This is not old news. It’s just a bit late.
We all know that Sam Hill won the DH at Bromont, but because I’m sure not all of you have been to a World Cup I thought I’d share my impressions of what it’s like from behind the lens. If you don’t want to read it, just look at the photos. Either way, please enjoy!I had my first taste of mountain bike and race photography last year at some local Quebec Cup races. It was the first time I combined these two passions of mine, and I had to have more. The first time I wasn’t very successful, but with each time I got a few more keepers. Just like any other good pass time, you get addicted and want more.
This year the UCI World Cup made two stops in Canada, both in Quebec. I didn’t make it to Mt. St-Anne because of prior engagements, but I did make it to Bromont. For me, this is about a three hour drive, one that I chose to make the morning of the second day of practice. I didn’t really know what to expect having never been to a World Cup, and not having been to Bromont yet this year. Trails that I had ridden last year had been demolished in order to make way for the brand new DH and 4X tracks. Bromont invested over $100,000 to create the tracks and is now a prime training ground for all disciplines of biking with it’s BMX track, velodrome and of course plentiful DH trails. Bromont has been called the Whistler of the East, and is improving with every passing year.
Not being a professional photographer, I didn’t have a press pass and was restricted in my wanderings and use of the lift. So I did a fair amount of hiking. Both the DH and 4X tracks finished on the same straight, with a sprint to the finish. The DH course met up with the bottom of the 4X by way of a hip jump. This is where I saw the first riders pop out of the woods. I got a bit unnerved when the first riders to go past were Rennie and Peat and I wasn’t even properly set up yet, knowing that it’d be a while before they come past again.
When they do come again, you’d better be ready. There was one time when Peaty went past while I was eating a sandwich. I got the shot and looked around for my sandwich. Turns out it was on the ground, I had just let go of it as I was reaching to grab my camera. It was still good if you're wondering.
If you’ve never seen a 4X track in person, they aren’t quite like what you imagine from photos and movies. They’re huge! The largest jump must have been approaching 50 feet and many riders were having trouble clearing it because of the soft ground caused by rain earlier in the week. The track had nearly everything, from big rhythm sections to flat corners, a rock section and even a corkscrew that sent riders over a bridge and then around and under it. Another unique feature is that it went over the DH track which sent riders through a large pipe. It is also one of the longer tracks on the circuit at over a minute.
Walking up the DH track, it appeared to be quite tame, albeit wide open and fast. It had a few big jumps and lots of big flowing corners and looked like a lot of fun. It wasn’t quite what I expected from a World Cup course. That’s because I had not made it far enough up the hill. Until this point, the track had been mainly in the woods beside the lift, but now it opened up and went under the lift in a steep, boulder strewn section. The line snaked its way down amongst the rocks and was still very muddy despite all the sunshine. Many of the pros were gathered at the bottom, talking amongst themselves or considering what could make that section better. As I stood there, a very ragged Chris Kovarik came round the last corner very sideways, much to the delight of Peaty who yelled him on this as he pulled alongside. No, I didn’t get the shot and I kicked myself a bit for it. It would have looked good with lots of muddy roost. Sometimes you can’t be ready for these guys because they appear so fast, and you don’t always hear them. That’s another thing I noticed, these riders are so much quieter than amateurs, likely down to their dialed bikes and smoother riding.
From that point on the course looked to be much more challenging. It was quite rough and technical in places, with sloppy mud in other places and quite a few roots. From the top, the track wound its way down the mountain in this manner, mostly in the woods. There was the odd steep section and the overall feeling was dark and moist, the previous week having set rainfall records.
One of the things that is hard to comprehend at first is just who these riders are. These athletes are at the top level of their sport, I have watched them in videos for years and suddenly they’re beside me. I guess I think of them like rockstars. I got caught out by this awe a few times, getting overexcited when they went past and missing the shot. Or at least messing up some aspect of it. I really wasn’t sure what to expect from these riders in terms of skill level because it’s so hard to judge terrain in photos and videos. Most of them are really good, there’s no doubt about it, but not unbelievably so. What I mean by that is that I didn’t see anything that I would have thought impossible, just things that take a lot of skill and courage. So I came out of it having the same amount of respect for the riders that I’d had before. That’s not to say there isn’t the odd rider that does something that makes your jaw drop in amazement.
I had a lot of freedom being an amateur. I don’t mean I was allowed everywhere, as I wasn’t allowed in places like the boundaries of the 4X track. However I was allowed a lot of freedom to the photos I took. I didn’t have a photo editor behind me requesting certain shots of certain riders. It allowed me to be a bit more adventurous in the shots I took. This helps because I find a lot of race photography quite boring due to its lack of originality. Look through any magazine with race coverage and you’re bound to see a few closely cropped, head on shots that have a sharp rider and a soft background, often with a bit of flash to light up the goggles. This can capture a rider’s emotion and intensity quite effectively, (think of the cover of Earthed 5) but it does get old fast. And it’s not really a challenge to get good shots using this method. You have to take risks if you want unique, creative shots. This is my approach, I may not get a lot of keepers, but the photos I get I am often extremely happy with.
I couldn’t really believe some of the photographers that I met while on the hill. Some of them had equipment I just wouldn’t expect at a mountain bike race, because I know there can’t be much money in MTB photography. I saw one guy with at least $14,000 worth of kit around his neck and another with a $9,000 lens that would be more at home on the sidelines of a soccer pitch during a Premiership game. It was all a bit intimidating considering I have about $1000 worth of stuff at current market prices. That’s not to say that I wish I didn’t have some better equipment, my Nikon D50 isn’t the fastest and let me down a few times. But for what it is, I really can’t complain and it is possible to get great results with it. The friendlier photographers were the ones who weren’t decked out with all the latest and greatest. I even met one who was apparently staying in a tent on the mountain. And that made me feel lucky that I at least had a car to sleep in. That’s another thing, I had parked for the night in Bromont’s main parking lot and was awoken at 1 am by some guys that said I should move to a quieter place or I’d be fined for camping. The cops showed up about 30 seconds later and told me the same thing, that I could move to one of the smaller lots. I’m glad I got away with a warning and not a $200 ticket.
Another thing that is unique to the top level of this sport is the presence of prototypes being tested for the highest level of performance that will probably reach production one day. As has been the case for many years, many of the top riders on Boxxers were riding a BlackBox version. Unchanged externally apart from the graphics, not many know what secrets are inside or whether they will ever reach production. Then there’s Dan Atherton’s titanium Commencal, one of three examples. The geometry to which is behind tight lips. At any rate, it’s beautiful and blazing fast when given the beans. Another interesting thing I saw was what appears to be a new Giant. It differs quite significantly from the current Glory because of it’s lack of “Glory Hole”. No official word on what kind of linkage it sports, but I have heard that it might be the renowned DW-Link, as the main partner for that is yet to be announced. It’s not a 2009 bike though as those have already been revealed as the same style as the current Glory.
Tomac also appears to be back in the business of making bikes. They had a few riders running this weekend.
I never knew that the World Cup had so many riders. There were 220 men at this one, with the top 80 qualifiers moving to the final. Quite a few Canadians were present likely because Bromont is much more accessible than Europe. Sam Hill has been the man to beat for the last 2 years and he proved it here again. One thing that sets him apart, (besides his riding style which is quite upright and centered over the BB, maybe because he has short legs) is his secrecy and the way he secludes himself from other riders. After going past me once, he stopped and hiked back up a short while. I was going to take a picture of him scanning the track, but he shot me such a dirty look that I felt bad doing it. It made me feel guilty, as if I was a paparazzi stalking him. Apparently he is a really nice guy once you get to know him, but he does like to keep to himself. Most of the times I saw him, he was following Brendan Fairclough and looking slow in comparison. This is something I’ve heard photographers complain about before, he’s either cruising or is on the gas so hard that you miss him. That was certainly the case for the qualifier and the final, both of which he won.
Steve Peat is certainly quite the legend. After the qualifier I met him coming up the track to watch the remainder of riders coming down. Everybody wanted to shake his hand or for him to pose with their children for a photo (well I only saw that once). He was quite happy with his run and called it “a proper downhill track”. One man nearby asked him if he would write a book when he retired. Peaty was unsure about that and I don’t blame him, I reckon he’s got lots more left in him.
Canadians are starting to make their mark on the World Cup circuit. Steve Smith and Hans Lambert were the top placing Canadians. Steve hasn’t had the best of luck this year with injuries etc. but by winning the US Open he proved that he’s among the best when he’s on it. He’s come into the spotlight recently because of this achievement and his section in Seasons.
I assume that this was Hans’ first (or second) World Cup and considering his age I see no reason why he won’t climb the standings in the future. Being young, he has lots of time and I see him as Eastern Canada’s best bet in the World Cup should he choose to pursue it full time. And it’s not just in the DH either. He got into the second round in the 4X and ended up placing 14th. If you’ve never heard of him, he rides for the Norco Factory team and is a veteran of the Q-Cup circuit.
The Athertons have been quite the force to reckon with this year. They each won their respective categories in Andorra and both Rachel and Gee are World Champions.
Gee has been on or near the podium for all the rounds this year, at Bromont he continued this trend coming in 4th. His sister Rachel, won the DH and currently leads the points. I’m not sure what happened to Dan in the 4X as I had to leave before it happened but he was riding fast in practice and qualified 4th.
The finals of the DH were pretty crazy. Fans and photographers lined the tape in many places, with a huge crowd at the steep boulder section under the lift. Quebecers like any excuse they can get to go out and drink beer in the woods, so they were there in hordes. They must also like to make noise because the pots and pans were out in force.
Well, that’s my take on Bromont. If you’ve never taken photos of pros it’s nice because they all look the part and nearly all of them are fast. Even if you’re not a photographer you should check out a World Cup. They have great atmosphere and lots of excitement. If it returns to Bromont, I’ll likely be on the hill. See you there.