Cycle Messenger World Championship 2013 by Andrew Tobin

Cycle Messenger World Championships

Cycle Messenger World Championship 2013

by Andrew Tobin – His blog is HERE

As part of my coverage of “unconventional” world championships, I took myself off to Lausanne in Switzerland for the Cycle Messenger World Championships of 2013. I had spotted this event a while ago and put it firmly into the calendar as a “must attend”.

Cycle Messenger World Championships

Packing for the trip proved more complicated than I thought. Having figured out that Lausanne was a pretty hilly place and I would be walking A LOT, and it was going to be hot, the last thing I wanted to be doing was carting a couple of 1D bodies and big lenses all over the place, as well as various bits of remote flash kit and other gubbins. So instead I decided to shoot the whole event with lightweight compact gear, taking 3 cameras – an Olympus OM-D with 45, 9-18 and 8mm fisheye lenses, a Sony RX1 and a newly acquired Sony RX100 Mark II. This combination would give me a good choice of focal lengths and apertures so I could deal with pretty much anything that came my way. With the RX100 in my pocket, the RX1 around my neck and the Olympus and lenses in a belt pack, I was as mobile as I could wish for. In a small backpack went a laptop, flash, pocket wizards, light stand and mini-octabox.

I also wanted to travel hand-luggage only and the big gear would have surely triggered some weight limit or other. Happily the airline (Swiss) didn’t bat an eyelid and the lightstand and electronic trickery went through airport security without any problems as I tried hard to pretend my bag weighed nothing at all.

Gear for the trip. Manfrotto lightstand, Sony RX1 with viewfinder, Olympus OM-D, Yongnuo YN560-II flash, 2x Pocket Wizard Plus II, Sony RX100 mark II, Panasonic 8mm fisheye, Olympus 9-18 zoom, spare batteries for the Sonys (not needed), cards, clip thing (unused), lightstand attachment thing. Forgot to incude the mini softbox in this pic.

CMWC gear

So, an early flight put me in Geneva at 9am on Saturday, and the efficient Swiss train system whisked me into Lausanne in about 45 minutes for me to begin my 2-day walking marathon, with some cycling photography thrown in.

After familiarizing myself with the course, chatting to the organisers and riders, and climbing lots of hills, I needed to make my key decision of the weekend. How to cover the event? I already had some ideas in mind before I arrived, but it quickly became pretty obvious to me that it was all about the people and the “vibe”, and the racing was almost secondary. More than anything this is a gathering of like-minded people who might normally be bracketed as “alternative”. It takes a certain something to be a cycle courier, out in all weathers, always under time pressure, not earning much, very physically fit, and never using any fossil fuels. The camaraderie amongst everyone at the event was obvious from the start. Some competitors had ridden from England down to Paris where they met still others for the 3-day ride from Paris to Lausanne, several on fixed wheel bikes with no brakes (making the mountains on the roads into Lausanne quite challenging!). Lots of them referred to the other couriers as their “family”, so it’s clearly a close-knit group of like-minded people who like nothing better than to get together for a good laugh.

James from Glasgow, who rode down from Canterbury to Paris to Lausanne. Top guy.

Cycle Messenger World Championships

And that was the decision made for me. I would shoot the event more like a documentary, trying to capture the people and atmosphere with the race action as a secondary part of the weekend. This also suited my choice of kit as the small cameras are generally useless at catching anything moving fast (or even slow in the case of the RX1) when compared with a pro body like a Canon 1D. It didn’t stop me trying to get a bit of action though. And I also decided to make most of the pictures monochrome because a) I like it a lot and b) it suited a more documentary style look at the event.

A rider toils up the hill as others dry off in the sun after a dip in the “jacuzzi” up by the cathedral.

Cycle Messenger World Championships

Started in 1993 by Achim Beier from Berlin, the championships comprise a number of challenges including a sprint, a track stand (longest time stationary on the bike), a cargo race where heavy loads are carried on special bikes, and the main race. The course winds through central Lausanne and includes bridges, stairs, cobbles, narrow alleyways and challenging hills.

The main race simulates the job of a bike courier making numerous drops and pickups across the city by following a manifest or delivery/pickup list. Riders need to check in at specific checkpoints, hand over their delivery and get a new one. It involves a number of manifests to be run in sequence, each involving multiple deliveries. As well as being a test of sheer physical fitness lasting 3-4 hours, the race is a huge mental challenge as the riders need to plot their own route from one checkpoint to the next. Ensuring that they take the shortest or most efficient route is a work of the black arts as far as I could see. It wasn’t unusual to see riders pick up a new manifest and then sit somewhere quiet while they worked out their route and sequencing. To make matters worse, at some checkpoints you may need to deliver one item and pick up three, so knowing what you need to do where is vital to avoid repeat visits. Obviously you couldn’t drop something off if you hadn’t already picked it up somewhere else! This aspect makes the whole thing very different to a normal challenge against the clock and the winner is the person that combines the physical with the mental.

Cycle Messenger World Championships

Cycle Messenger World Championships

Cycle Messenger World Championships

It was hot as well. Did I mention that? I had enough trouble climbing up all the steps and hills on foot – the riders were getting a real beating. It didn’t take long for some of the riders to take advantage of the ancient water troughs that are scattered around the city.

Cycle Messenger World Championships

Saturday was practice and qualifying, plus the cargo race which involved carrying large or strange loads. The cargo bikes are bonkers – long things with a load carrying space up front and a linkage from the handlebars to the front wheel. These poor guys had to carry everything from 12 foot long oars to a TV cameraman who wanted a rider’s eye view of the course.

Cycle Messenger World Championships

Having learned the course through walking a lot and getting blisters, taking a bunch of pictures and figuring out what was going on, I was ready for the evening party. These guys party well. The event had been going on all week with a party every night, so they were well-practiced by the time I turned up. Hosted at the Casino Montbenon overlooking Lake Geneva, I had a horrible thought that it would be a dress-up suit and tie job, but then realised that there was no way on this earth that the majority of the riders would get anywhere near a suit other than to deliver one. And so it turned out that it was a very cool event in a club under the casino, with most people out in the open air as the temperature dropped and the sun set over the alps.

Cycle Messenger World Championships

The party game me a chance to break out my little octabox. After some fiddling with Pocket Wizards and the RX1, I got everything working fine and went off in search of interesting suspects, of which there were plenty. I’ll say this – these guys are just so friendly and open – lovely people. Here’s two of them…

Cycle Messenger World Championships

Cycle Messenger World Championships

So the RX1 turned out some beautifully detailed pictures, but occasionally had brain fade and wouldn’t focus properly even though the focus assist light was on. You’ve just got to be quite patient with it when shooting at night, and give it time to get focus and the square to go green before you hit the button. It’s worth noting that after turning on face detection my results improved significantly.

Cleverly, the organisers hadn’t scheduled any early morning starts, with riders needing to be at race HQ by 11am (though quite a few dragged in after that). This allowed ample time for at least 4 hours sleep to let the beer work its way through the system. Free carrots were available to all competitors.

The start itself was mad. The 100 riders (men and women) all started at the same time. The high qualifiers from Saturday got to be at the front of the “grid”. Well, they weren’t at the front, their bikes were. All the bikes were laid down in the road, the first package and manifest was put next to each bike, and the riders were ushered 50 yards back down the hill. At the appointed time after some general un-Swiss fanning about, they were off! The riders had to run up the hill, get to their bike, read the manifest to plot a route, and then head off. With different manifests the riders headed in all sorts of directions, so a few wisely took their time to figure out the best route as there’s nothing slower than riding in completely the wrong direction, especially as the course was one way and if you got it wrong you’d need to go round again.

Cycle Messenger World Championships

There followed all sorts of madness as riders hurtled about. I walked some of the course before stopping and sending a set of pictures to the UK newspapers. Once that was done I walked the course a bit more and took some more pictures. Here’s a few of them…

Cycle Messenger World Championships

Cycle Messenger World Championships

Cycle Messenger World Championships

I had in mind some key shots to get at the end of the race. Obviously the winners, but also I wanted pictures of riders immediately they finished. I rigged up the RX1 again and used my flash held off camera with a simple diffuser on it, triggered by pocket wizards again. The high flash sync speed of the RX1 came in handy here as well as I wanted to drop the ambient light a bit so was up at 1/500th or more.

Cycle Messenger World Championships

Cycle Messenger World Championships

Cycle Messenger World Championships

Obviously I’m not as practiced with the RX1 interface as, when people moved from shade to sun I was often too slow to adjust settings (I was shooting in manual) and had to resort to just switching to aperture priority and letting the camera sort it out. In frenzied situations when people are moving about all over the place it’s vital to be 100% practiced with your camera of choice, which I wasn’t.

And that was it. Race over. Party time (again) followed by a very early flight out on Monday morning.

What can we glean from the gear selection for the event? The cameras did their job, but are no way as good when you absolutely must get the shot as a pro-spec body and lens. There were times when I wished I had a 1DIV and L lenses with me. The speed of focus is the main thing. I could have nailed far more portrait shots after the race with a 1D, even with the relatively slow focusing 24 1.4 lens. However I’d have been stuck with a slow off-camera flash sync speed. I’d also have been knackered hefting all that gear. I watched the 2 or 3 agency guys that were there as they lugged their gear about and felt delighted that I was running such a light setup. Also, people didn’t seem to mind when I got in really quite close with the little RX1 either. Sometimes it’s good to have big cameras to shout that you know what you’re doing (sort of!), but at other times it’s good to be a bit more under the radar.

Looking at my stats for the weekend, I shot most pictures using the RX1 with 242, then the Olympus OM-D with 197 (though there were a lot of 9 frames per second disastrous panning shots), then 41 with the RX100 mark II. Out of that lot, 140 made the final edit. Each camera played its own part, as I used the RX1 when I wanted really high quality and shallow depth of field, the OM-D when I wanted a bit of lens choice and high frame rate, and the RX100 when I lost the plot and just wanted to get a picture, or when I had the wrong lens on the OM-D. The different menu systems and buttons and dials is enough to drive me crazy though as I’d get aperture & shutter mixed up, ISO would be all over the place and so on. What I really want is something the size of the RX1 with pro-spec speed of focus and camera responsiveness. The OM-D is fast, but not fast enough when tracking focus. In any event though, I tried to shoot within the limitations of the cameras and make the best of what I had available.

Just to finish off this unusually long post I have to say what a superb event it was. If you ever get the chance to go in 2014, then do it. Support these guys and girls – they are simply an excellent bunch of people. And should you come across them in some big city somewhere, just be aware that they know exactly what they are doing, are fit as anything, and don’t earn much.

Andrew Tobin

See Andrew’s Blog HERE



  1. Your images are awesome and you seem to have had a great adventure and Loads of fun.. It’s too bad some people have low opinions of others and can’t find beauty unless it looks expensive. Thanks for sharing.

  2. This event was a wonderful choice to make. Bike messengers have their own unique culture and you have shown that quite well. Also appreciate your approach and style to this posting.

  3. The story and pictures made me wish I could have spent a few sunny days in Lausanne … thanks for sharing.

    One question about monochrome: did you shoot in color and convert to monochrome during post processing? How did you do it? Love the tonality of the photos.

  4. Hi Andrew,
    I totally loved your efforts here and your insights….! Bravo….
    I once took pictures for a friend in Toronto who was into uni-cyclying in a big way! It was a hoot
    and l loved having an opportunity to take pictures of people who had a real passion for what they
    were doing….amazing comradery too!

  5. I really enjoyed your dicussion of equipment choices, their limitations, and especially how you chose to approach this event given the cameras you took. Nice black and whites! How often I’ve debated taking my 5D3 with one or two zooms and a small flash for fill vs some combination of the smaller cameras you took. It pretty much comes down to how far and how long I’m going to have to carry the gear, how much I want to avoid spooking people, and whether I feel the need to get action shots. As others have suggested, I may try the V1 for action in a light rig. I’m also hoping the new forthcoming Olympus OM-D EM-1 will have killer auto focus.

  6. Why anyone would put this event ‘firmly in their agenda’ and go all the way to France to watch these mail cyclists beats me, but I do admire your stamina. But what is the point of covering these weird championships, should you not spend your talent on real championships and competitions , and concentrate more on composition/framing?

    • Sounds like you’ve got the stereotypical thinking that an image of a “pro” event is somehow “better”. I see that all the time as a sports photographer and former editor. People would think if they had a portfolio shot from a NFL game it would be more impressive than a shot from HS game, even if the NFL shot was quite typical and boring. Or as a non-sports example, a portrait of a famous person is “better” than a shot of a nobody. All such images say really is “look at me, I get access you don’t, so I must be good” but it comes down to who are you trying to impress ? Sure your buddies might think its cool you get a picture of ________ (famous football player of your choice) but as an editor, day in/out that is all I see, I’m not impressed simply because its a pro game. I’d honestly be more impressed with some great HS coverage because I know how much harder that is. NFL you can sit in the back of the endzone and motordrive a few deep balls and get some nice action shots, its pretty easy. HS though, that is tough, I mean some games they don’t even complete a single pass you know….

      So it comes down to the question of would his images of been any “better” if he shot the Tour De France instead of bike messengers ? Would the fact you might know a subject in the shot because you saw them on tv change the quality of the image ? No.

      If anything, showing some quirkly bike messengers who most of us have never seen before in our daily lives creates the more compelling images.

      Don’t get me wrong, just because its novel alone doesn’t make it good, but I for one would rather have some freedom to move around shooting something like this than be one of several hundred photographers all going after the same shots from the same required media positions as a “real” championship event.

      • Pics that you might think compelling could be off putting for others, its all personal. These pics dont do it for me, a guy poking in his ear, an unshaven Japanese, a guy who looks like a homeless as I can find on any streetcorner of my own city, I think this event had many opportunities unused, but that is just my own opinion, and not meant to offend anyone . Surely you are right when you say the subject does not really matter, and its exactly that challenge to make those great shots no matter which event.

        I think the first shot is nice but I dont like the others, which confuses me because at the same time you can see he does have talent, but there are too many ‘random ‘ or loosely framed pics there.

        I think he took too many camera’s, he should have taken only one which would have given more contemplation instead of only registering the event, and allowed him to focus more on the photos themselves and his framing, and focus less on his gear, which camera to use etc.

        • Thanks for the feedback Arjan. Composition is something I’m always trying to improve but is never good enough. The one with the guy with his finger in his ear actually has a nice vertical tree pointing to the guy on the bike on the road below, and the vertical wall was meant to indicate a separation of the race and post race environment, however I can understand the off-putting nature of the guy’s finger in his ear.

          I do this weird world championships as a way to relax and shoot different things, as the majority of my photography is very high pressure Premier League and international football and rugby for the UK newspapers. I was at a major international with 80,000 spectators last Wednesday for example, and at Chelsea on Sunday for Jose Mourinho’s return. It’s very nice to shoot an event in a more relaxed way instead of having to be shoulder to shoulder with 50 other photographers and having to wire photographs in real time whilst a match is in progress.

          Lausanne is in Switzerland by the way, and the return airfare was only £100.

          • Thanks for replying Andrew and I am glad you did not take offense. I see what you mean with the photo, but I think it does not work out well in the end since indeed the picture you talk about has an interesting composition but this is spoiled so to say, by what the guy in front is doing. I mean he is in the forefront and the first thing the eye is drawn to. My immediate reaction when someone is poking his ear or nose would be to look away and for that reason \I would never have taken this shot. You could have waited till the next rider came along , and only have the two women leaning over at the right of the picture.. that would have been a great pic, this is why I think more contemplation really pays off.

            I have to admit often I must force myself to take more time and ease, which usually give me better images.

            I can see that you have this weird events coverage for distraction and it makes sense to get away from your stressful job. I am glad your agency is doing well and wish you the best of luck!

        • Interesting images can be made of any subject. Some of these I like (particularly those where the competitor is only a small, but important, part of the composition), some of these I find just average in the sense that more could have been made of those situations.

          What beats me though is the baffling array off weaponry used. Taking a 35 and an 85, possibly a 24 (all full frame equivalent) would have sufficed, and would have alloed the photographer to concentrate on what he saw instead of what sort of gear to use (all with different user interfaces).


  7. Jeff, read your missive just after posting mine, your words are better than mine.. seems we are batting up the same street. Maybe I should put some of my prejudices away and have a proper look at the V1?

    • For the money the V1 is tough to beat and just brings some really unique features like the AF, frame rate, and F mount compatibility. I’m earn my living mostly through sports photography so I really just picked one up because I read they now have AF-C with the adapter and the price was so cheap. Figured it would be really cool to stick my 400mm on there with the 2.7x crop for things like shooting from the outfield camera platforms during baseball games. Also thought the frame rate of 60fps would be kind of cool during things like golf tee shots, because 1) its a silent shutter which is great and 2) always can capture the perfect frame. Its worked really well in those regards as much as I’ve used it so far. What I was surprised to find out though is how much I actually enjoyed simply shooting with the camera.

      I went and got the 18mm f1.8 which is a 50mm equiv and just loved shooting with it. As fast as I could think to hit the shutter the camera would be in focus, and also very well exposed. Basically it was the total opposite of my GR and RX1, certainly didn’t have the IQ, but I was catching so many candid moments and they were well exposed and in perfect focus. The 18mm really helped too as I could shoot it wide open and get a little subject isolation and thanks to the 1/16,000th max shutter, you can shoot wide open in any light, even midday full sun.

      The EVF isn’t super high rez, but the refresh rate is really fast and there is zero lag and tearing. Plus its built into this little, solid and kind of chunky $250 camera. It can get noisy but its a fine grain, kind of like the GR, so it suits b/w images really well. I just really enjoy it and its a fun and expensive tool that can put some emphasis on simply getting the shot, rather than worrying about the technical quality of the shot.

      Really worth checking out and a no brainer if your already a Nikon shooter.

  8. Nice pics nicely done, thanks. Interesting read too. Thought provoking. Why can’t Canon / Nikon make a small well made but quick DSLR. The Ricoh GR (it is usually quite quick and certainly runs rings round the RX1) suggests it ought to be possible, that the old argument about the electronics are limiting the size are now redundant. Something with a real viewfinder that is small and can focus quickly. Meaning take the electronics of a Ricoh GR stick em in a small metal-bodied reflex body (not mirrorless) ? Is this rocket science? Not any-more. Anyway sorry to go off-piste a little but your article is sufficiently thought provoking to warrant this mild deviation.

    Maybe they’re already at it, maybe I’m just reading the runes, or maybe I’m just being wistful…

    • How exactly does the GR “run rings around the RX1” ? I’ve got them both, and in fact just sent the GR back. It certainly has some nice features like fitting into a pocket, ergonomic and the snap focus mode is very well implemented but the AF I found to be worse than the RX1 in lower light. The RX1 certainly isn’t fast, but once it locks it is accurate. The GR missed focus quite a bit, so good thing it has the snap focus mode because you need it. As for as IQ goes as well, its not even a contest at higher ISO, full frame with a f2.0 lens vs a kind of noisy aps-c that is a stop slower….. In fairness though, I did rather enjoy the GR high contrast b/w mode and the added grain suits it well. I personally didn’t really enjoy working with the snap focus/zone focus method though, as well implemented as it is, so as an AF camera, it just didn’t cut it for me.

      • For me the RX1 did not gel. (I tried it) Too much of a lump (yes small but not small enough if you’ve already got an M9) and too slow. However the RX1 image quality is wonderful, quite competitive with M9, just different. In a lot of ways better. VERY hard to fault. The Ricoh cannot compete in those terms, the RX1 will simply piss all over it, however again for me the Ricoh is much nicer in the hand (or pocket); plus my experience is that in most circumstances it is quicker.

        I wasn’t trying to start a RX1 vs GR debate at all. I was musing on the small scale / high build quality of the GR as vehicle to stoke some thought on the current state of the ridiculous size of the DSLR as it it is today. I had a 1DSMk2 plus usual culprits. Now use an M9 and a Monochrom plus the GR. Use Blads for square format and the look of real Black and White film.

        Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have a pro spec DSLR the size of say an OM1 or a Leica R6.2?
        The Ricoh or RX1 for that matter proves that electronics does not mean it has to be big.

  9. Nice images and a very interesting commentary, both on the camera and the event itself. Certainly not something I’ve been exposed to before so it was a fun read. You’ve got some very nice kit, but consider picking up a Nikon V1 if you can come across one for a blowout price. It would make for a really useful addition for this type of shooting with its super fast AF tracking of moving subjects, which is something really no mirrorless to date can come close to matching. I’ve paired mine with the fantastic 6.7-13mm VR as well and actually have been carrying it during event work as a third body. So much easier than wearing either a 3rd DSLR body around all day, or having to swap lenses for those random wide angle shots I occasionally take. I’ve just got the 32mm f1.2 as well so haven’t been able to really use it for any event work yet, but I think it could prove to be an awesome camera for some crowd candids as well due to the fast AF/face detection. Can in some cases catch people a lot more relaxed than using a D3s and big 70-200 f2.8 zoom, and no having to wait for focus like some other cameras. Anyways, useful tool you can pick up for a few hundred bucks that seems like it would suit your shooting well.

    • Hi – thanks for the info on the V1. I’ve sort of had a look at one but not really in a serious way. It’s probably some inbuilt Canon bias! I’ll definitely take a closer look though. It’s the tracking focus that is key. The OMD focuses very fast indeed, but can’t track fast moving things effectively enough to be usable (compared to a Canon 1D for example). Anyhow, thanks for the input.

      • “some inbuilt Canon bias”

        You can get treatment for that, you know….

        Great article, excellent storytelling. That’s what photography should be for. And I really like the commentary on your thinking behind where to be, what sort of photos you wanted etc. Too many people these days think photography is about wandering around waiting to be inspired, whereas great photo essays come out of serious pre-planning and thinking about the story you want to tell. Obviously, a bit of inspiration doesn’t hurt either.

        By the way, the V1 is brilliant…

  10. I hardly comment here and I do not consider cycling as an attractive sport. But your writting and more than that your pictures make me wish I could have been right there in the event! Excellent and congratulations! Outstanding in many ways! Thank you for sharing.

  11. Nicely written, very complimentary to the subject and your work. I appreciate your insights into both the technical aspects of the shoot but even more so how much your appreciate the life and times of the people. Well done!

  12. Wonderful essay and photos. You really had my attention! I also appreciated your paragraph at the end about the cameras and their limitations. I have the same cameras. I recently added a Panasonic 12-35 to my OM-D.

    Thanks so much for sharing this. Again, wonderful!

  13. Tough way to make a living – they deserve to party once a year.

    Well done, Andrew, sounds like you had to be pretty fit yourself with this assignment – interesting work.

  14. As a cyclist (I once rode from Vancouver, Canada to Seattle, Washington on a fixed gear) and photographer, I loved the photos. They really captured the emotions of the competition.

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