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Times latest newspaper accused of trying to shame cyclists with dodgy telephoto pics

Thunderer joins Mail and Sun on media list of shame for misrepresenting cyclists social distancing

“The camera never lies,” the saying goes – but it can certainly be used to distort the truth, with images published in several national newspapers over the weekend appearing to show cyclists riding close together and not observing social distancing. Just how misleading an impression that can give was highlighted on Twitter today when, in response to The Times publishing a photo in which it accused cyclists on Box Hill of flouting rules, an image was posted from one of the rider’s perspectives, giving a very different impression.

The pictures were posted to Twitter by Francis Cade, whose girlfriend Daisy took the photo on the right. In a subsequent comment on the thread, he made it clear that they were not riding in a group.

It’s a similar effect to one you’ll be aware of if you’ve watched any amount of bike racing on TV – often, what appears from the head-on shot to be the closest of sprint finishes can be revealed by the overhead slow-motion replay to have been anything but, with the latter showing the actual distances between riders.

Take this shot, for instance of Lizzie Deignan winning the 2015 UCI road world championships in Richmond, Virginia – and in particular the American rider in the centre, Meg Guarnier, who finished third. Then look at the overhead screenshot below – it’s apparent that she, and the other racers in the head-on finish line shot, are a lot further back from the Briton than first appears.

Lizzie Armitstead wins 2015 UCI Road World Championship (copyright Britishcycling.org_.uk).jpg

Picture: Britishcycling.org.uk

Women’s Elite Road Race Highlights _ 2015 Road World Championships – Richmond, USA 8-51 screenshot (1)

It’s due to something photographers call foreshortening, and it’s been the topic of much discussion among cyclists on social media over the weekend due to press claims that many people have been ignoring social distancing rules.

Mail Online, The Sun and The Mirror have all published pictures over the past couple of days purporting to show closely-bunched cyclists riding in a tight group when in reality, it is a trick of the lens.

> Mail accused of distorting truth in “MAMIL madness” Regents Park cyclists story

Several newspapers, of course, have a strong track record when it comes to anti-cycling stories – and at a time when exercising outdoors, including going for a bike ride, is one of the few reasons afforded by the government to leave the house, using deliberately misleading pictures to try and depict a problem that does not exist can be seen as fitting that agenda.

There’s a strong hint within those photos themselves that they were taken to suit that narrative. Consider the one above of Deignan winning in Richmond.

It’s been shot at a wide aperture, which not only lets the maximum amount of light into the lens, but also creates a narrow depth of field; the British rider is sharply in focus, Anna van der Breggen to the right less so, and the following riders are increasingly blurred. Widely used in sports photography, the technique draws your eye to the subject – in this case, Armitstead.

Now consider the photos of “groups” of cyclists appearing in the papers over the weekend; it’s clear that a much smaller aperture has been used, meaning that there is a much greater depth of field and the riders are all in focus, reinforcing the impression that they are riding together.

Here’s another example of extreme foreshortening – look how tightly packed the riders on the opening stage of the Giro d’Italia in Naples in 2013 appear to be in this picture, shot from a hotel balcony above the seafront in Mergellina.

Where's Cavvy? (copyright Simon MacMichael)

And here’s the same peloton a few hundred metres later, as it passes below the balcony. Yes, as professional cyclists riding a Grand Tour, they are riding closely together as they hold the wheel in front – but it is nothing like the exaggerated perspective that the first shot provides.

Giro Napoli copyright Simon MacMichael 015

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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