Cyclocross Photography with Tom Robertson

With the world championships this weekend, we thought it the ideal opporunity to showcase the work of another great cyclocross photographer. Tom Robertson helped out last year with a feature about US national cyclocross team coach Geoff Proctor. We met up with Tom in Belgium for a quick Q&A during the Christmas Cross week of racing. He also promised to send through more of his fantastic photos of young Zach McDonald. You can see the photos and a short interview with Zach in the Features section.

How long have you been shooting cyclocross? 

Since the 2007 season, when I started getting burned out on racing.

What was the first bike race that you shot?

A local training race in Missoula, Montana.

What differentiates shooting cross from other cycling sports?
Opportunities to shoot the leaders every five to eight minutes, the barriers and run-ups, the slower speeds in sections, the mud, fans (more streakers) and the heavy atmosphere.

What is your favorite format to shoot with?
A Canon 5d and a 50mm fixed.

OK, word association time. What are the first few words that come to mind when you think of cyclocross?

Do you have one particular racer, or category that you like to shoot?

In Belgium, I would generally shoot four individual races on a race day: Juniors; U23; Women’s; and Men’s Elite. It’s easy for me to rip off 1,500 to 2,000 shots during that time. Even though I wasn’t focusing on any individual racer, I found I had more images of Zdenek Stybar than anyone else. I think I’m just drawn to that world champion’s kit – it’s such a beautiful jersey.

What’s it like working with the junior program over in Belgium?

Fantastic. The U.S. junior racers are strong and consistently have racers finish in the top 10. Riders like Logan Owen and Andrew Dillman are very close to making an impact on an international level. My time around the juniors also involves being with them away from the race course. Whether it’s a card game after dinner, or a bowling tourney at the local alley in Izegem, they cultivate a little bit of home and family. This brings some comfort to traveling and racing on foreign lands and I think it shows in the results.

Muddy and sloppy or dry and fast? (that’s a bike racing question)
Definitely muddy and sloppy.

What are the main differences in shooting in Europe compared with cross in the US?

The size of the crowds, the passion of the supporters and the venues. Shooting a race somewhere like Diegem or Loenhout, the crowds can be more than 20,000 in tight spaces – it can be tough to get around the course. Shooting the podium presentation is always a trip in Belgium because of the crowd hoopla, especially if Niels Albert wins and his fans all sing the Niels Albert song. Also, the amount of beer the Belgians can drink is impressive. After the races this always leads to a couple of Belgians getting my attention, then throwing an arm around their buddy and wanting me to take their photograph. They don’t want a copy of it, they don’t care if it ever gets printed, they just want their photo taken. I have a collection of photographs of random Belgians taken after races. One of the biggest differences, though, is the passion of the supporters. At every race the fans line the finishing straight for 300 to 400 meters and bang as loud as they can on the barriers. It never fails to give me goosebumps.

The US cross scene has boomed in recent years. Who has made a particularly valuable contribution?
Two things come to mind. The first is Geoff Proctor, who brings so much to USA Cylocross. Geoff might start a race day chatting with three-time World Champion Erwin Vervecken at registration, then be at the starting line of the junior race making sure the race officials give the U.S. juniors their proper call-up. After that he’ll be working the pit during the Junior, U23 and Elite races. Throughout the day he’ll be spotted chatting with everyone from Sven Nys to Lars Boom’s dad, to the local media. And before I know it, it’s his voice I hear on the loudspeaker. Geoff seems to know most everyone involved, and uses those connections to constantly advance USA Cyclocross

The second contribution is that made by the US in general. Technology is a good example. At all big cyclocross events, spectators swarm around the campers and vans of the racers. When I was in the US’s warm-up area at Diegem this year there seemed to be more people coming by than usual. Turned out word had spread about the bikes that U23 rider Yannick Eckmann had, and more specifically, the electronic shifting system. Throughout the morning, USA Mechanics Todd Anderson and Dave Hartman spoke with many people, from Belgian mechanics to seven-time World Champion Erik De Vlaeminck, all about how the shifting worked in the testing cyclocross elements.

Do you have any tips for aspiring cross photographers?
Know the course and keep moving. Even though you might be struck by a particular angle or position on the course, don’t stay there more than two laps. If you are focusing on photographing a particular racer, be prepared each lap. Shoot the crowd. Shoot the racers warming up and cooling down. Shoot the vendors selling food and beer. Photographing the day as a story is always more rewarding than just straight-up race shots.

You’ve already been over to Belgium this year, so who’s your pick for the Elite Men’s World Champion of 2012?

Sven Nys. While he’s had some bad luck in this race over the years, right now he has good form, good health, and he always proves to be the strongest mentally.

That wraps up the latest installment of Rapha cyclocross photography series. If you want to see the others, check out Chris Milliman, Dan Sharp, Brian Vernor, and Geoff Waugh.