One of the joys of photographing while accompanying a journalist is the simplicity of how I’ve long described my role – Turns up, presses buttons, leaves. Of the double act I feel it’s the writer that has the more difficult job, they have to probe for information, garner fact then create narrative that holds interest. I just look and see and press buttons. It seems unfairly simple by comparison.
Which leads me a road trip with to one of my regular creative partnerships – the talented, funny and fast on a bike Frederik (suitably unpronounceable Belgian surname) Backelandt of Grinta! Magazine. An adventure that started with being picked up in Marseilles having got the train part way and being told (a week before heading to the States for a month) that he was sick with pneumonia. Then my spending the first ten minutes of being his passenger Googling how contagious pneumonia was to those in the same car as the infected.
This little C’ote d’Azur tour was to navigate Monaco, the Maritime Alps and the Madone, then Nice before I was dropped me back on the train to commute home from the office to south western France when The Belgian turned right and headed home north. It all seemed logical and if I could survive infection the first night in the three square metres of prime Monaco real estate with sea views that probably cost as much per night as a small island on the other side of the world sells for, I’d be button pressing before lunch the following day.
And that day was to leave me with three impressions and an unlikely friendship.
It was my first time in Monaco. The first time without Cary Grant and Grace Kelly or Prost, Senna and Shumacher. And my first impression stuck. Taxis in Monaco are Mercedes S500s. And after an hour’s trying, my next impression hit. Parking in central Monaco is cheaper than in Brighton, England. Something to this day I can’t forgive the Sussex town for. It was later on that my third impression struck, you could leave ten grand’s worth of cameras hanging in a public toilet while you went for a pee in Monaco and they would still be there when you’d finished.
Walking back from the car park round one famous F1 turn after another and that tunnel gave lunch on the seafront of seafronts amid wannabe celebrities and celebrities wanting to be anonymous a surreal taste. Chips are chips anywhere, and there’s only one rule with chips – enough chips. But somehow eating chips on arguably the most exclusive seafront in the world after having paid peanuts to park a beaten up van amongst Bentleys and Ferraris did seem a little other worldly.
And it wasn’t long after seeing the Belgian naturally dowse chips in mayonnaise like he knew the correct millionaire’s etiquette, that the unlikely friendship was born. We were there to photograph a day in the life of another Belgian, cycling legend Philippe Gilbert. And we found his bike shop nestling amongst the A list of corner shops. Fashion’s premiere catwalks felt comfortable in these streets and when you’d Prada’d up and realised you needed a presta inner tube, it was a glance across the street to our destination.
We sat and drank coffee and dreamed of the jewels in the shiny things cabinet just like any Saturday visit of the past to a local bike shop in our combined 70years experience of this pedaled existence. Then as a carbon handlebar decoyed me the day’s other Belgian reappeared from the behind the curtain like Mr Benn looking head-to-toe pro, and we were off out to see what an elevenses local loop looks like for a world champion.
Now I knew the Alps further north reasonably well but hadn’t tasted the Maritime Alps yet outside of those afore mentioned movie encounters. But immediately I could see what all the fuss and photo shoots were about. A couple of hours of chasing a red blur ahead were interspersed with getting lost, having a pee in achingly beautiful places one probably shouldn’t pee in and chats in Belgian I couldn’t understand.
Following a pro cyclist is like entering another dimension of speed and ability. They flatter your sensibilities by going at chat pace for a while then a reflex in their brain drops the hammer and you’re left wondering how a human and a semi compact chainset can elevate that quickly as you look up and across the mountain road snaking above.
I remember three clear moments of that day. Having a not very good cup of tea in a cafe stop in the middle of nowhere with our world champion (and I firmly believe while one shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, one should judge a country by it’s tea bags). Then getting pulled over by the police and having to explain why we were tailgating a cycling legend. And most memorably, and sadly not uncommonly, stopping to take the shot a hundred metres before the crest of the a mountain with the most beautiful descent unfolded beneath we both unarmed of cameras, watched our hero carve down fast and out of range. That would have been the shot, right there. Would have been.
I’ve always recognised the importance of being allowed bike stand side of a cycle shop. It’s the backstage pass of cycling that denotes when a local bike shop allows you into the fold and you’re a regular.
Riding done, before packing up and heading on to part two in Nice I wanted to try and make a portrait of Philippe Gilbert. And a selfie. I cherish the opportunity to make portraits with people, it’s a trusting and personal space shared. Less so selfies, but when in Monaco. We only had moments but around the corner from the shop on a bridge over a railway line I found our place.
Back at the shop zipping up camera bags I thought this could be the local bike shops of local bike shops really. The posters and signed jerseys on the walls didn’t punch above their weight, they were the real deal. As were the royals, that it turned out one had a legal obligation to display portraits of in public places like bike shops. I did survive that road trip pneumonia free and went on to have an altogether different issue at US immigration a week later in the shape of a rogue banana in my luggage. But that’s another story entirely and one that was typically more about the people and the places than the pressing of the buttons.
That Monaco friendship continues to this day. Distant, but that former world champion was a pivotal motivator in my own journey into the heart of darkness during a year in hospital following a near fatal cycling RTA. It didn’t have an all ends well return to cycling prognosis, but did have a challenge to not give up and try to return to two wheels one day laid down by my own personal Belgian cycling legend.
©Augustus Farmer 2020