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Three photographers, one subject: Alf Engers “The King”

As part of our series of exclusive TeamTalks, we have invited three photographers to share their insights on what makes a perfect photograph.

Using the same subject matter, photographers Ben Gold, Arnhel de Serra and Jan Enkelmann explore how to create and select the perfect picture.

The subject in question is British cycling legend Alf Engers.

Alf Engers by Arnhel de Serra

The perfect picture …is an affirmation.

Arnhel de Serra
Arnhel’s documentary photography has been characterised as humorous, witty, and well-observed. He takes a story-telling approach and has a passion for capturing the moment ‘in-camera’ rather than relying on post-production techniques. His clients vary, spanning the advertising, corporate, and editorial markets. He has works displayed in the permanent collection at The National Portrait Gallery.

Alf Engers by Ben Gold

What makes the perfect picture is a very subjective question but, for me, it’s one with a certain quality of light that connects with its viewer to evoke a powerful emotional response, preferably a positive one!

Ben Gold
Ben is a photographer whose work is regularly exhibited throughout the UK and beyond. Gold’s creative output is split between personal projects and commercial commissions. His commercial work is focused predominantly on people-based imagery and has been featured in global campaigns for clients including FedEx, Comic Relief, BP, British Airways, SSE, and many more. Whether he’s taking portraits, landscapes, or reportage images his aim is to capture positive, light-filled observations of life.

Alf Engers by Jan Enkelmann

A great photograph manages to show the extrordinary in the ordinary. When I photograph people, I want the picture to tell a story. The subject should come alive for the viewer. That might sound clichéd but it’s actually quite hard to achieve.

Jan Enkelmann
Jan Enkelmann Originally from Stuttgart, Germany, Jan has been living and working in London for 15 years. When he’s not acting as Creative Leader at The Team, he is a documentary and travel photographer. Jan and his wife, Maren, turned photos and stories from their travels across America, Japan, India, and South East Asia into their award-winning photo book, Happiness. Jan’s latest project, Serious Conviction, is a documentary of the people of London’s Speakers’ Corner.


Alf Engers spoke with Cliff Ettridge, a partner at The Team

Today you live on the Essex/Cambridge-shire border. It’s fantastic cycling country. You’re 75 and you’re still cycling regularly.

I still cycle, but not hurriedly. I leave that to the racers. Saturdays and Sundays around here everybody is out in racing kit. The organised sportives that come around here are phenomenal. It’s great that people want that though, they pay twenty-five quid and they want that piece of paper at the end of it.

So you’re not tempted to do a sportive?

Not really, no. I mean a sportive is a race, I’ve done so much racing.
But these guys in sportives, they have just come out for a ride. They’re in full racing kit going nowhere (Alf winks)!

You were like that once.

There’s a difference between going out for a ride and actually training; they are completely different things. Going out for a ride I’ll have somebody half-wheeling me and then later in the day, when I go training, ‘boom’ they go straight off the back.
I didn’t put my best in on a training run. I performed on the day that was necessary.

What was it liked having three photographers visit you?

They were all good and I know what they were each trying to get.
I thought we’d just go out and take a few snapshots, but in the end I thought I’m like Kate Moss here. Whatever way you like?’ (laughs)

And the name “The King”?

That came about with an ex-editor of Cycling who’s dead now – Alan Gaiffer – because I was a baker and King Alfred burnt the cakes.

You liked being anti-establishment?

Yeah, the governing bodies were so incestuous; there’s an established award called the Bidlake Memorial. Fred Bidlake invented time-trialling as we know it. Well in the 1970s I was winning everything and somebody proposed me for the award. I was black-balled. I heard that I was “not the kind of rider we want to receive this trophy” (laughing).

You caused a bit of trouble as a rider and a bike builder. Dave Brailsford talks about marginal gains now and it’s rightly accepted, but you were experimenting with marginal gains in all aspect of your cycling.

It goes back to when I as a youngster I’d seen this bike called The Spunning. It was the early 1950s and they encased the bike in metal, it looked like a giant-sized cigar tube. It also had a cockpit on it. Harry Hall, a good but average rider was lined up on one side of the track on the new bike and on the other side of the track the England Pursuit Team. Harry Hall won!
So that was it for me, streamlining was the most important thing, but I didn’t know how to do it. So, we just experimented. I remember I tried this plastic hat. It was like a tight skull cap and the sweat would just drip down (laughing).
(Judith, Alf’s wife, interjects, laughing): I still remember the first time you wore a skin suit. You were warming up and going up to the start. There were some ladies walking dogs. One of them was looking so closely that she literally walked into a tree.

If it helps, my wife despairs every time I put any Lycra on.

Yes, but you see it everywhere today. In the 1960s it was “How dare you?”.

But you fundamentally altered the bike as well. You drilled holes to create a lighter frame.

Oh yeah, the bike made whistling noises, but we didn’t know then it was about the weight reduction.
I looked a lot at the wheels as well. Experimenting with the number of spokes, adding stability. The same applied to the rear triangle on the bike, we put the stays further up that we smoothed things out.
It was all really hit and miss, you know; nobody really knew the way forward, and it wasn’t until you got to the likes of Boardman and the Obree that things really changed.

So Obree and Boardman really changed bike design?

Yes, but there’s more to it than that. A proportion of it was to do with the bike – I mean they looked absolutely outrageous – but it was mainly him. Obree was so strong. He and Boardman knew what they were doing and by that time were backed by people with money. Then they could literally experiment with the bike. They could really change things.
But the way people are improving today is through their strength. When I was a kid you had to learn to “up your cadence”, you had to pedal.

Do you wish you could start all over again, but in the modern era this time?

When I started in the fifties everybody had to go to work, which they don’t now. You need as much time to recover as you do to train and that was the big failing then. I don’t think the human body has changed. It’s like building a pyramid, you can’t start to do any type of speed training unless you’ve had the initial training to start off with, you gradually build up.
So a little bit at a time. I don’t agree with the current trend of training right the way through the winter. I think you need a rest period mentally as well. I mean you can be flying fit and lose it in the head and that’s it – race over.

How much of the race is won in the head do you think, once you’re fully trained?

Eighty, ninety per cent. You want it, you’re going to do it, you’ve got to want it enough. I’m not thinking about winning I’m just not going to get beaten.

What about the races you won?
I suppose the most memorable ride was winning my first Junior Road Championship. It was the same feeling breaking the 25-mile record. I remember at the end thinking I’ve done it and looked towards the sky. I remember expecting to hear a heavenly chorus, instead of that a dog barked somewhere.

You are a very stylish gentleman, but a bit of a rebel – the earring you wear certainly must have stood out back in the day.

I can’t take the earring out. I think it’s my personal trademark now. But do I see myself as a stylish chap? But an old man now (laugh). I don’t like looking in the mirror! When I was nineteen I remember saying to myself, “Well, it’s all downhill from now” and I think it was!

Knowing what you know now, what would be the one improvement you would make in cycling today?

I would certainly invest more in a programme for junior riders, I would reinstate track circuit racing. Because you can’t have fifty, a hundred or more riders on roads today. There’s more cars and it’s just not practical. It’s dangerous.

A safe environment to train in then?
Absolutely. I’m all for safety in everything. It’s like hi-vis gear, you’ve got to be more obvious. I commented on a rider’s dark clothes recently and he said, “Who are you, the bike police?” And that was an elderly bloke, he was over forty!

Alf, you just categorised me as an elderly bloke. This conversation is terminated (laughs).

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