Orla Chennaoui examines the significance of the snapshot in cycling, as we showcase a handful of Rouleur's unique collection of disposable Tour de France photographs
Backs of heads obscure the view, as was often the case when photos were handed over the pharmacist’s counter. An excited ripping open of the pack, a disappointed groan at the warning sticker on one third of the pictures, an errant finger flirting with the lens in too many of the others.
The one I’m holding isn’t so clear either, but it’s perfect as it is. The heads in shot are leaning over the barriers of the Champs-Élysées, the long boulevard stretching away from the eye at an angle, covered with blurred dots of colour. They grow larger as the cyclists thunder towards us. The picture comes to life.
There are two main techniques for watching a high-speed peloton swoosh past. The most reliable is the most dizzying. Pick out one rider and follow them all the way through your line of sight. The detail is surprising; the set of the jaw, the turn of the mouth. The real-life image slows in time, but only for a fraction of the frame. When it speeds back up you flick your head around to do the same again, indiscriminately settling on another whiz of colour. If you’re lucky, you can follow three riders’ whole trajectory across the ten-metre stretch in front of you. Most often, it’s two-and-a-bit followed by a long look at the convoy behind.
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The other technique is to loosen your focus and keep your eyes wide and steady in front. Take a deep breath – in and hold – and absorb the peloton as it passes – and out. I train myself as though a monk, emptying my mind of all else to try to capture the totality of the moment, to zoom in on any details in the seconds that follow. Eyes closed, what have I just seen? What can I pick out from the galloping pack? Nothing? Again? Another warning-stickered blur? It’s a technique that works with a smartphone, not so much with the mind. Or maybe it’s my mind. Perhaps I need an upgrade.
In this picture, I don’t have a shot of the winner, but I know it was Mark Cavendish, because he was always winning on the Champs-Élysées in my Early Years photo album. Early Years Working in Cycling that is – my Early Years of Life album is a whole badly-permed, reversible sweater-wearing other matter. All the pictures from the very same three-second flash tell different versions of the same story.
Mine speaks of the privilege of being by the finish line, a shot of the lanyard around my neck, the explanation and gateway to that privilege. The official broadcasters’ pictures tell of a powerful, neatly-packaged moment in sporting history. The images from my own cameraman colleague, just beyond the finish, have the same thrust of the fists in the air as focal point, but the celebration isn’t frozen and replayed, it’s wobblier, and over in a flash, ambushed by a swarm of other bodies.
Soigneurs, photographers, race officials swoop and scrap for a square centimetre of the Parisian boulevard, or the summit of the Tourmalet, or the main street in Oudenaarde. An arm raises above the throng, this one part discernible amongst the others because its appearance magics space in the air where before there was just a tangle. The throng move back to allow a team-mate, a spouse, a DS into the invisible golden bubble. Camera poised to capture a flash of teeth through the chaos, a quick close-up on a smiling face. Job done. That’s all we’ll get.
Flicking forward through my album are other moments frozen in time. Forward, or backwards, it’s sometimes difficult to tell.
Here, David Millar sits on a terrace in the setting Italian sun, the angle of his body on the wicker chair meaning his face is partly in shadow as he tells us why he wants to guide young riders away from the career path he took. The time stamp is 2009, the location somewhere near Mendrisio.
This one is a classic, one of my favourites. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig is just visible through the legs of fellow journalists, tears of joy plopping onto the road as she sits and relives the emotion she felt on the slopes of the Col de Romme. Date, 2018.
This year’s album is very different, a study in spectating twice removed, as seen through the lens of a remote camera. The background detail and colour is not of where the race has taken place, but where it was watched. The edges of the action are obscured by Dutch colleagues, dancing in front of the TV as Mathieu van der Poel gets the better of Wout van Aert. Again.
The photo albums aren’t physical. I am holding the snapshots in my head but they’re no less real because of it.
The mixture of photographic styles is how most of us have curated our albums. A jumble of where-we-were and what-we-saw. Our singular viewpoint is one of millions, but each is needed to tell the full story. The sport is seen because of us: fan, coach, half-interested TV viewer.
A look through our albums reminds us of this, reminds us of our role, however remote. Never linger too long though. There are always more pictures to be taken, more memories to be made. Now, where did I put my camera?
At the 2020 Tour de France, Rouleur wanted to create our own unique photo album. We gave four WorldTour teams and their riders their own disposable cameras for an access all areas view of this year's race. Below are a few of the results. To see them all, buy Issue 100.