For fans who turn out to watch the Tour De France as it flies trough the English countryside this year, their experience of professional cycling will last all of a few exciting seconds before the riders disappear off into the distance. California-based photographer Emily Maye has the rare opportunity of peaking behind the curtain, to see the days, months and years of pain and effort it takes to be a contender at the highest levels of the sport.
Emily has photographed the two-times Tour De France winning Sky team on behalf of sponsors Rapha and the Trek Factory Racing team has invited her to embed with them as their riders take on gruelling Grand Tours. With this incredible access, Emily tries to convey the human drama she finds far more compelling than the action at the races themselves, with the same timeless quality of the old cycling pictures that first drew her to photograph bike racing.
As Yorkshire gears up for the Tour’s Grand Départ this Saturday, Beach London presents the first exhibition of Emily’s work ‘We Were Fought By Men Very Fast’, a collection of photographs from the exhilarating one-day Spring Classics. Huck spoke to Emily to find out more about life on the road and trying to see the things that otherwise might go unnoticed.
What first attracted you to shoot cycling?
I watched cycling growing up but it wasn’t until much later that I thought of photographing it. I was working on a writing project that had to do with cycling and I spent a lot of time looking at old photographs. I was photographing ballet dancers at the time and it was then that I thought I would really like to move more in the direction of sport. Cycling had so many things that interested me but that timelessness of the old photographs was the initial attraction. I sort of wondered how I could capture that with all of the modern technology and spectacle. The work that I am most proud of has that tone.
What ties together the body of work you’re showing at Beach?
The exhibit at Beach is a collection of photographs from the Spring Classics, one day races primarily in Belgium. Most people know about the grand tours – like the Tour de France – but personally the Classics are my favourite subject to photograph. There is a great energy to the one day races. You wake up with excitement about what may happen and their rough terrain brings out the most dedicated fans and dramatic moments.
What’s it like being embedded with a pro team during a grand tour?
It is very different when you are embedded with a team than when you are going around photographing on your own. You get to see every part of the process and the days are long. I am more interested in the off moments than the in-race moments. That has helped me to develop a stronger relationship with the riders and staff and see cycling from a different perspective than the television coverage.
It feels like being in a band on tour sometimes, you never stay in one place very long. I have worked from inside teams a lot in my time photographing cycling but the Trek Factory Racing team has been the most extensive of those and the relationships built there have made for a rewarding experience. It is particularly interesting to see the difference between the daily grind of the grand tours and the spring classics. They have a very different rhythm to them.
Obviously being with the team when they win is exciting but I find as interesting to photograph a rider Skyping with his girlfriend in a hallway after dinner and a five hour stage race. The range of emotions you see – pain, exhaustion, injury, satisfaction, victory and a sense of family – are all part of the experience. I feel honoured that the team allows me to document it all and be in their space in difficult and wonderful times.
What do you enjoy most about cycling photography?
I enjoy photographing the people who do the sport and who come out to watch the sport. For me, it’s about people rather than cycling. I think that it is an important thing to remember. I try to find the in-between moments that make the whole thing more human, both the up and down moments. I’m interested in capturing the tone of what the lifestyle is like and what the race feels like. A guy riding a bike in the race isn’t necessarily the best way to do that so I try to look around and stretch myself to see something that might go unnoticed. I also try to blend in as much as possible. The most successful photographs are where it feels like the moment was captured without a photographer there.
What do you like to shoot when you’re not photographing cycling?
I really enjoy photographing sports. I recently did some work with Toreros in Spain and I still love photographing dancers. Couple that with cyclists and the joke gets made that I spend a lot of time photographing people in tight clothing. It’s a funny joke, but the physicality of sport is very appealing to me. I would love to do something with basketball. That has been a passion for a long time. Watching films always makes me want to go out and take photographs.
What does the future hold for you?
I have just finished up a launch campaign & lookbook for a new running brand and am closing up the year with cycling. I am on my way to the Tour de France this week and that should mark the end of the cycling season for me. It has been a really busy year travel-wise and I would love to stay in one place for a few weeks after the Tour. But not too long or I will get restless.