Witness to a cobblestone crash
I am writing this on the road from rural eastern France at the end of the fourth stage of the month-long Tour de France. It’s hot and dusty outside with temperatures at about 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit). On the backs of the motorcycles in protective gear we are suffering as we spend all day in the sun. Fortunately there has been a lot happening in these early stages of the Tour and the images have been worth it.
On the third stage of the Tour between Wanze in Belgium and Arenberg in France, I was riding on the second of our two motorcycles. The second bike is not authorized to shoot the riders on the move, but instead can overtake the pack and then stop on the side of the road so the photographer can shoot the riders as they pass by. The third stage was very special as the last 50 kilometers were on the famous cobblestone backroads of northern France more commonly associated with the Paris-Roubaix cycling classic. This section is known as the “Hell of the North”. I have covered 21 Tour de France races, but never had the occasion to cover either Paris-Roubaix, nor shoot a cobblestone section.
Early in the stage, while listening in to the official two-way radio commentary, the race directors announced that all the motorcycles must travel directly to the arrival site bypassing this cobblestone sector at the end of the race because it was simply too narrow and too dangerous for everyone to work. Only a one-motorcycle pool would be authorized access. So, I took a chance and sped way ahead of the race. Our motorcyclist got the bike onto the cobblestone section and safely parked the bike off the road well before the race drew near. The day had been terribly hot and the impenetrable dust cloud thrown up from the accompanying official vehicles gave an aura of a foggy winter day rather than mid summer.
I was totally unfamiliar with this sector but I had a gut feeling that being on a tight bend would be the best place to shoot the riders because their trajectory would oblige them to pass very near me. I crouched low amongst the feet of the spectators tightly packed together on the side of the road. The first lead riders suddenly appeared and it became clear that the position was in fact a good one. The riders were passing within inches of me and I switched from my 16-35mm lens to a wider 15mm fisheye. Just as another group of riders appeared they suddenly collided and fell literally inches from me. My first thought was that they were going to land right on top of me but I kept my finger on the motordrive of my Canon 1D MkIV. Then Lance Armstrong appeared but skillfully avoided the fallen riders, then Contador, and again another group arrived and incredibly fell like skittles at exactly the same spot. I just kept shooting, this time with my 16-35mm.
There were seven different cobblestone sections, each many kilometers long. I simply cannot believe the likelihood of having been in the right place at the right time. The chance must be several million-to-one.
The images were transmitted straight from my camera using the Canon WFT transmitter and a Mifi unit to our Paris pictures desk and were thus available to our clients within minutes. The New York Times was just one of the many users of these spectacular images. My most amazing and unlikely experience of 21 years of Tour de France road cycling coverage.