John Lawlor was part of the first wave of Irish pinners that took it to the World Cup downhill scene, before turning to making videos.
Pete sat down for a virtual chat with John Lawlor, who was part of a group of Irish riders that stormed the World Cups in the early 2000s, and has since turned his attention to filming the latest crop of international pinners from outside the tape.
Photos by Victor Lucas.
Who is John Lawlor?
John Lawlor is a guy who likes to ride bikes and occasionally gets to travel around the world filming people on bikes.
What came first, bikes or cameras?
Bikes definitely came first. I got my first bike which was a hand me down before my 5th birthday and I was instantly hooked. I used to race World Cups from when I left school for the best part of eight years so racing was a huge part of my life for a long time.
How did you get into videography?
When I was racing World Cup races I would always bring a camera along to film the funny stuff that we would get up to in between the races, which was generally trashing rental cars around gravel car parks, diving off waterfalls and 4am drunken maddenss.
What’s your background in cycling?
I started racing when I was about 13 years old. My Dad was definitely the instigator of my career in cycling as he used to run the local bike club and he would drive me and the rest of the lads in the club all around the country to race. There were some great times at those early races and I have made friends that I still go on rides with to this day.
My first race was in a place called Old Castle, Co. Meath and there was a section called “The Wall”. I remember every lap being barely able to ride down it because it was so steep. Back then if there was a section in a race that was even remotely technical or steep, you would be taking your life into your own hands trying to ride the on the bikes that we’re around at the time.
Where did “The Eyeball” nickname come from?
So myself and my friend Brian Curran were doing a Tuesday evening road race crit in the Phoenix Park in 1996. We used to race on the road for training from time to time and those races were always so fast and a great way to get “speed into your legs” as we’d always say at the time. As mountain bikers, we wouldn’t really take them too seriously and we would usually be f*cking around hopping up onto kerbs to get the racing line around the tight corners.
A friend of ours who raced predominately on the road rode up behind the two of us during the race and said “I’ll bite the eyeball out of ye”! From that moment on it became a regular thing we would shout at each other if we were racing or having the banter. We even had an old bike that we used to river jump on that we wrote “The Eyeball” on. We met Glyn O’Brien for the first time that year, who came to some races with us and picked up on it. He started calling me Eyeball that year and it’s stuck ever since really. Such a random story.
When did you realise you could make a go of being a videographer?
After I injured myself at a race in Ireland at the start of 2006, I was already due to go to the first World Cup race in Vigo, so instead of bringing my bike, I brought my camera and filmed the race. I went to 4 races that year and paid for everything out of my own pocket and produced a Mountain Bike DVD with other stuff I filmed back at home in Ireland.
I always thought it would be cool to make movies and racing was in my blood from my background with bikes. I went some races for Stu Thomson who was starting MTB Cut in 2007 and then I went freelance in 2009 and have been lucky enough to be doing it ever since.
How hard was it as a racer to concentrate on shooting races rather than competing?
At the start I really missed racing when I would go away to World Cups as that was my dream growing up but after I stopped racing abroad, I continued to race at home whenever I got the chance. After a few years I kind of accepted that I was probably better at filming that I was as a racer, but I think it’s good that I can go to a race or filming location and look at a section from a racer’s point of view, but with filming in mind. It’s weird though, even now, nearly 15 years after I stopped competing at that level, I still approach everything from the perspective of a racer.
All of my memories revolve around race results, race venues and bikes that were being ridden either by myself or the pro racers who were at the top of their games during a particular time. More recently it has become very apparent that there is no way that I could ride my bike at the level that World Cup racers ride at. What they can do on a bike is next level and I respect every single rider who lines up at the start of a World Cup race.
Where and when did you first shoot a bike race?
My Dad bought a hi-8 video camera in 1995 and I would bring it to some races in Ireland and film some of the journey there and back and the funny moments before and after then race. An early production that we made at this time was called “Filth” (name inspired by Pete Tompkin’s “Dirt”). We just filmed each other riding off kerbs and jumping down steps in our home town. We put some music over it as we transferred it from the camcorder to VHS. Very basic editing but at the time it was great craic for us to be able to watch ourselves riding our bikes.
When did you shoot your first World Cup DH race?
The first time I brought a camera to a race abroad was at the World Champs Chateau d’Oex in 1997. Myself, my Dad, Glyn O’Brien, Paul Gilsenan and Joe McCall drove from Ireland down through the UK and down through France in the Cycling Ireland van. I filmed the whole journey there and back but because I was racing, there was very little actual riding, most of the footage was from inside the van. I got into it more seriously after I stopped racing bikes in 2006, so Vigo, Spain was the first time I was at a race with the sole intention of filming.
What’s your favourite moment from shooting World Cups?
I would have to say that the excitement I feel when I turn up to a race to film is the same feeling I used to get when I was racing. Even though I’m not racing, I still get super excited to see the fastest guys hitting sections flat out and in a weird way if I can get a good angle showing the speed or difficulty of a section, I feel like I’m doing the sport a justice and I get a great sense of achievement getting the chance to show that to the people who watch my videos.
How hard is it to keep footage fresh when you revisit the same venues each year?
For sure it can be tough turning up at the same venue each year, particularly if the track hasn’t gone through any changes or has had any tweaks made to it. But the riders are the ones that keep the venues fresh and it constantly blows my mind watching them figuring out how to get even more speed out of a section.
Something that didn’t seem possible or would have been on anyone’s radar the previous year, all of a sudden is do-able the next year which shows the progression of the sport and how it’s always evolving. For example, Andorra in 2019, there was a step down in the middle of the final wooded section that riders kind of spotted in the previous years but no one attempted. For whatever reason, it was now within the rider’s grasp and most of the top guys were able to hit it. I don’t know what changes in a rider’s mind that makes this possible but every now and then you get to witness this and it’s amazing to watch.
What’s your favourite venue to shoot?
There’s something special about Mont Sainte Anne. I really like that part of the World and the track has such a legendary status, it’s hard to believe that the racing is still so good year in, year out at a venue that has hosted a World Cup since 1993. Every time I go back to that place it blows me away at how much faster the racers are from the previous year.
Do you have a favourite clip you’ve taken?
I would have to say that clip of Brook MacDonald that I captured at Mont Sainte Anne World Champs practice in 2019 would be my favourite. It’s the open part of the track just before you get to the section under the gondolas. I think it was the second or third time they ran that section straight down the piste and the riders were going so fast but I couldn’t believe how fast Brook was going when he went past me. It was one of the most insane things I’ve ever seen.
Who or what inspires you to shoot?
I absolutely love riding bikes myself and that feeling when I hit a section full tilt or the feeling I get when I haven’t been out for a while and it makes me realize how good our sport is. I can appreciate how hard it is to nail a section or hit it perfectly so it makes me genuinely happy when I get the chance to film the most talented riders in the World in their element.
You must own a fair bit of kit. What combo gets overused, and what rarely sees the light of day?
My trusty pan n’ zoom camcorder is definitely my go-to set up. I’ve recently upgraded to the Sony Z280. It’s basically the same set up that I used when I started filming, which was the Sony EX1. I’ve recently started using a gimbal for commercial shoots and have messed around with drones in the past, with a few disasters along the way. I’m usually forced into travelling light so I’m restricted to what I can fit into my carry on camera bag.
I’m a firm believer that the best camera is the one you have on you, and this is especially true if if you’re somewhere documenting real life moments and the only thing available at the time is your phone. I would rather capture the unmissable moment on my phone if it’s the only camera with me at the time. I was out at the Red Bull Rampage with Gee Atherton in 2012 and he had injured himself early in the week and was pretty sure he wouldn’t be riding at all after that. We were out for dinner one evening and he decided half way through dinner that he wanted to see if he could ride his bike, so he made Polish Pete build it up in the car park so he could test it.
We didn’t have any of our proper cameras with us at the time as we were staying a few miles away so I took out my phone and started filming, which was a pivotal moment in the story that was being told for that project. It wasn’t the most technically amazing footage ever filmed but the fact that I had something so available in my pocket to capture that moment at that time was priceless.
You must have some stories from travelling the world, can you tell us your favourite crazy story?
The road trip myself and Glyn went on in 1999 is always one that springs to mind when I get asked that question. So we were at the World Cup race in Squaw Valley and the organisers of the Arai World Cup in Japan were there promoting the World Cup race that was being held there the next year, so they were asking all of the top downhillers to come to an invitational race there later that year. Glyn was a pretty big deal at the time and was riding for the Animal Orange team, so he was invited to the race.
He told them that they should invite me as I was doing quite well some of the World Cup races that year. So the week after Kaprun World Cup finals we got on a plane after a few tough weeks on the road and were on our way to Japan. It was the most surreal experience from the moment we got off the plane ’til we left to come home, we were treated like royalty. There were people waiting at the airport with our names printed on pieces of cardboard, our luggage was taken off us and brought to our hotel.
All of our travel expenses were paid for on the trip and we got to ride on one of the most awesome tracks that year. The week before, my bike was stolen from the hotel garage in Kaprun and my Dad got in touch with my sponsor at the time, Raleigh Ireland who sourced a bike in Cycleways in Dublin who helped with packing the bike up and shipping it all the way to Japan. The bike got there the day after I arrived. The local mechanic who was there working in our pits for the invited riders, helped me get my bike built up and had me rolling in a couple of hours.
That whole week we hung out with Greg Minnaar, Bruno Zanchi and Stephane Jany who we had never really had to chance to meet properly up until that trip, so it was great to finally get to know all of them and have the banter. It was one of the most memorable trips of my life for sure.
Any unmitigated disasters?
Cairns World Cup 2014. I was at the top of the hill about to start filming the first practice session. After about 20 minutes of practice it started raining and didn’t stop all day. I mean it was the heaviest rain I have ever seen. Even though I wasn’t expecting it, I did have my camera rain cover with me, which did very little to stop the water getting inside the camera. Any footage I shot that day had no audio and I had to borrow Victor Lucas’s spare one for the rest of the weekend. It was a complete disaster.
A different time, I was filming with Ben Reid in Belfast with my drone and I flew it into the side of a building and it fell 50 feet to it’s death. More recently I was on a shoot in the Dublin Mountains with Dan Wolfe. I had a brand new drone, first time out with it. I literally turned it on, started it up and then all of a sudden it took off by itself straight up and headed away from me at full speed never to be seen again! I don’t know what happened but it could have been hacked or had interference from the radio towers that are nearby but either way, it was a complete f*ck up.
Some of my favourite moments have come from racing. I used to love the feeling of turning up at a race and pinning it as fast as I could. The first year I traveled abroad to my first World Cup race in 1998. There were five of us packed into an Opel Astra estate and we went on the road for two weeks to the Nevegal and Les Gets World Cup races. Those two races were filled with so much excitement and banter and the realization of how difficult racing at that level actually was and is.
Where next for John Lawlor? How do you plan to go about getting extra helpers etc. etc.?
I’m really enjoying the process of producing films from start to finish. I have been working on and off with Victor Lucas for the best part of 15 years and any big projects that come around, we always join forces which helps us both up our own game and take our work to the next level. I really love where I’m at right now and I love the simplicity of pointing a camera at people on bikes and I’m really appreciative that it’s got me to where I’m at right now.
I always try and give advice to the next generation of filmers who get in touch looking for guidance, so I’m sure in years to come a collaboration with those guys would be great. I love that there are so many passionate youngsters getting involved so the more I can help them on that journey, the better the content will be for people watching at home.
Anybody to thank at this point in the journey? Long suffering spouses/parents/friends?
I would really like to thanks my parents, Eamonn and Anne for supporting me pursue the dream of becoming a professional cyclist. I’m sure it must have been hard for them to watch me throwing myself down hills and getting injured week-in, week-out for all those years. We were always a cycling family growing up and myself and brother, Chris, always had their support from a very young age when we started racing. I didn’t go to college until I was 26 so for me it was a great opportunity to live the dream for nearly eight years straight out of school.
I would also like to thank my wife Wendy for the support she gives me on a daily basis with the type of work I currently do. We met when I was still racing so she knows how much I love bikes and she can see the same approach from me when it comes to my work and I’m really lucky that she doesn’t freak out when I tell her that I’m going on the road for weeks, sometimes months at a time. She just sees it as my job and how lucky I am to do it for a living.
You can keep tabs on John’s racing adventures on his Instagram feed here.
Read John Lawlor’s Wise Words interview on our Features page here.