Australian cyclist Caleb Ewan has won pretty much everything a sprinter can. A relatively new star on the international cycling scene, Caleb lives in Monte Carlo and trains in the mountains above the French Riviera. Just before this summer’s Tour de France, where he had two stage wins, I had the opportunity to photograph this member of sprinting royalty, for the cycling magazine Rouleur.
Many professional cyclists live in Monaco, and I have photographed, among others, Chris Froome, Lizzie Deignan and Jakob Fuglsang. This time, the magazine had planned an unusually long feature: an article of 10-15 pages would give readers an extensive insight into Caleb Ewan’s world.
Rouleur’s editor, Andy, and I discussed how I, as photographer, might approach the shoot. Plenty of visual variety would be essential to illustrate so many pages. So, as well as taking portraits (in different places and outfits), I would show Caleb in action, capture close-ups of his cycling style, and photograph the mountains where he trains. I would also take pictures back down in Monaco: views of the principality, moments in Caleb’s daily home life and some details of his surroundings.
“I want you to shoot variety: of places, situations, outfits, formats….but focus mainly on taking thoughtful, great images. Feel free. Take risks!”
Yet Andy knew as well as I did that there were two major obstacles to achieving all this: Covid constraints (I probably wouldn’t be invited into Caleb’s apartment, for example), and time. My short day booked with Caleb would be busy. Little did I know then just how short that ‘day’ would be…
Caleb dropped the bomb the day before the shoot: his pregnant wife had a hospital appointment the next morning, at 10 am. He was sorry but he could only give the photographer an hour or two before that. “Do the best you can“, said Andy. The piece was written, the pages were waiting…
I pushed the limits of a socially acceptable meet-up time to 07.45 at a spot on Caleb’s training ride, to ensure I’d have at least 2 hours. My star assistant Annelise didn’t balk at our wake-up time (hours before, to enable us to drive to and recce the mountain roads before meeting the cyclist). Neither did she balk when I handed her the keys to my geriatric car, and told her she’d need to “drive like the wind“. With prior experience of photographing races in action, from a race car or the back of a motorbike, I knew the speeds that would be required for us to get ahead of one of the world’s best cyclists. If Annelise was phased by the top missing from my gearstick, the heavy steering, or having to do a 3-point-turn on a perilous road teetering on the edge of an abyss, she didn’t say so. When Andy had said “Take risks“, I’m not sure that’s what he’d meant.
Famed sprint position
There was no time for talking when we met Caleb, high in the hills above the French Riviera. What ‘getting to know’ there was between photographer and cyclist, happened in the space between my passenger window and Caleb’s bike. First off was to capture his distinctive sprinting position – extremely low-down, aerodynamic…and fast. There were only a couple of straight stretches of road where we would be able to get alongside, and I explained to Caleb that Annelise had no experience of race driving (especially on a road open to traffic, as close to rush hour as that mountain road gets, and with most of the cars heading opposite us in the direction of Monaco). Would he please be able to do a slow sprint?
Afterwards, we overtook him and roared up a steep hill, for me to get into position for a wider action shot, several kilometres ahead. Jumping from the car, pushing through brambles and scrambling up a cliff over the road, I only just had time to get into position and lift my camera to my face before Caleb suddenly appeared around the bend below – barely breaking into a sweat.
“Muscles I never knew existed”
Caleb stopped just once, for me to take a couple of portraits of him in his cycling outfit, and photograph a few details. Annelise, holding the reflector, exclaimed under her breath : “Oh la la!! His thighs! He has muscles I never knew existed!” I was curious to know the meaning behind his tattoos, although it was fortunate that the stories were really quite quick to tell (including the one that had simply caught his eye on Pinterest), as we were running out of time for any pictures in Monaco. Caleb kindly agreed to my quickly photographing him in his garage and bike room, as a consolation for not being able to shoot him at home, and said he’d go on ahead. It took us 40 minutes to drive down to Monte Carlo; Caleb cycled it in 15.
Dream man den
Caleb’s bike room, in the cellar of his apartment block, did not disappoint. A storage room it was indeed, but it was also so much more. Next to his bicycles, a wall was lined with dozens of pairs of colourful trainers. A giant screen was set up for gaming alongside, and the chair in front of it was an actual car seat that looked as though it had been removed from a Formula One car. A massage table graced the centre of the room while, within reach of the couch, a fridge sat in the corner, well-stocked with champagne and other drinks. I had stepped into a perfect man den.
Our time was nearly up, but Caleb’s charming wife (apparently unphased by her imminent hospital appointment) and gorgeous one-year-old daughter Lily, popped down to meet us in the garage. Lily seemed as fascinated by the photographer as she was by her dad’s bike – giving me an unexpected chance to capture the kind of day-in-the-life interactions I had thought would be impossible.
Behind the bins
By then it was 09.45 and Caleb really had to leave. His wife was starting their car. Yet I was still missing a ‘non-cycling-outfit’ portrait. Caleb considerately agreed to “another 3 minutes” and, while he changed, I looked around me. Beside the ramp leading down to the garage door, there was an alcove where the building’s giant wheelie bins were kept. Behind them, soft, reflected sunlight lit a perfect plain, grey wall. Annelise and I sprang into action, manhandling bins onto the garage ramp (neatly preventing anyone, including Caleb’s wife, from leaving or entering), and preparing reflector and camera. I took just a handful of frames of Caleb before we had to let him go. Collapsing onto a bin afterwards, I felt as if I’d done my own Tour de France.
A few weeks later, Andy sent me the draft page layouts for the feature. Not just 10, but 17 pages ended up telling Caleb’s story. And which image led the article? I smiled to see that my wheelie bin portrait had made it to the opening spread.