You've seen this picture before. You know what it signifies. That Tour, and that day were both filled with meaning. The image can't help but be iconic, because of what it depicts. In fact, a whole book has been written about the events surrounding that day. But you know all this, so let me tell you about something else: the moment when the picture above was taken.
I'm now going to try to defend myself preemptively, and attempt to prove that I didn't go to YouTube, in search for clips of that stage, so I could find the exact moment when the iconic picture was taken. I'm a bit obsessive at times, but that would be too much...even for me.
But perhaps the way it happened makes me sound even weirder. I had the video of that stage playing, while I tended to some work on my computer (fan mail doesn't read itself you know). Out of the corner of my eye, I glanced at the video, and noticed a folded up, black umbrella in the background. I remembered seeing that same umbrella in the Graham Watson image. I knew instantly that it was on that switchback that the picture was taken.
So perhaps in my attempt to make myself look less obsessive and sad, I've only made matters worse.
Here's the very moment when the picture was taken:
If you want, you can see it in the video below. They go into that hairpin at around 2:04
But really, there are other things that we can talk about within the realm of photography. For example, the pictures below. They are from a book that I came across recently, which you can see here. These are not pictures of cycling, but rather of football/soccer in Argentina. Although the topic may not interest some of you, the sentiment these images convey is very much in line with the passion that many have for cycling. Actually, it far outweighs it, since Argentines have been known to take their love of the sport to unimaginable extremes.
I share the link to these images because regardless of what you make of football (and its fans), I believe this particular photographer has managed to capture the essence of football in Argentina (the few photos I'm posting here don't do the book justice), something that many cycling photographers fail to do for the sport they document.
You see, a few years ago, I was able to see Boca Juniors play their arch-rivals River Plate in the famed Bombonera stadium in Buenos Aires. I've been unable to explain what I felt and saw that day, but these images begin to capture what I've tried to convey to people over lengthy conversations. The mood in the stadium that day was insane, beautiful, scary and unlike anything I'd ever experienced in the context of sport. These pictures start to get the message across. And I'm left hoping that more pictures of cycling did the same.
Luckily, there are some photographers who are beginning to capture the real mood of the sport, its fans, and perhaps even the reasons why we love and follow cycling. I must admit that I don't know the names of many of these photographers, although Tim Kölln's work, and the Manual For Speed project certainly come to mind (a commenter also suggests the work of Stefan Vanfleteren). Surely you've seen these pictures.
When you look at this type of photography, you instantly recognize parts of why you were first drawn to cycling. Those images also fill in the blanks, since they depict scenes you are not familiar with, or always wondered about. In some cases, they're the type of images that you could show to someone who doesn't know anything cycling, to help them understand what attracts you to it. It explains a bit of what you know and understand about it.
Cancellara by Tim Kölln
By comparison, the work of many photographers from the Graham Watson era seems dated and detached. Almost clinical. Yes they took some great pictures too, but they sometimes leave a bit to be desired. Perhaps those photographers came from a strict photojournalism background. Perhaps they only cared about documenting the one thing they were supposed to keep their eye on, the race. Perhaps their work will have lasting power, and the current trend in photography is nothing more than that, a trend. Perhaps that's why some of the great images I'm referring to are found on sites like Flickr, and less often in magazines and books.
Perhaps I'm way out of my element too, since I'm by no means knowledgeable about photography. But not knowing about a subject has never stopped me from writing about it. I mean, I have a blog about cycling after all.
But while I may not really know anything about photography, I know when an image captures an emotion, and when it doesn't. A photo can be beautiful, well composed...but still fail to tell a story, and the drama behind it. We fill in the blanks with our knowledge, not the other way around. But photography can actually do all these things at once.
Paris-Roubaix by Jared Gruber
Could the same be said for writing? Do any writers convey parts of why you love cycling? Do any news stories, articles, interviews or fiction speak to what you love about riding a bike, or watching others ride a bike? The number of writers who can do this is amazingly small. How can it be that a sport that takes place in some of the most beautiful places, one that is replete with incredible plot lines, and features suffering on a grand scale has so little great writing done about it? The same could be said for the personal act of riding a bike.
As with photography, however, there are some writers who are leading the charge. They are telling personal stories, choosing to look inward for inspiration and answers. Is this part of what we might call the post-Lance era? Are some cycling fans and writers choosing to look inward, rather than outward, for inspiration and to figure out and express how they feel about the sport? Perhaps I'm connecting dots that don't exist, or don't need to be connected
In writing, blogs have certainly helped expand the notion of what is possible when writing about bikes and cycling. Yes, there are way too many blogs that are bad (as is often the case when we, the people, are given free reign over the means of production), but the good ones usually rise to the top. While the point of view given by people like Bikesnob may seem almost commonplace now, the radical departure they represent is substantial, as is their value. The same could be said of blogs like All Hail The Black Market, which at times dabble in Gonzo-style journalism, while looking away from the action of big-name cyclists.
Then there's books like A Dog In A Hat. How could a book about a professional who never broke into the most upper echelon of cycling paint give such a complete and compelling picture of the sport? Perhaps that's exactly why it does. Even a book like Lance Armstrong's War, which at first appears to be only about a superstar, can turn out to be revelatory, because it gives unbelievable details about the things we don't normally see in cycling...and in the end has nothing to do with Armstrong himself. The writer sees the world of professional cycling as an outisder, noticing the surreal aspects that we as observers would fixate on...but ones that jaded journalists would likely ignore.
Similarly, Matt Rendell's writing excels in its thoroughness, while exhibiting the author's passion for the subject. Even in his book about Marco Pantani, which is largely an investigative affair untangling the life of the Italian rider, Rendell's closing chapter details the struggle of today's cycling fan in a manner that no one has before or since. It's personal, and tries to make sense of the current state of sport in a way that no one else has managed to. Most importantly, it does so from the point of view of the observer. Are there other examples? Even better ones? Perhaps, as I'm sure I'm forgetting a good few.
As I see it, great writing doesn't always have to answer big questions. It doesn't always need to be irreverent, contrarian, or feature professional athletes to convey a compelling story. I say this merely as a reader, not any kind of expert or connoisseur since I'm neither. But consider Bill Strickland's recent piece titled How To Own A Bike. It's the kind of writing that showcases a simple idea in a way that makes you wish you'd thought of it. It's personal, and certainly in the "turning inward" model I mentioned earlier. It's not about the epic struggle of a professional fighting his way through Alps. It's not about Contador's ban, or Armstrong either. It's better than all those things. It's about a guy, and the relationship he has with a bike. Can you get to a more fundamental, basic concept? The sport of professional cycling can burn to the ground, it can rise and fall. It can do whatever it wants...but you still have your bike, and Bill's writing does a marvelous job of detailing one part of that relationship. It helps settle our gaze back on our own relationships, and our own lives.
In photography, it appears as though the strategy of turning inward, can also be aided by turning away from the action. Instead of focusing on the race, for example, a photographer can look around at everything else. What are the fans like? What are the places that a race goes through, the ones we only get to see from helicopter shots like? What are riders up to before and after the race? What is it like to ride a bike when you don't race, and will never race? What was it like when a professional trained through the winter? The seemingly mundane becomes sublime in the hands of a a talented photographer or writer. But we need more of it (something I've written about before).
Juan Antonio Flecha by Tim Kölln
And to think that some of these unusual images and vantage points probably came about due to some photographer's inability to shot from the back of a motorcycle mid-race, or a writer not having access to professionals for an interview after a decisive stage at the Tour.
There will always be a need for simple race photos. There's certainly a place for them, as there is with simple day-by-day accounts of Grand Tours, but both of these are often as dry as a baseball box score (for those outside the United States, this is what a baseball box score looks like. It's as boring as any Excel document you've ever seen. And keep in mind that the box score I linked to is for a "perfect game", a rare and exciting event in baseball).
So while basic race images are needed, they can be better (though I know "better" is largely subjective). Cycling is a personal pursuit. The riders struggle on their own, even when surrounded by teammates. That struggle is full of beauty, pain, and numerous other clichés that you've heard millions of times along with words like "epic". As silly as those words are, however, they are fairly accurate. So shouldn't they be expressed more readily? I think so. And I hope that more quality photos, videos, interviews, articles and stories keep popping up online. If not, I'll be left to look for folded up umbrellas in Alpe d'Huez switchbacks.
Are there photographers or writers whose work you enjoy? Feel free to tell everyone in the comments section. Remember, sharing is caring.