 of the 2016 Tour de France, July 22.
Movistar riders Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana race towards the line on the final climb of Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc, stage 19 of the 2016 Tour de France.
Battered and bruised, Pierre Rolland (Cannondale) crosses the line at the end of stage 19 of the 2016 Tour de France.
Weeks after the race, Jered looks back on the account of the day. Having been able to recharge batteries and ride their bikes, he has a different perspective on things. Like the Tour riders who have shaken off the aching muscles and thousand yard stares, he and Ashley are feeling restored and reenergised.
“Reading this story, I don’t want people to think we’re whining,” he says. “But when I look back at it, I think it’s a real, honest representation of how we feel at the end of the Tour de France. I think people have this idea that we have a dream job, and for the most part, I agree!
“But we’re battered shells of ourselves at the end of the Tour. Nearly four weeks of sixteen-hour days with no bike riding turns me into a monster. I’m all better now. So happy and excited for what’s to come. We really needed this time away from racing, some time to get back to normal, recenter ourselves, and get ready for the rest of the year…”
The recharging has been done and more sublime images are on the way…
See more from the Grubers here and here.