Such sweet sorrow

Well folks, it’s been fun. But unfortunately I have to go away for a while. And where I’m going, there will be no cycling mags, internet access will be severely restricted, and frankly I will be in no position to guide you through the stinking midden that is the UK’s cycling media (cries of “huzzah!” and “trebles all round” from Bristol, Croydon, etc).

But I will leave you with a few recommendations, based on my half-arsed analysis over the last six months. Think of this as my farewell Top 5 listicle:

Magazines

1 Cyclist. Still the best all-round mag for most right-thinking grown ups. Sure, they have the occasional duff issue, but they are mostly very good value.

2 Rouleur. An acquired taste, but if you like road-racing, good photography (mostly) and decent writing, this is the mag for you. Yes, a tenner a copy is expensive, but I feel it still represents good value compared to things like Pro Cycling and Cycle Sport.

3 Cycling Plus. There’s always a lot in it, but not necessarily a lot that I want to read. Certainly worth checking it out in the newsagent’s each month to see if it’s worth buying. More often than not, it is.

4 Cycling Active. Pretty dire these days, with a dreary mix of sportives, lightweight product tests, and dismal training plans for the wannabe racer. Don’t bother, unless you’re a faux-pro with more money than sense who thinks a 60 mile sportive is a race.

5 BikesEtc. Execrable shite. If it’s still going in six month’s time I’ll be quite surprised.

Websites

1 Cyclingtips.com. Excellent Aussie site (don’t let that put you off), with some really good content written by some very good writers. Going from strength to strength.

2 Road.cc. A fairly small site, but the quality is pretty decent, and it doesn’t over-do the listicles and click-bait (although you can find it there). Usually worth a look.

 3 Bikeradar.com. A big old site with plenty of content, most of it reasonably good. The forums are pretty busy too.

4 Rouleur.cc. Strange stories that you don’t get anywhere else, good writing, thought-provoking pieces. A good place to while away a few lunch-hours.

5 RoadCyclingUK.com. Way too many listicles and click-bait. Rarely has anything on it that hasn’t been done better by someone else.

Podcasts

1 Velocast. It’s paid-for, but is far and away the best bike racing podcast(s) out there. John and Scott are knowledgeable, engaging, amusing and add enormously to my enjoyment of bike racing (although John can shut the fuck up about bloody Hour records and TTing!). Cillian’s This Week in Cycling History is excellent, too. With the money you save from not buying shite magazines, spend it on this instead.

2 Pro Women’s Cycling. Properly good stuff from Sarah Connolly and Dan Wright, it’s slightly anarchic, a bit sweary, and mostly very entertaining. Their sheer enthusiasm shines through in a very appealing way (although Dan can sometimes over-do his Australian-ness).

3 Cycling News Podcast. I know! It’s actually not too bad! It does have a tendency to be a bit po-faced and earnest, but overall it’s a pretty reasonable effort most of the time.

4 Telegraph Cycling Podcast. Hosted by the Holy Trinity of cycling authors (Dan Friebe, Richard Moore and Lionel Birnie), I want to like this podcast. But I don’t. There’s a level of smug self-satisfaction from the hosts that I find a little bit annoying. My bookshelves are full of their books, and they probably have every right to feel pleased with themselves, but it doesn’t mean I have to like them. Being a “friend of the podcast” for £10 a year gives you access to long and dreary interviews with uninteresting sports people. The rest of it is free. I like Ciro, though.

5 The Spokesmen Round Table Podcast. Although fairly US-centric, Carlton Reid (Editor of Bikebiz) upholds the UK end of things. It’s quite “tradey”, but no less interesting for that. It’s primarily about recreational cycling, but does meander on to sport stuff from time to time.


 

And that’s all I have to say about that.

 

Never mind the width…

OK, much to get through this morning, so I’m cracking on with a quick look at Cycling Plus this month. And at 226 pages, there’s a lot to look at (so I’ll keep it brief).

It’s the Bike of The Year issue, and boy do C+ make a big deal of it. Really. A huge deal. But before we get to the BoTY, there are 50 odd pages of news, new products and other sundry stuff. Having dispensed with that, the BoTY stuff starts at page 53 and goes on…and on…and on…until page 95. As is often the case with these things, it’s not nearly as interesting as it should be, and it’s hard to know why. It’s more like a buyer’s guide than an awards ceremony, and on the whole it’s drier than a nun’s nasty — page after page of bikes that I no particular interest in (Merida Ride Disc 5000 anyone? Anyone? Zzzzzzzz).

After the BoTY snooze-fest we get an interesting piece on doping in the amateur racing and sportive ranks. It’s a good, well-written and thought-provoking read from James Witts, if rather depressing. Next is some more new product stuff and then a Spring clothing guide, presented manufacturer-by-manufacturer. It’s by no means comprehensive, but most of the big names are present and it reads pretty well.

Trevor Ward’s piece about Reliability Trials is a lovely taste of old-school cycling and reminds me (once again) why things like Zwift are no substitute for real, actual cycling. It’s also slightly sniffy about modern sportives, which I always enjoy. A good, interesting piece from Trevor. This is followed by a pretty decent look at budget wheelsets, for those that might be in the market for such things.

One of the best things in this issue is the on-location test of the Marin Gestalt 5, a gravel-grindy-adventurey-type-thing. The words are good, the photos are lovely, and it’s a properly good way of testing a bike…good work, fellas. The Tour of Flanders piece is also pretty good, but then it was written by Peter Cossins, so you’d expect that. And even though the Big Ride feature is ostensibly about some sportive, it’s actually a nice look at the north Yorkshire moors with some very nice photos.

At the back, Ned Boulting is taking the Emiratis of the UAE to task for not installing cycling infrastructure for the migrant workers. Frankly, these poor sods have more on their minds than bike paths, but he makes a few good points.

That’s it for this month. It’s a hefty read and decent value, certainly compared to CA this month. The BoTY stuff seemed endless, and I would like to see a bit more imagination used for things like this, but overall C+ gets a B+ this month.


 

Tomorrow I’m back with a bit of a surprise (brace yourselves).

@TranquilloTommy

 

It’s getting worse

First off, thanks to Guy Andrews for yesterday’s guest blog…an interesting and thought-provoking piece (and thus a refreshing change to the bile and vitriol normally found here).

But back to the matter in hand…the May issue of Sportive Active. On the cover of this Spring issue we have a nice snowy, wintry photo of two cold cyclists. They probably did that to remind us how nice the weather is now, compared to what it was like several months ago. So that’s good.

Inside we have sportives. Many, many, many sportives. But first we have some new products, including the revelation that some bike wheels are suitable “for varied terrain…sprinting, climbing, breakaways, climbing [again] or on the flat”. Crikey, those must be EPIC wheels! Next is a look at the “game-changing” Pinarello K8-S, launched at last year’s Ronde, and never seen again. CA are a bit late to the party, but at least they didn’t just churn out a load of credulous Pinarello PR-speak…Oh.

Equally crapulous is the piece about a £3100 pair of tubular wheels that makes no attempt to put them in any kind of context (such as what sort of fucktard is going to spend more than £3000 on a pair of tubs), but they did superimpose a photo of the wheels onto a photo of blue sky and clouds, thus underlining their incredible lightness.

Both the regular columns this month are about riding kit. Simon Warren’s Old School is about learning the ropes in the 1980s, and Brett Lewis’ New School is a fascinating list of all the cycling clothing he has accumulated in two years of cycling. He certainly has all the gear…

The first sportive article is about a new event called The Struggle. It’s in quite a nice part of Yorkshire and photographed in a rather unappealing way. I started to read it, but quickly realised it’s exactly the same as all the other ones just like it. But I did read the piece about cycling for the impossibly ancient (those of us over 40), even though it contains quite a lot of shite about training plans and nutrition strategies. And it’s not a bad piece, to be honest.

The disc-brake wheel test is also reasonably good, even though I personally couldn’t care less about such things. The next sportive article is about the Tour of Cambridge, possibly the least appealing sportive imaginable (not that many of them are appealing). The Fens are flat, the scenery is flat, the wind howls, and the definition of a virgin is a 12 year old girl who can run faster than her brother. But at least it’s not Surrey.

The bike test this month is of four “British” 105-equipped bikes against the best-selling Canyon Endurance CF8.0 with 105. Of course they’re all built in the far-east anyway. But this test brings us to one of the things that has been bothering me (and many others, it would seem)…why does the bike press continue to wax lyrical about Canyons when the company clearly has many problems in its supply chain and continues to treat its customers very badly (see page 39 for the answer to that particular question). You get barely half a page about each bike, so you know what kind of test this will be. The same can be said of the metal bikes test that follows — brief, formulaic, and of no use to anyone.

Product “tests” include a look at summer socks, gilets and bike cleaning kits (be still, my beating heart!). These are followed by quite a sensible look at aero helmets, and spoke repairs, before we flick quickly past the Fitness + Training section (the usual crap about training blocks, beetroot, intervals, zinc, rhino horn, protein, snake oil, blah blah). At the back is a throwaway page about sock-doping (whatever the hell that is).

And that’s your lot. At 130 pages, there really is so little of interest in this magazine I do wonder why anyone bothers. And the new-style CA seems to suffer a kind of identity crisis. It appears to be primarily aimed at the relatively inexperienced newcomer, yet features £3000 wheels and £350 handlebars. They seem to be deliberately targeting the all-the-gear-but-no-idea brigade, which is probably why I find it excruciatingly poor these days. I know I’m not the target readership, but surely they can find something more interesting and useful than this. Then again, with Steve Prentice and Simon Collis running the show, maybe not.


 

Back on Monday with some thoughts about the latest Cycling Plus.

@TranquilloTommy

Pictures on a Page

We have something a bit different today…a guest blog. And not just any old guest blog, either. This one is about the current state of cycling magazine photography, written Guy Andrews (the man who founded and edited Rouleur magazine). It’s though-provoking stuff, and not just a shameless plug for his new book.


 

In the Spring of 2007, at Gent–Wevelgem, I climbed up a tree on the Kemelberg, before the riders arrived for the first time to get a better view of the race. Once up there I watched, slightly transfixed, as German photographer Olaf Unverzart walked up the other side of the road and set up his box camera. There couldn’t have been anything more inappropriate to lug across the mud and cobbles of Flanders and the race was due any moment, but he almost nonchalantly picked his spot on a mound, high above the ten deep spectators that lined the road. He knew what was coming, so he climbed up the bank, set up and he had a clear shot of the cobbled road down the hill. Olaf made some wonderful double exposure photographs of bike racing in that period, usually just one a day. Timeless, ghostly and beautiful images that you can look at for hours and never tire of.

rllr08-univerzat.jpg

Cycling photography has become a bit of a ‘thing’ these days. It’s probably fair to say that I may have managed to help that along a bit myself, but cycling and photography have had similar historical paths to the present day, maybe that’s one of the reasons why many people love both: they’re both addictive and the inventions (the camera and the bike) are both perfect. Many photographers like cycling for that reason alone and many are now exploring the world of bike racing. But photography, like bicycle technology, is reaching a thin end of a wedge.

When Rouleur Magazine first started we used a few (only one or two) black and white stories, the pictures were contemporary, set in current racing, but the process was old-school. It looked different and surprisingly shocked a few people, but I was happy that it made an impression because it shook up the apples a bit. However some critics latched onto these few early stories and started saying stuff like it’s ‘retro’ and because it was black and white (the one I really hate) they said it was ‘Arty’ – like that’s a bad thing. I remember one reviewer saying that the photography was ‘unusual’ which I took as a compliment. I remember Ben Ingham and Herbie Sykes did a story on Evgeni Berzin, the ’94 Giro winner. It was as tragic as it was beautiful. Somebody said it was ‘too sad’ and it upset them. I thought well it’s reality, sometimes that’s tough. But if it’s that beautiful? Everything doesn’t always have a happy ending. I always wanted to break the formulaic approach of representing sport and sportspeople. Sure, sport is about life, about struggle and about cultures, competition is merely the entertainment and in cycling that entertainment happens in the real world, that’s what excites great photographers. And sometimes it’s sad.

Read any magazine feature about a bike rider these days and you see a clear formula: photographs of them racing back in the day and then some portraits of them now, usually in their home with their trophy collection and a pot of tea… that’s all fine and dandy, but where’s any emotional connection? Just saying that this is now ‘behind the scenes’ is simply not enough, because photographers are not doing their job unless their pictures challenge ‘something,’ anything. And does it tell us anything new or unexpected, other than just a world coloured-in beige? Right now that’s all I see.

Fundamentally this shows a distinct lack of understanding of photography — not the technical, but the cultural aspect. Reportage photography is more than a tool to record what everybody else can clearly see already. It should inform the viewer and challenge them to consider and reconsider, it should inspire them to think and question, it should provoke emotion. Simply shooting ‘In the style of…’ or believing that ‘adding a filter’ to get an ‘effect’ or (horror of horrors) simply by turning it black and white – cosmetic but if the image below is meaningless, it will remain that way.

At one point you could differentiate between the work out there too, in 2008 Camille McMillan, Rein van Der Wouw, Taz Darling and Tim Kölln all went to the same races, but shot very different things and made some very individual statements – because they all have a unique and individual style and wanted to say something very personal. Your photographic/visual voice is what differentiates the intention, execution and the content of the work – which is why the work is original when the voice is personal and honest.

Only this week, I looked at a series of galleries from the spring classics, not only did I see work heavily aped, but all the galleries looked pretty-much identical. It may sound harsh, but I cannot believe some of the blatantly lazy copying and hackneyed nonsense that perfectly competent photographers are trying to pass off as original work. That is pretty depressing to see. This is where the ‘cycling photography rules’ come into play, or ‘Belgian Bicycle Photography Bingo’ as I like to call it. There are dozens of photographers (as we speak) in Belgium taking pictures of toothless old people, Flandrian flags and children asking for autographs (not forgetting the beer and frites) and therefore depicting a clichéd and patronising representation of Belgian racing culture, but is this doing any good? It’s turning into some sort of bizarre National Geographic social-photo-documentary experiment rather than a true reflection of the sport. It’s like there’s a checklist of shots to ‘get’ when most often one good one would do it.

When starting Rouleur magazine I set out to try something different, and now everything’s looking alike again. In 2005 it was certainly easier to make a difference and perhaps magazines have now cherry-picked some of those ideas we started (although in fairness very few ideas in magazines are completely ‘new’ and there is a marked difference between inspiration and influence to simply copying). So you can now get something a bit similar, but perhaps a bit cheaper. That’s not sour grapes that’s just the solid fact of publishing, we had a good run of it and I knew that eventually people would catch-on. In fairness much of what we were doing was emulating the late, great Jock Wadley who had a great eye for a photograph and his covers of The Coureur and Sporting Cyclist were true gems of magazine design. But I digress, copying is a reality of consumer magazine publishing and usually it’s the publishing house with the most horsepower who ‘wins’.

Coppi

Photographers need to make a living and so they simply shoot what they are asked to, follow the ‘cycling photography rules’ and never try anything different. In all honesty though, this is the fault of the editor, not the photographers, and how many editors actually understand or even appreciate what makes a decent photograph? In the main, like publishers, they just want it cheap and to look like what the other mags are doing. An old publisher I worked for many years ago once said to me, ‘just use something average, it makes the ads look better’ and I’m not sure that attitude has changed that much. Keep to path of least resistance, keep it safe.

There’s a distinct lack of consistency too and it is the responsibility a photographer carries to understand the strength of their visual commentary – so holiday snaps just don’t do the job. As a result, what we have now is dozens of perfectly technically capable photographers who all produce piles of very adequate work – albeit with predictable, one dimensional and dull results. Nobody appears to consider what they are doing or why, it’s just ‘carpet bomb’ the thing from every possible angle and hope that something turns up in the edit. It’s safe, it’s over-familiar and it’s being over-done.

Perhaps having to get the images published way too fast has also skewed the quantity over quality for good too and many would argue that modern technology hasn’t really helped photography, it’s just made it quicker, cheaper, easier and perhaps more environmentally friendly, but I’m not convinced that the work is any better – I’d actually say, in the wrong hands, it’s getting worse. Film meant photographers took more time, they would take the camera down from their face every once in a while and actually have a look at what was going on but what’s to stop people still working this way?

I was watching a race the other day from 1988 and as a break went away from the peloton, the photographer on a moto watched and waited for the riders to accelerate and settle down into their rhythm, then, as one of them counter attacked, he took one shot. It happened to be the race I was researching for another book and I was trying to find out where and when this impeccably timed photograph was taken, and there it was as plain as day: the single perfect shot. The best racing work is usually when the photographer had to take his time, reload a film or look and wait to see a situation develop, then taken the one shot that mattered.

If you are a sports photographer all this fuss is probably a good thing, if it’s not ‘arty’ or ‘risky’ you’re after, if it’s newsworthy podiums and finish lines then there’s still plenty of work to be done out there and I have a lot of respect for that. Events need to be recorded and if that’s the intention, so be it. It’s a bloody hard job requiring long nights in sweaty press rooms, relentless travel, awful food and terrible hotels and those folks work extremely hard, but my gripe isn’t about them. Maybe at this point I should also acknowledge that many of the best photographers move on at some point, that is that all of their work is transient, they may work on a single subject all their lives and revisit it from time to time. Or they are happy with what they have done and move on naturally to the next subject for them. Or they may decide that the road has become crowded enough and they’re done. Every dog has it’s day, and all that.

I had the privilege of working with Magnum Photo Agency several times during my time as editor at Rouleur, their work is unique and their members are, arguably, the best in the business. So when I had the chance to do a book of their cycle racing work, it was a dream job come true (shameless plug: Published by Thames and Hudson at the end of April). Looking back over the collections of these great photographers, highlighted several things – that they have an amazing hit rate, they shot very little, and what they did shoot and publish was exceptional.

Robert Capa followed the 1939 Tour de France and shot just 35 rolls of film, some of the contact sheets are only half bike racing, some from other places. He probably had a few days off (it looked as if he’d spent a few days on the French Riviera, but he was fond of a party, so who can blame him?) despite that, what comes off these contact sheets is how he worked, you can almost see him thinking and exploring through the pictures before he finds his shot – photography has always been all about the decisive moment, and Capa was a maestro. It’s interesting to note that many of  photographers view the ‘either side of the moment’ which carpet-bombing produces – as being the ‘almost the moment’ shots.

MAGNUM_CYCLING_PLC_Ltd_REV.indd

Elsewhere in the archive is work by photographers embedded in teams: Harry Gruyeart’s story about Bernard Hinault at the 1982 Tour de France and Guy Le Querrec’s about Laurent Fignon and the Renault team a couple of years later (it was 30 years ago, but behind the scenes at a training camp never looked so fresh and despite the volume of ‘similar’ work recently created, this has never been bettered for creativity and true photographic legacy).

The Magnum project taught me a couple of things about photography: firstly; whatever you think is a good shot of a post-race portrait, crowd scene, or a racing landscape, a Magnum photographer probably got there first. And secondly that truly talented photographers make a lot more of something they don’t understand than an average photographer would of something they do understand – and that being a ‘fan’ makes you the worst kind of commentator – your view is wholly biased and subconsciously will attempt to influence the audience.

This is why so called ‘behind the scenes’ is now more marketing than reportage – one is simply dressed in the ‘style’ of the other. Many of the best photographs taken around a bike race were taken by people who’d never seen a race before and probably had no idea what the Tour de France was – they may not ‘understand’ the celebrity pecking order or racing strategy, but they do understand people, emotions and humour. They may have only, especially in the case of Martine Franck, taken a couple of frames, but those frames are worth a lifetime of some of the work we see today.

If Magnum Photography is a bit ‘arty’ for you, then take a look at the late, great Bernard Thompson’s work or Gerry Cranham’s fabulous sporting archive or simply buy a copy of Visions of Cycling by Graham Watson (who is still shooting today). Graham’s 1989 book is still one of my favourite cycling photography books, it has pictures the likes of I’ve seen a thousand times since and some you’ll never see again, but it’s his timing that’s important – every one a winner.

I hope these comments don’t get misconstrued and I’m not saying ‘stop taking pictures everyone, ‘cos it’s all been done,’ because I love photography and I love cycling. All I’m asking is for people to take a few risks and be mindful there is a dire need right now to strive for originality and authenticity – because that is your responsibility if you want to be taken seriously as photographer. Just to stop and think occasionally, because cycling’s a fast, fun and furious sport – so you need to take your time.

Guy Andrews

@thecoureur