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Roundtable: The Role of the Media Crew

Roundtable: The Role of the Media Crew

13 January, 2022

Beccy Waters

By: Beccy Waters

The role of the media crew in telling the story of a race both during and after the event has been instrumental in the growth of our sport but their potential influence on the race has long been disputed. Many races will have their own official media crew consisting of multiple vehicles following the race with photographers, podcasters and a filmmaker, while some events may be documented by independent media. With the increasing popularity of personal media crews, there's been discussion around the advantages this may give a rider and whether it strays into the realms of support.

We've looked to those in our sport with the most experience behind and in front of the lens to share their thoughts on this sensitive subject. Juliana Buhring is the Race Director for Two Volcano Sprint and set the first women's Round The World Guinness World Record in 2012. Josh Ibbett is a guest GCN presenter whose ultra-racing career spans eight years of racing during which he has won TCRNo3, GBDURO20 and Italy Divide. Mike Dion is a filmmaker and documented the Tour Divide in Ride the Divide (2010) and TransAm Bike Race in Inspired to Ride (2015). James Robertson is a photographer who has officially photographed five editions of the Transcontinental Race, the TransAtlantic Way, Two Volcano Sprint and independently photographed the Highland Trail 550 and The Adventure Syndicate's many misadventures. Liam Glen's palmares boasts the only two-time winner of the Highland Trail 550, with victories from both 2016 and 2021. Markus Stitz is one of the very few people who has experienced racing from both sides of the lens; a singlespeed veteran of the Highland Trail 550 and Atlas Mountain Race, geared on the Silk Road Mountain Race and round the world tourer who has documented countless rides, including Mark Beaumont's winning GBDURO21 ride in Maiden Race.

What do you believe to be the primary purpose of a media crew?

Markus Stitz, Maiden Race filmaker and racer: The media crew should document an event with as little involvement in the race itself as possible. When I documented GBDURO I tried to minimise my contact with riders during the checkpoints, often they simply whizzed past. What exactly the media crew's brief is, will depend on who has commissioned them in the first instance. Races I have done, like the Atlas and Silk Road Mountain Races, will have their own media crew, whose purpose is to document the event for the organiser, and/or sponsors involved. At GBDURO I was a one-man media crew commissioned by Shimano, who were not involved in the race as sponsor, but were a sponsor of Mark Beaumont. There might also be other journalists covering a race, who are independent from either race or any of the riders. But regardless of who eventually pays who, the media crew should not influence the race outcome, integrity is key here. And if they witness someone breaking rules, even if it is a rider they have been commissioned to follow, they need to report that.

Juliana Buhring, Two Volcano Sprint Race Director and former round the world record holder: To document the journey of riders and the event as a whole, trying to capture moments and glimpses into what the riders are experiencing, the challenges, struggles and triumphs of the participants. Not everyone can or will attempt to participate in these kinds of extreme races, but they love cheering on those who do and being a part of it in some small way, so giving dotwatchers a glimpse of what it means to be inside of the race provides a way for them to participate.

Josh Ibbett, GBDURO20 winner and guest GCN presenter: Bikepacking and ultra racing is growing in popularity and I believe the purpose of a media crew is to document races and events and showcase our sport to the wider world in the best possible light. There is a growing interest in bikepacking both from inside and outside the bike industry so film crews need to find the balance between keeping the integrity of bikepacking whilst delivering content to the wider world.

Mike Dion, Ride The Divide and Inspired to Ride filmmaker: To tell a compelling story! My background is in traditional filmmaking. I strive to tell compelling and emotional stories whether I’m producing a :30 TV commercial or 90 minute film. I approach my bikepacking documentaries like a traditional scripted film. By focusing on character development, ensuring the edit has plot points, and making sure the audience is emotionally engaged by the use of music, scenery and pacing. If I’ve created something that someone wants to watch a second time, I’ve succeeded. This may not be the primary focus of certain bikepacking events but it’s how I’ve approached these projects.

James Robertson, Photographer:

Capitalism.

The media crew’s remit is to document the race and the experience of the riders, but whatever our personal reasons for doing this its core purpose is to make these races attractive to sponsors and generate money.

Now, that is not to say that’s its exclusive purpose - and it’s certainly not to say that is how most photographers/videographers approach it - but many races require sponsorship to keep them going and to generate the future entries that allow them to grow. The images and videos created by media teams are the main currency in this regard.

How much of the experience would be lost from the Transcontinental Race if there was zero media coverage? I would argue that for those riding it essentially none; it might even be a heightened experience. This is why I believe we need to be careful and conscious with how we cover races and which parts of the racing culture we amplify. There are people on the start line of these races who are there because of the images and videos we have created. It is what has attracted them, it is what has made these races seem aspirational and that gives us an incredible responsibility.

Liam Glen, HT550 2016 and 2021 winner: I think the media crew should be telling the story of the race. Perhaps a slight bias towards the front of the race is allowed, since these are races after all, but often some of the best stories are further back.

Juliana Buhring and Mike Dion Inspired to Ride doc making

Mike Dion interviews Juliana Buhring for Inspired to Ride documenting the 2014 Trans Am Bike Race

Riders rarely take part in an ultra-endurance event in order to be on camera. What steps can a media crew take to respect a rider’s wishes for privacy/space whilst also meeting their brief?

Markus: Everyone's motivations are different. As long as you follow the ethos of the event you are involved in, then there is rarely a wrong reason to ride your bike. Whatever drives you, whether deeply personal or publicity motivated, that is your prerogative. However, ultra endurance events are so hard that in my experience, motivation needs to come from within, rather than ‘for the camera’. The events I know have no prize money attached, and I hope that will stay as a principle. In order to keep the integrity of races, it helps to discuss any scenarios that could prove to be a problem in advance, and including the race organisers in those discussions. If the media crew is not part of the event itself, a good level of trust is needed on both sides. In my case it helps having been on the other side of races as a rider. I could imagine how a rider felt in a certain situation, and if they explicitly express a wish for privacy, this should always be respected.

Juliana: It helps when the media crew are themselves riders or racers, so they know what it means to want your solitary head space on the road and can recognise when the rider is having a moment or needs that space at any given time. It's important that they are able to document what is happening without interacting too much or interfering. Sometimes a rider wants to chat or rant or has a good story to tell, but it should be the rider who offers the interaction, not the other way around.

Josh: Keeping your distance is key. Having a camera shoved in your face when you are at your lowest point makes fantastic tv… but can be quite distracting. I think film crews should cover races the same way riders race, little sleep and keep moving. This puts the film crews on the same level as the riders.

Mike: Riders are likely taking part in the ultra-endurance event because they’ve seen other riders before them on camera… Films, photos, and stories are the intoxicating drug that pulls many of us to want to take on these grand adventures in the first place. So thank you to the riders who are open to sharing their stories and experiences with the media crews. For the riders who want privacy and space, give it. If the crew are professionals, respect to the rider must be given no matter the brief. There were times while filming Inspired to Ride that you could tell Mike Hall was not in the mood to talk. We gave him privacy and focused our direction on filming locals and the waitress serving his pizza. Also, before the inaugural Trans Am event even started, we received permission from racers and got a sense of who was not interested in being on camera and part of our story.

James: I acknowledge that while many riders aren’t taking part explicitly to be photographed, an increasing number are there as a result of the imagery that has been created of previous events and the way in which the races have been projected and a desire to be a part of that.

I’m not sure I consider the rider’s wishes for privacy or alternatively their willingness to interact with the camera to be that relevant. There is a tacit agreement that by taking part in these races riders are willing to expose themselves and their emotions far more than they would in everyday life - in many races there are explicit agreements that riders taking part acknowledge that they will be photographed. As these races take part in public spaces in most countries riders have no expectation of privacy and could be photographed by anyone - though this probably doesn’t extend to me following them into toilets.

This, of course, becomes a much greater issue as the profile of these races grow, the number of media teams increases and external interest in them becomes a factor.

This means there needs to be a respect between media and riders and an acknowledgment that both are responsible for the legitimacy of the rider's race. Certainly through the TCR it is made clear to any external media crew that their actions could result in the rider receiving a DNF. And it is also made clear to riders that they have a responsibility to ensure that any media following them isn’t breaking the rules.

Conversely it is also my belief there should be the possibility to take part in these races and not have a single image taken of you or see the race organisation or media teams; to finish on your own at 2am with no one waiting for you; to meet only volunteers at control points; and no rider should have the expectation of seeing the race organisers or media team or of having images made of them.

There’s a cumulative effect at play too. Being photographed once, by one photographer while experiencing an intense low point is different from being bombarded by several photographers or experiencing it continually throughout the race.

Liam: I think first of all, the race organiser should be clear on exactly how much media coverage there will be, so that racers can decide if it’s for them before signing up. You could potentially have an opt in/out during sign up in terms of whether you appear in the media. During the race, the media crew should have as little impact on the race as possible. That could mean not making their shot locations clear to racers, not driving alongside for extended periods of time, etc.

Mike Dion

The late Mike Hall is filmed on the Trans Am Bike Race for Inspired To Ride. Photo by Mike Dion.

Self-shot footage gives a unique insight into the rider's perspective. What role do you believe documentaries from self-shot footage play in telling the story of a ride?

Markus: I think self-shot documentaries can tell a very individual story of a race, but it will be hard to capture a race as a whole in this way. I liked using some of Mark’s self shot footage from ‘Maiden Race’. But it is worth pointing out that Mark has a lot of experience in self filming expeditions, and this takes a lot of practice. Personally I find it very difficult to both race and film at the same time. I had the intention to film my Atlas Mountain Race in 2020, but ditched the plan on day one, as I had no mental capacity for that. I am either racing or documenting. An approach I used for ‘No Stone Unturned’ was to spend two weeks before the Silk Road Mountain Race to recce small parts of the route and combine it with cycling other routes not used in the race itself, and document that journey instead. It allowed me to get an insight into Kyrgyzstan, acclimatising to cope with altitude and also understanding the people in the country much better. Another interesting approach in my eyes is to use the more intimate perspective of the race and combine it with more generic footage filmed before, if time is no issue.

Juliana: It can be a useful addition that adds some live insight, but as with any kind of documentation of any event, no one means tells a complete story. Self shot footage is obviously the individual story of one rider.

Josh: I’ve been self filming for a number of years. I think it's important to get a rider's perspective of rides as film crews can quite often gloss over the hard parts. Bike racing isn’t all golden hours and high fives… it can be pretty miserable too and I think self filming gives a great insight into the real emotions of a ride.

Mike: They tell the story that the person who took the time and energy to create was able to tell. This can be done incredibly well or not. The energy it takes to ride hundreds of miles a day may leave little left to also effectively self-shoot your adventure. My hat’s off to the people who attempt to do this well - it is not an easy task. My film, Reveal the Path was an attempt to self-shoot our adventures. It has its own style for sure but of all my films it did not have the pull that Ride the Divide and Inspired to Ride had. I believe it takes the mindset of a storyteller to pull this off and get the coverage needed. And equipment like GoPros, iPhones and tiny drones make it easier every day.

James: I think they can be limited in what they achieve and to be really pushing yourself in a race and documenting it is a big ask for even the strongest riders.

There are, however, limits to all forms of coverage in terms of what it can achieve and I reckon this is a good thing. I am a firm believer in not covering everything, in part because I don’t think it is possible while maintaining the unsupported nature of races, but also because there is something special about allowing stories to happen in isolation.

Self shot footage - and more so images - can provide an intimate insight into a rider's race. For me it is the simple images of meals, middle-of-the-night selfies and bivi locations that provide a type of coverage that simply isn’t possible for a media team to achieve. I have spent many a day in the back of a car scrolling through social media images from racers wishing there was a way to replicate the intimacy of a middle of the night/morning abandoned building bivi location selfie.

Liam: Some of the best race documentaries I’ve seen mix together self shot and 3rd party footage. Inevitably, there will be lots of moments/sections that an official media crew can’t capture, and that’s where the self shot footage comes in. So, I definitely think it’s got a place, but clearly the race experience is completely different if you are trying to shoot footage as you’re going along, so I think you’d have to agree who was doing that well in advance. That said, it seems that with Instagram, lots of racers are filming themselves all the time so maybe it’s not that different!

Markus Stitz train station

Markus Stitz awaits a train to transport between locations on GBDURO21. Note the amount of luggage he required.

How do you respond to concerns that the presence of a media crew inherently changes the self-supported nature of the sport?

Markus: Whilst I don’t think the presence of media crews has changed the outcome of any of the races I have either competed in or documented, I do think there is always potential to cross the invisible line of ‘self-supported’ and therefore good self awareness, common sense and a level of scrutiny will always be needed to ensure the integrity of these races. For me self-supported stops when a rider explicitly asks for something from the media crew, this can also be moral support. If a media crew acts professional, I don’t see any reason why this is against the self-supported nature. And unless races happen in areas with no reception, can we stop a rider communicating with their partner or family for some moral support? I don’t think we can, neither do I think we should.

It is worth reflecting on the cultural nuances of ‘self-supported’. This example does not involve a media crew, but illustrates my point: during the Silk Road Mountain Race, in a country like Kyrgyzstan, it would potentially be seen as rude if a rider does not accept an invitation for a tea from curious local people, but only if this has no immediate impact on the race. In the UK, I would suggest being invited into someone's home or garden for a tea is against the self-supported ethos, unless every rider is given the same opportunity.

Juliana: We are getting into the semantics of what "self-supported" means which is subjective when you go beyond the obvious rules that these races abide by, because then you are breaking into the psychological aspect which is by definition a subjective field. Obviously any human interaction changes the game psychologically, so you could say someone who has a positive interaction with the locals were given psychological "support". Seeing familiar faces on the road after a few days completely alone can absolutely raise a rider's spirits, but so can meeting road angels who come out to cheer for them. IF you want to start down that argument, it will never end. However, I would present the argument that a media or documentary crew following just one rider does give that rider a greater psychological support and advantage that is unfair to other riders. If it is a media crew following the race as a whole and meeting riders randomly on the road, that is an entirely different story and much more "fair game" to all.

Josh: Film crews can be both positive and negative. In Tour Divide 2019 I found it to be a huge distraction and on the whole it definitely negatively affected my ride (karma you could argue!). I think organising your own film crew probably isn’t the best way to go about things nowadays, however if a race organiser has a crew who are not affiliated to any particular rider I think that’s fine providing they split their time equally across the field.

Mike: Media crew along the route definitely has an effect on a rider's experience. But I would argue that any human a racer encounters along the journey becomes part of that rider's race experience. As a racer encounters other humans the self-supported aspect comes into play only if the human offers support and the racer accepts it. This is of course an oversimplified explanation but the basis for my answer. Crews should embody the self-supported ethos as much or more than the cyclists since the crews will encounter so many during their coverage of an event. For events that are very remote and if the media crew are the only humans a racer may experience for days - well this scenario may play into the mindset of a racer thinking, “At least the media crew is out here somewhere…"

James: I feel that it is important to accept that it is true that the presence of a media crew inherently changes the self-supported nature of the sport. What we’re then left to discuss is how much of an effect we’re prepared to accept and how we control and mitigate for it - limiting time spent with riders, etc.

The crux of the issue is that we all want to get the most access, and the most intimate images, the ones that really let followers inside the race. But we have to temper this with respecting the type of races these are and the genuine experience it’s essential we give riders enough space to have.

It would be interesting if a race were to say they didn’t want any race coverage. How would that race look? How would you tell the stories from it? Would you need to tell the stories from it? It is after all just a bike race, and it will happen whether there are photos of it or not.

Liam: No matter how you cut it, seeing a 3rd party out on course who knows about the race, whether that be media or even a dot watcher, changes your experience. I think that’s where media crews have to be really careful not to compromise the self supported ethos. Personally, I feel that personal media crews have no place at these races, but even neutral ones can impact things. For example, because I’ve done a few Highland Trails with James Robertson taking photos, I’ve got a fairly good idea of where he might pop up, which in turn gives me a little mental boost that I might see a friendly face and exchange a few words.

Now, James has got to be one of the least intrusive photographers out there (unless you’re in a toilet), but this just goes to show that even just the suspicion that you’ll see someone associated with the race gets you out of that fully “internal” mindset that these races are all about.

Mike Hall in Inspired to Ride

Mike Hall was a protagonist in Mike Dion's Inspired to Ride documentary

As the bikepacking industry grows, the appetite for stories from races follows. What do you believe to be the most sustainable and least-intrusive way for races or FKTs to be documented?

Markus: Whenever possible, I believe that documentary makers should also use bikes and public transport. Partly for the environmental impact, but also to fully buy into the ethos and culture of self supported races. But I am also realistic, and for some documentaries that approach will simply not work, e.g. in remote places like Kyrgyzstan or for following a rider or the front group of riders. I have the advantage of being a racer and filmmaker, so I chose the way I documented GBDURO to learn and understand the logistics, but also as it was the least-intrusive way. Being a one-man media crew meant I was treated like a rider, not like a filmmaker. If we want authentic material, that approach will deliver. There are people in the crew that can and should be local. I don’t think it is possible to apply the same approach to all productions, but where we can, we need to change the way we work. We should not be afraid of the outcome. Bikepacking races are primarily great adventures and all about wild landscapes and extreme endurance - there’s nothing to stop us from applying that same mindset to the way we are capturing and sharing these great stories on screen.

Juliana: With 2VS we developed an interesting way to follow riders' stories organically and be able to gather content and know what's going on with riders at any given time and potentially find them on the road to capture interesting events and that is with the use of a rider WhatsApp group. This is both optional and an equal opportunity platform available to all. Riders will randomly post pics of strange things they see or interactions they have, incidents, strange encounters, etc. and we have our race reporter (from dotwatcher.cc) in the group, able to gather info to post regular updates to those following the race online. We also have a media chat group where both race crew cars can give each other live updates of stories from riders they encounter on the road or anything they see or capture in real time. The race reporter is also included in this group, so between the two, they get regular news feeds from all aspects of the race from the car crews on scene to the riders themselves. This has proven particularly useful as many riders do not have or engage in social media sites, so it is one way to hear from riders who would otherwise never post anything online about themselves and has allowed us to highlight a more diverse field of riders' stories than just the obvious showboat types who are always posting to their socials.

Josh: The appetite for these stories is huge and let's face it isn’t going to go away anytime soon. Self filming is the least intrusive way to cover races, however a combination of self-filming and a film crew shooting from afar is probably the best way of creating the best possible film to highlight the sport. I guess its all about compromise.

Mike: By being unintrusive… [Adjective - not interfering or meddling.] Each event will have its own expectations and rules surrounding media crews. Ultimately, the professionalism and understanding of the ethos by the crews become paramount. Independent media likely becomes the disruptive variable if they do not come from the bikepacking community and embody the nature of self-supported events. As the industry grows, I’m curious if people are still hungry for feature-length projects like Ride the Divide & Inspired to Ride or if more of the 10 - 20 minute films that have proliferated these past few years are the desired format?

James: Markus Stitz’s recent coverage of GBDURO by a combination of public transport and riding strikes me as the most interesting approach I’ve seen recently, at least in terms of sustainability. Although it still puts media on the ground around riders, they at least look (and probably smell) like riders.

The problem comes with increased money and greater sponsor interest wanting to put more media on each race and following individual riders. I think it is important that races really consider how much media coverage they want and weigh it against the experience of racing. Going forward I think it’s important that we continue to innovate and find different ways of covering different aspects of these races. Different ways of telling the stories and of communicating these to those watching.

Liam: For races, as I’ve said above, I believe that only neutral crews should be allowed, and that they should minimise contact with racers as much as possible (outside checkpoints where you're surrounded by race people anyway). The aim should always be to have a level playing field. For FKTs it’s a bit different as it’s usually the story of 1 person. I think the main thing with those is it be open with the media arrangements so that the community can make up their own mind. The running FKTs usually have a “supported” category and I do wonder at what point an effort becomes supported. The obvious points are the carrying your own kit/fixing your own bike aspects, but the psychological support shouldn’t be dismissed. I believe that for an unsupported attempt, the racer should have no knowledge of where the media will be in advance - this makes it as close as possible to a race with neutral crew. Even then, it will be a different experience to doing it alone, but I think you can legitimately argue you’ve not enabled the racer to get a significant advantage. The presence of media at races and documenting FKTs has certainly contributed to bikepacking’s current popularity, but it’s crucial that it doesn’t compromise the founding ethos of these events.

gbduro sun-0305

It's a glamourous life. Ben Briffett waits while the EV charges on GBDURO21. Photo by Dan King/Breakaway Digital.

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