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To Hell and back: the best Classics photos

In-depth
14 Apr 2021
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Legendary cycling photographer Graham Watson digs through his archives to unearth his favourite moments from the great races

‘It’s hard to choose so few images from so many years and races,’ says Graham Watson. Given that he has been photographing bike racing for more than 40 years, the number of races Watson has documented is nearly impossible to fathom.

He attended his first Tour de France in 1977, when a photo of his won a ‘small prize in Cycling Weekly’. From there he didn’t look back. Early trips to Europe included riding 200km from Calais to shoot Paris-Roubaix, but by the mid-1980s Watson was zipping around on the backs of motos as one of cycling’s top photojournalists. Who better, then, to ask the question: what are the best Spring Classics shots you’ve ever taken?

Paris-Roubaix, 2001

‘There were a few wet and muddy sections in 2002, but 2001 was the last time it truly poured at Roubaix. The finale saw heavy rain turn the cobbles into a skating rink, and here the shock of falling after five hours in the saddle shows starkly on Rolf Sørensen’s face.

‘What the image does not show is my driver struggling to get our moto back on the track, for we too had fallen in such impossible conditions. Not that I cared much because by then I’d got some great shots of one of the all-time epic editions of Paris-Roubaix.’

Milan-San Remo, 2002

‘It’s always a cacophony of noise and emotion on the Via Roma as the fans await the finish of Il Primavera, but the news Mario Cipollini had survived the Cipressa and Poggio hills and was close to the front sent the crowds into a frenzy. Mario was adored in Italy, and his ensuing sprint, win and familiar victory salute saw even hardened race photographers shaking with emotion.

‘Mario had pulled off his greatest ever Classics victory in a race no one ever thought he could win – a feat that instilled in him the confidence to go on and win the Worlds later that year.’ 

 

Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 1984

‘The Côte de Haute Levée was one of my favourite climbs of Liège. The hills would start to hurt, there would still be 100km to go, and it’s here that men like Laurent Fignon and Sean Kelly would make other cyclists weep and where I’d often capture my best images of La Doyenne, before hopping back on the moto and observing what decisive action had materialised in front.

‘In this 1984 shot, Fignon and Kelly are seen forging the winning escape with Phil Anderson hanging on [Kelly would win, with Anderson second and Fignon eighth]. It’s a shot where I knew I’d read the race and its hills almost perfectly. It doesn’t always work this way.’

Paris-Roubaix, 1985

‘Greg LeMond’s smiling face belies the effort he’s made to finish fourth in the 1985 Paris-Roubaix. The American finished more than two minutes down on winner Marc Madiot, who had escaped with about 15km to go, and had also been beaten by Sean Kelly for third and a podium step.

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‘Only Greg could find happiness in such a moment, for this was the closest he came to winning L’Enfer and most other riders would have been inconsolable at their loss. Greg had a love of cycling and adventure that surpassed any considerations of tactics and victory, which is where this smile comes from – he just loved having fun.’

Amstel Gold Race, 2009

‘The Gulperberg is a wall of a climb deep in the heart of the south Limburg countryside. The race climbs it twice – once after 135km then again in the last hour. On a pre-race recce in 2009 I spotted a vantage point I’d never seen before, despite having photographed the race since 1983. Crowds packed the hill five-deep as this immense mass of riders snaked its way up the hill. Seen through a 300mm lens it made for an incredible spectacle.

‘I lay claim to being the first race photographer to spot this vantage point, but every year since I have shared my private location with dozens of other snappers, who had seen this shot and wanted it for themselves.’

 

Omloop Het Volk, 1987

‘This was a day when you questioned your own mortality, or at least your ability to withstand the cold and rain and still manage to work a camera. That my cameras survived – well, one of them – and my numbed fingers managed to take a single shot – manually focussed using grainy 800ASA film – are minor miracles. Even the flashgun worked, which saved the day as the available light was well beyond the scope of any colour slide film back then. But seeing Teun van Vliet show so much exuberance as he crossed the line raised my spirits and put any complaints to rest.

‘A shot for the ages of a cyclist who was genuinely one of the nice guys. It still makes me smile today.’ 

Tour of Flanders, 1987

‘This was an image that lifted my profile and helped me break into the Continental-dominated world of cycling photography that was trying to keep me out. It’s Jesper Skibby on the Koppenberg, as if run down by the race official’s car [in fact Skibby fell and the car swerved, hitting only his bike]. My colleagues were further down the climb, so I was the one that managed to capture a great shot and it sold to newspapers across Europe.

‘This photograph actually helped get the Koppenberg banned from De Ronde for 15 years, so scandalous was the publicity. I didn’t know Skibby back then but as the years passed we became quite good mates, forever bonded by this incident.’ 

Paris-Roubaix, 1981

‘In the early years I’d drive my car to strategic locations and hope to see some action. So it was in 1981 when Bernard Hinault and Hennie Kuiper rode into my sights as I squatted on the last serious cobbles at Hem. When you’re seeing so little of the race you pray the first cyclist coming at you is the one who goes on to win, so as much as I liked Kuiper I wanted Hinault to win that day.

‘Eventually I heard on spectators’ radios that Hinault had won, even after four others had caught him and Kuiper near the finish. It’s a happy photographer who’s taken one single image of the reigning World Champion on his way to winning Paris-Roubaix for the only time in his career.’

Paris-Roubaix, 1998

‘When Johan Museeuw crashed in the Arenberg the world seemed to stop. His body lay prone, his kneecap smashed; spectators’ gasps were audible. Virtually the entire convoy halted to allow doctors to assist.

‘Incredibly he got to his feet and limped to an ambulance, providing us snappers with shots none of us really wanted. It’s miserable taking images like this, yet they formed a story that eventually had a fairytale ending. Although he nearly lost his leg from complications after the crash, he came back to win Roubaix in 2000 and again in 2002. He really was one of a kind – what a hard nut!’

Gent-Wevelgem, 1982

‘This was and still is a brute of a Classic. Crashes were ten-a-penny in the 1982 race, when crosswinds battered the peloton as it left the North Sea coast and headed for the hills, splitting the race into pieces in a way I’d never thought possible.

‘Sean Yates caught my eye after one such crash, and I managed to capture his desolation and agony in the few seconds it took for him to get back on his bike. It’s a painful task to see someone you know so well in such discomfort and capture that, but to this day my shot of Sean carries so much emotion, I’ve never regretted taking it.’