Behind the photo: How photographer Tim De Waele shot the Alaphilippe somersault

Tim De Waele was in the right place at the right time in Saturday's Strade Bianche for 'that picture'.

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Photographer Tim De Waele has been part of the professional peloton for over 30 years now. That experience and a bit of luck – according to himself – led to the picture of the weekend in Strade Bianche. CyclingTips caught up with the Belgian photographer ahead of the Tirreno Adriatico to hear his story about that picture and his work in general.

“You never know what is going to happen in a race but you feel that something might happen,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. You have to be able to read the races, know the teams, the riders and the tactics. You know the tricks and the body language of the riders. You see things happen before they happen.

“It wasn’t the first time Julian Alaphilippe went off-road. He also did that a hundred meters before that specific spot. Normally this would have been a place in the race where we would drive on to shoot landscapes because it’s 100 kilometres out from the finish line but we decided to stay.” 

‘We’ in this case is Tim and his motor pilot Serge Seynaeve. They do many races together. The pilot is like a second pair of eyes to Tim and also the one who needs to get Tim and himself safely from A to B. 

“I gestured to Serge to stay next to the tv motor bike. Then this crash happened due to the wind. Alaphilippe wasn’t the only one to go down. Tiesj Benoot was there too and also Tadej Pogačar who then goes on to win the race. Alaphilippe was the most spectacular of all.” 

What happens next is a matter of minutes between the actual crash and the moment the pictures appear online in the Getty database. 

“On the moment itself you just click and you hope everything is in focus,” De Waele explains. “You always hope the pictures work out fine. Sometimes the light is wrong or the shutter speed is off. We are on a riding motor bike so these things can go wrong.” 

De Waele decides while sitting at the back of the motor bike which pictures are good. He checks them on the tiny camera screen and makes a selection. He adds a voice text memo and sends them to the editing team in Spain or the London office within a minute after shooting them. The two dedicated cycling editors do some work on it or crop the photos according to De Waele’s instructions and minutes later they are in the Getty database, where CyclingTips editors can download them and put up a story.

He has the same teamwork with his motor pilot. Before the race, they make a plan for the day where they want to be and when.

“The plan is there but cycling is an unpredictable sport. Soon the plan goes out the window and we need to improvise and anticipate. The race changes but also the weather can change instantly. Serge and I do it together and we do it with minimal communication on the motor bike.

“He is my extra pair of eyes because he sees what happens in front of us. He is a former cyclist as well and knows the riders. The pictures are teamwork with probably 60% me and 40% him. I have seen many pilots come and go. There are many drivers with great driving skills but driving in a bike race is something not a lot of people can do. You need to be able to cope with a lot of stress.”  

After a successful day at Strade Bianche where De Waele not only made the shot but was also the only one there, he treats his pilot to a nice glass of wine.

“Chianti of course,” he smiles. “It’s great to have that shot and I knew it was good but being the only one having it gives you a bit of a kick. That keeps the job so great.” 

Being on a motor bike for sometimes more than six hours is a serious sport in itself. And it’s not only the race itself. It’s hard work with 15+ hours a day of working for eight to even 21 days straight. De Waele needs to keep fit to do his job.

“You need to be there one or two hours before the race, then there is the race itself and then the editing and cleaning. After Strade Bianche that took me a while because the white sand is not only very fine but also very sticky. These cameras are not made for the circumstances we use them for; the sand, the rain, the snow. You need to clean the cameras daily.”

Physically it’s a demanding job but mentally it’s also very stressful. You need to stay focused for hours on end because you work in a fast-moving and dangerous environment.

“I am never scared because when I focus on the job, I don’t have time for fear. You just don’t need be scared because if you are scared and not committed you shouldn’t do this job. It’s an extreme job for riders but also for photographers,” he explains. 

De Waele really needs to unwind after a day on the road, even when everything went well and he shot what he wanted to. But accidents happen and it’s the bad moments that leave a lasting impression on the Belgian. De Waele sees riders abandon after a crash but also sees riders crash and not get up. He was one of the first on the scene when Wouter Weylandt crashed in the Giro d’Italia of 2011.

“Your first instinct is always to make pictures, to do your job. You can’t let the situation sink in too much because you are there to do a job. After a few minutes, it sinks in what you are seeing. You see more than other people see and I knew more than most people knew at home. I knew immediately it was very bad news.

“Wouter has always stayed with me since and his accident changed my view on life profoundly. I work a lot and I like working but I also play hard as they say. I travel, go out, surf, meet people. I really try to enjoy life more since I saw Wouter Weylandt die before my eyes.”

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