Cycling is often a very visual sport. It lends itself to superb photography thanks to fine landscapes and changing urban settings. I normally ride with a helmet and sunglasses but part of me longs for the days of old when you could see the whites of a riders’ eyes, today us cyclists are hidden a little bit behind all this protection, but for obvious reasons.
But visit a bike race and you will return with more than just images in your mind or on a memory card. The photos go a long way to capturing the action but the bunch is dynamic, noisy and at times smelly. Here are some of the sounds and smells I find accompany a big bike race.
Sights of a bike race
- The bikes shine. At the start of a race pro bikes often look the part, as if they will go faster. They are washed and polished, and if it’s a dry day then even the chain looks spotless.
- The riders are small. Some guys who look big on TV or in photos are pretty small in reality. It’s more that a rider is big compared to the others in the bunch but overall pro cyclists are stick thin and it’s only when you see a race for real, or better, the riders standing around at the start, that you realise this.
- Nothing moves: the riders sit so tight on the bikes, there’s rarely any movement at the shoulders or hips. There are exceptions of course, especially uphill or after six hours but in general these guys are as planted than a 100 year old oak tree. This uniform stability probably contrasts to your local race or group ride.
- Nothing moves: the clothing is skin-tight. Again lesser riders might have looser fitting clothing but most pros have very tight fitting clothing. Some of this is a new move towards lycra jerseys but many teams have secret custom-fitted clothing too.
- The things that do move are the muscles. Seeing the muscles flex when a rider is is in full flow is something, they are part human-anatomy chart, part bronze statue.
- You might see the racing on TV but there’s so much more around the race than the leading riders, you’ll see the groups further down the road, as well as the publicity caravan ahead of the race and the massive convoy of vehicles following it.
Sounds of a bike race
- Get in the right place like a corner or the top of a climb and you’ll hear 200 riders change gear. Carbon frames and rims tend to amplify the “clank” of the chain as it shifts gears on the back. As a racer you might notice others doing this but as a spectator the sound just seems more obvious and widespread.
- Similarly pick your spot and the squeal of brakes is common, get before a tight corner or on a tricky descent and you can hear the sound of friction. Plus a few riders squeal too, vanishing gaps mean many get nervous and shout out in anxiety.
- Voices are common, things obviously quieten down for the last hour as the concentration picks up but you can hear everything from conversation to swearing, all in a multilingual setting. Once the breakaway has gone up the road the bunch might go easy for a while and riders will chat, exchanging a few words here and there. Later they’ll alert each other and then when things get busy if riders get mistakes you might overhear a few angry exchanges.
- At speed you’ll hear a small “woosh” of air as each rider passes, meaning then the bunch flies past the sound is something.
- The publicity caravan is noisy, loudspeakers try to get attention to whatever product or brand is being marketed. Some moving vehicles feature dancing and music.
- If you’ve been waiting for some time for a big race to show then the arrival of helicopters in the sky signals the riders are nearby, the sound of their blades is an alert to take up position.
Smells of a bike race
Smell is a powerful sense and bike races are no exception.
- Visit a race the start of a Belgian race and the aroma of menthol can be heavy in the air as riders have slapped on the embrocation.
- On a hot day the smell of sweat can be noticeable too, 200 riders toiling for up to eight hours on the bike in the midday sun means they can pong like medieval farm workers.
- Riders are just one part of the race, the sport takes place outdoors and chances are you’ll be waiting for sometime to see the race go by. You can get plenty of local aromas, from the smell of others picnicking and, in Belgium, the nearby frites stall. If you’re lucky and waiting on the slopes of Mont Ventoux you migth get the perfume from lavender and rosemary.
- The accompanying vehicles can smell a lot. The exhaust fumes are noticeable. But on a long climb you can get the aroma of burning clutch plates and from the descent a smell of burnt rubber and overheating brake pads.
A bike race may be very visual. I’m an avid watcher of race photography and really enjoy the range of images available, especially since travel to all these races is impossible. Even if you make to one race often you need the video or camera pics to see what happened in a race on elsewhere at the same time.
But it goes without saying that photography purely captures the image, of course. But visit a big race and you’ll find the other senses are at work. You don’t just see a race, you feel it.