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Photo Vault: Cav in Carcassonne

The process of capturing Cavendish after he tied Eddy Merckx's Tour stage record.

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It is a well-known fact among photographers that certain images require more effort than others. And when it comes to the Tour de France, well, certain images come at a higher price than others.

For a large part of my career, I have focused on capturing the emotions of riders just after the finish line, the highs and sometimes the lows. I have been drawn to this particular moment in the sport because, in the few minutes just after the race, the cyclists are capable of revealing emotions they rarely display. Helmets come off, glasses too, as the walls that often hide the physical strain collapse and the rider’s expressions are seemingly the windows to their soul.

This body of work was the basis for my first major gallery exhibit at the Agathe Gaillard Gallery and it made up for a large section of my 30-year Tour de France retrospective at the Nikon Plaza here in Paris back in 2019.

But such images are increasingly difficult to take as the Tour de France has made finish-line access nearly impossible, firstly for security measures and more recently sanitary measures. And it is my understanding that the new rules will be made permanent.

For the most part I accepted the new rules, but on stage 13 to Carcassonne, I was simply focused on other things.

On this day I, like many, was aware that Mark Cavendish could well equal Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins. On this day my primary concern was simply on how to best capture such a historical moment.

I positioned myself far back from the finish line, knowing full well that my actual finish line shot would not be as strong as those photographers on the front row with the longest lenses. But I also knew that if Cavendish won, I would be the first in position after the line. Those are simply choices photographers make on a daily basis when anticipating a shot.

As the pack charged toward the line, Cavendish’s green jersey was visible at the front and it was clear that, barring any mishaps, he would make history.

I shot what I could at the line, but quickly turned and ran after him. He stopped almost immediately, getting off his bike and falling on the ground against a fence as he absorbed the moment. I crouched in front of him and shot away as he put his hands to his head in disbelief.

And then, almost as quickly as it happened, the moment was over, as a teammate pulled him up off the ground and swept him away. I tried to position myself for another moment but quickly found myself cornered by other photographers, team members or staff. And I quickly understood that my first shots were the strongest, glad that I made the compromise on the finish line shot.

Soon, I heard the voice of the Tour’s chief press officer reprimanding me for breaking ranks. He was livid, and I immediately understood that this was not the moment to push back. This was not the moment to remind him that the severe reduction of access both before and after the race in recent years was making it increasingly difficult to justify the thousands of dollars we spend each year to cover the Tour. No, this was a moment where I simply 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, twice that of any other photographer who had joined in the scrum. “Special award to James Startt for doing like ‘good old time on the finish line,’ the communiqué read.

I really was uncertain how to take the comments or the suspension. I have worked well with the Tour de France for over 30 years. I have even been a recipient of their 20-year medal of honor. But it is truly getting increasingly difficult for photographers to have any significant access. And yet somehow we still have to come away from each day with a significant body of work day-in and day-out. And on this day the recent restrictions were simply far from my mind as I was focused firstly on getting the shot.

Furthermore, I was forced to give the pictures from the line to the major photo agencies. In a sign of solidarity, most agencies refused to use my shots, but Getty circulated them immediately. And while I was happy to see that Mark Cavendish posted the shot on his own Instagram feed, I was frustrated that Getty did not have the courtesy to furnish proper photo credit.

A few days into my suspension I ran into my colleague Dario Belingheri, an Italian photographer.

“Congratulations, now you have won two awards this year,” he said. We laughed as I instantly understood what he meant. Dario is a tremendous photographer and earlier in the year we both won the top prize in the International Sports Photography awards. Now, I had been awarded a second more dubious prize by the Tour de France — the suspension.

While humor helped dispel frustration at the time, when I look at the image today, I remain troubled, quite simply because I fear that it may well be the last image I take of this genre. And that indeed is a tough pill to swallow.