The best way to watch a bike race is undoubtedly sitting on the sofa with a couple of beers and an afternoon free of any distraction. When I say ‘best,’ I mean the best way to follow every move, every break and every attack. It isn’t necessarily the best way to experience a bike race.
As a photographer, I get to experience bike races as close as you can get without actually being on a bike. This is the best way to watch a bike race.
I have been lucky enough to experience bike racing from a perspective most people don’t get to experience and will never get to experience. Even the VIPs, who will pay silly amounts of money to ride up front in a car driven by an ex-pro, don’t get to see what I see.
I get to experience all the best bits of the race. The beer, the frites, the dust, the speed, the sweat and sometimes the blood, but without the pain of riding 250km across cold, hard cobbles.
The Tour of Flanders is second only to Paris-Roubaix (the Queen of the Classics) and is the biggest one-day race in Belgium. The 2017 edition sees Tom Boonen—one of Belgium’s finest classics riders—step down from professional cycling. Having won this race three times and Paris-Roubaix four times, it would be a fairy-tale ending for most Belgian cycling fans, and fans from around the world, to see Tommeke win these monuments of single-day racing. Even some of his fellow riders were secretly hoping he would win.
It wasn’t to be for Tommeke. I made it to the finish before him after running the last 2k, but so did his teammate Philippe Gilbert and about 20 other riders. It wasn’t his day and it wasn’t Peter Sagan’s day, either; he took a dive and crashed 15km from the finish line, when a poorly placed jacket yanked on his handlebars, ripping him from the bike and sending him sliding down the cobbles at 45kph.
Race day for me started hungover from the various shades of Westmalle the night before. The sun was out creating some awesome shadows across the market square beneath the clock of the town hall, where the pre-race presentation would be. The clock showed 10.30am. There were thousands of people crammed into this tiny cobbled square. The crowd starts to clap. Clap, clap, clap, faster and faster, the claps roared into a cheer as Tom Boonen crests the top of the ramp to the stage.
These fans were here for one person, the darling son of Belgium. Who, incidentally, is rumored to have his own donkey sanctuary—I don’t know how true this is, so don’t quote me on it. (He did win a stuffed one a few years back, though.) Sagan as race favorite followed with his Bora-Hansgrohe team, doing a wheelie up the ramp and all the way down the gangway to the stage. Cycling has seen many rock-star personalities; Sagan is the latest edition.
Roll-out was pretty chilled, I even got a nod from the man himself (Tom Boonen). Eddy Merckx was doing the rounds and gave Boonen the send-off he deserved from the first man of Belgian cycling to the next.
My driver for the day, Jeff Lockwood—once editor of Grit.cx, now working with Ritchey Logic—lives five minutes from the start line in Antwerp. I met Jeff at a UCI cyclocross race in the UK, but our relationship was developed through a series of serendipitous meetings on the cobbles of Flanders, strangely enough. We had plenty of time to get to our first spot.
Over a few beers the night before a plan was hashed out. Start, feed stop 1, the Muur, the Paterberg, and then on to the finish if we were very lucky, although I wanted the finish to be a priority. Finish-line shots are great for capturing emotion and effort on rider’s faces.
Feed stops are generally relaxed affairs until the peloton comes bursting through at 60kph. It’s not unusual to find swannies (a.k.a. soigneurs) catching a few Z’s with feet up on the dashboards of their team cars or sunbathing (if the weather permits) on the grass verges at the side of the road.
At this particular feed stop, there was a handily placed bar named the Koppenberg, showing the race coverage. The party atmosphere was buzzing, the smell of BBQ wafting across the road, euro pop/oompah music blasting out of the back of what I can only describe as something that looked like an ex-fire engine from the ’50s.
There was a rotund chap sporting an apron—obviously the BBQ-er—with a cigarette in his mouth riding a little girl’s bike with the stabilisers taken off, the rear tyre bottomed out, while the crowd who were cheering and egging him on got slowly drunk and rather sunburnt.
The helicopters are the first sign the peloton are on the way, then the motorbikes—some cameramen, some TV coverage, but mostly police and stewards controlling the rolling road blocks.
The first rider appears in the distance followed by three or four more, a breakaway—I couldn’t make out who was in the break—but I could see a Wanty-Groupe Gobert rider who I believe was Mark McNally and a Roompot rider who I think was Taco Van der Hoorn. I was shooting both of these teams, so it was great to see them making their mark on the race.
The fun was over and the race was on.
The race takes a dive down below the Sheldt River and back up again. It zigzags across the Flemish countryside, so it’s possible to see from a few spots along the route. It’s actually very accessible at all points along the route, and even possible to watch two or three laps of the race in Oudenaarde, where all the classic cobbled climbs are, including the Paterberg, the Kwaremont, and now amongst many more, after a few years of absence, the Muur van Geraardsbergen.
The Muur was part of the plan, but in every race plans never go as intended, so it’s always a good idea to have a backup or the skill to think on your feet.
A decision was made to miss out the Muur as it would take too long to get there. If I did go, I would probably have missed the Paterberg and then possibly the finish. I ditched the Muur and headed straight for the Paterberg; this would be my first and final section of cobbles. It was the correct decision—the finish was one not to be missed.
At the Paterberg, crowds were beginning to gather and find their spot on the side of the iconic cobbled climb. I walked up and down a couple of times looking for the best place to shoot. I always like to make the effort to chat with a few of the fans on the side of the road. It helps them feel a part of what I am doing as a photographer, and helps me feel more a part of the race itself.
Each one was asking how the race was unfolding, who is going to win, who was my favorite rider, who was my favorite female rider. Lizzie Deignan is my favorite and Hannah Barnes, too—both British riders. It was great to see them in a bunch of riders such as this.
Two lads stood out for me, both dressed in their own words “as Tom Boonen,” wearing Quick Step jerseys of the past. I’d say they were only 15-16 years old, both drinking cheap Belgian beer, maybe even their first beer; but what a place to have it, at the top of the Paterberg surrounded by thousands of crazy cycling fans. Watching your heroes Tom Boonen, Philippe Gilbert, and Peter Sagan, cresting the top of that cobbled hill turning left towards Oudennarde and then onto the Kwaremont. If you want to see passion, this is a place you can find bucketloads.
The women passed first, eyes staring, bloodshot, and saliva rolling down chins. Not wavering, flying to the top racing hard, even after 200km of dust and cobbles. If anyone tells you women’s cycling is inferior, they haven’t witnessed what I have witnessed.
I was watching the race on a fan’s phone across the road. I could see the TV cameras focusing on Gilbert, but I didn’t really understand what was going on, as it was all in Flemish. I could hear the helicopters and the motorbikes getting closer and then I could hear the crowd getting louder.
A lone rider was spotted across a farmer’s field. The vantage point at the top of the Paterberg allows you to see a few roads in the surrounding area as well as the famous landmark of the nuclear power station, bang in the middle of this beautiful Belgian landscape.
It was Philippe Gilbert. He broke away with 50km to go after teammate Tom Boonen had a controversial mechanical involving a certain manufacturer of chainrings (and who then had to apologise for blaming said manufacturer). Boonen had to swap his bike twice in only handful of seconds and Gilbert was told to go. In fact there’s a clip of his directeur sportif shouting “Go, just go,” so he did.
The rest of the bunch came through. Tom Boonen’s dream was over and it was Sagan’s race to be won.
Like the riders, we raced to the finish. The roads we chose were quiet. I’ve been to this area of the world before, but barring a few landmarks, such as the power station, a few little churches and prayer huts, I didn’t really know where we were, so I trusted in Jeff’s knowledge of these roads and the sat nav too.
There was a blockade at the 2km to go banner, out of bounds to traffic. We tried to bargain, but security had been tightened since the recent terrorist activity in Belgium. My only option was to take off on foot and run the last 2km to the finish line, camera in hand.
I race bikes myself and run as part of my training, so I thought 2km would be nothing. When I finally got to the line, I was wet through and my thighs were shaking. I sprinted that 2km in fear of missing the winner crossing the line.
I got there and the big screen had the race unfolding in front of me. Gilbert had a lead of just over 50 seconds at 18km to go and Sagan was catching, along with another rider. The gap came down to 40 seconds, and at 15km to go, all I could hear from the grandstand was a thousand hands making contact with sunburned foreheads and a collective “Ooh!”
Sagan had fallen! He caught his bars in a coat, which had been draped over the barriers, which then sent him, Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen skidding down the cobbles at full speed.
This was Gilbert’s race now, and he knew it. He has had a bit of a dry patch with BMC in previous years, and the change in team colours to Quick Step Floors has clearly done him some good. His form has been improving and it was only a matter of time before winning came back for him. It wasn’t a wholly individual effort, though. Before Boonen had his mechanical he gave Gilbert the launch and set him up for the race.
The shot I hoped for on the finish line wasn’t the winner crossing the line, hands up in celebration, but of the riders who just made it to the finish—head in hands, barely holding it together. I got those shots and so much more.
The experience for me is what matters. I love beautifully composed black and white shots showing the romance, the effort and the pain, but most of all I love being here. Experiencing a small snapshot of what it is like to be a pro cyclist in some of the world’s toughest bike races. Mud, blood and all.
This is the best way to watch a bike race.