We talk to photographers Jojo Harper and Ashley Gruber and find out the lengths they go to in order to get their coveted shots of the notoriously tough Paris-Roubaix Femmes cycling race
By Amy Sedghi
Photography by Jojo Harper & Ashley Gruber
So brutal and testing is the annual Paris-Roubaix cycling race that it’s famously referred to as the ‘Hell of the North’. While the men’s event, regarded as one of the toughest and most prestigious races in the spring Classics calendar spans back well over a century, the professional women’s peloton was only granted its own edition last year. Once deemed ‘too hard’ a race for female riders, it’s a notion that has swiftly been destroyed by a bold display of exciting racing, incredible winners and a flurry of dramatic and iconic photography coming out of the event.
When people say a picture captures a thousand words, they could very well be speaking about this beautifully wild cycle race. Images of the competitors who tackle the cobbles of the Paris-Roubaix course – dust and grime across their exhausted faces and bodies, blood seeping from carefully bandaged fingers – are as much a part of the event as the race reports that come out of it. Professional and highly celebrated photographers Jojo Harper and Ashley Gruber are well-versed in the art of trying to capture and convey the scenes from the testing race, its effects on the professional riders (both male and female) and the magical atmosphere of this whirlwind that tears through the otherwise sleepy rural French countryside.
“It just feels like controlled tumbling chaos the entire day,” says Ashley, with a laugh. Spanning 124.7km, the 2022 Paris-Roubaix Femmes avec Zwift route saw the female professional cyclists wind over dusty roads, smash over bone-rattling cobbled sectors and whiz through French villages before arriving at the Roubaix velodrome to a roaring crowd. It’s known to be a technically, and logistically, difficult course, both for those competing and the crews following them in cars and on motorbikes. Mechanicals are common, thanks to the bumpy and jagged road surface, while the layout means it can be difficult to get from one section to another if you’re covering the race.
“I think in the beginning I actually really hated it,” confides Ashley, speaking to me post-ride. She’s been on the road at various cycling races for the past seven weeks and has just arrived back in Italy where she lives when not in her native US. “There’s this medium to high level of stress throughout the day. There are so many things that can go wrong. It’s really challenging creatively because there are not many options of how you can shoot it.” She explains how even when she’s applied the same approach at each race, from where to stop to take photographs and how to manoeuvre ahead of the race, she’s been faced with a different scenario each time. However she says she’s starting to understand the magic of the race and describes being there to document the first Paris-Roubaix Femmes in October 2021 as a huge privilege. “It was really special and it was definitely a day I’ll remember.” Was she nervous? “Oh, always,” she says with a laugh. “I mean, that doesn’t go away, it doesn’t matter what the race is… but yeah, it definitely was ratcheted up to like 11 out of 10.”
For both Ashley and Jojo, the photographs they took of the inaugural winner, Lizzie Deignan crossing the finishing line and then subsequently in the famous Roubaix Velodrome showers, form a part of cycling history. Now, the 2022 winner, Italian rider (and Deignan’s Trek-Segafredo team mate) Elisa Longo Borghini joins the canon of riders who’ve lifted the prestigious cobblestone trophy. It may seem odd but a well-known tradition for finishers of the Paris-Roubaix race is to have their photographs artfully taken in the brutalist looking concrete showers. It certainly makes for a striking image and is a memento the riders proudly share on their social media profiles. For Jojo, who attended this latest edition of the race with her four-month-old baby Winter, the showers took on a new meaning, albeit not on purpose.
“I’m breastfeeding and I haven’t spent any time apart from Winter, so I was actually more nervous about leaving her [than the photography],” explains Jojo, who left her baby with her husband as she raced across the course to take photos of the elite riders. “We were waiting for Elisa [to come into the showers] and I needed to feed Winter. The showers were empty so I sat in there and Ashley crept in after me and asked if she could take a photo.” The image is a beautiful, simple and honest depiction of a woman making her work environment – be it the famed Roubaix Velodrome showers – fit in with the juggle of motherhood and professional life. Jojo deliberated for a while about whether to post the picture on her Instagram (she describes herself as being “very British” when it comes to sharing intimate images of her life) but ultimately decided it would send a powerful message: “I think it’s setting an example of ‘this is possible’. That’s what I wanted to say.”
Unlike Ashley, Jojo says she rarely gets nervous before shooting bike races now, but she does admit that the pressure of covering the first ever Paris-Roubaix Femmes was intense. Being the team photographer of Trek-Segafredo (Lizzie’s team) meant there was added expectation on Jojo’s shoulders. She recalls running into the velodrome, heavily pregnant, five minutes before Lizzie rolled in. “We so nearly missed the finish… that was quite anxiety provoking,” she shares candidly. “When she won, it was amazing. I’ve worked with Trek for more than four years now so it feels like more than just a job. It was a pretty special moment.”
Unlike the 2021 edition, which unleashed a wet and muddy day of racing, this year’s race was dry, dusty and warm. Did that bring with it different challenges for the photographers? “You can’t see a thing,” exclaims Jojo of the all-encompassing dust that’s kicked up as the wheels of the cyclists and cars pound over the route. “To be honest, it’s really not my style [to] point and shoot and hope for the best but sometimes at Roubaix, with the athletes and the action, you just have to do that.” There is a little more control to be had over the photographs of the surroundings, such as the landscapes, fans, plus the pre- and post-race moments, she explains. Her preference, she adds, is to observe and take time to compose an image where possible.
A challenge both Jojo and Ashley are familiar with is the impossibility of capturing everything the race and day has to offer. “You can’t get everything, you have to compromise,” says Jojo, explaining that making rapid and difficult decisions is part and parcel of the job. Both photographers can readily recount those missed moments they wished they’d captured. For Jojo, it was her absence at the team bus this year after the podium, where she missed Elisa hugging her team, as she thought the winner would be coming straight to the showers. “I missed that but I did get the shower shots,” she says, balancing it out. For Ashley, there’s a fleeting personal moment from the 2021 event which has firmly imprinted itself on her mind: “ It’s actually a photo I didn’t shoot that I think about more than the ones that I did. [In 2021] it was just something that I missed and it was so small… Lizzie was getting changed and she had her hair in a braid. She was taking her hair down and it was just the way her fingers were going through her hair. It was just a beautiful, super quick moment. I thought ‘oh my God, I really wish I had that photo’, because I thought it was also such a stark contrast to those 1940s industrial vibe showers.” She says she lamented it afterwards to her husband Jered, also a professional photographer. She describes her relationship with him as “very much a team”, both personally and professionally. When it comes to covering the Paris-Roubaix race, they slice up the course and action, so each has different areas to focus on.
So, of those photographs Jojo and Ashley did capture from the 2021 and 2022 Paris-Roubaix Femmes, are there any favourites? For Jojo, it’s the outpouring of emotion and celebration she captured when Elisa and her fellow Trek-Segafredo team mates hugged and congratulated each other after the finish line. “It’s always so nice when the girls celebrate together because obviously it’s a team effort. That’s always pretty special to photograph.” Ashley says her photo of Elisa winning was a highlight (“I got a really clean finish photo, which is always satisfying”), but there’s also an image that she loves for what it symbolises. In one of her photos of a rider in the showers this year, two other female photographers are visible in the background: “From a visual standpoint, it’s not as nice or as clean, but it’s also interesting [to see] one year on, there were more female photographers.” Sports photography and the cycling industry is still heavily male-dominated, but Ashley says she has noticed a shift within the 12 years she’s been working in the field. “There have always been a few [female photographers], and there are still comparatively few, but I would say more are coming into the space and it’s really lovely.”
“I love what I do, I love the job but having a baby put it into perspective,” shares Jojo. She has another great moment she’d like to add, which wonderfully brings together her personal and professional life: “Getting back after three and a half hours and seeing my baby and realising that she was smiling and happy. And then Elisa came to the showers and she wanted to hold her… after that all the girls met her and were really accepting of me being there with her – that was a highlight.”