Icons of Cycling: Pictures of contemporary cycling photographers

Professional cycling thrills millions of people worldwide, and the fanbase just keeps growing. In Icons of Cycling, Kirsten Van Steenberge gives us an entirely new perspective on this sport. He puts the focus on its esthetic and emotional aspects so he can share the fullness of his fascination. In the exposition ‘Icons on Tour’ a collection of signature images and the stories behind are selected.

Craftmanship by James Startt

There are some key elements that contribute to the authenticity and esthetics of the sport. First among these is craftsmanship. If you want to succeed in this demanding sport, you have to know your metier. Craftsmanship begins with the design and production of the bike and its components. And that story begins, surprisingly enough, with a volcano. After the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, the world was covered with ashes, blocking the sun and causing a failed harvest. No crops meant no feed for draft animals and horses, which spurred the development of an entirely new method of transportation. The first two-wheeler prototypes saw the light of day with the draisine in 1817. After several modifications, the modern bike as we know it today was first assembled in 1885. Over the years, that 19th-century model has evolved into today’s high-end bikes. But one thing has remained the same since day one: the passion of designers, manufacturers and mechanics. With an eye for detail and perfection, a tool becomes a piece of art.

Manufacturers of the chain-and-pedal vehicles run the gamut. Some are sophisticated with an assembly line producing hundreds of units a day. Others stick to hand-built bikes and components using all kinds of metals and composites. Every material or type of construction has its diehard fans. Some might argue that steel is the real deal with welded lugs. Others claim that titanium rules. Some say nothing is better and more comfortable than alloy. All competitive cyclists ride carbon. True believers preach loudly about the frame. And once you start talking about brands, the gloves really come off. Individual components provide hours of impassioned conversation fodder. People’s opinions may be all over the map, but they all ultimately come from the same place: the love of cycling. And it all starts with the bike. In the end, it doesn’t even matter if the frame is monocoque or welded together out of several pieces.

James Startt (US) is an French-American photographer who resides in Paris. With specializations in urban, sports and documentary photography, James has a wide scope of interest. The pack in combination with unexpected scenery is his signature shot. James also likes the fans along the streets waiting or shouting to their favourite cyclist. His books and exhibits of street photography and cycling have won him international acclaim.

Silence by James Startt

For one day in spring, summer or fall, the streets belong to sports that span the globe. Cycling is one of the only sports exercised worldwide on public roads. No lines define the field. The boundaries are set by a flag at the start and a finish line at the end. Once the race director’s car releases the pack and the race is on, the roads comprising the course are the center of attention for some hours. Thousands of fans crowd together to cheer on their favorite athletes. The convoy of PR, press, regulators and invitees transform the region into an ant’s nest. But after the dust has settled and the noise has faded away, the scenery reverts back to the locals for 364 days. No clamor of helicopters, cars, spinning wheels or cheering spectators. Just silence for one year. The beauty of the colorful spectacle is transformed to the beauty of silence. Cobbles, narrow roads, hills and mountains settle back to their original state as they have done for decades.

James Startt is one of the cycling fans who loves the still life of the route combined with urban and rural landscapes. For his work ‘Reflections,’ he visited the most famous sections of Paris-Roubaix in northern France. The 50k of cobbles between Compiegne and Roubaix must have been thrown down in ancient times. This region hosts one of the most beautiful races with a century of history behind it. On the road to eternal fame, drama is written in boldface. The region is characterized by old piles of coal near abandoned mines and train tracks. At the beginning of the famous Troueé d’Arenberg section, the miners of old are replaced by cyclists with dusty faces on carbon bikes. It reminds us of their hard work and extends their legacy. Silent witnesses of heroic battles patiently wait and count the days until they play the starring role in next year’s race. In the meantime, only a farmer uses this piece of history to shuffle toward his field while the friends of Paris-Roubaix are restoring the next sector.

James Startt (US) is an French-American photographer who resides in Paris. With specializations in urban, sports and documentary photography, James has a wide scope of interest. The pack in combination with unexpected scenery is his signature shot. James also likes the fans along the streets waiting or shouting to their favourite cyclist. His books and exhibits of street photography and cycling have won him international acclaim.

Preparation by Kåre Dehlie Thorstad

Shaven and oiled legs, socks as high as permitted, and a wide range of colors on bikes and clothes, all in optimal condition. It’s like dressing up for a wedding. The entrance is in full uniform. Along the road, the glitter will be covered with sweat, dust, dirt and maybe blood. But without a shiny start, there is no glory at the end when the shirts are zipped again to cross the finish line.

Cyclists always get up early. It makes sense on a race day. The time needed to digest breakfast before the start is crucial and calculated to the minute. And before the gladiators enter the arena, a long protocol of formalities takes place. Transfer with the busses from the hotel to the start point. Follow the final strategic guidelines. Pin the start number on the shirts. Have an interview. Go to the stage to indicate you are there and have the intention to start. Take a picture with the fans. Move to the start. Line up. Wait. Start unofficially and think about the stage. Start officially when the car of the race director accelerates and waves his flag. Have a last talk. The real work begins.

Recreational cyclists love to imitate the pros as they enjoy a weekend bike tour. There are no massages or autograph signings after their coffee, but it’s easy to be an early riser with a clean bike, which creates a slightly similar feeling.

Kåre Dehlie Thorstad (NO) blazes his own path, which results in a unique style with lonely and lost cyclists on a road to nowhere. The recovery area is his playing field. Or as Kåre states: “Just after the finish line has probably been the best time for me as a photographer, being able to capture the riders at their most vulnerable moment, often completely empty and drained after a long and demanding stage. I do my very best to not interfere too much, giving them space and time to breathe - not asking for a smile or a silly pose. Black and white are the best colors to express the suffering of the ride.”

Waiting by Chris Auld

The race is on, the waiting begins. Cycling fans are passionate and patient people. Along the route, good spots are claimed well in advance. In an attempt to find a way to pass the time, people arrange a lot of entertainment opportunities: sitting in front of the motorhome or decorating it with flags. Painting the name of your favorite rider on the street is popular. Others try to figure out what’s happening in the race on a small radio. The waiting changes to excitement when the helicopters are noticed on the horizon. A prelude for what’s coming in the next five minutes after the first supporter yells: There they are!

Waiting occurs in a different way when you have chosen to watch the race at home. The first obstacle to overcome: the time before the live coverage starts. Then the second chapter of waiting starts: the moment when it happens. Sometimes it happened prior to coverage. In an attempt to catch up with what happened, you start trying to imagine how it unfolded. Most of the time live coverage starts during the interbellum when the race is inside a stadium. Your patience will always be rewarded with the final ahead. In the blink of an eye, your body changes from slumped in an armchair to shouting and jumping in front of the television. The unpredictable character of the predictable race makes it important not to miss a single pedal stroke. It can happen at any moment.

From waiting to excitement. From waiting to action and back. It’s a thin line.

Chris Auld (UK) likes the action and the battle. When an athlete pushes himself to the limit, Chris has been there to document it for over two decades. The close-ups stress human suffering and human effort. Every picture is a realistic rendering of scene and color and a reflection of life in the peloton.

Bunch by Pauline Ballet

All blend together in the hope of completing the job they have been entrusted with. After the start, the quiet among the riders won’t last long. Attacks will be mounted to pull away from the safe setting of the pack. The early breakaway will be formed, possibly followed by some late deciders trying to catch them. If they are unsuccessful and fall apart, the chase will end up as a chasse patate. Swimming between the front group and the peloton is a nightmare. At the back of the peloton, riders are going from the bunch to the team cars and back like bees from flowers to the hive. Things change when the pace quickens, the route becomes more challenging, and the distance torches the legs. The coherent bunch will be disturbed and split up.

The homogeneity is never as disruptive when the wind blows the bunch apart and breaks the group into echelons. Code red waves over the peloton hoping to find shelter behind the back of a fellow rider. Dreams and intentions are crushed when the gaps become bigger and the front group disappears step by step out of sight. Subgroups behind the peloton arise. New companions take the road to the finish line or step out of the race. A group you didn’t choose yourself: it was formed by a severe element of nature.

Dirt by Klaas Jan van der Weij

Monuments. Only a few races have achieved the status of being a monument. The ingredients to be one are not defined: it’s a combination of history, uniqueness and the prestige a victory entails. The quality of riders at the start and willingness to win the race will do the rest.

Milan-San Remo is the longest such race on the calendar at almost 300km. Spring has arrived in Europe, but the elements along the Ligurian Sea are unpredictable. The race is postulated to end with a sprint, but the final stretch has fast climbs and technical descents in store to mess up the tactics. Strade Bianche is the new kid knocking on the door of monument status. Sterrati, the name for the white gravel roads in Tuscany, have been coloring the route in dusty or muddy conditions since 2007. The Tour of Flanders has its small twisty roads and short, steep cobbled hills. A million people along the road makes that day in April a national holiday. Winning the race means becoming an instant hero and the possible laureate for next week's Paris-Roubaix. This race is hard and drama lurks around every corner. Liège–Bastogne–Liège is something of a mystery, with a lot of competitors waiting for the ultimate moment. And at the end of the season, the Giro di Lombardia can be added to the palmares or rescue a rider’s season. To follow in the footsteps of Fausto Coppi, one must challenge the weather’s referee status.

One remarkable characteristic of Monuments is the presence of a nickname. In their native languages, the names sound like poetry: La Primavera (the spring classic), L'eroica (heroic race), Vlaanderens mooiste (Flanders’ finest), L’enfer du Nord (The hell of the north), La Doyenne (the old lady), La corsa delle foglie morte (the classic of the falling leaves), and so on. Reporters can make use of a long list of synonyms during the previews of the race. And every year, a new chapter with more stories than participants is added to the history books.

There is no special trophy after winning a Monument, so that’s not a requirement either. Maybe it’s the recognition of the benchmarks on the course claimed by the Monument. Cipressa and Poggio, Sante Marie and le Tolfe, Koppenberg and Kwaremont, the Trench of Arenberg and Carrefour de l'Arbre, Redoute and Roche aux Faucons, Madonna del Ghisallo and San Fermo della Battaglia.

The absence of specific criteria to bestow “monument” status on a race makes for lively discussion. Why not include the Cauberg, Kemmelberg or Jaizkibel races? They meet many of the unofficial requirements. Maybe it's the lack of history, a nickname, or just the lack of drama and unpredictability. Or the frightening moment when a grand tour decides to honor the monument by including a section of the course in one of its stages.

It seems that monument races are connected and have two things in common: legacy and authenticity. Most of them are characterized by their rough edges. They don’t have to be perfect. Brutal and rough are actually more appealing.

Altitude by Russ Ellis

There is something special about mountains. They are only rarely part of a race. With very few exceptions, the mountains don’t appear in a one day race. Stage races around one week long can sample a bit of promontory and include a single climb to 1800 meters. Grand tours have claimed the exclusivity of a sequence of big climbs with altitudes going above the treeline. The number of mountains that will be climbed per year is limited. A summit finish increases the attractiveness even more. The ultimate offering is a finish on a mythical mountain. Those do pop up every now and then. A stage like that in the roadbook makes it the queen's stage that everybody keeps an eye on.

A bidding war between different grand tours takes place to set up the most impressive numbers. Longer, more, higher, steeper. However, the impressive look of the mountains does force us to experience one entirely appropriate feeling: humility. We have to be honored that cycling is performed in a unique milieu. It enables us to see different panoramas over otherwise inaccessible areas.

Nowhere else is the balance between physical strength, teamwork and strategy so critical. Battles on a number of simultaneous fronts are commonplace: for the win, to gain time in the general classification, for a special jersey. The Alps or the Pyrenees are the playground for the elite. Only a small group of teams and riders is formed to attack in the mountains. Others are forced to follow or happy to form the grupetto. In addition to the fight for the win, there is another fight taking place at the back--the fight to stay in front of the broom wagon and under the time limit. And only one rider can win the prize for rounding the highest point of a grand tour. If one is awarded the Cima Coppi during the Tour of Italy or the Souvenir Henri Desgrange in the Tour de France, his name is added to a legendary list.

Dust by Kåre Dehlie Thorstad

Western Europe is the cradle of cycling. After the first bikes were developed, the first races took place in the middle of the 19th century. From France, the sport’s popularity spread steadily across Europe. The popular races of today trace their origins back to around 1900. Even the first modern-day Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 included a cycling competition. For a very long time Europe dominated. Fortunately, this was not a permanent state. The peloton went international, and a mentality of abundance allowed for the organization of competitions overseas. Oceania and the Middle East have hosted races since the early 2000s. Canada has been on the international stage since 2010. New regions are hosting events and competing with the traditional regions. It’s a pleasant addition and a harbinger for further internationalization.

The challenges are different. The heat seems scorching to thin-skinned Europeans. Acclimation to the humidity, drought, or a different time zone determines how the day will go. As these races attract smaller crowds number of fans along the route, the intrinsic motivation to dig deep on the long straight stretches of empty road must be one hundred percent.

Kåre Dehlie Thorstad (NO) blazes his own path, which results in a unique style with lonely and lost cyclists on a road to nowhere. The recovery area is his playing field. Or as Kåre states: “Just after the finish line has probably been the best time for me as a photographer, being able to capture the riders at their most vulnerable moment, often completely empty and drained after a long and demanding stage. I do my very best to not interfere too much, giving them space and time to breathe - not asking for a smile or a silly pose. Black and white are the best colors to express the suffering of the ride.”

Flamme rouge by Klaas Jan van der Weij

After all the suffering during training it’s finally there, the 1k to go in the race. An arch with a red flag is the sign to prepare for the finish. Only two options do exist. Solo or not. The lead or favor can be big enough to celebrate and spread the arms as an eagle floating on thermal long before the line. But mostly the last kilometer clusters the energy one last time in an ultimate effort to win. The tension rises while the countdown from marker to marker continues.

Sometimes the last kilometer stands on its own. Cycling has a wide range of suggestive finishes. Famous streets such as the via Roma in San Remo, the Promenade des Anglais in Nice and Champs-Elysees in Paris are recurring every year. A steep uphill finish or a raid to a ski-station in the Alps during a Grand Tour is always breathtaking. An arrival in the lunar landscape of The Bald Mountain is one of a kind. The velodrome of Roubaix is a cherished unique piece of heritage. Finishing in the ancient town of Siena on the Piazza del campo must feel heroic. After a trip through Tuscany, a last kilometer with Italian tiles in steep, narrow streets appeals to the imagination. That one day the horses of the palio or the tourists eating a slice of pizza in the shade of the tower of the Palazzo Pubblico are setting the stage. The riders pushing their bodies one last time above Zenith do.

You have to watch until the final line to know the winner of today’s game. The last kilometer can turn the situation upside down. Those races captivate. While chasing a record after a long battle, mano a mano, the result can be different then expected. Coming back from a beaten position and, in extremis, winning the sprint is beyond belief. The exhausted winner shakes his head and drops to the ground, the fans present in delirium. When the line is crossed the power set on the pedals exchanges into a range of emotions.

Aftermath by Russ Ellis

Hours after the riders have put their signature on the start sheet the route, strategy and physical efforts have decided the result. Only one rider and one team can look back at a perfect day. For the other ones the joy of the game gives way to feelings of pain and missed chances. The mix of emotions results in a feeling of defeat or happiness. The first group continues their way to the team bus. The second group is after some minutes of recovery and refreshment ready to take part at the podium ceremony. It takes months and years of training, racing and suffering before being rewarded with a trofee, some flowers and sometimes a jersey. Yellow, white, pink, purple, red, white with red dots, black, blue, green, a jersey in the colors of your country or with 5 stripes. Everybody in the bunch would do the imaginable to gain a jersey in a distinctive color. By the lack of high prize money, cycling has a long history of strange habits as you can also win a teddy-bear, a beret, the rider's weight in cheese or even a donkey. Champagne and beer are at cost of the sponsor but have to be emptied on the stage. Again the circus of cycling spoils all fans of sports and beauty. A podium in front of a city's monument makes the mayor on the podium proud, handing over the prizes and shaking hands with a big smile.

While the sweat and dust is washed away new dreams come alive. The pain fades away slowly when the fantasies become more clear every minute. Evaluating and figuring out how to overcome the obstacles next time. Someday the classics rider wants to be rewarded with the biggest recognition: their name as the winner on a wall of the iconic showers of Roubaix or engraved in the trophy.

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