Before I became a photographer, I was a BMX rider. I raced and had a freestyle team. It was my life. So when I became a photographer, I started shooting what I loved. I’ve since spent a couple of decades photographing the best athletes in that and other sports, and have been able to work with and become friends with many of my heroes.
As a guy who participates in action sports, though not on a competitive level, I take every opportunity to ride, skate, snowboard, luge, whatever I can get into. I end up working with the greatest athletes in the world, and almost all of them are more than happy to have me ride with them after we get the images we’re after. Sometimes I’ll just grab a bike and spend a few minutes on a ramp while my subject grabs a drink or a bit of a rest. It keeps me going, gives me a greater appreciation of the insane talent and dedication these guys possess, and allows me to understand how to convey the feeling of doing what they do to the viewer of the image.
I’m going to recall a few tales of shoots past where I was able to do just that. It’s a big part of why I love my job. Life’s too short not to take advantage of the ability to ride with Olympic athletes and top pro riders.
I was shooting with “Pistol” Pete Loncarevich for a Vans ad. I’ve known Pete for many years, he was one of the greatest BMX racers of all time, then was the number one Downhill Mountain Bike pro racer when I shot him for this ad. We knew exactly what we wanted, I was shooting digitally so I could show the designer exactly what I was getting that matched his comp. It took us a half-hour to shoot (experience makes a HUGE difference here) in Laguna Beach, California. The location is a set of trails at an area called “Top of the World”, literally a mountain with some really intense and technical downhill single-track trails. We knew we had the shot, so I sent the designer back with the files, put my cameras away and grabbed my bike.
Picture this scenario: I’m an amateur rider, riding a weekend or two a month when I can, on a hard tail bike (no rear suspension, and actually very little on the front of the bike), about to descend a mountain with the fastest guy on the planet, with his full-factory, $10k+ bike with something like 9 inches of travel front and rear.
Oh. My. God.
But I couldn’t wait. Pistol had done this trail with a world record time of 2:45. Under 3 minutes from the top to the bottom of a mountain. *gulp*.
I followed him, he was being kind and letting me keep up. I had been down the trail once before, but not at this kind of speed. We went over sections I’d previously avoided or walked, and at one point down a sheer 10-foot cliff with a teeny transition at the bottom. I paused at the top, he was already down. I’m scared silly, he says “Lean back and don’t touch your front break!”. I did as he said and took the drop like butter. Man, was that ever cool! I ultimately ate #$@”& 3 times, hard, on the way down. I was dirty and bleeding, but had made it down the mountain in one piece in seven minutes. Even with the crashes and hesitations. I can’t tell you how amazing that was.
I’m still in awe that I had the chance to ride that mountain with the number one guy in the world. How many people will ever have a chance to do something like that?
If your work leads you to opportunities like that, don’t be shy. Take them! Those are memories to last a lifetime.