This stunning photo-set is a glimpse of cycling in the darkest moments

by Iain Treloar


When COVID-19 hit Europe, ordinary life in the worst-hit countries went out the window. In a desperate race to limit the spread of the virus, countries like Spain imposed strict lockdowns on movement, restricting citizens to their homes for all but the most essential reasons.

For the cyclists of the country, that meant riding was suddenly completely off the cards – except for indoors.

Albert Gallego – a Spanish cycling photographer who shoots under the pseudonym Brazo de Hierro and worked with CyclingTips on our Roadtripping Girona feature – was, like many of his countrymen, in a sudden limbo. His livelihood had more or less evaporated overnight. The freedom he found from cycling was curtailed. So he spent long days indoors, trying to occupy time, riding on an indoor trainer.

But art can be found in the mundane, and Gallego began to wonder how he could use his camera to document this moment in time. How he could continue to create his art of cycling photography – even from afar, even without pushing the button himself.

The ‘Light Behind Lockdown’ series, hosted on Strava, is the result. Shot remotely, it is an intimate glimpse into the ‘pain caves’ and homes of Gallego’s fellow cyclists, as they pedal away, dreaming of a better future just out of grasp.

I caught up with Brazo de Hierro to discuss his work, life in lockdown, and the artistic process behind this mesmerising photo-set. The following is our interview, lightly edited for clarity.

“You try to adapt and as much as you think you’d like to be training outdoors, you know this is temporary. And then you look for the positive side, which isn’t always easy, but it’s always there.” – Sandra Heredero (in lockdown in Vic, Catalunya, Spain). Photo: Brazo de Hierro for Strava

CyclingTips: Tell me about how you have found the lockdown, personally.

Albert Gallego: Well, in the first few days of lockdown, I had a very strange feeling. I could walk my dog a couple of times a day because there’s a giant park in front of my house.
[Normally,] it’s always full of people doing exercise or walking their dogs.

But on the first few days, there was no one – just two or three people with their dogs, and the police. The weather was not very good, the sun didn’t come out and the sensations became even stranger.

As the days passed, that strangeness left. You just had to take the indicated security measures: leave a distance, and limit yourself to leaving the house just to shop, or go to the pharmacy.

As a photographer working outdoors, I could hardly use my camera. All the jobs I had approved until the end of the summer were cancelled or postponed.

My only way to disconnect when I was home was to train on the roller. Getting into a routine at lockdown was the best way to get through the day.

How did you come up with the idea of this photoset?

As I said before, we were not allowed to leave the house, not even for sport. Many friends and acquaintances had no option but to train at home using the rollers, locked in the ‘pain cave’. The vast majority put a screen in front, for virtual cycling, or to watch a movie or series.

Indoor trainers never seemed to me something aesthetically appealing to photograph, and I thought about how I could give a more inspiring/poetic touch to that moment.

First, I had to think about how I could photograph the cyclists, without leaving my house. With a video call, I managed to do everything.

The literal meaning of the word photography is “writing with light”. I did that – I used light from the screens so that there was a connecting thread between them.

“The situation was unprecedented. We’ve never lived through something like this before, although it’s not so different from my youth living in rural Canada. I love riding outdoors, but strangely, the daily indoor training never bothered me. Which I guess shows, what’s most important to me is just spending time on the bike pedaling.” – Christian Meier, in lockdown in Girona, Catalunya, Spain. Photo: Brazo de Hierro for Strava

What was the process of physically executing the shots?

Years ago, I worked for a brand, taking pictures of their products for online sales. Typical photos with a white background. For that, I had the camera on a tripod and connected to the computer from where I could control it, and had the whole lighting set fixed. This way I only had to move the product and shoot the camera.

That made me think that I had to find a way to take a picture, without me being present.

In the end, it was simple: I only had to guide the cyclist or another person who was with them. They were my hands to set up the camera, to get the picture I had in mind.

To do this, I did it all through a video call. Sometimes from WhatsApp, sometimes from FaceTime, and if I didn’t have a phone number, directly from Instagram.

I talked a few hours beforehand with the cyclist, to see the space and where we could place the camera. Then I sent them an orange file to put in full screen, and we left everything ready to take the picture around 8.30pm.

At this time, there is still some light outside, but inside the house, it is almost dark. The lights in the room were totally off, with only the lit screen for a cold/hot contrast.

Once I had this, I took three pictures with different exposures, and I told the cyclist to pedal at a higher or lower cadence, to get the legs moving.

Then I asked them to send me the raw files by e-mail, so I can start working with the photo.

What were the most challenging shots to achieve?

There weren’t any photos that were more or less challenging [to execute]. I was very clear about what I wanted and how I wanted it.

That’s why I organized everything hours in advance. But the most challenging part [technically] was having to work with cameras that I have never used in my life, or that I didn’t even know – learning how they work, understanding the menus and submenus, and knowing what limits they could reach.

“Riding indoors is an exercise in mental strength and concentration. It’s different from riding on the road, but it can still benefit your body and mind!” – Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) in lockdown in Soldeu, Andorra. Photo: Brazo de Hierro for Strava

Tell me about the orange light on the screen.

When you train on the rollers at home you can put on music, or watch a series or movie, or you can cycle virtually with smart trainers. When I saw that most people used a screen, I thought that it could be the connection between all the pictures; a primary source of light in all of them [that] is the same.

In this way, they formed a set of images with the same colour.

My idea was to sell the whole project to some brand, [so] I chose an orange colour that I could identify as the corporate colour of Strava or Zwift.

There are many potential brands in the photos, but since I had already worked with Strava, I gave them preference before contacting other brands.

They freaked out with the project. I gave them options to buy it, and they chose to keep it exclusively for themselves.

How much post-production was there?

There’s not a lot of post-production. First I put the raw files into Capture One, touched up with a little light, shadow, and color. Then I switched to Photoshop to create the mood I want, enhance the light on the screen, and match the colours on the screen.

Ashleigh Moolman, after post-production.
Ashleigh Moolman, before post-production.

What does the future look like for you? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Honestly, it’s hard to plan beyond 15 days, because there are so many changes, constantly.

There are still many restrictions in Spain and in Europe in general. The borders are still closed; you cannot move between countries, and to move within Spain you need to have authorisation. To work outside, you need permission too.

Let’s say that everything is and will continue to be more complicated over a long period of time – but this is totally understandable since both individually and collectively, it has been a hard struggle.

Feature image: Movistar’s Carlos Verona, in lockdown in La Massana (Andorra). Shot on iPhone 11 Pro. Photo: Brazo de Hierro for Strava.

To see all photos in the series and insights from the riders featured, visit Strava.