Geoff Waugh is an OG. Back when everyone’s favourite soil-based print magazine was bi-monthly, it would have been, more often than not Geoff’s handiwork breaking up the words.
A photographer from the pre-digital age, and still going strong, Geoff has very much been there, done that, and collected the race jerseys. Pete sat down with one of the true legends of cycling photography that has documented mountain biking since the 80s.
If you don’t know who Geoff is, then you need to do your homework. Not to be confused with the punch-happy Canadian ice hockey lunatic.
Who is Geoff Waugh?
A happy face, a thumping bass for a loving race.
What came first, bikes or cameras?
Cameras, but not in a massive way. I am answering your question literally!
I had bikes as a kid but I never really was mad for them the way some people get all misty-eyed about them. I put Smartie tops in the spokes and a peg and bubblegum card in the spokes like a lot of other kids and that’s about it. I remember a kid who lived close to me who extended his Raleigh Chopper forks and seat backrest in metalwork and he became The Don on the estate. But then that was rare.
Most kids had ‘tracker’ bikes which were basically a 23in frame (everything was 23in then) bike that had been converted for off road with the addition of cowhorn handlebars. If they didn’t have cowhorns and it was a sport bike they turned the drop handlebar upside down. It wasn’t that I was dying to learn to drive a car or anything like that, more that I walked everywhere or jumped on a bus! I was more into Bruce Lee and music as a ‘yoot’.
How did you get into photography?
It was a natural progression from my art school days. I was always looking, and I suppose doing something like life drawing makes you tend to look harder at things in that you are taught to study the form and the light and shade and all that stuff. It sounds poncy but it is true and it was a good grounding although I never would have thought so at the time. Having a ‘good eye’ is partly practice. Just like a bike rider would practice bunny hops or wheelies to get better, looking rather than glancing is practice for the eyes.
So, I suppose I ‘got into it’ when I started working on a magazine that had a drawer full of Nikon FMs and I had to use one for work (I was a writer, but we also took pictures). Often I would take the camera a shoot other subjects and eventually bought my own SLR body and 50mm standard lens, the legendary Pentax K1000 for about £75 from a shop near Liverpool St Station. That went a lot of places with me. I shot black and white neg and colour slide film and being a totally manual camera, it taught me a lot about light.
What’s your background in cycling?
I bought a ten speed ‘racer’ to get about in the mid 1980s and I think this made me dig a little deeper until I actually watched an episode of the Tour de France on Channel 4. Mate, I was hooked!
I went out and bought a fancy jersey. I remember riding down my high street and some nodder shouting ‘Oi, Eddy Merckx’ at me. I was just pleased someone had heard of a cyclist. Then the mountain bike moment arrived.
I worked at IPC Magazines in Southwark St and a branch of Evans was very close. I was wandering about there one day when I saw the Muddy Fox MTBs. The (now) fabled Courier. They were looking at me. They were daring me to buy them. No contest. Here was a bike that we had been waiting for when we made trackers. It had fat tyres, wide bars and looked the business. I slapped the moolah down and entered the world of All Terrain Bikes. Some bloke shouted ‘Oi yuppie’ at me (it was 1987). Maybe blokes just like shouting at me?
I commuted on the Courier from my place in North London to Waterloo, at the weekend I went to various places looking for some hot dirt action. Channels Windsurf Centre in Chelmsford, Trent Park in Cockfosters and then put it on a train out to Wendover for my first mtb race, the Wendover Bash. No categories or anything flaky like that; an all in charge from the line. I frikkin loved it.
I went home wondering how the winners – and the guys just in front of me because I never actually saw the winners – went so damn quick. Mike Newton racing for Specialized won and Paul Hinton was second. Canoe helmets were much in evidence. I got a plastic Shimano carrier bag at the sign on full of paper and a packet of Lucozade energy sweets. I was STOKED.
After that I couldn’t get enough of MTBs. I used to buy Mountain Bike Action regularly just to see all the exotic bikes and gear coming out of America. It looked so trick.
When did you realise you could make a go of being a photographer?
I left full time PAYE employment in 1989 or 90. By then I had left the mag I worked for once, gone on a year long roadtrip around Spain, rejoined the mag, but soon realised that I didn’t have the personality to go any further there, that working for myself would be more, shall we, say comfortable. I had some contacts and I was building a portfolio of various sports.
Once I had what I thought was a strong enough book I made appointments and schleped it around the newspapers. At that time it seemed the pinnacle for a sport photographer and I used to look at the great stuff in the broadsheets. Photographers like Chris Smith, the late, great Mike King, Michael Steel, David Ashdown really inspired me.
What was it like working for newspapers? Did you have a hat with a press card in it?
Firstly Press is always written with a capital P. Thems the style rules and I didn’t make em, tradition dictates that I enforce them. I had a special hat stand made for all the hats I had with Press card in their bands. I used to pick a hat to go with my shoes. Sadly you only see baseball caps these days which doesn’t carry the same gravitas does it?
Working for newspapers was truly exciting. I was a novice amongst a world of old hands, old lags and tea boys! The first pic I had published was a rugby game that went into the Mail On Sunday and then I started doing some freelance shifts for the Sunday Times and the Sunday Express. The Times was probably best because I could take my film into the darkroom and develop the negatives myself whilst listening to the lab technicians banter. You could have a say into which image to use and see it pasted up on the boards by the layout guys.
When shooting football I had a motorbike dispatch rider next to me and he took my first roll after ten minutes for the first editions. It was always a test to get something worthy in such a short time. Then I would leg it ten minutes before the final whistle to clear the traffic and get back to the paper. The pay wasn’t as good as most would think but you got your name under the noses of other picture editors and sports photographers. And you could charge for your half time mobile phone calls back to the photo editor, so you always made a call to see how things were going!
How long did you work for the ‘lads’ mags’ and was it as seedy as they look?
Different phase. I was shooting bikes by then but I had a chance encounter with the deputy editor at Loaded and got the opportunity to show my portfolio to the picture editor. He was a very quiet guy and I thought he wasn’t too impressed but then a call came asking me to do a job shooting the Shinty final in Fort William. Shinty? I didn’t even know what that was. But we (me and the writer) had a proper good laugh. I think the early years of the lads mags – started when Loaded launched in 94 – was perfect for the time.
It got seedy later on when the intelligent and witty writing ended and it was just Soap Stars in their knickers. A lot of the guys at Loaded came from the music mags like NME and Sounds and were really great and funny people. I thoroughly enjoyed my tenure shooting stuff for them which ranged from being attacked by the SAS, to recreating the walk from London to Canterbury from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (we did a big stretch in a taxi), to ten days on exercise with the Paras to searching for a relic of Jesus’s foreskin in the Vatican! There as never a dull moment.
Where and when did you first shoot a bike race?
1987. Outside Kings Reach Tower in Southwark St, south London. It was the last stage of the Kelloggs’ Tour of Britain.
When did you shoot your first World Cup DH race?
Wow, that one is harder to remember. I can recall my first WC XC race was 1993 at Plymouth when David Baker won. Then my first World Champs was the following year in Vail so I shot a downhill there. Nico was a junior, Anne Caro was a junior. Missy Giove won the women and Gachet the men.
You’ve taken some of the iconic shots in World Cup downhill. Can you tell us the story behind:
Well, perhaps. Both the Gachet image and the Palmer pic were because I was in the right place at the right time and I was working away from any photo pack.
The Gachet injury image was at Chateau D’Oex in Switzerland at the 1997 Worlds. It happened in practice as I was walking down the hill. I heard screaming and knew I had to investigate. From my position I could see it was Gachet and I could see he was badly injured. I also knew that I was there to take pictures. Not to spectate or be a fan or to ride a bike. To record the weekend. But I was tactful enough to stay out of sight and range of the small crowd of helpers that had gathered around the stricken rider.
I could see Giovanna Bonazzi was shielding Gachet’s eyes from the bright sunshine as the first aid crew went to work. I fired off some frames and got out of there. I suppose it was working as a Press photographer took over in that respect. There wasn’t much I could do to help. The first aiders had their knowledge I have mine. I hate to see riders crash or hurt themselves but it is an inherent part of what we do and the risk is accepted.
Shaun Palmer, Are, ‘99.
Again, I was in the right place at the right time. I was one of two photographers working the finish line. I was shooting from close to the hotseat on a long lens. When Palmer came screeching into the arena – a familiar noise – there was a spilt second moment to take it in before I started firing off frames.
The American photographer Tom Moran was right on the finish line meaning Palmer was way too close to him for the shot. Right time, wrong place! I tracked Palmer until he sat down by the barriers to inspect his damage and to talk with the Specialized coach Gert Jan Theunisse.
That image seems to have taken a life of its own. On the ten year anniversary of Are I got requests for prints. It was a little crazy. Even Palmer himself said to me recently ‘I don’t know what the big deal was – I crashed!’. But he was a potentially wining run. Shame he didn’t stay upright, the party would have been even better.
When did you decide to pack in shooting WC DH and why?
Who said I packed it in?! I was at Fort William last year and shot some stuff, but yeah, I shoot way less World Cups and the reason is simple economics. If no one pays then I can’t afford to go. I won’t go for fun. It is a travelling circus and it is easy to get sucked into the glamour of going to far off locations and seeing the same people again but there aren’t many people that actually make a good living or a profit from it. I’m not a grommet – I have a wife and two kids!
Publishing has changed beyond all recognition, and I think there is more interest these days in general adventure riding pieces. The kind of stuff most people do when they buy a trail bike.
What kind of shoots do you do mostly these days?
Well since photography is my way of earning money I followed the cash into the road bike boom. I shoot sportives and road routes for magazines. I have yet to find a way of making the internet work for me. Can you believe that? I seem to be on the bloody thing the whole time!
Do you have a favourite photograph you’ve taken?
Not out and out faves no. There are some I am proud of and some that remind me of certain days – which, let’s face it, is their job. The first Sport Journalists Association Sport Photography of the Year cycling award I won was nice because it commemorated a bloke a I knew who died on a race we were working on. Any image I have taken which people remember and tell me they like is a favourite.
You must own a fair bit of kit. What combo gets overused, and what rarely sees the light of day?
My standard kit is Nikon D4 and 70-200 f2.8 and a D750 with a 24-70mm f2.8. I have plenty of other lenses but that is the basic get it done set up. I try and carry less and less now. One because it is knackering and two, because I don’t give a fuck about image like a lot of snapper seem to do. There’s definitely a photographer’s ‘uniform’ in every walk off life.
When I was shooting mainstream sports I had to have a 300mm 2.8 lens. I still have it but use it very rarely now. I use off camera flash a lot less; good digital chips have seen to that. It is very stylised and I think natural light is the way to go.
Again, when I was a Press shooter I never used flash, it was all about pushing the film and extending development times to get the result. I sold my fisheye lens over a year ago and haven’t wished I had one since. Although I do own a 14-24 f2.8 lens which is a brick by comparison!
Do you still shoot with film, and if so, what makes digital not quite good enough to kill it off? Do you think film will always have a place?
I shoot with film but mostly for my own pleasure. I have various film cameras and I do enjoy the process of loading and exposing. Of winding on and winding off. It is so different and mildly therapeutic.
You must have some stories from travelling the world, can you tell us your favourite crazy story?
Going to Rio for the Red Bull Giants of Rio event and watching newly crowned Olympic XC champion Julien Absalon pedal off on his gold bike, with his gold shoes and get lost in a favela. He made it out; I think the locals were too shocked to act.
Any unmitigated disasters?
What? Like running a full ‘finger down’ motordrive sequence of a road sprint finish and opening the camera back to see there was no film inside? Or dropping a flash gun off my moto into the middle of a rapidly descending peloton? Or going on a moto in shorts and burning my thigh on the pipe? Or running through Red Bull film shoot because I was asked to shoot the podium?
I enjoyed approaching a pro road team at the Tour of Belgium armed with a pink, blue and yellow plastic Holga camera and watching their looks of dismay. Totally relaxed them with a Fischer Price looking camera!
Or racing a bloke downhill out of a village in Ethiopia, us on our fancy MTBs and him in a suit on his made in China gentleman’s machine? He beat us.
To be honest, mountainbike photography has taken me to places I may never have visited and that is the total reward. In the UK I have seen locations that have blown my away with their beauty. Even Yorkshire wasn’t too bad!
Where next for Geoff Waugh? How do you plan to go about getting extra helpers etc. etc.?
I’m beavering away (intermittently) with my book called Dirty Jerseys which plots some of the history of the MTB race jersey from early days up to current trends. Check out Dirty Jerseys for a bit of flavour. Hope to get this out mid 2017 if every slacker I have contacted pulls through ha ha!
And I take whatever interesting commission comes my way. I can’t think of a time when I won’t be taking photographs and those helpers could be getting closer judging by my wrecked body. Or maybe I’ll take the Karl Lagerfeld approach and just send an assistant with a compact to do the next shoot and I’ll stick my name on them!
Anybody to thank at this point in the journey? Long suffering spouses/parents/friends?
Mrs W has been there since the days of fully rigid bikes and non indexed gearing. A freelance existence is a partnership.
Footnote: I own a Chopper now.