John Pierce is one of the world’s great sports photographers, he’s a friend of VeloVeritas and in our site’s best tradition, the man can RANT about the sport he’s been a part of for 50 years.
In Part One of our interview with John, we spoke about his racing career and forming his own team, VC Equipe-Manulife, as well as managing the same sponsor for Phil Griffith’s GS Strada-Manulife squad for a number of years. John told us about his introduction to the profession of cycling photography, his work around the globe and the background to his famous image of Guido Van Caster, Eddy Plankaert and Bernard Hinault sprinting flat out at the end of Stage 12 of the 1981 Tour De France which won ‘Action Sports Picture of the Decade’ nine years later.
In Part Two, John looks at the changes in the sport – and in photography equipment – through the decades, telling us why he prefers Canon over Nikon and Paris-Roubaix over all other races.
The 70’s To 2016; huge changes in the sport and photography – for better or worse?
“The Sport has changed, the national programme is now lottery funded, it’s now a job – not a sport. If you reach 18 years-of-age as a cyclist, are keen on racing it’s time to become part of that programme. When I was that age I was still trying to build my bike.
“I was hungry; I wanted to be fit and healthy and beat my friends or at least have fun exploring new places on my bike. When I raced I wanted to beat the guy in front of me, I wanted to be at the front; it got me out of the house.
“I remember the streets of Bristol were still bomb damaged after the war. We would ride through all those derelict streets and bomb sites to get out in the country.”
“There were no cheap airfares, or trains to France, nobody in France spoke English, cotter pins kept our cranks on, and nails kept our shoe plates on.
“Nowadays a bike costs more than my mother’s house.
“Riders no longer look graceful or elegant – they look like they have a collapsed deck chair to race on. Personally I don’t like carbon fibre frames and wheels; they’re noisy, fragile and unforgiving for the road surface.
“I may be outdated, but none of the new racing jerseys fit, everyone looks like they are squeezed in like a tube of toothpaste waiting to burst.”
“When there is a crash, everyone’s Lycra (can’t call it clothing) is shredded and no longer decent or wearable. Jerseys never looked like that when we crashed and we always wore under jerseys so the top jersey slid on the other instead of the road grinding through your skin.
“The computer technology with training is great, you can even tell when you rounded a roundabout or turned into a headwind – but hey, I don’t need a computer to tell me that! We never measured how many miles we did, just how many hours, so when we got fitter we just rode further in the same training time.”
“I don’t like the way team cars have live TV – it shouldn’t be allowed in the front seat of the car. I feel that radios and TV in team cars are neutralising the racing too. There is always the standard multi-team break, then the radio to rider-controlled chase aided by computer pace setting.
“The managers all talk to each other, and they all think they know how to race. Most of them tell their teams to ride exactly how they rode, which may have won them a few races, hence why they have the job. That format however may not be the best way to win that particular race.
“I watch it all the time, riders roll along talking eating and not paying attention ‘blah blah blah’, and someone falls – boom! Wiggins breaks a collarbone, Danielson’s tour is over. Generally they do not think about what they are doing, if they raced a bit more the peloton would be strung out, it’d be easier to get 180 guys down the road to the finish earlier and leave the sprinters hanging in the gutter.”
“It’s the same in the mountains, we see it in the Tour de France; they will roll along like a load of old women talking and eating instead of racing and wonder why Quintana is still there when they hit the last climb.
“Stages have gotten shorter and shorter, to make it fast and exciting for television, so much so that any good rider will never lose much time – simply because the stage is too short, even if he is having a bad day.
“In recent years I have noticed monotonously mountainous stages, like last year – so much so that riders just sit there day after day in a low gear with their eyeballs hanging out. That’s not racing; racing is having a thoroughbred and racing them against another thoroughbred over different terrain, not incessantly up the side of a wall.”
“Also in recent years they have started to give time bonuses on top of mountains for stage wins, so that all stage wins carry bonuses – fair for everyone right? No, its not, bonuses were introduced to give the sprinters and flat land ‘rouleurs’ a head start, some time in yellow.
“If a super climber wins on a mountain and walks away with a 20 second winning margin and minutes on other heavier built riders, then receives a 30 second bonus deducted from his overall as well, what chance does that give to anyone other than a climber?
“Again in recent years they have introduced the ‘super-sprint’ this is an intermediate sprint, or prime. There used to be three a day, to liven up the racing. Good money and a very small time bonus to the winner and small points to the Maillot Vert – the green jersey.”
“The Green Jersey is the second most important jersey (Classification) in the Tour de France. It is given to the rider who finishes the most times near the front in all stages. For example a rider could win a stage by one minute, he would be race leader whilst another rider may win the second place sprint and also win the next day in a bunch sprint, so the most consistent rider gets the Points Jersey.
“Not anymore – the Green Jersey has become the Intermediate Sprints Jersey, (used to be Red) due to the Super-Sprint.
“I would like the intermediate sprints, or the super-sprint to stay but with its own classification jersey, maybe Red.”
And in photography?
“Technology is great when it works.
“Let’s ask the question, for whom is it great? Where does the photographer gain anything?
“There is no film to buy or to process – great, but having said that photographers bought films that had a certain colour base (Fuji was Green-Red. Ektachrome was Yellow-Blue. Kodachrome was Yellow-Red. Agfa was warm. There were different film speeds for different applications, or you could push it in processing.
“Now, everything is digital and everyone has pretty much the same generic colours. A good photographer has to work on pictures to make them look like they were taken on film.
“All the highlights are burnt out, yellows have to be created, the colour sensors are red, green and blue (RGB) – there is no yellow. Blacks are never black, a bit like a TV; get the blacks right and work from there.”
“It’s wonderful to use ‘another memory card’ but digital is fragile, time consuming and has no archival database.
“A sheet of 24 x transparencies is reality, digital is not.
“DVD’s lose their colour rendition after four years, who knows how long they will last on a hard drive – lucky if it’s twice as long before the colours have to be remade. Then, and if the hard drive will work when you plug it in.
“Computers have to be carried by photographers on all races, if not, where can they put the daily shoot of images? What if the computer is damaged, lost, stolen or just crashes – the modern photographer can no longer work. All that is very expensive – extremely expensive… insurance is through the roof.”
“In the days of film, magazines sent transparencies to ‘reproduction houses’ where they were scanned and edited for use. Now all this work has to be done by the photographer, but not just on the images that will be used – on all the images he or she chooses to send out. Furthermore, file info’ [exif data] has to be added, a caption and a sticker is no longer enough. Keywords, date, location, subject, headline, source and copyright all to be added to each image. No one pays for this huge and time-consuming amount of work.
“Almost all photographers working long hours into the night, every night, editing and sending images.
“Then there is the delivery of images – fantastic, that it can be transmitted to many locations around the world in a matter of minutes. No one pays for that service, it is taken for granted, and if the image arrives during the next day of racing it is already out of date and obsolete. Technically it is not obsolete, but in practical terms it is – because already the next days images are coming in, that job was yesterday and already done.
“Then the sender is then regarded as a nuisance, because that news has been broadcast around the world, probably before you even reach the pressroom.”
“On Mont Ventoux one day I was called by a UK national newspaper when on the motorcycle for a photo during the event. I called a colleague who had a friend in the pressroom, who sent a selection immediately – that’s how people work, they snap fingers after they receive the journalist’s text.
“A digital image is impossible to find without a caption or keywords. Unlike the use of film, that can be filed in a cabinet under a title name, selected and lifted to the light box for viewing.
“Give me film any day.
“Finally, respect for photographers is diminishing faster than the industry itself.”
Which Is Your Favourite Decade And Why?
“That’s an easy to answer, late 60’s to late 70’s. … ‘Why’, would take a little longer, first I think because generally we had all recovered from the aftermath of the war.
“Commercially a lot more things were available, travel, cars, and motorcycles and of course my age at that time, being 20-30 years old.”
“I was racing myself and finding my way in the world. As for the racing, you may remember that Eddy Merckx was the first to employ his own team.
“He rode first of all for Van Looy’s Solo Superia squad known as the ‘Red Guard’. Then Merckx rode with Tom Simpson at Peugeot.”
“I went to my first Tour de France in 1967, intending to go to Mont Ventoux but we were delayed by a huge storm, arriving on the race the day after Simpson died. I was still young, my mother took me there.
“That was very hard, hard for my mother, people, young people will not know but when Simpson died, it was exactly the same as when Princess Diana died. The world was dumbfounded.”
“There were many great riders in the 70’s, Merckx won everything but it was not that which was impressive, it was how he raced, and indeed how he conducted himself when others won or had misfortune.
“Some of the greatest riders in history were his adversaries, Motta, Gimondi, DeVlaeminck, Moser, Fuente, Ocana, Janssens … all those riders rank as amongst the best ever, yet Merckx in the same era won everything.”
“At home we had Ron Jowers, Albert Hitchen, Billy Holmes, Arthur Metcalf, and locally Derek Green, Gary Crewe, Phil Edwards, Graham Moore and Colin Lewis.
“I went to the 1974 Giro and it was by far the best race I have ever seen: Merckx won by just 12 seconds in an era when he would usually win by 12 minutes.
“From more recent events, a close second best event was the dramatic 1989 Tour de France.”
Canon Or Nikon – And Why?
“I am a Canon man, but there is an argument for either.
“Canon always seem to launch new equipment before the Olympics, then Nikon appear to catch up and so it goes on.
“I find Nikon heavier and does not fit me ergonomically (to use a modern term).
“For me the Canon feels better, it’s like a six-gun in the hands of Billy the Kid, a Nikon is hard to work, lenses focus in the opposite direction – confuses me.
“I actually think the Nikon auto focus is better than the Canon, but as a well known photographer once said to me, “If you can’t focus a camera, you shouldn’t be a photographer.” perhaps he was trying to tell me something.”
How big is your archive? do you have it well archived so you can find stuff easily?
“From 1965 to date; transparencies about 160,000 35mm and about 2,000 medium format, but getting less and less as the years go by. There is a similar number, if not more B&W negatives both 35mm and medium format. I would say ten times that on digital, or scanned originals.
“It is archived in events as they happen, then in years, then in rider’s files of the more famous, especially once they have retired. That was always the case in film days and is now the same on digital.
“Hard drive and DVD.”
What’s your favourite avenue of the sport? classics? Grand Tours? time trials? track? cyclo-cross?
“I don’t really have a favourite, Paris-Roubaix, would be at the top, and then the Giro in the mountains and then the Tour.
“The Tour comes last because it represents a lot of work, endless days, long days with little reward.
“The Giro is more enjoyable and better scenery, less work, less stress, but finances do not always allow you to go where you please.
“I would like to add that recently the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado has been outstanding every year, a truly beautiful state, again seriously hard work, but a great race and a great place to be.”
“My work favourite would be the Karlsruhe 2-up invitation team time trial for two riders over 72 kms, 6 x laps of a 12km circuit.
“The top 10 on UCI were always invited, which usually meant the World Road Race Champion, Tour de France and Giro winners all partnered with one of their team mates, usually a fast one… perfect for photos, great for racing and just one week after the Tour de France.
“It was very relaxing, having the world’s best riders coming around every 20 minutes for six laps, just what you need after the Tour, where you work for 14 hours a day for a few pictures that fit the bigger jigsaw that is the Tour de France.”
Check out Part Three of our chat with John where he discusses
his favourite things, what he would change if he were UCI President,
and whether Lance had a motor or not!