When Jeff Curtes hopped on a plane in his adopted home of Sydney, Australia, in September to head to the U.S. for the Jingle Cross and Waterloo World Cups, it was a special trip for him.
Yes, he was headed back home to America and yes, he would be in his home state of Wisconsin, but more importantly, he would get a chance to race against his brothers Joe and Mike and the Trek CX Cup.
“Growing up in Wisconsin and racing mountain bikes there it was my brothers and me, and obviously we had a blast,” he said about growing up in Menomonee Falls outside Milwaukee. Curtes and his brothers have traveled different paths since then, but they all found a love of cyclocross and now enjoy any opportunity to ride with each other as adults.
Jeff is somewhat unique among cyclocross photographers in that he loves to race and then trade his Vanilla or Speedvagen for a Canon and head out onto the course to take photos. In the unseasonal Wisconsin heat, that double was a sweaty challenge.
Before Friday’s UCI C2 races at the Trek CX Cup, the Curtes brothers lined up for the singlespeed race in Waterloo. On that day, the youngest of the three, Joe, took home the Curtes Family Cup, finishing 8th to Jeff’s 12th.
All three brothers had the extra pleasure of sharing the experience of getting beat by singlespeed bandit Ellen Van Loy.
All three agreed it was a special weekend for the three Wisconsin natives known locally as just “The Curtes Brothers.” Just like ripping around Wisconsin on bikes, just like it was growing up.
A Career Built on the Slopes
Curtes’ professional duties brought him to Waterloo to photograph the Elite UCI racing there, but cycling has not always been his focus. Before he began shooting bike racing, he was a snowboarding photographer, and a very successful one at that. Curtes largely taught himself the trade and eventually found himself as Burton’s team photographer.
The journey all started with a Christmas gift. “My professional photography career began in the mid-1980s when I got a snowboard for Christmas,” he said. “That was an addiction to a new sport, and from that, ten years down the road came the photography aspect.”
How does one go from recreational snowboarder in the Midwest to professional photographer? A little bit of luck and a lot of hard work. And maybe having a younger brother who was darn good at shredding the slopes.
After graduating from college, Curtes put his Environmental Studies degree from UW-Madison to good use by moving to Colorado to be a ski bum. At that same time, his younger brother Joe was becoming a successful professional snowboarder who was winning contests and traveling the world for photo shoots.
“I was having a good time skiing in Colorado every day,” Curtes said. “But at the end of the day, Joe was traveling the world and seeing all these great places and I said in my mind, I gotta get in on this.”
Jeff started shooting photos of his brother Joe and within a year, his skill and his brother’s fame brought Burton calling. “The next year I basically spent shooting Joe and his friends, and then all of a sudden, Burton came to me and said ‘Do you want to be team photographer?’ It all kind of happened pretty quickly,” he said about his big break.
Snowboarding became very popular in the 1990s and in many ways, Curtes was in the right place at the right time.
He did not have much in the way of traditional photography training, taking only one formal class in the craft while he was in college. But for a sport that was growing rapidly and trying to figure out what it wanted to be, formal training was not required. The sport needed people who could capture the spirit of the sport and Curtes had a knack for doing so.
“It’s quite trendy now, but the lifestyle aspect of snowboarding really taught me, because the lifestyle was so new, traveling to these spots no one had really been to before, the whole journey was the story,” he said about making a name for himself.
The travel-paid gig with Burton worked out and as more money entered the sport, it became his full-time job. From tree hugger to ski bum to Mr. Worldwide, at least in the snowboarding photography sense.
“It was awesome and I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he said. “Traveling the world with a camera in your hands is something that doesn’t put a lot of security in your bank account, but it’s certainly a nice way to see the world. So no regrets, you know.”
The Snowboarding, Cyclocrossing Photographer
Cyclocross Magazine has run photo galleries from Curtes several times this season. His photos are also worth checking out because of their unique perspective and the enthusiasm Curtes brings to his work.
Earlier this season, Curtes asked for a challenge while shooting the Fields of Joy UCI C2 weekend in Melbourne, Australia. We asked him to capture the unique cyclocross venue at Fields of Joy, and as always, he was up to the task.
Curtes grew up riding bikes with his brothers, so it is not too surprising he ended up as a cycling photographer. However, the mid-career switch was not a return to his roots so much as a necessity. Curtes moved to Sydney, Australia, with his wife about ten years ago, and well, he needed something to photograph.
“When I moved here to Australia, that was the catalyst. I needed to open up my professional world to cycling because this is such a cycling culture,” he said. “The weather is screaming bike riding, not snowboarding. So in order for me to get jobs and shoot and do work, I needed to start shooting something else that I was really close to. Bike riding was natural in that.”
Despite the switch, Curtes said his background in the raw culture of snowboarding carries over to the work he does today with cycling. He makes sure to race ’cross whenever he can, which is an ethos that was born from his snowboarding roots.
“The main thing that really differentiated you from a non-snowboard photographer is one you had to be a snowboarder like you had to participate in the sport,” said Curtes. He continued, “It took a commitment to the sport. You had to have some mobility and you had to get to the spots.”
Even despite the challenges of shooting photography and racing on the same day, Curtes is up for it. He raced both the Jingle Cross and Trek CX Cup weekends and raced down in Australia before photographing the Australian National Championships.
His approach has paid off outside the tape on the cyclocross course. “It’s quite physically exhausting but I think there’s an advantage because I know I remember the good spots of the course,” Curtes said about his approach. “You know, I remember the spots that I thought were beautiful or thought were challenging. So it’s easy to kind of have a little bit different approach than just being a journalist standing there.It’s fun to be a racer and a shooter.”
Another thing that is quickly noticeable about Curtes’ photographs is he likes to shoot wide angle and he likes to shoot close. Zoom lenses can provide great tight shots, but Curtes likes reaching for his 20mm or 50mm lens and getting close to the action.
“I like to be close to the people I shoot. I like to talk to them and things like that. And I think I bring that into cycling a little bit,” he said.
Racing. Photographing. Maybe having a mid-day beer. Curtes says he is committed to his approach, “There’s probably sacrifices and compromises I make because I’m probably double dipping, but I think it’s worth it. It’s worth it for the fulfillment. I like to do as well as watch people do.”
Portland, The Pinnacle of Cyclocross
Curtes grew up riding BMX and mountain bikes with his brothers Joe and Mike in Wisconsin, so bikes have always been a part of his life. Since he has been a number of places, from the plains of Wisconsin to the mountains of Colorado all the way Down Under to Sydney, he has had to be flexible with his bike of choice.
“For me, the best bike has always been the one I ride the most and the one I can ride right out the front door,” he said.
During his time in Australia, the best bike was often a road bike because of the road culture there. When he was in Colorado living the snowboarding dream, a mountain bike was his steed of choice.
During his time living in Australia, Curtes also fully integrated himself into the cyclocross scene there as well, forming his own team and becoming the unofficial photographer of Australian ’cross.
His introduction to ’cross came in 2007, shortly before he moved to Australia. Curtes met his wife Jess while the two were snowboarding photographers, and at that time, she lived in Vancouver, so he moved to Portland, Oregon to be closer to her.
Once in Portland, Curtes was introduced to famed frame builder Sacha White of the Vanilla Workshop. Curtes quickly did what any bike nut would do, he asked White to sell him his bike.
“Within a week’s time I had met Sacha White, convinced him to sell me his personal singlespeed bike, watched a YouTube clinic on how to race cyclocross and pinned my first number on for a Cyclocross Crusade race,” he said. “It literally happened that fast.”
Like many bike riders who try cyclocross for the first time, Curtes was hooked. “You know how it is with ’cross. It doesn’t take much more than one race to be like, dang, I’m in.”
Curtes has maintained his connection with Speedvagen, even after leaving Portland and heading to Australia. Once he got into the Australian ’cross scene, he formed the small Speedvagen / MAAP team. The latter is a cycling clothing line that fit in nicely with the team’s vibe. Among the members of the Speedvagen / MAAP team is Garry Millburn, who won the second day of the US Open of Cyclocross in Boulder last month.
Curtes and his family are saying goodbye to Australia and moving to Minneapolis this winter, but wherever he goes, Speedvagen and Portland will always be the heart and soul of cyclocross for him.
“Portland was my first interaction with cyclocross,” he said. “There was a local Speedvagen team, the one cyclocross legend Molly Cameron was on when she was riding on a Speedvagen. I remember going to those races as that newbie and just seeing the Speedvagen team and being like, holy shit.”
“It was just like the pinnacle of ‘cross and I was like, holy shit that is cool.”
A New Gig for a New Life Back Home
Curtes has shown a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and even as he is moving up in the Masters racing categories, that is still the case.
This year, Curtes is working as the Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld.com team’s official photographer. He got the gig in part thanks to a lifelong relationship with the legendary Lalonde brothers—James, Jessie and Marco—of Minneapolis. James works for Cannondale, and after Jeff shot the Trek CXC Cup the last few years, they took notice of his work.
“Cannondale contacted me and said, ‘Hey we love your approach to cycling, your work for MAAP is amazing, would you like to get involved in doing something with our cyclocross team?’” he said. “It just kind of lined up where this is a really good year to do it.”
Curtes has already been hard at work with his new team. He was at the U.S. World Cups, the KMC Cross Fest and this weekend he will be in Louisville before heading back to Sydney. Then it is on to the Bogense, Denmark and Zeven, Germany World Cups. Mr. Worldwide of Cyclocross indeed.
Curtes said he has been enjoying the opportunity to work so closely with a team.
“We built my calendar on key races and some travel, to capture different experiences, countries and scenes,” he said. “The preseason was a huge success, their team has been ripping and it was great to warm up to the crew. Stu [Thorne] is a legend, no attitude or arrogance, just passion.Nice clear communications which I love.
He concluded, “The best is yet to come.”
Curtes said his cyclocross season is over, but he is looking forward to fully integrating to his new snowy Minneapolis home by getting a fat bike for the winter. Even though he is not racing, you can still find him racking up the TSS before, during and after races to provide his unique touch to cyclocross events across the world.
Jeff Curtes will be at Joe Creason Park in Louisville this weekend, and stay tuned for more galleries from him this season. All of his galleries are available in our archive.