VeloNews contributor and photographer James Startt reflected on some of his favorite images of the year. The winner of the gold medal in the 2021 World Sports Photography Awards, Startt has been covering the sport for more than 30 years. While he has never missed Tour de France, some of his favorite images come from smaller races or quieter moments celebrating the sport.
I have always said that Paris-Roubaix is my favorite race because it packs all of the drama of the three-week Tour de France into a single day. Of all the races canceled due to COVID, Roubaix was the most painful — but fortunately, it was just rescheduled and not removed from the calendar. I love these lonely roads in northern France, so desolate and so poetic. I decided to drive up from Paris in January as the roads slept in hibernation, awaiting the next Hell of the North. And the fact that I was not shooting the race allowed me to photograph some of my favorite spots from different perspectives, like this one, from the aging train bridge over the Arenberg Forest.
In recent years, one of my favorite races to cover has been the Tour de la Provence, an up-and-coming stage race in the heart of French Provence. Every year we race through lovely villages like Saint-Remy de Provence, where Vincent van Gogh worked for a spell, or majestic cities like Avignon, all framed in the late-winter light so particular to this corner of the country. And this year’s event was made even better by the presence of world champion Julian Alaphilippe, who ignited the opening stage with an impressive attack. I immediately told my moto driver to stop and wait. Shooting away just in front of the group as the sunlight danced through the trees, in an effort to capture Alaphilippe and his rainbow jersey in the spotlight of the sun.
I have covered Paris-Nice for years. And every year I am reminded of just how dramatic it is, as victory is often decided by seconds, and often on the last day. This year’s race was no exception as Primož Roglič crashed not just once but twice on the final stage in a race he seemed destined to win. He was clearly the strongest rider in the race, but as so often happens with Roglič, he struggled to close the deal. I had my moto wait for the Jumbo-Visma rider, clearly expecting him to simply roll towards the finish, resigned to defeat. Instead, he stormed past me all alone. His shorts were in shreds. He was clearly bruised and the race was all but lost. But he did not let up, powering towards the finish with every ounce of strength remaining, riding like a true champion and honoring the race. RESPECT!
For years when I photographed the Ronde van Vlaanderen, I focused on the climbs up the Oude Kwaremont, and Muur. But in recent years the crucial climb, from both a race perspective and photographic perspective, is the Paterberg. Coming immediately after the final ascent of the Kwaremont, the Paterberg offers no time to recuperate. And a slight dip in the early section of the climb gives the viewer a true perspective of the grade. The Paterberg has often been the site of some spectacular duels and this year’s race was no exception as Kasper Asgreen and Mathieu van der Poel were locked in a true mano-a-mano battle as they powered up this grueling cobbled climb. From a distance, MVDP appeared stronger, but when I looked closely at the images after the race, Asgreen appeared to be perfectly in control. And his win several kilometers later came as no surprise.
What I love so much about the Giro d’Italia is its ability to take bike racing into the heart of this historic country. And as soon as I saw the route for the 2021 Giro, I knew I wanted to be at stage 12 for the start in Siena’s Piazza Il Campo. One of my absolute favorite cities in Italy, bike racing fans already know it for its spectacular finish in the Strade Bianche. But a stage start of the Giro was something entirely different. I knew I would have to arrive early to have ample time to find the right perspective that allowed me to capture the colors of the entire peloton against the power of this spectacular piazza. It was no easy feat as I had to negotiate with local shop owners to position myself just above the piazza. It required my very best Italian, but it brought me this, one of my favorite shots of the year!
When I first started covering the sport of cycling I dreamed most of covering the big races like the Tour de France, but in recent years, it is often the smaller races that appeal to me. And the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge is one of those. Only three years old, its race organizers dreamed of organizing the first one-day race up this legendary climb known as the Giant of Provence. And they more than succeeded. It is a stunning race that loops around the Ventoux and climbs it not once, but twice. And this year, as the peloton climbed up for the first time, I snapped what is one of my absolute favorite shots of the year. Never before had I seen the peloton so full in the final kilometer of this climb, and I loved the sense of the scale of the pack against the barren rock face of this mountain, with only the colorful snow poles and a touch of blue sky for accent. There is no doubt that this will go down as one of my best cycling landscapes ever–at least in my eyes!
When it comes to the month of July there is no shortage of opportunities for great photos as the Tour de France is simply packed with so many stories and high drama. But without a doubt, one of my favorite images from this year’s Tour came during the opening time trial. Mathieu van der Poel had written the real Cinderella story for much of the first week, capturing the yellow jersey–something his grandfather, Raymond Poulidor, never managed to do. But many expected him to lose it during the stage five time trial. He rode brilliantly, however, to continue in the lead for another couple of days. The day itself was nothing spectacular as the skies were overcast and the race route quite ordinary. But the gray sky played off well against MVDP’s yellow skinsuit, providing a minimalist background, and allowing the viewer to focus on the solitary effort of the TT as well as the power, strength, and overall class that MVDP exuded with every pedal stroke.
While I spend a large part of each season on the back of a motorcycle, portraiture has become one of my favorite subjects, and in particular, a series focusing on historic champions that I have been doing over the past couple of years. During this project, I have photographed Freddy Maertens on numerous occasions. Freddy was one of the biggest champions ever to ride a bicycle, and as I have learned, is just a jewel of a guy. Earlier this year while chatting he mentioned that he was good friends with Peter Sagan, and often met with him around the Tour of Flanders weekend. I told him instantly that I wanted to document this friendship. As Flanders approached I called Peter’s press officer and asked about the chances of getting the two together before Flanders. I knew it would not be easy considering that Peter was one of the pre-race favorites and, well, we were in the time of Covid. But the answer was simple. “If it is for Freddy we will do it.” I have rarely been so nervous before a photo session. Sure, I knew both Peter and Freddy well, but I only had a few minutes to work and so many things can go wrong during a photo session. But, as I looked back over the images, I knew I had gotten what I sought after, a dignified portrait of two big champions and two friends.
While I spend much of my time traveling to races, one of the biggest surprises of this season came when I traveled to an old farm on the outskirts of Paris. In the barn, I found what can only be one of the greatest collections of bikes and components I have ever seen. The Savarino family owns La Bicyclette, a vintage bike shop in Paris, and it is here where they house their stock. It is an unpretentious spot with shelves in the attic lined with boxes of tires, wheels, and sundry components. On these shelves in this attic, the history of the bicycle could essentially be found. I spent the afternoon going through the boxes, pulling out original Simplex derailleurs, Clement silk tires, Mafac brakes, you name it. Many of the pieces I placed on an iron table in the workshop. But sometimes, like in this image or Campagnolo derailleurs, I simply photographed what was in the box. In short, I was in bike heaven. And I can’t wait to return and continue the series next year!
I never had the opportunity to meet master frame builder Dario Pegoretti before he passed in 2018, but I was elated to have the opportunity to visit his longtime workshop for a feature with Peloton Magazine early in December. I had a great time with Cristina and Pietro, who honored Dario’s reputation of producing some of the world’s most exquisite steel frames and taking the brand into the future. The entire workshop breathes the passion of the bike, and the paint and finishing corner could well be confused for the studio of a modern abstract paint studio. Stunning!