Collision course: The rogue photographer and the Tour de France stage winner

This is Giuseppe Guerini, 23 years ago. He is about to crash into a fan taking his photo.

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1999: I was 12 years old, in the family living room watching the highlights package of the Tour’s Alpe d’Huez stage, when it happened. It was like being electrocuted. Maybe you remember the moment; maybe you can relate to the feeling of formative horror and dread and fascination. Maybe you, too, spend a little bit of time every Tour de France thinking about Giuseppe Guerini riding into a rogue photographer/fan, while on the cusp of the biggest win of his career.

Here’s how it went. Giuseppe Guerini was a birdlike Italian, and in 1999 he’d joined the German Team Telekom from Polti, where he was to be Jan Ullrich’s key climbing domestique. That Tour, Ullrich missed the Tour with a knee injury, freeing Guerini up to chase his own ambitions up the mountains. 

Guerini’s name isn’t inscribed in the sport’s mythology in quite the same way as many of his peers of the era, but he was a pretty good back-up, with consecutive third places at the Giro d’Italia in the two years before. On this particular fateful day, Bastille Day 1999, Stage 10 of the Tour de France is a hot and harrowing mountain stage concluding on l’Alpe d’Huez. As you can probably imagine, the crowds are losing their goddamn minds, squeezing in on both sides of the road, waving flags, blasting through rolls of Kodak. 

Guerini attacks with two kilometres to go. Pavel Tonkov (Mapei) doesn’t have the answer. Quickly, there’s daylight.

Guerini’s got this one in the bag. Under the kite and round a couple of corners. The crowds part for the weathered, angular Italian. Moses on a bike.

And then a photographer gets it wrong, standing in his path for a few moments too long. Guerini tries to dodge him, going left. The photographer shadows him. Guerini hits him, tumbles to the roadside; his nemesis lands on his bike, and it’s a flurry of limbs and gasps of shock as everyone tries to pick themselves up as quickly as possible. Guerini gets back on his bike with some help from the fan with the camera that downed him, who gives a stunned kind of push on his back, and equilibrium is restored.

The electrifying thing, I think, was the not-knowing. Was Tonkov going to sail past? Was Guerini’s bike going to be too damaged to continue? The entire calamitous interaction lasted nine seconds, ten tops, but time had this elastic quality where it paused and stretched and turned in on itself like taffy being pulled. I felt something like it two years earlier when Bjarne Riis chucked his time trial bike in a ditch, and there were echoes of it when Lance Armstrong hooked his handlebar on a musette four years later. But Guerini and the photographer – that was the big one for me. 

And because of the formative nature of that moment, it’s one of those fragments of the sport that drifts about in my head, occasionally blown unbidden to the forefront of my consciousness.

So this year, I thought I’d grab onto that fragment and see how faithful my childlike memory of it was. Maybe answer some questions I still had about it. 

Guerini went on to win – I remembered that. He crossed the line with skinny arms in the air, 21 seconds ahead of Tonkov and 25 seconds ahead of the even more avian Fernando Escartin. “I had it all worked out in my mind how it was going to be,” Guerini reflected later. “It was turning into the greatest moment in my life… and it almost became the worst moment in my life. And all I could think was, ‘Oh no, I am going to lose the stage.’ I was very lucky because I could have broken my collarbone with that idiot getting in my way.”

Redemption. (Photo by Stephane Ruet/Sygma via Getty Images)

The photographer, as far as I knew, disappeared into the crowd – endlessly played and replayed in highlights packages, of course, but the footage was so grainy and indistinct that it didn’t seem like it was possible for an Allez Opi-Omi-level of opprobrium. For a couple of years I’d harboured ill-defined thoughts of tracking the photographer down for an interview, as impossible as that task may have been.

Today, looking through Youtube for clearer footage I realised I’d been beaten to the punch, with a 2012 video upload from ‘Newoldwestern’ (60 subscribers). 

The video title – ‘Tour de France 99 – Accident de Guerini sur les pentes de l’Alpe-d’Huez’ – doesn’t give many clues away. Nor does the thumbnail. Turns out it’s a French panel show from 1999, talking about the Tour, and the only description entered is ´Vélo Club 1999’. It’s clumsily paced for something you would expect to get in with the good stuff early. For the first 50 seconds it’s just French people talking in a studio, and I don’t speak French. 

But just as I was about to click away, the camera cuts to an interview with ‘Eric (19 ans)’. 

Eric has Benoit Cosnefroy glasses and looks 19 ans in the way that 19 year olds do in old footage, which is to say that he looks 35 ans. He seems to have dressed up a little for his interview with Vélo Club’s journalist, wearing a dark blazer with big shoulder pads and bigger lapels that has the look of being from his dad’s wardrobe.

I’ll stress again that I don’t speak French, and Youtube’s auto-translation of a 23-year-old clip is probably not spot on (or at least, I really hope not). But what I think is trying to happen is this: the Vélo Club wants to know if he’s sorry, and Eric wants to apologise.

Here is Eric. He seems nice but a bit overawed, and cuts to the point early with a hypothetical.

The translation seems to suggest there is a concession: he was throwing the hall with the camera, and he sees now that was wrong.

From his room in an overpriced, under-attractive Alpine lodge in the peak of summer, he wants to communicate that he was as startled as anyone.

The Vélo Club interviewer counters that Eric seems a good lad with a nice reflex of helping Guerini back onto his bike.

Eric, grateful for an opportunity to rehabilitate his image on national TV, agrees that it was super nice on his part.

He then places a bet both ways as the camera zooms in a little. Eric has shame; Eric didn’t do it on purpose.

Our guy ponders for a while, then decides to chase his losses. Not only did he not do it on purpose (fact check: true), but it wasn’t his fault (fact check: demonstrably false).

I imagine at this point the envoys from Vélo Club are massaging their temples and muttering darkly to themselves about kids these days, but they extend Eric another lifeline, asking if he has any handy tips for roadside spectators. Like whether they should or should not get out of the way with their Nikons, say.

Eric is on steadier footing here, having recent hard-won experience in this field:

Interview over. But wait, there’s more.

A surprise awaits in the lobby. Giuseppe Guerini stalks through the lobby in an enormous Adidas tracksuit. He has the rubbery gait of someone who’s just scored a stage win and a trophy of a golden bottle of Coca Cola. A soigneur has just buried thumbs in his quads and elbows in his glutes. Giuseppe Guerini is in the mood to forgive and forget. He doesn’t know it yet, but he will win again at the Tour (in 2005), and, according to my Instagram deepscroll, have mid-life flirtations with beards and straw fedoras while maybe working for Bianchi.

All of that is in the future. Here and now, Eric is happy to see him and with a handshake says “here is all my apologies”, which is probably a bad translation but I am hoping is not.

Back to the host. I don’t know what he’s on about. Neither does Youtube’s auto-translate.

If you thought there could be no more satisfying conclusion to this narrative arc than a talking head talking about fart coughs, you are wrong. Because the host has something in his hand, and the camera’s about to cop a lens-ful.

You have eyes. It is not, in the conventional way that we understand these things, ‘perfect’. It is a grainy picture of Giuseppe Guerini about to plough into Eric (19 ans).

But in the sense that it ties up a pubescent pondering that I’ve carried with me for 23 years, I guess this – here, here, the photo, the photo of the incident – is, if not perfect, good enough.

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