Dear bike racing,
Please forgive our recent absence, most likely you have been wondering where we are, not in all the usual places you expect to see us, paying tribute to your greatness, guts, and glory. We have been missing you terribly as of late and this note is long overdue. We have fumbled off and on with finding the words to convey our love for you, the deep adoration for your magic moments, and passions, and how to say goodbye. Yes, we are breaking up; it’s not you, it’s us. Let me explain where it all began and why we must now part ways.
I knew almost immediately that we would be bound together for a long time. And these 10 years have been a remarkable and unexpected adventure. To say that they flew by is an understatement. Hard to believe you were first introduced to me in February 2009 at the Amgen Tour of California. Indeed, quite serendipitously, Jim and I met on Valentine’s Day — at the prologue in Sacramento — and although I didn’t understand what the ground rules were or who the key players were, I was hooked. I took it as a divine sign that several of the seasoned photographers and TV crew warmly welcomed me, a fish out of water, into the rolling circus of a stage race. And so, at the conclusion of that race, I jumped head-in, and Jim and I came to be known as BrakeThrough Media. Jim had already been part of the cycling family since his early teens, racing as a junior and competing in Olympic trials with peers Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer. He’d already been through several highs and lows and highs again in his romance with bike racing by the time I met him.
For me, that early blush of passion really came forth on the rough and dusty pavé of the Trouée d’Arenberg, on Easter Sunday 2009, my first WorldTour race. I didn’t even know what was happening to me, being swept up into the mythology and martyrdom of the Hell of the North. Still an ingenue, I misjudged the timing, the roadblocks, and the toying of the local gendarmes, and missed the finish in the velodrome. Covered in a veil of discouragement, dust, and sweat, it only made me want to do it all over again. And so, like many fateful romances, it had begun.
The next 10 years brought us together so often and so intensely that being home became the anomaly. Suitcases barely unpacked between trips to the races, foul-weather gear made up half the regular laundry, counting passport stamps, and missed birthdays back home. The year was measured in parts by the road bike season, everything else in our lives afforded only the leftovers. We had more friends on the road than at home; what with our cycling colleagues, (fellow photographers, journalists, TV crews) and the teams (management and staff — mechanics, soigneurs, press officers — and riders) always around. I joked that we needed half of every first day of a stage race just for all the standard European greetings etiquette (two kisses in Italy, two in Spain, three in Belgium, between two and four in France, American hugs first then kisses, UK handshakes) and the catching up and chitchat. When I made the rounds at team buses to shoot behind-the-scenes, I spent more time schmoozing than shooting. It was part of the affair, being present and playful, the charming personal side of the work.
Yes, we had good days and bad days. Moments of greatness, unexpected highs, and dark and lonely lows, too. We shared it all. Hand-in-hand, we climbed mountain peaks together, in searing heat in the Pyrénées and in eight-meter-high snow banks in the Giro. We slid dangerously down shaley cliffsides and ran through thorny bramble bushes to get a shot of you. We laid down in grimy ravines to view you from every angle. We weathered gale force winds and frozen fingers in early spring classics, we huddled against stone walls hiding from rain at the worlds in Firenze. We were sometimes sick, and often tired, and injured more times than we cared to remember. But you were always there to remind us that shaking it off and gearing back up for another race day would be worth it. We shared our triumphs and pride along with tears of frustration and homesickness.
We witnessed bursts of competition between colleagues in impossible situations, but more often we celebrated moments of enormous generosity among our peers — when one of us got hurt, had failing gear, missed a critical shot, or when we just proactively decided to work together as a team. We were there for the turmoil and ecstasy of riders and teams. Crashes upon crashes, unfortunate near-miss wins, race controversies, utter disappointment. We watched the conclusions of several epic riders’ careers, spending precious moments with Tom Boonen in his last spring season, visiting the consulate with Fabian Cancellara in Switzerland, watching Contador quit his last Tour while sitting in the backseat of the commissaire’s car. And the joys were far greater, the surreal wins, the elation of a winner’s scrum — jostling inside the vortex of a media pack of wolves, barely contained chaos — and yet all a daily dance we knew by heart. Your tears on the podium always made me cry. Sometimes we’d approach a vista mid-race and it would be so breathtaking that my heart would burst. Scorching days when the sun cast long shadows burning into the tarmac and the peloton carved the perfect arc around a corner. The impossible beauty of the sport, enough to break your heart.
But like all romances, there was the tedium. The daily grind. The cramped hotel rooms and endless editing into the night and sore backs from bad beds. The feeling of defeat before the day even starts when we’d see the meager breakfast spread in the hotel cafeteria. The long transfers between stages, the endless hours in the car eating salty snacks from the auto grill, watching all the marvels of an entire country fly by without a chance of stopping to enjoy it. The envy we felt when we’d pass civilians enjoying a glass of wine on a veranda, lounging on the coastline of emerald seas, reading a book on a mountain pass while barbecuing. That’s when we were reminded of all we gave up to be in this circus. Because the sacrifice we made brought us face to face with you: some of the greatest athletes of a generation. You brought us a bastion of talented colleagues that inspired and drove us to be better. You brought evenings of dinners with folks from nearly 10 countries, all sharing the best of what we had to give — community, solace, and joy. Pure joy.
And so, with this ode to our great love, we bid adieu. It is time to move on and make room for new lives yet to be lived. We will never forget you. May you remember us, too.
Iri & Jim