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Tour de France

Getting the shot: Brandon McNulty on the Cormet de Roselend

Brandon McNulty tumbled into a ditch on a treacherous descent at the Tour de France before continuing on with fellow American Neilson Powless.

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VeloNews and Peloton contributor James Startt, the winner of the 2021 World Sports Photography Awards, is covering his 32nd Tour de France. For this year’s Tour de France he will provide a regular feature explaining how he gets his favorite shots of the day and also what equipment he uses.

I am still trying to filter and digest what was stage 9 of this year’s Tour de France. On paper, it should have been a stunning day in the Alps. In the end, it was anything but.

The stage was short, not even 150 kilometers, and it went over one of my absolute favorite climbs, the Cormet de Roselend. I have photographed it many times with its impressive dam and its jewel of a chapel overlooking the splendid mountain lake.

But as soon as the race started, so did the rain, and I knew it would be a very long day. Temperatures dropped quickly as we climbed and the pack splintered instantly. And by the time we got to the Col du Pré, it was simply shattered.

Trying to manoeuver with three layers of rain gear made every shot complicated. I was ringing out my leather chamois cloth every 10 minutes as I tried to keep my camera dry and my lens clear. But when my trusty Nikon D5—a tank of a camera—stopped working, I wondered if I would even be able to finish the day.

Relying only on my Z7, we made our way up the mountain. I stopped at my favorite spot overlooking the magnificent dam on the edge of the Lac de Roselend and waited for the first riders. Most days the lake is a deep turquoise that offers a brilliant contrast to the mass of concrete that is the dam. But today it was a very different picture as the first riders rolled out of the fog and mist that had settled in.

At the summit, the race was completely shattered. Many riders that had made the early break, simply stopped to put on additional rain gear and wait for the peloton, knowing that their only goal now was to finish.

But as impressive as the climb is, the descent is simply relentless and treacherous.

And it was here, where I first heard radio Tour announce that a rider had fallen on the edge of the road. In the confusion, no name or team was announced. But as I came out of the next turn, I saw American Brandon McNulty laying sprawled in the shrubs just below.

McNulty is making his Tour debut as a support rider for Tadej Pogačar, and had been riding at the front of the peloton over the Cormet.

Appearing more stunned than hurt, he was trying to untangle himself and do his best to negotiate the sudden situation. Stopping the moto next to the Tour medics, I made my way back up the road towards him, snapping one shot as he climbed back on the road.

“I can’t see anything,” said Italian photographer Luca Bettini, who had also stopped quickly. I agreed.

Fans running down from the turn above immediately fetched his bike next to where he had landed, while the Tour’s medical team arrived instantly.

The medics tried to understand if he had sustained any injuries, but McNulty was focused first on the state of his bike, especially his left brake lever, which had twisted in the crash.

McNulty made a swift return to the saddle after checking over his bike and its broken brake lever.

As he rolled out, another American, Neilson Powless, came by. Understanding instantly what had happened, he slowed. Little matter that they are on opposing teams, solidarity and support of a friend, not to mention countryman, was the clear priority for Powless.

McNulty still appeared somewhat stunned and was likely uncertain what condition his bike was in. He took each turn cautiously. Powless rolled easily in front of him, while the medic van followed him.

Finally at the bottom of the climb when the two hit Bourg Saint-Maurice, the medic van came to his side to confirm his condition, before driving ahead.

Powless soft-pedaled until McNulty caught him. Chatting for the first time, Powless asked him what had happened. But soon they were smiling gently as McNulty explained his recent misadventure.

McNulty and Powless at the Tour de France
Powless and McNulty tentatively completed the descent together.

I photographed the two quickly, but by this point, my camera’s lens was fogging up as temperatures suddenly rose in the valley.

Once back in the press room I began editing my images. I still really did not know what I had managed to get, or if any of the shots captured the scene entirely.

In the end, it was the first shot in the series, of McNulty limbing out of the ravine, that resonated most. I have forgotten, but just as he reached the road, McNulty had suddenly glanced down in my direction. It was an isolated moment, but one that somehow captured the intensity of an insane day in a quiet way.