Imaging yourself driving in the middle of nowhere. In Nevada (USA) on a state route between Battle Mountain and Austin. Suddenly there is a road block. A couple of hundred meters further you see some futuristic vehicles coming your way (they are actually bicycles!). You couldn't have known but you were actually witnessing the finish of a cyclist who rode over 120 km per hour (80 miles per hour). Science fiction, you think? Actually not, it’s the finish of the World Human Powered Speed Challenge.
For eight years I have been covering this amazing event. And it is always challenging. For myself and my equipment. It’s not only because of the conditions. The race itself is hard to cover. But before I’ll explain how I handle these challenges, let me first tell you about the event itself and why it’s so exciting to be there.
As you may have guessed, the World Human Powered Speed Challenge (WHPSC) is all about going as fast as possible on a bicycle using only pure human power. The only engine allowed is the human. If you ride on a normal bike you may hit speeds like 30 km/h, top sprinters in the Tour de France reach to 80 km/h. The fastest man at the WHPSC, the Canadian Todd Reichert, did an amazing 144 km/h. Sure, Denise Korenek went faster, she went just over 269 km/h. But she was riding behind a car. All Reichert had were his legs and some aerodynamics. In order to get to the high speeds the competitors at the WHPSC ride in streamlined recumbent bicycles. Most of them with a camera to see the road, instead of a window. And this brings me to my first challenge: I can’t see the athletes during the record attempts, only the outside of the bike.
For the competition the organisation found a nearly perfect flat road, about 10 km straight. It is part of the SR 305 between two small towns in the remote desert of Nevada. The bikes start southbound and have eight kilometers to speed up. Only the first 15 meters they are allowed to have some support to be stable. Since the bikes are fully closed and the athletes can’t put their feet on the ground, they will fall over if not held. Most of them are two-wheeled, only some are multi-track. After the first eight kilometers, the bikes hit the timing section. Over a distance of 200 meters the time is measured and the average speed in this section results in the final official speed recorded for the race. After the finish the vehicles have around a 1.5 km to slow down before they are caught at the so-called catch area.
The races are in the mornings and evenings due to lower temperatures and the chance for lower wind speeds. To have a ‘legal run’ (a run that is valid for a record) the wind speeds have to be below 6 km/h. In the morning and evenings are when the most heats take place, each with several runs, depending on the time and participating competitors. The time slot between the bikes is two minutes. Since only human power is allowed no vehicles are allowed to ride in front of the bike. The chase vehicle, needed in case of an emergency and for the coaches, has to stay more than 200 meters behind the bicycle.
There are a few photographic challenges for me. I can’t photograph a full run at start, timing and finish in one run. With the speeds achieved, I can’t move myself fast enough to get to the end. The only car allowed is the chase vehicle and even then I am way too far behind for good shots. I have to make a decision on where I will be even though during the whole event and for the story I need photograph all areas. I want some wide shots with the environment as well as some close photos. To make things a bit more complex, I can’t be close to the road when the bikes are running. Meaning that I need a trick to frame my wide shots.
My main focus is on the Dutch team Human Power Team Delft and Amsterdam (HPT). They have a lot of sponsors who support their project and those sponsors want to see the bike with their logo in full view. The problem here is that the team has two kind of fairings: one with logos and one without. The latest being the fastest since there is less disturbance on the surface of the bicycle. Aerodynamics is key! I have to take the photos with the logos normally at the beginning of the week, at all important areas.
The last challenge I have are the conditions. It’s in the desert and it’s normally very dry when we are out there. I have to be careful switching lenses and I have to clean my gear often. The dust gets in everywhere.
During the years I have gained a lot of experience, so I know what I can roughly expect to happen and what I need. My equipment has changed through the years, leaving stuff behind that I didn’t need. I have to also think about taking some gear I was missing or to bring new gear in order to capture something completely different. My goal is to capture something new and original each year so the process of what gear to bring is a challenge as well.
Working on autopilot is something I want to avoid. Since I am the photographer of the Dutch team, I can test some things when the team is training to make sure I am well prepared. A good preparation is not only key for the teams, also for me as photographer and I have to be constantly aware that I am in a remote area. The base town is Battle Mountain, once called the armpit of America and the nearest
bigger town is a couple hours driving and that is why I need to make sure I bring everything with me and have some spares where possible. Last year my USB-C hub broke and that was a big problem. Amazon said it would ship within a day, but it took around five days before it got to my hotel. This time, I’ve ordered two as you may understand.
Roughly my gear consists with the following items: three camera bodies, two wide angle lenses, a telephoto lens, a teleconverter, a standard focal length, a speed-light, Pocket-wizards, a tripod and a gorilla-pod, a laptop, a Wacom tablet, card readers, chargers, spare batteries, lots of memory cards, two external storage drives, GPS, a Mifi-device, a telephone and lots of cables. Last year I’ve also brought a Profoto B10 and an umbrella with me to take the portrait and team photos.
Most of the gear I am carrying with me all the time, so also to and back from the track. The only thing I left behind in the hotel was the B10, since I can’t use it during the races.
Typically I am at the timing section of the actual race the day after. But there is a risk for me standing there. If the team sets a record, I will be at the wrong location because it is at the finish line where I will capture their emotions after setting a speed record.
At timing section, you see the bikes at full speed, which is really exciting to see. At the same time it’s the hardest spot for me to photograph. Not only because of the speed. Of all the shooting locations, this one gives me no space to manoeuvre. You don’t want a rider to scare when you suddenly pop up next to the road at those speeds! At the same time I’ve got the busiest backgrounds. Since I can’t do much with a wide angle from my standing point, I am using two remotes with a wide angle set up near the road pointing in different directions. With the telephoto I can make panning shots, while the remotes fire more surrounding photos.
For the rest of the week I’ll be spending my time at the finish area. Although I always try to sneak a run or two in the chase vehicle, capturing the emotions of the trainer and other team members in the chase vehicle is great. They are an important part of the team effort!
At the finish is where you can see a lot of different scenes. I can photograph the bikes passing by, panning and with a wide angle on remote. I can capture how the bikes are caught and most important the emotions of the athletes and the team members when the run is over. I set up my remote around a hundred meters from the catching point and hang around that point with my other two cameras on my neck. This allows me to take all kind of photos. As soon as the bike is near the catchers it’s time for me to run and be next to the bike when they take of the fairing. Sometimes you’ll see the steam coming out of the bike. Photographing all kinds of expressions on the athletes faces when they come out of the bike is fantastic: from exhausted to happy and from angry to nervous. It’s all about the emotions and it’s the only place I can get a glimpse what an effort they put in the bikes.
Yes! This year the Human Power Team Delft and Amsterdam set a world record!!! AND luckily for me I was at the right spot! What a relief!!!
Even after eight years photographing, the World Human Powered Challenge is still addictive. It’s always amazing to see what one can achieve on purely human power. I’ve seen Sebastiaan Bowier riding in harsh conditions and setting a world record in 2013 and a few years later Todd Reichert setting that record to an amazing 144 km/h and that’s something I’ll never forget. The nervousness of Rosa Bas in 2019 when she thought she had broken the nine year old women’s world record and the joy at the meeting when it came to be true was a once in a lifetime experience. As the photographer of the Dutch team I enjoy seeing the team grow from rookies to experienced engineers. I’ve seen the most amazing bikes one can ever think of. There is a lot of competition, still everyone there wants only one thing: to set a new world record. Teams are helping each other. The organisation and the other volunteers are supporting everyone. It’s just one big family who gather every September in that little town.
Great people, great bikes, interesting technology and a stunning environment, what more can I ask for? I am sure I’ll be back there!
Except for the tripod and the umbrella for the Profoto B10, I want everything with me as carry-on luggage. All the gear is way too expensive and fragile to hand over to the people throwing with bags. I also have only one hard drive in my carry-on, the other one is checked in. If they steal my bag, I still have a copy in my checked in luggage.
Until recently I’ve used a roller suitcase to pack all the camera gear. It was small enough to be allowed for carry-on but it still gave me trouble to check in. They always wanted to weigh my suitcase and with all that equipment it is definitely more than allowed (most of the time my carry-on luggage was even heavier than my checked-in luggage).
I have been extremely please with the Nya-Evo Fjord 36. I though it would not be big enough for my trip the USA but to my surprise I’ve got everything I wanted into the bag. There was even room for a book to read in the plane and my headphones! It was a tight fit, but it worked. I had no problems getting in the plane since the Fjord 36 looks really slim.
Another very nice bonus is that the backpack weights less than most camera backpacks and certainly less than a roller case. Even with all my gear inside weighting 17 kg in total, it was still comfortable. That said, I will get the Fjord 60-C next time in order to have a little bit more space yet still a compact bag
This article was written by Bas de Meijer and edited by the NYA-EVO team.
Special congrats to the Human Power Team of Delft & Amsterdam team for their amazing performance!
- Instagram: @hptdelft
Photography by Bas de Meijer
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