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Here's what it's really like being a pro race photographer

14 Feb 2022

Capturing images of pro racing takes skill, tenacity and luck. Photographer Pauline Ballet reveals how she does it

Words Maria David Photography Pauline Ballet

Motorbike crashes, frenzied crowds, equipment failures, exhaustion… the life of a WorldTour photographer can be fraught, but all the effort is worth it when it results in images that bring the sport of cycling to life for newspaper, magazine and online readers around the world. Readers like you, for example.

Having graduated from the National School of Photography in her native France, followed by a residency in Argentina, Pauline Ballet has been a professional sports photographer since 2013.

After the early days of working on the picture desk and photographing for Amaury Sports Organisation, Ballet went freelance, still for ASO and also for cycling teams and in other sports.

‘I was fascinated by old-fashioned, black and white, candid photos by Robert Doisneau and I try to capture that in sports photography,’ she says. ‘Being a cycling photographer has parallels with cycling.

The actions are done individually but we work as a team, helping each other and showing solidarity to achieve positive results. If I break a lens, for example, a colleague would lend me theirs to get the work done, and I would do the same for others.’

Just for Cyclist, Ballet has picked out a selection of her favourite images from her time in pro cycling, and tells the stories of how she captured them and what makes them special for her.

2019 Paris-Nice, Stage 7, Col de Turini (main image)

I really wanted to capture the hairpins and the panorama, so I walked 3km down the col with all my gear to take the photo (main image above). I then realised that Nicolas Edet was in the breakaway.

At that moment I thought. ‘OK, I’ve taken this lovely photo, but as I’m working for Cofidis they will want a photo of Nicolas if he wins, but I’m 3km from the finish line.’

Then I began to worry, thinking, ‘What if they don’t like my photo of the Col de Turini, and I have no photo of Nicolas winning the stage?’

Thankfully they did like the photo, and Getty, whom Team Cofidis were also working with, were able to supply a photo of Nicolas at the finish line [though he finished third].

2021 Vuelta a EspañaStage 17, Lagos de Covadonga

When working with Team Cofidis I have privileged access to areas such as on the bus and in their hotel, where I cover the behind-the-scenes lives of the staff and riders.

Here I captured the atmosphere on the morning after Guillaume Martin’s crash. Although he was lying second on GC, his lingering wounds made him stiff coming into the day’s key mountain stage.

I am fascinated by the physique of racing cyclists. Guillaume had strapping across his chest for his bruised ribs, and his skin was shrivelled.

I got a real sense of how physically and mentally worn out a rider becomes towards the end of their second Grand Tour of the year.

2019 Arctic Race of Norway, Stage 3, Storheia

This shot was one of the luckiest moments of my career as a photographer. It had been a very sunny day, but then suddenly there was a biblical shower with hailstones. At that point I said to my moto rider, ‘Watch the sky,’ as I sensed a rainbow coming.

We were travelling quite fast, ahead of the peloton. I looked behind and there it was. I didn’t have time to properly frame my picture, I just snapped, there and then.

It was great to have been exactly where I needed to be when the rainbow formed, just as Astana led the peloton [in an attempt at victory for Alexey Lutsenko].

2019 Tour de France, Stage 14, Tourmalet

This was Thibaut Pinot attacking around 300m from the finish line. I was on the motorbike and before that, 3km out, I’d been lamenting the prospect of having no photo of the breakaway group.

On a col, the system is the motorbike photographers stay ahead of the riders and each one is cleared in turn by the marshal to ride downhill, take their photos and return to the group.

However the Tourmalet was so packed it wasn’t safe for motorbikes to get to the breakaway so I couldn’t take any photos. Then when the road cleared in the last 800m I begged the marshal to let me drop down to the riders, which he did.

There I was in front of the line of leaders, and just as I snapped, Thibaut made his winning move.

2021 Tour de Provence

When I saw Anthony Perez fall on Stage 3 of the 2020 Tour de France after becoming the virtual King of the Mountains I was really upset, especially as I’d built up a friendship with him through my work with Team Cofidis.

I recall him looking dazed, with multiple injuries, and the skin on his back completely ripped open. I wouldn’t leave the scene until I’d seen him get in an ambulance. He’d collided with a car and when he fell he scraped his back on a rock.

The next time I saw him was at last year’s Tour de Provence, and the first thing I did was to ask him how he was.

Anthony talked through his rehabilitation and he let me photograph the scar – something I was able to do, given the rapport I had built up with him over the years.

2020 Tour de France, Stage 13, Puy Mary 

When photographing, you have to be able to make something out of a setback. On this day France Television was making a mini-documentary about my work, so they followed us throughout the stage.

We were on a mini three-wheeler motorbike ahead of the breakaway in the final kilometre when suddenly, 300m from the finish, it came to a grinding halt, belching out smoke, unable to continue.

I was totally panic-stricken, turning the air blue with expletives, with the microphone picking it all up.

Fortunately the marshal helped us move into the barriers before the riders arrived. Despite the disappointment, I managed to shoot the finish line area from a different perspective, portraying the cheering fans in front of breakaway winner Daniel Martínez.

It worked out, even if France Television had to edit out a chunk of my ‘commentary’.

2020 Tour de France, Stage 18, La Roche-sur-Foron

Due to Covid the number of photographers on the finish line was limited, and as my colleague was the designated photographer I had to shoot the finish without being on the finish line.

While taking the short cut from Cormet de Roselend to reach La Roche-sur-Foron I was wracking my brain, thinking where to stand. Then I saw the large truck that was powering the giant screen, 50m from the race finish.

I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be good to be above the finish line and capture the victory salute of the winner?’ So I climbed onto the truck (after the marshals put me in a safety harness).

It was great to capture that moment of solidarity between the two riders [winner Michał Kwiatkowski and Ineos Grenadiers teammate Richard Carapaz]. I hadn’t known how the photo would turn out, but I’m glad to have taken the chance.

2021 Paris-Roubaix

The look on Heinrich Haussler’s face at the finish line resonated with me. Earlier, near Orchies, I was lying on the ground after coming off the motorbike, thinking my 2021 Paris-Roubaix was over.

We’d fallen heavily and it felt like I’d broken a bone. Two other motorbike photographers, Anne-Christine Poujoulat and Fred Mons, stopped to check I was OK and helped me back up.

Although I continued to take photos right to the finish line, I was in terrible pain. [X-rays later revealed Ballet had broken two ribs.]

That morning, even experienced photographers like Bernard Papon [from L’Equipe] had looked apprehensive about the race, so we knew things would be tough.

I saw my friend Etienne Garnier from L’Equipe fall and slide into the mud right in front of me at sector 21, and I crashed twice that day, as did most photographers. In parallel, riders came by looking more like warriors than athletes.

When Heinrich crossed the finish line I photographed him hugging his victorious teammate, Sonny Colbrelli. Then I captured the thousand-mile stare on his face as our eyes met. That image summarised the day he’d had, and I felt a momentary connection with him.

It reflected what was going through his mind and what I was thinking too after this extremely challenging day. That moved me emotionally.

2018 Paris-Roubaix

In the velodrome I had everything ready, with my camera in burst mode. I got a good shot of Silvan Dillier as he led Peter Sagan into the concluding lap and a half.

As Sagan overtook and sprinted to the line raising his arms, the image burst suddenly stopped. I looked down at my camera and saw the word ‘full’. My memory card had run out of space.

As the media frenzy ensued on his victory, I was totally crestfallen that my photo was of Sagan five metres before the finish line! This was the biggest mistake in my career.

I felt so ashamed and agonised over it for weeks. Nowadays I laugh about it, and it has become a running joke among my colleagues. As photographers, we all have a moment where we make a schoolgirl error, and that was mine.