Archive for November, 2010

Timm Kölln on The Peloton

November 25, 2010

As has become apparent with the publicity building up for The Peloton, this book has been your life for some five years now. Can you take us through the initial thought process behind the book, and how that resulted in what we see today?

Yeah, it’s certainly been a journey for me. The interesting thing to note here is that it all started in 2004, at the Giro d’Italia. I was in the Dolomites on a riding holiday, and the Giro happened to be on at the same time. I didn’t go and see the race and was only following it casually. However, within that ‘close distance’, I had the feeling I belonged to it, that I should be there doing something. This evolved over time, and after some thought I decided about the approach of the portrait shoots: capture the riders just after crossing the finishing line, in an attempt to get as close as possible to their mind-set when still on the bike.

There wasn’t any great preparation in terms of accreditation when I headed to the Giro in 2005. I just went there with the idea to do this photo series employing a white background and of course, black and white films. So first of all, I wanted to make sure that the shooting itself was feasible. And I had to experiment with the technical process, too: find the right equipment I needed, the right film and the proper way of processing the negatives. After looking at what I had done at the Giro, it was clear that this was going to work. The results were very pleasing, so I decided that the concept was sound and I should expand the project.

By then I was thinking of a photo series that would show the physical changes of a cyclist over a five-year period. However, over time I got more involved with the riders and cycling in general, and my interest developed in much more than just the imagery. The whole project started to change into something whereby we could understand more about the riders from a character and personality perspective. Among others, I began to carefully plan when and where I would shoot a rider as an attempt of getting as close as possible to their most personal, ‘existential’ moments.

Could The Peloton be viewed as a vessel for the emotion that cycling has brought to your life these last few years? Your journey with this project has seen some turbulent times in pro cycling: did that ever colour your thoughts on the riders you shot or your interviews with them?

Of course this has been a difficult journey at times, and there have been times when I was simply not enjoying it. Like at the 2007 Tour, when Rasmussen was arrested in the Pyrenees. I actually left the race that day. For sure I didn’t ever doubt that I would complete the project, but I knew that day it was time to leave it alone for a while.

I always tried to be objective and this is how I approached both the riders and the shoots. I wouldn’t really ask them to do anything or to perform for the camera. Why should I? Some people want to show something by themselves, others don’t and some others do so without realising it. There were many memorable moments, especially when the encounter turned into a moment of mutual respect for what everyone was doing. If this happens, you don’t really have to ask for anything specifically or search for an expression or anything you might have had in mind about someone.

I don’t see myself as a journalist. My relationship with the riders was as a photographer, and I think this is how they perceived me, too.

When it came to the interviews, they had to be measured. I wanted to make sure they would reflect my experiences within cycling and I had long discussions with the journalists who conducted most of the interviews with the riders – to ensure that they understood my relationship and experiences with them too – which was based on trust. I made sure I was present at most of the meetings and I’m convinced it was absolutely worth the efforts.

The challenge in editing the book was finding the right balance. This is a photographic book, first and foremost. But the interviews are important, too, and the book needs to have rhythm, of course. I hope we found a way to offer different possibilities of looking at it: you can only look at the pictures; combine the pictures with the catchwords we choose of any statement; or you really read the entire texts which also communicate with each other, forming thematic blocks within the book.

Interestingly the images are all shot in analogue. Tell us a little more about the reasoning for this and your photographic references when shooting the subjects?

I use 90 per cent analogue cameras. For me it is still the most natural way of working and thinking. I just love the process! You don’t see the results immediately, you have no immediate control, you have to use and trust your imagination, just as well as your subject – especially in case of a portrait. It’s important to keep moments and photographs in your own memory and then look at them with a bit of distance, with thoughts or things you may have experienced in the meantime. And once the films have been developed it reignites the imagination again. The lack of control is exciting. But of course my assistants had to endure my excitement, especially after the shoot. I didn’t stop questioning myself after the events!

My influences and inspirations are almost purely from the important black and white photographers, both reportage and portrait: photographers such as August Sander, Richard Avedon and Anton Corbijn are real influences on my style and approach. However, it is more of a tradition than a certain person – black and white photography specifically. And the technical, manufacturing result is something that I really focus on too.

You were also key (amongst others) in the interview processes with each rider. What challenges did that bring?

This was a tough process to manage. Once Herbie (Sykes) and I did four interviews and 700km in one day, so there were times when it was certainly tough. But you have to remember that if you want to realise a volume like this, you just have to do it, without compromise.

I like the comparison of this to doing a race. The whole process of getting a rider, photos wise, was about getting to the finish and the prize of the shots. But sometimes it didn’t happen, but as with the bike, there is always another day.

You also state that there were riders that didn’t make the book, how was the final ‘selection’ of 96 reached?

It isn’t fair to talk about the riders not in the book. Every process like this needs practice, and at first I sometimes wasn’t happy with the results. Additionally, it is a stressful process, but ultimately it is about results, as with bike racing. The best images and the best interviews made it to the book, and that’s it.

We only ever really know a certain amount of riders in pro cycling, and sometimes the selection of images are a reflection of how cycling is. The peloton has anonymous riders, domestiques, or, like Charly Wegelius, riders that never win a race. But their involvement and contribution are what make both the racing and the metier beautiful.

What do you hope to achieve with the book? Is its philosophy to inspire others or is it merely a portrayal of what life is like in the world of pro-cycling?

It’s funny, as if I said something to support a philosophy or inspiration, it would come across as pretentious. All I can say is that I couldn’t do it better. And I am hugely grateful for the access and enthusiasm that the riders gave me. I hope this is reflected in the book, and I really want the reader to judge the book and tell me if this approach works.

From a photographic sense we have seen everything. It is very hard to do something original, but if people recognise that I have followed a tradition and an unpretentious approach, and enjoy the book, then it is a success.

And what next for Timm Kölln?

There may be a bit less cycling for a while. I need a break. Right now, I feel I have said everything that I wanted to with this book. But certainly there are too many good relationships in cycling that I would want to continue, and I have some more ideas, but I will keep these under wraps for now.

The Peloton – available here

The Peloton launches in Berlin

November 18, 2010

The Peloton, Timm Kölln’s masterful new book capturing portraits of an entire generation of professional cyclists, launched in Berlin last week at the marvellous Villa Pasculli emporium, with Juan Antonio Flecha and Jens Voigt in attendance.

Roger Hammond, Charly Wegelius and Mathew Hayman gave us their thoughts on the images.

“It was the year where I felt fantastic [2009], but made a cock-up. We were on a sector of cobbles and I was thinking the feed zone was coming up, so I should stay out of trouble, but I just drifted back, taking it easy. You either need to be at the front or at the back in the feed zone: in the middle is carnage. So rather than take a risk riding on the grass, I dropped right to the back. We turned left into a crosswind and Saxo Bank put the hammer down and blew the race to pieces. I chased back on at the beginning of the next cobbled sector, but it was still a group of around 40 guys, and I was last across with George Hincapie. As we hit the cobbles, Boonen attacked, so by the time I got to the front of the group, the group had gone. I spent the rest of the day chasing with George and getting nowhere…

“Every year you go to Paris-Roubaix, there is always something new to learn. The race seems to be over in five minutes because you are concentrating so hard. There is no other race like it on the calendar. You can’t afford to relax once, and 2009 proved that. I was in the front all day long, then I relaxed, and it was race over in probably the most unlikely point you could imagine.”
Roger Hammond

It the closest thing I have seen to capturing how fucking hard it is to be a bike rider. His work is every bit as strong as ours. And you have to admire that.
Charly Wegelius

My photo from after Roubaix is special to me, as is that race. I feel lucky to have had Timm photograph me. It feels like his photos make you want to search for clues as to what type of race the subject has just been through.
Mathew Hayman

L-R Rouleur editor Guy Andrews, writer Herbie Sykes, Juan Antonio Flecha, writer Nando Boers, Pedro Horrillo, Jens Voigt, Timm Kölln.

Order your copy here.

Set in stone

November 11, 2010

It has been my not inconsiderable pleasure this week to proof read the second edition of Le Metier, Michael Barry and Camille J. McMillan’s splendid book published earlier this year by Rouleur. The new, updated version – with added text from David Millar and Barry himself – will be available later this month. That’s the hard sell bit done with…

A couple of passages in Michael’s writing got me thinking about two things: one bike-related, the other not strictly, but relevant nonetheless.

Cobbles. There, I’ve said it. Barry describes the feeling of hitting the hideously undulating stone surfaces at Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, and the resulting carnage that ensues as 200-plus riders fight for space on some of the narrowest lanes and farm tracks in Europe. Some riders seemingly float over the pavé, while all around others flounder. The big strongmen of the Peloton – Cancellara, Boonen, Hincapie, Hushovd, Flecha and the like – come into their own. (Roger Hammond is the anomaly here, being strong, but clearly not big. It doesn’t seem to do him any harm.)

It may not have escaped your attention that ASO is planning a Paris-Roubaix sportive on April 9, the day before the real thing. You may be planning on riding. You may be thinking that the 135km route from Saint Quentin to Roubaix – as opposed to the 250km ‘full Monty’ the pros ride – will be child’s play. Think again.

Having ridden the bi-annual summer event organised by the Vélo Club de Roubaix Cylotourisme a few years back, I can confirm that it will be a long, hard day in the saddle. My abiding memory of probably the best day’s riding I have ever enjoyed was approaching the first sector of cobbles at Troisvilles on a straight, gentle descent and witnessing half of the preceding pack fall apart at the very first hurdle. Bottles littered the pave; bodies flew into ditches left and right; some went down hard on the muddy surface, damaging both bikes and limbs.

How were we ever going to reach the velodrome for a celebratory lap of the track with another 27 of these – including the infamous Arenberg and Carrefour de l’Arbre – to go?

Then the pre-start advice from old hands kicked in: attack the cobbles, don’t grip the bars, let the bike find its own path, sit back and relax, recover on the road sections. And it worked a treat. The ‘cross bike with 28mm tyres soaked up the worst of the vibrations and our group arrived in Roubaix in good shape to pick up souvenir cobbles and bottles of beer. Much as I abhor memorabilia cluttering up the house, the cobble has pride of place on the mantlepiece as a reminder of an amazing day.

Then again, the version I rode is held in the summer. Next April will be a very different prospect indeed. It will be a memorable weekend, with the race the following day – just don’t underestimate the cobbles, and try and get some practice on them beforehand (easier said than done, I know). Details of the event can be found here.

The not strictly bike-related part of this post stems from Michael Barry writing about Flanders and northern France, and the inescapable, everlasting presence of the fact that a huge part of two World Wars took place in the fields the peloton races past and the towns it passes through.

I visited the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, near Arras, a few years back, having some spare time before the start of what turned out to be a Tour team time trial in torrential rain. Michael, being a Canuck, might well have been there. It is one of the most sobering monuments to the foolhardiness of war I have ever seen.

The ridge of high ground so brutally fought over during the First World War overlooks miles of flat terrain, featureless save for regular eruptions of gigantic slagheaps, testimony to the coal mining industry that dominated the area. An enormous network of underground tunnels, dug by specialist miners on both sides of the Western Front, spread for miles in each direction.

Sections of preserved trenches, quite literally a stone’s throw separating German and Canadian lines, snake through the woods, interspersed with craters of mind-boggling proportions – created not by shells, but by burrowing miners tunnelling beneath enemy lines and detonating tonnes of explosives. Thousands of casualties were incurred in the Battle of Vimy Ridge at Easter, 1917, for little gain – the hallmark of the entire conflict that resulted in an estimated 8.5 million deaths.

Should you be planning a Classics excursion for next spring, give yourself an extra few hours on the itinerary and swing by Arras. It is a deeply moving experience.

Home win

November 5, 2010

Image courtesy of Geoff Waugh
Image courtesy of Geoff Waugh

Helen Wyman has won ‘cross races all over Europe and beyond. Switzerland, Italy, the U.S. and, of course, the Britain. Probably more besides.

Yet, until this week, there was one almighty glaring omission from her glittering palmares: a win in Belgium. Bearing in mind Belgium has been Wyman’s base for the past six years, the big win on home soil was a long time coming, but all the sweeter on arrival for being just down the road from her house in Oudenaarde at the Koppenberg Cross.

For those of you unfamiliar with this race, it is quite the most brutal course on the calendar. Koksijde’s dunes pose a myriad of potential pitfalls, but Koppenberg on wet ground is barely rideable. The bunch swings off-road before the infamous cobbled climb rears up appreciably, but that’s where the fun begins. There is plenty more climbing to be done on decidedly claggy ground, made treacherous by the preceding day’s rain. The snaking descent may be better approached with a snowboard than a bike. But bikes are a prerequisite.

Seeing Helen slip and slide her way down the hill in second spot on the opening lap seemed about right – she finished second last year and in the previous day’s race in Zonhoven – but two laps later she had dropped Sanne Cant and was totally in control while everyone else floundered. It was a genuine joy to behold.

To stand on that podium juggling one very heavy cobble, one extremely large bottle of beer and a bunch of flowers was a triumph of persistence and optimism. I have interviewed Helen seconds after crossing the line at the World Championships when her hopes have been dashed by less competent bike handlers crashing on the very first corner, and she was, understandably, pretty miffed. But it doesn’t last long. She learns and moves on, and that smile is soon back in place.

And what Helen has learned this week is that her handling has improved, she is in the form of her life and she can win in Belgium. And (let’s face it), if you can win in Belgium, you can win anywhere.

Also, a cobble looks great on the mantlepiece…

Rouleur photographer Geoff Waugh was also at Koppenberg. See his tremendous gallery of the men’s race here.