Very few women have been on the frontlines of photographers who shoot the European classics and grand tours. One pioneer was American Darcy Kiefel, the first female photographer to shoot the Tour de France from a press motorcycle, in the 1980s. Another is Marketa Navratilova from Prague, Czech Republic, who currently works for the Cor Vos Fotoburo. The latest shooter to begin working all the main events in the UCI WorldTour is Ashley Gruber, wife of Jered Gruber, whose images frequently appear in this publication. We recently asked Ashley 10 questions about her work and her world.
Interview: Tim Schamber
Images: Ashley Gruber
1. I remember when you were first getting your feet wet in Europe and how big the continent felt to you. After several years going abroad for most of the year, what has changed in the way you approach travel? Well, Europe still feels big, especially when you have to drive across the whole thing! But I think we both feel more comfortable about travel and we’re set in our roles of how things work. One of the biggest changes is that we get to ride our bikes so much less. A lot of the time we’re holed up in some random (and very rarely nice!) hotel room catching up on work and emails, trying our darnedest to get out before the sun goes away. It’s a good problem to have, though, as it means we are working!
To answer your question: I’m way more organized than when I was 22! I write things down, I make lists and I pack in cubes. Everything has a place and a purpose. I don’t take as many “frivolous” things with me, and sometimes that makes me sad. I love well-dressed, fashionable people, but I definitely struggle to get out of my yoga pants. It’s hard to justify bringing things with me that aren’t useful in at least two seasons of weather.
2. Have you flown below the radar in terms of shooting images, or have people just not recognized that you are a serious shooter? When we started, I always saw myself as an accessory to Jered. He was the one shooting seriously, and I could grab a few useful shots here and there. I think that’s how most people saw me. The last few years, though, it has definitely become something that I do too. Jered has dragged me kicking and screaming into the world of photography. And there’s no way to get around it at this point—I’m a photographer. It feels funny to write that, because for the longest time I felt like I was lying when I said that. Also, I didn’t play the social media game for a very long time. Jered set up my account and is my social media guru. They’re my photos, and he asks me about the wording, but he manages it. For some reason, I just don’t feel that comfortable in that world. I know it’s an essential part of our job, but I guess I’m a little more private than I used to be.
3. You’ve traveled to some amazing places over the past eight-or-so years. What’s the one place you love going back to? I always love going to Innsbruck, Austria. That’s where this all started. I still can’t believe we got to live there! It’s such a great city, and so close to so many fun outdoor things. It’s fun to go back somewhere that you have roots and memories, where you can feel a little bit like an insider, and Innsbruck is definitely one of those places. Just over the border in Italy, Alta Badia is a big-time-favorite place for us. The Dolomites are a true playground for anyone that likes to be outside, and there’s no better friend to play outside with than Igor Tavella. Another “home” for us is Lecchi, the Tuscan base for inGamba Tours. They are pretty much our adopted family, and living on the road so much (nearly 10 months a year), it feels really good that random Italian people know your name, that this tiny little village can feel like home.
4. Grand tours are truly a world unto their own. What was it like the first time following one and shooting it? Miserable. Stressful. Very little magic…and we are still total amateurs compared to so many. It’s an extremely challenging three-plus weeks. Your personal life is taken over entirely, your control of most situations is next to nil and you feel like you just have to hang on in hopes that maybe, just maybe, you’ll capture something special. Then you have to rush back to your hotel room, with the worst Internet you’ve ever had to process it and get it out before it’s old news.
Then you wake up and do it all again the next day. The same circus, the same stress. It’s pretty grim. I think anyone who has done them a few times would agree. It’s definitely not all sunshine and rainbows. We’ve seen it break people. The staff, the riders, the police, the chefs…everyone is exhausted, and it’s worse when it’s hot. And that was the first time. Unfortunately, that feeling hasn’t changed much with each passing grand tour. At this point, we’ve just gotten better about what to expect. We take a huge deep breath before the start, jump in and hope for the best during our period in the weeds.
My hat is forever off to the journalists, photographers and team staff who do so much more than we do, for so much longer. Very occasionally, you get something to happen. The stars align and, as our friend Jim Merithew says, you “get the f—-ing shot. If everyone knew where the pictures were, they’d all be lined up next door to get ’em.”
5. Tell us more about the butcher image you took in Tuscany. You know, we actually considered that for a cover option…. That was in the town of Gaiole in Chianti, just about 10 kilometers from our adopted home of Lecchi. The owner and chef of the B&B there, Morgaro, kept telling me about this butcher—Vincenzo Chini (lacasainchianti.com/what-to-do/chini/)—that his meat was amazing, such good quality, typical Italian hyperbole. I don’t know much about that kind of stuff, but he did seem pretty legit to me. I thought it sounded like a fun photo project and asked if I could come along when he bought half a damn cow for the Bistecca Fiorentina. Vincenzo loved the camera. He was very thoughtful, asking about the lighting, posing and, for the photo in question, he gratuitously held a slab of meat he wasn’t even working on at that moment! I like that kind of stuff. I love shooting things that have absolutely nothing to do with bikes. Jer does too, but when he’s not working on taking bike pictures, he’d rather be riding his bike, so it’s harder to get him out for these types of things.
6. Often, you are the model for Jered’s shots. That means, on some occasions, you have to go up and down a climb over and over. So really you may be doing more miles than him! I would say that’s true only on those occasions. I guess I’ll take my bones where I can get them. It’s really frustrating to be the model for both of us. We both prefer to shoot and it’s annoying to explain what I see so Jered can shoot me doing it. Vice versa for him, but the truth is that you do see things differently when riding versus walking around. It’s a different experience. On-the-bike shooting was how we got started, so no matter how much we might complain about it sometimes, it’s always a good time. It just feels good to go out, ride bikes and, when we see something that makes us happy, turn around and shoot the hell out of it.
7. Now that we know where you always love going back to, what about the place you would love to visit? Where’s that? Tasmania, New Zealand, Patagonia, Oregon, Norway, Mallorca, West Virginia, Canaries, Peru, India, Alaska, Colorado in the summer, Jamaica, Morocco…in no real order. That said, I’m not allowed to look at maps with Jered. He gets overwhelmed by my ideas sometimes. I’m just as excited by places that I’ve never heard of, oftentimes more so than if it’s a big-name place. I guess I’m not unique in that regard—how many best of lists of “all the places you’ve never heard of’” are there?
8. Tell our readers about a race that they should pay attention to that you think doesn’t get enough attention. I wish I had a good answer for you, but I don’t feel super-qualified. All the races we cover are the “big ones” for the most part. Tro-Bro Leon was our only “secret” race, but it seems like the word is out on that one now! If we had the chance, I’d love to shoot some of the weeklong stage races: Catalunya, Basque Country, Romandie, Dauphiné. That would be fun. At the same time, those are week-long stage races. The one-day classics are great, because they’re just that—one day—so you shoot, then you get a couple of days off. There’s still a ton of work to do, but we can go for a ride in the evening and feel like humans. That’s not possible at a stage race, pretty much ever….
I’ve had the chance to shoot a few women’s races this year—I’m really interested in that—and if we ever get the chance, I’d love to focus in on the women’s scene in a big way. I think there are plenty of photographers lending their creative minds to professional men’s racing, but I think there are still a lot of possibilities on the women’s front—it feels like a wild frontier of possibilities when taken in comparison to something like Paris-Roubaix or the Tour de France.
As much as it pains me to say, I can’t fault anyone for not covering women’s racing. It’s a practical thing—the eyes and pocketbooks of the cycling world are firmly focused on men’s racing, and all of us are trying to find our own little spot underneath the money tree. That’s the way it is for the moment. For us, I think that we’re beginning to get the chance to shift our focus from 100,000-percent men’s racing over to the women’s side. Not all the time, but at least sometimes. This year has been our first go of it, and it’s super-motivating. I love the atmosphere at women’s races, the racers, everything about it. It’s more open, easy-going, relaxed—and the racers are every bit as awesome. They are so much more down to earth than the men. There’s no question that cycling is a man’s world though. I can moan about it all I want, or I can put my head down and try to do something interesting and keep my eyes open for different opportunities that will showcase that side of the sport.
9. You are now officially homeowners here in the U.S. What prompted the two nomads to do that? I stink at answering email. In the meantime we have put in an offer, had said offer accepted, bought a house, furnished it, planted 150 flowers, bushes and trees in the yard, moved out of it (personal items that we don’t really have) and rented it for the time that we’re out of the country. I love having a home, even if it’s for a short period of time. We spend the whole year tiptoeing around shared spaces and having to be considerate about how late we stay up and how much we take out the trash. It’s kind of nice to have a whole refrigerator, and everything in it is mine! I think it was time for us to have our own space, and as we rent it it was easy to justify as an investment of sorts.
10. What’s in your pocket right now? Truth be told, I’m answering this about 10 minutes before bed. I sleep in the buff, plus cozy socks. But…I wear my black Lululemon vest nearly every day and the contents of that pocket never change: Honey Vanilla Lip Balm by Naturopathica (I’m a product junkie, so check this one out, seriously: naturopathica.com/skin_care/34-honey_vanilla_lip_balm), a lens cloth (glasses wearer and photographer means it comes in handy twice!), and a one Euro coin (you never know when you’ll need it!).
Ashley Gruber on Instagram: @ashleygruber