Ready, aim, shoot!

Closed roads, rowdy crowds, stroppy officials, burning clutches… and it’s only Stage 1. This is a day in the life of a Tour de France photographer

Words and pictures PETE GODING

My alarm screeches from the bedside table. Today is the first stage of the 2023 Tour de France. In a groggy panic, I curse, jump up and stub my toe on my wheelie bag – the pitfalls of being in an unfamiliar hotel room.

Having got my bearings, I decide I can afford another 10 minutes of rest and hit the snooze button.

Stumble to the shower. I have a few hours to spare as the start in Bilbao isn’t until 12:30pm and it’s only a 10-minute drive away.

As I head down to the breakfast buffet, the voice of the automated lift announcement reminds me that we are in the Spanish heartland of cycle racing.

Or are we? As my fellow photographer (now retired) Graham Watson was keen to point out to me, I am actually in the autonomous community of the Basque Country, with its own language, gastronomy and culture. I’m pretty certain I’m still in Spain, though.

Leaving the underground parking, I bump into one of the unsung heroes of the Tour – one of the team of organisers, who has been up since 4am setting up the village and the enclosures.

He guides me to the parking area, avoiding the road closures. Fans are already out in force and I realise that it could be a challenging day getting around the course.

Usually I’d be on the back of a moto, but my driver doesn’t arrive for a few days so today I’ll be driving myself, which adds an extra level of stress because I’ll have to navigate between the best spots to catch the action and I won’t be able to shoot on the fly.

The caravan enters the town and the fiesta begins

Go to the start village and get a coffee. I’m getting that familiar feeling, slipping back into the routine of Tour shoot days, which invariably start with coffee and a bit of a chat with my fellow photographers as we wait for the teams to arrive.

Check my watch and decide to go to the team buses before heading to the podium to begin shooting the riders as they are presented to the crowd.

With each click of the shutter, my images are sent automatically to my trusty editor in the Pyrenees who keywords the pictures and sends them to agencies in France and the UK to distribute worldwide. Within a matter of seconds they’ll be sent out to media channels.

Gone are the days of spending hours in the press room keywording hundreds of photos from the day, missing dinner and getting to bed in the early hours. Thank goodness for technology.

Time to get moving. But where’s the car? I’ve forgotten where I parked it, so try to retrace my steps at a steady jog. There’s a mild sense of panic, because I don’t want to be turned away from entering the course on the first day.

I find the car and am ushered to the entrance. I wait patiently while a father and son draped in flags dawdle in front of my car. The organisers are about to shut the on-course entrance, so a burly security official gestures to me to use my horn to clear a path.

There’s no time for niceties – I hit the horn, causing the dad to jump a few inches in the air. Sorry, but there’s no time to lose.

It’s the rollout. The riders drift out of Bilbao and head for the coast.

I’m up a rock face, leaning precariously over the edge to catch the peloton as it rumbles along the coast.

Another photographer has already had a similar idea, and I shuffle in beside him to look down over the quaint bay and click away as a long line of riders slips past below me. The other photographer is a local, and he looks fairly nonplussed by the shot.

He knows there are better places to get his images, which spurs me to get a move on and catch up with the race.

I take out my phone to check the route. Should I try to overtake the race and get to a new vantage point, or stay along the route, wait for the broom wagon and slip in behind the race? Decisions, decisions. I choose the latter option and go.

I’m on a mountain, the second Cat 3 climb of the stage. The fans are out in force and I reckon there are some good shots to be had capturing the carnival atmosphere.

The volume of people forces me to slow to a crawl, and as I squeeze through the melee, people start banging on my windscreen. My poor little Jeep isn’t used to this, and it begins to protest, with smoke flooding from the bonnet.

The smell of burning clutch fills the air, which only seems to delight the crowd even more. I’m gagging on the smoke, while my ears are filled with cheers and rhythmic thumping as the fans treat the car like a tom-tom.

Things get worse. My clutch now seems to be stuck to the floor, and if I don’t keep the revs up I will start slipping backwards into the revellers amassed behind me.

I have seen many an abandoned press car that couldn’t take the relentless punishment of driving on the Tour’s mountains, and I have visions of being hoisted onto the back of a tow truck while drunken fans jeer at me.

With a stamp, the clutch releases and I make a hasty escape, narrowly avoiding becoming an impromptu roadblock. As I cross the summit I increase my speed and emerge from the smoky haze into clear air again.

I need to get to the finish. I’m on celebration ‘pool’ duty. To prevent overcrowding only one photographer can take the shots of the post-race celebrations, and they then have to share it with the other agencies.

I wouldn’t be popular if I missed it – nothing like a bit more pressure on the first day – so now I’m on a mission to get to the arrivé. I can still taste the smoke in the back of my throat and my car’s purr has turned into a guttural growl, but at least it’s still functioning.

I hear over race radio that a five-man break has been caught with 50km to go.

Arrive in Bilbao with time to spare. Phew. I park the car and head to the finish line, scanning the surroundings, trying to  imagine what the riders will do as they cross the line so I can gauge where the best spot is to stand.

There’s always a bottleneck as the riders pass the finish line photographers. The slight incline today will slow them down, so I don’t need to be too far back.

I position myself strategically behind the line of black-bibbed photographers, ready to capture the ensuing tears and adulation. What if the winner just keeps going and rides right past me, forcing me to sprint alongside him?

I’ll just have to deal with it when it happens. The police form a secure line beside us, ready to push back anyone who gets too close to the cars or riders. Organisation staff remove unwanted individuals, ushering them away to the stands.

I’m poised. On the giant screens I see the Yates brothers sparring in the final kilometres of the race. The tension rises as we wait. Adam Yates is too strong for his brother, Simon.

He crosses the line triumphant – I grab the action over the finish with my 400mm telephoto, then switch to my 24mm as the brothers draw closer. They embrace, and I’m in the perfect position.

But now they are led over to the opposite side of the track; the rest of the riders come past and I’m stranded, I can’t get to where Adam is with his teammates. Oh hell, they’re celebrating… without me! I spot an opening in the throng and leap through it.

I’m back in position, and in seconds it’s over. I’ve got the shot.

I log onto my server and upload my pictures through my phone, doing a bit of quality control along the way: sharpness, composition, smiles, tears, laughter… check, check, check.

I highlight the images and off they go into the ether for my keyworder to pass on to the agencies. I take a moment to breathe.

Back to the hotel. Shower change and meet a friend. Eat Spanish food, drink Spanish wine, examine the road book for tomorrow, talk about cycling.

Bed. Sleep. Only 20 more stages to go. Vive le Tour!


Cyclist Australia/NZ