On Photography and Bradley Wiggins

“The camera… makes real what one is experiencing…. A way of certifying experience… converting experience into an image, a souvenir.” —Susan Sontag

When the Heroes went to France this spring we tried to photograph the race in small groups scattered about the course. We hoped each group would capture the race from two or three spots on the route with a wide perspective. Since we were not going to make race coverage per se, we were looking for something more atmospheric that connected the landscape, fans and the reportage of any given moment. Of course we hoped to do something new, but we were aware that the riders, the course and the weather would set their own terms.

With no press passes and of course no motorcycles we were a bit nervous going into Arenberg. We thought we would have to get there early and may have to fight traffic to get back on the A23 to catch the last cobble sections of the race. None of the Hero crew wanted to devote all their time to Arenberg and maybe miss a second or, with luck, a third location. Maybe our biggest fear was how to contend with the iconic images of the Arenberg Forest and also with the cliché and the ubiquity of all things Paris-Roubaix.

Arriving at Arenberg we drank some beer and caught some of the French version of tailgating which was not too distant from small town antics before a high-school football game stateside. I found myself at a spot on top of some rail equipment about 15 meters off the course. I imagined a photograph of the first ten riders as they prepared to enter the cobbles. I had a clear view. I had my spot. Now I just had to wait for the race.

I am going to guess that at Arenberg there must be 10,000 cameras recording the 2.4 kilometers of cobblestones. Of those 10,000 cameras there must be 100 guys with high-end Canons and Nikons with expensive lenses. We are not talking about professional race photographers here, just an odd assortment of amateurs, enthusiasts and your odd wedding photographer with the day off. After the race we would talk with some of the guys who hailed from Lille or Paris, and compare some sneak peaks and see some sharp images.

One of the things we noticed in photographing bicycle races was the temptation to abandon our perfectly composed vantage points we had discussed as a group. When you know you will only have three to four frames of any moment, getting close to the action had us dismissing our initial photographic plans.

During the two to three minutes a race passes by, you see the professional cameraman speed past or disembark from their motorcycle at that critical location to best capture the moment they have photographed over a career. Some of the photographers, as dusty as the riders from the day’s dry condition, looked exhausted with their multiple cameras bouncing off their bellies.

The race arrives in bits. First the race officials, then some Gendarmes on Enduros and, finally, the helicopters in the distance loudly announce the racers’ approach. My perch upon the rail equipment ended up a lost cause, as spectators swarmed the railway and blocked my view of the frenzied entry of the first ten riders.

There was so much chaos that I felt like I had lost the moment I had been waiting for all day. Desperate, I ran for the course in the forest even though I had pretty much given up on getting anything of quality. I jumped across some shrubs, tall grass, and a chair and simply pointed my camera at the chaos. In front of the crowd I could see Geraint Thomas looking a bit scraped up and dusty with a look of desperation. Standing behind him was Bradley Wiggins shouting in very clear terms, “TAKE MY WHEEL…GO.”

In seconds the rear wheel was switched from Brad’s machine to Geraint’s. In the same moment that Geraint climbed aboard his bike, Bradley held steady his teammate for the shove and pushed him off towards the velodrome in Roubaix. Without looking through the viewfinder I continued to photograph the unfolding scene. I pointed my lens over the heads of the Belgian fans in front of me, hoping to catch the drama.

At Hero Headquarters, we call this picture the Wiggins push. No faces to be seen. Just bodies and gesture. A little blood on Geraint Thomas’ arm. A dusty, sinewy Brad Wiggins shouting an order, a command and yet totally relaxed. Cars. Bikes. Cameramen surround him. The last frame is of Wiggins’ hand following through, knowing his day was most likely over.