Falling in love with cyclocross at first sight. An interview with photographer Balint Hamvas.

Balint at work (Photo: Kristof Ramon)

Growing up in Hungary, Balint Hamvas became interested in cycling when he first picked up a copy of Mountain Bike Action (the magazine had a Hungarian edition at the time). He was instantly hooked. Because of that magazine, and the passion for the sport that it triggered in him, Balint quickly developed dreams of becoming a professional, in order to emulate his hero Ned Overend. 

After finishing school, he dedicated an entire winter to hard training, only to realize the following March that when he showed up to a club ride, his abilities were still (in his words) "rubbish". That, combined with the fact that he took up running (to impress a girl) made his interest in cycling dwindle a bit. All the while, however, he played around with his father's Russian-made Zenit camera. But it would not be until later that these two passions would come together. 

As part of my ongoing series about cycling photographers, I decided to ask Balint a few questions, particularly since cyclocross season is now in full swing, and also because he's now released his newest book, about the 2012/2013 'cross season. 

Thanks to Balint for his time. 

At what point in your life did cycling and photography first come together?

In 2001, I cajoled a Hungarian magazine into accrediting me for a mountain bike World Cup race in Kaprun, Austria. It was hilarious, I showed up with my dad's Zenit, €30 worth of Austrian schillings (this was a few years before the Euro) and a lot of enthusiasm. I shot five rolls of film, but the camera body was letting in light somewhere, as I learned bitterly, once I had the rolls developed.

I gave up photography for a few years but then a friend showed me a digital camera and I loved the concept of shooting an almost unlimited amount of frames almost for free.

This happened during my running years, but one day a mountain bike friend of mine invited me to the Nationals in June, I went there with my new Fuji Finepix Z2800 and something clicked. I loved the whole thing, the adrenaline rush to catch the action, and trying to capture those defining moments.

You mostly shoot cyclocross, or at least that's the time of year when you're most active. What draws you to cross, and what type of work do you do during the rest of the year?

I hadn't known anything about cross until 2008. Nothing. I knew about it, vaguely, but I didn't know what was it about. Then I decided to have a look and I drove up to Tabor, to see the World Cup. It was like one of those romantic movies. The hero walks into the room, catches a glimpse of the beautiful lady across the room and he knows that she is the love of his life. Cross was like that for me.

One of my original, long term goals had been to cover a mountain bike World Cup season and I did so in 2010 and while it was brilliant, I wasn't enjoying it as much as I did cyclocross, so I decided to focus on cross.

There seems to be a shift within sports photography toward storytelling, and away from strict photojournalism, which mostly values the finish-line moment and perhaps the podium ceremony. Where would you say your work falls within that spectrum, and was that a conscious choice?

I am not a talented photographer. I worked very hard to get where I am and unlike the shooters of the 'new wave', like Scott Mitchell, Emily Maye or Kristof Ramon, who had been great photographers before they started shooting cycling, I evolved within cycling and I haven't got much to lean back on, other than the things I learned in cycling.

Initially, when I started to do this seriously, I was happy to take sharp photos. Then I was happy when a photo was sharp AND well composed. It took me some time to master the 'compulsory' action shots. That was when I realized that there is more to cycling photography than Sven Nys crossing the line. I still become too hooked on action sometimes, and forget to shoot incidental stuff, but as the years go by, my eyes get more trained on the quirky and interesting moments outside the course.

What are the pragmatic realities of your work in regards to travel and lodging? Are you constantly going back and forth to London, or do you spend long periods of time in continental Europe during the 'cross season?

I'm based in London, so yes, I spend a large part of my winters on Belgian motorways. I can name all service stations between Calais and Brussels in the right order but I hadn't been to Bruges until this September. It's not ideal, the driving, but it's bearable and I got into the habit of listening to audiobooks, which is great, though Christopher Hitchens can be a bit too serious after a long day in the mud.

Though I'm well-aware of the fact that the pictures are taken by the photographer, and not the camera, I always wonder what type of equipment photographers take with them to a race. Can you give me a rundown of what's in your camera bag for a race?

I use two Canon 1D MkII s. They are very old cameras, but apart from their sub par performance in low-light situations, they work perfectly. They are also dirt-cheap, so if I wanted to get into sports photography now, I'd buy a second hand 1D MkII, instead of a 60D, for example. the 1D is a lot faster in every aspect and while it's not the camera that matters, a good camera can make life a lot easier and lot more predictable—in a good way.

I use a basic set of lenses, EF 17-40 f/4 L, EF 70-200 f/2.8 L, EF 24-80 f/2.8L and my favorite lens, the EF 28 f/1.8. It's relatively cheap and it's painfully slow (for sports, at least) but it's a great lens, especially on a full frame body. Last but not least, last year I invested in the latest Canon 600 RX flashes and they just changed my life. In the last few years, I've worked with all sorts of remote control systems: Radiopoppers and various Pocketwizard setups but the new 600RX flashes are brilliant, because the radio unit is built in the flashes. This means that there is no external unit that can be lost, or can break of, get wet, etc. Plus, you can control the flash output perfectly, you don't have to suffer with ratios and rough settings, you can tell Flash A to pop at 1/4th power and Flash B to pop at 1/32th power. End of story. Best £1000 spent on photography gear ever.

Single point focus, or multiple points?

Always single point, though the 1D has a custom setting that allows you to make a smaller (2-3 focus points) area active, not just one.

Outside the realm of cycling photography, whose work influences you?

I love Paul Graham , I can spend days with this work. Mitch Epstein Gregory Crewsdon

and Stephen Shore. I'm visually fascinated by the States and I can consume an infinite amount of documentary photography about various aspects of the US.

What about outside of photography?

It's linked to cycling. I've recently read Paul Kimmage's and David Walsh's books and I find both of them incredibly brave and courageous, just like all the people who had the balls to speak up during the Armstrong era. I come from a country where you were harassed by the police if your hair was too long and it was illegal not to have a job, and yet there still were people who risked their livelihoods and sometimes their lived to tell the truth.

In our world, it's quite hard to be a rebel because there's not a lot that you can rebel against, and that's the reason I find them to be inspiring and brave, that they spoke out, even though it often had dire consequences on them.

Is there one race, or one rider that is an absolute joy to shoot for any reason?

The World Championships are always special, those two days just contain a very high dosage of all the things I love about cross: the intensity, great racing and brilliant atmosphere. The 2012 Worlds at Koksijde and the 62,000 spectators is something I will always remember.

What did you make of the atmosphere and overall mood at the Louisville world championships, versus the races you've become accustomed to in Europe?

I think the organizers put on a terrific race in Louisville, and the crowds were just as enthusiastic as the Belgians are on their home turf. I think the US crowd was a lot more inclusive, Belgian crowds tend to support the top 15 riders and then the rest ride in near-silence, whereas the Americans cheer everybody on as if they were Sven Nys or Marianne Vos.

Any horror stories of shooting a race like dropping a lens into a huge puddle of mud, or forgetting a camera at the beer tent?

Something like that did happen last year. It happened during the Diegem round of the Superprestige series. The elite men's race started at 5pm, so it was all dark, which I love. I was shooting a fast descent, both flashes up, riders roll past at breakneck speeds as always. I was already thinking about the next spot, so I picked up both flashes and started galloping toward the next spot. I might have been walking for two or three minutes when I realized that something was out of order. I couldn't really put my finger on what it was but something just wasn't right. And then suddenly it dawned on me: where is my other camera body? Whenever I have to sit down, I always chuck the camera I'm not using on one of the poles that mark the course—and on that fateful day, I left a body with the 70-200 on a pole, surrounded by hundreds of spectators. When the penny dropped, I panicked and ran back, fell twice almost, my heart racing, you can imagine? When I got back to the place where I left the camera, it was still dangling on that pole, so there was no harm done.

After the race, my good friend and cycling photographer extraordinaire, Kristof Ramon, told me that he thought I left the camera there on purpose. I was just very, very relieved that I hadn't lost half of my kit.

What would be your dream assignment?

This is funny one. I used to say that I want to shoot the Tour de France, properly, from a moto. I mean, if you are a cycling photographer, that's the pinnacle of the profession, right?

Well, last year, I was lucky enough to have sit in a BMC team car during the time trial stage of the Tour of Switzerland. It was a very hilly TT stage and those 60 minutes were was the scariest 60 minutes of my life. We were descending behind Brent Bookwalter at around 80 kph, the DS was holding a piece of paper with instructions in his left hand, the same hand that was doing the steering. He held the radio in his other hand, constantly reading instructions to Bookwalter, while we were surrounded by 3-4 motos, riding at similar speeds on a bendy road. I knew that this is what they do all the time and there are almost no team car accidents but I just can't imagine myself on the back of a moto on a rainy Alpine stage. Call me weak or a coward.

How did the idea to produce a book first come about, and how has it gone now that you've produced multiple books?

Back in 2009, a friend of mine, who is a rally photographer and he gave me the idea to publishing a book at the end of the season. It sounds a bit formulaic maybe, but I enjoyed putting together a chronicle of the season and seeing all those great races in one place. The first book was far from perfect, it was fairly small and it was softcover. Also, coming from a mountain biking background, I assumed that the World Cup races are ARE key moments of the season and I was totally oblivious of the other races and I had no idea about the Superprestige, the GVA and other races. On the other hand, people seemed to have really liked that I dedicated equal space to women's races and got good feedback. 

I skipped the 10/11 season and upon the completion of the 11/12 season, I tried incorporate all the learnings and create a bigger and, hopefully, better book, this time covering 35 races, which means almost all the C1 races in Europe. It came out a lot better, but there was still a lot of room for improvement and I hope I have managed to address a few of these in the 12/13 book. 

Producing these books is a lot of fun and a lot of hard work, pulling together contributors, designers and writers from different countries, time zones, etc. It was also an interesting learning, that I was the one who kept things in motion. If I wasn't nudging them, no one else was. You learn and you evolve. And, hopefully, the books are becoming better and better.

You can buy Balint's book here


You can see more of his work here

(he updates his site only hours after each race)

You can also see his work on Flickr