Something old, something new: sports photography with a Leica M Monochrom

Velodrom

Several years ago I was looking for a photography project that should keep me occupied for a longer period of time. Weeks, maybe months it should be. Turned out it would be years. After shooting mostly street photography for years – be it at home or while travelling – I was looking for something new, something I had never gotten in contact with before.

in the great bowl of concrete

As Zurich is a rather small city I wasn’t hoping for much but as always my new home town had something to offer that you can’t make up in your wildest dreams. I’m not a sports fan at all. I don’t watch soccer games or the very popular ice hockey matches here in Switzerland. But while searching for a nice photo project I stumbled upon the Oerlikon racetrack where amateur and pro cycling contests take place every week during summer time.

knw your enemy

I took a closer look and I was fascinated instantly: the arena is a strange, more than 100 years old concrete block in the middle of Oerlikon’s suburban area where new apartment block are built in a weekly manner. It is maintained by a couple of enthusiasts who want to just keep the place alive for the sake of good velo sport. In the huge pressure of Zurich’s housing projects with too many people sharing too little space it’s a wonder this place still exists in such a great location. So after all I was hooked and although I am not too much into sports I gave it a chance.

high speed

The “Offene Rennbahn Oerlikon” (as it’s officially called) was built out of concrete in 1912. The track measures 333.3 metres and it was and still is the place for national and international bike races in Switzerland. It is constructed comparable to an older soccer stadium and it has no roof so all events ake place only during summer time and only when weather conditions are okay. This surely adds to the atmosphere but having no roof makes racing impossible if there is even the slightest sign of rain. The track has steep faces of 40° and more which get slippery when they are wet so it depends a lot on the weather if a race can take place or not.

new record

I still remember when I first entered the Rennbahn. I went there on a sunny Tuesday evening, it was one of the first warm early sommer days and the team of the Rennbahn wrot on their website that a race can take place today as the weather report looks good for the evening. There’s a very special mood during the races. It’s usually a very small but very passionate crowd. Many of the spectators have a strong connection to bicycle racing, be it as a hobby or just fascination. While bicycle racing is – as in most countries – not the most popular sports in Switzerland compared to the ubiquitious soccer or ice hockey, people who go to Rennbahn Oerlikon are usually very attached to bike racing.

rundum sorglos!

When you enter the arena you can feel that instantly and I liked it enough to go there every now and then for several years now. Also they manage to make everything as cozy as possible. They sell Bratwurst and beer so you don’t starve whil watching other people exercising. Sometimes it almost felt like a big barbecue party only with some people racing in circles.

triumph

If the conditions are good enough you will experience several races per evening. Usually there are juniors, amateurs and pros fighting for some points in different disciplinces like knock-out rounds or eliminiation races. There are even some very strange races where every bike has its own pacemaker whick is basically a motorbike. As I said, I’m not a sports guy but even to me the races are quite fascinating and exciting to watch.

racing on concrete

Photography-wise there I noticed some things when going to the “Offene Rennbahn”: as it is a rather small community of enthusiasts everything is very open in the racing arena. You can move freely wherever you want. You can even go to the preparation camp where the cyclists prepare for the races and they are always open for a small chat. People are friendly and very helpful in general. Of course there are hired photographers who take the official race photos and the presentation ceremonies but they never minded me hanging around and taking some photos. Obviously with the Leica MM you don’t look like a real competitior to them.

only one

I was happy to still have my Leica M Monochrom, which is my last remaining digital camera (after I fell in love again with analog photography some years ago). On the race track you often have conditions of low light and fast cyclists that need a lot of patience or good luck if you shoot film. Digital makes sense as you can just spray and pray (as fas as a Leica M allows spraying), you can easily switch ISO and you are not bound to 36 exposures per roll (or 12 if you shoot 6×6). Many times I came home with 300 shots only to have a single frame that looked okay so film is not really an option here. I still wonder how the photographers managed to get some nice shots back in the 60’s when cycling was more popular but I guess they were just a lot more used to the restrictions of their equipment.

top speed

Conclusion of this article:
It’s great to try ot something new.
It’s challenging and totally worth the effort.
It’s good to leave your comfort zone every now and then.
“Offene Rennbahn Oerlikon” is totally recommended to have a good time.

sunset race

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