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Up close and personal

An intimate portrait of the modern pro peloton and the rider's who suffer for our entertainment, with Camille McMillan's book 'Circus'.

Superheroes riding stunning state-of -the-art machines through some of the most dramatic landscapes on earth. To the outsider, the world of professional bike racing – as presented to us in all its slickly marketed glory – is an intoxicating one. It’s easy to be blinded by its dazzle, to see only the shiny surface of gleaming bikes and brilliantly coloured clobber. And while there’s nothing wrong with all that, as with most things in life, it all gets so much more interesting when you delve a bit deeper and reach beyond the immediate, the obvious and the superficial.

Circus: Inside the World of Professional Bike Racing is a book which makes this point brilliantly. Put together by photographer Camille McMillan, it brings together some of the most compelling images ever taken of the sport, revealing the intriguing, rarely shown reality of it. We take some time out to ponder a smattering of pics from this extraordinary book… 

Spring

Taken in an ordinary hotel room, far from the crowds and TV cameras during 2012’s Tour de Suisse, this pic of Team Sky’s Michael Barry allows us a glimpse behind the shades. With his haunted eyes and half-starved body, he looks more like a prisoner than a pro rider. As David Millar says of the pro life in his introduction to the book, ‘Very few of us got what we were told to expect.’

‘It’s all so ungainly,’ Camille says of this crash during 2011’s Paris-Roubaix. ‘Martin Reimer and Romain Zingler, it’s such a slow crash they just got themselves all tangled up. There’s a lot of slow crashes that cause irritation rather than damage. I love awkward moments in cycling.’

Paradoxically, life on the open road is claustrophobic. The same faces in the races, at the hotels, in the paddocks for weeks on end. Despite the rivalries and the stifling lack of privacy – or perhaps because of it – the riders develop an intense intimacy unknown in other sports. This rider is captured here before Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne helping a co-rider out with his pocket contents. 

Summer

Riders zip through streets that have changed little since Le Tour began 113 years ago. Then most of the riders were French and their bikes single-speed, steel beasts. Today they come from across the world riding high-tech carbon wonders. ‘The riders still get close enough to smell the rosé on the breath of the spectators, though,’ says Camille. 

Chris Froome is applauded up a French peak by flag-waving Brits in 2013, filmed by a TV helicopter and smartphone-toting cycling fans in retro kit. It could only be the Tour de France. ‘I’d been on the mountains all day,’ remembers Camille, ‘at the Tommy Simpson memorial and then the race arrived. It was here Froome effectively secured his yellow jersey.’

As well as the usual banners and placards, road graffiti is often daubed on the tarmac to distract, criticise, encourage or ridicule the riders, sponsors or even politicians during the Tour. It all adds to the idea that for a few short weeks cycling has reclaimed the roads in its own distinctly anarchic way. Why fun pants for Froome? ‘I’ve no idea!’ admits Camille. 

‘I met the guy in the pants earlier in the day,’ reveals Camille. ‘At that stage, he was wearing clothes. Little did I know that when I saw him later that he and the other guy would run wearing this lot.’ Note, too, how focused the riders are – completely oblivious to the mischief-making around them. Again, to quote Millar from the foreword, ‘When you’re in it, you don’t see it.’

‘It may be the most famous race finish in world sport,’ says Camille, ‘but the road surface is shocking. Not that it would stop Mark Cavendish winning on it – wearing his favourite jersey in 2012, that of the World Champion. The elation of finishing Le Tour is soon matched by the deflation of ending the Grande Boucle [or the ‘Big Loop’] for another year.’ 

Autumn

‘Seeing Cav wearing his World Champion’s rainbow jersey on Caerphilly Mountain felt like being in continental Europe,’ says Camille of this moment at the 2012 Tour of Britain. ‘Incredible buzz. And yet very British.’ The vulnerability of the riders is also palpable. It’s hard to think of another mega-bucks sport where us ordinary folk are allowed so close to the superstars.

Camille: ‘Dark skies coming over into England. The procession. Bandit country, no spectators. The weather was grim, the next day’s race was abandoned. Team Sky were giving it some welly. The chopper looks like a fly on my lens.’ Even in such a remote part of the world there is no escape: the ever-present helicopter a reminder that the world is watching.'

Even when they’re not racing, there is no escape from public scrutiny. Only a barrier separates these riders from fascinated fans as they clean themselves in a space smaller than most animal enclosures. ‘It shows how “in the street” it is for the smaller teams,’ says Camille. ‘They just get on with it. No team buses, spectators walking by – looking at their bits.’ 

This shot of Mark Cavendish is a reminder that Cav and co – though often portrayed as superhuman – are just like the rest of us. ‘I asked him if I could use this photo,’ says Camille. ‘He said, “No problem, as long as you can’t see my c*ck.”’ 

Winter

In the winter the pros leave Europe and heads towards what Camille calls the margins, with races are held in unusual places where ever-more surreal photo ops present themselves. ‘I’d never seen bicycles outside hotel doors before,’ says Camille of this pic taken in Malaysia. ‘I don’t know whether the riders left them there or the team mechanics.’

‘It’s so hot in Langkawi,’ says Camille of the Malaysian race, ‘that the fire crews attend the finish lines to hose the riders cool. I saw the shot, just dived in with my camera and got soaked for my trouble.’ The Tour of Langkawi takes places in February, Malaysia’s hottest month. It’s not unusual for cyclists to be racing in temperatures above 30°C - a far cry from the spring Classics. 

Over the year, riders will have ridden on cobbles, though driving rain and sleet, they’ll have struggled up Alps and sped down cols. By the time they’re in the winter margins, though, they’re more likely to encounter palm trees and mosquitoes. Only the crowds remain the same, right down to the smartphones – although the flags are no longer European. 

Wherever the pro peloton travels, from sleepy French villages to the Far East, it has the power to transform the everyday world, lighting it up with colour and excitement. No wonder so many come to stand and stare. Camille: ‘The three jersey wearers sit uncomfortably on the start line as Malaysian dancers perform a traditional pre-race knees up.’

Even when the race is over there’s no respite for the riders. They can be injured and so exhausted that they flop down in the street with that familiar haunted look, but still they’re considered fair game. Camille: ‘Sprinter Michael Schweizer somewhere in Malaysia. He’d hit the deck earlier in the race and the Asia-based press corps wanted their pound of flesh.’

Circus: Inside the world of professional bike racing by Camille J McMillan is out now. Velodrome Publishing, £30. velodromepublishing.com

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