June 2, 2015

The Event of Failure and Success

Last weekend I photographed a huge bike race, the Dirty Kanza 200. The event was very cool, but my coverage was anything but smooth.

Before I moved to the US, I relished riding bikes. I build and rode trails all the time, and it was fantastic. But then I decided to make a bigger step in my life: I sold my beloved custom-built mountain bike to get some cash for a plane ticket and moved here. Since then, I haven't been riding anything besides short trips on a flat pavement to get into college and work. Still, MTB is something I am passionate about.

However, when it comes to photography, I haven't shot many bikers before. I was riding by myself most of the time, and I didn't attempt races. (Except for that downhill competition in a shopping mall..)

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I shot a short session with a local bike community earlier this year, but that's pretty much it.

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That said, I was pretty excited when I got assigned to shoot the Dirty Kanza, an annual 200 miles long bike race through gravel roads of the Flint Hills. It attracts riders from all over the US as well as internationally. Very cool!

The race starts and finishes in Emporia, and the town lives for the race. As the event approaches, every storefront has a "welcome riders" sign and/or bike-themed decoration all over. On Thursday, two days before the race, I found that some early-arriving riders are going for a quick group ride to get going. My plan was to cover it and get some shots from the events leading to the main event. I set my goal to produce some good stuff. Not that I'd set anything different for me other times, but still, I'd say I put more hopes into this event than usual. I wanted to rock it from its beginning to the finish.

However, before I could find out the exact directions of the journey, the group left. Um, the plan had evident flaws. But as I knew they are heading north, I jumped into a car and went to get at least something.



I wanted to get some more, so I moved ahead, found a nice spot, and waited for riders to appear. The sun was getting down, and although there weren't any clouds to turn red, the light was pretty nice. But the group evidently turned elsewhere because no one showed up. Dang, not as expected already! I thought, but I couldn't get too carried away, as I had to cover a concert later in the evening.

Friday started with the race's registration and rider's meeting.

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This is roughly one-third of all the racers.

It rained nearly all day, and it was clear that the Dirty Kanza will live up to its name, as there will be mud all over the place. I did a small interview piece with the riders, and I met people from Maryland, Washington, and in between. One guy I spoke to came all the way from Germany. Many weren't as thrilled about the weather, but I was looking forward to the race.

It began at 6 am Saturday, and I knew it would be a long day. Oh, it was.


Ready, set...




Early time did not prevent many supporters from filling the downtown.


Even though the forecast for the race day was clear, riders departed in the rain. Because Kansas, that's why.

The start was good. I covered all categories groups' starts, which gave me the opportunity to get a variety of angles.

On the other hand, it also meant that riders were already quite ahead by the time I put the pics online. That is not desirable if you want to get pictures of a huge number of racers — it has to be close to the start line, as they spread all over soon after.

The night before the race, I got the race's track into my phone and skimmed through satellite view on Google maps to point out places where I assumed a good opportunity for a nice shot. I went to a place where I presumed quite a mud hole and water crossing in close distance, somewhere 50 miles into the course. I had a picture in my head: racers fording the river, carrying bikes on shoulders through mud and such. The problem was as the spot is in the middle of Flint Hills, without many access points. The only ways I could get there would be either drive through the biker's path or by one remote dirt road. The first is a no-go, so I went with the second. Smooth at the beginning, it worsened soon. It got muddy, rutted, and not too long later, and I run into a small water crossing.


A bigger, about a foot deep, followed soon. No bother, I rolled further — until I encountered the third one: much longer, deeper, and with a current coming through, I knew that with my road tires, 2WD, and not-so-generous ground clearance, it was a game over. There's no cell phone service in these places at all, so you really don't want to get stuck. Although it was just about three miles from the biker’s route, I had to turn away.

Trying to get to the track suddenly became a challenging issue, as there were more places with even worse conditions:


I got to the marked track after some more driving, and just a couple of seconds after I parked, a Jeep, covered in the mud twice as much as my car, arrived. It was Eric, another photographer covering the race. He said that this was "the spot" for the best shots from the last year. We chatted about the condition of the race and roads in general. He mentioned that he nearly got stuck earlier while getting to his previous location; he also gave me water and a snack. What a nice guy! We checked the river's condition and figured that they had to re-route the track, as it was even deeper than the one pictured above.

Right, so I have a delayed start, and the track is not even matching the gps file I got. But the day was still at its beginning. We went together further towards Madison, where the first race's checkpoint was, until I stopped by some fans waiting on first racers. I started talking with them and got instructions on where the re-routed track should be. I went there, and sure enough, I saw a small group of riders just passing one bridge. That has to be the way over the river, I thought. I waited for more to come, but without any success. Meanwhile, a coworker from the checkpoint reported that riders continue to arrive. It meant that there was confusion about the route even among the cyclists, as some went this way, while others took a different one. Anyway, it was already past 10 am, and I didn't have any shot from the field yet, which frustrated me. So, I went to the checkpoint to finally get some.



Soon, I followed the track to the hills again, as I was hungry for some shots from the gravel field, not just paved sections. The course went uphill, away from rivers, and mud passages. I had to forget the fording photo, but at least the track matched with records. Since then, it wasn’t hard to locate racers.


While there were no rivers to drive through, the roads were washed out with many sharp rocks sticking out like nails.  When I got into another spot, as soon as I got out of the vehicle, I heard one of my tires leaking. I could not do much with it, so I went to take some shots.



Then I got back to my car and replaced the wheel with a doughnut. Just as I bolted the last nut to fix the wheel in place, a tandem stopped right next to me with the same issue I had.


After this, I headed back into the town to get my wheel fixed so I could return on gravel later that day. However, as I pulled in, I realized it was Saturday — the tire shop was closed. So I went to another one, where they told me that the puncture is too big to fix it. I'll have to get myself a pair of new tires (uh), but they didn't have the size for my wheels in stock (uh, oh). I had the last choice: Walmart Tire. I don't have a positive experience with their service, but I went there having nowhere else to go. They had the tires I needed in stock, but my time was running, and I had to cover a kids' race in downtown. So I just booked a time slot and left to photograph children crossing the finish.

That done, I drove back to Walmart. As I knew it would take them a while, I took my laptop to sort my images meanwhile they'd be at work. But man, I still had to wait after I sent the pics to the office, and once they gave me the receipt, I noticed that they charged me with eight additional operations they didn't perform. No kidding!! When I point the issue out, it took three managers to fix the problem — more waiting; just what I need now!

Thankfully, they got it done just before another main point that day, the arrival of the first finisher of the 200 miles long race. That was definitely something not to be missed. I got myself close behind the finish line, right next to the track, fenced away from spectators within the box where anchormen were. Present at the spot, I was thinking about the shot. I figured that I'd use a wide-angle lens to capture the winning rider, raging fans, and the time clock. Everything that would tell the story of the epic moment. I stopped down the lens for depth of field, and since it was already getting dark, I opted to use a flashlight to brighten the rider. Test shot, everything seems fine. Well, I probably over thought it.

Suddenly, not one, but two racers showed on the scene! Although they just conquered 200 miles, they flew by like two missiles, fighting for the first place. The crowd went wild. As they were getting close, some lady jumped the barricade to film this moment with her iphone. She was getting into my frame, I got nervous and had to move a bit to capture the racers. Not. Good. The first shot was rubbish, with the lady's hand in the frame, so for the next one, I reached my camera all the way to the center of the riders' corridor and took a blind shot. Then the last frame, click, and the moment is gone. A quick glimpse on my camera screen, the second shot could do, but the composition wasn't great. The last picture was worthless. Not. Good. At. All.


Finish line. Note the time,  200 miles in 13 hours. Big up.

The moment lasted a fraction of a second, and while the crowd went crazy, I was dead quiet. I didn’t get what I waited for. The voice in my head shouted: “What the..? Did that really just happen? You didn’t see this coming? What a blithering idiot you are,” and so on. The good thing is that newspaper print is less than 200 dpi, so it's possible to crop photos and reduce the loss. Although it helped a bit, I felt terrible anyway.


In print.

More riders came within a moment, so there was no time for rest...

..I had to document the environment as the whole street turned into a block party.


After taking some shots, I could call it a day. However, while such a photography experience can miserably spoil my mood, photography can also bring me inner peace. So I had a need to go out and shoot more riders in the field. I left the town to get some riders still on the track. The sky was dark, covered with heavy clouds, so I couldn't get some fancy late sunset shot with riders' silhouettes in front of the orange sky. Someday, a good shot just came to you — light, action, you just have to be there and hit the shutter. Today wasn't like that. I had to fight for every frame. That itself can be fun, though, as figuring out solutions for photographic issues, when there is a bit more time and space to do so, is a sort of relaxation for me, almost like meditation or something. The voice in my head was continually resonating, "No more fu**ups today. No more. Not a single one. No."

See for yourself how it went:




The award ceremony was the following morning at 8am. I was pretty broken; how the riders managed to get up for the prize-giving, I have no idea.

These are the fastest..

These were the fastest. Respect to them and everybody who finished.

Anyway, that was it. Some might say that things like this happen, I think it is a lousy excuse. I bummed that shot, and I felt like crap after that. However, I learned a lot out of it, and if I'd be shooting such a thing next time, I'll be able to do it a ton better. And so, as the weekend passed and I slept out of the misery, I knew that all that mess had a positive outcome. It is a hard way of gaining knowledge, but it is very effective.

Mistakes will keep happening. The harder we try, the more they occur. But, if every error pushes a person forward, it equals faster progress. And realizing this is exciting. Eventually, the errors will get smaller to a point where nobody but the person committing them notices. In wedding photography, for example, the mistake of a first-time shooter can be missing a crucial moment, while a mistake of somebody who shoots over 100 weddings per year will be an off-camera light set on 1/4 instead of 1/8 of power. The shot would still look great, just not exactly as the photographer's vision was. That's why some charge $200 per wedding, while others ask for $5000.


life is an interesting path. That's for sure.

The thing is to learn from screw-ups to overcome or avoid such problems in the future. It applies to everything: photography, writing, driving, cooking, friendships... You name it.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy some of my other posts from Flint Hills, Kansas:

"Sunset Meditation"

Flint Hills Burning
"Hills on Fire"

You can also visit my blog archives for more categories and topics. Thanks for reading!

Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Stories


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