It is a fact well known to photographers that some images require more effort than others. And when it comes to the Tour de France, well, some images cost more than others.
For much of my career, I have focused on capturing the emotions of runners right after the finish line, the ups and downs sometimes. I was drawn to this special moment in the sport because, within a few minutes of the race, cyclists are able to reveal emotions that they rarely show. The helmets come off, the goggles too, as the walls that often hide physical tension crumble and the rider’s expressions are apparently the windows to his soul.
This corpus formed the basis of my first major exhibition at the Agathe Gaillard gallery and formed a large part of my 30-year Tour de France retrospective at the Nikon Plaza here in Paris in 2019.
But such images are increasingly difficult to take because the Tour de France has made access to the finish line almost impossible, first for security measures and more recently for health measures. And I understand that the new rules will become permanent.
I mostly accepted the new rules, but on stage 13 in Carcassonne I was just focused on other things.
That day, like many, I knew Mark Cavendish could well equal Eddy Merckx’s record 34 stage wins. My main concern that day was simply how to best capture such a historic moment.
I positioned myself far from the finish line knowing full well that my actual shot at the finish line wouldn’t be as strong as those front row photographers with the longer lenses. But I also knew that if Cavendish won, I would be first in position after the line. These are simply choices that photographers make every day when they anticipate a shot.
As the peloton charged towards the finish line, Cavendish’s green jersey was visible up front and it was clear that, barring any mishaps, he would make history.
I pulled what I could on the line, but quickly turned around and ran after him. He stopped almost immediately, got off his bike, and fell to the ground against a fence as he soaked up the moment. I crouched down in front of him and pulled as he put his hands on his head in disbelief.
And then, almost as quickly as it happened, the moment was over, when a teammate lifted him off the ground and carried him away. I tried to position myself for a while but soon found myself cornered by other photographers, team members or staff. And I quickly understood that my first shots were the strongest, happy to have compromised on the stroke of the finish line.
Soon I heard the voice of the Tour press secretary berating me for breaking ranks. He was livid, and I immediately understood that now was not the time to back down. Now was not the time to remind him that the severe reduction in pre- and post-race access in recent years has made it more and more difficult to justify the thousands of dollars we spend each year to cover the Tour. No, that was a time when I just had to shut up and take it.
Later that night, I learned through a press release that I would receive a four-day suspension from the finish line, double that of any other photographer who had joined the fray. âSpecial award to James Startt for acting like ‘the good old days at the finish line,’ the statement read.
I really didn’t know how to take the comments or the suspension. I have worked well with the Tour de France for over 30 years. I even received their 20th anniversary medal of honor. But it’s really getting harder and harder for photographers to gain meaningful access. And yet, one way or another, we still have to come out of every day with a heavy load of work day in and day out. And that day, the recent restrictions were just out of my mind as I was focusing on shooting first.
In addition, I was obliged to give the photos of the line to the main photo agencies. In solidarity, most agencies refused to use my photos, but Getty immediately released them. And while I was happy to see that Mark Cavendish posted the photo to his own Instagram feed, I was frustrated that Getty didn’t have the courtesy to provide proper photo credit.
A few days after my suspension, I ran into my colleague Dario Belingheri, an Italian photographer.
âCongratulations, you have now won two awards this year,â he said. We laughed as I immediately understood what he meant. Dario is a great photographer and earlier this year we both won first prize at the International Sports Photography Awards. Now I had received a more dubious second prize in the Tour de France – the suspension.
If humor helped allay the frustration back then, when I look at the picture today, I remain confused, simply because I’m afraid this is the last picture I take of this kind. And it is indeed a difficult pill to swallow.