Behind The Photo: Greg Bennett Grinds As Javier Gomez Gives Chase
At the 2013 Beijing International Triathlon, photographer Rocky Arroyo captured an award-winning, once-in-a-lifetime image of the two-time Olympian trying to escape from a young Spanish superstar on the bike.
Greg Bennett was approaching the end of his career and Javier Gomez his peak, but non-drafting racing over the standard distance was the Australian’s forte and he was determined his Spanish opponent wouldn’t have things all his own way.
The Beijing International Triathlon has always attracted a strong field, and 2013 was no different. Both Olympic silver medalists from London—Lisa Norden and Javier Gomez—were present, and both would eventually triumph, but not before the latter had overcome a valiant duel with 41-year-old Bennett.
Only one week earlier, Gomez had shown his run form by outsprinting Jonny Brownlee to win his third ITU world title in London, and Bennett knew that to have any chance, he would have to maximize his advantage on the 40km bike leg. When photographer Rocky Arroyo closed in for this epic picture, that was exactly what he was trying to do.
In the image below, Bennett is laying it all on the line. His head is tucked as he tries to adopt the most aerodynamic position possible to save watts on the superfast closed-roads of China’s Fengtai District. As you can see by the effort etched in his face, he is giving it everything. It was enough to set the day’s fastest bike split of 56:09 and open a gap over Gomez on the run. It just wasn’t quite sufficient to stay ahead until the tape. Read on for the inside story behind the image from those who were there:
Rocky Arroyo is a photographer from San Francisco, who has been shooting triathlon and endurance sports for 18 years. Spotted working at the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon in his hometown, he was invited to Beijing to cover the inaugural race in 2012 and returned for the following seven years.
Arroyo tells the story from behind the lens, in his own words:
“It was 2013, and an opportunity to be around some of the biggest pros ever, including Javier and Greg. An amazing experience and to this day one I’m very thankful for it.
“When I saw Greg with his head down, pummeling his bike, his facial gesture, maybe looking for Javier behind him – and seeing Javier in pain too – I saw my opportunity opening up.
“I gestured, ‘That’s where I have to be – right there.’ My motorcycle driver that year spoke very little English but understood exactly what it was that I needed. He put me in the right spot, and I didn’t have much time to make an adjustment to my camera. I just tried to get it as low to the ground as I could without scraping anything. I can somehow just balance on the back of a motorcycle while leaning out. I then held my camera body upside down by the vertical grip and I went for it. I only had maybe a few seconds to take the shot.
“There needs to be a story in any photograph, and to me this story is the pain. Greg was just riding harder than anyone I’ve ever seen in my life. My daughter asked recently how fast he was traveling. Maybe 40mph. My camera doesn’t record the speed, but he was going pretty fast. Javier was probably 50 feet back at this point. I know because I have another shot where we pulled ahead of Greg and I have him in the foreground and Javi in the background.
“My motorcycle drivers in Beijing have always been really understanding about what I needed to do and where I needed to be in that race. There were times where I had to catch up from the leading pro women to the leading pro men and we would travel upwards of a hair-raising 120mph.
“Someone once asked me at an awards party why I don’t take photos of basketball and football. They are great sports, but somehow I’m more pulled in by endurance sports. It was the client from China who invited me to this race who encapsulated it best. She said: ‘I know what you like – you like to be in the race.’ Exactly. That’s the way to put it. I’m embedded in it. There’s all this energy happening, and I’m in the very middle of it, and there are times that I barely sleep the night before because I’m so excited to go to work.”
Greg Bennett is one of the most successful triathletes of his generation. A winner of numerous big-money races around the world as well two ITU World Series Titles and a fourth place in the Athens 2004 Olympics, he now holds dual U.S. and Australian nationality, hosts the ever-popular podcast The Greg Bennett Show, and excels as a broadcaster covering the sport.
He shares his experience back in 2013:
“It was the era where the two Brownlees and Javier Gomez were on top of the world, and Javi and I had raced each other several times. I’d won the Hy-Vee Triathlon in 2011, but in 2012 all the Olympic medalists had been invited to Des Moines. It was a throwdown, four weeks post-London 2012, and I had about 50 secconds on Javier coming off the bike. He’d just run 29:16 in the Olympics, and he ran me down on the last lap. But it still hurt. He’d always get me right towards the end. I could stay close on the swim, had his measure on the bike, but his run was next level.
“So step forward to this race in Beijing, and both myself and Javier have been invited. It has always been an outstanding, fun race. We’d been treated so professionally, and the 10km run was up and down steps, cross-country, road, a bit of everything.
“My mindset was to have another crack. I believed I could out-bike him by up to 2 minutes, but I didn’t have the swim I wanted, losing almost a minute. When he’s running a 29-flat 10km off the bike and my best 10km is 29:30 fresh, I couldn’t give up that much time in the water.
“Getting onto the bike, I rode pretty well on the first part, although maybe a little too conservative. When I bridged up to Javier, I was like: “Go!” But I didn’t get rid of him until the last 5km, I just couldn’t shake him. By the time I got off the bike, I’d opened up a little gap, but it wasn’t enough. At 2km I could hear him coming, and when he caught me, I knew we had several minutes on third place, so I said: “Run with me for a bit!” Being Javier, he did, and we even started chatting!
“When he took off up some stairs and opened a gap at about 4km it was almost as if he was apologizing for leaving me. By this stage in my career, I’d been racing professionally for about 23 years, and had raced the best over and over: Simon Lessing, Chris McCormack, Hamish Carter, Simon Whitfield. Matching up with a Brownlee or Javier Gomez at their peak, there’s not a lot anyone can do. When he went, he went… it’s as if he wasn’t even tired.
“Javi and I have been friends a long time. We’d lived and trained together in Australia, and I don’t think there’s a more-liked person on the world circuit than Javier Gomez. The only other guy who is equally as nice is Mario Mola. These two Spanish guys are so respectful.
“That bike image is a great image from a really wonderful photographer, and it’s also just the way I rode. I’d drive my head down into my arms, look up every 20 pedal strokes or so, and get into that deep aero position before it became trendy.
“The ‘pain’ is where I’m comfortable, and enduring it on the bike was my talent. Unlike the run or swim, where I could work hard but things didn’t always happen, I could go for it on the bike and move forwards quickly. I felt like a five-year-old sprinting at the school carnival. Not having to think, just relying on instinct. The bike for me, was always like that.”