Getting the shot: Mark Cavendish at Carcassonne retrospective

As the Tour de France revisits Carcassonne in 2022, James Startt looks back on Mark Cavendish's historic win in the town last year

As the Tour de France returns to Carcassonne today it is impossible for me not to look back on the historic victory of Mark Cavendish just one year ago. And when I look at this image, I am aware that it might be the last of its kind for two reasons. It might well be Cavendish’s last stage win in the Tour. And it might well be the last time I can photograph the cyclist’s emotions after the line, one of my long-time themes. 

Carcassonne is a picturesque town in the French southwest. Home to the Cathars in the 13th century, it has also been the host to numerous bike races and the Tour de France has been a frequent visitor. It is also a tricky stage, one that offers equal opportunity to sprinters and breakaway artists like Magnus Cort.

But as I watched the race approaching last year, it was clear that this finish would end in a field sprint. Generally I avoid the classic finish line shot, but today was an exception, as Mark Cavendish was on the verge of making history. 

Throughout the final kilometres Cavendish remained well placed, and with his Deceuninck – Quick Step team driving the train at the front, it was clear that he had a real chance to equal Eddy Merckx’s record. 

I shot away frame after frame as his team led Cavendish out and he blasted across the line. But moments later he gave me a real gift as he stopped his bike just behind me, got off and sat down against a barrier. Out of instinct I ran towards him, forgetting the new rules that only allowed certain photographers to photograph after the line. I was the first to arrive, but I knew that it would not last long as Cavendish had just made history and other photographers would soon be rushing in. 

In a sense it was a momentary calm before the storm. Cavendish was still gasping for breath, but also trying to absorb the moment. My Nikon D5 with a 20mm lens and fill flash was my weapon of choice. 

Moments later, the same space was packed as other photographers, team staff and riders clamored around Cavendish. Moments later, it was a good old-school scrum. 

I shot what I could then, moving around and trying my best to anticipate other shots. Looking back over the series, it was the first shots that resonated most. Even with his sunglasses still on, the unfiltered emotion on Cavendish’s face was self-evident. What thoughts resonated exactly I don’t pretend to know. But obviously he had been building up to this moment as he won the three prior stages, fully aware of the impact of a record-tying victory, after so many years in the exile imposed by sickness, injury and poor condition. 

But as I returned to the line and the podium, I was severely reprimanded by the Tour's chief press officer for breaking ranks and photographing after the line. Little matter that there were at least a dozen of us on hand.

Later that night an email was sent to the Tour photographers, reprimanding us all. Suspensions were handed out. I received a four-day suspension from the line. I protested – insisting as I had already – that the new post-finish line restrictions were inconsistent because the handful of photographers still allowed after the line were part of no sanitary bubble. We often ate at the same restaurants and stayed at the same hotels. Instead I saw that the sanitary pretext was simply another way to cordon off and privatise the Tour. 

My objections resonated little and I was also forced to hand over my post-race images to the agencies that had access. Most of the agencies, in a much-appreciated show of solidarity, refused to publish my images. Only Getty circulated them. 

In the end, however, neither the suspension nor seeing my images credited to another name, proved to be the most frustrating takeaway. No, it was the fact that I may never have another chance to capture the emotions of cyclists after a race. 

I have always loved these precious seconds where the cyclists display such pure emotion, sometimes it is the unadulterated joy of victory, sometimes the devastation of defeat. In my 30-odd years covering the sport I have documented these moments often. They have been the theme of exhibitions. And in my best images, like that of Jens Voigt after his 2006 stage victory, the eyes may just well be the window to the soul, if only for a fleeting second. 

But the sport is ever-changing and this is never more evident than with the Tour de France. The fact that I may never photograph after the line is a reality I have come to accept.  

When I look back on this image, however, I also think of Cavendish. He too must know that what he achieved here in Carcassonne may not be repeated. We can argue which sprinter his Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl team should have brought to this year’s Tour, but the reality is it was not Cavendish. 

Who knows where the greatest sprinter of all time will end up next and whether he will have the leadout train he needs or if he will even be at the Tour again.

In the end, this ephemeral moment on the streets of Carcassonne may be the last for both of us.