Capturing the thrill of cycling

JONATHAN MCKEOWN
Last updated 13:00 26/12/2013
Graham Watson
Fairfax NZ
HAPPY SNAPPER: Eminent cycling photographer Graham Watson.
Greg LeMond
Graham Watson
EPIC BATTLE: Bernard Hinault duels it out with Greg LeMond in the 1986 Tour de France.

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In 1986 the sport of cycling changed forever. That pivotal moment - the historic ascent of the French Alps - was recorded by eminent cycling photographer Graham Watson. While at home in Nelson, Watson spoke with The Nelson Mail about his career, the Tour de France and sports photography. 

Graham Watson's camera has taken him around the world. Through its lens, he broke the mould for Tour de France shooters, witnessed scandals and paradigm shifts in the sport of cycling, and climbed just about every mountain in cycling photography.

The world-renowned photographer lives in London and escapes to Nelson but spends most of the year travelling and shooting tours. Much of his time is spent on the back of motorbikes, bouncing around from shot to shot, or perched in precarious positions as the peloton rushes by with the force of a stampede.

In a career spanning 35 years, Watson has photographed and become close to many of the sport's stars. At the peak of his cycling career, Lance Armstrong commissioned Watson to shoot for his book.

His work has been exhibited in publications and galleries around the world. He has co-authored more than 20 books and has also written for newspapers, the web and magazines.

It is a long way from where his passion for cycling started, in 1972 London - cycling to his job as a photography intern because he couldn't afford to take the train. In those days, he worked with a wooden camera and glass negatives.

Five years later, Watson was a "getting a little tired" of the black and white portraits and, as a spectator in the Tour de France, work and cycling collided.

"I was in a cycling club, but by that time I was starting to realise I was no good as a cyclist," he says.

"I wanted to be a photographer, and I put the two together, and that is the start of everything I have done."

Watson's first big break can be traced to one picture, a black and white photo of Eddy Merckx, "who is still acknowledged as the greatest ever".

Merckx was in the Tour de France in 1977, which turned out to be the last of his career.

Watson got what he calls a "reasonable shot" of him, which won a competition in a cycling magazine, and that "little step" led to commissions and a foot in the door.

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"It was not technically brilliant. It was just a picture of a bloke on a bicycle but it just happened to be the very best bloke."

Another significant moment came in 1981, when an Australian cyclist named Phil Anderson became the first non-European to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France.

"When that happened, the whole English-speaking world lit up about cycling and the Tour de France. He made news around the world, and I was in the right place at the right time."

A parade of cyclists coming out of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and England followed in Anderson's pioneering tracks.

By the mid-1980s, Watson felt he had finally arrived. His success was tied inexorably to the popularity of cycling, and the sport was crossing borders and language barriers.

"The sport had become a worldwide commodity. People were speaking English in a sport where they only ever spoke French or Italian. I had started working for non-English-speaking magazines.

"All the photographers in those days were French, Italian, Dutch and Belgians. They looked the other way when these English-speaking guys started winning. They weren't interested. I was, and I had the pictures."

Then that irrevocable change occurred in 1986, during the 73rd Tour de France.

Five-time champion Bernard Hinault had won the previous year, and the Frenchman was highly favoured to repeat. But there was a new element in this tour - it was the first to feature an American team.

Books have been written about the subterfuge, teamwork or otherwise involved in the encounter that followed.

Hinault pledged to support young American Greg LeMond's effort to claim a title, yet repeatedly launched withering solo attacks as he seemingly pushed for a sixth title.

One of these came on the legendary ascent of l'Alpe d'Huez, "cycling's most important climb". Hinault stormed the mountain but at the summit, the young American had matched the French champion. Lemond was right on his shoulder, and Watson immortalised the moment.

Lemond went on to win. He became the first American and the first person from an English-speaking nation to win Le Tour. A French cyclist has not won since.

"Technically, the photograph is very good. But more than that, it is a historical moment - the end of a battle lasting three weeks. The American won, and it changed the sport forever."

More recently, cycling has gone through major upheavals. Drugs and doping have claimed the reputations of many stars and tarnished the image of the sport. Lance Armstrong was the fulcrum point as cycling leveraged on his stoically clean image, but then the balance tipped.

Watson has observed this tumultuous time up close, and it has been very personal.

"Certain cyclists you have an affinity with; I use Lance Armstong's career as an example. At the time, they are the best years of your life.

"The days when Lance was winning are the things you remember the most; they are the days you won't ever see again.

"It was a strange moment when he confessed on live television. It was traumatic in a way, but the sport has a history of drug scandals, so you are not naive.

"It was not a surprise at all. There was too much smoke to hide the fire."

Armstrong was a champion - and, like an artist of old commissioned to illustrate a famous battle, Watson documented his triumphs. The photographs remain in full colour, though the victories are now stained and faded.

"Lance Armstrong is in the past, but the shadow still hovers over us."

In a career that has seen Watson shoot in five different decades, he has become "a bit of an expert, without knowing it".

He has watched the sport change as readily as his camera gear, from glass negatives to SD cards. He has exhibited in art galleries around the world but his extensive website, online gallery and image database has been visited by millions of people.

He had a "huge opportunity" to have his first book published in 1986, now he has more than 32,000 followers on Twitter, who see examples of his work nearly every day.

Watson has embraced the technological changes, but one thing remains the same. He still has to balance on the back of a moving motorcycle, or pick the spot in a sunflower field where the light and composition produce the best photograph.

He says the thing that continues to attract him to cycling photography, aside from the "lifestyle" of travelling to beautiful locations, is the dynamic nature of the sport itself.

"It's a very colourful sport but one that is brutal in many ways as well. Crashes are a part and parcel of every day in the peloton. It's like coming across a road accident sometimes; you get hardened to seeing some nasty injuries.

"Cycling is a sport that takes place on the open roads, often amidst the most beautiful scenery, but sometimes on the most horrible cobbled lanes in Europe."

Watson has travelled extensively around the world, assessing the backdrop, lighting and colour of an area with a photographer's eye. He could live and work from nearly anywhere, yet New Zealand and Nelson resonate with him.

"The Aussies say the Great Ocean but, as my wife says, there are 20 places like that in New Zealand. Corsica is very pretty, spectacular, but you see much better in the Abel Tasman.

"Nelson has got everything I could get in London. It is a city, but it is a casual lifestyle. It's the typical Kiwi lifestyle - laid-back."

For the past eight years Nelson has been a haven between busy northern hemisphere cycling seasons. He and wife Jo - a New Zealand Commonwealth Games triathlete who Watson photographed in 1985, in a "meeting of sorts" - stumbled on the "ideal place to live" while exploring New Zealand.

In June, the 100th Tour de France went through Corsica, a French island in the Mediterranean Sea, famed for its picturesque mountains and coastlines. However, Watson says it isn't a patch on New Zealand for natural beauty.

But that isn't the reason why Watson chose Nelson as a home-away-from-home, where he and Jo plan to settle in the next few years. It is the relaxed pace and the people.

The couple were married in late spring at Upper Moutere's Woollaston Estate, among friends and family. In a testament to the esteem with which Watson is held in the cycling fraternity, champions - including 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans and Commonwealth cycling pioneer Phil Anderson - came to witness the nuptials.

There is also a Nelson connection when he works in Europe. Watson has shot two of the region's finest riders there - Jack Bauer on the Tour de France, and George Bennett on his grand tour debut, in freezing conditions on the Giro d'Italia.

Bennett, like all the riders on tour, knows of Watson. His reputation alone sets him apart from the media throng. He refers to Watson as "the best cycling photographer in the world, a legend".

But the modest, private man who likes Nelson because you can feel comfortable wearing a polo shirt and sandals to a meeting plays down the puff.

He says taking a great photo is all about being in the right place at the right time. Well, mostly.

"It is literally hit and miss; the more you do it, the less misses there are. It is experience and a lot of luck."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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