The last year has been the challenge of this lifetime. I was involved in a cycling accident in July 2018 on a local col ten kilometres from home at the end of an all day one fifty and spent the majority of the following year hospitalised near the Spanish border of my semi native France. More on that life changing event of this handlebar Englishman another time, but suffice to say after a joyless year with seldom a smile, being asked to make portraits of cyclists on their way into the Heart of Darkness that would likely become a new benchmark in cycle hardness but for now was simply called Further, felt an honour.
Born of a yearning for the cycle race to once more be as it once was. Not just the clothing and bikes being retrospective for a look of old but instead the historic images of Giro and Tour heroes undertaking the visual equivalent of battlefield hardship in the rain and mud, minimally protected and lacking in support on their own up a mountain, shattered but still on a bike once more for the actual feel of what that level of challenge can produce. This was to be Further. To go further and hopefully come back perspective furthered. Or at least come back at all.
It was clear I was unable to follow the race or capture any atmosphere or action as it went down over the Pyrenees like I once would have felt naturally inclined to, but when asked to be involved by dear friend, great photographer and Further founder Camille MacMillan, I felt charmed and heartbroken at once that lying in my hospital bed I’d never be able to and even if more miracle were to befall me and I could visit, my ability to make any photographs of presence would likely be pretty much non existent.
So obviously I said yes. And then worried about it all pretty much from that moment on until the first shutter clack turned the key on the padlock to my comfort zone of the intimacy of portraiture. Sitter, camera and me. My perfect two dimensional world, preferably recorded onto black and white roll film.
Unable to follow the race I decided that anything I would write up would be from behind the scenes of my own little perspective of this event. So I imagine there will be other more race angled viewpoints written in coming weeks but for now, this was my perspective from the sidelines.
I agreed to undertake feeling my image disclaimer was solid this time and in my post accident new found perspective on life, what worse the worst that could happen? My falling off a step ladder trying to balance looking into the waist level finder of a roll film camera perhaps? Not the end of the world is it if I have someone ready to catch me like my physiotherapist on hand in my various recovery therapies? What could go wrong?
As we rolled gently into race headquarters – the fairly striking Zero Neuf in the Arriege a couple of hours west of our home I felt directly under the watchful eye of the mountains that I can only occasionally see a couple of valleys into a local ride. Old tractors and occasional Citroens littered the roadsides and village entrances as we discovered a new landscape only a few grid squares over on the map but a lifetime or at least a few decades apart in environmental feel.
As with most things I’m involved with there were bicycles leaning against walls at every turn. Most in different states of undress but all with their intentions strapped or bolted to to their extremities like rallied troops’ kit waiting neatly for the big push. And this advance was to be 9am the next morning.
I always feel both at home and well omened by making friends with a dog before even the human elements can mix. Guinness the white pawed softie opened her heart as her owners Jocelyn and Mike fired up the Rocket Espresso machine and opened that theatre of refreshment so synonymous with cycling, in their open doored barn cum living room and bar and we were welcomed in the familiar cycling dialect of strong coffee under a historic Campagnolo adorned steel master hanging overhead. This was my kind of space. As hundreds of other cyclists no doubt now say when they look at their holiday snaps.
The morning after arrived on time. A little early in fact. Likely even more acutely to those acclimatising themselves to the upcoming nights rough with tents in the paddock at the back of the house we stayed in. There was a weighing in of sorts as the hopefuls, the confident and the slightly bemused lined up to lube up and ready their bikes if not themselves for the imminent push.
There was a rider briefing shortly afterwards that enabled me to make a pre-race portrait of each rider on my trusty Bronica two and a quarter square roll film camera that has captured all manner of cycling inside it’s mechanical bus conductor’s ticket dispenser like box. From Dario Pegoretti to Ernesto Colnago and racers from Dolomites to Flanders spectacle, many faces have been stored behind this magic curtain and that day another thirty would find themselves locked in for a few weeks until a darkroom could re-expand them. The logistics of weening racers from their bikes and feeding them to my makeshift studio around the side of the barn was the challenge of the hour for me as everyone’s time constraints differed but amounted to the same thing, in half an hour it all changed for a few days.
The familiar feeling final wind of the film advance lever wound the last six riders into their new spool of celluloid and a lick of the sadly no longer mint flavoured adhesive strip closed and sealed the film until it could be introduced to a steel spiral film processing tank in the dark somewhere in the near future. Done. No looking to see what had worked and what hadn’t like the modern way has treated us to or spoiled us with, into their case they went and into the field opposite I went to see other people’s latest adventure launch from the perimeter fence. Apart from the tents with shorts hanging drying out on their guy ropes, this was the first parallel I drew to the Le Mans 24hr motor race further up the country a couple of months earlier in June. Lined up and dressed up off they ran across the field to reunite with their sole companion for the next four days leaning against a wooden fence on an edge perspective under a distant horizon of the spine of the Pyrenees looming powerfully in their jagged pointy rawness above the thin haze line overstaying it’s welcome not yet burned off by the morning sun.
When they were gone they were really gone. Things were tidied up, dogs calmed down and wondered what all the excitement was for and life went abruptly back to normal. The likely opposite feeling to every one of those figures cycling away up the road toward the distant peaks. Unable this time round to follow a race with a camera I stepped down and awaited my next call up after the weekend when they’d hopefully start re-appearing having been through their own rights of passage emerging wanting a cup of tea, a lot of cake and probably a cuddle.
Watching the race become a race through the transponder dots on the screen in the bar reminded me of occasionally catching up with bicycling friends at adventures like the TCR and Ride the Divide. But here it had particular resonance with in one case the same friend who’s dot I have followed round the world at times. In a odd way the game of draughts over a map on the screen in front of me was more real than watching a race if filmed by a helicopter overhead. These were coloured dots with initials bobbing along a map and somehow they were more alive than imagery of the actual legs turning their chains of attack on close up moving image camera.
Not able to stay glued to the admittedly addictive coloured dot spectacle, off we drove home to our end of the Pyrenees to re-group and return reloaded a few days later.
And on return the portrait plan went up a gear. I brought back a digital camera to make a quite different portrait of the same faces as soon after their race had finished as the one made before it had begun, if possible.
Each sitter was particularly patient and gracious especially considering their tour of duty was technically still bubbling over even though the gas had been switched off. But the looks in the eyes I was focused on had changed as one would imagine they would. There was all manner of emotion in the glares I caught in my next temporary studio. All readable as the encryption of everything from confidence to fear was clearly un-transmittable. These were unprocessed stares into my lens raw and all the more interesting for it. The concern and question had gone and replacing it was a relief and non belief and slow motion replay of the last few days and nights up and down mountains that would in time get to the end credits and likely play an epilogue of a simple feeling of achievement and a smile.
The riders that went further were:
Charles Christiansen. Rory Kemper. Hamish Paine. Ingeborg Dybdal Oie. Josh Ibbett. Bas Rotgans. Rob Quirk. Emma Pooley. Daniel Peat. Joanna Carritt. Isobel Jobling. Jon Woodroof. Mathieu Davy. Philippa Battye. Ed Wolstenholme. Jon Hairsine. Angus Young. Dave Smith. Lisen Hockings. Maurice Van Roosmalen. Lee Craigie. Alice Lemkes. Emma Osenton. Claire Frecknall. Jo Burt. Therese Sundstrom. Louise Soplanit. Tim O’ Rourke. Meg Pugh.
For a more full portrait gallery of the riders with their finishing results, have a look at the Further Journal here.
Cyclists home and documented and cameras packed away it was to my own tea and cake relief picnic I got lead by new friends Lola and Guinness. I leave reporting on the race, results and standings this for the official report but I will note that being at the finish line as Emma Pooley was the first across bringing with her all her emotions visible like a Disney like cartoon drawing of bluebirds singing around a cloud of shining stars spinning above her head, was the most underplayed but overwhelming finish line i have been lucky enough to witness.
Talking the following day about racing and a life once lived on pedals I realised the photographic challenge I had set myself to make these portraits had not actually been as challenging as feared post accident. As usual the photography was the easy bit, the logistics and workflow of sitters about to be racers and light and time pressure was the real challenge. Those two sessions on the buttons wore me out but didn’t run me down as I had feared they would. They lifted me in some ways. A mixture of emotions would have read in my eyes had I been photographed as these 4 day heroes were, but fortunately nobody photographs photographers. Sarah said to me later in the week when the enormity of it all had started to sink in, that she thought I had faced my own race out there while these challengers fought theirs. To undertake a once routine challenge with now unknown ability was a race of sorts in itself. A race without bikes and geography and weather and nature and self sufficiency but instead a chair and a constant supply of tea didn’t feel to me like it compared to these lone warriors’ battle of the cols above us. But perhaps her point wasn’t lost on me as even beyond my feelings of honour at being asked to photograph and privilege at even being able to still try, my eyes started to transmit the emotion of a small achievement in the following days. And there was an ongoing smile.