I am no longer a cycling photographer. If you want, you can now refer to me as a ex-cycling photographer or as a former cycling photographer. Yes, after almost 45 years as a professional photographer and 38 years of that as a cycling photographer I am retiring – my last race was the Tour Down Under in January. I turned 60 years-of-age last March and began finalising a plan that had been fermenting in my mind since five years earlier. I had always wanted to stop at 60, reasoning that my vision and reflexes would be left intact if I stopped now – stay too long and the quality and commitment were bound to fall at some stage. By stopping at 60 I also have the chance to discover other things in life, or at the very least get out on my bike more and maybe climb a few of the mountains I’ve photographed for so long. I have reasoned with myself that retirement is the biggest milestone a human being reaches, beyond getting married or buying one’s first home. So this was not a casual, easy decision to make nor carry out. Yet here I am, one day into retirement, sitting on our deck overlooking the Tasman Bay in Nelson, New Zealand, a glass of locally-produced Sauvignon Blanc in my hand, totally at peace with my new lifestyle.
That peace would not have been realised had I not enjoyed such a satisfying and rewarding career. From the moment I grabbed a lucky shot of Eddy Merckx on the Champs Elysees in 1977 – a shot that started my career after I won a small prize in a photo-competition at what is now ‘Cycling Weekly’ – to capturing the attacking moment when Richie Porte won the Tour Down Under on Willunga Hill last month, my career has been one long, unbroken, enjoyable, unforgettable, exciting, roller-coaster, highly successful adventure. You name the names; I’ve followed their whole careers. Think of Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon, Greg Lemond, Stephen Roche, Eric Vanderaerden, Pedro Delgado, Robert Millar, Sean Kelly, Phil Anderson, Andy Hampsten, Mario Cipollini, Miguel Indurain, Tony Rominger, Bjarne Riis, Laurent jalabert, Jan Ullrich, Chris Boardman, Erik Zabel, Marco Pantani, Stuart O’Grady, Johan Museeuw, Lance Armstrong, Paolo Bettini, Robbie McEwen, David Millar, Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Cadel Evans, Philippe Gilbert, Mark Cavendish, Alberto Contador, Bradley Wiggins, Alejandro Valverde, Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome – that’s a hefty lineage of champions I’ve photographed from amongst thousands of mere mortals.
Who is my favourite road cyclist, people often ask? I tell them Sean Kelly, a constant source of great photography when I was a young lad starting out. I then say Indurain came close, ahead of Fignon, Ullrich, Armstrong, Delgado and Wiggins. I also tell them that if I was just 21-years-of-age today, then Wiggins would be my favourite cyclist – the most enigmatic of them all, but as a five-times Olympic Gold medallist, multi World Champion, winner of a Tour de France and current holder of the Hour Record, he is by far the most talented cyclist I’ve ever photographed. My favourite track cyclist? Wow, who to choose from when I’ve seen greats like Danny Clark, Connie Paraskevin, Tony Doyle, Erika Salumae, Koichi Nakano, Lutz Hesslich, Sergei Kopylov, Urs Freuler, Michael Hubner, HH Oersted, ‘Eki’ Ekimov, Jens Feidler, Bruno Risi, Shane Kelly, Jens Lehmann, Florian Rousseau, Felicia Ballanger, Marty Nothstein, Arnaud Tournant, Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Anna Meares, Laura Trott and Jason Kenny. I’m no misogynist, and have envied the power and grace of the greatest women as well. Connie Carpenter, Jeannie Longo, Leontien Van Moorsel, Nicole Cooke, Lizzie Armitstead and – without doubt the greatest of them all – Marianne Vos are the true luminaries who’ve lit up that part of my career.
For the photographers out there, I started with a Pentax Spotmatic II in 1977, but then lived within the Nikon family for almost my entire career. An FE2 in 1978 started me on a 35-year spell with Nikon cameras and lenses, save for a moment of desperation that took me to using a Canon EOS 1 between 1996-1998. I’ve used each of Nikon’s flagship film cameras - the FM2, F2, F3, F4, F5 – before partially joining the digital revolution in 2001. The D1, D2, D2H, D3, D4, D4s, and now the D5 have been the camera loves of my life, they’ll never be forgotten! Somewhere along the way I crossed to the dark side of photography, switching from manual focus to auto-focus with more than a small dose of guilt. But by then I’d captured on-film my favourite all-time image - of Hinault and Lemond on Alpe d’Huez - photographed with a totally manual Bronica ETRs. To close out this chronology of technology, I can boast that I started out printing from glass negatives in a London studio in 1972 after photographing aristocracy with a wooden Kodak Specialist camera. I learnt to use a 35mm SLR camera for that 1977 Tour visit and shot black & white film until decent colour slide film came along in the mid-1980’s. I used to take a mobile film lab to the races in the mid-90’s to develop those slides and then scanned them in before e-mailing them to clients as the digital age slowly took off. I switched to an all-digital platform in the middle of the 2003 Tour, having run both forms of photography for a few years. Processing film and scanning-in slides was replaced by late-night editing of 500 images a day, a task that often jeopardised the chance of finding a good restaurant still open. To round off my ancient-to-modern career, and to guarantee an earlier meal, I have for the past two years been transmitting images directly from the camera – a far quicker, more satisfying, healthier way to work. In some ways it’s a shame I’m stopping, just as things were getting easier!
Now, the big question – will I miss this fantastic, crazy, wonderful sport and its unique lifestyle? Yes, for sure, though I’ve yet to know which parts I’ll miss the most. I will miss the races, but not all of them – too many events clash or cross over, and it’s impossible to enjoy everything with so much to take in. I’ll miss the true classics, like Omloop, Strade Bianche, E3, Wevelgem, Flanders, Roubaix, Liege and Lombardy. But I’ll miss the stage-races the most, especially Paris-Nice, the Giro, Vuelta, Romandie, and Suisse. I won’t miss the Tour as much as people might think– it’s become a claustrophobic colossus that is not always as enjoyable as I’d like, even though it dwarfs all other grand tours. More than the races, I think I’ll miss the fun of travel-planning, of the subsequent adventures, the chase of a good meal and good wine, the intimacy of an evening spent with your car and motor-bike drivers, or the camaraderie with colleagues when the rain is pouring down during a TT and we’ve all left our Gore-Tex, camera-condoms, and umbrellas behind. I know I’ll especially miss the excuse of buying the latest photographic gear, simply because I could buy it. Much more than this, I’ll miss watching my boys racing their hearts out. If I’ve followed some of the greatest champions through their entire careers, I’m signing off without seeing how good Esteban Chaves, Caleb Ewan or Fabio Aru might become – or which of the Yates brothers makes it to the very top, if they don’t both make it there. Is Dan McLay the next Cavendish, will Boonen win a fourth Flanders or a fifth Roubaix this spring? Can Ian Stannard spoil Boonen’s dream in Roubaix? I’d better go out and buy a decent TV…
I cannot sign off for good without acknowledging the help of so many people who made my career last so long, and to some who helped make it possible in the first place. Journalists are a necessary ‘evil’, I like to jest – but they help smooth the photographer’s path into magazines, newspapers, web-sites and even into sponsors’ deep pockets. Top of the list has to be John Wilcockson, a doyenne of English-language journalism who guided me through my early years at Cyclist Monthly, Winning, Inside Cycling and Velo News. He even inspired me to write articles and blogs in my later years, so thanks mate! Rupert Guinness came along in the days of Winning, and we were still sharing yarns and drinking wines last week in Adelaide, 30 years on. In 2013 he became the best best-man I could ever have had! William Fotheringham became the new Wilcockson when he joined Cycling Weekly in 1989-1990 – his ability to write at-length and with such wisdom has never waned to this day. With Russian-speaking Will I visited Moscow for a 6-Day race and navigated its metro system with solely Cyrillic signage – I then survived Moscow’s dire communist-age gastronomy as well. I’ve brushed shoulders with so many Dutch, Belgian, Spanish, Italian, French, German, Japanese, Australian and American journalists too – each and every one of them led me to being published in all those different languages, either in magazines, newspapers or books. Yet, journalists aren’t exactly famous for spending money unnecessarily. Instead it is the publishers who have done that. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with the very best cycling publications in the world, including Cycling Weekly, Cycle Sport, Winning, Velo News, Bicycling, RIDE Review, Ciclismo a Fondo, Pro Cycling, Favoriet, Wieler Revue, Tour – to name just the biggest and the best. Thanks to the exploits of Lemond and Armstrong, my work has been seen in Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, and a handful of consumer related publications on both sides of the Atlantic. Some publishers have stayed with me for almost forty years, some for just 30 years, and some for a bit less – collectively, they formed a strong foundation on which I could do business and prosper. I thank them one and all.
Race-organisers have been many and multi-national, and some of them welcomed this oddball British photographer into their exclusive European world almost four decades ago – especially Jean-Marie Leblanc who let me into the 1987 Tour on a moto and opened an Aladdin’s cave of opportunity. In 1998, I became the UCI’s first-ever photographer, a not insignificant role that I only gave up last week, and with much regret, for they really are a nice bunch of people. Thanks must go to my many colourful moto-drivers who’ve kept me safe and sound and close enough to the cyclists to make my job easier. I’ve been driven by a Flemish abattoir owner, a Spanish hairdresser, an Italian customs officer, a French taxi-driver, an Australian police detective, a Basque donkey-breeder, a genuine California Highway Patrol officer (CHIPs!) and a whole host of others too. My current drivers, Walter Conte, Luke Evans and Serge Seynaeve deserve the biggest praise as it cannot be easy piloting a 60-year-old with nerves of steel who also thinks he knows it all. But none of this would have been possible had so many cyclists not done what they did and made my job that much more pleasurable and memorable. You’ll all be sorely missed.
- Graham Watson