The sights, sounds and smells of a race

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.
  • Tour de France caravan

  • 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.
  • Friterie

  • 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.

8 thoughts on “The sights, sounds and smells of a race”

  1. The sound of the peleton passing is fantastic. And the sound of cheering rippling up the road as riders approach and pass is also astounding.

  2. The last two years I went to watch Eschborn-Frankfurt Financeblabla (ex-Henninger Turm) at a special place: the famous Mamolshain climb. It’s more of an medium climb, but with a 200 meter long section that’s really really steep. Just at the end of this short yet brutal section the Mamolshain citizens have their own little kirmes: a big screen, fries and sausages made by the local fire fighters and cake made by the local housewives. Of course they are selling drinks as well. Beer, soda and the apple wine the region is famous for. The pro race comes by two times, the juniors once. Can you imagine a better place to catch a race live? You’re well fed, the atmosphere is friendly and relaxed. When the race approaches everybody make their way to the roadside.
    First you hear the motorbikes and cars roaring at high rpm, the 20% climb is difficult for machines as well. Ususally a small group comes first, followed by larger groups tackling the climb. The road is narrow and you’re close to the bunch. They are going as slow as a pro field will go, you can see (and smell) the sweat, gritted teeth, pulsating vessels, eyes focusing on the end of the steep part in tunnel vision. For once, you see into how much pain and suffering these guys put themselves into.
    As described in the post, when the bunch has passed the odd smell of burned rubber and gas remains in the air for a while, just the sound of the motors fade in the distance. You get back to watching the race on the screen, eat some fries, drink a beer. You wait for the race to come around the second time. No better way to watch a race.

  3. I remember the “smells” of the Kermis very well. Frites and sausages and warm-up oils. Could have done without the cigs, but it kind of added to the experience in an odd way.

    I also vividly recall the “smells” of racing in Latin American countries. Specifically gasoline exhaust (probably leaded). Mopeds and vehicles all want to be a part of the caravan and produce an obnoxious, but endearing flavor of Caribbean racing.

    And lastly, the “pros look bigger on television” thing is spot on. First time I witnessed this was at the Tour in 1995. It was a shock to see how small a guy could be and still be powerful enough to destroy a bicycle. I walked up to Berzin one day and thought I was talking to a teenage boy.

  4. Ah, just to add another thing to the pro-looking-bigger-on-tv-thing: I remember how people joked (well they still do) about Jan Ullrich being overweight. The first time I saw the guy in reality I had the urge to get the poor boy something to eat at once.

  5. Reminds me of the time I took a friend to Colorado Springs to see the World’s, the first bike race this guy had ever seen. He kept asking “where’s this Hinault guy?” and when I finally pointed out “The Badger” he didn’t believe me! He said no way could THAT tiny guy be THE BADGER he’d seen on TV menacing Greg LeMond. After walking around awhile he said he thought most of the bike racers looked more like jockeys. I agree with Alex, I never saw “Kaiser Jan” in-person looking anything but lean and mean either.

  6. How can you forget the sound of the klaxon (sp? the car horns) particularly at the Tour de France. It was one of the things that I wanted to hear when visiting the tour and is now the ringtone on my phone.

    Also, if you ever watch a hot dog criterium, the sound and smell of cork rubbing on carbon as they brake is another of those things unique to cycling.

    And not only hearing the woosh, but feeling it too, particularly when a large group go past at speed inches from you is something that gets non-cyclists the most.

    And generally whenever I have been to a race, inbetween the first helicopter and the first cyclist is always the first police car, siren wailing to get people out of the way. That is when you know you need to be standing up to see everything.

  7. Inrng, do you have a single cycling photo that stands out amongst the many outstanding images you have seen in your career? Many thanks, as always, for your insight into the pro cycling world.

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