Is Racing a Form of Freedom: A Conversation with Emily Maye

Photo: Emily Maye

Photo: Emily Maye

It is not lost on us, here at Stinner, that the Freedom Project takes on a daunting name. We have internal debates about what elements of freedom belong. However, I think it is becoming clear, through the ongoing race narrative, that racing is a chance to lay it all out there, a form of expression.

One cannot talk or reside in the bike industry without identifying the source of so much cycling culture, innovative tech, and the settings for which we imagine many of our rides. Not often are we presented opportunities to choose who you will become as a person, as Alexis Ryanexplained on the Freedom Project last month, as she races through the great cobbled races. For the racers, it is identity shaping. They are choosing their own path, experiencing the bike in the way they choose. Racing is the reason the bike industry is where it is today.



We're out of cross season, but CX is a great example of a sport and cycling discipline that has turned into a more lifestyle oriented form of riding

Now the past month. . . Flanders and Roubaix. Rarely is more elaboration needed to evoke stirring emotion.

History, culture, jarring cobbles.

Situated in the arena where men in Europe went to battle during the great wars, the bleak country roads that traverse Northern France and Belgium are the playing field.

The cobbled races also lead to innovation in the bike industry. Bike brands often reveal new tech at these races, built to handle those jarring cobbles.

How much does it mean to the racers and their teams? In our last discussion with Emily Maye, we discussed her evolution as a photographer and path into race photography. But, as a race photographer, we wanted to know why racing was so special.

Ultimately, when we think of freedom, we think of “action,” doing things. It is something happening. That is not to say other forms of riding are not an expression of freedom. We are just hoping to show that racing is a form of freedom as well and brings value to a community.

There's something special about sinuous climbs in Le Tour. Photo: Emily Maye

There's something special about sinuous climbs in Le Tour. Photo: Emily Maye

What makes racing special? You photograph a lot, not just in cycling. What makes racing a step beyond everything else?

Emily: There’s something at stake. A few years ago, I photographed six different team camps. I was photographing training rides for so long. And then I remember being at Strade Bianche and waking up and being like somebody’s gonna fucking win something today. I’m so sick of training rides. Somebody’s gonna win something. That’s a really cool thing, and you don’t know who it’s gonna be, and they want it.

I think that one thing I’m fascinated with racing is why the favorites are favorites because I think that…I spoke to Jasper Stuyven about that. And he said the guy who wins the reason Fabian can be a favorite and win is because he’s physically taken his body in those crucial moment over the line so he believes it on a different level than somebody else who wants it. Him and his body know that he can do it. In that moment he can cross the line. I think it’s really interesting…that’s why it’s so important that pros get their first pro win. Otherwise it’s just like an ideal, not a physical manifestation that their body has learned yet. It’s really interesting to see how wins happen: You’re all in.

What teams did you start with?

Emily: I started with the Bontrager development team, which was an amazing time with that team because that entire group [of Bontrager development riders] are now in the pro peleton with bigger teams, so we kind of moved up together so it’s really nice when I see those guys out there on their pro teams. I worked with Axel’s team, and then I went to . . . I guess after that . . . I did the Rapha stuff with Team Sky when Rapha originally decided to sponsor Sky. I also worked with RadioShack Leopard Trek, so they put me in with them. My first day with that team Fabian won Flanders. And I had never been a part, been around for a win like that. It was my second time photographing Flanders. And it was incredible to be there when that happened. They told me that I wasn’t allowed on the bus, they didn’t know me, I was a little bit restricted. I was only allowed on the bus if they won. At one point we had to pull over on the side of the road to buy more Champagne. They asked me to come on and Stay and then he won Roubaix.

For each race the setting is different, which is perhaps more interesting than an artificial human setting?

Emily: One of the things that’s interesting . . . scenery plays such a huge portion of that. It’s not like I’m working in the arena where I’m in the same arena all year. I travel with the team six, seven months different weather, different elements, we have cars going the wrong way down the street. There’s no other sport that has that “lack of control” element to it. So that makes the days really interesting. So when you’re talking about riding, you’re talking about enjoying the beauty of nature and landscape and suffering on your own. And then racing you don’t notice any of that. You have to look right in front of you. I always think those are the two different narratives when you’re talking about cycling.

Oddly, the racers also notice everything in extreme detail related to the race.

Emily: You may look at it…like the last 10k everybody was following eachother but they feel the energy, like something was going on. Somebody was getting ready to do something, they can sense that. 

They might remember turns, a really crazy right or left.

It’s a heightened sense. A release of potential.

And that’s what I mean. They’re in the race portion of it. They have so much that they’re absorbing, the speed that they reach to something coming at you. I did my first race on a Moto at Lombardia in October. And you have to wait at the end of the peloton before they symbol you can pass on the moto, but because of that race being so narrow, there’s no point to pass. So then you’re like last rider in the peloton so long, it’s crazy to see how one little thing out of place everybody notices. They’re so aware. Just aware of everything in their whole vicinity.

Photo: Emily Maye

Photo: Emily Maye

How do you try to capture that?

Emily: You can’t, there are a lot of things you can’t. And that’s annoying. There are a lot of moments you can’t capture in that way. You miss a lot of things you see on the side of the road like an old man sitting in a strange way. On a stoop watching or whatever.

We did all these home visits for Trek, where I’d propose to them we’d go visit the riders in their hometowns where we’d do have their families make us food and feed us wine. Their grandmothers. But we went to Colombia as our first trip and that was the most frustrated I’ve ever been at not being able to stop every minute.

Thanks again to Emily Maye for stopping by and chatting with us. Check out her website for more of her photos.