As the cycling season ends, Rouleur staff photographer James Startt looks back on the 2023 racing season and selects some of his favourite images. A five-time laureate of the World Sports Photography Awards over the past three years, Startt divides his season between major WorldTour races as well as smaller races around the world. And while he was on hand for races like Paris-Roubaix, the Tour de France and the World Championships, he also travelled to Argentina for the Vuelta a San Juan as well as to the remote corners of France to cover the Tro Bro Leon.
The following selection make up the heart of Startt’s final cut for 2023.
Portraits are a key part of my work at Rouleur, and over the years portrait photography has become some of my most satisfying work. I never have much time to actually shoot the portraits, as professional cyclists are so often focused on the race and its protocol. But when I learned that a stage start of the Vuelta a San Juan would once again be at the city’s racing track, I knew I had a unique opportunity. I remembered the metal shutters of the paddocks from previous years, and knew it would provide a great backdrop for a portrait or two, and high on my list was the rainbow jersey of the world champion. “Just give me 60 seconds,” I said to Remco Evenepoel’s press officer. I didn’t have a second more, but I was more than happy with the result!
Many of my favorite races are not the biggest races found on the WorldTour calendar, but smaller races situated in different corners of the world. They offer cyclists a chance to race consistently in between the biggest events, and they give countless regional race organizers a chance to show off their region, bringing in some of the world’s best cyclists, if even for a day. Les Boucles Drôme Ardèche are just a couple of those races. Held at the same time as Belgium’s Opening Weekend, these two races loop around the two sides of the Rhône River in the south of France, offering not only great racing, but great landscapes.
Considered a modern-day Monument, Italy’s Strade Bianche has quickly captured the hearts and imagination of contemporary cycling fans. I only covered my first edition in 2020, but instantly fell under its spell. The white roads of Tuscany offer an incredible stage for this utterly unique event, while the final finish in the heart of historic Siena is simply unmatched in the sport.
After coming up short several times, Dutch Classics specialist Mathieu van der Poel was taking no prisoners this year, as he powered to victory in Paris-Roubaix. As I do most years, I waited on this turn just as the riders exit the gruelling Carrefour de l’Arbre sector. Former two-time winner Marc Madiot once told me that the Carrefour de l'Arbre was the last sector where you could really get away. And once again it proved to be decisive.
Demi Vollering mastered the Mur de Huy, like she mastered so much of the 2023 season, by simply powering away from her opponents. I love the Flèche Wallonne, and much of it is because of the ambiance on the Mur de Huy, which welcomes both the men and the women in this historic Ardennes Classic.
Another one of my favorite races is the Tro Bro Leon, a totally unique race on the edge of Brittany. The Tro Bro combines gravel farm roads, not unlike those found in Strade Bianche, with spectacular views along the coastal roads that are so much a part of this corner of north-western France.
The Critérium du Dauphiné remains one of the world’s greatest week-long races, not to mention a key warm-up to the Tour de France, as it allows riders to test their legs just a few weeks before the start of the Tour, sometimes even covering the same roads.
A yellow jersey passing through a small French village…sound familiar? No, this is not Jonas Vingegaard, but his teammate Christophe Laporte, who won two stages in this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné and hence earned a stint in yellow during the opening stages of the race himself.
Much was expected of the opening stages of the Tour de France in the Spanish Basque Country. And thanks to the fans, they were nothing short of a roaring success. The Basque fans are known for their deep passion for cycling, and literally a sea of orange-clad fans greeted the Tour over opening days.
Covid-distancing restrictions forced many photographers off the finish line, but in some ways it was a blessing in disguise, as it forced many of us to look for other angles. And one of my favorite is from the side of the road, just a few meters before the finish. One a good day, like this one on stage eight, I am able to capture the rich emotions of the fans as the riders grimace towards the line. And even now, with the finish line once again available, I often prefer this perspective.
The 2023 season did not only come together for Mathieu van der Poel in the Classics, but also in the World Championships in Glasgow. The city circuit, with its unrelenting turns, proved to be one for the ages and it produced an epic victory by the Dutch rider. Much of the best action came on the Montrose Street climb. While many of my colleagues skirted down to the finish after the penultimate lap, I decided to forego the finish line shot in hopes of capturing Van der Poel digging deep one last time in front of the sea of passionate fans witnessing one of the greatest rides of the 2023 season. In France, they call moments like these a “communion”, a moment when the emotions of the cyclists and public come together. I spent a lot of time on the climb that day in an attempt to find just the right spot. But when I edited my images, I was more than satisfied with the results.
As the official photographer, I have covered every edition of the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec, and it is one of my favorite races of the year. The backdrop through the streets of old Quebec is simply stunning, and the long false flat to the finish is always spectacular. Only in his second year as a professional, Belgian Arnaud De Lie proved here why he is one of the greatest talents of his generation, as the 21-year-old powered away from the field.
While this image of the FDJ-Suez women’s team was actually shot in the springtime, while the women did a recon on the white gravel roads of Strade Bianche, the colours could well be from autumn as the brown leaves have yet to fall from the trees and make way for the colours of springtime.
This image of Peter Sagan was taken before the start of Milano-San Remo. But as Sagan looks out of his team bus window before the start of La Primavera—a race he seemed destined to win but never quite did—this image gives me a chance to look back on one of the most extraordinary careers I have ever witnessed in cycling. Chapeau, champion.