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July 2, 2014
I’m off to Leeds to see the start of the 2014 Tour de France - now how strange does that sound..? Strange perhaps, but it’s true, the world’s most famous bike-race is starting in northern England, and we Brits are extremely proud of the fact that the Tour is starting on our green little island once again, so soon after it began in London in 2007. The Yorkshire start will be quite different from the one in London, with no prologue TT to showcase each and every one of the cyclists competing in the Tour. In its place, the watching world will get to see the vast natural beauty of the Peak District and Yorkshire Dales in a two-day journey, something a TT in Leeds would not do justice to. London will not be forgotten, however, for the third stage of the Tour takes us down to the capital, to the scene of that 2007 triumph, after a daring race across the city’s bursting flanks to Buckingham Palace and The Mall.
Even for a seasoned photographer, these opening stages will be both a dream come true and a nightmare. The dream is seeing Le Tour playing out in my home country again. The nightmare is trying to capture the unique landmarks of Yorkshire and London without missing out on some furious action shots. Can I photograph Holme Moss and still get to Sheffield in time for the finish – yes. But can I capture the drama on the ‘wall’ that is Jenkin Road and make that same finish – no! In London, I can photograph once again Olympic Park and get past the peloton right away. But can I photograph the peloton at Tower Bridge and get ahead before The Mall – no! Choices will have to be made, cruel ones, and I’ll probably be glad to get across to France on July 7th and relax a bit in the French countryside – for all of one day before an even more unique challenge awaits on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. I cannot recall a Tour that started with so many tough stages as this one does, but it bodes for a very great Tour indeed.
Just using these opening stages as a guide, there’s every reason to believe this Tour won’t go according to its well-read script, not that many Tours ever do. No matter of the form he showed in the recent Tour de Suisse, can Mark Cavendish really out-sprint the colossus that is Germany’s Marcel Kittel on stage one? Can a sprinter stay with the climbers on stage two, or will that Jenkin Road finale push a G.C contender to the fore so early in the race? Fabian Cancellara’s surprise call-up to the Trek team has added further intrigue to the early days. Ostensibly in the Tour to win the cobbled stage 5 and maybe take the Yellow Jersey, Cancellara has to climb with the climbers on Jenkin Road then attack them on the cobbles three days later to achieve his goal. But he won’t be the only one trying – think of Matthew Hayman, Sebastian Langeveld, Lars Boom, Greg van Avermaet or any number of Dutch and Belgian classics riders as well. Certainly, the first section of the Tour can’t be judged until we’ve discovered what damage those cobbles have inflicted on the overall favourites.
On paper, the Tour should be decided between Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, and Vincenzo Nibali – the finest grand tour riders of this generation. And as long as nothing too bad happens to them in the opening week, cobblestones allowing, I don’t see anyone disturbing their podium mission too much. Yet a three-week-long race has so many influencing sides to it, that to those three names must be added at least three more. Think of Alejandro Valverde, who, right at the end of a long Indian summer comes to the Tour as the TT champion of Spain, and with the knowledge that this really is his do-or-die last attempt at a podium slot. Think of Rui Costa, World Champion and winner of the Tour de Suisse, a man who’s dedicated his whose season around the Tour and who can climb, time trial, and read a race as good as any of his peers. Then think of Andrew Talansky, winner of the 2014 Dauphiné-Libéré who flies the flag of the USA and who still carries the expectations of youth on his 25-year-old shoulders. Should any one of the three favourites fall back, I feel sure that either Valverde, Rui Costa or Talansky will be the ones to take a place at the top table. But then what do I know, for so much else could happen too!
Regardless of how much Jenkin Road and the Paris-Roubaix cobbles have affected the main favourites, stage ten to La Planche des Belles Filles is where the Tour will really begin. Froome won here in the 2012 Tour, and if he repeats that feat this July, then we’ll know he’s at his best, or becoming so. But if he falters, then all bets are off. The Tour’s steepest long climb is no-where to hide ill-form, and coming as it does a few days before the Alps, greater scrutiny of a defending Tour champion will not exist. Froome’s Sky team has dominated the last two Tours, and as such rivals like Tinkoff, Astana, Movistar, Lampre or Garmin have never been in a position to control – and may not be willing to do so this early in the race. But it remains to be seen if Sky 2014 is the vintage of 2012, when they carried Wiggins and Froome to within reach of the sheer summit-finish. So don’t be surprised if a rider like Joaquin Rodriguez targets this stage, especially as he’s likely to be left well behind on the stage 5 cobblestones.
We’re at stage eleven, the halfway point of the Tour – and from now on there’s no let-up in sight until Paris. Stages 11 and 12 might seem minor in comparison with the following days, but a climb is a climb too many if your legs are starting to hurt – and there are an awful lot of climbs on the way to Oyonnax and St Etienne. Stage 13 to Chamrousse is 200-kilometres long and ends with a 20-kilometres uphill ascent, enough said if anyone’s not feeling at their best. But stage 14 will act as the beginning of the end for many aspirants. The climbers will quite likely cruise over the 2,058-metre-high Col du Lautaret, a location certain to give us photographers palpitations at the scenery opening before our eyes. But the legendary Col d’Izoard awaits after the long, long descent to Briancon. This is a climb with little forgiveness, where the snaking road rises out of the coolness of the forests to offer sun-drenched pain and hurt for a further eight-kilometres. The summit is reached, but a further ascent needs to be climbed to take the Tour into the mind-blowing Casse Deserte – and that’s before the 15-kilometre finish climb to Risoul.
I’d not be very far wrong if I told you that the Col d’Izoard will be the scenic highlight of the Tour for photographers. There’s nothing in cycling that competes for sheer wonderment with the Casse Deserte, a scree and rocky-spired landmass that forms an amphitheatre perched right above the 2,361-metre-high Col. When the noise and bustle of the Tour is absent, the whole mountainside bears an eerie silence that’s broken only by the wind, and by the sound of loose rock sliding down into the canyon below. The shape and form of the mountain is constantly changing, and so much scree has moved since the last time the Tour climbed the Col in 2011, the narrow road will have been replaced at least once. On Tour visits, a Gendarme always stands to respectful attention at the monument built to the memory of Louison Bobet and Fausto Coppi, the French and Italian legends who raced up the Izoard back in their day, adding further grandeur to the occasion. This day is not quite the ‘queen’ stage of the race. But the Col d’Izoard is by far the king of the mountains – with all due respect to admirers of the Col du Tourmalet.
Such is the difficulty of this Tour that four mountain stages could lay claim to being the ‘best’ when normally one single stage stands out by a long mile. Stages 14, 16, & 18 hold considerable merits, yet the short distance of 125-kilometres is certain to turn stage 17 into a racing feast with no quarter given. It’s sequence of three 1st category passes and the final Hors Category ascent to Pla d’Adet just shades the verdict from the previous day’s long and very horrible stage to Bagnéres-de-Luchon. It’s impossible to guess which mountain stage will create the biggest time gaps, but in such a tough Tour the three-day venture into the Pyrenees should far eclipse anything done during two days in the Alps, particularly as the mythical chain of mountains is encountered in the last week of racing. I’d take an experienced punt and say that if Pla d’Adet doesn’t inflict the worst nastiness on stage 17, then Hautacam will certainly do so the very next day. And then there’s always the time trial to Perigueux with which to establish the final accounting with one day to go.
People often ask me if I am as motivated to photograph the Tour now, as when I first did way back in the late-1970’s. The answer’s yes, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. No matter how much the Tour has changed since I first saw it in 1977, and no matter of the number of cyclists that have passed before my eyes, I still get more enthused for this race than for any other. It’s not the prettiest race – both the Giro and Vuelta are far more attractive in several ways. Nor is the Tour the hardest race – the well-engineered roads of the Alps and Pyrenees offer few surprises to the experienced racing cyclist in comparison with those in Italy and Spain. But the Tour is the biggest, most famous, most competitive bike race in the world, and I’m extremely privileged to travel with it and be a small part of it each summer. Not that I’m a lazy photographer at other races, but at the Tour my work-rate doubles in-line with the extra demands and heightened sense of occasion. For I know the number of people looking at magazine and newspaper photographs, or surfing web-sites, probably doubles too.
No matter who wins stages in the UK, or in France for that matter, this will be a very different way to start the Tour. One year ago, I faced a prolonged journey by plane to Corsica, an island in the Mediterranean of in-famous beauty and savage cycling roads, for the Grand Depart. My British motorbike-driver will remember it even more, for the 1,000-mile drive he made to get there! This year, the same driver faces a ‘sprint’ of just three hours to Leeds, as do I in my car. Leeds may not be Corsica, but the surrounding Yorkshire countryside will offer a hefty rival if the weather holds up. In fact the 2014 Tour started late last year for me, when I put together another version of my “Eyes on the Tour de France” exhibition that was last seen in 2007. The months have flown by, and the exhibit is now up and running in Leeds, at the White Cloth Gallery - http://www.whiteclothgallery.com/exhibition/graham-watson/ until July 25th. For those unable to get there in-person, the exhibit can also be viewed on-line at: www.grahamwatson.com/http://http://photos.grahamwatson.com/Exhibits/Leeds-2014-Eyes-on-the-Tour-de/41054709_48B8QR#!i=3270930649&k=wKzFTgR. That’s it then, enjoy this 101st Tour de France, I know I plan on doing just that! GW