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INTERVIEW with Mario Stiehl: The Life of a Pro Photographer Following the Peloton

By Jonathan Bouchard (Polska à vélo)

Ever wondered what it’s like to be an intrinsic part of cycling races, such as the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, Vuelta a España, Paris-Roubaix? Basically all of the famous races there are? Well, that is the life of Mario Stiehl. Sitting on the back of a motorcycle all day, making sure that us cycling fans get our daily dose of cycling wonder pics. We sat down with one of the most published photographers in the world of pro cycling to talk about his exciting job.

How did you start in the world of pro cycling photography?

I started in 1994. I come from East Germany, and when I was a child back then, all that we had was The Course de la Paix / The Peace Race. And I remember that we would go out of school and stand on the sides of the roads to cheer for the riders. That was my first encounter with cycling. Then I started following the Tour de France and the Spring Classics on TV whenever we had the feed.

So photography was not your first love, it was pro cycling itself?

Yes, definitely. You see, in and around 1991, I took an interest in sports and sports statistics. One of my first goals was to write a book about cycling statistics because there was nothing available in (East) Germany.

So, I would go to Strasbourg, France, to look for some materials. The idea was to create my own book in German about the sport’s stats. As I got immersed in the project, I realized that what I really wanted and needed were… pictures.

Mario in the center with his colleagues Scott Mitchell (GBR) and James Starts (USA).

So I contacted some of the best cycling photographers in Germany at the time. When I asked them about the cost of their pictures, I could not believe how expensive it was! So I decided to take up cycling photography. It hadn’t been my passion before. By the way, I never completed that book because I fell in love with photography.

Do you remember Graham Watson? The grandfather of cycling photography. He retired two years ago. When I started, I would check out his books because I liked his style, and I have been looking up to him as an influence ever since. Five years ago, I spent one season with him, and it was a revelation for me.

Could you give us a simple rundown of your day during a race?

First, it really depends on the stage and the travelling time around it. In some Grand Tours, it can be really long. I usually wake up between 6 and 7 am. Next is shower and breakfast. Then I usually have to be on site two to three hours before the start in order to create all of the data for that day’s stage.

Then, one hour before the Signing Ceremony, I must be there to take pictures of the Sport Directors, the riders and all of the people around the race. Next is the race where I spend four to six hours, riding a motorbike about 80% of the time.

© Mario Stiehl

After that comes the Podium Ceremony and all other things, which take around half an hour after the finish. After the Podium Ceremony, I go into the press centre for two to three hours to send the images to my clients. By the way, I am not the last one to stay at these events. It is always Tim De Waele, another pro photographer like myself (from Belgium), who stays the longest!

After that, I head back to my hotel where I have to send off the pictures because clients are most important. They pay me for the whole season and they want to have the material as soon as possible. Then I talk with my driver to organise the next day.

I finish at midnight or sometimes even at 2 am. As I said, sometimes we have really long transfers, especially in the early or late parts of the season where we travel in the dark because it is so early or so late.

It is not an easy job…

What does your typical year look like?

This is a complicated question… The thing is that my company is growing bigger and bigger, so I now work with partners. But the bottom line is that I am away from home some 260 days a year. I start in the middle of January and work until October.

© Mario Stiehl

In the off-season, I am at home. I turn on ice hockey and basketball because I really need a break from cycling. Of course, I could go and cover the cyclocross season in the autumn…, but the fact is that by that time I usually get really bored with cycling.

The Grand Tours. Which one do you like best?

I prefer the Giro. It is the nicest one, and many people will say the same. The country and the culture are amazing. It is not complicated to cover it. Sometimes the stages are hard, however, it is more relaxed than the Tour de France.

The Tour de France is the hardest. It is the biggest cycling race, everyone knows it. But to me, it is a circus… Too many people, too many journalists. As I said, it is not complicated to cover the race, but when it is your passion, then covering it is not much fun.

© Mario Stiehl

Plus after the terrorist attacks in France, it hasn’t been very special for the last three years. Security measures are everywhere, and it is stressful. And you get tired of it. You have to travel before and after the stages, long transfers. Just a lot of stress.

What is your favourite race outside of the Grand Tours?

Many years ago, I would have said the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour of Switzerland. These races are really nice and not as stressful as the Grand Tours. You can meet the stars before and after the Grand Tours, such as Le Tour de France or the Giro d’Italia.

But in the last six years, I would add the Norwegian races, such as the Tour des Fjords, and Eastern European races. Norway is just amazing because of the pictures I had the chance to take when the peloton was passing through amazing landscapes. It makes the experience just perfect.

© Mario Stiehl

So now, I have some new favourite races in Eastern Europe! The Tour of Slovenia and the Tour of Croatia, I really like them. The people are very nice. Ultimately, I prefer the Tour of Slovenia. I must say that the organisation of Eastern European races is getting better and better.

As for one-day races, I have no favourite. Of course there are the Paris-Roubaix, the Flanders, Milan-San Remo, etc. But you can’t cover them all!

So when I plan my season, I need to consider what I can do by myself because sometimes, there are similar races at the same time, like Paris-Nice & Tirreno-Adriatico. So I have to talk with my partners to see how it will go.

You know, in my job, you cannot have only “one big deal” with a big big team. As a pro photographer, I need several big deals with big teams. It’s complicated, but most of my clients require that I provide them with a lot of images from 90% of all the races in the world.

Could you tell us what you think is your best-ever picture, the one where you feel that you were in the right place at the right moment?

Yes, of course. It was two years ago, a picture I took at the Tour des Fjords. The riders were passing a waterfall and then, at the right moment comes this gust of wind which splashed water droplets all over the peloton. At the very same moment comes a rainbow. I will never forget it!

© Mario Stiehl

What is your best memory outside of photography? What race will you never forget?

Oh, I can tell you exactly! It was the first win of Erik Zabel at the Milan – San Remo in 1997. He comes from Berlin, my home town. When he won that race, we started crying together; I in front of my TV, he at the race. Erik is such a good guy.

The last section of this interview is a few quick questions for you, Mario. We call these ‘shots’. We’ll give you a few choices from which you’ll choose what you think is the best answer.

Stiehl Shot #1: What do you do in your free time? 1) A bike ride. 2) Sit in a long chair in your backyard. 3) Working on the To-Do list your girlfriend prepared for you.

Definitely the To-Do list! And it is also about spending time with my lady and my daughter.

Stiehl Shot #2: After a race day, what do you prefer? 1) Beer. 2) Wine. 3) Smoothie. 4) Water.

Belgian beer!

Stiehl Shot #3: Which one is more painful? 1) A rainy and cold race day in Norway. 2) A (very) hot & dry day at the Vuelta.

The arctic races. The heat is okay, but the cold is not good for the body, it is not good for the cameras, and for your staff. But those are also the moments when you realise that this is your passion in life because you really feel the pain.

© Mario Stiehl

Stiehl Shot #4: Usually, the best pictures are taken when & where? 1) A bunch sprint. 2) A mountain stage. 3) A time trial.

In a bunch sprint! You see a lot of riders, they all go to the limit. You can see their faces. You really see the limits.

Pro cycling is a fast sport, and we often tend to stick to the main people and the main topics of the day. Who won, who crashed, who abandoned. But there are amazing tales happening behind the cameras as well. Unfortunately, we often omit these stories. But Mario and his dedication are a living example of why we shouldn’t.