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October 26, 2014

The route announcement for the next edition of the Tour de France always acts as a catalyst of opinion for a number of reasons, and now allows me to pen a few words on the 2015 race as well as the 2014 season just-ended. I’ll start with the new Tour, swaying on just this one occasion to the naive belief that it’s the only race that really matters, which of course it is not. The Tour matters more than most races, and our sport would be so different without it, yet it is at most a flag-bearer for everything else we believe in and enjoy. Certainly, the Tour polarizes all other thoughts whenever a new race-route is revealed each October. I actually stopped going to the Tour presentation years ago, believing it to be a very over-rated event that is so much easier to follow on the internet, especially in these days of ‘leaks’ and rumours. This stance might have had something to do with me having photographed the Tour of Beijing since 2012, one of a tiny handful of people who saw the season out in Asia but who then declared an end to nine-months or more of travelling. Which excluded a one-day/one-night visit to Paris.

 

For many people however, the annual route announcement provides the world of cycling with a last chance to get together, to socialise away from a race, for journalists and photographers to show their faces to the ASO management that runs the Tour, and to basically have a nice night or two in Paris before winter dissects the old season from the new one. For others, especially the smaller teams, the Paris rendezvous offers a rare chance to present their Tour credentials for a wild-card slot, a full six months before any invitations are given out. But give me the ‘live’ feed any day, as well as the chance to tweak my hotel bookings for the next Tour while everyone is pre-occupied in Paris. Of the tour-route just released, I only had to make three small changes to the reservations I’d made one week earlier: I had us in Peronne when it needed to be Arras, we were booked into Mende a day too early, and I needed to find a third night close to Gap having only booked two nights. And all the while Christian Prudhomme talked on my iMac, and talked very well indeed, those changes were made with ease.

 

Clearly, the 2015 Tour would not be suited to Sir Bradley Wiggins, even if he cared to ride. The recently crowned TT World Champion would turn his nose up at the prospect of a mere 42-kilometres of time-trialing fayre. I’m not sure it’s one that sprinters will treasure either, with at most five or six stages to declare war upon. The rouleurs and opportunists seem to have just three stages to play with, and only then if we include the semi-cobbled stage four to Cambrai. So yes, quite clearly, it is a Tour for the climbers. The question is which ones, now that Chris Froome has cast a media-teasing hint that he might not even ride next July! I think the startling manner in which Alberto Contador won the Vuelta a España last month has spooked some of his rivals, and put the Spaniard ahead of a possé of other hopefuls next July.  My early prediction is, 1: Contador, 2: Quintana, 3: Froome; 4: Nibali. The French? With Froome and Contador crashing out of the 2014 Tour, Nibali steered a very steady path to glory that eased the way for Pinot, Peraud and Bardet. It won’t be the same next July with such a harder route, and we all know Froome will ride anyway.

 

Based on this year’s three grand tours, there are no guarantees that the expectations of a great 2015 Tour will materialize just because there are so many mountains. Making a course harder and harder often only ensures tamer racing, as we witnessed in the Giro and Vuelta. Nairo Quintana, the best climber of this generation, and eventual winner of the Giro, only had to put his nose in front on two stages to create his winning advantage over Rigoberto Uran. That wasn’t the spectacular we’d all been hoping for. The 2014 Vuelta had the toughest route of all the grand tours, but the final week was so tough that even the very best climbers were unable to put up the expected fight against one another. Of course, Quintana had crashed out by then, leaving a buoyant Contador to play with his Spanish rivals and easily keep Chris Froome at bay too. Had Quintana been there for the last week, and had we had just a few mountain-top finishes in the last week when instead we had five, I think the Vuelta would have enjoyed a more dynamic finale.

 

If I suggest that Contador, Quintana, Froome and Nibali are the main men for the 2015 Tour, where in the mountains will their battle begin? It will, or course, begin before the mountains, on roads and on stages where – using a very familiar expression – the race won’t be won but it could be lost. One TT, some North Sea wind, a scattering of cobbles, a TTT after a whole eight days - heaven help any of the favourites that lose time along the way. And the very first mountain-top finish on the Col de Soudet comes on the very first mountain stage, imagine the change in tempo after nine more or less flat days! The Tourmalet is climbed the next day, with a proximity to the finish that begs it to be attacked, and attacked hard. And that comes the day before a mighty four-Col challenge that ends on the nasty Plateau de Beille. Were it not for the severity of the awaiting Alpine climbs, this could have been the one year that Pyrenean time gaps are bigger when the race runs in that Pyrenees-to-Alps sequence. But one quick look at the Alpine stages, even from nine months out, leaves us in no doubt where the Tour’s showdown will take place.

 

Fourteen categorised climbs spread over four days and almost 600-kilometres is what awaits us in the Alps next July. A finish at Pla d’Adet after a 40-year-hiatus, that’s for starters, though it will be the ascent AND descent of the Col d’Allos that does the damage that day. The spectacular ‘Lacets de Montvernier’ finalises the second Alpine stage, though the actual ascent is more for spectacle than substance. Stages 19 and 20 could not bring a better ending to the real racing of the next Tour. La Toussuire has secured another stage-finish, and its difficulty is well known to all, as is the technically-challenging descent off the preceding Col du Mollard. This is a short 138-kilometre stage that also climbs the difficult side of the Croix-de-Fer, a leg-breaking affair if the racing starts from the gun, as it well might. And then comes the ‘queen’ stage of the whole race, a duplicate of a stage in the 2011 Tour when Pierre Rolland won at Alpe d’Huez.  At just 110-kilometres, but with the Cols of the Telegraphe and Galibier to cross before the Alpe, it is hard not to see this as the defining stage of the whole Tour – unless the race has been won already.

 

You’ve got to hand it to ASO and their growing band of staff for finding such great routes, and with such variety and forward-thinking. Aside from races like the Tours of Qatar and Oman, that are held in February, ASO’s stable of European races affords them both power and convenience too. When I look at the 2015 Tour route, I see a degree of influence from the ‘Ports Classic’, a two-stage race organised by ASO that runs between Rotterdam-Antwerp-Rotterdam in mid-May. A pillar of their Fleche Wallonne route, the Mur de Huy, acts as the finale of stage three, while next day’s stage to Cambrai takes in some Paris-Roubaix cobbles, together with a section borrowed from an event called Binche-Chimay-Binche, up there on the Franco-Belge border. The 2015 Tour borrows route ideas off other race organisers through Normandy, Brittany and the midi-Pyrenees before using its Paris-Nice and then Dauphiné-Libéré experiences to steer the Grand Boucle into the Alps and up to Paris. The recent Tour of Beijing was co-managed on a technical basis by an elite segment of ASO, and only a very magical crystal ball would be able to tell us what lies in store for ASO in its global expansion. Needless to say, the Tour de France is in very safe hands, have no fears about that.

 

Someone recently asked me what was the best race of the season – and I had no immediate answer, before considering the Giro d’Italia as the best of the stage-races because of its bad weather dramas and daring race-route.  Someone else asked me who was the best cyclist of the season – and again I had no quick answer, and still don’t, because not one cyclist stood out from the rest. Each of the true Classics, as we know them to be, had a different winner in Kristoff, Sagan, Degenkolb, Cancellara, Terpstra, Gilbert, Valverde, Gerrans and Martin. All the major stage-races had different winners too, from Carlos Betancur in Paris-Nice to Alberto Contador in the Vuelta a España, yet no-one really shone out. It’s worth noting the early-season wins of Michal Kwiatkowski that preceded his crowning as World Champion in September. Just wins they were at the time, but now they are part of something much grander. So, in the absence of anything more remarkable, I’ll borrow from the UCI’s official World Tour classification and say Alejandro Valverde was the stand out cyclist of the season, without him having to stand out too much.

 

I’m more likely to remember 2014 for other reasons. Jens Voigt is top of that list for his remarkable Hour Record success. I wasn’t there – like most other ‘observers’, I didn’t make the trip, believing the German couldn’t beat the old record – but Voigt’s ride was the single most exciting feat of the year, and has opened the flood-gates for future record attempts. Voigt’s subsequent retirement from the sport preceded David Millar’s by a few months, and I’ll miss the Scot so much having photographed him since 1997. Back then, I first got to know David when he helped carry my luggage/lighting through Heathrow Airport after photographing the brand-new Cofidis team in Bordeaux, and we’ve been good mates ever-since. In April, I marvelled at the sprint-victory by Fabian Cancellara in the Tour of Flanders – secret winter-training if ever there was! And, although no-one asked, my favourite day’s racing was the cobbled stage of Le Tour – just why ASO let us loose on those muddy, slippery stones, I’ll never know. But bless them that they did, for I loved every minute of that day.

 

It was great to hear that Taylor Phinney is planning on a full-on comeback for 2015, as long as his horribly damaged left leg heals up in time and with full strength. Phinney was recently seen testing out the TT course for the Richmond Worlds of 2015, which, still eleven months away, shows the depth of young man’s determination to return. It’s far from a done deal with such an injury, but the Worlds in Richmond, in the USA, would be a brilliant place to complete such a recovery. But I believe the 14-kilometre-long stage one TT that kicks off the 2015 Tour on July 4th is an earlier and even greater target. Independence Day, Le Tour, the Yellow Jersey – just think what a great story that would make for American cycling if Phinney could return, and even win that opening stage. Phinney only has to look at how Bradley Wiggins won the World TT Championship for the first time in September, after years of losing ground to both Tony Martin and Fabian Cancellara, to know the seemingly impossible is possible if one has the right mental fortutude. This gives me an excuse to say Wiggins’ feat pleased me enormously, even if for him it was just another good day at the office!

 

The fun of my work not withstanding, this has been an expensive year, and not just in the normal costs of photographing 140 days of racing. A new 70-200mm lens was needed in March, thanks to the deluge of rain at the 2013 Worlds in Florence and the follow-on sandstorms of the Arabian deserts this February. That same Worlds crippled one of my D4 cameras, and this was eventually replaced by a D4s in August, as was a 24-70mm lens that fell out the back of my parked car in the Tour. So good was the new D4s that a second one was needed to match it soon after, and all my other equipment has had a third clean-and-service for the season, and is now ready and waiting for the new season to begin. My general service-and-clean bills amounted to £3,400/$5440, with new equipment totalling around £10,000/$16,000. I have taken in the region of 70,000 images this season, and have kept 39,000 of them (or 342 Gigabytes) in my on-line archive. My records show I’ve taken 34 flights, stayed in over 100 different hotels, and travelled almost 22,000 kilometres (13,500 miles) on an in-race motorbike, out of an unfathomable distance for general travel to, from, and within those races. And yes, I’m itching to get started again in Adelaide on January 18th, 2015. GW

 

 

 

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