As the gruelling three-week bicycle race around France begins this weekend, editor and ex-rider Guy Andrews takes PORT through five iconic images of the Tour, shot by Magnum photographers
“The interesting thing about cycling is that, for a spectator, very little happens. A crowd will sit by the side of the road for seven hours and then the peloton will pass, it’s gone, but that’s what attracts these photographers. It’s about the essence of photography, capturing that moment.”
I’m speaking to ex-racer, editor and author Guy Andrews about his latest book, Magnum Cycling – a survey of bicycle racing as seen by the members of the celebrated Magnum Photos agency – and he’s explaining why so many iconic photographers have turned their lenses to the sport. “There’s also a great aesthetic in cycling – the colours, the speed,” he continues. “And, unlike a stadium sport, cycling happens out there, in the real world. It’s free to go and watch so it’s a very working class sport. For the socially concerned Magnum photographer there’s something very interesting in that.”
Founded in Paris by a circle that included Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, the Magnum Photos agency has since come to represent some of the greatest photographers of 20th and 21st century. Apart from having documented the most momentous moments in recent history – from the Spanish Civil War to the Libyan conflict in 2011 – Magnum photographers have also been drawn to the everyday, human dramas. Cycling, with its energy and intensity, with the extremes of human endurance that it demands of the riders and the obsessive devotion of its followers, has been popular subject for Magnum’s members since the agency’s inception in 1947.
Andrews’ rare access to the Magnum archives in Paris comes after a decade at the helm of Rouleur – the magazine that, taking inspiration from cycling’s rich design heritage and the mythic status of its heroes, brought a more sophisticated coverage of the sport than the technical race reports, illustrated by stock images of the winner on a podium, that was the standard fare of the cycling press at the time.
“I wanted to get some interesting photography in the magazine, to get out of the normal realm of the sports photographer,” Andrews tells me. “One of the first stories we ran was about the 1985 Tour de France, shot by John Fink. It was incredibly compelling – many people have attempted to capture the feeling of being in the race but it is the Magnum photographers that have taken some of the most convincing images.”
Now, as the Tour de France – the iconic, gruelling three-week race and pinnacle of the cycling calendar – gets underway this weekend, Andrews shares with PORT his five favourite images from Magnum Cycling, capturing a vignette of the Tour as seen by some of the greatest photographers of the 20th century.
The Starter, 1939 by Robert Capa
This picture was taken at the top of the Col du Tourmalet. It’s not the best picture but it is one that says quite a lot about the evolution of reportage photography. A l’Equipe photo of the same scene was taken on a plate camera – beautifully framed and perfectly in focus – whereas Capa’s was taken with a tiny, 35mm Contax. You can see the blur that tells you he’s just started the film. He’s not even wound it on yet, but for me that’s just what this kind of photography is about – Capa was credited as being one of the first guys to take photographs with a 35mm camera from the motorbike, while all the other photographers were using big plate glass camera, standing still on the side of the road.
Capa shot 30 rolls of film of the ’39 Tour. I’ve seen the contact sheets and I’d say you could print every frame – that’s how good he was. He was economical, only shooting what he needed to, and some of his photographs could have been from last year because they feel so contemporary.
Alsace, 1969 by Henri Cartier-Bresson
This is Henri Cartier-Bresson at the Tour de France in 1969 and I initially thought that it showed a rider called Joaquim Agostinho, a famous Portugese rider because it looks just like him, but I did some more research and thought that it might be Marino Basso, who was wearing the green points jersey at the time.
I managed to piece that part of the story together but I still wasn’t certain. Then last year I walked past the Basso Bikes stand at a bike fair last year and saw a guy who looked just like the person in this photograph. I asked him if he used to ride and he said he didn’t but that his brother, Marino, did. I showed him this photograph and he was amazed Henri Cartier-Bresson had taken his brother’s picture.
Arrival of the Tour de France, 1980 by Martine Franck
This is by Martine Franck on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, taken from the apartment where she lived with Henri Cartier-Bresson. Franck, seeing the Tour coming past, stuck her head out of the window and took some pictures. I love the position of the riders, the way it has that dynamic of racing. It just looks like a bike race – it’s a great sports photograph but it’s also a beautifully composed photograph.
Tour de France, 1982 by Harry Gruyaert
What I love about this photograph is that Bernard Hinault is the only rider in the whole peloton who is sat down. Everyone else is standing up and you can tell the peloton is going really hard, but Hinault, in the leader’s jersey, is sat down, staring right at the camera, as if to say “fuck you!” It’s one of those shots, it’s really rare in bike racing, that makes you feel like you’re in the race. It’s really difficult thing to do. When he went to the Tour to shoot this, Harry knew nothing about cycling but this is spot on. He’s captured that feeling of being there.
Reims, 1985 by John Vink
I really like this picture but I had a real struggle to get it in the book. I don’t think John wanted a picture of him smoking but I love the immediacy of it. I love the fact that it’s in the race, that the rider is coming through the cars with his water bottle. John’s smoking, and it reminds me what covering the Tour de France as a journalist is all about – pure chaos.
Magnum Cycling, published by Thames and Hudson, is out now