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October 5, 2013
One of the few certainties of life as a cycling photographer is that you’re going to get wet sometimes. And in the case of last Sunday’s World Championship road race, I got very wet indeed..! Rain fell in biblical amounts, the likes of which even I’ve never experienced, making gutters fill with rain and eventually mud as well. Sewers emptied themselves into the streets, bringing an unholy aroma to the air as the race made its way towards Florence. Water pelted down from the skies, and splashed up in waves from the team cars alongside, and smelly drain-water filled my shoes as we drove through foot-high puddles. What a day – what a way to have to race. Yet it was as funny as it was sad, for although the repair bill for my camera equipment will reduce my cash-flow for a month or so, I actually had a really great time out there!
Although cyclists were crashing or falling off at an alarming rate, partly because of the speed at which they were racing into the floods, partly because the roads were slick with mud, they too sensed a challenge to be overcome on a day that will be remembered for years to come. It seemed as if I’d photographed 20 falls in that first 100-kilometres, with worse to come on the technical circuit in and around Florence. Yet the humour was there to see and share, in the way that only a seasoned photographer can enjoy alongside his day-to-day subjects. Sam Bewley, Geraint Thomas, Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde, Andrew Talansky and Fabian Wegmann were just a few of the cyclists willing and able to shout a funny remark at me as they went about their business, changing into dry rain-jackets or collecting bottles behind the peloton – thanks for making me smile, guys!
Somehow, enough cyclists survived the dangerous conditions to wage a serious war over the last four laps, with the very final lap acting as the climax of the whole championships. Italy took on Spain who took on Colombia who took on Denmark, many hours after the GB team had disappeared after wasting their energy chasing an escape for over 100-kilometres in the cold and rain. The biggest mistake of the day, however, came when Spain and Valverde allowed Rui Costa to chase Rodriquez down – though it is doubtful whether Valverde had the strength to stop it anyway. As it was, the little Catalan had no chance against the Portuguese rider in the sprint, and Rui Costa became the most surprising World Champion since Rudy Dhaenens won in 1990. No-one should be surprised by Rui Costa in fact, his form in the 2012 Tour de Suisse and in this year’s Tour de France makes it clear he’s a star in the making, with possibly even better to come.
I came to Florence and the Worlds by way of the Vuelta a España, where Chris Horner became the talk of the season by winning at the age of almost 42! There is no easy way to win a three-week-long stage-race, and Horner had the form to make some early gains in the first week before biding his time for the Pyrenees, and still saved his strength for the mountains of Cantabria and Asturias in the closing days. Suspicion and speculation will hound every grand tour winner for the next decade at least, and maybe even beyond. But me, I prefer to enjoy the racing that was, and the spectacle of seeing younger men quite unable to deal with the phenomenon that was Horner. Nibali tried the hardest – on the Angliru he was simply magnificent in his courageous effort to beat his opponent – but in the end even he was unable to conquer the American. Horner’s victory aside, I didn’t find the Vuelta to be that exciting, and I don’t often say that. In their quest to win the overall, the teams of Nibali, Horner, Rodriguez and Valverde turned a blind eye to too many escapes, a factor that saw six of the race’s summit-finishes go to worthy yet fortuitous winners. Leopold Konig, Warren Barguil, Alexandre Geniez, and Kenny Elissonde enjoyed a sort of baptism in the Vuelta, but I, for one, wanted to see the top riders win the top stages, or at least a higher proportion of them.
Ironically, it was a one-man escape on a very flat stage six that had everyone standing up and applauding the most. Tony Martin shot out of the peloton in the very first metres and only got caught fifty-metres from the finish-line! The 175-kilometres between those two points featured a one-man show of pedigree and endurance, with Martin - dressed in a one-piece time trial suit – enacting a high-energy training ride, sitting up after exactly two hours, but then getting a second-wind to almost hold off a puffing and panting peloton full of sprinters. That it was Fabian Cancellara who was the first to catch Martin in Caceres only added to the excitement on what should have been a very ordinary day. Cancellara then beat Martin in the Vuelta’s only TT, and I thought then that he’d go on to become the new World TT champion in Florence – how wrong could I have been. I reckon Martin’s long day out in Extremadura made the difference between his Rainbow Jersey and Cancellara’s Bronze medal.
Both Tony Martin and Rui Costa will be in China for the Tour of Beijing next week, a race that virtually ends the season for cyclists and photographers. Although this weekend’s ‘Il Lombardia’ acts as the stopping point for Europe’s World Tour season, it is the Chinese race that actually draws the curtain on a nine-month-long campaign. For as long as I’ve been a photographer, until 2010 it was Lombardy that we went to with a tear of nostalgia in our eyes, because another season was drawing to a close. Those tears are now shed in China, at a race where few European fans are ever likely to go. Yet for the fans and media and teams that do get there, the racing is as hard and fast and exciting as anything I’ll see in Lombardy this Sunday. It may not be the ideal location to close a season at, but a road is a road in any country, and a climbing road in China is as good as any above Lake Como if everyone is prepared to race up it. The race’s first-ever uphill finish on stage four may not be the Madonna del Ghisallo we’ve come to know and love, but it is certain to find a tough new winner of the Tour of Beijing.
China will also act as a watershed for a multitude of reasons, both sporting and otherwise. Euskatel and Vacansoleil will bid goodbye to the sport, as will a smaller outfit called Champion Sports – ironically of Chinese origin. Many of the cyclists in those three teams, as well as several on other teams, will slip into retirement in China, their careers prematurely at an end or mercifully over for some of the older cyclists. With Sojasun also closing up shop in France, it seems as if the sport has been stung by the tail-end of the worldwide economic recession – just as it seems the recession is ending. Either way, that’s a huge swathe of cyclists out of work, with few opportunities for them to return in the near future. Right on cue, China may see the appearance of the UCI’s new President, Brian Cookson, a man credited with changing the face of British cycling who is now charged with putting a fresh face on the bigger cycling world. It was a highly charged election process, as dramatic and ugly as anything we see in ‘real’ politics, and I’m glad it’s over and that the sport can get on with its day-to-day business. I personally don’t think there’s an awful lot wrong with our sport, it’s popularity seems to know no limits judging by the size of the crowds in this year’s Tour de France, for example. But change can be good if it’s managed correctly, and Cookson has to be given every chance to put right what he sees as the wrongs of the past.GW