Photographers' Blog

Tour de France 2011 – A long way to Paris

July 29, 2011

This year’s riders of the Tour de France covered 3430.5 km (2131.6 miles), divided into 21 stages, according to the Tour’s official website.

What you may not know is that the Reuters pictures team covering 2011′s most-watched sporting event managed to tally up some 10,000 km (6213 miles).

I was excited to cover the race but aware that despite careful planning, any big job can have its moments of near disaster. After meeting at the Reuters office in Paris with team leader (and Italy chief) photographer Stefano Rellandini and French photographer Pascal Rossignol we checked all our equipment, made sure our laptops were working, that our passwords were valid and that Mifi was setup. We picked up our local phones and configured wireless transmission devices from cameras. One thing’s for sure — the planning stage is essential on a big job like this, and a good team spirit never hurts either.

The next day we drove to Vendée in the east of France, where the race was due to start and met with our veteran bike drivers Jacques Clawey and Michel Vatel. This year’s team consisted of three photographers. Photographers on bikes take two types of pictures during the race: postcard (landscape shots) and action. When you’re on the postcard bike the rules are clear: you can only take photos once the bike has stopped. Take a pic when the bike is moving, and you could be out. The ‘action’ bike’s rule? Don’t crash.

The third photographer drives the car to the finish line to take photos of the stage’s end.

When shooting on the ‘postcard’ bike the toughest part is knowing when to stop. Once the picture is taken you have to get back into the race to overtake the pack to head to your next location and that can only be done under the order of a regulator, a Tour de France staff member also on a bike. There are two of them: one usually at the back of the pack and one with a breakaway. They let you know when you’re able to overtake the pack of riders, which can get tricky, as some packs can be 400 meters in length. In Brittany, with its narrow roads, it took 50 kilometers before we were able to try and overtake.

As stages can range from 150 to 220 km in length, you have to judge when to take your chance carefully. With an average 180 km stage you need to deduct the last 25 km, the 10 km before the sprint, and leave about 30 to 80 km room for a breakaway to settle a minute ahead of the main pack, which leaves you with between 65-115 km to work with. Add a few industrial zones, electrical wires and a record number of camper vans at a single location to the mix and your opportunities decrease even further.

For the last few years we’ve transmitted pictures directly from our cameras using Canon WFT and Mifi devices (a mix of a 3G card and Wifi), which allows us to send the pictures taken early in the day’s stage to the editor who drove the car to the finish line. Obviously, this makes the quality of the phone network a major issue, but only the mountains stages proved to be difficult, due to thousands of spectators in a small area and a poor 3G connection.

I’ve covered the Tour de Suisse and Tour de Romandie but the Tour de France is the biggest of them all, in every way. First, the crowds that line the route: thousands of people gather hours before the peloton passes to secure a chance to glimpse the riders and also grab some goodies from the publicity caravan. Mountain stages are the worst: people (with camper vans) arrive days before and line along the roads, making it very hard to get a clean shot. Add 4000 followers (media, organization teams at the start and finish, team riders and the publicity caravan) to the mix, all of whom need accommodation.

Post-stage ‘down time’ often saw us driving 100 km to get to our accommodation. Sometimes we arrived closer to breakfast than a normal evening mealtime. The biggest transfer of our tour was getting to Paris on July 23 after the decisive stage in Grenoble. We drove 580 km after leaving Grenoble at 7pm. Another hassle is eating dinner: arriving after 9pm at a hotel or B&B can make dining a pipe dream, as remote areas of France aren’t known for their ‘open all hours’ kitchens.

A lot of pictures are taken before and shortly after the start of the stage, when riders gather and sign the attendance sheet. Then the race is neutralized over a few kilometers until the riders reach open roads outside the start town. If a breakaway happens you can only go down to the pack if there is a minute’s time difference. None of which means you’ll get the riders you’re interested in. Some leaders like to come to the front, while others like to be sheltered within the pack, behind their teammates.

In this year’s Tour the riders decided not to race (they still had to cycle though!) for the first two weeks. Three-time winner Alberto Contador of Spain had fallen three times during the first week and it appeared to me other favorites were not sure what to do. The last stages in the Alps were going to be the decision point, the theater of great battles. And just when you think your assignment is coming to an end and you already feel dead tired, the transitions get longer, which is when you need to be at your sharpest.

In key moments you’re not alone — there is a queue of 16 ‘action’ bikes on a rotation system orchestrated by a regulator who gives you the right to go down to the pack or breakaway for 20 to 30 seconds. He can also call for a pool if things get too messy and then only one photographer from L’Equipe (which belongs to the same group as the race organizer) and another from AFP can work.

Every day of the Tour brought with it another lesson for me as a photographer, but it ended well for me, waiting for the riders, in front of the Arc de Triumph, the last stage almost completed. Knackered, but happy.

In brief, the lessons learned were:

- Just because it’s summer, doesn’t mean it’s warm and sunny
- Plan for the worst — it will happen
- Eat when you can, nap when you can
- Ensure there are no electric wires and camper vans on postcard pictures
- Even if the regulator tells you it’s fine to overtake it might not be, thanks to small villages and narrow lanes
- If you’re stuck behind the pack and the regulator is not helpful, don’t follow the first bike taking a ‘shortcut’ out of the race — he may have not planned it well

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