My annual trek to Grinnell Iowa
Just like the Vernal Equinox coming every spring, so does my annual trek to Iowa to document the running of the Trans Iowa Endurance Bicycle Race. I really love photographing this race. Its not really that easy with early morning get ups (2:30am - 2:45am) on Saturday and Sunday when sleep is possible. You spend from 3:30am Saturday morning until 11pm or so running the 340 mile course in a truck trying to find the right backgrounds for photos that coincide with the 87 rider's positions. You need those dying math skills to compute where you think groups and riders will be. I use a computer with GPS mapping to plot cross country routes to intercept riders for my pilot, George Keslin (GK). Given the riders are at differing skill levels, they become stretched out by 4-8 or more miles as a group during the day. By evening that stretch is longer. There are flat tire repairs, refueling stops at any convenience store found along the way and often just some rest stops in a roadside ditch to catch one's breath. Its a hard race.
But those that race it, chosen by lottery due to the numbers that want in, are my friends so the night before is one of merriment and catching up. Then its off for 2-4 hours of sleep which for me is fitful and then up and downtown for the 4am start which means I start covering it around 3:20am which is when riders start to show up, unload and prep for the grueling 34 hours ahead.
Once lined up, I try to get the traditional "start" picture. Its dark out, and I have to go pretty high ISO but not too high since this shot gets printed most years. Its always like 1/60th at f/2.8 with a prayer.
Once the race is underway, its time to try and find a sunrise shot, which due to the fog and cloudy skies just didn't happen. The bulk of the morning then is meshing the Iowa landscape with the race using several cameras plus a mix of telephoto lenses and wide angles. This is where the 70-200mm 2.8 comes into play along with the 14-24mm 2.8 and a 35mm 1.4 prime. Once the light was brighter I also used my Fuji 100-400mm zoom which I almost didn't bring but some of the better shots came with that nice piece of glass.
Some of the tricks I use aren't really tricks but common sense. I used a tripod with the long Fuji. I used some panning techniques but few as the course was pretty fast and it was hard to swing the telephotos. You need to practice holding your kit rock solid. You have to use a lot of "preview" ahead for these shots too. Almost pre frame but leave enough room in your composition to move the camera and lens around once things start to take shape when your talent arrives. Not very different from studio shooting and really, probably the one consistent thing I strive for. I'm really proud that I cropped very little this year. Most that were are the result of me trying something new in terms of camera position and not liking it so I cropped it back to something more pleasing.
I used mostly Nikon for the event. I didn't plan it that way but I needed to use flash here and there and I used the 14-24mm and 70-200mm 2.8 a lot. I used my D750 w/grip exclusively and that camera mates to my 70-200mm 2.8 like it was made for it or is permanently attached. When you find a combo like that, you use it. A lot.
I hoped to use my Fuji X-Pro2 and X-T1 cameras and indeed all the 100-400mm images where shot with the X-T1 and since I forgot to set it up for RAW processing, which is my norm, they were all in camera JPG shots and I was impressed! A minor mistake made good. I used the X-Pro2 with the 50-140mm 2.8 mostly because its a great sensor married to a very good lens (50-140mm in APS-C is same angle of view as a full frame 70-200mm). This is the rare shot where I used a flash in manual with the X-Pro2. Outstanding detail.
But the end of the race is in the dark and that means lots of flash and often lots of fast flash as the riders approach and finish. So its Nikon and iTTL there. Tricky too. Exposures blow out with some clothing and gear. I tend to underexpose and correct in post processing. Flash runs at -3EV always and often -7EV. My D750 also mates well with the 24-70mm 2.8 from Nikon, without doubt my least favorite lens but really the best choice for this sort of work.
Nothing says as much about Trans Iowa and it's participants as much as the above picture. What other competition embraces co-winners? This was a first for co-winners too but these two riders rode together for the entire race, using each other to push each other to a finish. I watched them on the course over the whole of the day and saw it time and time again at stops and checkpoints. You see that a lot on the course too. Many riders helping riders to the finish because for many thats the Holy Grail, a finish. Finishing isn't easy. Typically, 20 or so. But because of that camaraderie, this year there were 47 finishers - the most ever. Great weather, for a change, helped. A challenging but fast course too. Fastest course time of 24 hours and one minute for 340 miles of gravel and dirt on a bicycle is new record for Trans Iowa. 340 miles. Overnight. Self supported. Crazy sane isn't it?
Big shout out to WTB, a great bicycle company. They were so generous in offering EVERY finisher a set of new WTB Nano 40c tires! This is huge! Will Ritchie from WTB even came in from Portland to ride the race. Sponsors like that fit the Trans Iowa mentality. Giving and generous. Its a great weekend, an exhausting weekend but a great one. Its got emotion from laughs to crying and all sorts of stuff in between. Its got some drama with roving dogs patrolling some roads...the Iowa DOT adding half a foot of fresh new gravel seemingly overnight and removing a needed bridge in record time forcing a slight re-route. The riders, the volunteers and the families that come to lend support at the finish make what co-winner Greg Gleason says is the Trans Iowa Family. I'm stoked to be taking these family photos.