Cobbling together some memories

Inspired by all the love that outpoured over the weekend for the gap in the spring classics and the postponement of a new entry into the women’s racing calendar, i thought back through my time with the race.

It was the first professional race i ever photographed with credentials and a baptism of fire which is almost appropriate for the hell of the north. It’s also the race i have photographed the most times, i think i have a story from each race, which usually only seem fine after the fact and with a good, dark Belgian beer in hand i’ll bore everyone with them, although i do like to think some of them are funny.

Boonen on the Pave – (35mm fully manual Canon)

Firstly the weather…always at the forefront of peoples minds..i have never seen wet roubaix, in person or on TV the cobbles below are as close as its gots…and i’m not sure i care…there i said it, it may be an unpopular opinion but there it is.

2016 Paris Roubaix 114th Edition The wet cobbles of the Carrefour de l’Arbre

If i were watching at home i might be more for the muddy, water logged Roubaix but when you have to work the race there’s an element of danger that the mud adds that i am quite happy to do without.

Tom Boonen leads the peloton through the Trouee d’Arenberg during the 2009 edition of Paris Roubaix

If not for the dry conditions i would have no idea who was leading the peloton, probably not even editing it afterwards.

While i haven’t seen mud, i have had complete vista of other options…so cold i’ve had to wear gloves, so sunny i got sun burnt and so windy i almost got blown over and certainly got a face and mouth full of gritty dust, not exactly Belgian toothpaste, maybe more like Belgian mouthwash…

I honestly enjoyed the sunny editions, the dust can be irritating…your camera’s certainly need a good clean afterwards but so does everything else…the dust does get everywhere. Its not quite the dust storm that you get for Strade Bianche but it occasionally works for Roubaix

2018 Paris Roubaix 116th Edition – Geraint Thomas (Team Sky Procycling) fights through the dust behind his team car to chase back to the peloton after a crash

I’ll take blue skies and warmth any day of the week.

The peloton rolls through the early cobbles surrounded by the yellow flowers of a rapeseed crop

Aside from the racing, Roubaix was always a long weekend for me, bike and camera gear packed into the car, not that i had any plans for Cobbles, the ones outside the Palais de Compiegne were more than enough. As with most of the spring classics there are inextricable links with the great war’s the consumed Europe and Paris Roubaix is no different and its for that reason i was drawn to the Foret de Compiengne, where both the armistice of WW1 and the French surrender of WW2 was signed

The quiet tree lined roads of the Foret de Compiegne

Its possible that i have trivialised it but most times i have ridden there the fog hung around the tree’s like treacle i pictured it as the perfect location for filming a zombie apocalypse

The Forest of the Zombie apocalypse

Digressing back to the race itself, its hard to convey the chaos that ensues once the race hits the cobbles, following the race doesn’t always lend itself to what’s going on, each stop between Compiegne and Roubaix a snap shot of what’s happening right there in that moment. There a few set pieces that narrow the options…before luck and the pave claim their tributes. Once you leave sector 17 of Pave all bets are off…anything can happen, the race is on and stops for no-one.

The race has taught me that even applies to photographers, possibly even on a bike as well as in a car. The evening before i usually finish up my route planning, not that it varies too much from year to year, at least not in advance, bending the satnav to my will…programming in seemingly random targets that will take me on and off the race route at the right points.

That one year i climbed on a bulldozer to try and get a slightly different shot, as i stepped down i landed in a rut and fell flat on my face, twisting my ankle, the rest of the day was quite a challenge and every shot needed to be about 2 hobbled steps from the car, that day would not have been improved by mud.

It may seem foolish to follow the same plan every year, but its mostly just a starting point, the route doesn’t alter much, the official deviations are the same, the non-official deviations also don’t alter much, its the race the alters it, headwind or a tailwind…30s either way make the difference of popping out in front of the race with clear roads or sat watching the race go by and reprogramming the satnav…there’s always a back up option…hit the gas and zip off into the tiny roads of northern France.

The times its gone wrong are usually boring, the gendarme pauses just too long deciding if they are going to let you through, you don’t even get out of the car, there’s just a blur of colour. Its the times it almost goes wrong that are most exciting.

Having navigated an official deviation which cut down most of the public, an extra little jump was meant to get us back on schedule, the gendarme calmly waved us onto the route, driving along at a sensible speed for crowd lined road and hit a cobbled sector. As you’ve probably seen from the tv, or maybe even experienced yourself they are not nice things to be on and unless you have to drive fast on them, you don’t!

Sadly for me having rolled onto a longish, twisty section of cobbles, that choice was taken away…i spotted a blue light in the rear mirror, not an unusual site, there are lots of police bikes making sure things are safe, but this one seemed to be moving a little faster than expected. While i focused on the road ahead my passenger Pete looked behind…and suggested i might like to go a little faster. As it turns out, that wasn’t an outrider, it was the lead bike and Tom Boonen had taken a flyer 50km out. Yet again, grateful for a dry Roubaix, as i slammed my foot on the accelerator and gunned the crappy little car with about 50HP under the bonnet urging it forward. Almost immediately i have to then slam the brakes on and throw it round a cobbley s-bend, the crowd literally goes wild and i get a mexican wave as i somehow bounce round then end of the sector is in sight. But the cobbles aren’t done with me yet, there’s a crater like hole where the pave meets the tarmac which i manage to avoid but not without the suspension taking a bit of punishment…and the side mirror actually popping out. Somehow there’s enough time to slam the brakes on, Pete jumps out and grabs the mirror and i take great joy in smooth straight roads to pull away.

The kicker to that story, that i learned later, on that same corner was another good friend who was also working that day and had managed to get to the cobbles with a bit more time to spare. Usually no slouch when it comes to capturing the action, he was left stunned into paralysis as we flew by…apparently with looks of horror on our faces, which given how well the car handled i’m not overly surprised…

It wasn’t that long before we saw him again…having got a little breathing room to let the adrenaline wear off, the plan was adjusted and boom there was the shot.

while that’s probably the best story, there’s also the time i though i lost my passport, the time i drove into a crop field (although that doesn’t count as that was the TDF does Roubaix). Its safe to Taylor sums up how i feel after every Roubaix i have done

2018 Paris Roubaix 116th Edition – Taylor Phinney (Ef Education First Drapac) stretches out post race in the roubaix velodrome

In a way i am happy that Roubaix has been postponed, by the time October comes i might actually be able to make it to Europe, there might even be crowds and with the World Championships the week before it will be like we’ve had Holy Week twice this year. Hopefully we’ll get to see the newly crowed Womens and Men’s champions flying over the cobbles, although given the time of year i hope MVDP doesn’t go for the all white look…the mud will ruin that skin suit

While you may not agree and desperately long for the caked mud, dirty faces collapsed in the Roubaix velodrome i’m hoping i won’t have to pack my wellie boots…and on that note i’ll bow out

2018 Paris Roubaix 165th Edition – World Champion Peter Sagan (Bora Hansgrohe) taking a bow with his cobble trophy for winning Paris Roubaix

KM3349 Riders KM9147.5 Me

So that’s a wrap on the 2018 Tour de France, over 9000 KM and i am back where i started almost a month ago and what a journey its been, there have been highs and low, ups and downs (and not just because of the mountains) . Somehow Pete and I managed to not have any full blown arguments and very few crossed words and i know i and not always the most fun to be around.

The lows –

The first few days were rough, getting back into the groove of snapping is always tough and the last race i shot was Liege Bastonge Liege. The first stage was all  a little rushed and trying to work our way round the tiny winding roads of the Vendee meant a lot of driving for very few photos. to finish trying out a new lens on the first sprint finish and only realising in edit that it wasn’t up to the job….the ensuing uncomfortable silence was not an ideal start.

The Queen stage, photos in the car is always hard, getting off and back on the course but as soon as you hit the mountains it gets really tough, the sparse road system generally going over mountain passes. That meant the Col d’Aubisque was the place to be, the pressure of only one stop to sum up the race. Combine camera issues with weird light and the yellow jersey on the wrong side. In hindsight i can see what i could have done better…next time i’m on a mountain when a Welshman is in the Yellow jersey on the Queen stage of the Tour de France.

The highs

In terms of  photos it might seem like an odd choice but it sums up the world of working on the Tour for me

CJW_TDFSTG6-1818

Or for something thats less unusual but certainly unique

cjw_tdfstg14-3669

Outside of the photos the are probably 3 things that stand out for me, mostly for the ego boost.

Romain Bardet using one of my photos, unsurprisingly it got a few more likes than if when i posted it, about 21,000 more 🙂

The whole of stage 20, the place i’d chosen was full of Basques and they were really on point with being enthusiastic…they quickly decided i looked like ex-pro Michael Rasmussen, who then retweeted the video of them singing to me, 19k views and 36 retweets later they then sang my name to me, yeap a bit superficial i know

But after this the food and the seat they gave me made the 5 hours i sat on the road much better, shame i was driving and couldn’t enjoy the beer they also offered.

The icing on the cake was a good day in Paris, some great pictures, a ride in a race vehicle at breakneck speeds from the top of the bottom of the Champs Elysees and finally a little bit of partying. Special thanks going to Pete for sucking it up one last time and going out, Sophie and Sadhbh for securing us beer when it seemed impossible and getting us in on the party action. It made the drive out of Paris and back to the UK a little harder but sleep is for the weak….until next time Tour De France

KM3349 Riders KM8207 Me

So that’s a wrap….the riders as done and off to get drunk, relax, eat what ever they want maybe even have an outrageous party…if they do I’d quite like an invite.

Along with over eight thousand kilometres driven (and I’m still not home) I’ve got 105GB/7488 photos taken…not sure what the edit/publishes count is…but it’s definitely lower.

For the first time I shot at the Arc de Triomphe and got the shots I wanted…to top that off I hitched a lift back down from the top in the Voiture Balai…that’s the fasted I’ll ever go on the Champs Elysees, exhilarating is the only word for it.

It’s now time for beers and maybe a party…although I’m not sure we’ve been invited to any and having just seen Taylor Phinney be turned away it could be a hard night to get in when you’re not on the guest list.

KM3233 Riders KM7934 Me

With at least a few hundred kilometres left to drive and race the Tour is pretty much over. Geraint just has to stay on his bike now, no proper racing for him to do.

For me the Queen stage in the mountains was a bit of an anti-climax. On the final mountain stage you hope for some action but with only one stop for the day you really have to hope you get lucky. Sadly Lucky I was not….camera issue just as the GC group arrived on me almost left me with no photos for the day. It’s a equal foil to the joy of capturing something you are happy with so Pete had to put up with a bit of grumpy silence for the evening. Thankfully our hotel aka Pete’s house was less than a mile down the road and dinner was sorted so there was no coup de gras for the evening of a long drive and scant dinner options.

With a long day looming and a long drive to the start I had to skip another ride up the Col de Marie Blanc, which after a little romp up it the previous morning was sad but with sleep needed and rain stopping play we packed up and headed off.

The rain on the drive to the start was no filling us with joy….bad light and sat in one place for 4 hours is not ideal.

The time literally vanished as we arrived so there was no time to recce the course and then loop back round to stop somewhere, I had to negotiate the course with riders still doing their recce and fans not quite paying attention.

By the time I started walking back to the 3KM point the rain was completely gone and the waterproof was not needed and in the heat I actually needed to take it off.

With all the riders coming though there is plenty of time to find the shot you want, my challenge of finding some good Fans was easily achieved, even with barriers.

The Basque fans were amazing, starting with deciding I looked like michael rasmussen and treating me to a little chorus of that and then after he retweeted the video a little chorus of my name. But e icing on the cake was food and then a seat

The pictures full of enthusiasm and colour were a bonus

Now onto Paris…4 1/2 hours to Poitier…one late night phone call to get into the hotel and a good nights sleep and we’re ready for one last stage and maybe a bit of partying before it’s back to reality outside of the weird Tour bubble.

KM2830.5 KM6839.7 Me

What a couple of days…post stage 15 i was not feeling great, not the greatest days of photos, no lunch, dinner wasn’t till after 10pm and i definitely didn’t feel quite right. I had made the statement that i needed to go to bed early but having not found somewhere to eat before 10pm already screwed that up it went completely sideways when 2 Dutchmen and a Columbian wanted to buy us drinks and we stayed up into the wee hours. The catalyst for going to bed was some guy sticking his head out of the window asking us to either talk about something else or talk quieter…

It was frustrating to then have a very late stage start and the Col D’Aspin literally on the door step and not be able to ride. It was a nerve wracking prospect of spending at least the afternoon on a mountain further than from a toilet than I was comfortable with.

I can’t tell you anything about the stage start, the Moto GP style grid or anything as it was restricted to 10 snappers so that left us with only one place to be.

We left for the stage finish pretty early in the hope of a press buffet and maybe even a freebie or two in the press room. These fabled things ceased out of existence the moment we have the opportunity to have them….it was Schrödinger buffet.

By the time I needed to head out I was feeling close enough to ok. A short chair lift up and then a reasonable walk down and I found my spot

Lacets and a great bit or road with some fans….perfect. I was beginning to wish I hadn’t lugged as much stuff as I did with me…didn’t really need everything. The walk back down after the race really made me regret it….I felt sorry for anyone who sat next to me after. Having managed not to die walking down a grass ski run, cutting off quite a few km of walking we decided to leave early with the evacuation.

This is probably one of the most fun things about leaving a mountain stage…getting through all the blocked roads tucked behind the blue’s and twos of the Gendarmary.

This one was slightly more fitful than most, they seemed to get bored a few times and pulled over which left us stuck in traffic but as soon as they started off again there we were pulling back in their slipstream and escaping the valley.

Even with this we still almost missed that chance for dinner…some how Pete managed to beg a small local place that was pretty much closed to give us some food tartiflete and a salad was like a Mitchlen star meal at 10pm in France…or even like rocking horse poo…it almost doesn’t happen.

All in all a pretty great day….

I may have skipped riding for yet another day now but sleeping in till 9:30 was just what the body needed…bike ride… à demain

KM2765.5 Riders KM6598 Me

Today was definitely one of the toughest of the tour…with 5 days to go I am feeling significantly more tired that I did last week.

With a bit of rest day socialising turned into a later night than planned my rest day did not leave me feeling rested.

The lap of the Carcassonne ring road to get to the right place was an amusing distraction before the race had begun.

The first stop was something I have been waiting for all Tour…for me the epitome of Tour de France photos…sunflowers.

CJW_TDFSTG16-4263.jpg

I still don’t thing I have done it justice…I will just have to come back.

The next stop was a challenge for photographing a bike race…shooting in near pitch black…but you as countless irritating people like to point out, it’s not a challenge…it’s an opportunity.

Today clearly being the day for find opportunities I decided to shoot the last climb on the decent rather than the uphill part.

Perhaps not my most successful spot but lessons learnt and remembered…it will work better next time. It was also a lesson that there are some chippers in the pro-peloton when it comes to descending. The variety of weird lines, squealing brakes left me thinking that maybe I’m not so bad

CJW_TDFSTG16-4373.jpg

The finishing touch to the day was a journey to the accommodation over the Col D’Aspin, the tiniest road i could imagine before getting onto the main road, cresting the summit into mist and sunset. The amount of concentration required for my day of driving has ruined me, its time for bed and hopefully a late start tomorrow…

KM2549.5 Riders KM5954.5 Me (still)

So with the rest day upon us its time for some fun shenanigans away from the race…others can stress about the Team Sky press conference but just so it feels like we’re there here’s a picture of Dave doing some classic hand gestures…i can almost predict that will accompany what ever crazy quote he gave out

Tour de France 2018  Stage 2 Mouilleron-Saint-Germain to La Roch

Meanwhile i had better plans…well different at least. Having seen it and photographed the race there i had decided to ride back up to Pic de Nore, a whole 1211m above sea level. By the route i had chosen the basically meant i rode up hill for 26 miles solid, there was one brief decent off the Col de la Croix Sous which was so sketchy i was happy to see the back of it. Single track..dappled sunlight..pot holes and tight blind hairpins, what more could a boy want, other than wide smooth mountain descents where you can actually see the road to read how tight the next corner is.

Still the i made it to the top and took the obligatory bike picture (to go with the picture of goats i took on the way up)…i even had to wait for someone else to finish taking theirs, i then set off for the joy of 23 miles back down on a much better road, sadly traffic and it still being slightly tricky i don’t think i was as fast as the peloton going down it yesterday.

all that was left to fulfill my rest day schedule was to look for some non bike pictures to take and the garden of the Gite i am staying in did not disappoint

 

KM2549.5 Riders KM5954.5 Me

So the second rest in upon us and finally time to enjoy a little rest, i excused myself from the covering the press conferences…you only need one person to take pictures of people sitting still.

its time to go and enjoy some of the roads i have been driving on and enviously thinking “i’d like to ride that” the plan is to go and do the final climb of yesterdays stage..in reverse and then back in the race direction…should be a fair amount of climbing and descending fun to have with some switchbacks to enjoy.

Yesterdays stage was an interesting one…doing a first stop in the first few hundred meters of the stage always seems odd, it means you start off behind and then the whole stage is a chase to get back on but the Milliau Bridge was too good an opportunity to pass on. Only finding out the drama of the days stage over dinner i spent a few mins desperately searching back through my pictures to see if i had been lucky enough to capture it. Given it happens in the 1st KM and i was at about 500-600m into the stage i was incredibly unlucky to miss out but as you can see below they are still playing nicely at this point..or maybe its happened and they are still next to each other.

 

either way the rest of the day was a driving challenge to get back on the course ahead of the race, one challenging section of winding roads had me concentrating hard to make it round hairpins. Within a few kilometers of the race route we came up behind a jeep and a motorbike that were clearly together. The road didn’t lend itself to the overtaking and as soon as it a was straight the sped up. All too quickly the race route was upon us, the classic “cars dumped on both sides of the road” and the familiar red and white blocks showing it was blocked. The jeep and the motorbike just seemed to pile into oblivious to the fact they weren’t going to be able to go further. The gendarme manning the road was on there quickly trying to explain they couldn’t go any further. Almost as quickly the team car that was following us that was also desperate to get on the route was at there door…i can only imagine the words exchanged. I should point at that also at this point the owner of the accommodation for the evening had phoned so i was having a conversation in bad french explaining what time we would be there and it couldn’t be any earlier, perfect timing.

Thankfully a combination of tooting, my colleague Pete, someone from the team car being a little more vociferous and the gendarme got them out the way and bingo we were on the race route. All i had to do was just sit there and be ready for the way to clear and then floor it to get the gap between the race and us for comfort.

With that all sorted the all that was left was deciding between a final stop and the finish, in the end the final climb was too tempting and we stopped. This time it was Pete’s turn to be smug…having loaded up and walked a way from the car i suddenly realised that he had grabbed his jacket…he just looked at me and smiled..a few hundred meters later we cleared the protected bit of the road and the wind hit us…too late now…thankfully it wasn’t too cold but having been acclimatised to 30C sub 20 in strong wind was pretty cold for a delicate flower like me.

KM 2368 Riders KM 5880 me

So today was a long and winding road…lined by some of the best scenery France has to offer. It’s not the mountains but it’s pretty damn hilly and also naturally beautiful.

To get to the first stop of the day I had to pass up the following..

Sunflowers…they were at KM0 for that day and mediocre at best…skipped

Winding downhill into a valley….nice string out peloton would be nice…skipped

Tunnel carved into/through the cliff…everyone loves a good tunnel but still…skipped.

More winding down hill…skipped

Finally I got to the stoop I’d heard people talking about in the morning Vallon Pont D’Arc. Parking was easy but getting in a place to get a shot was going to be hard.

Trying to walk through thorny trees and bushes on loose scree loaded with more camera gear that I really needed was honestly very scary…no tears but certainly blood and sweat

There were 4 or 5 of us who found our way up and in the interests of everyone’s safety made a pact to stay still until the entire peloton has passed…no one wanted to start a rock slide and hit a car or, god forbid a cyclist.

Sadly not everyone was quite so considerate or even clever. A few late comers completely ignorant of the risk barged on and scarpered while there were still car and riders passing below. Somehow major calamity was avoided…all that was left was to find my way back out…rescuing a fellow snappers photo bib with my monopod on the way.

With the shot taken all that was left was getting to the finish…an hour and a half on some very demanding but also stunning roads and I made it…desperate to go back and ride there at some point.

KM 1835 Riders KM 5351 Me

So the mountains have started and what a couple of day it been so far and with Alpe D’Huez providing the crescendo for the Alps today.

When travelling by car to cover the race the mountains are often a wistful look at what might have been, all the curling hairpins to capture to the peloton winding its way up…the beautiful vistas of the giant peaks in the back ground. Its so often a one stop day, the lack of roads makes it impossible to get back ahead and catch them again. But if you can find a great spot all the could have’s vanish from memory

Yesterday driving the route we saw a beautiful damn over which the race went and the when winding up the climb to La Rosiere we were making calculation of whether it was possible to shoot down the hairpins and still get back ahead and stop. Sense prevailed and we found the spot, then a few KM later found a spot to park the car, which is usually more of a challenge. a few shortcuts between the hairpins and the walk down was relatively pleasant. The walk back up after the race had been through was less pleasant and a little bit sweaty but there’s a lot of walking to do for these pictures.

Post race was a big transfer from La Rosiere straight to the Alpe, miscalculated a little and had a 3 hour drive but luck was in and we found a restaurant open to get some found and the after hours check in worked perfectly. Getting there was a little more challenging as both of my Sat Nav’s (phone and a tomtom), at the same time, decided that it wasn’t possible to get to my destination…just want you need a you are just skirting round a major city and several motor way junctions. I had a complete sense of humor failure for at least 5 mins.

Still sleep was had, a tough ride was done this morning (fasted ride up Alpe D’Huez is not to be recommended)

Photo count

3342

45GB