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John Pierce – Part One, the Early Days

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John Pierce
John Pierce.

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.

John, thank you for speaking to us – and am I right in saying you had a picture voted the ‘Best Cycling Photograph, Ever?’

“I think you refer to the Hinault sprint picture, Tour de France 1981.

“At the end of 1989 it was credited as being the ‘Action Sports Picture of the Decade’. The picture shows Hinault who was the current World Road Race Champion and the race leader wearing Yellow at the Tour de France.

“It was taken at a stage finish in Belgium (Zolder), due to unfriendly Belgian police at that time I chose to work in advance of the finish line, about 150m from the line. My intention was to shoot Kelly (Splendor) from the side, sprinting.

“I was staying at Herman Nys (Kelly’s long term host in Belgium) house, as a guest of Kelly. So, the intention was obvious and he had said he wanted to win for ‘Herman and Elise‘ – well, I waited and waited, looking for Kelly, but couldn’t identify him. Then I saw the Yellow jersey of Hinault, and also the Green of Maertens – so I panned with the large camera – one shot is all you get. However the Splendor rider was not Kelly but Guido Van Caster, with Planckaert (both Splendor).

“Hinault was trying to get past and all three had their eyes fixed ahead.

“It is, for sure, a great picture, but not one that has ever excited me; it disappointed me because Kelly did not sprint that day, and I really wanted a side shot of Kelly sprinting. (I got that the following year, when he was himself in Green).

“The Hinault picture has probably been published more times than any other photo in cycling, except perhaps the ‘Fausto Coppi – Izoard 1949’ which is a stand alone iconic portrait of a champion, legend even.”

John Pierce
John’s very famous, masterful shot of Van Caster, Planckaert and Hinault sprinting flat out.
Photo©John Pierce/PhotoSport International UK USA Asia

You raced as a ‘Young Un’, how did you do?

“I was second in the West of England schoolboy champs, Phil Edwards won. I won 24 races, as a senior – I won a race in Chippenham, lapping all but five of the field that included pros Steve Taylor, Paul Baker, Graham Moore, and Phil Edwards. In that race I started fast, having ridden the 23 miles to the event. I was soon joined by Edwards, we lapped the field, but it was dangerous; the road surface was pan flat, on a prefab estate that was being demolished, so it was a bit dusty. I took a couple of primes and Edwards shouted; ‘let’s share them,’ so we were in for the long run. Two laps to go I was setting myself up for the sprint, going pretty fast.

“We trained together so I was pretty confident, then Edwards jumped me from behind but he fell part way around the next lap. I caught Steve Taylor who was fifth in the race as he rounded the last corner, Edwards was second.”

John Pierce
John (left) with teammates, “the Cycling Beatles”, Dunphy, Baker, Bond and Toire in 1972.
Photo©John Pierce/PhotoSport International UK USA Asia

“I held a local time trial record over 10.7 miles with two climbs in 23 minutes dead.

“I never really rode the track, but had several nights at Maindy Stadium (Cardiff) on pro Derek Green’s Condor Track bike, I won a couple of events like the Devil and I took the flying lap record.

“On the road I could sprint and fast, on my day I could climb, but I suffered from asthma so was very unpredictable (for me).”

John Pierce
The Prime Hunter at work – here’s John (left) sprinting for the first prime of the 1971 Tour or Ireland at Baltinglass, with Phil O’Brien and Liam Keenan.
Photo©John Pierce/PhotoSport International UK USA Asia

“I rode the Tour of Ireland five times and finished; I won a few primes there which earned me the nickname ‘prime-hunter’.

“It was there that I became friends with some of Ireland’s top riders, mainly Pat McQuaid as we are the same age and build on the bike, similar riding abilities.

“I remained with the Raleigh Dunlop Tour of Ireland for many years, competing five times over six years; I was later invited to bring my own team, representing the West of England for a similar number of years.

“Then I became the event photographer, working for TI Raleigh Ireland.”