The photo that got me kicked off the Tour Down Under for a day
A few weeks ago we reached out to our photographer Tim Bardsley-Smith, asking him to write about some of his most memorable cycling photos and the stories behind them. Having travelled to Mt. Everest Base Camp, Kyrgyzstan, New Zealand, Switzerland, Bali and many more places for CyclingTips, Tim’s certainly got some stories to tell.
You can expect a post like this one on the site from Tim soon, looking at a bunch of his most memorable photos, but before that, there was one story that Tim wanted to tell on its own; a photo that deserved its own article.
When I was asked by CT editorial to do a “stories behind the photos” article there was an easy first choice for me. It was quite early on in our working relationship, at the 2016 Tour Down Under.
I had photographed the 2014 TDU for CyclingTips, but that was remotely, on my own terms, organized a week before. 2016 was the first year we had a more formal arrangement and we had planned daily galleries on the site. I was excited to do it properly.
It was only my second year at TDU and like any event, I found the second year the most difficult. You want to shoot it differently, and I had put a tonne of pressure on myself to be as creative as possible.
At this point in time most of my experience had come from photographing MTB at the World Cups. You mix much more closely with other photographers at those races, and everyone ends up pushing everyone else to get better. You also have far more opportunity for more creative work, with MTBers doing repetitive laps — whether it’s downhill or cross country you can afford to be extra creative. The fear of missing a shot is far less than it is with road cycling.
Shooting MTB was easily the best schooling for me, and is hands down the reason creativity drives me so much with my work. Mountain biking also tends to be a lot more relaxed. We used to climb trees and ski lift towers all the time to try and get something different from everyone else … or at least to be the first one to do it. So pushing boundaries and limits was pretty standard for me.
So back to the 2016 Tour Down Under. Stage 2 started in Unley and wound its way up the freeway to Stirling, finishing with the obligatory few laps around the leafy Adelaide Hills town. It’s hard with these Stirling laps to get different stuff and I wanted to make the most of the freeway climb.
I remembered the freeway tunnels from shooting the race before and knew it would look pretty cool to get a shot from above as the riders all exited the tunnel. Matching it with my fish-eye lens, it would at least be something different from all the same shots everyone seems to get around Stirling.
I was traveling with a local Adelaide MTB photographer, Kane Naaraat, and we decided we would just park past the tunnels and he could climb the steep embankments near the car and I’d walk back to the tunnel to check it out.
We left the start at Unley early giving us extra time to arrive well before anyone else. I walked down to check the tunnels out — the concrete slope around the side of the tunnel exit was nowhere near as steep as it looked and I could easily walk up the side to the top. At the top there was a gutter to stop water, or rocks from running off onto cars, and I could easily sit down and put my feet against the gutter and have no fear of falling. I had a side gig doing rope access in Sydney, so heights and ledges had never been an issue for me. I decided it was fair game, and safe. I walked back down to wait for the riders to come.
Another photographer came along and was planning to stand down the bottom just at the entry. I told him what I was doing so he would know whether I’d be in his shot or not, and so he could work around it. He was happy and we both waited.
The police motos came through and I headed up and took my position. I could lean forward and get the shot I wanted pretty easily so it was just about waiting for the breakaway and then the main group to come for the maximum impact shot. Just before the break came, one of the moto photographers for the Adelaide Advertiser came and stopped just at the exit of the tunnel to get a shot near the other photographer. I didn’t really care as it added to my shot.
The break and bunch rolled through, I got my shots, and then I jumped up and ran back to the car a few hundred meters up the road to get to the finish in Stirling.
It wasn’t until after the stage when I was back at the media centre that I realised something was up. One of the other photographers who I knew well asked me if I had climbed on top of the tunnel. I said “yeah, I got a sweet shot” and went to try and find it to show him. He quickly said “don’t tell anyone else because they were trying to find out who it was”.
I didn’t have my media bib on as I had forgotten it in the car, so the race organisers had no real idea if it was a photographer with media accreditation or just a random person when they saw it on TV. I was a bit concerned but couldn’t really think what I had done wrong.
Usually I have a pretty big beard and did at this particular tour, so it wasn’t long until I got pulled aside by the event organiser’s head of media. They quickly informed me what I had done was extremely dangerous and that it had put the whole TDU into jeopardy with the police. If I had fallen on the riders it would have been pretty disastrous.
I agreed, but I argued that it looked far more precarious than it actually was, and that, in fact, there really wasn’t much chance of me falling. In the end they agreed to disagree.
I could see CT editor Matt de Neef looking over nervously as I politely discussed my potential punishment with the media officer. They were talking of suspending me for all of stage 3, saying I was not allowed to shoot at all.
Needless to say, I was a little stressed at the end of the conversation. I was being paid to cover each stage and needed to produce a daily gallery. I had no idea what I would do and walked out of the media centre straight into a group of the CT staff — including boss Wade Wallace — waiting for me outside.
Most thought it hilarious, and wanted to see the image. I could tell Matt didn’t find it as funny, but I think he was also relieved I had stopped trying to argue with the media officer. I think he was worried my actions may have affected the rest of the CT staff’s ability to cover the race as planned.
In the end it was all fine. The police wanted me reprimanded so the TDU staff did. I eventually realised that no matter what I had said, none of it would change things.
So it was off to dinner and time for me to formulate a plan. The next day was a key stage in the tour, finishing with a climb up Corkscrew Road before the race back down the hill to the finish. I could just shoot as normal, but would potentially risk them confiscating my media pass for the week and potentially making it hard for me to ever get a media pass again. So I decided I would do as they wished and would not touch the button of my camera with a cyclist in front of it for the length of the stage.
It turned out that Wade and then-CT-staffer Jonny Reece both had the day free and wanted to come watch the stage anyway. I knew Wade wasn’t shabby with a camera and I could set my other camera up for Jonny and put him in the right spot and tell him to “pray and spray”. We would get something usable and I wouldn’t technically be photographing the stage.
We decided to keep it simple, hitting one spot on the freeway and then going straight to Corkscrew early to get a good position. Wade remembered my photos from the top of Corkscrew from 2014 and wanted to get the same again, so I gave him my trusty fish-eye lens and told him what settings to use.
With the fish-eye you pretty much get everything in frame so it would be hard to get bad shots, as long as the right riders came cresting the hill on their limit. I told him he needed to get to his spot early and keep his elbows wide. Luckily Wade is much taller than me so he would have no issues keeping the punters and other eager photographers from ruining the shot.
Jonny was shooting with my big camera so I set it up fast and told him to put the red dot on the rider he wanted to focus on and just hold the button down until they had ridden past us. It was pretty simple and they both did really well. We were able to put together a reasonable gallery and we left the Tour Down Under with a story that most of the CT staff love to talk about.
I also ended up with my mug on the back page of the Adelaide Advertiser thanks to the photographer shooting from below the tunnel on stage 2. For some reason she decided not to crop me out of her shot and the editor thought it would be a sweet one to run, so there I was with a nice little memento from my climb up the freeway tunnel.
The biggest ‘wow’ moment came some months later when someone at TDU marketing saw my photo from the tunnel on my Instagram page and wanted to know if they could purchase it for their marketing purposes. I asked if they knew the story behind the image and explained that, given it had cost me a day’s work, it wouldn’t come cheap. Unfortunately I never heard back. I assume they hadn’t heard the story and must have found out.
I must say, I did learn a lot at the 2016 Tour Down Under … mainly that WorldTour road races and World Cup MTB races are worlds apart. Would I do something like climbing that tunnel again? Certainly not at the Tour Down Under …