Behind the lens with Graham Watson40 years of cycling photography in 15 images
In early 2017, legendary cycling photographer Graham Watson hung up his lenses and called time on his career. He’d been a professional snapper for 45 years, nearly 40 of which were spent shooting the sport we all love.
Now that he’s retired (and has plenty of time on his hands), we asked Graham to share some of the most memorable images he captured during his career. Some of the photos feature in Graham’s wonderful photo book, 40 Years of Cycling Photography, others do not. Regardless, each photo you see below has a story behind it; a story that Graham tells beautifully.
Phil Anderson winning the 1983 Amstel Gold Race
I don’t often include ‘winning’ shots in any collection of my best images, primarily because they’re an every-day occurrence. But this one of Phil Anderson winning the 1983 Amstel Gold Race is one of those rare occasions when I knew that victory really meant an awful lot to him.
To this day I cannot decide whether Phil was a Grand Tour rider or a Classics rider, or even a hybrid of both. Somewhere between today’s Vincenzo Nibali and Peter Sagan, maybe? What I do know is that he came into the sport at a very, very competitive time, with riders like Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon and Greg Lemond as the stage-race stars, and a whole phalanx of Dutch, Flemish and Italian riders to contend with in the one-day races.
In a similar way to Sean Kelly, Phil was a maverick amongst his European rivals, but he had to fight that little bit harder to succeed, a fact not helped by him being on a French team. He also had to be extremely clever to win.
Phil’s Amstel victory was the best of his Classics victories and it only came about after he’d got away with Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk in the hilly finale. Zoetemelk was a huge star in the Netherlands and someone who the organisers would have loved to see win their race. As such, the other Dutch riders didn’t dare chase Zoetemelk down, expecting him to win instead of Anderson.
But when Zoetemelk weakened and Phil attacked over the Cauberg, well, that’s when the Dutch really did chase! Yet Phil actually gained time on everyone. He was flying that day, and won by over 30 seconds. No wonder his smile was as wide as a cat’s when he crossed the finish-line.
Richie Porte gets a wheel from Simon Clarke
When you photograph about 180 days’ racing spread over nine months of a season, you develop a strong sense for what’s going to happen in a race – or what’s not going to happen. You also earn the right to occasionally skip the finish and follow the race in from about 20-kilometres out, cruising along on your motorbike at the back of the peloton, ready to capture a whole array of incidents and accidents that often go unrecorded by TV cameras.
A finish shot is just that. Someone wins the stage and waves their arms in delight, then smiles on the podium a few minutes later – it’s a daily occurrence. But the very outcome of a Grand Tour can sometimes, though only sometimes, be decided in the middle of a seething, swirling, jostling peloton as it speeds towards the finish.
The 2015 Giro d’Italia saw me tucked in behind the peloton on a mid-race stage to Forli. With 10 kilometres to go I started to believe I’d gambled badly, that nothing of note was going to happen as the peloton quietly chased down a late escape. Then a flicker of movement ahead caught my eye, a Sky rider suddenly stopping on the left of the road – Richie Porte!
My driver reacted quicker than me and began to pull in as I woke to the fact that no teammate had stopped with Porte, and the team car had been delayed a few minutes earlier by changing Kanstantsin Siutsou’s rear wheel.
Even before I’d twisted myself off the still-moving moto another cyclist appeared at Porte’s side, shouting “Richie, Richie!” But instead of seeing another Sky rider, I realised it was Simon Clarke of Orica-GreenEdge.
Clarke had his own front wheel off and ran towards Porte who calmly watched Clarke swap the wheels over. I fired off a series of shots, saw a spectator rushing to help, saw a rival Italian photographer arriving belatedly, then continued firing away as Clarke pushed Porte back into the race just like any experienced mechanic would. A passing Siutsou now stopped to help, then other Sky riders arrived and set about getting Porte back to the peloton.
But Porte never did make it back. He lost over 40 seconds to race favourite Alberto Contador – his Giro chances were effectively over. Yet I was thinking more about the amazing images I’d taken. Not for one moment did I consider the possibility that Porte and Clarke had broken any rules. What I’d seen and recorded reflected a wonderful sporting gesture between two friends – yes, rivals on different teams, but friends all the same.
Only later, about one hour into my post-stage editing and uploading of my ‘normal’ images, did I think to tweet an image of the Porte-Clarke incident. At that time, I didn’t know that TV had missed the incident, that perhaps I was the sole observer – and therefore witness – of the entire drama.
So out went a tweet that became famous around the world. I’d posted the image just as the race-officials were leaving their temporary office for the day, their work done, paperwork filed, looking for an early dinner in some plush hotel nearby. They never got to their hotel.
They were called back to the race HQ by an off-duty official who’d seen the storm building on social media. The eye of the storm came when Porte re-tweeted the image and thanked Clarke for his sportsmanship – to which Clarke responded in kind.
A few minutes later, both of them were docked 10 minutes on GC and fined a few euros for their trouble – and I had a heart-wrenching evening ahead of me because my innocently tweeted image was the only source of proof that Porte and Clarke had breached race rules.
We all had a good laugh about it a few days hence – both riders were still talking to me – and I managed to keep my contracts with both teams for another year. Did I mention I was the official photographer of Sky and GreenEdge back then …?
Laurent Fignon cools off with Perrier
I can guarantee a shot like this will never be repeated, ever. I spotted Laurent Fignon cooling off with sparkling Perrier water after a stage of the 1983 Tour de France in Bordeaux. The Frenchman was well past the point of caring whether anyone was watching his display of pain and relief – it had been a blisteringly-hot day out there.
Back in the day, cyclists either crammed into their team cars after a race or rode back to their hotels, even if it meant a 20-kilometre ride. Team buses were still six or seven years away, although the bigger teams had started to invest in modest campervans to afford their riders at least some privacy.
The image is as remarkable for its content – even the best cyclists suffer – as it is for the fact that Fignon was happy to air his discomfort so publicly. I can assume the French star hated the claustrophobia of a campervan and its associated body odours from his teammates. His equivalent today would be Chris Froome or Tom Dumoulin – can you imagine either of these two squatting on a grubby kerb in full view of the public?!
I’d always liked Fignon for the picture opportunities he afforded me, both on and off the bike. I was still a rookie back then, but never once did he show any resentment at me portraying him like this. He was famous for spitting at some photographers, and it was quite common for him to lob a water bottle or two if certain Paris-based photographers got too close.
The world of cycling lost a true legend when Fignon died in 2010.
David Millar’s crash at the 2014 Paris-Roubaix
From my first day as a cycling photographer to my very last, I never felt comfortable photographing injured cyclists, especially the ones I’d got to know down the years.
Crashes are as much a part of the sport as climbing, sprinting, cornering, and even winning – and they happen each and every day. A multiple-rider crash is definitely less of an issue because the chaos that comes with a crash — where doctors, mechanics, officials, team managers and the cyclists themselves are scrambling to get away or assist others — means no-one really cares what the photographer is doing. And for his part, the photographer does his work as quickly as possible before getting out of the way and out of sight.
But I learnt early on that you could be having a chummy pre-race chat with a friendly cyclist before the start, but then be photographing him on the ground any minute or any hour later. Knowing this meant that, off the bike, I kept my distance from most of my subjects for my chances of seeing them crash was actually quite high, and I wanted to have a clearer conscience if I had to take images of them on the ground.
I soon learnt however, at least in the happy-go-lucky days of the 1990s, that most cyclists in a crash want to see pictures of the incident, unless it’s an exceedingly nasty crash.
David Millar was in a solo escape in the 2001 Tour of Valencia when he overshot a bend on a mountainous descent and flew through the trees and rocks and tussocks before grinding to a skin-shredding halt. I’d been following him a few minutes earlier but had gone on ahead to look for a decent corner – but not the one he fell on. He sought me out at the day’s end, visibly disappointed I’d missed the shot of his mishap.
“I wouldn’t really have wanted to see you fall anyway, David”, I reasoned. “Well, if there’s ever another time when I’m in a crash and you’re there, do not hesitate to take pictures,” he said. “I won’t hate you for it”.
One of the last images I took of David was when he crashed in front of me in the 2014 Paris-Roubaix – right at my feet. And it duly made a half-page appearance in his autobiographical book “The Racer.”
A year or two earlier, Millar had broken his collar-bone in a mass pile-up in the E3 Classic in Belgium. He just sat quietly by the roadside, neither in pain nor angry, just waiting for a race-doctor while I gingerly took some quick pictures and slipped away. It’s the knowing the crash victim that hurts the most.
Until recent years, the last day of a Grand Tour was something to savour for both cyclists and photographers. There used to be a tradition that at the end of the Giro and Vuelta, and even sometimes the Tour, the racing would only begin in the last hour, and that the first hours of that stage were a time to have fun, to relax, to chat with your rivals for the first time in three weeks, and to generally let your hair down.
Happy days if you made a living photographing such goings-on. Such pantomime moments include the race’s shortest cyclist swapping bikes with the tallest rider and enacting a pretend sprint or attack — that’s if both riders could manage to pedal on their oversized/undersized bikes! Another popular charade was for a few cyclists to launch a pretend attack, gain an out-of-sight advantage, and then lie down in the middle of the road as if they’d been struck by lightning.
I’ve seen a rider like Joachim Rodriguez steal a race-official’s motorbike and overtake the Vuelta peloton — the time-keeper had to pedal Purito’s tiny bike until the fun was over. Thomas Voeckler was spotted driving a Tour Gendarme’s motorbike down the Champs Elysees after the 2004 Tour – it might have been a step too far to have done it during the stage.
The Giro would often stick to its age-old tradition whereby riders ransacked a friendly cake shop for supplies of biscotti or ice-creams. I once saw a Saturday wedding gate-crashed by a possé of well-informed cyclists who brought eternal luck on the newly-weds by kissing the bride.
My all-time favourite was in the 1992 Vuelta when Italy’s Stefano Giuliani hitched a ride on Mario Scirea’s back. The pair managed to overtake the peloton on Scirea’s 60cm Moser bike, and pose in front of the race for a few minutes – what a dream of an image I managed to capture.
The American Fan
The Tour de France brings out the best and sometimes the most extroverted fans. And it all started because of Lance Armstrong. True, we’d had German fans, cheering for any rider with a Telekom jersey on and cheering especially for either Bjarne Riis or Jan Ullrich. But they were downright dull in comparison to some of the characters who came to the Tour a few years into the then-mythical Armstrong years.
The most recognisable of these fans was a guy called Dory Holte who came to the 2003 Tour with a few friends, each of them dressed up in American football kit, and each bearing a rider’s name on the back of their genuine Riddell helmets. Holte wore an all-yellow kit with ‘100’ embroidered on to it, in recognition of it being 100 years since the first Tour – but he changed it every other day for a different jersey, just to keep everyone guessing.
He and his mates also had huge American or Texan flags — they were a daily form of entertainment when they suddenly appeared at the roadside with their distinctive clothing. Holte, in particular, took his worshipping to new levels, performing solo at the 2004 Tour before coming back to Europe to follow the Vuelta a España a few months later.
The 2005 Tour saw Holte back on the roadside, and with a more daring repertoire. On one stage somewhere in the south, he hid himself from view until the very last moment, then pedalled his adapted bicycle right alongside the Discovery-led peloton. A giant Lone Star flag was unfurled, and somehow it flew nicely behind Holte despite being twice the length of his bike. But by then, the Tour’s Gendarmes had had enough – they literally clipped Holte’s wings and ordered him to desist, fearful of the chaos he might cause if a Tour cyclist was brought down.
I next saw Holte at the first-ever Tour of California in 2006, cycling alongside the race on a stage down Highway One, near Morro Bay. The charismatic fan became a feature of the race in the coming years which meant Holte never made it back to the Tour or Vuelta – he’d become too much of a nuisance anyway.
As we now know, Holte inspired a generation of new extroverts, dressed up as chickens, pandas, kangaroos or simply running near-naked in the road – whatever it took to get seen on TV.
This kind of adulation is a double-edged sword for the sport. It presents a unique fan-base to a unique sport, and adds a huge degree of colour and fun to a very serious affair. These fans alternate as both a photographer’s delight but a safety threat to the cyclists – it’s a miracle there’s yet to be a serious mishap.
Yes, the days of such extroverts are probably over, and it’s probably for the best too. All the more reason to acknowledge the fun we all had photographing these characters back in the day.
Moto crash at the 2011 Tour de France
I always used to say that I had the best job in the world and that was no lie. But at times it was also a dangerous job, and never more so than in the Tour de France. Only in the Tour, on those narrow ‘D’ roads, and with 200 cyclists packed into a bunch ahead, does the world’s media line up one behind the other, either waiting for the chance to get past or waiting for something to happen.
Race-officials, radio commentators, TV cameramen, photographers and Gendarmes – there are sometimes 20 motos back there, sitting in line-astern with barely half-a-metre between each moto. And then someone up front touches their brakes, causing a ripple effect that spreads further and further down the line. The reactions of those 20 moto-drivers can make the difference between a near-miss or a mass pile-up. It takes just one sleepy driver to ruin everyone’s day.
Watching it all happen from behind my driver’s shoulder, I can recall the surge in my heart-rate as the brake lights of the motos ahead came alive, then a tensing of the stomach – and relief that I’d chosen a damn good driver to pilot me in the Tour.
There was a rogue Belgian driver in the 2011 Tour. He had spill after spill to the point where his photographer had his agency send out a set of used camera gear so he could put his newer stuff away and not have it broken. Luckily, no-one was injured in this spill, just bruised bodies lying in a ditch and a lot of unhappy French drivers. The Belgian never did come back to the Tour …
If my information is correct, Miguel Morras is now a financial whizz-kid in Singapore, specializing in foreign currencies, derivatives and bonds. He’s said to be one of the best in the business. Well, he’s no longer a kid, and he wasn’t always a wealthy individual either.
But things are decidedly rosier for this Spaniard than when our paths crossed for the only time in the 1996 Criterium International, a two-day, three-stage race held then in the southern French region called Midi-Pyrenees.
But it wasn’t just our paths that crossed that fine day. Morras, the 1994 junior world champion, was in his debut year for the ONCE team, and was expected to devote his energies to Laurent Jalabert, the team’s leader looking to win in his own backyard. About 200 sheep thought otherwise, however, and when Morras got detached from the back of the speeding peloton in the second half of the stage, the sheep swarmed into the road and blocked the young lad from returning to his teamates.
I’d just happened to have stopped there to take a scenery shot, never imagining what I’d get to see a few minutes later. Morras finished out of time, went home to reconsider his future and retired a few years later, pushed there by a nagging knee injury but also a realisation that maybe cycling wasn’t for him.
Over 20 years on, this image of Miguel is still one of my favourites. His ill-fortune became my good fortune, and I remember laughing my head off as I photographed him on that long-ago day. Even now, whenever I see this image it brings a huge smile to my face. Yet I am forever pleased that Miguel went on to bigger and better things, and that he too enjoyed good fortune.
He left cycling, took multi degrees in economics and business and finance, worked in London then New York and now Singapore, and has never looked back. As he said to me in a recent e-mail, “let my path be an example for young cyclists to never give up their studies”.
Tony Rominger at the 1993 Vuelta
When you first look at this image of Tony Rominger at the 1993 Vuelta, there’s little to designate it as being anything other than just ordinary. Just a bloke in a yellow jersey with a load of bikes, right? Try extraordinary, for this was an image that I never thought would happen, could happen, and that most definitely wouldn’t happen today.
The facts are that Rominger had seven Colnago bikes at his disposal in that Vuelta, consisting of two time-trial bikes (one for flat stages, one for hilly), and five road bikes (climbing, flat, rolling, a mixture of steel, and the first-ever carbon models). My Spanish editor of a magazine called Ciclismo a Fondo wanted all seven bikes in one shot, with a race-clothed Rominger, and with his three mechanics standing loyally beside him. Easy, right?
Well, not really. The logistics were a nightmare — just consider these obstacles. Firstly, Tony disliked the media enormously – he was a Swiss superstar who resented any intrusion into his private life – and that private life began when he entered his hotel until he left it next morning, leaving me no time to do the shot even if Tony could be persuaded.
We got around this by asking head mechanic Alejandro Torralbo to persuade Tony to do the shot, reasoning that it was good for Colnago, good for Tony’s Spanish fans, and especially good for Graham’s reputation too. Doing it for us would also piss off the other media that Tony so disliked.
All we needed was a day and a time when it could be done. I suppose you think the shot was taken on a rest day, or before a stage start, or even the morning after the Vuelta had finished? Wrong… It was done about an hour after a tough stage had ended at Lagos de Covadongas, after Tony had had his massage, and only after the mechanics had got the seven bikes out of the truck, and had all of them cleaned and assembled – not a quick job.
They also had the team’s other bikes to clean and service, and that after a wet stage. Then came the moment, with the mechanic going to Tony’s room and cajoling him to come down, with me on a wobbly ladder, cameras poised and ready, and with a gaggle of team staff holding back the many fans gawping at the impending show. It even started to rain again …
Finally came Tony, trying hard to look a bit out-of-joint but breaking into a smile when he saw what we’d all done. “Do you know how lucky you are?”, he teasingly asked me. I just smiled and took the shots, knowing Tony’s sense of humour meant he was more than happy to oblige.
Now, if that was today, and even if Tony Rominger was as nice now as he was then, that shot would never have happened. For one thing there was no PR guy to get in the way – no negotiations, no BS, no nothing – just a cyclist and photographer getting the job done (well, also the mechanics).
Back then, there was no internet, so a cyclist between massage and dinner was actually looking for entertainment, and I suppose I was it. No laptop, no tablet, no smartphone, no post-race social media to see to after a stage. Happy days!
Team Leopard mourns Wouter Weylandt
It’s one of the saddest, yet most poignant sights in the sport – a team mourning a lost comrade after a fatal accident. I’m grateful to have only experienced it a few times in my career.
In the 1995 Tour de France, Fabio Casartelli died in a horrible crash on the Portet d’Aspet. The Italian – the 1992 Olympic road champion – raced for the American Motorola team, who were of course utterly devastated by their teamate’s death. Casartelli was remembered by the entire peloton the next day, with a neutralised stage run at its full length and on its scheduled route through the Pyrenees.
What would have been a four-hour slog at an average of 37-40 kilometres-per-hour became a six-hour marathon that sapped the remaining strength out of the tired cyclists. Yet collectively they put on a great show, a fitting tribute to Casartelli, rather than not race at all.
The long day ended with the Motorola team allowed to ride fully-abreast at the front for the last 10 kilometres. And then, as if by magic, the six remaining riders found themselves 200 metres ahead of the peloton that had quietly sat up on the outskirts of Pau. The media is never very far away at the Tour, and its imagery of such a sad day went quickly around the world. What other sport could have remembered a fallen comrade in this way?
Andre Kivilev crashed heavily in the 2003 Paris-Nice, and died soon after from his head injuries. Again, a cyclist’s life was remembered with a highly moving gesture, when his Cofidis team led the peloton on a lengthy, neutralised stage down to the Pont du Gard the very next day. Their grief seemed more profound than that of Motorola in 1995, a French team on French soil, and the entire Cofidis team left the race that evening, incapable of continuing to Nice.
Yet again, those images of a devastated team beamed their way around the globe, while the cycling world was left to mourn Kivilev, its latest fatality.
Sadly, it happened again in 2011, when Wouter Weylandt crashed and died in the Giro d’Italia and, adopting the tradition of past events, Team Leopard spent its day at the head of a Giro peloton mourning Weylandt before they too went home to recover from the ordeal and to be present at the funeral.
Anyone who’s part of the greater cycling family, be it cyclist, soigneur, mechanic, team owner, race-official, race photographer or journalist – yes, even the media can mourn – feels the awful sadness following a fatality. If it’s not your actual colleague who’s died, then someone who was part of your daily life and routine has been taken away too soon.
One of the most stirring elements of Leopard’s parade was that they found room in their ranks for Tyler Farrar, a genuine friend of Weylandt who was racing the Giro for his Garmin team. Now, when I look at the images of Motorola, Cofidis and Leopard on their respective days at the head of the peloton, it is the latter squad that stirs the most emotions.
As they crossed the finish-line in Livorno, a few hundred metres ahead of the peloton a la Motorola and Cofidis, you can see Farrar, third from the right, his head bowed deeper than anyone else.
The Orchies sector at Paris-Roubaix
Think of every one-day Classic and an image immediately springs to mind. Think of Milan-San Remo and one thinks of that shot of the sheer cliffs above the Mediterranean, with the peloton racing along in a snaking line below, and with a deep blue sea as a backdrop.
In the Tour of Flanders, it is the Mur de Geraadsbergen that inspires the stand-out image of the race, even allowing for the absence of the famous hill between 2012 and 2017 when the Koppenberg regained its former attraction.
And in Paris-Roubaix, it is surely that shot over the cobbles at Orchies, from a pedestrian footbridge, the one arcing over the A23 autoroute that provides a perfect location for fans and photographers to see the race before the final sections.
But has anyone taken the time to ask which photographer made which landmark famous in the first place?
Those rocky cliffs in Il Primavera had already been photographed and published when I followed my first San Remo in 1983, so I’ll guess the photographer was a Belgian called Aldo Tonnoir, the oldest and the best snapper of cycling at that time. The Mur de Geraadsbergen is more difficult to assign, because hundreds of photographers go to the Kapelmuur each year, but I’ll pass the award to Tonnoir as well, if only because he was there before anyone else.
I want to lay claim to the Paris-Roubaix shot at Orchies. I stood on the footbridge as far back as 1986, when I photographed the race one year before they gave me race access on a moto. I needed to use the pedestrian bridge on my diversionary route, which is how I discovered its potential. Now, when I see 20 photographers lined up on that same bridge, taking the same shot that was once my private domain, I want to show them a poster I once made of the 1991 Paris-Roubaix, where a dilapidated farmhouse threatened to collapse with the weight of spectators sitting atop one of its walls.
The same farmhouse is there now, except its brickwork is near-perfect, no doubt reinforced from behind with steel supports.
If there’s one negative from all the great one-day classics, it is that the routes hardly change over the years, making it harder for photographers to capture something new, or even something old that can be shot from a new angle. All of them look for something new – someone like Jered Gruber (but more likely it was his wife, Ashley) has actually discovered a better way of photographing those sea-cliffs of Milan San Remo. But by and large those landmark images from a previous generation of photographers act as the go-to locations for today’s snappers.
And who can blame them? Maybe one day I’ll tell you some cheeky stories from behind some of the Grand Tours’ famous landmarks.
Jesper Skibby gets run over
It was hard to dislike Jesper Skibby back in the ’80s and ’90s. The Danish cyclist was always full of fun and mischief and daring, but he won a fair few races in the process. My liking of Jesper is a tad prejudiced, because he created some fame for me when he fell on the Koppenberg during the 1987 Tour of Flanders.
I’d positioned myself slightly higher up the cobbled hill than was normal in those days – most of my colleagues had the experience to stand further down, at the steepest point on the hill where it was expected that even the strongest cyclists might have to get off and walk.
Skibby had been in the early escape with several others, but had soldiered on alone as the Koppenberg began. A commissaire’s big BMW followed Skibby up the hill, denoting that he was leading the race and that his chasers were at least 30 seconds behind. But then Skibby began to slow, his legs buckled on the bumpy stones, and having passed the point on the hill where most photographers were aiming their lenses, Skibby toppled over.
The race official’s car was already trying to pass Skibby with his chasers getting closer than that 30-second buffer, when the cyclist fell. At which point the car just kept on driving, right over Skibby’s bike and oh-so-close to his legs.
Seeing this from my chosen spot on the hill, I couldn’t believe my eyes, but clicked away on my Nikon F3 as the scene unfolded. The car got around Skibby to a chorus of boos from the roadside fans. Skibby himself was passed by some elite chasers, and then a kind spectator managed to get Skibby up and running, literally, with his broken bike over his shoulder.
Skibby’s misfortune became my good fortune, and after a hurried rush to a photo-lab in Brussels after the race, my images made it into Het Nieuwsblad, the biggest newspaper in Flanders. I’d scooped my Belgian colleagues!
Yes, I always did like Skibby, and I made sure he knew why. Happily, the Dane went on to win stages of the Tour, Giro and Vuelta, before retiring in 2000.
The last wet Roubaix
Though in retirement, I think I am still the last photographer to have ‘enjoyed’ a fully wet Paris-Roubaix. By fully-wet I mean when the pavé has been covered by mud and water for the duration of the race – from Troisvilles to Hem, if you like. I don’t count the occasional races when a mere stretch or two of cobbles were under water — that doesn’t quite hit the mark.
1994 was the race that had it all – mud, crashes, mechanicals, and the usual madness. The mud appeared at Troisvilles after a series of morning showers turned a hopefully wet race into a certainly wet race. This was an edition of Paris-Roubaix that played into the hands of experienced photographers – the ones who’d seen enough in previous years to know what to do, and who’d taken the vital time to make at least one mid-week reconnaissance of the course.
Even back then, most photographers came equipped with trail bikes – lightweight motos with springy suspension and knobbly tires. But the TV drivers turned up with their familiar heavyweight BMW roadsters – which quickly proved to be useless on the slippery stones. It left the photographers in a paradise of their own as the race evolved: the most TV viewers saw of the race were of images taken out of a helicopter high above. Only one TV moto lasted the course, but it missed most of the action along the way. Of course, the TV was miles away when Andre Tchmil made his winning move with more than 35 kilometres left, yet a possé of wisened photographers knew where to be, and when.
That apocalyptic edition of Paris-Roubaix changed the way we worked the race. The TV production company went out and bought a fleet of trail bikes, as did the Gendarmes. And in the coming years, photographers were warned that if it rained heavily, then they’d be barred from entering the cobbled sections in order that TV had the space to work in.
Incredibly, there’s never been a ‘fully-wet’ Paris-Roubaix since then. Yes, it rained on the 2001 race – though late in the day. Yes, some sections of the course were sensational; yes, our photography of winner Servais Knaven was unforgettable. But they all pale into insignificance when compared to that 1994 Hell of the North.
People often ask me how I got Mario Cipollini to pose with a cigarette in his mouth during the 1994 Paris-Nice. Well, I didn’t do anything – honest! The Italian just appeared to the side of our moto one morning, puffing away while I scrambled my cameras ready to get a shot.
I figured he’d snatched the cigarette from an obliging moto-pilot — in those days most of them chain-smoked all day. Now, Mario being Mario, it wasn’t that he needed a fix of nicotine, he simply wanted to have fun in a quiet moment of the day, before the racing got serious – before he was expected to unleash one of his legendary sprints.
This shot was the beginning of a 10-year acquaintance with Cipollini, a man who I’d already been photographing for three years but who was yet to show his true colours as an occasional model. In the coming years, as he won more and more races and became even more of a showman, my lens was filled with Cipollini’s antics.
On the podium in a Giorgio Armani suit, on the Tour dressed up as Julius Caesar, or simply in a major race dressed in a yellow, pink, or stars ‘n stripes outfit, I thought I’d seen it all until the day I visited Mario at home in Tuscany.
He was posing for a colleague of mine, Roberto Bettini, but I was allowed to share the shoot and enjoy the show. The house – officially his uncle’s but in practise Mario’s place – was a giant wardrobe. A hundred silk ties, 50 hand-designed suits, 10 Rolex diamond watches, dozens of locally made leather shoes, even a diamond-studded walking cane. The expansive gardens housed a variety of wildlife, from parrots to penguins and his absolute favourite, a baby cheetah.
Cipollini probably led a Jekyll and Hyde lifestyle. I know I once had to look away as he began fighting with a Spanish cyclist in the Vuelta, and you could sense he had a temper ready to ignite if things didn’t go his way. But he was an absolute gentleman to me and my colleagues, and provided us all with some of our funniest images.
Night time racing has always been with us, but it has only really been limited to ‘nocturne’ races – twilight criterium events in towns and villages of Europe and sometimes the USA. There is an evening cyclocross race each year in Diegem, Belgium, and I have seen a prologue of the Giro that began late at night in 2005.
In more recent times the first-ever stage of the first-ever Tour of Oman started well into the Arabian night in 2010 – but only because someone forgot to work out that nightfall came quite early in February! Organisers of the Vuelta a España stirred controversy by deliberately starting their 2010 race at 10pm in Seville, a TTT of all things, with the logic being it was too hot to stage the race in the afternoon – no-one would be watching.
Sure enough, tens of thousands of locals came out to watch this late spectacle, using it as a launch-pad for the night-time fiestas Andalucians are famous for enjoying. The practical problems were ten-fold though, not least the risks associated with a team of nine cyclists racing wheel-to-wheel at 60-kmh along badly-lit roads.
Another problem was that the spectators wanted to stand in the road to watch – pavements and crowd-barriers are for tourists, they argued. More than one team had to take evasive action when the crowds blocked their already minimal line of sight. The risks were justified by the spectacle, of course, but even the Vuelta has yet to repeat their daring by starting another stage in the absolute dark of night.
For photographers and TV – well, yes, the spectacle was just that: a spectacle, especially across the newly-opened Puente de la Barqueta, and through the old city with its palaces and castles and cobbled streets.
In the days of film, any images of this night-time event would have been impossible, as even the best cameras failed to register anything useful when the light had gone. Digital photography changed all that, and I ramped up the ISO values to its maximum and captured each team as they crossed the Guadalquivir river from new Seville to old Seville.
At least we got dinner later that night, Andalucia being the most tardy region for the opening of restaurants. Tapas at midnight, washed down with a strong red wine from nearby Extremadura, with perfect Wi-Fi at your fingertips. What more could the overworked cycling photographer want?