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Cyclocross Photography: Kevin Sparrow
Photos by Kevin Sparrow | Interview by Jeremy Dunn
With the cyclocross season hitting its stride, a return to cross photography seems in order. The first one of the year comes from the middle of the United States, in Milwaukee. Kevin Sparrow has been involved in the underground cycle racing scene for a long time — both as a founder of Cog Magazine and also in the COAT Paint Shop spraying Vanilla/ Speedvagen bicycles. All the while, he has had a camera by his side his focus shifting from the messenger events to the muddy fields of cyclocross.
How long have you been shooting cycling and in particular cyclocross racing?
I've shot cycling since I was a bicycle messenger in 1999. I always had a disposable in my bag at that time. I didn't really become serious about photography until 2007 when I co-founded COG magazine. That was what pushed me to get a nice camera and shoot. I mainly focused on urban cycling, as well as events like the Cycle Messenger World Championships, the North American Cycle Courier Championships and other messenger races. The first serious cyclocross shoot I did was in 2009. I wanted to document the crazy cross scene here in Wisconsin. I raced in the mayhem we call the SSCXWC the first three years. If you've ever attended an event like the SSCXWC you know what I am talking about… This really sparked my obsession with cyclocross racing.
What was the first race that you shot? (Could be Cross, could be…other.)
A messenger race called the Stupor Bowl in Minneapolis. It was horseplay really. Just a bunch of friends riding in subzero temperatures and drinking heavily while I documented it all with my point and shoot. The first serious race I ever shot was the Cycle Messenger World Championships in Tokyo, Japan.
You have spent a good amount of years in the messenger scene as well, how do these two scenes relate to each other?
The bike messenger scene is so amazing. You can go anywhere in the world that has bike messengers and you instantly have welcoming friends. The messengers have this sense of camaraderie that I am starting to see more and more in the cyclocross scene. Messengers and cross racers are both foul weather players. No matter what the conditions are like, you have to finish the race, or work-day. That is why many messengers I know are dedicated cross racers. It's in their blood. Shooting cyclocross and messenger events are very similar. You have to move around the course and you have the advantage of getting up close and personal when the riders are racing.
What is your preferred format to shoot with?
I almost always shoot with my digital (Fuji X-pro1). I love this camera and I have a really nice relationship with it. I have been shooting with it for the last two years. However, when I have the funds I always love to shoot film. I have an Olympus PEN 1/2 frame camera that is one of my favorites. Instead of a disposable camera, I now have a Yashica T4 that I carry in my bag at all times. I also love shooting super8 and 16mm film, but that's also pretty pricey to develop and digitize.
Do you have one particular race, or category that you like, or would like to shoot?
This year I really love shooting the Cat 4-5. Beginners have such a wild style when it comes to technique, bike set ups and attire. Sure, pros are great but the beginners are what cross is all about. They always have smiles on their faces no matter what. They are the future of cross. The pros… you know, the real pros at the top, are also fascinating and a totally different breed. They are machines of the mud. I'd love the chance to get back over to Europe and shoot some of the Belgian races. Here's hoping for next year!
You used to work at Vanilla Cycles? What was that like?
I was lucky enough to work at COAT (Vanilla's paint shop). I was hired just in time for the first run of the Speedvagen Cross Machines in 2007-2008. It was amazing. Sacha is such a talented builder and designer; I learned so much from him. The way that he approached every aspect of bicycle fabrication was inspiring and I loved being part of the whole creative process. One of my best memories there was color matching a frame to that of a deep purple, "like an eggplant". So I went into New Seasons and bought an eggplant. The guys mixing the paint at the paint shop looked at me like I was crazy. That is how serious we were about paint schemes. I was working on some of the finest bikes in the world and I feel honored to have experienced that.
Lets do the word association game… first few words that come to mind when you think of 'cyclocross'?
Pain, hurt, foam party.
Muddy and sloppy or dry and fast? (That's a bike racing question.)
Muddy and sloppy for sure! Thats where all emotion gets put out on the table. The mud is always welcome in cross races.
You spent some time in Europe recently?
Yes! I lived in Paris for a better part of the year. It was amazing. I had a few friends fly in from the states and we went to see the Tour. One of my friends, Trevor, was a professional streaker and came out of retirement just to be a part of the action. He wrapped himself in the American flag and exposed himself ("au naturel") to the world, calling himself "The Ambassador of Freedom". Seeing how supportive all the other foreigners were of their own countries made him feel like it was his personal duty to show his national 'pride'. My other friend, Augie, wore his hotdog suit.
Oh yeah, as for shooting the TDF. It was pretty difficult without the luxury of being on a motorbike with the peloton. Unlike shooting cyclocross, you pretty much had one or two opportunities to scout out the shot and snap it. We were lucky because this year, they climbed the Alp d'Huez twice! Mostly, I focused on documenting my streaker and hot dog 'super fans'.
Any tips that you might have for photographers aspiring to shoot Cyclocross?
Focus on getting the shot and worry about viewing them later. You will feel more connected with what you are about to shoot rather than what you already shot. Move around the course. Don't get hung up on one spot. Finally, get out and race yourself! Experience cross through more than a lens.
Stay tuned for more conversations and views with the people who document cyclocross.
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