Life through a lens on the Women's Tour

Writer James Shrubsall swapped his pen and paper for a camera and joined Simon Wilkinson at the Women's Tour last year

Race photography
(Image credit: Future)

They say a picture paints a thousand words. Which to a busy writer sounds ideal — pass me the camera someone, how hard can it be?

Cycling journalism is as much about imagery as it is about words; we drink in the pictures, the mountain scenery, the sunflower fields and the agony on the riders' faces. And then we wish we could take photos like that.

'Viewfinder warrior' doesn't have quite the same ring to it as 'keyboard warrior' perhaps, but nevertheless, and all in the name of serious investigative research, I paused the day job, grabbed my old DSLR camera, and set about finding out just what it takes to be a race photographer.

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Thanks to Simon Wilkinson and Alex Whitehead at SWPix — whose names you will probably recognise from the credits to thousands of pictures published on websites and in magazines from races around the world, including those that regularly appear in Cycling Weekly — I had the chance to test my ability with pictures rather than prose for a day.

CW magazine

(Image credit: Future)

SWPix is run by devout Yorkshireman and proud former tabloid snapper Simon Wilkinson. He employs two staff and numerous freelancers and over the last 20 years or so has covered more bike races than you and I have had hot dinners — not to mention all the cricket matches, the swimming and the football.

If you're a frequent visitor at UK National Series events or major races abroad, you'll likely have seen Wilkinson stalking purposefully around start and finish paddocks, brandishing his long lens as he crouches or climbs his way into the best vantage point. He's a busy guy, and having him show me the ropes was quite the privilege.

I joined Wilkinson and staff photographer Alex Whitehead ("he just 'has it'", Wilkinson says) for a day on the recent Women's Tour, stage four from Shoeburyness to Southend, to be exact. In a car bursting at the rear quarters with neatly packed bags of camera equipment, we rolled up at the race start on what was a rather overcast morning — 'flat', as we race photographers like to call it. Apparently.

As I followed them to the sign-on, Wilkinson's years on the job were easy to see as he exchanged greetings with almost everyone on the organisational staff along the way. 

I felt like I'd arrived once I'd been furnished with a photographer's green bib at the meet-and-greet tent, and followed Wilkinson by tucking it jauntily in my jeans pocket. There were times, such as on the finish line, that they had to be worn properly, he explained, but it wasn't a favourite look.

You can read the full feature in the December 30 edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale now. You can try three issues of CW for just £3 in our January subscriptions sale. 

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After cutting his teeth on local and national newspapers, James began at Cycling Weekly as a sub-editor in 2000 when the current office was literally all fields. 


Eventually becoming chief sub-editor, in 2016 he switched to the job of full-time writer, and covers news, racing and features.


A lifelong cyclist and cycling fan, James's racing days (and most of his fitness) are now in the past, although that doesn't stop him banging on tirelessly about "that one time" he nearly rode a 20-minute '10', and planning the big comeback that everyone knows will never actually happen.