Disclaimer: this tale is not about the forthcoming Tour de France nor the battle to save the 2020 cycling season. It’s a fun look back at a tiny summertime race few people today have ever heard of, but which had a great winner in Stephen Roche. Definitely one from the vaults!
One race that won’t feature on this recently re-started, Covid-19 affected season, is the Criterium de Chateau-Chinon, not least because the race stopped permanently in 2000. In the aftermath of the 1998 Festina affair that almost brought the Tour de France to its knees, post-Tour exhibition races like that at Chateau-Chinon were suddenly shorn of spectator interest as the general public turned their backs, and entrance-fee money, on such races - at least in France they did. Yet the 1993 edition of the Criterium, held as per tradition on the first Monday of August in the dead-centre of France, provided me with one of my funniest experiences as a cycling photographer, in what was possibly the most insignificant event I’d ever been to.
The idea, put forward by the founding editor of Cycle Sport, William Fotheringham, was to follow Stephen Roche on his journey that day, to record what only we knew was going to be ‘yer man’s last race as a professional cyclist.
Believe me, it takes a lot to drag yourself back to France barely a week after the Tour has ended, when you’ve only just fled Paris for some blissful downtime at home. But the whiff of adventure was impossible to ignore, just as it had been so many times before. Six years earlier Irishman Roche had sensationally won the Tour de France, beating Pedro Delgado and Jean-Francois Bernard after a titanic battle over a marathon-like 25 stages. That Tour win in 1987 was part of a ‘triple crown’ that also saw Roche win the Giro d’Italia and World Championship in the same season. I’d had the pleasure of photographing Roche since he turned ‘pro in 1981 and felt especially proud of his Giro, Tour and Worlds victories.
Yet I knew that Roche had endured tough times in equal quantity to his successes, and I’d long been impressed at how he’d overcome injuries, illness, bad luck and a wall of quality opponents to turn his story around at the very end. He was going to end his career that evening in Chateau-Chinon, which was the key motivation for me to travel to the race. Stephen’s performances had helped build my career so fortuitously, and we’d become quite good mates along the way. I wanted to witness and enjoy the final hour’s racing of Stephen’s inspiring career.
On paper at least, the plan was simple enough. I locked up my London home and excitedly jumped into the waiting taxi. This was an assignment of rare luxury when I’d be travelling with cameras only, and be back to Heathrow on an evening flight and in time for a late supper at my local pub. What could possibly go wrong?
I took a 6.00am flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport and made my way to the arrivals hall where Claudio Chiappucci was due to land from Milan around the same time. Chiappucci and Stephen were the best of mates, thanks primarily to the 1987 Giro d’Italia when Stephen usurped team-leader Roberto Visentini to take the race-lead and secure eventual victory. Chiappucci had overtly helped Stephen win and in doing so guaranteed himself career-long rewards such as being paid to start in Chateau-Chinon. I’d be in illustrious company for sure, and I was really warming to the prospects as Claudio exited the baggage-hall doors and joined me on a seat where we could watch Stephen arrive outside the terminal in his car. It was barely 10.00am, we had a mere 300-kilometre drive to make, so I knew we’d be at the start well ahead of the 5pm kick-off. I might even fit in a late lunch if things really went well.
One hour later, Claudio and I were still at CDG, still watching the parking bay outside, getting to know each other in bursts of pigeon-French. It felt strange to be in such close up proximity to a celebrity I usually photographed on the Tour or Giro podiums. I didn’t speak Italian and Claudio was shy about conversing in English, but both of us were getting anxious about Stephen’s whereabouts on such a big day. It was an un-spoken secret that Stephen was ‘expected’ to win his last-ever race, so he had to be at the start just to be in the race, let alone to actually win it. This was pre-mobile phone days, a period in time when people made that extra effort to be at a rendezvous on time. Yet Stephen was un-contactable, and I got to know Claudio a lot better than I’d expected to. We made a call from a phone-box to Stephen’s nearby home but that merely led us to an answer-machine. Claudio fretted a little more and Italian curses like ‘cazzo’, 'checasino’ and 'porca miseria’ crept into our French conversation.
Eventually, more than an hour late, the terminal’s automatic doors slid open and Stephen bustled in, sweating profusely and clearly nervous of his tardiness and the knock-on effect it might have. “Sorry, really sorry”, he said in two languages, “I got stuck in traffic, there was a bomb scare or an accident, all roads to the airport were blocked”. And then my ‘working’ day began, seated luxuriously in the back of Stephen’s AMG-tuned Mercedes while he and Claudio sparked off in Italian and worked out the schedule. Or rather the re-schedule.
Stephen then announced we had another passenger to collect, a member of the elite Garde Republicaine which escorts the Tour de France as well presidents and royalty. We made a pit-stop outside a Gendarmerie barracks near the peripherique to collect that guest, Pierre Guiberol. And at around midday, almost two hours late, we finally headed south on the A6 autoroute with Stephen driving, Claudio sleeping, and me on the back seat with Pierre, a happy couple whose leisurely day out was becoming less-so by the minute.
Pierre had been a motorbike Gendarme on the Tour since the mid-1980’s and had become a firm friend with almost everyone, a man whose ability to speak English set him aside and ahead of just about anyone else in uniform. He befriended both the good cyclists and the great, as well as a few blow-ins like me who appreciated his friendliness despite the officialdom of his job. Stephen had invited Pierre along as a way of saying thanks for so many years’ friendship and advice. What no-one knew was how much Pierre’s presence would help us later-on.
Whatever it was that delayed Stephen earlier, it had also stopped him filling the car with petrol, which with such a fast and thirsty beast was already becoming a problem. Leaving later also meant we were doing half the speed Stephen had planned for, with holiday traffic slowing our way south. We crawled through one toll booth, then a second, before Stephen settled his nerves a bit by pulling into a service station to fill an almost-empty tank and allow everyone to buy some food inside the shop.
Claudio had been on the road since pre-dawn, and if he was even half as hungry as me then he was in trouble – and he still had a ninety-minute race to do. Pierre’s natural leadership saw him take on some of the thinking, sending us inside to buy food while he filled the car up. Stephen and Claudio were starving and grabbed biscuits, fruit, and a batch of meagre-looking sandwiches from the store, as well as some yukky-looking sugary drinks. This being the first Monday of August, half of Paris was heading south too, and a big percentage of those holiday makers seemed to be queuing ahead of us in the shop to pay for their purchases. I guessed at an extra 20-minute wait if we stayed obediently in the queue – if we did.
Pierre had joined us inside, alarmed at how far back in the queue we still were. As famous and recognisable as Stephen and Claudio normally were as stars of the Tour de France, today they were anonymous civilians amongst a heaving mass of humanity who just wanted to get to a beach.
Which is why Pierre whipped out his Gendarme badge and walked to the head of the queue to explain to the check-out lady why Stephen Roche - winner of the 1987 Tour de France - together with Claudio Chiappucci - hero of the 1991 and 1992 Tour de France – needed to jump the queue. I had been discreetly taking pictures of all this without embarrassing the two cyclists. But I stopped being a photographer and became a diplomat, apologising to people in the queue for what we were about to do to them. Pierre beckoned a reluctant Claudio and Stephen to the front where-upon the goods were paid for and a series of thanks made to the inconvenienced tourists – some of whom now recognised the pair and applauded. We drove off again, with Stephen driving one-handed or with just his knees so he could swallow down some calories and create energy for the race. Pierre made a calculation that on current progress we might still make it to the start of the race, but it left little room to overcome any further delays. And still the autoroute traffic crawled along.
Pierre studied the map, as you did in that pre-historic age, and recommended that a cross-country route might save valuable time. Stephen used his credit card to pay one final peage then swung off the autoroute towards the south-east, our rapid transport capable of going very fast along departmental roads but running the risk of a speed-trap along the way. Still, we were free of the tourist traffic at last, weaving along lanes and highways, around towns and villages, egging on our driver and his mission to make it on time to his last race. Claudio was silent by now, either regretting his choice of transport or anticipating a rare day when he’d not even get to ride his bike. Pierre called out navigational advice while Stephen drove faster – and he drove as well as he raced a bicycle! I’d long since stopped taking pictures from the back seat and had adopted a serious look in-line with the tense situation. It was then that a local policeman walked out in the road ahead and ordered Stephen to pull over – we’d triggered a speed-trap camera the other side of the village and were probably in deep trouble because of it.
I listened in on a brief exchange between Stephen and Pierre, something along the lines of “Pierre, can you use your Gendarme badge to get us out of this?” Pierre clearly hated the idea, and pointed out that police typically hate Gendarmes, that they detest their elite-ness, and that he would be truly despised if he tried to use his legal superiority. Still, Pierre was out of the car in an instant, his shiny badge open to view, his explanation on the tip of his tongue, but his natural authority dampened down to avoid riling the policeman any more. For a few minutes there was a tense stand-off, and I really knew this could go either way. Pierre apologised again, and eventually the indignant policeman backed down, perhaps realising the extended hassle to himself if he booked a famous Tour cyclist who had a presidential Gendarme as a companion. It’s not every day a country policeman gets to meet a member of the Garde Republicaine. Despite the let-off, our average speed had dropped badly again, and we knew we’d never make it to Chateau-Chinon on time – a phone call had to be made.
Incredibly, the car-telephone Stephen had recently fitted in his Mercedes actually worked, and a call went through to the Mayor of Chateau-Chinon just in time. The Mayor was a big fan of Stephen and he really wanted the Irishman to be in the race and so have the chance to win. Incredibly, he agreed to delay the start for 90-minutes to allow Stephen and Claudio to get there in time. And they did. It was a great relief to get to Chateau-Chinon, and an even greater one to see that the race hadn’t yet started. While Stephen and Claudio went into the town hall to change into their racing kit, and to stuff down some much-needed food too, Pierre became the bike mechanic and got their bikes out of the car-boot and put them together, while a crowd of bemused fans looked on. The race had contracted other ‘stars like world champion Bugno, Abdujaparov, Rominger, Lino, Leblanc and a litany of other French cyclists too. And all of them had been circling the town for over an hour, entertaining spectators around the circuit while Claudio and Stephen overcame their delays from Paris.
The start saw a bit of theatre when Bugno laid into Chiappucci and Roche for holding everyone up. But their professionalism re-surfaced when the race began and the ‘stars performed their best for the fans. It was a glorious summer evening and all the delay had done was to make the crowd a little merrier than usual. The bars and restaurants around the circuit enjoyed their best business of the year.
Claudio and Stephen survived the fast start despite their day-long ordeal, and when Roche attacked on a small hill on the last lap and then pulled away to an impressive 20-seconds advantage, the day had ended the way most people had expected it to – with victory to the retiring Tour ‘star who’d been adopted by the French so many years before.
Whether planned or not, Chiappucci went back to Italy on the same private jet that had brought the Italian-based cyclists to the race earlier – I wondered if he regretted not having also arrived the same way. Pierre, Stephen and I had a quick meal on the way back to Paris, and Pierre was back at his barracks by midnight. I’d missed my evening flight back to London, but it didn’t really matter. Stephen put me up at his charming Pontoise home and dropped me off at the airport next morning - job done, and a great adventure to be shared for life. Looking back on that day, twenty-seven short years ago, life as a cycling photographer had some amazing benefits. And for once it wasn’t just about the cycling.
By now, in any normal season, we’d be indulging ourselves in the enjoyment of the Spring Classics, with all the excitement and anticipation that entails. In any normal season we’d already be celebrating the success of Milan San Remo and seeing if its winner could also manage to pull off a victory in one of the cobbled monuments like the Tour of Flanders or even Paris-Roubaix. Depending whether a pure sprinter or a power-climber had won Il Primavera, we’d be reviewing and discussing his chances in races like Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3, and Ghent-Wevelgem, and even stretching our imaginations to the hillier Classics of Limburg and Wallonia, to speculate further on the outcome of those treasured races. Except this is no normal season, how could it possibly be, in a year that is already beyond extraordinary because of the way the pandemic of Covid-19 has spread its evil across the world?
Anyone who has followed cycling for a long time knows instinctively when a big race is happening, no matter where in the world you happen to be. It’s something you feel in your bones and in your veins, as much a physical sense as it is a mental one. But it’s the mental sense that strikes the harshest tone when those races have not taken place – there’s something missing from your life. This is one such year. Ghent-Wevelgem takes place on the last Sunday in March, each year, except that it didn’t. The Tour of Flanders has been held on the first Sunday in April since time began, but it too was postponed or cancelled. And Paris-Roubaix has followed suit – postponed from its slot on the second Sunday of April with no replacement date given. These three Classics happen to be equal favourites of mine and I’ve missed them as much as anyone else. So, time to pen a few thoughts and concoct a tribute because of their absence, so far, in 2020.
If ever a sixth Classic was to be nominated as a ‘Monument’, Ghent-Wevelgem would have to be at the top of the list of contenders. Quite possibly, it’s the most brutal of the one-day classics. There is no other race - not Flanders, not Paris-Roubaix, not Milan-San Remo, nor any of the hillier classics - that has so much drama and nastiness attached to it. Ghent-Wevelgem is a monster within the world of cycling, a horror movie of suffering and pain and sadness brought to glorious life under the guise of a bike race. The fact that it takes place amidst some of the most war-torn landscapes of WW1 only re-enforces the savage legend of the race.
Having already photographed Flanders and Roubaix, I was even more thrilled when I encountered my first Ghent-Wevelgem in 1982. Back then it was a full-distance 260km marathon, a mid-week race supposedly made for the road-sprinters but which often transformed itself, mid-race, into a tasty free for all. It was a race where the greatest one-day riders were meant to rest a little after Flanders and before Roubaix, allowing others to unleash their ambitious attacks and try to win. Even then, the big ‘stars of Flanders and Roubaix found the addiction to racing impossible to resist, and often turned the race into an epic. “Didn’t win Flanders – maybe I cannot win Roubaix?” Ghent-Wevelgem was a tempting alternative worth fighting over, long and hard, a true Classic in its own right.
I don’t know why, but I always found Ghent-Wevelgem more exciting than Flanders. The quality of the organisation that ran the race back then, basically a group of enthusiasts who lacked the means to ring-fence their event against all kinds of mishaps, actually made the racing more gung-ho, more attractive, to the photographer. The chaos from un-marshalled junctions caused crashes and confusion but brought great drama to the watching world. The in-race officials were well below par as well, sometimes making mid-race decisions that affected the outcome of the event. In today’s slickly-run event, owned since 2010 by the Tour of Flanders organiser and run on the Sunday before Flanders, mistakes and errors are rarely seen.
Back in the 80’s and 90’s the April weather could be appalling in comparison to the globally-warmed conditions of today. It was often very wet and very windy, and occasionally it snowed - conditions which produced a more savage display of racing. All-in-all the racing was more open, less controlled than its bigger cousins, and a mixture of circumstances sometimes resulted in a truly opportunistic win. Fortunately, today’s modern version is no less exciting than the former.
Just as it does today, the older race started from the t’ Kuipke velodrome, home of the Ghent 6-Day and famous at the time for its foul-smelling sewers beneath the stadium. The smell was sometimes so bad that un-suspecting visitors could be seen retching or rushing outside to be sick. Yet the riders obligingly carried out their sign-on and pre-race duties before lining up outside the velodrome in relatively clean air.
The race headed straight for the north-sea coast, almost to the Dutch border near Knokke, before following the entire Belgium coastline to the French border at Veurne with the potential of exposure to some mighty winds for over sixty kilometres. And if the wind didn’t get them then there were always the lethal tramlines that snaked like unwanted spaghetti through towns like Zeebrugge, Ostend, Middlekerke, Nieuwport or Koksijde. The older versions of Ghent-Wevelgem went right down the main streets of these stark towns, and it became an annual treat to photograph the peloton as it split into two columns to pass either side of moving trams, a major hazard in a race that had so many hazards. If it was wet, those tramlines spelt disaster for any luckless cyclist. If it was dry, then the sands would blow off the beaches and into the riders’ faces and eyes with a stinging velocity. Yes, it was a photographer’s dream.
Invariably, an escape would have got away well before Knokke, and just as surely the chase would begin in earnest along that hostile coastline. You could instruct your motorbike driver to stay right behind the peloton knowing there’d be a dozen crashes before the peloton turned inland at Veurne. There were so many crashes that the more discerning photographers would choose when and when not to stop – only if someone of importance had fallen - because the speed was such that it took forever to catch the main peloton up. If a north-westerly wind hadn’t smashed them along that coastal road, then a western gale might knock the cyclists sideways and into a ditch on the way down to the hills. Echelons formed easily on a narrow, highly-exposed road called de Moeren, but other challenges came from a myriad of bumpy lanes and highways that hadn’t seen proper road repairs in years.
Cyclists would often fall after getting their front wheels trapped in the cracks between concrete sections of road. The famous Uzbekistan sprinter, Djadmolodine Abdujaparov, jumped his bike onto a smooth path alongside the road in 1992, but then somersaulted over his ‘bars as the bike path suddenly ended and became a sand-pit. A bike path dealt a strange fate to Andreas Klier in 2005, when the German switched out of the speeding peloton and onto the parallel path to gain a few metres, only to be hit from behind by a moto-marshal using the path to overtake the race.
It was exceptional when a peloton actually made it to the Kemmelberg as one entity, those exposed roads across the agricultural lands of the Heuvelland made sure of that. I’d often watch, mesmerised, as the peloton was sliced open by the winds, like the proverbial hot knife through butter, until only the strongest and cleverest formed an elite echelon in front.
These echelons – called waaiers in Flemish – became the default image of Ghent-Wevelgem in the 1990’s and were no respecter of fame. To see tough guys like Rudy Dhaenens, Wilfried Nelissen, Laurent Jalabert or, in more recent times, Mark Cavendish, spat out the back was quite shocking. And to watch a brute like Erik Zabel or Peter Van Petegem battle their way back to the front after a mechanical was so awe-inspiring. I used to love following the peloton from behind, watching the waaiers form, then picking out my targets for a quick shot before squeezing past the multiple lines of cyclists to other targets in front. Photographing such tough racing can be tense. Linger too long with your lens as a famous name is dropped, and you’ll get a murderous insult thrown at you. But stay a while longer and that same cyclist will love you to bits as he takes shelter in the moto’s slipstream.
For a few moments your driver – and you – actually become part of the race, squeezing past line after line of desperate men as every inch of road is fought over by bicycle and motorbike.The 2015 event was an absolute epic in terms of wind and waaiers. The winds were that strong that cancellation would have been a certainty under today’s protocol on extreme weather. The long road of de Moeren kick-started the action, with 40-kmh winds driving acutely from the side and dissecting the peloton into a dozen pieces. Riders were being blown back, or sideways, and even off altogether if your name happened to be Gert Steegmans, an 80-kilo’ goliath who plunged into the adjoining canal and had to be rescued by his Trek mechanic. A temporary halt to racing allowed most of the peloton to reform before hostilities commenced ten minutes later. This time there was no let-up, no mercy, and I looked up the road at maybe eight or ten lines of cyclists, all of them fighting to stay upright, and then fighting to stay near the front.
As the gaps opened and we edged past the dropped riders, I watched as American Ted King became airborne and crashed onto a soft grassy verge. He was actually laughing as his front wheel lifted off and his fate became clear – ah, such insanity! There wasn’t a single cyclist not riding at a crazy angle, leaning precariously into the wind to stay upright. This was the day Geraint Thomas got blown into a ditch while leading a potentially-winning breakaway, and the day that Luca Paolini scored a solo victory after getting with a final four-man escape over the Kemmelberg. It was a day that provided proof that the modern Ghent-Wevelgem could be just as nasty as the older one had been.
The Ghent-Wevelgem of the 1980’s used to climb and descend both cobbled sides of the hill, so up from the east side and down the west, then up the west and down the same eastern flank, with a 30-kilometre loop between each ascent to give the riders some respite. If it was wet, many cyclists had to walk the hill back then because leather shoes and metal shoe-plates didn’t make for good grip on slippery cobblestones. They made themselves an easy target for the photographers perched there especially for that reason. Yet every one of the cyclists raced down the other side, willing to take almighty risks on the ‘stones to accelerate away or close down gaps. If the novelty of a top cyclist scampering afoot up the hill made for great images, the drama of cyclists veering off into the bushes on the descent was unmissable. Uwe Raab was chasing the lead group down the eastern side in 1993 when he suddenly lost control and disappeared into the trees. For a few minutes, all anyone could see of him was his Eddy Merckx bike, smashed to pieces against a tree. Raab eventually climbed out and finished the race, but that descent was never used again.
I once stood on the western descent instead of the eastern climb and was blown away at how fast the riders came down the cobbled hill. Mere inches separated the top riders as they came down at absolutely crazy speeds, with heavy drink bottles coming loose and richocheting off wheels to create chaos for anyone following. Only then did I understand why there were more spectators on the descent than the ascent, for drama is what Ghent-Wevelgem is all about, and a lot of it occurred right here. There was an horrific crash on the descent in 2007, after a loose bottle took down Jimmy Casper and a dozen others including Tyler Farrar and Matthew Hayman. There were so many serious injuries that the race-ambulances ran out of space. Having seen some of the horrific images on photographers’ lap-tops in the media room, I was pleased I’d worked on the climb that year. The next day’s newspapers published some of the worst crash shots I’ve ever seen, across two full pages, with broken limbs and broken faces to be studied as the nations’ households ate their breakfasts.
That crash forced changes on the Kemmelberg, and every bike race since then has avoided the cobbles and taken a safer way down on a paved track. But both climbs still remain.
The good news is that after all the crashes, echelons and associated drama, Ghent-Wevelgem reverts to pure sport for its finale. The last 30-kilometres into Wevelgem heightens the challenge of winning. Today’s modern route takes the race from Kemmel and into the tourist mecca of war-destroyed Ypres, passing beneath the impressive Flanders Fields museum and through the soulful Menin Gate before heading to Wevelgem. This nod to history and ourism is all very nice, but the route is a much tamer option than its predecessor. The older version skipped the scenic route and went directly onto the exposed N58, where the leaders who’d attacked on the Kemmelberg fought hard to hold off the peloton and its sprinters.
I can remember the suspense when Lars Michaelsen broke free with Maurizio Fondriest and Luc Roosen in 1995 and, better still, when Frank Vandenbroucke took off with Michaelsen and Nico Mattan to win in 1998. The time gaps were minimal, just seconds between success or failure and the racing was oh, so, compelling. It was by far the best pursuit race of the year! Yet still it wasn’t over. The finale could change character when the built-up streets of Wervik and Menen created a wind-break for the race. And the situation with even 1500 metres to go could flip if a superpower like Edvald Boasson-Hagen or Peter Sagan shed their sprinter’s skin to become a fleeing hare. Yet Ghent-Wevelgem is that rare classic where the sight of an elite group of the world’s best sprinter’s sprinting, brings a wholly satisfying end to a most extraordinary day.
I take the view that the Tour of Flanders is the toughest one-day classic of them all and go so far as saying it is also the greatest classic too. What other one-day race takes place over a such a mammoth distance, on a sinuous route made up of narrow concrete lanes, great unbroken lengths of cobblestones, and so many nasty, cobbled climbs? What other race boasts of a glorious history like Flanders, with its pre-WW1 beginnings and proud boast that it raced throughout the years of the second world war? What other race carries the love and hopes of an entire nation the way De Ronde does? Those war years defined what the race meant to the locals, it led to the race become a living symbol of national pride, a celebration of Flanders and its independent population even as neighbouring countries fought each other on Belgian soil. The popularity of those early editions has endured ever since, with massive crowds turning out each April to see their treasured race pass by. It is by far the most supported one-day race in the world, a carnival hosted by Flemish people which the rest of the world enjoys too. There is no other bike race that encompasses so many great things in the way the Tour of Flanders does.
All of this history, glory, and sporting culture hit me square in the face when I first travelled to see the Tour of Flanders in 1979, a solo tourist on a bus load of bike fans who’d travelled overnight from England wanting to see something of the great race. The event convoy was crammed into the Grote Markt of Sint-Niklaas, a strategic town 30-kilometres south of the great city of Antwerp. Perhaps crammed isn’t the right word because the main square in Sint-Niklaas is Belgium’s biggest and in fact the peloton, the cars, the motos and the fans barely filled a quarter of the square. Travelling by bus wasn’t the best way to see Flanders, we were forever at the mercy of traffic jams and closed roads, and a timid driver meant we caught only a few glimpses of the race at strategic locations; there was no guarantee we’d ever get to the finish. Still, I repeated that trip for another two years before getting myself into the race on a motorbike in 1982.
By then I’d progressed as a cycling photographer and needed the in-race access to further my career. An enthusiastic organiser recognised the importance of some English-media exposure for his race and welcomed me with open arms. The 1982 Tour of Flanders was the first one-day Classic I ever photographed from the pillion-seat of a motorbike.
There’s a distinct majesty that is exclusive to Flanders, and it is felt right from the moment the race pulls away from its ceremonial start, be it in Sint-Niklaas (until 1997), Bruges (until 2016) or Antwerp to the present day. The crowds are always enormous, crammed into the main square and cheering their heroes to the start-line. There’s a cauldron-like atmosphere, an air of anticipation, before a starter’s gun goes off and the lead car pulls away, allowing the peloton to stir and move its colourful mass out of the square. Tucked in behind the peloton on a moto, there’s a sense of occasion that seeps into you, it’s as if there’s some magical spirit in the air that’s about to settle on your shoulders.
For the time it takes the race to weave its way out of town and to its flying start, you feel as if you are part of a royal procession, albeit as an interloper, with a privilege that is impossible to deny. All the history and glory of the race washes over you as the crowds roar their approval at de Ronde’s brave cyclists just before they go into battle.
Those early years were a blur, both collectively and individually, for the biggest challenge was not taking pictures on the move or from the side of the road. It was trying to learn the intricacy of the route. What strings the Tour of Flanders together is its succession of hills, for that is where the cyclists attack and therefore where the photographers have to be too. The challenge is to choose the right hill at the right time to get that winning shot.
Back in 1982 I didn’t know my Eikenberg from my Steenberg, my Paddestraat from my Mariaborrestraat. With the exception of the Koppenberg and the Muur van Geraardsbergen, I had no idea which hills were cobbled and which were not, and I had absolutely no clue as to where I needed to be, nor when, such was the mind-boggling nature of the race-route. My Flemish driver that first year wasn’t much use. In real life he was a bus-driver from Brussels and had never even seen the tiny lanes that flowed between the race’s famous climbs. Yet that 1982 Flanders in particular - and the many bits of it I missed because of my in-experience – helped forge a career-long obsession with the race. Whereas other classics like Milan-San Remo, Ghent-Wevelgem, even Paris-Roubaix, were quickly mastered as far as familiarity went – the Poggio, Kemmelberg and Carrefour de l’Arbre were where they’d always been, where decisive moves were a guarantee - Flanders never once gave up its secrets to me.
Each year I went back thinking I’d got it cracked, only to be repelled by a subtle tweak to the route. It was like finding a lost key to a long-closed door, only to discover that someone had changed the locks. No two Flanders’ courses were ever the same, nor the racing on such roads, and I remember thinking that if it so hard for me, how hard must it be for the cyclists to gain sufficient knowledge? A reconnaissance on the eve of the race became obligatory, that helped a lot, but come race-day what seemed like a million fans came out to follow and watch Flanders, by car, by bus, or by moto. Such a mass following changed how the course looked, with many village signs or street names I’d memorised now hidden by a wall of humanity. It didn’t help that the race had a habit of switching its famous climbs around or sending its cyclists down a notorious stretch of cobblestones in the opposite direction to the previous year.
I learnt to remember landmarks like decrepit windmills or prominent churches as a way of telling me where I was in the race. A huge brewery still dominates the road immediately just after the Holleweg cobbles – you just know the Molenberg is five minutes away when you pass its imposing frontage.
As my knowledge and experience of the race grew over the years, with it came a wisdom that sometimes allowed me to actually enjoy the big day. Part of the trick to following the Tour of Flanders is just pick out the best bits, like plucking only the best cherries from a tree. To know when a scenic shot is more important than action. The first priority was the iconic windmill perched above some terrible cobbles at Wannegem-Lede, almost three hours into the race, so decision No.1 made. But if I stayed too long at that windmill, I also ran the risk of not getting to the Oude Kwaremont, usually the first climb of the day, from where most Tours of Flanders usually kick-off.
But that too required a big decision if I also wanted to photograph the Koppenberg and all its guaranteed chaos. In that 1982 race, I’d stopped on the Oude Kwaremont, and we’d just got past the race before the route swung obliquely left on to a series of narrow, twisting lanes the width of one car. They should have taken us to the Koppenberg, but instead I watched the race fly by towards its most famous hill while my driver and I hauled the heavy moto out of the muddy field we’d crashed into. We were too close to the head of the race to get away and not far enough in front to get to the Koppenberg in time. Luckily soft mud makes for a softer landing, and I changed my tactics in 1983, with a better driver and no stopping on the Kwaremont before the Koppenberg.
I had chanced upon the Tour of Flanders during a rich vein in cycling history. It was probably the draw of seeing famous riders like Hennie Kuiper, Jan Raas, Francesco Moser and Dietrich Thurau that took me to Flanders in the first place. The Ti-Raleigh team dominated the one-day races back then, with Raas as their default leader for the cobbled classics with a pack of burly Dutchmen to support him. Ti-Raleigh raced then like Quick-Step races today, with few prisoners taken on a mission dedicated to bringing the team endless victories. When I wasn’t grappling with the challenges of a new route, the entertainment in Flanders was to see if anyone could beat Raas and his team. Many did, but only if Raas acted as a decoy to let even his Dutch rivals win rather than his fiercest enemies from Belgium. The first ten years of my Flanders experience saw a total dominance by Flemish and Dutch ‘stars – they won five editions each!. Yet I loved watching Moser race, always at the front in his Italian champion’s jersey. He seemed to possess enough class and strength to race away and win, a dream that ultimately eluded him and this fan.
We were right alongside Raas when he attacked on the Bosberg and soloed to victory in the 1983 Flanders, and I remember being dumbstruck at how easily his huge legs powered a massive gear. Raas was the Fabian Cancellara of his day, he had an explosive energy that quickly opened a gap, and an engine that powered him away from any chasers. In 1985 it was Eric Vanderaerden going solo on an absolutely miserable afternoon that saw just 24 riders finish. The Flemish ‘star overcame a mechanical on the approach to the Koppenberg, but fought back on the climb, riding the hill’s crazy wet cobbles while just about everyone else walked. I’d chosen the best place to stand. The Koppenberg was the most destructive hill in the race, and the 1987 edition gave me images of the infamous fall by Denmark’s Jesper Skibby. I’d got a clear shot of the stricken cyclist as an official’s car seemed to drive right over his foot (in fact the car had only crushed his front wheel).
Although the incident forced the organisers to remove the Koppenberg for the foreseeable future, I’d had my Skibby image published in a major Flemish-language newspaper, enhancing my status amongst rival cycling photographers and cementing my relationship with the race.
The Koppenberg returned a full fifteen years later, by which time other hills had grown their fame and notoriety. Without the Koppenberg, organisers had re-jigged the order of some hills to create fresh challenges in the race and maintain suspense for TV viewers. The un-cobbled Berendries became the launch-pad for many winning attacks in the mid-1990’s – this was Johan Museeuw’s favoured climb, a full 50-kilometres from the finish. The asphalt innocence of the Valkenberg was exploited by Tom Boonen when he attacked there in 2006 with Leif Hoste. Then a little-known climb called the Eikenmolen was used in 2008 as the springboard for victory by Stijn Devolder, a teammate of Boonen.
The Molenberg, first used in 1983, was constantly switched in order as well, and it became the hill to attack from in the late-1990’s. This was a really bumpy hill that forced many cyclists to walk if it was wet, but it rose to real prominence in 2010 when Cancellara famously dropped Boonen as part of a long-distance, softening-up tactic. He let Boonen join him in a two-up epic before attacking his arch-rival on the Muur. Throughout this period, the Muur and the Bosberg still hosted the final action of the race - it was where the biggest and most passionate crowds gathered, where the cyclists emptied their tanks, and where the best images were to be found. The 2011 Flanders was the last time both climbs featured in the finale, and it saw one of the finest battles between Cancellara, Sylvain Chavanel and eventual winner, Nick Nuyens. Just when I thought I’d conquered its many variations, after a mere twenty-nine years, the 2012 race unveiled a daring new route that cut out the Muur and Bosberg as well as the finish in Meerbeke.
The new course was designed to be spectator-friendly and absolutely riveting on TV, and it succeeded so well. It did laps of a circuit based around the hills and lanes between Oudenaarde, Kruishoutem and Ronse, preceded by a three-hour march from the start. The plan was for the organiser to sell space in massive VIP tents placed on all the best climbs, while at the same time obliging de Ronde’s barmy army of 20,000 fans to select their viewing locations early and stop driving madly around the countryside in search of the race. I thought it looked a bit sterile on paper, maybe too contrived, but it was surely a doddle to navigate around and work through. And it did away with many of the confusing choices us older snappers had had to make. But I’d have hated it as a cyclist, with three ascents of the Oude Kwaremont and two of the Paterberg to be tackled, and a single Koppenberg ascent thrown in for good measure with about 50-kilometres to go.
During an un-remarkable debut in 2012, won by Boonen in a sprint after he’d let Filippo Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan do most of the work, the new circuit began to grow its fanbase and show the world what it had to offer. The earlier sections of the race-route were eerily void of spectators, but that’s because just about everyone was parked-up somewhere between the Koppenberg, Kwaremont and Paterberg. When the race first reached the Oude Kwaremont in 2012, it was as if the Tour de France had arrived on to the Champs Elysees in July. Thousands upon thousands of fans lined both sides of the long hill and its ensuing plateau, a true wall of humanity - many more thousands than I’d ever seen. The noise was deafening, everybody was having a good time, and I knew that after this first passage most of them could return to their seats in one of many beer-tents and watch the action on TV. Until the race came around again. And again.
Next up, the Koppenberg was hosting its regular die-hard fans - they never go anywhere else, so no changes there. But it was the Paterberg, first used as far back as 1987, that held the biggest surprise. Several thousand seemed to have found a place to sit and watch, some in VIP areas the rest on flat ground dug out especially for the day. On this revolutionary circuit, the Paterberg would finally eclipse the importance of the Koppenberg, its neighbourly rival for so many years. The cobbles were better, so no-one walked, yet the climb was steep enough to force the final act in the race on a hill that provided a perfect amphitheatre where spectators could get an un-interrupted view - twice.
And what finales this hill and its supporting act, the Kwaremont, would witness.
That 2012 showdown had lacked one key ingredient – Cancellara, who’d crashed out much earlier on. But 2013 saw a battle royale between an attacking Cancellara and a chasing Sagan on the Kwaremont, followed by a surging attack by Cancellara on the Paterberg. Still there was something missing – this time Boonen had crashed out. 2014 was the year when we had to accept there never would be a Boonen-Cancellara duel again, for it was Sagan who chased Cancellara on the Kwaremont - and lost. Cancellara won in a sprint, but he’d needed both climbs to keep an escaping Greg Van Avermaet in-sight. 2015 was a non-event on the final hills with Terpstra and Kristoff already so far ahead of their chasers that they could have by-passed the Paterberg altogether and had an earlier shower after the finish. Yet the crowds cheered and roared their heroes on anyway.
Then came 2016, with a Sagan solo on the Paterberg that broke Flemish hearts when he dropped Sep Vanmarcke in front of the man’s biggest audience. Now in its fifth year as the race’s final climb, the Paterberg put on its greatest show to-date, forcing the very best from Sagan, immense courage from Vanmarcke, and a scintillating chase from Cancellara who got within twenty-seconds of Sagan by the top. Oh, the noise on that legendary hill!
I bade farewell to the Tour of Flanders in 2016 after that long-awaited victory by Sagan – the race’s 100th edition had the reigning World Champion as its victor! Had I waited one more year before retiring I would have photographed an astonishing ride by Philippe Gilbert, champion of Belgium but not yet champion of Flanders in 2017. The man attacked with 55-kilometres to go on the Oude Kwaremont and was never in danger of getting caught. And he still had one more climb of the Kwaremont and two more ascents of the Paterberg to go when he’d powered away.
I’d probably have declared Gilbert's as the greatest Tour of Flanders victory I’d seen. In any case, I remembered being there the last time a French-speaking Walloon had won the Tour of Flanders – Claude Criquielion in 1987. But Gilbert’s performance reminded me more of Museeuw’s stunning wins, when a partisan crowd spurred their hero on to his very best victories in Belgium in 1993, 1995 and 1998. Or maybe the victories of Edwin Van Hooydonck in 1989 and 1991 when Eddy Merckx was driving the lead car and egged Van Hooydonck on when he began to falter. I think fondly of those earlier Flanders’, when my ignorance of the race and its route did little to spoil my enthusiasm. And as I explored the race-routes so did I discover Flanders as a region worth knowing.
I discovered many of its beautiful tree-lined canals, perfect for cycling along when there was no race to photograph. Luckily, I also found ways around the race's bergs to avoid cycling up them. But mostly I learnt more of the role de Ronde has played in the nations’ hearts. I think my favourite Flanders’ years were when double-winner Boonen found his greatest rival in Cancellara and responded so well to the challenge in 2010. Their separate crashes in 2011 and 2012 spoilt what should have been an annual slug-fest, at least both men settled on three wins apiece. Do I have a single, favourite, edition of the race? No, they were all won in different ways and on different courses too. All I can say after photographing my 34th and last Ronde in 2016 is that I felt that I’d never quite mastered the art of photographing the race. But that I had such great fun trying to.
Paris-Roubaix is the most famous of all the one-day Classics. It is also the most popular Classic, the most glamourous one too. It is the one single race that every professional cyclist dreams of winning. And if anyone were ever still in doubt, let’s also state that Paris-Roubaix is the most exciting Classic of them all. Coming as it does after Ghent-Wevelgem, with its wild-west style of racing, and the Tour of Flanders, with its bewildering sequence of hills and sub-plot of confusing tactics, Paris-Roubaix is like a breath of fresh air because it opens up the flood-gates of opportunity to a much wider portion of the peloton. There’s a simplicity to the race and to the racing that makes it far more user-friendly even if, ultimately, the experience is as cruel and soul-destroying as anything made across the border in Belgium. Almost everyone wants a truly great cyclist to win Paris-Roubaix, and that’s what usual transpires. But it’s a unique classic that’s is judged equally by the quality of the racing, the battle to win or to just finish, as much as by the calibre of the winner.
There was no doubting the quality of the winner when I first saw the ‘Hell of the North” in 1980. I’d caught a pre-dawn ferry from Dover to Calais and then cycled the 130-kilometres to find the race near Gruson, just after the infamous pavé of the Carrefour de l’Arbre. I didn’t have long to wait before the preceding race cars started passing me, then the motos of the Gendarmes, and the motos of TV and stills photographers too. Then the first cyclist emerged from the dust, moving with frightening speed along the softer edges of the cobbled track. He was instantly recognisable as Francesco Moser, his familiar pointy nose almost down on his stem, his mouth wide-open, his elbows locked at 90-degrees, and his back arched so low and so level over his bike. I knew just about enough of the race to realise Moser was on his way to winning, for no one lost at the speed he was racing at, not that close to the finish, and not after the course he’d ridden over. Moser had won the two previous editions of the race as well, and I felt absolutely chuffed to have captured my first-ever image of this ‘star.
Back then, the spectators on the sides of the road were one hundred times fewer than they are now. I’d had a whole swath of land to compose my shots from, and an absolutely clear view of the cyclists as they came by. I’d been alone on my spot until maybe ten minutes before the race arrived - only then did spectators start to arrive. And by the time I’d dusted myself down afterwards, packed my camera and lens into a nifty handlebar bag and prepared to pedal back to Calais, there was not a single spectator left to be seen. It was just me in a ploughed field beside a cobbled lane in the middle of no-where. Compare that memory to today’s race, when such a mass of humanity flocks to see their heroes pedal by. Some come at the last minute, from their nearby homes, while others descend from cars and buses with twenty minutes to spare. Yet more take their places on that same cobbled track hours before the race arrives. A crazy few will have been there all week to get the best spots, camping out in the fields with their camper vans or even in tents. Somewhere along the way, Paris-Roubaix became as popular as the Tour de France, if only for just one day.
It’s been forty years since I saw that first Paris-Roubaix, and I’ve passed over that same set of cobbles so many times since, never once forgetting what I saw in 1980. But so many other sections plead for attention as well. From the first pavé at Troisvilles to the last real cobbles at Hem, each and every section represents a link to some incident - a memorable race-winning attack, a crash, a cruel mechanical, or even a contentious disqualification. I’m of an age that means I actually saw the race enter the first cobbles at Neuvilly instead of Troisvilles, on a significant hilly section long-since removed that gave the opening phase of the race a very different character. It even had a climbing prize at the top, on the Cote de Neuvilly. Troisvilles has no such hill, meaning the cyclists go into that section at full-tilt, knowing they won’t all be coming out of it. There’s absolute chaos at that first section, with a 90-degree bend halfway along forcing spills and misfortune every year. A TV moto filming directly in front of the escape skidded over in 2001, thrilling the many photographers and fans crowded in there, but so spoiling the escapers chances.
Once Troisvilles has passed, so begins a mad, mad day for every person in the race convoy. A cyclist pleads for a new wheel, another for a whole new bike - team cars try to reach their stricken riders but are blocked by other cars, as well as the motos of officials, photographers and Gendarmes queued up behind the peloton. In any case, no-one can move aside on such narrow lanes. Meanwhile, roadside fans run back across fields to find their cars or buses on a day where there is more than one race going on. Taking diversions away from the race is the order of the day, even for us actually in the race. The speeds are too high, the cobbles too risky, the integrity of the racing of paramount importance. Photographers will have tested the route at least once mid-week, so they are the ones who lead the first diversion after Troisvilles. There’s a battle between in-race motos and the cars of fans to get ahead of the race before Quievy and section three of the cobbled route, and again just afterwards to reach Solesmes still in control of our destiny. We’re largely safe in the knowledge that all the police and gendarmes are marshalling the race-route and won’t be stopping any speedsters today.
My earlier experience of Paris-Roubaix saw us staying in the race all day, along never-ending sections of pave, watching riders fall or suffer flat tyres, until a wider road opened up for us to accelerate in front. The peloton was much smaller back then. And if we never quite made it to the front then we more or less joined in the race, unwilling participants in a contest not of our making. We didn’t always win. Some of my best images of the 1980’s came when we were stuck between fragmenting pods of cyclists, either attacking, chasing back, or being dropped. While the driver worked his magic amidst such mayhem, I was able to shoot off a few frames of their tortured faces, firing away at the action behind. A shot of a desperate Laurent Fignon in the 1988 race and a fiery Duclos-Lassalle in 1992 were of particular note, but there were so many other images too. How many times did we see a cyclist crying out to us for a spare wheel, thinking we were a neutral service moto, when all I could offer him was a complimentary print of his distress, if he’d be so kind as to provide his name and address?
And so the first hours pass by and half-a-dozen diversions have already been done. All roads lead to the Wallers-Arenberg forest, the first really important section of the race, with a reputation for drama and glory that goes back to the mid-1970’s when Eddy Merckx and Roger DeVlaeminck fought out their epic rivalry in the forest. The Trouée d’Arenberg, to give its local name, once had an insecure role in the race-route – it was considered too dangerous. In from 1968, out from 1974 to 1983, then in again until 2005. After some renovations it came back in 2006 and, with some considerable gentrification, is still in the race-route to the present day. Secure now because it’s too famous and strategic to leave out, its importance in the race – with its awful 2,400 metres of lop-sided cobbles – is matched by a popularity involving thousands of fans, with decent access roads to the forest making this a fabulous place to congregate and watch the battle.
Some of the worst crashes have happened in the forest, such as Johan Museeuw’s in 1998, or Philippe Gaumont’s in 2001, and they almost always happened about 500-metres in, at a point where the descent into the forest levelled out and a patch of evil stones threatened to take down any front wheel that wasn’t properly grounded.
Some of the gaps in the pavé are where fans have later come back and removed stones to put on display at home, a selfish deed likely to cause injury to the very heroes they worship. I’ve seen cyclists bunny-hopping the worst cobbles, yet not always making it safely - I watched Rolf Sorensen crash out in 1991, in the exact same place that injured Museeuw and Gaumont some years later, as well as Mitch Docker in 2017.
For anyone who’s never been in the Arenberg forest on race-day, it is impossible to describe the atmosphere as the race approaches the forest from the south, and then as it starts its 60-kmh sprint to those deadly cobbles. The tall forest trees act as a canopy that amplifies the spectators’ cheers and yells as the leaders race by. A unified gasp indicates there’s been a crash, deep-hearted roars suggest a cyclist is attacking, the occasional scream means a fan has spotted his or her favourite rider. It’s a cauldron of fire for the riders, a theatre of cruelty and bravado for the fans, and a truly spectacular place in cycling folklore.
It used to be that the race’s best-placed finishers emerged first out of the forest each year. Think Sean Kelly, Eric Vanderaerden and Marc Madiot in the mid-1980’s, Andre Tchmil, Franco Ballerini and Andrea Tafi in the mid-1990’s, or Johan Museeuw, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara in the 2000s.
Although Cancellara and Boonen continued that trend during their winning rides of 2008 and 2010 – maintaining a macho tradition that the strongest cyclist in the race is the one who can lead the whole way through the forest and out of it – the modern Paris-Roubaix has gone more tactical there, meaning the main favourites bide their time until the next suitable landmark, the double obstacle of the cobbles near Bersée and its immediate follow-up near Mons-en-Pevele. These two sectors act as the prelude to the finale, following on from the roughly 85 kilometres of racing and seven strength-sapping sectors that brought the race up from Arenberg. The section to Bersée has a serpent-like trajectory, with long, un-relenting straights and three 90-degree bends, all of them on a nasty camber. So many successful attacks have been launched here, with riders using their strength to break clear in the knowledge the sharp bends will likely slow the chasers down.
The section just before Mons-en-Pévele is possibly the second-best in the whole race with two uphill stretches either side of a tiny, dipping, 90-degree corner. The race is exploding now, with the Bersée pavé in the riders’ legs and another hour’s racing still to come. The basic tactic is to attack on the first long stretch, gain a lead through that tight left-hand corner, then accelerate again where the camber drops acutely away to the right. Anyone who has the strength and can also cope with this highly technical section has a chance, for the following 300-metres are distinctly uphill and the gaps will surely open. If the modern-day Paris-Roubaix was to award a climber’s prize, it would be here, a wheel-breaking section of cobbles that squeezes the last ounce of energy from almost everyone. Almost. This is where some great long-range attacks have started - think Tchmil in 1994, Ballerini one year later, Cancellara in 2010, Tom Boonen in 2012. I’ve always targeted this section for pictures, knowing my chances of capturing the final attacks were high. But this is also the section where George Hincapie crashed out in 2006, after breaking his steering column before that tight left-hand corner.
Diversions still fill the photographer’s mind as the race scuttles away from Mons-en-Pévele. A cut through to Pont a Marcq means missing the Merignies pavé but it will give you clear shots of the final contenders at Ennevlin. Another cut takes you to the surreal pavé at Vertain, its picturesque windmill at odds with such brutal cobbles – perhaps the most jarring in the race. The Vertain cobbles saw a spectacular crash by Max Van Heeswijk in 2003, a full-on somersault performed right in front of some lucky photographers who were lining the windmill up in their sights. From here, finally, the photographers have the chance to work on the move, snapping at the leaders and chasers on a series of narrow asphalt lanes that approach the very final of the race. The town of Cysoing is next up, with its famously long section of cobbles that used to zig-zag across the agricultural landscape forever – until the newly-laid rails of high-speed TGV trains cut them apart in the 1980’s.
Instead of two long, succulent sections of pavé between Cysoing, Bourghelles and Wannehain, now there are three or four shorter sections, with more diversions needed for the photographers to keep pace with the leaders. But the twistier route means that any wind will bring another exciting factor to the racing.
A static shot after Cysoing, a dash across farm tracks to Camphin-en-Pévele, another static shot there before a really cheeky cut-through a farmer’s field (only if it’s dry), and we arrive on the opening phase of the iconic Carrefour de l’Arbre. It was here that I saw Vanderaerden attack to win the 1987 Paris-Roubaix, his skills in the mud so mind-boggling to witness. I thought I’d stopped for my passing shot a bit too soon, but had the luck to see the winning move. The exact same place then gave me a shot of the winning break in 1988, with Thomas Wegmuller and Dirk DeMol forcing the pace through clouds of dust. I used that image on the cover of my first-ever book, Visions of Cycling, so I’ll remember the location forever.
Because of the massive crowds that started lining this section from the mid-1990’s, most of them Flemish wanting to see Museeuw and then Boonen perform, it became almost obligatory to take your shots at a ridiculously tight left-hand bend, where the moto can be safely parked behind spectators and made ready for a quick getaway.
Some great solo escapers have flown by here - Tafi in 1999, Museeuw in 2002, Stuart O’Grady in 2007, Johan Van Summeren in 2011, all of them followed by an impressive circus of cars and motorbikes that enhanced their image as virtual winners. Occasionally, large groups sped through the corner, the eventual winner amongst them, but not yet known, but who the photographers had to guess and pick out anyway. It’s an amazing thing that the eventual winner is often the guy leading anyway. Think Fredric Guesdon in 1997, Servais Knaven in 2001, Magnus Backstedt in 2004, John Degenkolb in 2015, followed by Matthew Hayman a year later.
There was the spectacular crash of Thor Hushovd in 2009, right on the corner, a gift made in heaven for any quick-reacting photographers, but a cursed stroke of luck for Hushovd himself, for I think he might have won. It’s a precarious position for the photographers crouched down on their haunches, for the red lead-car typically precedes the leader by just a few seconds, its front wheels and bumper passing inches from our faces. It’s also the last time some of the ‘pros will capture the action, for a nice diversion can take the photographer right to the finish if he’s had enough. But by doing that the snapper might miss an incident like a closed railway crossing in 2006 that saw three riders disqualified after they'd crossed the tracks with a train coming. In a a normal year, the last 20-kilometres is basically a pursuit match between escapers and chasers, between winners and losers - fascinating to a point but not worth the risk of a very late arrival for those finish shots.
My best memories of Paris-Roubaix are probably at Carrefour de l’Arbre, it’s the perfect type of finale when the distance bites into the cyclists’ legs and lungs, and where the cobbles are thankfully maintained at their very worst. Back in the day when photographers could work from the moto as opposed to taking side-of-the-road shots, it became a matter of pride to photograph the actual winning attack. I thought we’d got it right in 1990, when Steve Bauer launched a few attacks right behind us, only to see Eddy Planckaert beat him in the closest-ever sprint in the Roubaix velodrome. 1991 was the jackpot year, when Marc Madiot attacked coming out of the famous corner and pulled away from John Talen and Ballerini, with myself and driver Luke Evans in pole position, much to the chagrin of my French colleagues who’d missed the shot.
An adaptation on working the Carrefour is to take the in-race shots early, even before the bend, then drive to the end of the last long stretch and take static shots too. In 2002, Museeuw launched his winning move a full 45 kilometres from the end so the jostling for position on the Carrefour was made redundant. It was wet that year as well, the crowds were fewer too, and, crouched down on the cobbles I got some great head-on shots of a mud-splattered Museeuw coming straight at me. A 21-year-old Tom Boonen followed three minutes later, he too was caught in head-on pose, with bloodshot eyes and mud all over his face and body. Oh, how I loved a wet Parsi-Roubaix! Now, I could talk of the many different finishes to the race, like dozens of glorious solos, of the cat-and-mouse tactics that preceded a sprint-finish, of the atmosphere in the velodrome when the leaders arrived, when the winner had won, when the result was known, when the tears flowed for winners and finishers alike. I could even describe what a wet Paris-Roubaix is like to photograph, except that I’d need a completely separate blog’. But I prefer to end my tales at the Carrefour, just a kilometre or two from my first-ever sighting of the race in 1980.
Photographing Paris-Roubaix is a dream come true for anyone who loves cycling, and certainly it was for me. It’s a wonderful adventure that rarely disappoints, a day out in an exquisite part of France, a race that knows no equal in terms of bravado and excitement. And it always, always, brings us great images. So, to add to its accolades as the most exciting, the most famous, the most popular, can I also say it is my absolute favourite race to photograph? There, I just said it, Paris-Roubaix was my favourite race – and I missed it so much this year.
It only took a few minutes’ TV watching of stage one to pique my nostalgic instincts and remind me how much I adore the Vuelta a España. It was the evening sunlight that did it, reflecting brightly off the lapping waves of the Mediterranean sea to create soulful shadows from eight bicycles and eight cyclists as each team pointed themselves down the start ramp in Torreviega and sped off to a roar of approval from a rapturous crowd. Just as those roars grew louder in the most populated areas of the town, so did the shadows grow longer and darker as the sun came closer to setting, as the faster teams began their own race, and as the snow-white pyramids of sea-salt added a further, unique, quality to the evening’s entertainment. And then came the spectacular crashes of UAE and Jumbo-Visma - perfectly timed in the second half of the stage just as excitement of the finale was building on TV. This jolt from beauty to cruelty may have shocked many, but not-so those of us who expect such things to happen in the Vuelta. Because these things always happen in the Vuelta. The chances of witnessing chaos and mishap linger permanently over a race that’s not as tame nor as the sleepy as one expects for the time of the year.
You don’t have to be a photographer, nor even a romantic traveller, to appreciate the summer ebbing away in Spain. What is required is a season-long work connection to cycling, one that’s seen you on the road since the cold months of February and March at a time when the Giro, Tour and Vuelta await many months down the road. I always loved the way the Vuelta acted as a way of seeing out the summer months and to ease our hearts and souls into autumn and the season’s end. It’s manic high pace, yet occasional lethargy, seemed just perfect for the period. The Vuelta celebrates the last week of summer when the beaches are still packed, the heat quite intense, and the hinterland of the country almost devoid of humanity when the Vuelta pedals by. The nights of that last week are crazy, noisy, raucous occasions, before the return to school that swallows up the nation’s youth as well as farewelling a million tourists too - that’s a Vuelta still in summer. Then we go north, celebrating a Spain much greener, cooler, quieter, a Spain that is ridding itself of those pesky tourists, tempting the locals to come out and cheer the race on themselves. To be near the ocean, particularly in the north-west of the country, to see the weakening sun set over the Atlantic, to experience dusk falling - that’s a Spain that is embracing the onset of autumn, with a powerful melancholy impossible to describe.
You cannot really be in love with the Vuelta without also loving Spain, and I fell head-over-heels on my first-ever trip to the country in 1985. It started in Oviedo after a six-hour bus ride from Bilbao, to where I’d flown from Brussels just a few days after seeing Moreno Argentin win Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Next morning the chaos began, that is to say the Vuelta stage began, with me on the back of a small, oily, 500cc moto driven by a guy called Ortega, with whom I could barely speak a word of Spanish. The chaos gradually became a bike-race as the Vuelta moved away from Oviedo and out into the hilly Asturian countryside. I warmed to the rhythm of the race as it sped along highways and by-ways, passing villages where every single inhabitant cheered the race on. I then captured a first image of Miguel Indurain as he descended a mountain road with the race-leader’s Amarillo jersey on his back. And before you knew it we were heading into the Picos de Europa mountains where a stunning church towered over the road we were on – the Santuario de Covadonga. Then the road climbed, past waterfalls, caves, forests, and even past grazing wild horses, until we emerged on to a spectacular plateau high above. I had seen some inspirational racing between Pedro Delgado, Robert Millar, Fabio Parra and Federico Echave, but my lasting memory was of the beauty of the climb, the way the road circled two crystal clear lakes near the top, and how dramatically snow-covered peaks rose high above the finish-line. Meet the Lagos de Covadonga – there could have been worse ways to start my Vuelta a España experience.
Now, there’s a bit more to the Vuelta than mere sunsets and nostalgic prose. It’s an absolutely brutal bike-race that thrills its followers but scares even the greatest cyclists. It’s always been that way. I’m old enough and therefore lucky enough to have seen the old Vuelta before it became the new Vuelta - the version that switched from an April-May date to a late-summer slot in 1995. It would be easy now to ignore the older version because the quarter-century of Vueltas since ’95 accounts for one-third of the entire history of the race, a period that has quite obviously grown its separate history too. But there are so many elements of the old Vuelta in today’s contemporary version that to disregard the older race entirely would be wrong. It helps that there are still some human traces of the older Vuelta around, namely Pedro Delgado - winner of the 1985 and 1989 events – who is Spanish TV’s lead-commentator, as well as a phalanx of official car drivers like ex-racers Laudelino Cubino, Juan-Martin Oliver, Roberto Sierra and Inigo Cuesta. Ex-Vuelta ‘stars like Sean Kelly and Mathieu Hermans sometimes visit the race as guests on TV, while the biggest cheers of all are reserved for when Miguel Indurain pays a rare visit to a race he never won nor even liked.
Although I worked the new Vuelta for almost twenty years, and enjoyed every single edition, regardless of who won, it is the earlier years that I recall with greater fondness. Can I put that down to youthful, wide-eyed enthusiasm? Let’s face it, my first-ever Vuelta in 1985 ended with that contentious penultimate day’s racing which saw Delgado supposedly ‘steal’ overall victory from Scotland’s Robert Millar. 1986 was almost as good, with a TV moto clearly sheltering Alvaro Pino from the side-wind as he fought to protect his lead against the same Millar in the last day’s TT at Jerez-de-La Frontera. The diminutive climber from Galicia actually won this flattish TT, leaving Millar speechless. Foreigners did get the better of their Spanish rivals in the Vueltas of 1987 (Luis Herrera), 1988 (Sean Kelly), and 1990 (Marco Giovannetti) before Tony Rominger ran-in a consecutive hat-trick of victories in 1992, 1993, and 1994 to really silence the locals. Even then, victory in those years came not just by beating Spain’s top ‘stars, but by also thwarting the armada of other Spanish cyclists ranged against the foreigners. And because that armada often included Russian and Colombian mercenaries as well, it made for a thrilling, full-bore, three weeks of racing.
The Vueltas of '85 and '86 formed my early presence on what is now called a grand tour – I’d not make it into the Giro and Tour on a moto until 1987. By then I’d photographed most of the one-day classics from a moto, an extremely exciting experience. But the Vuelta opened my eyes to a different world with its day-in, day-out, dramas and spectacle. The tactics were different too – like watching a game of chess or poker on wheels sometimes - while the racing was mind-blowing, I couldn’t believe how fast and hard some of the stages were. I also discovered that a three-week tour allowed you to get to know your subjects just a little, which made the job all the more satisfying. Unlike in the Giro or Tour, the Vuelta follower is much more a part of the race, he or she can live and breathe the emotions, chat with cyclists on the start-line and often lodge in the same hotels. Travel around the country is almost a shared experience with long or disrupted transfers of equal discomfort to teams and media – particularly in the times when there was no fast autovia to drive on. Both in the older Vuelta and in today’s racy version, the cyclists are under less media pressure, which means a choreographed team press conference is not the only option for journalists and photographers needing to get close-up and personal with the cyclists.
Despite having a much smaller peloton than today’s 22-team monster, the Vuelta pre-1990 was a media extravaganza. Back then, although most households had a colour TV, radio was still the nation’s main link with news, sport and day-to-day affairs. Alongside the six Spanish TV motos were the country’s biggest radio stations – as numerous as TV but noisier, more intrusive, and often piloted by cowboy drivers who just wouldn’t make the grade today. There was also a Colombian radio-station moto, Radio Caracol, that stalked riders like Francisco Rodriguez, Luis Herrera, Fabio Parra and Martin Farfan all day long. Most radio stations did half-hourly transmissions from the roadside, while some radio commentators would carry out ‘live’ interviews in the race, powering up to an escape or a chase that had just crossed a mountain-pass, and demanding answers before the breathless cyclist had managed to recover. With four or five photographers’ motos in the mix as well, those old Vueltas must have resembled a free-for-all motor-rally, where only the luckiest of spectators got a clear view of the action. But with such a huge media presence, the Vuelta was, temporarily, the nation’s most important sport – it easily rivalled football despite the Vuelta clashing with the biggest end-of-season games. I felt extremely exuberant and privileged to be a part of it.
Back then, when Spain was re-discovering itself following General Franco’s reign and his death in 1975, few families owned cars, with the result that the mountain roads were virtually deserted, but that the towns and cities were packed ten-deep at the roadsides. The Guardia Civil trucks would descend on such areas with a visible menace, disgorging their armed riot-squads to quell any imaginary protests or un-rest as the race passed, before climbing back into their trucks and actually overtaking the peloton once or twice a day. Even as recently as the early-2000’s, if the Vuelta ever went near the Basque Country, an autonomous region that was considered hostile to a very Spanish event, Guardia Civil snipers would suddenly appear atop hills or buildings, their masked faces and long assault rifles giving off an eerie and false representation of this wonderful country. There was rarely any trouble, but in 1990 a high-ranking officer raised his hand-pistol and fired shots above a gathering crowd in Pamplona – a city half Basque, half Spanish (though they describe themselves as Navarran). The man, dressed in full ceremonial uniform complete with a three-cornered hat called a tricornio, had panicked when he saw the crowds gathering, when all they’d wanted to do was cheer the Vuelta as it passed by.
Because I cut my photographic stage-racing teeth in the Vuelta, I’ve always had an affinity with the roadside fans in Spain. There was a time trial to Valdezcaray in the Rioja region in 1990, and a few hundred Basque fans made the short trip to cheer on men like Marino Lejarreta, a potential winner of the race. It was wet and cold all day on the mountainside, and especially so for any ill-prepared fans. Then Lejarreta hove into view, his slender shoulders bobbing, him digging deep as the gradient increased – I readied myself to get a decent shot. That’s when I noticed one guy, well overweight and maybe in his 40s, running manically alongside Lejarreta - that’s what younger Basque fans are meant to do. What made me laugh was the way the fan was holding a big umbrella over Lejaretta as he pedalled along, determined to protect his hero from the rain for as long as he could keep pace, which was a good few hundred metres. So many times since then have I seen and photographed similar moments of magic - the Vuelta wouldn’t be the Vuelta without its entourage of crazy fans.
Spain was becoming wealthier in the early-1990’s, meaning younger people could afford cars, and so the mountain-top roadsides began to fill, and fill even more. In the 1980’s a climb like that to Cerler - a ski-resort above Benasque in the Pyrenees – or Alto Campoo - a 20-kilometres-long ascent inland from the Cantabrian coastline – would be raced with very few roadside fans to enjoy the spectacle. The Vuelta could finish a stage at Sierra Nevada in April and only have need of crowd barriers in the final 100-metres, and only then for the main sponsor’s branding to be seen. Come the early 1990’, a newly-found ability to drive far from home and see the Vuelta in the mountains became something of a must-do adventure. When Delgado won at Lagos de Covadonga in 1992, he did so in front of a massive public, tens of thousands of fans were there, a quantum leap from when I’d seen Delgado win at Covadonga in 1985 when just a few hundred fans looked on. The Vuelta’s popularity continued to grow even through the ‘Rominger years’ and by 1993-94 I began to notice many of the fans were riding their bikes up the mountains, heralding in a newer, bigger, enthusiasm for the race that still astounds us today.
One of the most positive effects of the Vuelta moving to its summer slot in 1995 was the chance for the Spanish race to venture onto higher climbs, something that had been impossible in April and May with winter snows still covering the ski-areas that the Vuelta needed to reach. Whereas the older Vuelta had stuck to its ‘safe’ havens in Sierra Nevada, Cerler, Covadonga and Andorra – if the fickle weather actually let them into the tiny Pyrenean country – the newer one spread its wings to all parts of Spain. Summertime racing also meant the Vuelta, by then managed and owned by younger, more ambitious people, but still known as today’s Unipublic, travelled less into big cities and more to the coastal regions where cash-rich tourists awaited to be entertained. Many Spanish cities empty out in summer anyway, so now the Vuelta had to take the race to the people, a switch of strategy that opened up the potential for some truly great race-routes. The Vuelta we enjoy today is based on the adaptation the organisers made in the late-90’s, and they are still discovering newer and harder climbs to race up, often near those heavily populated coastal resorts.
I most definitely was not a fan of the new Vuelta when it moved in 1995. I’d come to relish my late-spring visit to Spain and all the fun and entertainment that came with it. The racing was superb, with Spain’s entire brigade of climbers fresh and eager to defend national pride. Spain also had its own small clique of sprinters, as eager as the climbers to take on legendary riders like Sean Kelly, Eddy Planckaert, Jean-Paul Van Poppel, Mario Cipollini, Mathieu Hermans, Uwe Raab or Malcolm Elliott. Spain in April and May was a photographer’s dream, with landscapes created from vibrant green valleys, madly flowing rivers, and bright, snowy mountains. Even the castles of Castilla y Leon and famous windmills of La Mancha had an extra sparkle to them back then - the crisp spring light had an irresistible quality to it. And the weather was at its most un-predictable best the whole time, another asset which photographers cherish. As for the atmosphere of the country, so vibrant as Spain awoke from its winter slumber and launched its first fiestas of the year, well there was nothing quite like it. R.I.P the Vuelta – or so I thought.
It took a while to warm to what was basically a completely new race. Being a lover of cold, wet, un-predictable racing didn’t help much, either – this new race saw little rain, had scorching temperatures, and offered only barren landscapes to its photographers. The stranglehold then placed on the Vuelta by the ONCE team made it all the more difficult to sway my judgment. Laurent Jalabert won five stages and the ’95 Vuelta overall, and was followed in 1996 and 1997 by his Swiss teammate Alex Zulle. The racing was clinical, too controlled, ONCE smothered the racing, and the Vuelta struggled to breathe. No-one used the word ‘boring’ but if this was how the new Vuelta was shaping up, it left a lot to be desired. At least the race had begun using newer climbs like Alto del Morredero, and it had already gone over the Pyrenees for a French stage-finish at Luz-Ardiden. But in 1999 the Vuelta showed an even newer, daring, face by introducing the Alto del Angliru to the cycling world. It wasn’t a complete success, with thick fog and heavy rain spoiling the occasion. But victory that day by the popular Jose-Maria Jimenez and the eventual overall victory by Jan Ullrich really set out the Vuelta’s stall for good. The acute steepness of the Angliru changed the face of the Vuelta forever – the race has spent the twenty years since then discovering similarly crazy ascents, it was that significant.
In 2001 came the Alto Aitana, a clifftop military road above the Costa Blanca near Alicante. The Sierra de la Pandera in Andalucia followed in 2002, the year when the Angliru was assailed for a second time. Roberto Heras won both these stages to increase Spain’s growing acceptance of the ‘new’ race. In 2003 a stage finished at the 2,400-metre summit of the mighty Envalira – the highest paved ascent in the Pyrenees. The 2004 Vuelta raced to La Covatilla ski-resort in the far west of the country, using a newly-surfaced road out of Bejar. That 2004 Vuelta featured no less than five summit finishes, including a first-ever ascent to the Calar Alto Observatory high above the Almerian desert. It seemed that just about every region of Spain had its own Angliru to unveil, a fact that eventually led to the Vuelta having as many as eleven summit finishes in its route in 2013. As the Vuelta grew in stature, and as the Giro and Tour looked on with a mixture of envy and curiosity, it was also noted that the Vuelta had introduced short, sharp, mountainous stages into its repertoire. Originally put on to combat the intense heat of a Spanish summer, these short stages started a trend that has long-since been adopted by the Giro and Tour to achieve the most exciting racing over three long weeks. It all began in Spain, at the Vuelta.
The insanely-steep finishes formed a defining image of the newer Vuelta and established its present-day reputation as a race the greatest want to win, but which many other cyclists want to avoid altogether. La Camperona, Mas de la Costa, Bola del Mundo, Peña Cabarga, Valdepeñas de Jaen, Coll de la Gallina, Mirador de Ezaro, Cuitu Negro and Ermita del Alba are just a few of the climbs introduced into the Vuelta since the Angliru was un-veiled in 1999. Even some of the older, more established ascents have been exploited to extend their length, with gravel roads suddenly re-surfaced with tarmac or concrete to take the Vuelta to greater heights and an even greater legend. As a photographer it’s a thrilling but scary vocation to be on the back of a moto just a few metres ahead of the world’s greatest climbers. The cyclists are on their limits, barely riding at a walking pace, but so too is the powerful moto, for such low speeds are perfect for stalling on the very worst gradients. The Angliru has some really nasty bends, so too the Mirador del Ezaro – there’s even a cruel sign that shows a ‘30%’ gradient on some sections. Some of my shots down the years actually show other motos, especially the heavier ones from TV, toppling over if the photographer or cameraman has so much as moved a leg while he was shooting. But the images one gets of the racing are often sensational.
Though some folks might not appreciate it - having seen a whole series of race-accidents since stage one of this 2019 Vuelta, as well as that mis-use of a gravel road in Andorra - the roads the modern Vuelta races on have a dance-floor quality to them in comparison with older times. Just as fewer people drove cars in the 1980’s so was there fewer roads, or at least roads fit to drive a car on. The country had a wonderful network of national roads, at least in the proximity to cities and large towns, but I really do not remember ever seeing an autopista or autovia anywhere. Car drivers avoided the side-roads for fear of damage to their precious tyres and suspension, for those roads were bumpy, rutted, pot-holed and extremely slippery with agricultural spillage just waiting to conspire with falling rain and create accidents. These were the roads the Vuelta’s cyclists used to race on. There wasn’t a day that went by when I didn’t see one fall or another, and sometimes mass pile ups at that. The twisty mountain roads were the worst of all, with the lack of car traffic nullifying any need to get the cracked surfaces fixed. It was little wonder that Sean Kelly won the Vuelta in 1988 against some serious climbing opposition. The Irishman, a farmer’s son who trained and raced on slick, muddy roads back home, showed little fear at descending to close any gaps. It was when Kelly attacked on such roads and won time, that’s when the locals knew they had found trouble.
Some of the greatest racing tactics today stem from older editions of the Vuelta, where they were designed, owned, and operated primarily by Manolo Saiz, the forceful ex-manager of ONCE who was at the centre of the Operacion Puerto scandal in 2006. On a stage to the Puerto de Pajares in 2005, Saiz’s team (now called Liberty Seguros) managed to get four riders in the main escape as part of a plan to propel Roberto Heras to a stage-win and maybe the race-lead too. Heras attacked race-leader Denis Menchov on the penultimate climb, the Alto de la Colladiella, and tore down the wet descent several minutes behind the day’s earlier escape, but half-a-minute ahead of Menchov. All four Liberty riders dropped back on hearing the news with two of them actually stopping for a call of nature while they waited for Heras. Heras came off the descent to be scooped up by the Liberty quartet who then towed him along the valley towards the final climb, all the while distancing Menchov. Heras then took off on the final climb and soloed to what was possibly his greatest stage-win in any Vuelta. Liberty had utilised a master tactic rarely seen before, but that has since become the preferred weapon of choice of any powerful team. I believe that 2005 stage of the Vuelta was the first time it was used in combat, and it was impressive to see it so vividly and with such perfect execution.
As was seen in this year’s Vuelta, there’s no such thing as an ordinary day. The Vuelta is, after all, the most un-predictable race of the three grand tours, and a big reason why most observers love it. If it’s not an avoidable incident like that in the stage one TTT, or un-avoidable race-crashes like those on stages four and nineteen, there might be a dozen other issues to affect the racing and stir the emotions. I said earlier that many elements of the older Vuelta exist in today’s modern re-incarnation. The TTT crashes of UAE and Jumbo-Visma – I recall the Prologue of 1999 in Murcia, when rider after rider skidded off on a greasy off-camber corner in the rain. The course was planned in a city where it hardly ever rains, and for sure not in August – but, yes, that day it rained. The windblown stage 17 to Guadalaraja reminded me of a dozen older Vueltas when the big boys put the hammer down and ruined many a climber’s aspirations. Specifically, I recall the 2001 Vuelta on a stage to Zaragoza. Then, it was the infamous U.S.Postal team who attacked into the wind and destroyed the overall chances of Marco Pantani, Alex Zulle, Fernando Escartin and Jose-Maria Jimenez - and helped ONCE’s Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano claim a stage-win at a speed of 57.14-kilometres per hour! Even the off-script gravel road in Andorra this August had me checking my old photos. I came up with an uphill stage-finish to Sierra de la Demanda in 1994 where the road was covered in snow in the morning but cleared to a one metre’s width in time for the race’s finale that afternoon. Yes, the Vuelta took risks back then as well.
Probably the biggest talking point of the 2019 Vuelta was the bust-up on stage-nineteen when Movistar attacked right after a huge crash had taken down most of their closest rivals. It came on a day that seemed right out of the older Vuelta pre-1995, with rain, winds, slick-roads and barbaric tactics compounding the misery. I’ve honestly been enjoying my retirement since January 2017 – I can see just about every top race on satellite TV here in New Zealand, so little is missed. But this was a stage I would have loved to have been photographing and observing, and then later speculating on who did what to whom, and how, and why. Part of me silently joined the debate on social media and decried Movistar’s actions, for they’ve always played hard, always pushed their luck, always applied the most brutal tactics against their rivals. But a part of me would have loved to see their attack at the head of the peloton continue, for it was old-style racing at its cruel best, the likes of which we rarely see now. And it came in the Vuelta, perhaps the only grand tour where they might have got away with such a move. I can even imagine the team’s ready-made, yet unspoken excuse: “well, this is Spain, this is the Vuelta, this is our race - anything goes!” In fact, watching how other teams came up to Movistar and pressured for a case of sporting ethics and political correctness, it made me realise what a great sport it is – when everyone plays fair.
So, I can hear some people asking, “what is my all-time favourite Vuelta – and why?” It seems a strange choice, but I’d go for the 2011 edition, won initially by Juan-Jose Cobo over Chris Froome. This was a 'star-filled Vuelta that climbed vicious ascents like Valdepeñas de Jaen, Mirador de Ezero, La Covatilla, La Farrapona and Peña Cabarga – as well as the terrible Angliru. Stage wins on those climbs went to Joaquim Rodriguez, Dan Martin, Froome himself, and then Cobo on the Angliru. Peter Sagan won three stages in his first-ever Vuelta, and Tony Martin beat his most-feared TT rivals Froome, Bradley Wiggins, Taylor Phinney and Fabian Cancellara in the race’s only timed individual stage - there was something for everyone. This was the year that the Vuelta went back to the Basque Country after 33 years away and received an absolutely fabulous reception. Local hero Igor Anton won into Bilbao, racing for the locally-sponsored Euskatel team, to make the Basque fiestas that night even noisier. I was convinced Wiggins would win the Vuelta, yet Froome took the race-lead in that Salamanca TT. Wiggins then took the red jersey the following day, obliging Froome to support him. But on the Angliru, when Wiggins couldn’t match a Cobo attack, Sky told Froome to pace Wiggins, a mistake that let Cobo win, and which saw Sky lose. Although the result was recently overturned, with Cobo testing positive in a retro-active drug-test, it hasn’t diminished the fact that this was a most special and highly competitive Vuelta. A Spaniard won. Then a foreigner won. How good was that?!
“Which Vuelta winners have impressed me the most, and why?” I’d pick Tony Rominger for his hat-trick of wins in 92, 93, and ’94 in the old Vuelta. And then Alberto Contador for his contribution to Vuelta history in the modern era. Rominger had tough opposition for all three of his victories, and he won in three very different ways. Against Jesus Montoya and Pedro Delgado in ’92, Rominger overcame a huge loss in the early TT by attacking in the mountains – their preferred terrain. He overhauled Montoya only in the last TT and spent just the last two stages in the race-leaders ‘Amarillo’ jersey. His toughest Vuelta was 1993, when a young and enthused Alex Zulle beat Rominger in three of the four time trials – Rominger’s speciality. That’s when we saw the nastiness in Rominger’s ice-cool temperament, attacking Zulle in the mountains on a filthy rotten day in Asturias, and provoking his rival to crash on a slippery descent. Zulle beaten, ONCE beaten, stage and overall victory to Rominger – quite a feat. Rominger’s third win was more sensational, the Swiss won the prologue in Valladolid and defended his lead for the rest of the race with a mix of mountain attacking and precision-like time trialling. He won by seven-and-a-half minutes!
Contador was the opposite of Rominger in that so little of his Vuelta success was planned or calculated. Contador was famous for his spontaneous style of racing, and Spain loved him all the more for it. 2008 was the most straightforward of his three wins, with superb team support, climbing attacks and solid time-trialling the foundations of overall victory. Contador came back to the Vuelta in 2012, after a short doping ban provided all the motivation he needed to win and win well. Starting way off his best pace, Contador gradually got into his stride at the halfway mark, then launched an outrageous attack to Fuente De with just four days to go. He’d pulled off a legendary feat, overtaking long-time race-leader Joaquim Rodriguez - this was possibly the sweetest of his Vuelta wins. Yet the 2014 Vuelta was no-less satisfying, because Contador came to the race having fractured his leg just six weeks earlier in the Tour de France. Chris Froome became Contador’s main rival in Spain, but the Spaniard managed to stay near him on all the early ascents, and then dropped Froome twice in the last week to secure an overall win by just over one-minute.
It is the collective domination of the Vueltas they won that puts Rominger and Contador equal at the top of my list. It’s never easy to win one Vuelta, let alone three, and not when you’re battling the toughest opposition of your generation. If I then had to choose between Rominger and Contador, I’d have to go for the latter because he won his three Vueltas during the same period when he was also winning the Giro (2008) and the Tour (2007 & 2009). Contador also made significant contributions to his last two Vueltas, in 2016 and 2017. Rominger won three Vueltas before switching to win the Giro in 1995. He also placed 16th in 1990, 3rd in 1996, and 38th in 1997. But he never won the Tour. Why did I not choose Robert Heras because of his four wins? The little climber from Bejar was so far ahead of all his rivals in that period, the only unknown was by how much he’d win. Yet Heras targeted the Vuelta without winning either the Giro or Tour, although he did win a stage of both races. It is impossible to put Heras above both Rominger or Contador, but if he had managed to win the 2002 Vuelta (he lost to Aitor Gonzalez in the last-day TT), then Heras would be a five-time Vuelta winner and most definitely at the top of my list.
This latest gem of a Vuelta would have been right at the top of my list if I were still shooting the race. There was enough quality racing and associated drama to fill a vault of cycling memories - observers were spoilt for choice! Upsets, heroics, surprises, plots and sub-plots, not to mention a whole deluge of controversy, put this race right up there with the very best. Hey, it could have been raced back in 1985 and 1986 and not appeared to be out of place or time. It was a Vuelta that found Primoz Roglic to be a very classy winner and confirmed the arrival of 20-years-old Tadej Pogacar at the top-end of the stage-racing world. Movistar once again won the team prize, but the Spanish squad were made to look extremely foolish with their in-fighting and arrogant way of racing. If I had been on this Vuelta, probably punch drunk with happiness after such an epic, I would have checked myself into a posh Segovia hotel after stage 20 and taken a very late meal in town. There are worse days when one finds oneself sitting at an outdoor restaurant at 10pm beneath the city’s eye-dropping Aqueducto, sipping a fine Ribera del Duero red and reflecting on a race of the utmost calibre which also had a most spectacular outcome. Just like the old days.
I didn’t really need to wait for the hilly Ardennes races to finish in order to say that Mathieu Van der Poel’s victory in the Amstel Gold was the most exciting element of this spring classics’ season. Of course, I did wait, just in case, but as much as I enjoyed seeing the affable Jacob Fuglsang win Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and win it well, all it did was to leave me wondering what might have happened had Van der Poel’s Corendon-Circus team been invited to the race. The enormity of Van der Poel’s lush win in the Amstel one week earlier, as well as his domineering performances throughout March and April, ensured that no matter who won in the Ardennes, they would only do so in the absence of the most exciting, emerging all-round talent in years. Van der Poel proved he could win on the cobbles of Flanders, and on the Brabant hills too, so why not in the hilliest classic of them all, La Doyenne?
It was an image on TV I’ll not forget in a hurry: a long line of cyclists weaving manically along the finish-straight in Berg-en-Terblijt, their rapid conga-like progress led by a tall, lanky kid, his energy and obsession for the job so evident as he bore down on his prey, a trio of escapers who’d seemed assured of winning the Amstel Gold Race just seconds before. Like an evil serpent lining up for his kill, his mouth wide-open as if to swallow them whole, the blond-haired kid first caught Jacob Fuglsang before switching across the road to nail his last victims, Michal Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphilippe. Rising out of the saddle with a final surge of power, panache and determination that stifled any late attempt at passing him, Van der Poel sprinted to the greatest win of his burgeoning career. The Dutch spectators went mad at this first Amstel victory in eighteen years. The whole cycling world stood up as one to acclaim its newest phenomenon.
It’s is not often a 24-year-old rookie on a second-level team attains absolute race-favourite status for a Classic – and then lives up to the hype by winning it! And it’s absolutely not often that some of the greatest names in cycling, as well as the winner’s defeated rivals, have the collective will to acknowledge the arrival of a most extraordinary talent in their midst. When the likes of Eddy Merckx, Chris Froome, Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen sing your praises, you’re in a very special place – but then that was a very special performance. And, instead of bemoaning their luck at this last-seconds’ loss, all three defeated men happily sang the praises of their young conqueror. To under-write Van der Poel’s achievement further, when was the last time a sub-prime team like Corendon-Circus beat all its World Tour opposition so sensationally? Van der Poel had defeated the very best of his in-form rivals that day, a fact re-enforced by the victories of both Alaphilippe and Fuglsang in the Ardennes – in Mathieu’s absence, of course.
By winning the modest G.P Denain in a late solo-attack, and then winning the Dwars door Vlaanderen in a sprint, Van der Poel had already put his world on notice of great things to come by the time he lined up for the Tour of Flanders on April 7th. Not ultimately the winner, but perhaps the moral winner after two crashes and two long, lonely chases ended with an admirable 4th place finish in Oudenaarde, Van der Poel switched his skills to the short climbs south of Brussels and won Fleche Brabançonne on April 12th, beating no less than Alaphilippe in the sprint. And then came that Amstel gem, with an un-assisted, group chase from one-minute back to bring the fugitives within sight before putting them to the sword so spectacularly. In almost one month’s racing, Van der Poel had shown so many different skills in his repertoire – courage, consistency and endurance above all – that few can doubt his future. It was as if he’d stretched every element of his habitual one-hour cyclo-cross workload to something six times longer. With no loss of quality.
Is it safe or even fair to shout Van der Poel’s name so loudly? By doing so, aren’t people like me inviting bad-luck or ill-form to strike the Dutchman? Or merely adding to the pressure that could see such a youngster falter with the weight of so much expectation on his shoulders? The answer is of course, yes. But I think Van der Poel has not only shown his energy and talent so dramatically, he’s also demonstrated to the watching world that he has already learnt to deal with the pressure of winning. He obviously lives off the prospect of victory and positively thrives in his new-found habitat that is the World Tour peloton. All that’s missing is his transfer to a top World Tour team, surely a mere technicality? Before writing this blog, I did consider how many times in the past we’d seen a rookie break out the way Van der Poel has. That’s when I realised how rare such moments have been – I couldn’t come up with one single name to match what Van der Poel has done this past month. Hills, cobbles, wind, crashes or punctures – Van der Poel has shown he’s ready to deal with it all.
I saw an awful lot in my “almost” 40 years of photographing the Classics. I recall neo-pro Tom Boonen making quite an impact in 2002, but even he had to wait one year before transferring that burst of early talent into winning ways, and a lot of that success was down to him being a member of the Quick-Step mob. It took another one-day great, Fabian Cancellara, about five years before he won his first Classic – but again, it was a phenomenally strong team, CSC, that aided Cancellara’s rise to the top. Ireland’s Sean Kelly, one of the sport’s greatest-ever Classics riders, needed over six years to win a Classic (in 1983) because he wasn’t on a ‘big’ team. Almost every one-day Classics specialist of the past four decades has emerged successful over a period of time, usually between one and six years from their first season as a ‘pro. Some, like Belgium’s Alfons de Wolf and Edwig Van Hooydonck, saw their careers peter out after bright beginnings. Van der Poel, coming forth like a bolt out of the blue, has a small team around him, but he’s already done enough in the world of cyclo-cross to command huge recognition on the road. It helps that he comes from a cycling family with serious heritage.
How many times in the last month have I watched Van der Poel on my TV in New Zealand and gasped at his audacious style of racing. He seems frightened of nothing – not his rivals, not the cobbles, nor the hills - not even the race distances. Indeed, he seems to want to attack from at least 50-kilometres out and then try again if that first attack hasn’t worked. In his constant chasing during the Tour of Flanders, after a series of spills and ill-fortune, Van der Poel asked no help from no-one, and still got back into contention. What a pity race-winner Alberto Bettiol had already gone away on the Oude Kwaremont before Van der Poel had actually made contact. His prolonged chase in the Amstel was even more inspiring, for by then his reputation forbade anyone to help him, yet he still got the job done. I’m convinced I’ve only ever seen two, possibly three young men similar in talent during my time as a cycling photographer. One of those was the late-Frank Vandenbroucke, a massively talented individual who found more success in stage-races than in the one-day Classics, but who thrilled everyone all the same. Another is Bernard Hinault, about whom there is little to add, other than he is a multiple Classics’ winner, World Champion, and winner of no less than nine grand tours. Alberto Contador is the third comparison, a man like Hinault who needs little introduction.
It’s not just Hinault’s tenacity that Van der Poel seems to have acquired, it’s also the way he races from the front, shouldering the wind, bossing his colleagues, dictating how and when the racing will be played out. The Vandenbroucke in Van der Poel is highlighted by a balletic style of pedalling and the ease with which his tall body sends the power down to his pedals. Like the super-thin (and equally blond) Vandenbroucke once did, VdP uses every inch of his upper body to lever the maximum power out of himself, habitually arching his long back like a cat about to pounce. Contador simply danced on his pedals, using his upper-body as a counter-weight to gain momentum. Contador only knew one way of winning a bike race, which was to attack, attack, and attack until all his foes had been despatched. If you can imagine a cyclist who possesses the best traits of Hinault, Vandenbroucke and Contador, you’ll see why I rate Van der Poel so highly. He himself might suggest Philippe Gilbert as his ideal role model, but I believe Van der Poel will need a few more years to be as clever and astute as Gilbert has been.
I do not think for one moment that Van derPoel’s skills will be restricted to just the one-day classics – his legend has a much longer, larger, richer path to follow, and my comparisons with two of the greatest stage racers of all time was not made without serious thought. But time is of the utmost importance if this 24-year-old is to achieve his obvious potential. Out with cyclo-cross, stow away the mountain-bike, and take aim him at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics - in the mens road race - that’s what Van der Poel should do, what his father Adri might try and persuade him to do, what the KNWU (the Dutch Cycling Federation) and NOC*NSF (Dutch Olympic Committee) will be hoping he does do. Mathieu might just get away with competing in the MTB in Tokyo before continuing his emergence on the road. But I hope Mathieu doesn’t repeat the mistake of Peter Sagan in 2016, when the Slovakian opted to race the MTB event in Rio de Janeiro instead of the road, only to fail in the off-road event and belatedly realise how suited he’d have been for the road course.
I used to really enjoy myself photographing Adri Van der Poel, in the 1980’s. Unfortunately for Adri, he raced in a highly competitive decade that saw him in constant battle with the likes of Sean Kelly, Bernard Hinault, Phil Anderson, Giuseppe Saronni, Jan Raas, Greg Lemond, Johan Museeuw, Eddy Planckaert, Eric Vanderaerden, Stephen Roche and many, many more. Van der Poel senior still won big - in the Classics, stages of the Tour de France, and just about everything there was to win in cyclo-cross – but his son should win more because, just in case it hasn’t been noticed, Mathieu has entered the top-level road scene when the doorways to success are wide open. Long gone are the Boonens and Cancellaras of the cobbled classics, and soon to go – well, almost – is the dominance of Paris-Roubaix winner Philippe Gilbert and the evergreen Alejandro Valverde. Even Peter Sagan looks vulnerable these days - a new Classics king awaits! And if Van der Poel junior aims for the grand tours as well, he’ll find Froome, Nibali, Thomas and even Quintana are about to give way to the next generation. Newcomers are already there – think Primoz Roglic, Tom Dumoulin, Simon and Adam Yates, and maybe Egan Bernal too - but there’s a mighty opportunity awaiting Van der Poel if he can be persuaded to jettison his love-affair with fat or knobbly tyres and take the silken road to glory, fame and fortune.
"I'll remember Paul for many things - as a pioneering professional cyclist, a TV commentator, a hors-category PR officer and general laugh-a-minute entertainer. But most of all I'll remember him as a friend of almost forty years. When I first ventured to continental Europe with my cameras in the late-1970's, Paul was the one cyclist who took an interest in what I was doing. Without realising it at the time, both of us were running parallel adventures in the world of cycling, Paul as a determined young bike-rider, me as an ambitious yet dreamy photographer. I noticed how Paul had set up his shop by living with the French, embedding himself in the very French world of cycling, and building deeper foundations than if he had just hung out with his fellow British colleagues. I too saw the importance of mixing in with the French photographers, so too the Belgians, Dutch, Spanish and even Italians, as I made my way into the business. Paul was my go-to cyclist if I needed advice on an up-coming race, or simply someone to ask about the myriad of tactics out there. Or someone to crack a joke with just before the race began. I realised much later in life that we were, in many ways, kindred spirits back then, just that neither of us knew it.
A whole grupetto of English-speaking riders followed Paul into the professional ranks in the early-1980’s, and he became their beacon, their talisman, as the European-based hardmen struggled to adapt to this ‘foreign’ influx. It helped the cause that most of the mercurial Scandinavians had joined forces with the Anglophones to smooth their way in. And as each and every one of them took their first steps, there was I, meeting them and photographing them as a friend of Paul Sherwen. I soon realised that Paul was a leader amongst this band of brothers in the sport. No matter if he was engaging with a fellow-Anglophone or a French superstar like Bernard Hinault, Paul could swing things when it mattered the most. Just as Paul had benefitted from the wisened knowledge of Britain’s Barry Hoban, already a seasoned veteran when Paul turned ‘pro in 1978, so did he take just about every young dude under his wing and point him in the right direction. There were two key elements to Paul’s status. For one, as a loyal team worker he was no threat to anyone in a competitive way, and therefore his advice was utterly selfless – and he led by example on the bike. Secondly, Paul commanded so much respect from teammates and colleagues that there was no-one better to turn to.
Like all best mates, we had a few misunderstandings in the early days. I once committed a dire error in the 1981 Paris-Nice, when I photographed Paul after he'd punctured and then blown up in his effort to get back on a long climb called the Col de l'Espigoulier. I'd been desperate all week to get some 'strong' shots of Paul near the head of the G.C battle, and ordered my moto-driver to pull right in front of Paul as his strengths and morale wavered. But instead of action, what I actually saw in the viewfinder was Paul giving me the rudest of rude hand signals - yes, I captured the full force of his anger that day. A handshake at the next day's stage-start set our relationship back on course, but even to this day I can hear Paul's exaggerated mimicry of that moment: "Listen to an old pro' - never, ever, photograph a cyclist when he's just got into difficulties, it's not cool."
The Kellogg’s series of criterium races kicked off in the UK and Ireland in 1983, with Paul somewhat in the driving seat when it came to deciding how the exciting races would pan out. I never did figure out which camp he was in, but someone had to apply serious diplomacy in order that the UK-based pros’ won at least as much as their European invaders. In fact, there were three sets of people to appease – those who were UK-based, those who formed a Dutch/Belgian axis, and then the likes of Paul, Sean Yates, Stephen Roche, Sean Kelly, Graham Jones, Robert Millar, Phil Anderson, Allan Peiper and many, many more. I got the impression the UK riders didn’t trust the English-speaking euro-based riders led by Paul, who were more likely to be in bed with the Dutch and Belgians. I think Paul thrived on teasing his colleagues on both sides of the fence, and as the iconic series of races fizzled out in the mid-1980’s, to be overlapped and then replaced by the Tour of Britain and Tour of Ireland, Paul had had the intelligence to look after his own future – he would ultimately end his racing career in the colours of the UK-based Raleigh-Banana team.
The 1985 Tour of Ireland was one of Paul’s last races for a continental team. By then, I must have gained his trust to the point where he suggested I drive a team car from Dublin back to France with Paul and two of his La Redoute teammates in it – they all had a circuit race to cope with near their sponsor's mail-order premises in Roubaix the next afternoon, and Paul for one didn’t fancy driving through the night. I was working back then for ‘Winning’, who’s offices in Brussels awaited my un-developed films by Monday lunchtime to meet the magazine’s tight deadline. I even had a plane ticket booked for the Dublin-Brussels journey. Ever the persuasive one, Paul suggested I drive with them to Lille and then take a train to Brussels, and I couldn’t resist the hint of adventure and so agreed. A smooth ferry ride to Holyhead in Wales, no problem, nor the fog-shrouded drive across England towards London and a chance to test the partially-opened M25 orbital motorway around the UK capital. All the time, Paul and his teammates slept on the back seat while this stranger drove them through the night. The Dover-Calais ferry gave me too little time to nap and the 120-kilometre leg to Lille seemingly took hours. Almost into Lille as the morning rush-hour began, we stopped at a red-light – and I fell asleep at the wheel, luckily stationary and with the handbrake on. It wasn’t the sound of angry car horns waking me up, it was Paul’s big hand slapping my shoulder from the back. “Bloody hell Watson, you’ve failed me!”. Paul took over for the last minutes’ drive, dropped me at Lille-Europe train station – then took his teammates home for a few hours’ sleep.
By the time Paul retired in the mid-1980's and joined Phil Liggett as a rookie co-commentator at the Tour de France, my archive had swelled with shots of Paul in all forms of races and situations. As a die-hard battler in a series of muddy Paris-Roubaix, afoot on the Koppenberg in the Tour of Flanders, racing the home-based British pros in rain-soaked circuits all over the UK - and, best of all, riding to his limits to stay in the 1985 Tour (he succeeded), I thought I'd seen just about every side of Paul's character in those race-shots. Not so... One of my favourite memories of Paul's racing career was the 1982 Giro del Piemonte, a late-season event that a non-climber like Paul probably hated. I was trailing the remnants of the peloton in my beat-up Ford Escort, waiting for a short-cut to make the finish ahead of the race, when Paul suddenly jumped off his bike and stood in the middle of the road, blocking my way ahead. He must have spotted me and the UK-registered car at a previous passing shot I'd made. Paul's massive right hand went up like a British ‘bobby’ at a road-junction, ordering me to stop, there was no way around the man. Somehow, we crammed his Motobecane bicycle into the Escort's boot, and I became Paul's chauffeur as far as the finish and his team's lakeside hotel. I never did get the finish shot that day.
Barely into his apprenticeship as a TV commentator, Paul took up a dual role as PR officer for the new Motorola team, for whom I was contracted as their photographer. The quality time together began to build as Paul flourished in his new role, and in doing so afforded me with some enviable behind-the-scenes imagery of the teams' famous cyclists preparing for races all over the world. It was during this phase of our shared adventure that, I have to confess, Paul and I often slept together. In the same bed... But always, always, in the course of our working together. It was a touch disconcerting to fall asleep next to such a legendary man who I used to photograph in races, but if he didn't mind then neither did I. Even back then, hotel rooms were hard to come by if a big team like Motorola was staying there, and rather than shove me down the road in a motel, Paul found space in his bedroom, and often in his bed. After Lance Armstrong had won the '93 Worlds and Motorola had invited the world's media to visit Lance in his hometown of Austin, there I was in Paul's luxury Four Season's hotel room, while 20 others were settled into roadside motels. When Sean Yates won the yellow jersey in the 1994 Tour, Paul made sure I was the only photographer inside Sean's room when the celebrations began. Paul's professionalism was so admired by the Motorola team and because of this my job was made that much easier because all the riders and staff afforded me with similar respect.
Compared with today’s aloof and nervy PR men, life with Paul at Motorola was a laugh-a-minute era. A PR guy acts as the team’s public face, issuing official statements, organising interviews, schooling the teams’ cyclists how to deal with the media and the fans, and basically making sure the cyclists are afforded some much-needed privacy when the race is over. The more skilled ones – and Paul established himself as a master in this role – act as a firm but polite barrier to enable the team to go about their business of training, organising, eating and racing with as few distractions as possible. Certainly, Paul had the right credentials to take the pressure of sports directors like Jim Ochowicz and Hennie Kuiper. Paul could sense the team’s pulse on an hour-by-hour basis, and gauge his own actions accordingly. For example, he didn’t need to be told when a team rider had had a bad day and wanted to dodge a media interview. Paul’s method of apology was often to take the waiting journalist into the bar and regale him with a few funny tales of the Tour or of Africa, while the dejected interviewer drank a nice cold beer and eventually forgave Paul and Motorola. Paul’s hardest task was shepherding a corporate Motorola executive for a few days, explaining the tactics that might lead to a win, but then explaining why Motorola hadn’t won. Typically, Paul turned bullying corporate beasts into fans, and had most Motorola guests eating out of his hands. Only rarely did he need to use a last-resort tactic – treating the awkward executive to the scariest of drives in a team Volvo in order to gain the upper hand.
Time spent with Paul at the team’s January training camp was time well spent. Together with a corporate director from Motorola, Paul had to oversee my publicity photography of the team, which included doing the nerve-wracking team photo. Whether it be California or Italy, it was certain to be freezing in January as the riders awaited this photographer’s preparations. It’s hard to get all twenty cyclists and staff to smile when they’re either cold or bored, or both. On one such occasion in Tuscany, only a few managed a smile as I stared hopefully through the viewfinder and kept shouting encouragement. Then, suddenly, they all broke into laughter, and I later found out that Paul had stood behind me and made some highly suggestive signals to his all-male audience. Paul knew how get the best from the cyclists. Nearing the end of a long training ride in Sonoma, California, the group of eight Motorola cyclists I’d been photographing from Paul’s car was suddenly directed into a boutique vineyard. Paul had arranged this surprise visit, and when their tough ride ended with plates of biscotti and red wines being consumed on a sunny terrace high above the valley, Paul had secured their co-operation for the next European season! Some even managed to ride back to the hotel. Many of the best tales of Paul are simply un-tellable, so you’ll have to trust me when I say that over the life of the Motorola Cycling Team - from 1991 to 1996 - so much fun was had by one and all. And I’d experienced a different, grander side of Paul’s unique character.
If there was ever any doubt that our friendship had surpassed that of mere colleagues, it came in 1996 when Motorola were staying at the romantic Villa Flori, alongside Lake Como. Rooms were at a premium in this luxury establishment, so Paul smuggled me into his room after dinner with the team, where-upon he produced a bottle of Champagne and two glasses. Paul's famous grin had spread even wider as he poured the first glasses, and I was probably one of the first people to be told he'd proposed marriage to fiancée Katherine Love - and that she'd said Yes. Drunk on happiness and Champagne, we shared a bed for the last time that night, for I knew Paul's life was about to change! One of Paul’s last duties for Motorola was to deal with the news that Lance Armstrong had been diagnosed with testicular cancer in late-1996. Even I was left out of the loop when the diagnosis was announced privately, but later I was able to acknowledge Paul’s skills when the public had to be told. He was quite brilliant in front of a prying media, but the fact is very few people dared to question Paul’s wisdom on the subject: he had spent the last six years winning the media’s trust and confidence.
For the last twenty years, in fact since Motorola pulled out of the sport, I was still able to enjoy Paul's company at races all over the world. Whether he was a TV commentator, or multi-linguist translator, or just being 'Paul', he was one of the most gregarious characters one could ever meet. Ironically, Paul's burgeoning TV career meant I saw a lot less of him. I'd see him and Phil the day before the Tour began and then not again until the following January in Australia or even April in Belgium. Occasionally, I'd walk past the TV cabins on the Tour's finish-area and make a rude face to Paul and Phil as they talked their talk on the microphones. I never did manage to ruin their commentary. Luckily, Paul was the type that made sure we enjoyed a nice dinner two or three times a year, and he'd often stay with me in London if he had a day between flights into and out of Heathrow. Inevitably, talk was of Africa rather than cycling, and particularly of a trip we'd made together way back in the late-1990's.
He'd taken me and a few friends on a safari trip in Kenya's Masai Mara, where ice-cold beers were served around the campfires each evening while lions roared their threats from within the bush. We walked with the camels each and every day, and spotted a family of cheetahs, a dozing leopard, and a fair few giraffes along the way. We were friends of course, but acting as pretend guests for some future business Paul and Katherine were planning. Like friends we ate and drank wholeheartedly, and, like paying guests, we refused to help Paul fix a Land Rover's flat tire in a torrential rainstorm one afternoon. Typically, he took it all in his stride.
I’ve no doubt we would all have made a repeat visit in the coming years, perhaps after Paul had retired as well, when he’d have had more time to show us his preferred adventure playground. Yes, maybe we should get all his best mates together anyway, to safari again and celebrate Paul's life the way he’d have liked us to.
That trip to Kenya allowed me to see and understand Paul's love affair with all things African. He lived and breathed its beauty and wilderness and inherent danger, but most especially the pressure-less lifestyle. Seeing Paul stroll towards you, his bush-hat perched so perfectly on his head, his R.M Williams pants and boots dressing him so well for the role, he gave a passing likeness to Crocodile Dundee – even the big knife was there if it was ever needed. Yet as deeply as he embedded himself in a Ugandan way of life, so did Paul love travelling across the globe to commentate on his favourite races, almost always in a popular partnership with Phil Liggett. Paul would show up in Adelaide after a 30-hour journey and go straight to the microphone with just a shower and change of clothes - needless to say, his commentary was as clear as a bell, and always animated. Paul was one of those rare and fortunate creatures who simply made friends wherever he went. He had time for everyone, for his colleagues, his many fans, his professional subjects on bicycles, and of course for his friends. Perhaps the most striking feature of Paul's sad death was the outpouring of grief and heart-felt tributes from those that knew him, or just knew of him. As I write, the news still hasn't sunk in properly, it just doesn't seem real – Paul was always there, no matter which race was going on, or in which country. He will be so missed."
So, what have I been doing for the last year, since retiring as a globe-trotting cycling photographer and settling down to a quieter life? The answer, aside from the obvious ones of relaxation, reflection and lots of bike-riding is producing a book. In fact, producing a massive book, an 11 x 11-inch, 228-page, 330 image edition that reflects my forty years' long career. Creating the title was the easiest part of the book - 40 Years of Cycling Photography speaks for itself. The rest was not so easy, but was very pleasantly time consuming. Images had to be sourced, names and dates put to races and faces - and cross-referenced to make sure they hadn't been seen in any other recent books. Then the writing began, about 1,500 words per chapter to form some order to the book. Finally, and perhaps the hardest part, was working with the designer to ensure that only the very best imagery was in evidence after a series of editing sessions had whittled down the number of images we could squeeze in. The 330 images actually featured would have been cut from an original selection of several thousand, and only after several culls had been made. Oh yes, and then came the photo-captioning, hours and hours' worth, lovingly written and intended to offer full disclosure about why the shots were taken and why they were included in the book.
I gleaned an awful lot of satisfaction as I wound my way through everything I'd seen and recorded with my cameras since 1977 - the year I first set eyes on the Tour de France, and where I captured an image of Eddy Merckx that sent me on my way to having the greatest job in the world. So many forgotten images triggered so many long-lost memories, and helped me to collate some amazing stories for the book, both through long dialogue, short tales and those lovingly-written captions. The result is a volume of work that accurately represents what I once did and loved so much, and that I now want to share with everyone. There have been previous titles by me, led primarily by 'Visions of Cycling' which was published in 1988 and showcased the world of cycling photography for the first time. '20 Years of Cycling' was published in 2000 and could be said to be the little brother of this newest book. Yet 40 Years of Cycling Photography is a far deeper, richer, volume of work that covers twice the history of its sibling and a whole lot more in terms of content. This being a self-published project, so with no budget-watching publisher to wrestle with, I have been utterly reckless in ensuring the content covers far more ground than any previous book did. Cyclo-cross, track, road-racing, big races, small races, crashes, fun & games, Hour records, Olympic races - you name it, this book has it amongst its many pages, all under one roof, so to speak. But I won't spoil the fun of you actually seeing the book for yourselves by saying much more about the content.
Forty years is one huge chunk of a person's life, I now realise more than I ever did before. In navigating through my archive, I found it both fascinating and entertaining to run a parallel check with real history, to see where certain races or happenings sat alongside those of a bigger spectrum. When Bernard Thevenet won that 1977 Tour Jimmy Carter was President of the USA. Thevenet's victory preceded by just one month the death of Elvis Presley and came about one month after the first-ever Apple computer went on sale. I cannot imagine life as a photographer without my Mac to help me! Similarly, landmark events in cycling paired with so many significant parallels. The Chernobyl nuclear explosion in the Ukraine preceded Greg LeMond's first-ever Tour de France win in 1986. And when Greg won his second Tour in 1989, it was just over three months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Just a few days after LeMond won the 1990 Tour, Saddam Hussein's troops invaded Kuwait, inciting the response of allied forces in an operation called Desert Storm - the pre-cursor to the Iraq War. Desert Storm - not LeMond's fourth win - contributed to the resignation of Margaret Thatcher as the UK's Prime Minister in 1990. And when Tony Blair ended his long reign as UK leader in 1997, Jan Ullrich was one month away from winning the Tour de France; tragically, Princess Diana was weeks away from dying in a car-crash in Paris. Though quite in-significant at the time, the world-wide-web was created in 1989 and operated for the first time in 1990 - now what a life-changer that was!
Still, there was plenty going on out there in the real world. The IRA began destroying its weapons in Northern Ireland in 2001, just months after Al Qaeda terrorists had destroyed New York's twin towers in what became known as '9/11'. This was the year that Oscar Friere won the second of three world road titles in Lisbon. In 2002, as Mario Cipollini won the worlds, and after Paolo Savoldelli had won the Giro, and Lance Armstrong his fourth Tour, the first-ever Euro notes and coins hit the streets of twelve European countries. 2004 saw Magnus Backstedt win Paris-Roubaix, Damiano Cunego rise to fame by winning the Giro d' Italia, and Roberto Heras win a third Vuelta in Spain. But the year ended in misery when over 250,000 people lost their lives in a massive Tsunami that hit the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. By 2005, a start-up company called YouTube had begun broadcasting on the internet - it showed segments of Lance Armstrong's seventh Tour win that July. 2006 saw Floyd Landis win the Tour, only to be disqualified for a doping infraction less than a week later. 2006 was also the year when North Korea conducted its first-ever nuclear test, when Saddam Hussein was tried and executed, and when Paolo Bettini won the first of two world road titles in Salzburg. 2008 saw the world's financial markets crash - and badly. But it didn't stop Alberto Contador celebrating his first-ever Giro win, nor Carlos Sastre his only-ever Tour success.
And then came the return-and-downfall of Armstrong. His confession to doping in January 2013 caused a world-wide tremor, watched by millions on TV. But it wasn't anywhere nearly as important as other 2013 happenings like the Boston marathon bombing, or the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. Today's cycling champions have won in a world no less volatile. Carlos Betancur won a 2014 Paris-Nice overshadowed by the news that a Malaysian Airlines plane had gone missing over the Indian Ocean on March 8th; another Malaysian plane was blown out of the skies a few months later, just as Vincenzo Nibali claimed his Tour de France win in Paris. The little-known Miguel Angel Lopez won the 2016 Tour of Switzerland, just a week after the death of ex-boxer Muhammed Ali, the greatest sports personality of all time. And in 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the USA on January 20th, the same day Caleb Ewan won stage four of the Tour Down Under, just days before Richie Porte won the race overall and I stopped working as a photographer. Sorry for the long yarn, but it's quite amazing to see how forty years of cycling history went by in parallel with more-worldly milestones. It also means my career ran not just from Eddy Merckx to Richie Porte - it also transcended nine Presidents of the USA, seven British Prime Ministers, or - if you like - thirty-two Italian Prime Ministers!
So, let's start at the front shall we - with the cover. How do you choose the cover shot for a book of such historical longevity and generational expanse? And from a sport so colourful, beautiful, and so full of variety? When do you choose the cover shot? In fact, we put a few options on to the designer's table early-on in the production, then let them ferment and percolate a while as the main body of the book grew. The cover shot then came down to three choices: a generic scenery shot, a generic action shot; or one of my classical shots from the not-so-recent past. We opted for a sprint shot because of the dynamism of the sprinters going for the line in a stage of the 2011 Tour of Oman. The timeless nature of the shot and the energy within it caught our eyes the most. That and the bleached-out background which made virtual silhouettes of the cyclists. The white-out and black shadows also formed two design elements of the book, at least as far as the hard-cover board and slip cases are concerned. A dramatic cover is considered by many people to be the most important element when selling a book. I don't disagree, but also consider it as just that - a cover, sometimes never to be looked at once the reader opens the first few pages and is drawn into the main body of the book. Still, it is the first time one of my books has had a sprint shot as the cover.
I couldn't put a book like this together and not pay homage to the many thousands of cyclists who've enriched and, literally, enabled my career. How many cyclists did I actually photograph between July 1977 and January 2017? Just a few dozen 'stars shine out from the rest for their achievements, or because of their unique character and, even, friendship shown towards me. Just two of those greats, Sean Kelly and Cadel Evans, play a special role in the book. Kelly, born with an insatiable appetite to win and a steeliness and physicality that photographers fought so hard to capture, was omnipresent throughout the first half of my career, winning just about every race there was to win except for the Giro, Tour and Worlds. Kelly wrote the Foreword for 40 Years - there were no other contenders for the job. He alone had the right qualifications. Evans represents the latter part of my career, a man who won races like the 2009 World road championships and the 2011 Tour de France, but who fought tooth and nail to win a whole lot more as well. If I saw Kelly win from the very word go, Evans' biggest wins were a long time coming, yet he never gave up trying - he became a champion more because of hard work, a perfectionist who, like all such individuals, had to wait a little longer for his successes. Cadel wrote the Afterword for the book, a more perfect accompaniment to Kelly there is not. Together in the book, they made a sandwich out of me…
One of the more surprising elements of this new book was how hard it was to squeeze everything in. Originally planned to be 216 pages, I went for a deluxe upgrade to 228 pages in order to get more imagery in - and it was still barely enough. I wanted at least one huge scenery shot from all my favourite races - but discovered that I had too many favourite races. So competitive was that area of the selection that only in the last days of production was I able to squeeze an Alpine shot of the Dauphiné-Libéré in. The action shots were even harder to whittle down. I envisaged getting half-a-dozen images of Bernard Hinault into the book - the first five-time winner of the Tour I'd photographed. In fact, the book contains just three images of Hinault. The most recent winner of the Tour, Chris Froome, fared no better in the book than Hinault, so it's not even a generational thing - there was simply too much other content to consider. Even winning a single grand tour or a big Classic didn't guarantee inclusion, it merely put that cyclist into the hat for the possibilty of inclusion. In the last chapter, I'd wanted to feature 15-20 'Legends', only to be told by the designer there was room for just ten. Ten! What can I do with just ten legends when I've photographed hundreds? As someone whose been around for so long and made a lot of friendships out of my subjects, I might have a bit of apologising and explaining to do to those that missed out on a tribute.
The only way to cover so much ground was to run the book in chronological form. This was better for my sanity in that I had to think a little less hard about everything I'd seen and photographed and think more about how the pictures could be used. So many races, so many winners, so many stories - to not bag it altogether as one long passage in time would have been nigh-on impossible. There's an ebb and flow to each chapter as the cycling greats first emerged, then dominated, then gradually melted away into the shadows as newer winners rose up. And as a multitude of careers merged or diverged, so did my observations of the sport grow too. When I first began following races in the late-1970's I was like a headless chicken running around snapping away at anything that moved. Ten or fifteen rolls of film per day was the norm' in the biggest races. Twenty years on, a lot less 'film' was shot as my discerning maturity allowed me to anticipate where the best images would come from. And although the seven chronological chapters are bound by father-time, there's an awful lot more to those years than mere racing or scenery. The joys of winning, the sadness of losing, the pain of crashing, the thrill of escaping - yes, these are all fundamental emotions forever linked to the sport. But alongside these images come much more. Think of humour, of daring, of friendship, and even showmanship - the photo-editing of these decades was fun all the way!
If chronology helped my image-choosing more than a little, the same could not be said for the images I've snatched around the actual racing. There was a time when I felt that a full season was one that saw me going to a few early-season races, then the Classics, then the Vuelta, Giro, Tour - and finally the Worlds. With perhaps an autumnal gem like Paris-Tours or Lombardy to indulge myself with as the season closed. But newer non-European races came along in the early 2000's, enticing me to other parts of the world and inspiring a whole new archive of images. This was where my picture selections for the book got that much harder. Modern races like the Tour Down Under, the Tour of California, Arabian events like Qatar, Oman, Dubai and Abu Dhabi - and even Australia's Herald Sun Tour - brought increased competition to the picture selection. Equally, any race - old or new - has a character that is unique to that race, an attraction that cries out to be caught on-camera and maybe published in the book. This is never truer than with the Olympic Games, a sporting colossus I photographed seven times between 1992 and 2016. Needless to say, I've made special sections for each Games. The imagery of those events is too good to be excluded and reflects the titanic battles between the old Germany, France, Australia and Great Britain as they set about dominating the cycling world.
But this is not just a book about the sport of cycling between 1977 and 2017. It's a descriptive about the life that comes with such a job, a highly adventurous one at that. When I first saw a full Tour post-1977, it was thanks partially to the old steel F.W. Holdsworth bicycle that carried my hulk and camping gear around France. Not to mention my cameras too. Sometimes with the help of an old Ford Escort or sometimes just solo on my bike, I'd pick off as many stages as I could get to in three weeks. And as the sales of photos increased, so did the car became the sole mode of transport, to be up-graded to a moto in the mid-1980's. In more recent times I've been the 'key man' photographer in a team comprising a moto-driver, car-driver, and faithful assistant. In the late-1970's I'd take a train and a ferry to get to France, and then hitch-hiked if I had to - I think it took until 1983 before I ever flew to a race. Then, flying became a near-daily event in the mid-1990's and took me all over the world to races in the Philippines, China, Mexico, Australia and Colombia - the adventures I had on those trips were unforgettable, and are included in one chapter devoted to travel. Because of the day-to-day upheaval of moving on to a different town or city, the lifestyle of a cycling photographer is quite unique, yet still something to enjoy and savour - and share with the reader too.
Likewise, my forty years in the job saw a complete transformation of camera gear and technology. There was not one single digital image in 'Visions' or '20 Years', and the publisher's greatest costs were probably turning my slides or black and white prints into pre-press film - lots of it. That 1977 image of Eddy Merckx was shot on a roll of grainy Kodak film and has since been digitalised with the rest of my film archive. Symbolically, it is the very first image inside '40 Years'. The most recent images were taken on a state-of-the-art Nikon D5, using a technology that allowed me to transmit images directly from the camera. Photography has evolved a lot since 1977, and no book about photography in the 21st century would be complete without detailing the time-line to where we are today. An old wooden Kodak camera I lived off in the 1970's was replaced by a first-ever SLR camera as the addiction to cycling took hold. Cameras and lenses were added or taken away, but upgraded as often as I could afford. I used to love the winter because with little or no travel expenditure to consider, every pound or dollar I earned went on buying the latest gear. Incredibly, I kept a large proportion of those old cameras - primarily because some were so badly worn or damaged that they were un-saleable anyway! Which is why, at regular intervals in the book, you'll find an occasional side-bar to describe that era's choice of camera and accessories.
Having enjoyed the privilege of getting many books published down the years - the first being 'Kings of the Road' co-authored with Robin Magowan in 1986 - I have self-published this one. Gone are the days when book-distributors looked the other way when individuals like me came along - the internet has changed the way books are sold and marketed. Gone too are the long and expensive production lines where designers pasted sheets of typeset paper onto dummy pages and then used translucent tape to stick down prints or slides alongside those sheets of text - computers with clever software do all that now. More importantly, the printing process has changed wholesale, with no requirement of reprographic film or 'plates' prior to printing. Just a set of PDF proofs to admire, to critique, and finally to approve. This used to be called 'straight to press' - from computer to paper - but is now popularised as desktop publishing. So less financial risk, greater control over the final product - it is the latter aspect that tempted me to go for self-publishing, and granted me no-end of control over my work. When you're spending your own money, you can choose exactly which images you want in and how they'll look once they're in. Not for me a fight with a publisher on content - this one final book has my absolute stamp of approval on it. If not exactly a labour of love, it is at least the defining book of my career.
So how did it feel when the first-ever printed and bound book landed on my doorstep in late-January? Relief for one - that the hard work was over and there was finally something to show for it. Until I'd actually got my hands on a copy of the book, it was easy to believe it was never going to happen - like a dream that hadn't come true. But there it was, shrink-wrapped and boxed-up to survive the journey from China. This particular book came inside a sleek black slip-case for added presentation, forming a collector's item that we'll soon be offering to a few lucky people. The cover was studied for its delicate colour balance - were the shadows too dark? No - nor the road too washed out. Let's turn the pages now: how did that black and white shot of Eddy Merckx turn out? And how was the first scenery shot of the book, a double-page Alpine beauty from 2009 - delicious! And then came the guts of the book, page after page of cycling champions past and present, each of them fighting to win, or fighting very hard not to lose.
One of my first reactions when I opened the book was how the drama and beauty of the sport have been a constant companion since 1977. Throughout the volume of work there's not one spread of images that doesn't have a highlight, a sparkling gem, a mouth-watering panoramic or a stomach-tingling crash shot. And I don't mean because of my photography - I can only photograph what is actually there. And there's an awful lot out there. Nostalgia can be seen fighting with modernism as old steel bikes were replaced by titanium or early carbon frames. Bare heads were about to be capped by hard-shell helmets, and wool had already surrendered its trusted values for Lycra. I especially enjoyed the older images of cyclists actually having fun in their daily workload - and that's just for starters. I allowed myself to enjoy a wave of emotion as the pages turned, as the memories passed, as the colour and drama flowed before my eyes. Did I really take all these pictures, I found myself asking? Well, yes, I did… And then before I knew it, those 228 pages had been turned in full for the first time.
Well, hopefully, I've whet your appetites just enough without giving away too much of the book's content. I'm confident to state it's the most complete photo-book ever produced by one single cycling photographer. It is both a pictorial encyclopaedia of the last four decades of the sport as well as a tribute to the cyclists and races that formed the heartbeat of those decades. I've made sure to include many of my classical images in the ten chapters, the ones that really excited me or that reflected the sport at a particular date in time. I've also dug deep into the archive to offer an absolute ton of unseen imagery, in black and white and colour. 40 Years of Cycling Photography goes on-sale around mid-March, and will be stocked at our on-line stores in the UK, USA and New Zealand for a faster worldwide service. Go to www.grahamwatson.com/pages/store and then click on your nearest national flag.
For those wanting something a bit more special, we're offering 30 signed books with slip-cases - a great way to display and protect the book on your desk or book-shelf. These slip-cased, signed books, can be dedicated to colleagues, friends, or directly to yourself, if you so wish. The slip-cased books come at a premium price because they weigh a lot more and have to be despatched from our base in New Zealand. We'll ship you the books but we're keeping the sunshine, fine wines, exquisite scenery, and unique culture to ourselves..!
I am no longer a cycling photographer. If you want, you can now refer to me as a ex-cycling photographer or as a former cycling photographer. Yes, after almost 45 years as a professional photographer and 38 years of that as a cycling photographer I am retiring – my last race was the Tour Down Under in January. I turned 60 years-of-age last March and began finalising a plan that had been fermenting in my mind since five years earlier. I had always wanted to stop at 60, reasoning that my vision and reflexes would be left intact if I stopped now – stay too long and the quality and commitment were bound to fall at some stage. By stopping at 60 I also have the chance to discover other things in life, or at the very least get out on my bike more and maybe climb a few of the mountains I’ve photographed for so long. I have reasoned with myself that retirement is the biggest milestone a human being reaches, beyond getting married or buying one’s first home. So this was not a casual, easy decision to make nor carry out. Yet here I am, one day into retirement, sitting on our deck overlooking the Tasman Bay in Nelson, New Zealand, a glass of locally-produced Sauvignon Blanc in my hand, totally at peace with my new lifestyle.
That peace would not have been realised had I not enjoyed such a satisfying and rewarding career. From the moment I grabbed a lucky shot of Eddy Merckx on the Champs Elysees in 1977 – a shot that started my career after I won a small prize in a photo-competition at what is now ‘Cycling Weekly’ – to capturing the attacking moment when Richie Porte won the Tour Down Under on Willunga Hill last month, my career has been one long, unbroken, enjoyable, unforgettable, exciting, roller-coaster, highly successful adventure. You name the names; I’ve followed their whole careers. Think of Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon, Greg Lemond, Stephen Roche, Eric Vanderaerden, Pedro Delgado, Robert Millar, Sean Kelly, Phil Anderson, Andy Hampsten, Mario Cipollini, Miguel Indurain, Tony Rominger, Bjarne Riis, Laurent jalabert, Jan Ullrich, Chris Boardman, Erik Zabel, Marco Pantani, Stuart O’Grady, Johan Museeuw, Lance Armstrong, Paolo Bettini, Robbie McEwen, David Millar, Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Cadel Evans, Philippe Gilbert, Mark Cavendish, Alberto Contador, Bradley Wiggins, Alejandro Valverde, Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome – that’s a hefty lineage of champions I’ve photographed from amongst thousands of mere mortals.
Who is my favourite road cyclist, people often ask? I tell them Sean Kelly, a constant source of great photography when I was a young lad starting out. I then say Indurain came close, ahead of Fignon, Ullrich, Armstrong, Delgado and Wiggins. I also tell them that if I was just 21-years-of-age today, then Wiggins would be my favourite cyclist – the most enigmatic of them all, but as a five-times Olympic Gold medallist, multi World Champion, winner of a Tour de France and current holder of the Hour Record, he is by far the most talented cyclist I’ve ever photographed. My favourite track cyclist? Wow, who to choose from when I’ve seen greats like Danny Clark, Connie Paraskevin, Tony Doyle, Erika Salumae, Koichi Nakano, Lutz Hesslich, Sergei Kopylov, Urs Freuler, Michael Hubner, HH Oersted, ‘Eki’ Ekimov, Jens Feidler, Bruno Risi, Shane Kelly, Jens Lehmann, Florian Rousseau, Felicia Ballanger, Marty Nothstein, Arnaud Tournant, Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Anna Meares, Laura Trott and Jason Kenny. I’m no misogynist, and have envied the power and grace of the greatest women as well. Connie Carpenter, Jeannie Longo, Leontien Van Moorsel, Nicole Cooke, Lizzie Armitstead and – without doubt the greatest of them all – Marianne Vos are the true luminaries who’ve lit up that part of my career.
For the photographers out there, I started with a Pentax Spotmatic II in 1977, but then lived within the Nikon family for almost my entire career. An FE2 in 1978 started me on a 35-year spell with Nikon cameras and lenses, save for a moment of desperation that took me to using a Canon EOS 1 between 1996-1998. I’ve used each of Nikon’s flagship film cameras - the FM2, F2, F3, F4, F5 – before partially joining the digital revolution in 2001. The D1, D2, D2H, D3, D4, D4s, and now the D5 have been the camera loves of my life, they’ll never be forgotten! Somewhere along the way I crossed to the dark side of photography, switching from manual focus to auto-focus with more than a small dose of guilt. But by then I’d captured on-film my favourite all-time image - of Hinault and Lemond on Alpe d’Huez - photographed with a totally manual Bronica ETRs. To close out this chronology of technology, I can boast that I started out printing from glass negatives in a London studio in 1972 after photographing aristocracy with a wooden Kodak Specialist camera. I learnt to use a 35mm SLR camera for that 1977 Tour visit and shot black & white film until decent colour slide film came along in the mid-1980’s. I used to take a mobile film lab to the races in the mid-90’s to develop those slides and then scanned them in before e-mailing them to clients as the digital age slowly took off. I switched to an all-digital platform in the middle of the 2003 Tour, having run both forms of photography for a few years. Processing film and scanning-in slides was replaced by late-night editing of 500 images a day, a task that often jeopardised the chance of finding a good restaurant still open. To round off my ancient-to-modern career, and to guarantee an earlier meal, I have for the past two years been transmitting images directly from the camera – a far quicker, more satisfying, healthier way to work. In some ways it’s a shame I’m stopping, just as things were getting easier!
Now, the big question – will I miss this fantastic, crazy, wonderful sport and its unique lifestyle? Yes, for sure, though I’ve yet to know which parts I’ll miss the most. I will miss the races, but not all of them – too many events clash or cross over, and it’s impossible to enjoy everything with so much to take in. I’ll miss the true classics, like Omloop, Strade Bianche, E3, Wevelgem, Flanders, Roubaix, Liege and Lombardy. But I’ll miss the stage-races the most, especially Paris-Nice, the Giro, Vuelta, Romandie, and Suisse. I won’t miss the Tour as much as people might think– it’s become a claustrophobic colossus that is not always as enjoyable as I’d like, even though it dwarfs all other grand tours. More than the races, I think I’ll miss the fun of travel-planning, of the subsequent adventures, the chase of a good meal and good wine, the intimacy of an evening spent with your car and motor-bike drivers, or the camaraderie with colleagues when the rain is pouring down during a TT and we’ve all left our Gore-Tex, camera-condoms, and umbrellas behind. I know I’ll especially miss the excuse of buying the latest photographic gear, simply because I could buy it. Much more than this, I’ll miss watching my boys racing their hearts out. If I’ve followed some of the greatest champions through their entire careers, I’m signing off without seeing how good Esteban Chaves, Caleb Ewan or Fabio Aru might become – or which of the Yates brothers makes it to the very top, if they don’t both make it there. Is Dan McLay the next Cavendish, will Boonen win a fourth Flanders or a fifth Roubaix this spring? Can Ian Stannard spoil Boonen’s dream in Roubaix? I’d better go out and buy a decent TV…
I cannot sign off for good without acknowledging the help of so many people who made my career last so long, and to some who helped make it possible in the first place. Journalists are a necessary ‘evil’, I like to jest – but they help smooth the photographer’s path into magazines, newspapers, web-sites and even into sponsors’ deep pockets. Top of the list has to be John Wilcockson, a doyenne of English-language journalism who guided me through my early years at Cyclist Monthly, Winning, Inside Cycling and Velo News. He even inspired me to write articles and blogs in my later years, so thanks mate! Rupert Guinness came along in the days of Winning, and we were still sharing yarns and drinking wines last week in Adelaide, 30 years on. In 2013 he became the best best-man I could ever have had! William Fotheringham became the new Wilcockson when he joined Cycling Weekly in 1989-1990 – his ability to write at-length and with such wisdom has never waned to this day. With Russian-speaking Will I visited Moscow for a 6-Day race and navigated its metro system with solely Cyrillic signage – I then survived Moscow’s dire communist-age gastronomy as well. I’ve brushed shoulders with so many Dutch, Belgian, Spanish, Italian, French, German, Japanese, Australian and American journalists too – each and every one of them led me to being published in all those different languages, either in magazines, newspapers or books. Yet, journalists aren’t exactly famous for spending money unnecessarily. Instead it is the publishers who have done that. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with the very best cycling publications in the world, including Cycling Weekly, Cycle Sport, Winning, Velo News, Bicycling, RIDE Review, Ciclismo a Fondo, Pro Cycling, Favoriet, Wieler Revue, Tour – to name just the biggest and the best. Thanks to the exploits of Lemond and Armstrong, my work has been seen in Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, and a handful of consumer related publications on both sides of the Atlantic. Some publishers have stayed with me for almost forty years, some for just 30 years, and some for a bit less – collectively, they formed a strong foundation on which I could do business and prosper. I thank them one and all.
Race-organisers have been many and multi-national, and some of them welcomed this oddball British photographer into their exclusive European world almost four decades ago – especially Jean-Marie Leblanc who let me into the 1987 Tour on a moto and opened an Aladdin’s cave of opportunity. In 1998, I became the UCI’s first-ever photographer, a not insignificant role that I only gave up last week, and with much regret, for they really are a nice bunch of people. Thanks must go to my many colourful moto-drivers who’ve kept me safe and sound and close enough to the cyclists to make my job easier. I’ve been driven by a Flemish abattoir owner, a Spanish hairdresser, an Italian customs officer, a French taxi-driver, an Australian police detective, a Basque donkey-breeder, a genuine California Highway Patrol officer (CHIPs!) and a whole host of others too. My current drivers, Walter Conte, Luke Evans and Serge Seynaeve deserve the biggest praise as it cannot be easy piloting a 60-year-old with nerves of steel who also thinks he knows it all. But none of this would have been possible had so many cyclists not done what they did and made my job that much more pleasurable and memorable. You’ll all be sorely missed.
The 2010 road season ended in Como last weekend, exactly nine months after it began in Adelaide with the Tour Down Under. The season ending coincided so perfectly with the announcement of the 2011 Tour de France route that will act as a conduit to the next season while we wait for the fun and games to begin again. Has it been a great season? I think so; 2010 has been a season of diversity with no one champion winning everything, but instead a lot of top riders producing their very best on given days. The races have been as exciting as ever, partly because no one cyclist has had the chance to impose himself day in, day out. Of course, we've had to deal with unsavoury things like Valverde's suspension and maybe an impending one for Contador – but, heck, cycling wouldn't be cycling without these setbacks, now would it?!
The highlights of my 2010 are quite clear and easily recalled in word and image. First off comes the Tour of Oman, a new race in February on the Arabian peninsula that became an instant hit because of its stunning scenery and welcoming hosts.
It's not officially on the 2011 calendar because of some administrative error, but it will take place for sure, and be sure I'll be going back there again; what a shame it can't be a mid-season event and have a bigger peloton too! Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne was probably the greatest one-day race of the season, coming as it did on the last weekend of February and run off in the most difficult conditions: rain, crashes, gales and cold combined to make this a major test for one and all, I won't forget that day for a long time to come! Paris-Nice was as brutal in terms of weather, but resulted in a well-earned win for Contador after some mighty battles against fellow Spaniards Valverde and Luis Sanchez.
Fabian Cancellara nailed a great Classics double by soloing to victory in both Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. If there was one man who dominated 2010 it was the Swiss rider, who later imposed himself at the Tour, Vuelta and Worlds. The Classics' wins of Cancellara incited scrutiny by the UCI for alleged use of a motorized bicycle and made for some funny post-race checks with an airport x-ray machine until the UCI realized they'd been a victim of their own paranoia! The machines disappeared after the Tour de France, especially after Cancelllara had won the penultimate day TT at over 50-kms-per hour, without a motorised toy. World Champion Cadel Evans won Fleche Wallonne on a new, tougher, course and his gutsy victory was imitated a few days later when Alexandre Vinokourov won Liege after a long breakaway with fellow toughie, Alexandre Kolobnev. The Tour de Romandie introduced the world to Australia's Richie Porte, who won the race's main TT and attracted a protest by rival team managers who just could not believe Porte had ridden that fast for so long! Romandie went to that unwanted pest Valverde, after a last-stage battle with Michael Rogers, who would go on to win the Tour of California in May.
The Giro d'Italia was not just the best stage-race of the season – I rate it as the best stage-race of my entire career! From day one in The Netherlands to the last-day TT into Verona, the Giro was a roller-coaster of a ride for anyone racing in it or simply following it.
Winds, atrocious weather, courageous racing and so-scary a mountainous route conspired to set this Giro as the benchmark for all other three-week races to refer to. Ivan Basso won after a mighty battle with Evans on the Zoncolan, but the sport of cycling won even more, thanks to the audacity of the Giro organisers. We're just a week away from hearing of the 2011 Giro route – can it get any better, I ask? I'll never forget the stage to Montalcino, on those famous white roads, when Evans and Vinokourov went head-to-head, when Basso and Nibali lost two minutes, and when Sky's Bradley Wiggins pedalled headlong into a proverbial wall of fatigue, pain and desolation. Many people point at the Tour de France of Wiggins as his nightmare ride. But the writing was on the wall in Tuscany, for Team Sky would never be the same again in 2010.
Jani Brajkovic won the Dauphiné-Libéré for Radio Shack, to put a new face on the list of the season's winners. The Slovenian smoothie beat none other than Contador, who even then was displaying signs that he was not in the same form as 2009. The Dauphine established a new star in Tejay VanGarderen - the young American took 3rd-overall in his first major stage race in Europe! The Dauphiné was under new ownership at ASO, and couldn't have wanted for a better race, route, and outcome, one month short of the Tour starting. The Tour de Suisse was a week of atrocity in conditions equal to anything the
Giro had – and maybe even worse, given that it was held in the middle of June! Lance Armstrong had his final Tour warm-up in Switzerland, and contributed both his athleticism and stardom to an otherwise mediocre event on a course once again designed for Cancellara. But the overall winner was Frank Schleck, who produced an amazing last-day TT to hold off an Armstrong on the brink of a morale-boosting win after crashing out of the Tour of California a month earlier.
The 2010 Tour de France will be remembered for the contentious way in which Contador took the yellow jersey after apparently attacking Andy Schleck who'd unshipped his chain in the Pyrenees. This Tour will not be remembered for much else, certainly not the lack of animosity that emerged after such a delicate moment, and certainly not for the way in which Contador won. It was as if Schleck and Contador had made a quiet peace after that stage into Luchon, that Schleck could win the queen stage to the Tourmalet while Contador would take the final honours. We'll never know if Schleck could have won the Tour, for he never really tried on the Tourmalet, perhaps believing his woeful time trialling would hand the race to Contador anyway. In fact Schleck scared Contador on that Pauillac TT, and his losing margin overall was exactly his loss on the mountain above Luchon – 49-seconds! What might have been had Schleck attacked? I prefer to remember this Tour for the sprinting comeback of Mark Cavendish, for whom all seemed lost after the five opening stages – the Manxman's five stage-wins ignited the Tour between mountain stages – and for the brutal racing on stages two and three that ruined Armstrong's chances of winning an eighth Tour.
Given the quietness of the months of August and September, it is just as well the Vuelta a Espana was the blockbuster of a race it became – the season needed it after such an unsatisfactory Tour. Like the Giro many months earlier, the Vuelta rarely had a dull day, not even in the heat-seared stages of the south when you could have cooked fried eggs on the roads the race used. This was a Vuelta missing Valverde, Contador and Sammy Sanchez – Spain's most popular cyclists – and missing Andy Schlck and Robert Gesink as well. But any thoughts of mediocrity in the racing went out of the window right away. A series of nasty uphill finishes stirred the G.C from day three onwards, while sprinters like Farrar, Cavendish, Petacchi, Hushovd and Hutarovich entertained us on the days between climbing skirmishes. I cannot remember a Vuelta that was so pretty, that found new routes in familiar regions, and that maintained its beauty and drama right to the end. Like the Giro, its Spanish sister used audacious choices to keep everyone on their toes until the very end, or at least until the risky use of the sheer ascent of the Bola del Mundo, above the ski-resort of Nevaccerada. As it should be, the strongest cyclist won – Vincenzo Nibali – but Spain took a victory in the performances of Joachin Rodriguez who, unlike Nibali, actually won stages!
The rest of 2010 we know already. A stupendous World Championships in Geelong led to a so-so Paris-Tours and a wet, cold, and highly challenging Giro di Lombardia, won in spectacular fashion by Philippe Gilbert. What more can we want from such a long season? 2010 had just about everything for the cycling fan. Only the Tour disappoints, a situation not helped by the dilemma facing Contador, until now such a squeaky-clean rider. His situation compounds what has been a highly complicated transfer market since July, with the Schleck brothers and many of their mates leaving Saxo Bank, and Contador joining that team in their place. One wonders what Bjarne Riis will do without Contador, if the worse case scenario emerges. Well, the crafty Dane is a survivor and will find alternative talent if Contador gets banned. Whatever, 2011 will arrive sooner than we realise, and with quite a number of visual changes. No Milram, no BBox, but a brace of new teams or sponsors coming in, with all the excitement and speculation it creates. Things evolve all the time in cycling, but I think we are on the verge of an exciting new era. The 'old guard' as we know it is changing, both in terms of riders and team managers. Roll on 2011 – it's just a few months away already!
The 2010 Vuelta Espana got off to a spectacular start last night under the street lights and scorching heat of Sevilla. Most significant was the fact that HTC-Columbia won with a relative ease and that Mark Cavendish took the race-leader's red jersey. Why was that so significant then? Because the Columbia team contains at
least three top contenders for the World Road Championships that start two weeks after the Vuelta ends. Cavendish and his teammates, Matt Goss and Bernhard Eisel, will play a crucial role in the outcome of the World Championships, and the fact that they beat sprinting rivals like Tyler Farrar, Alessandro Petacchi, Thor Hushovd, Filippo Pozzato and Allan Davis by a decent margin will send shivers down everyones' back. Sprinters are meant to sprint, just that, but Cavendish in particular has sent out a message that there's more to him that just a pair of fast legs.
The fact is this Vuelta, more than any before it, will be overshadowed by the proximity of the Worlds, no matter how good the racing is in the next three weeks. This year's race appears to have all the world's best sprinters in it, and most of them might actually go all the way to Madrid given the gap to the Worlds starting. There are overall challengers like Denis Menchov, Carlos Sastre, the Schleck brothers – don't be fooled by Andy saying he's working for Frank – Roman Kreuziger, Luis Leon Sanchez and perhaps Tom Danielson to enjoy in the mountains. But by and large this will be a race remembered for the sprinting stages, of which there appear to be at least six or seven coming up. The heat cannot be greater than it was in Sevilla, and although the temperatures will dip in the coming days, there will be a mighty toll on cyclists' bodies as the race enters the mountains in the last ten days. It is there that this 75th anniversary Vuelta will be decided…
Much of the other news in Sevilla centred around the sudden closure of the Cervelo team, and the subsequent stampede to find places for riders and personnel, and for sponsors to suddenly contemplate a 2011 with no team or riders to endorse. There's more to the Cervelo story that might never come out, but it seems they have caught a cold by being the primary sponsor instead of a co-sponsor and bike supplier, as is the norm. The fact that they have twinned with Garmin for 2011 suggests their sudden departure wasn't thought up overnight, and that perhaps their cyclists have every right to complain about the manner in which they were, effectively, fired. Up to eight cyclists are expected to join Garmin-Cervelo, as the new team will be called, which in turn reveals a knock-on effect of present-day Garmin riders moving on the pastures anew. It's hard to imagine Farrar moving on from a team that's been so good to him, but one never knows, given that rival sprinter Hushovd is apparently on that list of riders joining.
Yes, the Vuelta is happening, and happening right now, but it is the news around it that makes more interesting reading with the race barely on to the open plains of Andalucia. Aside from Garmin-Cervelo, the world of cycling is studying with amazement the growth of new teams in a year when it seemed the financial crisis might really start to hurt. Milram seems to definitely be a goner, but Saxo Bank, Caisse, Footon-Servetto and BBox have actually renewed or been salvaged by new sponsors. Incredibly, the Schlecks have decided to start their own team in Luxembourg and another team, Fly V Australia, is trying desperately to break into the ProTour ranks. I suspect that until the Cervelo news, both these latter teams had no idea how to gain the required level of talent to enable it to join the top-tier. Now they have the pick of some of the best cyclists on the market, and the sport seems as healthy as ever it was - what a funny world we all live in!
We will be doing daily up-dates from the Vuelta each evening, and the same updates can be seen on my iPhone app, GW Image Gallery, usually the very next morning. It's been a busy month since the Tour de France ended, but it was with great relief that I picked up my freshly serviced and cleaned cameras in Sevilla for another three-week reportage. Between doing the Tour I've prepared my 2011 Cycling Calendar, had a cycling holiday in the Swiss Alps, and then got to work preparing a huge photo-exhibition for the Geelong World Championships. "Eyes on the World" will take the spirit of my 2007 London exhibit to Australia on September 26th, giving visitors to the races a fantastic chance to see, and buy, some of my greatest shots. See my Twitter page for more details as they emerge, but essentially this will be one of the grandest exhibitions I've put on. So enjoy the Vuelta, but think also of the Worlds – they'll be with us sooner than you can realise!
Just another race, right..? In many ways the Tour de France is just another bike race, after all the Giro and Vuelta last the same number of days, and often cover the same distance, and even have some of the same cyclists as the Tour. But that's where any similarities stop, for the Tour at its best is quite unlike any other bike race – and it is always at its best when the racing
prior to the Tour has already been exceptional. Since I last wrote a blog here, the racing in the Giro, Tour of California, Dauphiné-Liberé and Tour de Suisse has been of such a special vintage that it makes this year's Tour even more exciting. Like a child who's discovered a bar of chocolate for the first time, we all want more and more of the best racing there is. I really believe this July will give us that extra dose of entertainment like never before - the ingredients are all there for the taking.
Consider 2009 – the brilliant victory by Contador that came in the face of in-team rivalry from Armstrong, and which led to Radio Shack being formed in direct competition to Astana. Consider that Armstrong wants better than 3rd in 2010, but that
Contador wants to really hammer home his talent on a team that is totally his this July; Contador believes his winning margin in 2009 would have been doubled if he'd been allowed to race for himself. With all respect to Andy Schleck, I believe the battle between Contador and Armstrong will overshadow any other element of the great race and, not allowing for an accident putting one of the two 'stars out of contention, Contador and Armstrong will take 1st and 2nd places in Paris. 3rd place? Bradley Wiggins over Schleck – the Brit's time trialling on the penultimate stage will put him on the podium!
Of course the Tour is bigger than Contador and Armstrong and Wiggins put together. But it will not be until we have entered France on stage three, and after those nasty cobblestones have been dealt with, that the real Tour can emerge in its own right. A Prologue TT is always the perfect appetizer for fans and cyclists alike, but the stages that follow this year's Prologue carry an air of anticipation unlike anything seen in recent Tours de France. The north-sea winds that blew the Giro to pieces back in May will blow
even stronger in July, and have a far greater impact when stage one of the Tour sets out from Rotterdam along the coastal regions and sea-bridges of Zeeland. This is where Contador will face his great first challenge from Shack, Saxo, Rabobank, Garmin, Sky and any other team determined to unseat the spindly climber before he has a chance to work his own magic. Survive he might, but Contador has a worse obstacle in his way two days later – the feared cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix.
The Tour will be exciting whatever the outcome is after stages one and three. But if Contador has lost significant time on one or both stages, then a whole new race will unfold. If his expected time losses only amount to a minute or two, then his rivals' efforts will have been wasted,
for Contador can win a few minutes back in the Alps, even before the Pyrenees have even been reached. But if such losses amount to four or five minutes in total, then the challenge facing Contador will be far greater – it is that sort of time difference Armstrong and his co-conspirators are aiming to achieve. Everyone has something to gain by crushing Contador early-on. Consider that Wiggins, Menchov, Cancellara, the Schlecks, Hincapie, Devolder, Farrar, Hushovd – the list is endless – all have ambitions for the yellow AND green jerseys. And that Cavendish and Vande Velde might become their victims as well if the racing is that fast and furious!
The Alps at first look to be easy – that's a very relative word – but on closer inspection the Tour is crossing some big mountains on the way south. Morzine-Avoriaz will hurt a lot of contenders one week into the race, followed by a very heavy Alpine stage the next day where the Col de la Madeleine is to be climbed from the north for the first time since 2001. Even so, there'll be a lot of shaking up to be done on the G.C when the Pyrenees begins its four-day play at the start of the 3rd week.
If the weather stays as hot as it is right now, the effect on a peloton barely acclimatised to heat after such a cool spring is going to be startling. Armstrong might spend time in Hawaii, Wiggins may have moved to Girona in Spain for the higher temperatures, but it is Contador who stands most to gain if it gets very hot. The big question is how much time he has to make up, if any, because of those first stages in the North. Well, the Col du Tourmalet will be the Mont Ventoux of 2010 – and anything can happen on its fearsome slopes!
There are other people in this Tour aside from my favoured few, for the Tour always throws up wonderful surprises – it wouldn't be the Tour otherwise! Carlos Sastre is not the man he was in 2008, yet he always comes on strong in the 3rd week; the Spaniard will almost certainly lose considerable time
on stages one and three and could side with Contador if it was in his best interests to. Let's also think the unthinkable – that Alexandre Vinokourov could become a top GC contender if things go his way. The punchy Kazakh could stay with the big boys on those opening stages, for I do not believe he'll be asked to help Contador at such an early stage. Imagine if Contador loses a few minutes to Vinokourov on the cobbles. Then imagine what tactics Astana could employ in the Pyrenees - Vinokourov attacks, Shack chases, Contador counters…or not! Is there a secret plan amongst Astana to get Vinokourov on that final podium, even at Contador's expense?
I fully expect the 'Spanish armada' to come to Contador's aid if he needs them. Caisse d'Epargne, with no Valverde but with Luis Leon Sanchez, will be Contador's closest ally against a combine that might form between Shack, Saxo, Sky and Rabobank. Euskatel used to side with 'Postal and Discovery,
but they too might help Contador this July, for with Caisse dissolving end-2010 a lot of Spanish cyclists will be looking to Contador for employment in 2010. One man who used to side with Armstrong is Ivan Basso, winner of this year's Giro and a potential favourite for the Tour if he has recovered in time. His Liquigas squad is armed with big men for the flat stages and sparrowy climbers for the mountains, and we may see a remake of the 2004-2005 Tours where Basso and Armstrong rode as one against their many rivals. Which is why the long TT near Bordeaux might yet decide the final podium.
Despite the enormous rivalry between the top men, this Tour will have several other faces to it. Tyler Farrar is getting faster at sprinting, and his Garmin team have the right lead-out men now. If, if, Cavendish is below his best, the sprint-finishes will have a whole life of their own, with Hushovd up there to get points for the green jersey and a dozen other hopefuls locking arms and elbows as well. This will be a Tour more French than normal, for how well have France's cyclists already performed in 2010? Cofidis, FDJ and AG2R are lining up for opportunistic stage-wins, several of them, in a race that might become 'blocked' by the bigger teams' ambitions… The Lance-factor is certain to bring thousands more to the roadsides to watch, maybe more than
in 2009 when American tourists were un-prepared for his comeback. As well as a fully psyched-up Lance – one rumoured to have re-found his climbing accelerations of old - they'll see the greatest sporting event of this summer, regardless of the football world cup and Wimbledon tennis. I expect the scenic highlights to be the hoped-for sunflowers between the Alps and Pyrenees, as well as the climbs of Madeleine, Aubisque, Soulor and the double-ascension of the Tourmalet. Not to mention Paris herself. Be there or be square..!
It would be an understatement to say this Giro d'Italia has had one of the most exciting few days of any Giro that's gone before. It didn't do any harm to start the race in bike-mad Holland, where hundreds of thousands of Dutch fans turned out to support the visit of the Giro to their country – and they got a feast of hard-core racing for their trouble.
Wind, rain, crashes and that exuberant support in The Netherlands sent this Giro back to Italy glowing with pride, and I suspect the drama won't end until we reach Verona
on May 30th. Just who the winner will be remains far from certain after four stages, for the key elements of this Giro won't be seen before the final week in the Dolomites. Alexandre Vinokourov, Ivan Basso, Cadel Evans, Carlos Sastre and Vincenzo Nibali seem to be the main contenders at the moment, but the mountains will always force more names to the fore.
The Giro will, for once, have to share its glory with another race this year, because the Tour of California sets off in its new pre-summer life on May 16th, with an eight-day jaunt down from Nevada City to Thousand Oaks that promises to be as captivating as this Giro has been to-date.
Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, David Zabriskie, Tom Boonen, Fabien Cancellara and Andy Schleck are the names to rival the stars in Italy, albeit on a course somewhat less challenging across the Atlantic. But anything lacking in the way of mountains will be more than compensated by the battle
for supremacy amongst teams like Radio Shack, Garmin-Transitions, Rabobank, Quick-Step, Cervelo and Saxo Bank. All these teams have American sponsors today, or want to find American sponsors for the 'morrow, so their fight will be quite memorable!
A few months ago I took the decision to follow all the Giro, sensing it would be a very special one to follow. In doing so, I have had to forfeit the Tour of California - now that was not an easy
decision to make. Happily, I've found the ideal replacement for me in Will Swetnam, who'll be covering the TOC from a motorbike and providing us with daily updates on www.grahamwatson.com Think of it: Giro d'Italia photos on this site each day followed,
same day, by Tour of California images - you've never had it so good! You can view each day's racing and see what really happened in both Giro and TOC, and even purchase prints from both events. I'll be a curious and certainly envious observer of the TOC from afar, while working to get the best out of this Giro and then comparing the winners of both races and the battles that were waged to find those winners. The Giro is too old and historical to worry about the TOC. But the TOC has a life all of its own and deserves equal attention – so let's enjoy both races!
Driving the six-hour journey down to the Tour of Romandie provides me with the time to reflect on the Classics season that ended with a thrilling Liege-Bastogne-Liege on April 25th, and with it the first phase of the 2010 season. We have learnt many things from the last month's racing. Firstly, the sport is alive with excitement and speculation, and is being watched by an ever-growing number of fans, as well as TV viewers from around the world. Secondly, the winners of the Classics have set out their stall for the remainder of the season and guaranteed further interest and debate as the summer stage-racing period is about to begin.
We know with a frightening certainty that Fabian Cancellara will win many more races this season, and those victories could well come in some quite unexpected circumstances. Cancellara trashed all opposition to win the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix with ease, and it is just a question of where he puts his power and grace to next. I wonder if Tom Boonen will ever be the same again, having suffered so publicly at the hands of his Swiss rival up their in the north of Europe?
It won't have gone unnoticed that there seems to be no young talent coming up to challenge Cancellara – his few rivals, Boonen, Hammond, Flecha and Hushovd are no spring chickens, whereas the man himself has age on his side and a glowing future. Cancellara won the Tour de Suisse last year, thanks to a mixture of a weak course, his strength to get over what few hard mountains there were, and his crucifying ability to race against the clock so much faster than anyone else and on any terrain. Could Cancellara win a grand tour? I think not, yet to see him try might in itself be a wonderful thing.
In a distinct reversal from previous years, the Ardennes classics turned out to be so much more exciting than the cobbled classics. They also gave us winners that help point the way through the summer races and beyond. Amstel Gold race, Fleche Wallonne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege – all three events were rich with talent and delivered only the best winners.
Philippe Gilbert found some unbeatable form to snatch a late victory in the Amstel, on a day when an early summer brought out hundreds of thousands of fans to watch the race. That single victory by Gilbert saved the season for Omega-Lotto and has allowed
Gilbert to save his best form for the World Championships in Australia, where he's also guaranteed full team support on a course that suits both his sprinting and climbing skills. His friend and ex-teamate, Cadel Evans, would have used Gilbert's victory to inspire him in the Fleche Wallonne, a race Evans won as the reigning World Champion to bring so much happiness to the true fans of cycling. Evans has come of age since winning the Worlds in Mendrisio and has taken the responsibility of wearing that rainbow jersey with utmost sincerity. Yet the best is yet to come I think – let's now see if Evans can win the Giro d'Italia, shall we..?
Alexandre Vinokourov put himself up as a Giro contender by winning L-B-L in such a powerful way, yet the speed with which Vino' has come back to winning ways after his suspension has sent out alarm calls to any self-respecting lover of this sport. Yet to deny Vinokourov his moment of glory is as dishonest and shameful as was the fact that Vino' took drugs to win so many races in the past. L-B-L was the hardest of the classics in 2010,
as it usually is, and Vinokourov was the hardest competitor in it. If his strength was ever found to be because of illegal drug assistance, then it's all over for him. But Vino' has served his time according to the rules and returned to race – and be tested – according to the rules. Keep your fingers crossed that L-B-L was won by a clean rider, it's not too much to ask for… Vinokourov's successful return has
added a shine to the armoury of Astana, a team that appeared to be struggling to support its Spanish leader. Alberto Contador now knows he has a powerful captain to keep the troops in-line for July, and to ensure that only the best Kazakhs make it on to the team in support. And Vinokourov can go to the Giro with greater ambitions than seemed likely even one week ago. But, to win that three-week race? No, I d not think it is possible…
There probably won't be another blog by me until the Giro is over in late-May. By then we'll know who's won, who's lost, or who crashed out while trying to win. With Mark Cavendish in California,
the Italian sprinters could expect to win the bulk of the sprinting stages in Italy – of which there seem to be many. But they'll still have Andre Greipel and Tyler Farrar to beat, now that won't be easy. And expect the foreigners to dominate in the mountains – of which, also, there seem to be so many! No-one knows exactly where
or how Ivan Basso is these days, yet if he takes the start in Amsterdam on May 8th it is not to make a fool of himself. Basso is likely to be the best chance Italy has at winning its home race, yet I cannot see him matching the likes of Evans and Sastre when it most matters, and he has to deal with teammate Franco Pellizotti as well as Michele Scarponi. I'll be looking closely at the performance of Bradley Wiggins in his quest to become a talent in grand tours. The Prologue in Amsterdam, and then the TTT a few days later, favour the Brit and his Sky team more than most. But it's the mountains of the last week that will provide the final verdict. And for those I cannot wait!
It's hard to imagine that my last blog was posted way back on 4th February, just after the cyclo-cross worlds and right before the first European races started. Fact is, I've travelled that much, and that far, to the point where only now can I think clearly enough to post some fresh words. Spain, Oman, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, and then France - from where I'm just back after Paris-Nice – offered me an awful lot of racing to photograph and different cultures to experience. And I can assure you I've had few disappointments along the way. Six weeks ago I talked of the contrasts between Tour Down Under and World Cyclo-Crosschampionships; this offering compares the joyful discovery that was the Tour of Oman, with the solid, stable and highly exciting Paris-Nice – the season's true starting point in my opinion.
When a new race like Oman comes along, as did the Tour of California in 2005, inevitable suggestions are made declaring such new events as the future of cycling – and few can criticise those comments, for it reveals genuine hope and support for our sport. However, to have seen so many different races in February and to then see a really big one – Paris-Nice – sends such well-founded beliefs to the four winds. It is hard to describe the suspense of seeing 190 of the worlds' best cyclists racing their hearts out across the French countryside, all that training and warm-up racing a thing of the immediate past, so eyeballs-out has been the real stuff. And at the end of it emerges Alberto Contador, far from his best form but still a highly potent individual when he needs to be.
On his newly managed Astana team, Contador had a lot of pressure on him to win, and win well. He did just that and sent another warning to his rivals and critics – the Spaniard will be a hard man to beat come July, as well as in the months of April, May and June. Paris-Nice offered many more delights other than Contador. There was the horribly cold weather, and a fearful wind that blew the race south all the way from Paris, but which blew some riders off the road along the way. And then there was the discovery of a youthful talent called Peter Sagan - at just 20 years, now a double stage-winner of the race! Sagan did enough to trouble not just the pure sprinters but the G.C guys as well. The Spanish-flavoured teams of Valverde, Sammy Sanchez and Contador acted as a tough armada that will repeat itself in the Tour de France. But Sagan got in there with them and caused some strife, even if the Spaniards won through at the end. I wonder what the Slovakian could do if he rides some of the Classics like Wevelgem, Flanders, Roubaix and Amstel?
Talking of the Classics reminds me of the over-riding characteristic of the past month's racing – the virtual lack of a sprinting figurehead. Sure, we've seen Italy's fastmen winning in Oman and Italy – Bennati, Petacchi and Chicchi – but to-date we have seen so little of Cavendish, Farrar and Hushovd when it matters. If the injury-troubled Robbie McEwen will forgive me, these last three (and TDU winner Andre Greipel) are undoubtedly the best sprinters in the business – but why haven't they shown themselves yet? Instead, it has been the Italians, plus Boonen, Freire, Hunter, Bos and Henderson who are out in front. Even Heinrich Haussler seems all out of sorts on the eve of Milan San Remo, a race so often won in a mass sprint. Is the season-ending World Championships figuring too heavily on the minds of the best sprinters? Or are they just hiding from mind and view to then bounce ahead in San Remo? The Italian Classic is not a place to hide oneself as a sprinter – the mild climbs of Cipressa and Poggio will make sure only the strongest sprinter wins, if indeed it ends in a sprint.
I'm forsaking the established attractions of the following Classic – Ghent Wevelgem – to discover the less-known charms of Corsica, thanks to the Criterium International moving itself there, AND getting Lance Armstrong to race in it. Leaving Wevelgem out of my schedule hurts, and I hope it is for just this one year when I do so. But a combination of Corsica and Armstrong is a strong pull in such an important year for the American. Besides, it is Wevelgem that has moved dates, not the other way around, and I'm remaining loyal to a victim of its switch in the calendar. I have spent many moments of many evenings with foreign journalists and photographers this past month, and each and every one of them wants to know how well Lance is looking and racing. I tell them he looks great – well, he always looks great – and looks leaner and fitter than in 2009. I tell them he looks more like a cyclist than in 2009, and that he's more motivated than ever to get closer to Contador in the Tour. In the past week I've used my latest imagery of Lance in Murcia to illustrate those beliefs. Lance transformed that modest Spanish race into a world event, racing with a steely determination but also with a wicked sense of fun. That 25% of the peloton were amateurs or semi professionals didn't matter – he mingled with, and raced amongst them, with equal respect - and left all of them with some great memories.
With San Remo, Criterium, Flanders and Amstel on Lance's immediate schedule, it is going to be a fascinating period of racing – I just wish he'd race in Paris-Roubaix as well! I cannot see Cancellara, Boonen, Hushovd and Devolder not being in at the kill for these races, but who else? Sky's Edvald Boasson Hagen must be a candidate in Roubaix after his Omloop success, as too could be Filippo Pozzato, who's in dire need of a big win to match the flamboyance of his all-Italy outfit. The French are on something of a roll these days, with the mysterious Sylvain Chavanel lying and waiting for his Classics chance – but which Classic? If I am excited about the prospects for San Remo and Criterium, then I'm decidedly going stir-fry about Flanders and Roubaix. Seeing as the BMC team has imposed itself at our favoured Kortrijk hotel, we'll be seeing lots of the Hincapie clan – the brother and the father of George in particular. George has been a part of my Classics experience for about fifteen years, and he remains to this day a photogenic diamond for my camera. We're sure to drink enough beer and wine to last a lifetime if George can come up with a big win again – but he's not allowed to win Ghent-Wevelgem, now that would really hurt.
I'll close this piece by highlighting my favourite events of the past six weeks. Oman was a real eye-opener, a country full of wonderful people - and scenery to die for. Thousands cheered on the race as it sped across the desert or through built-up towns and tiny villages. The green, black and red Omani flag was flown everywhere, as if the French organisers had exported a version of their renowned chauvinism to a part of Arabia hitherto unknown for such public demonstrations. If the scenery was good, then the support for the race was quite outrageous. The night-time opening stage was at once both humorous and quite dangerous, but provided the best entertainment by far. The only problem is that the Sultan of Oman wants more of the same – nocturnal racing, with tens of thousands of people watching. In complete contrast to Oman came my racing highlight of this young season – Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. The rain, the wind, the cobblestones and the cold provided the basis for a very nasty day out. But it was the nature of the racing that provided the extra gloss to this semi-classic. In this modern era of cycling, it is so rare to see and enjoy a true fight to the line, yet that is what we got when Hushovd, Hayden Roulston and Jeremy Hunt battled for the last 50-kilometres to chase down a trio of supposedly lesser men. A 30-seconds gap was never closed and when Hunt, then Hushovd, blew to pieces in the wind and cold, it was a testimony to the conditions and the firepower of the men in front. Remember the names of Ian Stannard, Rick Flens and Bobby Tracksel (the winner) as this season rolls along – their performance in Kuurne guarantees further stardom is waiting around the corner.
The 2010 World Cyclo-Cross championships are now over, a pivotal moment each year that coincides with the European road season getting underway. Between watching the Tour Down Under cyclists perform in the searing heat of Australia, then enjoying the icy-cold spectacle of the 'cross worlds in Tabor, while at the same time searching for the results of the opening races in France and Italy, I'm starting to go all feral at the prospects for the new racing season. Already we can see sprinters like Andre Griepel and Alessandro Petacchi are in tip-top form, but that the likes of Cavendish, Bennati and Farrar have yet to pedal a sprint in anger – it might not be until Milan San Remo that we see their first real clash. We saw in Australia that Lance Armstrong is looking leaner and fitter than one year earlier – hungrier too if you ask me. His arch-rival, Alberto Contador, will start his season in a few weeks time, all the more determined to show that he too is relishing the seasons' prospects – these two 'stars are not due to clash until Liege-Bastogne-Liege at the earliest, and maybe not even before the Tour de France; now how sad is that?!
Yet the weeks will start to fly past now the season is up-and-running. Already my mind is on the races in March, with Paris-Nice and San Remo the two great targets to savour. And, just as February quickly becomes March, so does March mould into April, the month of the great one-day Classics. We'll see a lot from men like Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Leif Hoste, Alessandro Ballan, Thor Hushovd and Stijn Devolder in the coming weeks, but their anticipated wins and performances in February will mean next to nothing if it isn't followed by a major Classic victory as well. Ballan is on the enriched BMC team and as such is an unknown quantity against his better-supported rivals. But any speculation about his chances must be balanced by the ambitions of Sky's Boasson Hagen, a youngster expected to perform as well as in the 2009 Ghent Wevelgem by his new employers. A third equation to throw into the second-tier challengers is Gert Steegmans, Radio Shack's obvious Classics leader who must prove his mettle if he is to garner the team's mighty support.
BMC, SKY and Radio Shack all raced with intent and purpose in the Tour Down Under, which, although a long way from proving anything solid, hints at some great fights as the weeks and months flow past. Team Columbia proved in Australia that they will still be an enormous obstacle in anyone else's path, regardless of the talent that went to other teams at the end of 2009. I enjoyed seeing George Hincapie in his 'Captain America' colours for the first time, and seeing the power of New Zealand's Hayden Roulston as he ploughed away at the head of the Columbia train – these two tall gentlemen have lent their talents to new squads and seem all the more refreshed for it. This was the first TDU in years that saw Australia's cyclists eclipsed by Europeans. Normally, the heat and mid-January date favour the local riders, but this was not the case in 2010. Truth be told, Aussie sprinters are unsure about how to approach a season that could see one of them winning the World Championship in Melbourne – as long as they don't race too hard too early in the season.
Because of this, I'll be looking long and hard at two sprinters in particular this Spring. Robbie McEwen and Tom Boonen have their own particular walls to climb if Melbourne is to be their swansong World Championship. McEwen has suffered some awful injuries in recent years, while Boonen's problems are more psychological than physical – both riders badly need a good Classics campaign to solidify their confidence and standing within their teams. Younger fastmen are moving closer to team-leader status in Australia and Belgium, so McEwen and Boonen have a lot to prove. The TDU showed that there is so much talent out there in 2010, more than I can ever remember before. Behind the brazen sprinting prowess of Greipel, Henderson and Sutton came stage-racing specialists like Armstrong, Valverde and Luis Leon Sanchez – each of them supported by foot soldiers quite capable of winning races themselves. Radio Shack had Daryl Impey on view, and the South African fitted in so very well, helping to launch the stage four attack that sent Lance down the road at a great rate of knots. Sky had a guy like Matthew Hayman to propel its sprinters along – yet the Australian is capable of much, much, more if he's allowed to take his chances.
In contrast to this came Jack Bobridge, the young recruit at Garmin who scorched the TDU in 2009 as an amateur but who discovered a more daunting task was facing him in 2010. Bobridge suffered all week, partly because the pressure was on him to perform as well as in 2009 when there'd been no pressure at all. The South Australian is hugely talented, but he has to learn to walk before he can run, so to speak. Since his disappointing (for him) week in Adelaide, Bobridge has gone on to set the second-fastest pursuit in history at the Australian national track championships, so all is well with the kid even if his form may not always be there when he needs it. If there is a problem with the Tour Down Under, it is that we will have to wait weeks or months before seeing such a star-studded peloton racing again. The 40 or so 'professional' teams in existence will be spread over several continents in the coming month, with a huge variety of winners and losers for us to enjoy and appreciate. I know it will be strange to see people like Greipel, Bobdridge, Sutton, Henderson and Hincapie getting their faces covered in mud so soon after the Australian sunshine!
Back when I was a youngster trying to make my name, which seems a long time ago now, one of my great loves was the world of cyclo-cross. I'd travel northern Europe in the worst of weathers to capture the heroics of men like Roland Liboton, Albert Zweifel, Klaus-Peter Thaler, Hennie Stamsnijder, Pascal Richard and even Johan Museeuw as they earned their money the hard way by running and riding a bike in the mud. In recent years, the sport has become the domain of the Dutch and Belgians, racing on fast courses that more resemble a BMX track or criterium circuit than a cyclo-cross race. But this one visit to Tabor has served to remind me what a tough and challenging sport cyclo-cross really is. I just don't believe how fast men and women can race over slippery snow and ice, how they can stay upright in such atrocious conditions – and how they can then get off and run through the slushy mess as well! So yes, the World Cyclo-Cross races were fun, great fun, as was an all-too short visit to Prague, one of the great cities of Europe, without doubt. We even got a new-look World Champion in Zdenek Stybar, and now the Belgians have finally been beaten!
Our next full race update will come from Oman, the Tour of Oman, between 14th & 19th February, although I'll be making short visits to a Radio Shack training camp before that and a day here and there in the Ruta del Sol and Tour of the Algarve. February ends with the first 'classic' of the season, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad/Het Volk, which will be a major ambition for many of the sprinters who raced in Australia. Then, as the saying goes, the season really starts! Regular visitors to this site will have noticed the changes being made, and which are still being made. We've listened and learned from the many comments made by our visitors, and are trying to make the site as user-friendly and attractive as possible. Our on-line store overhaul has proved to be the toughest challenge, but we believe we are almost there and ready to re-launch any day soon. To propel interest in the site and our updates, I've become a Twitterer, and you can follow me at 'grahamwatson10' if you wish. '10' was the best I could get, for a Euro MP had already grabbed 'grahamwatson' and some other Graham Watson took 'grahamwatson1' before I had a chance to get it. I've also developed an iPhone App – Graham Watson Image Gallery – which carries some race updates, as well as a link to this site. So we're all set for a truly big season. For some reason I think it will be one of the greatest seasons in a long time…
To look back on a fabulous decade or forward to a new one - that is the question facing me as 2009 becomes 2010 and a new season awaits right around the corner. It doesn't help that the most dominating figure of the past decade – Lance Armstrong – is still going strong on ambition and rude health, and may stretch his incredible career a year or two into this new era. Even his new Radio Shack team is a product and an extension of the Postal and Discovery teams that took Lance though those Tour de France wins between 1999 and 2005. To stretch the yarn a bit more, the only other Tour rider to dominate the last ten years – Alberto Contador – will be facing Armstrong as the new decade opens. So nothing's really changed, right? Wrong. A lot has changed, for behind the Lance-Alberto duet that has bookended the decade just ending, a whole new phalanx of racers is doing its level best to emerge – and emerge they will!
A serious look back anyway. Armstrong's second Tour victory in 2000 came after a first-ever battle with Jan Ullrich in a Tour that also saw Marco Pantani enter the fray again. The year 2000 will be remembered by many people for the Sydney Olympics, where Ullrich rode supreme against all-comers in a Games that may never be bettered. I've been to Athens and Beijing since, and will most likely make it to London in 2012 as well – but nothing will beat that fabulous memory of Sydney, surely one of the world's greatest cities. Sydney saw the likeable Marty Nothstein win a sprinting Gold and Jason Queally win the 1-Kilo event – great milestones for American and British track-racing.
In a sporting sense, 2001 can only be remembered for the way in which Armstrong won his third Tour against a highly motivated Ullrich, The German made a hero of himself that year, attacking Lance time and time again even after a nasty crash in the Pyrenees had ruined his final chances. New York City's 9/11 was by far the most significant event of the new century, and it certainly took the shine off that year's Vuelta, which saw Levi Leipheimer secure a brilliant 3rd-place and launch a memorable career for himself. Coming as it did after the win in Ghent-Wevelgem by George Hincapie, American emotions were highly mixed by the end of the year. But it hadn't gone unnoticed that Ullrich won the World time trial championships in Lisbon – there was still plenty to come from the gutsy '97 Tour winner.
I'll mostly remember 2002 for Mario Cipollini 's stunning win in the world road championships in Belgium. By far the most charismatic cyclist the sport has ever seen, Cipollini defied the passing years to win a mass-sprint after Italian teammates had controlled the race all day. When your camera viewfinder has been filled with so many great images by the man, Cipo's win meant that little bit more to me than if just about anyone else had won. 2002 was a year that saw Armstrong take his easiest Tour win, and Johan Museeuw his third Paris-Roubaix. Paolo Savoldelli won the Giro after attacking race-leader, Cadel Evans. Aitor Gonzalez won the Tour of Spain on the very last day, in a time trial that ended inside the infamous soccer stadium of Real Madrid.
2003 saw Armstrong face his toughest battle in the Tour – yet he still won. In a season that saw Peter Van Petegem win a Flanders-Roubaix double, Tyler Hamilton take Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Gilberto Simoni the Giro – and Roberto Heras the Vuelta, it was Armstrong's swashbuckling battle with Ullrich that I remember the most; it's still the most exciting Tour I have ever seen! I'll never forget the suspense of that last week – the fighting comeback at Luz-Ardiden, the nerve-wracking TT, on rain-slick roads, in Brittany, and the final – hysterical – parade of honor into Paris. Let's not forget though, that this was a season tarnished by the victories of David Millar and Igor Astarloa in the World Championships. Astarloa has now ended his career with the suspicion he cheated in Hamilton, while Millar's eventual admission of EPO-use saw his TT title taken away and given to Michael Rogers instead.
2004 was dominated by the Athens Olympics, despite Armstrong taking a record 6th Tour de France win – and with ease! It was the track titles that stay most in my mind – a series of races that elevated the roof of the velodrome into the dark and starry Greek night. Bradley Wiggins won Gold in the pursuit, Chris Hoy did the same in the 1-kilo – but it was the Aussies who won the week, led by Ryan Bayley in the sprint and Kierin, Stuart O'Grady in the Madison, and the four man pursuit who broke the world record and shattered British dreams. The Aussies didn't win it all though – a Kiwi lady, Sarah Ulmer, beat Katie Mactier to take a thrilling pursuit Gold – beating Mactier's world record time in the semi-final! The road-race was won by Paolo Bettini in a simple last-lap attack, while Tyler Hamilton won the TT against Viatscheslav Ekimov and Bobby Julich. Let's not forget that 2004 was totally ruined by Hamilton's later drug-bust in the Vuelta, that cast a huge doubt over his Athens title. And 2004 saw the death of Marco Pantani at the age of just 34 – tragic stuff indeed.
In a scenario many people hope Lance will repeat in 2010, the Texan took new sponsor Discovery to the heavens by winning a 7th Tour de France in 2005. Discovery also won the Giro through Savoldelli, while Hincapie had his best-ever season by winning the prologue and a mountain stage of the Dauphiné before also taking a Pyrenean stage of that historical Tour! Lance won the Tour but just one stage – saving his best until the very last TT, just to prove the point that he could have won more if he'd wanted. Because of his astonishing record, because of his immediate retirement, and because the sport seemed lost without him, the remainder of the 2005 season will only be remembered for Tom Boonen's scorching victory in the world road championship in Madrid. Boonen had already done a Flanders-Roubaix double in April, but having a Belgian wearing that Arc-en-Ciel jersey lightened late-season blues. For Vuelta winner, Roberto Heras, had come up positive for EPO use…
2006 saw the first-ever Tour of California, sending American fans into orbit, so spectacular was this first edition. Highway One got closed for a day, and even the fickle weather made a reversal of its normally rainy self as the race headed south. Back in Europe, Tom Boonen won Flanders as World Champion, Nico Mattan won Ghent-Wevelgem after being paced by an official's car, and Fabian Cancellara won Paris-Roubaix after a Carrefour-de-L'Arbre attack. The Giro saw Ivan Basso finally win a big race, while Levi Leipheimer won the Dauphine – his biggest win at the time. Jan Ullrich won the Tour de Suisse to set his sights on the Tour – as did Alexandre Vinokourov. But it was Floyd Landis who won the Tour de France that July to offer America a quick-fire replacement for the retired Armstrong. That dream shattered less than a week after the Tour ended when Landis was declared positive for Testosterone use. It had been a disastrous Tour anyway, blighted from the start when 'Operacion Puerto' revealed Basso, Ullrich and many others to have been part of a blood-doping ring. Luckily, my personal highlight of 2006 was the World Championships in Salzburg, Austria. Not one particular race, just the fantastic atmosphere – even if Paolo Bettini's emotional win in the big race sealed an absolutely perfect week!
Bettini won a second title in 2007, towards the end of a season not much happier than twelve months earlier. The Italian sang his heart out on the podium but his exuberance couldn't disguise serious problems within the sport. The UCI's ProTour had seemingly floundered after resistance from teams and rival organizers. Operacion Puerto was continuing to make a mockery of the sport's clean riders. And, just when the sport no longer needed it, the race-leader of the Tour de France, Michael Rasmussen, was thrown off the race with just a few days to go for lying to drug-testers about his pre-Tour whereabouts. Alberto Contador won that Tour, but it was a victory won almost by default, not through any audacious piece of racing. Pre-worlds, at the end of a pretty awful season, Giro winner Danilo DiLuca became the unwilling victim of politics and was not allowed to race in the Worlds – a highly embarrassing period for the organizers and governing body. So do I have a highlight of 2007? Well, in fact it is easy – Stuart O'Grady's incredible ride to win Paris-Roubaix!
Contador wins my award for 2008, thanks to his fabulous victory in the Giro d'Italia. Contador's Astana team got a late-invite to the Giro and no-one rated his or their chances against Italian heavyweights DiLuca, Ricco and Simoni. But Contador showed the talent he was becoming by rising to the challenge and winning by almost two minutes. I'd enjoyed Cancellara's win in San Remo, Stijn Devolder's win in Flanders and, even more so, Boonen's victory in Roubaix. But these races paled in comparison with the Giro – for the Italians worked so hard to beat off this unwanted interloper. The 2008 Tour de France was probably the quietest in years with an utterly silent winner in Carlos Sastre, who seemed incapable of smiling in his finest moments. The Tour showed a distinct slowing down in comparison with recent years, as did the Vuelta – had the proverbial penny finally dropped? Even the Worlds seemed pedestrian, with Alessandro Ballan taking an opportunistic win just a few weeks after the Beijing Olympic Games had eaten up most others' strengths. Of course, the winners of the Olympics, Vuelta and Worlds enjoyed little fanfare over their victories. For a certain American, perhaps one who'd noticed the hesitancy of the peloton, announced his comeback from the other side of the World.
Compared with 2000 and 2001, the final year of the decade is still clear in our minds. Mark Cavendish won San Remo to build on his growing stock. Devolder won a second Flanders – and Boonen a third Roubaix. Olympic TT champion Cancellara slumped after winning the TOC Prologue, but came back to have his best season ever, winning the mountainous Tour de Suisse overall, the opening TT stages of both the Tour and Vuelta – before thrashing all-comers to win another World TT championship. The Tour went to its rightful owner – Contador – who would have won by far more if he'd been the Astana team's sole leader. But the fact that he wasn't made a fairly dull Tour all the more exciting, and opened up opportunities for men like Bradley Wiggins. My highlight of 2009 came at the Worlds, when Cadel Evans finally made THE big attack and won a brilliant championship, a few weeks after losing the Vuelta with a decidedly unlucky flat tire and woeful wheel-change. Alejandro Valverde won that Vuelta, his first-ever grand tour victory, but the stigma still attached to him in relation to Operacion Puerto means that victory, as well as many others before, will always harm his stardom. Of Lance, the verdict is made – his comeback was highly successful. Of course it was, that 3rd-place in Paris didn't come so easily to a 37-year-old. Lance took a huge risk in coming back - he had so much more to lose than win. And even though he won little in terms of actual victories, the man brought so much attention back to the sport – exposure, acclaim and respect far beyond anything he did in his first career. He bought millions of fans back as well, and the best is yet to come…
And so. The future. Who will be the Tour winner in ten years time? Will Contador come anywhere near to equaling Armstrong's seven wins? Will Lance pull off the sensation of this sporting century by winning an eighth Tour in 2010? Who will emerge as the sprinter to challenge Cavendish – for sure there's bound to be one sooner or later. And is there a hardened northerner capable of replacing Boonen when his strength dissipates in the one-day Classics? Looking back on the past decade is hard work, for almost as much has happened off the bike as it has on it. It's clear that men like Armstrong, Boonen, Contador and Bettini have had a great run, thrilling millions of fans with their prowess on the bike. It's also clear that a whole string of drug-related scandals have diminished the reputations of Ullrich, Hamilton, Basso, Landis, DiLuca and Vinokourov – and threatened the sport we all love. As this decade ends and a new one begins, I feel the worst is over, and I'm delighted to see the honest men are still leading the way forward. Let's not forget that races like the Tour of California and Tour Down Under are part of the future, as are new teams like Radio Shack and Sky.
I cannot wait for 2010 to begin. It is more than just a new season, and hopefully in ten years time I'll be able to report back on another decade of great racing from all over the world. We start our updates on January 17th, from Adelaide, Australia – if you cannot actually be there, then tune in to this site!
Welcome back after a few weeks on the sidelines of cycling life! As you can see, we at gw.com have re-designed our site to make it easier and more enjoyable to navigate through, even if little has actually changed. All the old features are here - 'graham's view', 'ask Graham', 'race updates' - although it will still be a few months before the season starts again and those features take on a life and meaning all of their own. Ask me any questions you like - I'll try and answer them all! We're still finishing off a facelift of the e-commerce site, but 'prints' is up and running as of today for those that want to delve into our archives - we have created a whole new gallery of 2009! And expect some exciting news about our new e-commerce store in a few weeks - all the old stock will be there as well as some new product awaiting release. To tide you over until then we do have some new mugs available, in time for your holiday shopping pleasure!
I'm a week away from heading to New Zealand for my annual period of R & R, but already I've been planning the up-coming 2010 season with a vengeance - a season that is less than two months away from starting! Still, 2009 has barely finished, and there is an awful lot of activity before it can be cast away into the history books. We still do not know if Astana will get its Pro Tour license renewal and that therefore Alberto Contador will be staying - or leaving. In the UK, gossip still promotes the feeling that Bradley Wiggins will get away from Garmin and sign with Sky before the year is out, a decision that might be linked to Contador's plans should Astana not get their elite status approved. Certain folks in Austin, TX, are keeping a close eye on the situation, for although Radio Shack has chosen its warriors to support Lance Armstrong against Contador, it cannot work on its battle strategy until the defending Tour champion has inked with his 2010 employer.
If Team Sky does not persuade Wiggins away from Garmin, its main hopes will lie with Thomas Lovkvist and Edvald Boasson Hagen - two great talents, but neither of them capable of leading a grand tour team, yet. Lovkvist and Boasson Hagen are one of many emigrants from Team Columbia, where Mark Cavendish is installed as the team's number one rider. Along with Sky's top two signings, Columbia has seen something of a talent exodus which may expose Cavendish to a more bumpy ride than he's enjoyed these past few years. Lead-out man George Hincapie has joined the expanding BMC team, linking up with World Champion Cadel Evans in a squad determined to go places in the coming years. All these team changes make 2010 a very exciting prospect, with a Tour de France slot up for grabs for the best newcomers - will BMC squeeze Sky out of a Tour place, for example? If Astana loses its Pro Tour status but Contador still stays because of a fat wage-packet, will the Tour invite the Kazakh team and its defending champion? If they do, there'll be an almighty hoo-hah for any top team denied a ride, for there's only 20 or so slots available in the world's greatest bike race!
July is six months beyond the season-start in Adelaide next January, but my planning has already taken me up to and ahead of next summer. 2010 brings with it more than just team changes - whole races have been swapped in the busy calendar, and I am having to contend with some awful decision-making. Try these examples: The Tour of California has moved to mid-May - mid-Giro as far as I am concerned. As difficult as my choice of race will be in May, it leaves February completely open, for after five years as the great early-season distraction, California moving to May has created unheard-of choice for teams and photographers together. Do I go to France, Spain, Portugal or Italy for my first European races - or to Oman instead for the tasty double-whammy that is now the Tours of Qatar and Oman, back-to-back..? Even the Classics have been fiddled with, for Ghent-Wevelgem is no longer a midweek jolly between Flanders and Roubaix. The Kemmelberg-influenced Classic now has top-billing as a Sunday race the same distance as in the old days at 250kms. Do I cover this beauty on the last weekend of March, albeit it at the sacrifice of my beloved weekend at the Criterium International in northern France? I've covered both events for over 25 years so it is not an easy decision - and that's before the choice between Giro and California has to be made...
So you'll see, great changes are in store for everyone involved in professional road-racing. So maybe it's appropriate that grahamwatson.com is changing its image a little - just a little, mind! As 2010 looms on the horizon I'll be aiming to bring more regular 'blogs' or views, as well as the traditional race up-dates. It looks as if I will be going to at least as many races as before, if not more, and I may even try to squeeze in a few 'specials' like a pre-Tour training feature with an unsuspecting 'pro or team. After a whole year looking-on in disgust, I've even signed up as a twitterer to beef up coverage of the sport. I might feel like a twit, but I'll try and make it as entertaining as I can - different to most other 'twits'... Let's see shall we - have a great winter and see you on January 18th for the pre-Tour Down Under classic in Adelaide, South Australia!"
One quick look at the 2010 Tour de France route reveals the severity facing riders hoping to win the top places - and in particular the very top place. The cycling Gods appear to have been very kind to reigning champion, Alberto Contador, who will not have a team time trial to face up to in whatever squad he ends up racing for. Contador will also enjoy and reap the benefits of three mountain-top finishes, the most important and destructive one, being up the southern side of the Col du Tourmalet where he could put minutes into his nearest challengers... Andy Schleck, runner-up in 2009, probably cannot make his mind up yet as to whether the next Tour suits him more than the last - his Saxo Bank team would have made a gain for him in a TTT of any length, but instead the Luxemburger faces racing against a Contador quite capable of inflicting damage in the mountains as well as in that monster TT on the penultimate day in Bordeaux. If we can assume Lance Armstrong will be stronger, faster and more dynamic with another year's racing in his 38-year-old body, the American might well jump over Schleck and get a lot closer to Contador than he managed in this last comeback Tour. Armstrong and his advisors will be studying the route announced in Paris today for any stages where they believe they can isolate Contador - the little Spaniard is probably unbeatable in the mountains, but every Tour route holds the capacity to unseat even the greatest champions if they or their team take their eye of the ball for one single moment.
No doubt Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel are already planning a thorough reconnaissance of the first few stages in the Netherlands and Belgium. Recalling how uncomfortable Contador was on the windswept stage to Le Grande Motte a few months ago, the Radio Shack duo will be keen to inflict an early and very nasty pre-retaliation on Contador as the Tour races across the North Sea bridges on stage one and then crosses about 20-kilometres of cobblestones on stage three. It is hard to imagine that such a tough Tour will become tough so early - but surely Contador's luck at having so much mountain territory to enjoy will be tempered by the threat he faces up in the north. Whether he races with Astana, Garmin, Quick-Step or Caisse d'Epargne, Contador's rivals will be out to shake his confidence before the Tour has really begun.
For the second year in a row, the Tour has given the north-west of France a complete miss, with no stages in Brittany, Normandy or Aquitaine to savour. The Alps arrive almost as early as the Pyrenees did in 2009, and it is likely those first ascents will change little overall with the finish at Morzine-Avoriaz looking ever-so slightly like Arcalis, where Contador jumped a 20-second attack on his rivals a few minutes after a lucky escape group fought out the stage-finish. If Contador has been shaken by the two opening stages - and lost time - this second Alpine stage gives him a chance to take a quick revenge. It is the Pyrenees that provide the sting-in-the-tail in 2010, an area of France so close to Spain where Contador will save his very best form for the last week. Of course, by this time his team will have been tested and perhaps tired out by their rivalry with Armstrong and Schleck, who are led by two of the shrewdest managers in the business, Bruyneel and Bjarne Riis. As tough as the last week of the 2010 Tour is, Contador's greatest threat might well be his choice of team and team manager - one wrong move this winter and he's liable to expose himself to all kinds of tactical prowess and guile next July.
I like the look of this new Tour, and I like the potential which it offers for great racing on all kinds of terrain. Regardless of who wins and who loses, the Tour is the pinnacle of the cycling season and we just know the best racing happens there. Just a few months after the 2009 Tour, the sporting world is already in a vice-like grip of fever about the prospects in 2010 - the will-he, won't-he speculation as to who will win each day and who will win overall. I've spent the last few hours in my Paris hotel room booking hotels on the Internet - and I've made a complete sweep with no gaps at all. I've already spotted eating places where the gentle fall of summery nights will spur on post-stage debate and gossip and hype, and where vast quantities of wine will wash down succulent meals and solidify friendships for a lifetime to come. Yes, there is nothing quite like the Tour to lift our hearts just as we slip ever-closer to winter - besides the 2010 Tour is only nine months away now..!