Students of Pain: the 2013 9th Street Derby


To be a cyclist is to be a student of pain… at cycling’s core lies pain, hard and bitter as the pit inside a juicy peach. It doesn’t matter if you’re sprinting for an Olympic medal, a town sign, a trailhead, or the rest stop with the homemade brownies. If you never confront pain, you’re missing the essence of the sport. Without pain, there’s no adversity. Without adversity, no challenge. Without challenge, no improvement. No improvement, no sense of accomplishment and no deep-down joy. Might as well be playing Tiddly-Winks.
Scott Martin


Shouts  of encouragement, the soft whir of tires on pavement as a rider speeds by, then a crescendo of sound and murmuring as the following peloton nears, arrives, and passes, the aggregate air the riders push out of the way hitting you like a gentle, but insistent, spring breeze. The process repeated every minute or so, the leader sometimes changing, lap after lap. Ten minutes, twenty. The pace slackens a bit, the shoulders start to slump on the straights, the mouths gape. This is cycling to me, and it is beautiful.


Let me make it clear: I am no cyclist myself, and until last year’s Ninth Street Derby, had never experienced competitive cycling outside of memories of old Wellspring Criterium posters and the occasional glimpse of Le Tour. After having witnessed the energy, the competitiveness, the toughness and the grace of road racing, I am hooked.


A criterium seems to me like the cycling equivalent of an F1 race–a short, tight, technical course that features both speed and endurance. Competitors sprint for primes, and strategically work with teammates to maneuver into favorable position. A physical and mental challenge, the criterium format features riders competing against both other riders and their own tiring bodies.


Criteriums are also ideal for spectators and photographers, with their fast and repeating action. Watchers have the opportunity to view the action from multiple viewpoints and at regular intervals as the riders lap.


I like the purity of cycling–to me it is more graceful than running, but features the same, human powered motivation. The riders are all incredibly focused as they jockey for position in tight bunches, and their sportsmanship admirable. Smiles abound between races, with teams mingling with spectators and each other, sharing stories. Folks are competitive, to be sure, but the community is positive, encouraging, and tight-knit.


The brainchild of Duke cycling coach Rusty Miller, the Ninth Street Derby enriches the community and the city that I have been proud to call home my whole life. Evidence of Durham’s continuing rebirth, the bicycle racing is at once a celebration of human and machine, of exercise and competition, of clean energy and the power of spirit.



I never expected to be so taken by a sport that I once considered hipsterism taken to an ugly extreme–arrogant aero-clothed yuppies on carbon-fiber superbikes banging on pots and pans about the evils of fossil fuels and “cages.”


I am sure that lunatic fringe exists (probably in Sausalito ;-)), but I am so grateful to Rusty and to all the cyclists–youth, collegiate, and pro–for shattering all of my preconceived notions. This is grand entertainment, folks. A grassroots, accessible, fast action sport that celebrates the human body and spirit–what’s not to love?


This year’s Ninth Street Derby featured lots of thrilling action, with the home team Blue Devils putting on quite a show (as a Carolina alumnus and Durham native, this presented a complex problem of allegiance), and I had ample opportunity to practice and refine my cycling photography. Hopefully I’ve captured some of the energy and excitement in these photos. I hope you can feel the camaraderie, feel the adrenaline and tension in the racing, hear the whirr of so many wheels being furiously pedaled.


To all the athletes, thanks for the show!


For galleries of the various races I photographed, please follow these links:


If anyone is interested in a technical writeup about photographing cycling, please leave me a comment or make contact. I’d be happy to share my experiences.


One Comment

  1. John Rees on Apr 30, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Well done. Awesome photos

Add A Comment