Joux Plane 'moto-gate' - an insider's perspective

Accidents like that of the motorbike blocking Tadej Pogačar on stage 14 are unfortunate, but are part of the sport, writes James Startt

They were like two boxers trading punches on the Col de la Joux Plane, and then suddenly it all came to an abrupt halt when a television and photographer’s motorbike blocked the road, forcing Tadej Pogačar to hit the brakes in the midst of a full-out attack near the summit. 

With less than 10 seconds separating the two Tour de France winners, this year’s race is going down as one for the ages, and at this point, the incident could well have a lasting effect on the race.

Critics could instantly be heard around the world, outraged by the error of the two motos. Yet, while I was personally stunned, I was not shocked. As a Tour de France photographer, I am actually surprised that incidents like this don’t happen more often in the midst of the ongoing chaos that is the Tour de France.

For the past two stages, in fact, I have been on an in-race motorbike myself. I am on a moto throughout the year, but I was quickly reminded here that the Tour de France is another beast altogether.

For some races, including WorldTour events like the Grand Prix Québec and Montréal races, I am the only in-race photographer, and in other races like Paris-Nice or the Critérium du Dauphiné, there are sometimes six or seven in-race motos. 

But in the Tour there are more than 15, as all of the world’s major press agencies and magazines want to be present in the world’s biggest bike race. The Tour de France is quite restrictive when it comes to accrediting in-race motos. But at the same time, they want to see images from their event distributed everywhere around the world. 

Needless to say, all of us want our own images of world’s best cyclists battling on some of the world’s most-famous climbs. In many ways accidents are waiting to happen around every corner or in front of every acceleration by one of the stars of the sport. But they happen very infrequently, in fact, because the Tour has put in place a very clear and organised working system for photographers. 

Tour de France stage 14

Within the race itself, the Tour has at least three regulators that direct the photographers, signalling to them when they can pass the peloton or when they can drop in front of the breakaway or the pack and shoot them. 

At the Tour this year in fact, there are two regulators positioned in front of the lead pack. The photographers and their motos are lined up on the right-hand side of the road in a long single file ahead of the first regulator. When given permission, one-by-one, they are allowed to drop back to the second regulator who is positioned just in front of the race. There they wait for permission to finally drop in next to the television bike to photograph for 30 seconds before being signaled to move back up to the head of the line in front of the first regulator positioned the furthest from the race. 

To be honest, as a photographer, it can be maddening at times. You can wait for kilometers to have your 30 seconds, only for the pack to turn a corner and suddenly be in total darkness. In short, it’s a rubbish shoot. But in general, the system works, up the Joux Plane, I was impressed by how well everyone was working. 

This year’s crowds at the Tour have been the densest I have seen in any year since Covid. From the Grand Départ in the Basque Country, to the Pyrenees and now into the Alps, the roads of the Tour have literally been covered by a sea of people, with the Joux Plane being one of the most intense. There was not a metre of free space, even after the official summit. 

While the crowds and fans are an integral part of the Tour’s success, it can be treacherous. 

Just before I dropped back to shoot on the Joux Plane, for example, a father holding his son’s hand stepped out just in front of the regulator on a blind turn. The race was no more than 100 metres behind. How catastrophe was avoided, I do not know.

On stage 15 to Saint Gervais, I barely avoided one of the worst accidents in my 30 years of Tour experience, when a teenager rolled out just in front of my motorbike as we were driving ahead of the race along with a French Gendarme. Bruno, my driver, screeched and swerved. Again, how catastrophe was avoided, I do not know. In short, the risks on the Tour are endless, and the fact that accidents do not happen more often is actually quite impressive.

Tour de France stage 14

What is most ironic about this year’s ‘moto-gate’, is that the incident happened at the strictest, most controlled moment of the race, when only one television and photo motorbike were allowed anywhere close to the race. It happened when the photo pool was in place.

The photo pool is employed whenever the action and crowds are the most intense, and where the organisers estimate that it is simply too dangerous to rotate a dozen odd motos in and out of the head of the race. 

At this point, when moto pool is announced on race radio, all other motos are evacuated and must advance well ahead of the race. The pool photographer is then required to share all images taken with all the other photographers on an accredited moto, so that they can distribute the images around the world.

It was clear to me that the pool would be put into place on the Joux Plane as the crowds grew more intense, and with attacks from Pogačar and Vinegegaard highly likely. As a result, after my second turn at the front of the race, I signaled to my driver to go to the summit, so I had ample time to find a fixed position to shoot from. 

Indeed, the photo pool was announced shortly afterwards. It came as no surprise. But still, the unfortunate incident happened when Pogačar attacked and the two motos were unable to accelerate quick enough to give him the space to make his move.

The photographer on this day was Bernard Papon, who is the chief cycling photographer for the French sports daily L’Equipe. His driver, Steve, is simply one of the best in the business. Together they are the go-to pool team at any race organised by the Tour. It goes without saying that they have been in this same situation countless times.

Certainly, they should have not been so close, but when I look back at the footage I am reminded of just how dense the crowds were at this moment when I drove through them only minutes earlier. At the 500-metre mark, a chord on each side of the road held the fans at a certain distance, but according to my estimates, Pogačar attacked at about the 600-metre mark, when crowds were at their absolute thickest. 

Why were the motos so close at this point? Probably because they feared that if they advanced any further, fans would jump in between them, blocking their shot. Certainly, in hindsight they should have taken the risk of missing the shot, but hindsight criticism is just that, criticism after the fact. It is only pertinent if it is useful in the future.

But really, what could have been done differently? Should we eliminate the television and photo motorbikes at the head of the race? France Television pays millions of Euros each year to have such a position and their footage is central to the success of the race around the world. The same can be said for the photo moto, as the pool photographer is the point person, responsible for distributing images to all of the leading agency and news outlets around the world. Both are integral to the Tour organisers, and their ability to attract as many viewers and readers as possible. 

Tour de France stage 14

Should we limit fan access like in the Covid years, or more recently on the Puy du Dôme, which is a protected site? Certainly, it would make filming or photographing the race easier, but the fans are just as crucial to the success of the Tour. Bicycle racing is built on the premise that it is not a sport contained within a stadium, and that anybody is welcome, free of charge, and any fan that has climbed up a mountain pass in the heat of the summer just to get a glimpse of their favorite riders is part of the heart and soul of the sport. The answer is again, negative. 

Clearly, we can have more barriers in place, but sometimes, on certain mountain roads, it is simply not possible. Barriers also keep the fans at a distance. The most iconic images of the Tour are not with barriers, but the ones that capture that special communion between the cyclists and the public. 

I find it telling that neither Jonas Vingegaard nor Tadej Pogačar sought any real retribution. Both sides seem to understand that events like this are part of the sport. 

Interestingly after the finish of stage 15 to Saint Gervais, Adam Yates tucked in behind my moto as we rolled back down the climb, only too happy to have us open the road for him through the still-thick crowds. At one point I looked back and asked him if the crowd affected the race again today in anyway. His response was simple and to the point. “Like every day on the Tour de France,” he said. “This is the Tour.”

That said, I think that if the incident was serious enough that both moto drivers as well as their photographer and cameraman were excluded from the race for a day and fined 500 Swiss Francs each, then perhaps the race officials should have considered neutralising the points on the summit of the Joux Plane, as the incident clearly had an effect on the race. 

But otherwise, to be honest, I do not know what could really have been done differently, other than for all parties to be more vigilant then they all already are. After all, none of us wants to endanger any cyclist or affect any race, big or small.

“Accidents Can Happen,” Elvis Costello once wrote and sang, and this year’s moto gate is just that, an accident that, while unfortunate, is not tragic.

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