Jered & Ashly Gruber; Nomadic Procycling Photographers
For most, the pro cycling dream will remain just that. But for Jered Gruber it was a reality - until he met his wife, Ashley. Although his pro career stopped, the dreaming didn’t. They built a new life to satisfy their love of photography, cycling, travel, and adventure. Meet the Grubers.
Can you give us a little background about yourself, and your wife? How long have you been together? Where did you meet?
The day I met Ashley, was the day my racing career more or less went into decline. She's the best thing that ever happened to me, but the worst thing that ever happened to my bike racing. That was good in the end though, she kept me from idling away a few more years doing the same races over and over again, just being kind of ok. It was February 12, 2008. I was riding my bike around the University of Georgia campus in Athens with two great friends, Jacob and David. I was supposed to do some horrible workout, but had opted not to do it in favor of an easy day enjoying the many great sights of UGA - in other words, people watching.
We were riding up this nasty hill that we normally avoid - Baxter. As we got toward the top, the light turned red, and this girl crossed the street. She was smiling, wearing a long skirt, and just had this flow to her. We said hi, asked what she was listening to (Jimi Hendrix), and trying not to be too stalker-ish, I carried on.
For some reason, for the first time in my life, I turned around that day. From the outside, it would seem a bit predatory, but I assure you, ask anyone, that's not me. I was curious, and I wanted to talk to her… so I did it in my own not terribly confident way.
She was pretty clear that she wasn't interested in anything more than a little passing conversation – “I’m going to spend the summer researching invasive species in China”, she said, “and then next year, I'm going to study abroad in Innsbruck”. Normally, this would have worked to at least deter some attention, but she said two key words: Innsbruck, Austria.
My dad was born in Austria, his family is Austrian, I spent a summer working at a small hut high in the Alps in Austria, I love Austria. So when she said Austria, I jumped in, eager to share and talk about my favorite place. We fell into a great conversation. David suffered an untimely ‘puncture’ that left the two of us alone to talk some more, as I rode next to her while she walked home. When they returned, Jacob rolled up – “Have you gotten her number yet?” There was a mutual blush between the two conversationalists, but the number was scribbled on a notecard, and away we went. I called her that evening and asked if she wanted to get a drink.
She said she wasn't old enough.
“I’m 19” she replied (I was 24).
“Oh, right. Do you want to get a coffee?”
“I don't really like coffee. How about tea?”
Perfect. I love tea, but most people go out for coffee. I never thought to ask if someone wanted to go out for tea, though I much preferred that. We talked and talked and talked that night. We met around 7. I went home around 4.
Then I met Ashley. I more or less stopped training for a long while, because there was absolutely nothing I'd rather do than spend time with her. So that's what I did.
You were a pro cyclist for a while – do you ever wish you were racing instead of photographing? What do you miss about racing?
I would love to race again. I stopped right as I was getting going. Bizarrely, I'm still getting better with each year. I had a lot more to give as a bike racer, but I've finally come to grips with the fact that I was never going to be anything special, and while I enjoyed the lifestyle, I realized in a few moments of brutal honesty, that I didn't love racing all that much. I loved and still love riding my bike. An old teammate of mine, Mark Hekman, said it best – “Bike racing is a good excuse to ride bikes a lot.” Or something like that. I loved the process of getting fit. I still do. I love putting the work in. I love riding hard, sleeping, then doing it again and again and again. It's magic.
Each winter, we get a little bit of time off, and we take that time to go back to Athens. We usually arrive battered from a year on the road, unfit, and tired. When we leave, a little more than a month later, I'm fit, I'm happy, and I'm ready to take on the next year on the road. I come in out of shape, and I leave snapping at the heels of really good fitness. It's frustrating in those moments, because I see everyone that I'm riding with getting ready to start their seasons. They're all primed, and just as I leave for Europe, they start racing. It's in that specific moment that it hurts the most, because I hate leaving our friends behind, and I hate it more that I can't share in the race adventure. But then we're in Belgium, and then Italy, and then all over the place, and I realize - this is incredible. I'd be a fool to want to do anything else.
If we're not mistaken, you're fairly new to photography. What brought you to photography, and especially to photographing bike racing?
I didn’t get my first DSLR until the beginning of 2009. It was a 400 dollar, Nikon D40. In the span of three years, we bought each and every DSLR in Nikon’s line until we ended up at the top model. It got out of hand quickly. I had always enjoyed taking pictures. I’ve always had a small digital camera near my side since 2002, but I never thought much about taking full on pictures. I just liked it. After 2009, things really took a different turn. Pleasure opened the door to possibilities.
It’s easy to write about the things you know, same with shooting. It just makes sense to start with what you know, what you love. I know bike racing, and I really, really love riding bikes. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else at the start. We traveled, rode bikes, and took pictures. That’s what we’re still doing. It’s a good formula, because I have a never-ending supply of energy for bikes. I can’t say it enough - I love bikes, riding them, racing, watching racing, shooting racing, reading about racing, learning about the history, the roads that make the history of the sport, the people involved in the sport... There’s pretty much nothing that doesn’t interest me when it comes to the bicycle.
It’s moving BEYOND cycling that’s the real topic of discussion. I know I can do more. I want to do more, but I’d have to give up - at least in a little way - that which I really love.
In a very, very short time, you've established yourself as one of the top cycling photographers. To what do you attribute your success?
To be perfectly frank, I’m not totally sure how it all worked out. When I look back at what has happened in the last three years, I’m always blown away at how far we’ve come in such a short time. I don’t get it. If I have to point a finger at one thing though, I always credit social media. Social media made us.Twitter, Instagram, Facebook - all the amazing people using those outlets, who caught wind of what we were doing and commented or retweeted or passed the word along - they’re the reason we’ve come as far as we have in such a short time. I think. There’s that, plus a healthy dose of us going all in and living on the road for 9-10 months of the year in Europe, and of course, I think we’ve taken some ok pictures along the way as well. I think that the work was good, but that’s not always enough. That’s where social media comes in, that’s where being on the road most of the year comes in.
There are so many better photographers out there. It’s humbling to see how many people are making amazing images. I feel very small in all of that, so I’m happy that we’ve been able to find our own little niche, our own special space where we can do good work.
You recently married to your wife, Ashley. Do you share a common passion for photography? To cycling? Are you working as a team or does Ashley have another job?
Photography was my love first, but Ashley has always had an eye toward art. She takes some beautiful pictures, and she is making huge leaps and bounds forward with her abilities. I always say it, but it never ceases being so plainly true and simple - she’s what makes us special. At this point, I think I’m pretty dependable in terms of taking decent pictures. When Ashley is on, we are that much stronger for it. Two sets of eyes, two different locations, four cameras, both shooting long and wide. It makes such a huge difference.
So I guess I answered another part of the question in there - she is a photographer. We are photographers. We spend most every minute of every day together. Since 2008, I think we’ve been apart for a grand total of a week. We’re always together. That has its pluses and minuses, of course, but overall, it’s heaven. She’s my best friend, my love, so to be able to spend all of my time with her traveling and taking pictures and riding bikes? That’s a pretty good deal, in my opinion. Cycling was the same. Ashley met me on foot, and I was riding a bike. One of the first things I gave Ashley was a bike. She took to it and loved it. Her love isn’t quite as crazy as mine, but she loves riding bikes.
Last year during the Giro d'Italia, you had your laptop stolen, and along with it, all your photos. How gut-wrenching was that, and how have you come to terms with that loss? Was anything ever recovered?
It was terrible. It could have been the end of us. If the Giro hadn’t reached out to us and gotten us back on our feet by buying us a new computer on the spot, we would have gone home, without a backwards glance. We will be forever indebted to Michele Acquarone for first saying - welcome to the Giro - and then asking - what do you need to get back to work? He didn’t have to do that. He could have shrugged his shoulders and said sorry, but he helped us. Everyone at the Giro helped us. I hadn’t thought about that day and the days following in a long time. I was taken aback anew at how amazing they were - still are. We’ve made some amazing friends at the Giro, and I think that really began with our stunning loss in Verona.
We never got anything back. I’m ok with that now. When I look back at it, the only thing I’m really sad about is the loss of a few projects that we had just finished that hadn’t been uploaded to the internet yet. We lost images from a trip we did with in Gamba Tours in Chianti just the week before, and we lost most of our Spring Classics images. We uploaded low-res stuff to Flickr, but at the time, we didn’t really have a home for full resolution images.
How much time are you spending in Europe every year? What's the best thing about living abroad? What do you miss most about the USA?
We spent nine months in Europe this year. We arrived in the middle of February and left in the middle of November. It was a long, long year. In 2012, we were in Europe for longer, but we got a month and a half respite in the middle of the season for a project back in the US, so that helped a lot - recharged the batteries, so to speak. This year - we were in Europe the whole time, and then, when that got boring (kidding), we went to Asia for a month. We shot the Tour of Beijing and then spent some time in Japan and Hong Kong. Best thing? Exploring. Our lifestyle is a lot of fun. It wears by the end of a long year, but there are times when we can’t help but marvel at what’s happening, what we’ve managed to trick people into paying us to do Best thing? Exploring. Our lifestyle is a lot of fun. It wears by the end of a long year, but there are times when we can’t help but marvel at what’s happening, what we’ve managed to trick people into paying us to do (it really feels that way sometimes). It’s hard, it’s tiring, and it is certainly the cause of some strife between the two of us, but overall, I know that we’re having a really, really good time. I just wish I could have a month to catch up. I’m a month behind right now. I have tens of thousands of images to go through and edit. I have articles and emails to write, so, so much. I need a few quiet minutes. Haha. What do we miss? We miss our friends. We miss being natives. I miss American junk food, free refills, family, everything. I miss the good and the bad in the US, because it’s what I grew up with, what I know. There’s something to be said about not being a foreigner sometimes.
Do you get much time to yourselves for rides? Do you have a favorite road or roads, whether in the USA or Europe?
Ha! It depends. Before about September this year, I’d say yes. I try to make sure that I’m on my bike at least five times a week, and my goal is to ride 10-15 hours. In January, I usually do 25+ hours per week, February about the same, but once we get to Europe, my time on the bike starts to plummet. It’s usually ok through the Giro, but May is usually a nightmare for riding. June is slightly better, but that’s the time for commercial shoots, so not much there. July should also be bad, but we don’t shoot the Tour,so it’s usually the first time back on the bike in a big way since right before the Giro. I love July. I don’t love the heat though. Favorite roads... I love the climb of Kleinvolderberg just outside of Innsbruck. It’s perfect. I love the climb to the Rifugio Barricata in Trentino. I love Monte Grappa, each of its ten ways. I love the Bosrede, just outside of Ronse. Places I love to ride: Exmoor, the Alto Langhe in Piemonte, the southern Dolomites with Monte Grappa as the focal point, Flanders, Athens GA, Istria, Heidelberg, Innsbruck. Favorite roads... I love the climb of Kleinvolderberg just outside of Innsbruck. It’s perfect. I love the climb to the Rifugio Barricata in Trentino. I love Monte Grappa, each of its ten ways. I love the Bosrede, just outside of Ronse. I love the Koppenberg. I love the Muur, despite the fact that I tried not to love it, preferring to think I was above such ‘cliches’ (kidding), but each time I round that bend and the chapel comes into view...I’m in love with it all!
What is a typical race day schedule like for you? What time to you get up and when do you get to bed?
A typical race day starts with us waking up as late as possible, because I usually don't go to bed before 2am, sometimes as late as 5am. That's my fault though. I take too much time working on our images. So if a race starts at say, 11, we’ll be up at some time between 9 and 10. We’ll hurry out of the hotel and head straight for our first spot on the route. We generally don’t shoot starts, because I don’t really like them, and I don’t really see the point. They seem to make more work for me at the end of the day, and it’s a big mess. If I can cut that out of my day, I’m already one step ahead, because we’ve had ten fewer stressful moments - finding parking, being told we can’t do this there or that here, whatever. Coming into contact with a race is generally a mess, and it’s doubly so at starts and finishes, so we’ve pretty much quit covering starts and only do finishes sometimes. Generally, people - clients and fans alike - don’t come to us looking for starts or finishes. They want pretty pictures from pretty places or kick ass race shots, and that’s what we like to do. The night before, we research the route and try to find as many spots as possible to shoot, preferably not just quantity though, as one great spot is better than 100 so so spots. We’re always looking for a huge shot, a special one. I live for the big shots, the ones that you look at later and go - wow. They don’t happen often, but they’re what I dream about what I obsess over. When we get to our spot, we walk it out. We like to walk the area as much as we can before the race arrives and figure out where we can go to maximize the location. If you think about it, there are a lot of possibilities in a normal Grand Tour stage. Think about it: there’s a break up the road with a five minute gap. Ok, that means Ashley and I can split up, shoot the break in two different places with four cameras altogether. When the break passes, we can move to a pre-determined spot and do the same thing again. That could easily mean eight very different looking ‘sets’ for the images in just that one location. If it’s a climb, you could have even more when you think that the race could be spread across the better part of half an hour. If there’s another spot to get to, we sprint back to the car and try to get to the next spot. Rinse. Repeat! We’ve done races where we’ve only shot one spot and been happy with it, and we’ve done others where we did close to 20 (Gent-Wevelgem). When it’s over, Ashley drives to the resting place for the evening, and I’ll download images and start working on the selection. Back at the house/hotel, she’ll take care of the emails that have popped up throughout the day, and I’ll hunker down into the images. I’ll work on images from approximately 5-6pm to well past midnight. Long days. For that reason, I don’t really love Grand Tours. Short stage races or one day races are much better for me/us, because I love riding bikes. Grand Tours take away what I love the most (outside of Ashley) - bikes. I got into this, because I loved exploring on my bike, so the more that gets taken away from me, the more I’m unhappy. I know there are times when I can’t have my bike each day, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it. Haha.
Any suggestions for budding young photographers?
Take lots of pictures, play, experiment, get out there. Most of all - get out there. We went completely in at the end of 2010. We asked for money instead of gifts at our wedding, and we used that money to buy our first car in Europe - a Volkswagen Polo wagon. It was 1500 euros, but we ended up having to put about another 1000 into it to get it decent enough to pass inspection. We found some places where we could make home bases of sorts for either really cheap or free, and we did it. We just got out there and did it. We took pictures, wrote stories, explored, adventured, rode bikes, met people, met companies, made friends, and we made sure that anyone who would listen knew what we were doing. We weren’t all that scared. We felt like we were doing something special. We were enjoying it, still are, so if it fell apart, and we had to limp home - oh well. What did we really have to lose? So if it worked out - great - and if it didn’t, we figured we’d go back to school. We were together, happy, in love, and the rest was just details. We worked hard, did some crazy things, slept in some crazy places, lived simply, and slowly made progress. I just wrote that in past tense - that hasn’t changed. It’s past and present and definitely future. It worked for us. I think it also worked because we were together. I don’t know if it would work for everyone, but somehow, it worked.