Professional cycling is a beautiful sport. On the outside its a wonderful, colourful circus pitting riders against each other in feats of endurance seldom seen or attainable by us mere mortals. Pain, sacrifice, elation, it has them all in abundance but just like real life it has a dark side too. I love it and I love watching it play out on screen. With the advent of High Definition TV we can see so much more detail than we used to. When I was a kid, the grainy moto cameras in amongst the riders would always be backed up by a couple of photos in my weekly Cycling Weekly fix. To this day I still love a still photo and over the years I’ve found some real corkers which I’ll never forget. These are my favourite photos ever taken of professional cycling.
The Hunchbacks of ’81
For me, this is the greatest photo ever taken. The Hunchbacks of ’81. Here you have (from left to right) Freddy Maertens, Eddy Planckaert and The Badger (Bernard Hinault) in the yellow jersey sprinting for (I think!) Stage 12 A or B (it was split). The lumps on their backs I’ll get to in a minute but just look at it closely. They are riding absolutely flat out. It is full on man-o-man. The concentration and the pain literally etched on their faces. You can see every sinew in their arms and legs and the blurred crowd gives you sense of how fast they are going. The colours and the definition in such an old picture are breathtaking. Two things are odd in this picture which is another reason I love it so much. Two team mates sprinting against each other and seeing the yellow jersey sprinting too. Very rare. Not something you’ll see in the modern peloton. I so love a bit of retro.
..and the lumps on their backs, they are sponges to help keep them cool.
The Agony and the Ecstasy
Its 1989 and Greg Lemond had won his second Tour de France with the smallest margin (8 secs) on the very last stage. It was remarkable and one of the best tours you’ll ever see. Later that year Greg also won the World Road Race Championships in Chambery, France in similar, right at the death, circumstances.
Laurent Fignon, who Greg beat into second place at the tour, attacked on the final climb and looked like he was going to catch the leaders and win to exact a kind of revenge for losing out on the big prize in July….but Greg was on good day again. In a super-aggressive move he caught him and kept surging until he caught the three leaders (Rooks, Claveyrolat & Konyshev) over the top. The weather was awful. Pouring rain, which added another dimension to the race and another facet to the picture I’m so fascinated with. Fignon got back on the descent and then with about 2km to go Sean Kelly had bridged the gap. All of sudden the game changed. In a sprint, no-one would ever bet against Kelly. It was his to lose. Rooks and Fignon tried to go clear but Lemond like a dog with a bone just wouldn’t let it go and hauled them back. Into the home straight, Fignon pulled over resigned to being beaten. Lemond took it up from the front and in a long, long sprint he won. The expected surge and pass from Kelly never came and surprisingly Konyshev beat him into 3rd too.
The photo captures a spectrum of emotions. The elation of Lemond, on the line, realising he’s done it coupled with the overtly pained expression of Kelly in defeat. Konyshev, on the other hand, is just a simple picture of pain you’d expect from racing 7hrs in the cold rain. A split second earlier or later and this photo wouldn’t be. Its a marvelous piece of photography captured by luck more than judgement and is one of my favourites of all time.
Watch it here. One of the best finishes you will ever see.
As a boy I had posters in my bedroom like any other teenager. Originally it was Bruce Lee. After my martial arts ‘phase’, I’d taken up cycling in the late 80’s as a 16 year old and fell in love with the sport. My first memory of the Tour de France was Stephen Roche’s ’87 victory over Pedro Delgado. I remember it making the news on the radio in the car and on telly. In 1988 I found the PDM team and like a football fan I bought the kit and wore it with pride on the bike. Like kids gravitate towards famous footballers, I came under the spell of Gert Jan-Theunisse. A respected climber on the team often seen riding hand in hand with his fellow countryman Steven Rooks.
Theunisse’s stand out victory (there weren’t many) for me was his 165km Stage 17 win on Alpe d’Huez of the ’89 tour. A long solo break saw him cement the polka dot jersey for that tour aswell as fourth overall. This picture is special because it evokes so many memories starting out as a racing cyclist in my late teens. None of my mates rode. I did it all solo with my mom who’d get up at silly o’clock regularly to take me to races. What a mom!
Liggett and Sherwen used to refer to his nickname in their commentary on Channel 4. He was called Hiawatha because of his long hair. I have no idea who Hiawatha is or was but I do know I had this picture on the back of my bedroom door which was a centre pull out poster from Winning magazine that year. I loved it. I wanted the long hair, the tan and the Concorde frame. Sadly I only ever got the kit.
The 1998 Tour de France is remembered for the Festina affair, drugs, police searches, protests and ultimately the race nearly being abandoned. Out of that chaos though came one very special stage when the diminutive Marco Pantani attacked on the Col de Galibier and literally won the race in one of the greatest attacks I’ve ever seen. Its my most watched stage of all time.
I’ve ridden the Col du Galibier from Valloire. Its a beast. On this day in the Tour it was pouring with icy cold rain though. Nearly freezing at the top. As the leaders rode steady with a couple of riders away, Pantani attacked and he was gone. Some tried to hold is wheel but ultimately he grew wings and flew. Jan Ullrich in yellow couldn’t respond. Over the top, Pantani stopped to pop on a jacket for the long descent off the Lautaret (with Jimenez and Rinero) and onto the climb to the stage finish at Les Deux Alpes. Pantani won by minutes and put so much time into a broken Jan Ullrich, the yellow jersey and leader, he effectively won the race there and then.
I love this photo. Its like an oil painting. Mostly blurred if you look at it but if you stand back the details emerge. Pantani, focussed and concentrating in his classic climbing style on the drops. The classic Bianchi Green tones in his Mercatone Uno kit and bike are just classic 90’s cycling. What I grew up with. Bandana, shades and goatie beard which coined him the nickname El Pirata or The Pirate. Everything about Pantani the cyclist is all there. In his pomp, doing his thing. A solo break up a mountain. In the distance we have Jimenez in his dark rain cape being dropped. The crowds and the TV moto zooming in on Pantani just add to the backdrop and the drama of the image. Look at the where Pantani is too.. To the right. The gap in the main part of the picture just emphasises the fact he’s away and on his own. Perfect.
Watch Stage 15 here. Its a good ‘un trust me. Also, go and google some images of Ullrich that day. He was broken.
So those are my favourites. What are yours?
Thanks for reading