A moment in time: Tour de France 1991, Stage 17, Alpe d'Huez

Laurent Fignon (notice his brakes), with Delgado behind him (Photo: Rod MacFadyen)

"Check out the picture of Herrera. And Fignon with cantilevers!", read the email from a reader of the blog, C. Marshall. I followed the link he sent me, and I was pleasantly surprised but what I found. A great set of images that I had never seen before from the 1991 Tour de France. The moment I saw them, I wanted to know more. Who had taken these pictures and under what circumstances? With Mr Marshall's help, I was able to track down the photographer: Rod MacFadyen. 

Rod starting shooting at age 10, when his aunt gave him a Voigtlander Vito C. He later upgraded to a Praktica LTL3. By the end of the 1980s, he became more interested in cycling, and by 1990 he was able to move to France for work. What follows is a short interview with Rod about these great images, as well as that day at Alpe d'huez.

The post is followed by a couple of notes about the Giro.

Thanks to both Rod and C. Marshall for their time and help.

Lucho Herrera, racing for Postobon (Photo: Rod MacFadyen)
Rolf Golz (Photo: Rod MacFadyen)

How did you end up at the Tour, and at Alpe d'Huez on that day in 1991?
At that time I worked for DEC, Digital Equipment Corporation, at their site in Ferney-Voltaire. Ferney-Voltaire is a French town on the other side of Geneva airport, it’s right on the border with Switzerland.

In my first year in France I was mad keen to see the Tour so when some people at work discussed driving down to Bourg d’Oisans to see the Tour on the Alpe, I was in. It was only about a 2-hour drive and when we’d parked we walked up the Alpe as far as we could be bothered with, not that far up, it’s steep. It was a hot day and we were carrying food and drink for several hours.

Pascal Richard (Photo: Rod MacFadyen)

Remnants of the peloton (Photo: Rod MacFadyen)

What equipment did you use to shoot these images?
For 35mm I had acquired a Leica R4 (I won it!). I had always admired Leica rangefinders but no way could I afford them. I was also getting into medium format, being as my time was my own, not being married or with children and God knows you need long uninterrupted periods of time for developing and printing film photographs. I was smitten with desire when the Mamiya 6 came out. It was a medium format collapsible ‘travel camera’ with rangefinder focussing and three interchangeable lenses. I bought one with the standard 75mm F3.5 lens. It was a wonderful camera, relatively compact and light and with 35mm-style ease of handling.

I was cycling a lot by that time and the Mamiya was easy to put in a bag so I could use it if I was out and about on my bike. The Mamiya lenses had leaf shutters which meant they could synchronise with electronic flash at any shutter speed. This was important because when using fill-in flash outside, ambient light can overwhelm the flash. To overcome this you need a large aperture to get flash range but then you need a high shutter speed to expose correctly for ambient. The Mamiya could achieve this and with its easy handling, fast film wind, and near-instant shutter release, it was an excellent camera for close-in photography of moving subjects.

The weather that day was overcast and not sunny and that helped. Mixing flash and ambient is an interesting technique because the flash lights the shadows and freezes the action while the ambient light provides the context. Ideally you get some motion blur from the the ambient light image and sharp detail from the flash image. By the way I can’t particularly remember why I used black and white film, I mostly shot colour. I must have thought that monochrome would be more timeless. I guess.

Michel Vermote (Photo: Rod MacFadyen)
Bugno, Indurain and Luc Leblanc (Photo: Rod MacFadyen)
Steven Rooks (Photo: Rod MacFadyen)

Anything particularly memorable about this day, or any rider in particular you were hoping to shoot during their ascent?
The crowds on the Alpe are always amazing. You get to know them too because you’re there a long time waiting for the race. The Caravan Publicitaire lifts the spirits then there’s another long pause waiting for the race. Eventually you spot the TV helicopters in the valley below, excitement builds, people begin to press in to the road. You know it’s going to be madness when the riders come through.

As a photographer you’re very concerned about your vantage point and that you’ve set exposure and focus correctly. You have to trust yourself that you’ll get the shots when the riders appear. When they did, I was one of those people who step into the road slightly – not as crazy as that kid who knocked off Guerini in 1999 though—to get my shot and step back quickly.

The first few riders came up singly or in small groups and that allowed me to get almost all of the stage top 10. I missed Greg Lemond sadly. I wasn’t intent on capturing any particular rider, they were all heroes, and with the speed of the riders you have time to react but not much time to think. With only 12 shots per roll of 120 film I only had 12 pictures I could take anyway. Changing a 120 roll film takes a minute or two and by then all you’ve got is team cars roaring through.

Thierry Claveyrolat (Photo: Rod MacFadyen)

(Photo: Rod MacFadyen)

What do you make the images from that day now?
Looking at those photographs now, firstly I’m impressed that they’re all competently framed, focused and exposed. That Mamiya really was a good camera.

Secondly the photos which at the time were just nice pictures of cycle racers we were all familiar with, now are redolent of a period of pro racing that is both significant and completely gone.

Tim Berners-Lee may have been inventing the internet just down the road from where I was living, but this was a pre-internet age and as such lost in the mists of time for the modern-day person. These photographs are precious now. ■

You can see others shots by Rod, including some from the 1992 Tour in his flickr page, here.

Video of the stage. I'm almost certain that Rod took the pictures in the turn that is first visible at 24:57. Claveyrolat goes by that spot at 25:31, where Rod is visible on the side of the road as a mere blur.

Results after stage 17 (from Bikeraceinfo)
Tuesday, July 23, Gap - L'Alpe d'Huez, 125 km
Major Ascents: Bayard, Ornon, L'Alpe d'Huez
1. Gianni Bugno: 3hr 25min 48sec
2. Miguel Indurain @ 1sec
3. Luc Leblanc @ 2sec
4. Jean-François Bernard @ 35sec
5. Steven Rooks @ 43sec
6. Claudio Chiappucci s.t.
7. Thierry Claveyrolat s.t.
8. Pedro Delgado @ 45sec
9. Laurent Fignon @ 1min 12sec
10. Alvaro Mejia @ 1min 13sec
14. Greg LeMond @ 1min 58sec
GC after Stage 17:
1. Miguel Indurain: 79hr 5min 25sec
2. Gainni Bugno @ 3min 9sec
3. Claudio Chiappucci @ 4min 48sec
4. Charly Mottet @ 4min 57sec
5. Greg LeMond @ 6min 39sec
6. Luc Leblanc @ 6min 53sec
7. Laurent Fignon @ 7min 3sec
8. Andy Hampsten @ 9min 25sec
9. Eduardo Chozas @ 16min 22sec
10. Gérard Rué @ 16min 56sec

Giro-related marginalia

Screenshot: World Tour Gear

If you were watching the Giro yesterday, you probably saw Carlos Betancur celebrating Pippo-style, though he was actually second on the stage. Fellow Colombian Jarlinson Pantano most certainly saw this, and enjoyed it (see image above), later tweeting "hahaha. it's not that i started laughing, I just said to myself, what are you doing? hahaha". 

Betancur's team explained that his earpiece wasn't working. At any rate, Mike Spriggs of Gage & DeSoto described the celebration as "an elaborate, jazzercise victory salute", and I agree. There was a little dance of sorts, followed by two signs of the cross. This, I must say, reminded me of how every kid in Colombia celebrates scoring a goal during a soccer/football match, even if its during recess. You do the sign of the cross twice, and then usually kiss your hand afterward. Because your hand becomes holy after the doing the sign of the cross twice I guess. I don't know.

Betancur included, yesterday was a strong showing for several Colombian riders like Pantano and Chalapud. It should be noted that Team Colombia's Atapuma and Duarte have been taking it easy, stating plainly that they are saving themselves as much as possible for climbing stages during weeks two and three. This has allowed riders like Chalapud and Pantano to try their hand at going on breaks.

Perhaps you've noticed the very bright hi-viz colors on Team Colombia's Willier Zero 7 bikes. In case you were wondering, the colors are not random, and riders were not given the choice to pick their favorite. The colors actually correspond to sizes:

XS : Red
S: Orange
M: Yellow (a majority of the team's riders use this size, which has a 50.5 seat tube)
L: White with red accents
XL: Green (I believe Wilson Marentes is the only team rider on an XL frame) 

Juan Chamorro, 4-72
This year's Giro represents Colombia's cycling present, even though many of the riders there are still up and coming. But what about the future? This weekend, the Vuelta a Asturias showed that things are looking good for Colombia in years to come. With only a U23 squad, team 4-72 managed to place Ever Rivera eight overall, and Juan Chamorro was 15th. On the first day, Rivera had been fourth, up against impressive pro-tour competitors. This is particularly good news for the team, who now has two strong options for the Tour de l'Avenir. Keep an eye on those two. Rumor has it that you may be seeing Chamorro a good bit more in Europe very soon.