I have spent the last few hours searching high and low through hard drives and web archives for the photographs I made at the final stage of the 2018 Paris – Nice with Mavic.
And it seems my only evidence of even having been there comprises of a single image made from the passenger seat of a car. A famous yellow car. And that has brought back memories of why.
I was in Nice with Mavic to document their unveiling of a latest carbon slipper. This involved hanging out with with current pros and former Tour winners, bothering them with lenses and driving them about getting lost, but more on that another time…
It also meant the opportunity to ride in one of the unmistakable neutral service vehicles on the last stage of the Paris – Nice race in the rain. A lot of rain. When you ride a bike and you’re from a damp island like I am, you tend to be impervious to the rain. Getting soaked is often an accepted by-product of a bike ride. But on the French riviera in spring, when the day before and the day after was to be shorts weather it was a shame nature felt like a shower that day of all days. Which led to my not wanting to get out of the car at all. The camera is likely better waterproofed than me but a also more expensive to fix, so on the bench we stayed.
Sitting in the front of the big yellow car watching as the driver liaised (drank coffee) with colleagues in the calm in the middle of the storm, my senses took in the ambience of this vehicle that had played a part in countless scenes on the daytime TV series of summer. It wasn’t so much the new car smell I had imagined it would be as much as the wear of a continent’s repeated border crossings and picking up exhausted humans with road tattoos takes on dashboards and door cards. I remember being slightly disappointed a couple of years earlier when I saw first hand they were white Skoda Octavias underneath a yellow wrap. I had naively assumed they were painted yellow at the factory in the cycling division’s special order assembly line. You wouldn’t have known it unless you got your camera strap caught in the door frame jumping in as I had once, but it stuck in the same way I felt conned when I learned Jools Holland’s Hootenany was filmed in August.
The hubub flew by and we were off. It was declared our car was to follow the leaders and that seemed like it might be the place to find yourself for action in these twisty technical, steep climbs and descent bursts, but a bunch at the front of a race won’t generally do action until the last crumbs of the loaf, up to that point conserving, supporting, and advancing steadily instead, and today was typical if wet for the riviera – impressive nonetheless if not photogenic. But we found our own action. Well, we made it anyway.
If you’ve ever been in a team or support car in a bike race you’ll understand my calling them rally drivers by proxy. If not, it looks tight on the television, but must be seen up close or from the other side of the glass to be believed. They are skilled like a driving elite. Multi tasking that would get you arrested on the open road is both part and parcel in a bike race. and I can’t imagine how hard it was before gearboxes and windows were automatic. The rain had now reached the point where the wipers could barely keep up. It was like watching a miniature snow plow clearing a momentary path of visibility before being drenched again. The idea of that tiny coin like area of contact a racing tyre has with the road not being far off having to double up adherence duties with buoyancy ones all the while holding the same regular speed, crowned the mutual respect held for these gladiators inside this warm dry car yellow over white car. Motorbikes weaved in and out of the traffic and I felt for the camera people in those seats. One glanced at us as they were whisked past and I saw a bedraggled Thomas Voekler microphone live with his trademark gurning cycling smile wrung out into a grimace.
As my yellow taxi flew round hairpins like an S1 Quattro headed up Pikes Peak but with less visibility and a lot more street furniture, I undertook my now experienced and so not queasy inducing skill of following a figure ten meters in front weaving left to right, through a tiny viewfinder, one eye closed while trying to stop 2kg of lens setting off a curtain airbag or knocking out a driver.
And then as if in slow motion there was a series of frozen images that came at me as fragments of potential chaos flashed up as a display of warning postcards one over the other like a scene from a film. A storm damaged overhanging tree branch, a huge pool of standing water, a tight corner over a steep cliff edge, a series of shocked onlookers, hands to their faces, a loud impact – cracking sound and a wheel bouncing down the road in front of us going it’s own way home.
Feeling guilty about not having not taken any pictures yet, I chose this moment to make the only photograph of my day in yellow. It could have been such a great picture too with a true and dramatic story of it’s own to tell. But it wasn’t. With or without context, it’s not even a good photograph.
Suddenly the idea of being a mile ahead of the peloton seeming visually dull and lacking in action turned into a terror that any minute now a hundred professional cyclists at warp factor 10 would come swirling round the corner I was watching in a rear view mirror silently like a tidal wave in a disaster movie giving me fragments of time to prepare for at best airbags sending me into an unwanted bouncy castle ride and at worst much blood and an airborne cliff take off with some of them. Surreal Wizard of Oz imagery of being sucked up into a twister in a yellow car and seeing cycling heroes pedaling past like the wicked witch of the west before disappearing up into the clouds of chaos filled my mind briefly before my rally driver for the day leapt back in and called on the automatic gearbox to fill it’s boots.
More winding, lurching and lens clonking continued before the foreign words I was hearing on the radio sounded less like ‘he’s on your tail‘ and more like ‘you’ve got away with it‘. My anxiety relaxed to respect for this driver that never lost his cool and made even a hazardous situation appear low risk and in control. That’s the definition of experience I imagine but it just went to back up what I’d always thought watching them in races, they are probably taking off over hump back bridges at the weekends and a bike race is like a civilised slowed down rally where the person next to you bumps a lens into your shoulder rather than barking speed and gear choice orders for the corner 50m ahead.
I didn’t see any more cyclists until it was all over and in some ways it was a sad waste of an incredible opportunity, but in another way it was it’s own little adventure for me to treasure, not least having not been a part of one of the worst cycling accidents in history. Over a warm and most welcome dinner I had the privilege of sitting next to Voekler smile now dried out and switched back on. I thanked my driver again with a knowing nod as I passed him the olive oil. I have been in those yellow taxis before and since that escapade but only once as Dorothy. It’s a memory I will hold forever Toto.
©Augustus Farmer 2020