The photos that tell fairy tales

I’m not old enough to have watched Hinault, LeMond, Millar or Pantani race. And yet I know their faces like the back of my hand. Their stories are woven into the fabric of my cyclic memories. The images so vivid I feel as though I’ve stood on the road side and cheered them on.

I hadn’t ever really thought about that before last week. Or, how important these men I didn’t experience in real time have been in establishing the foundations of my love for cycling.

That was, until I went to ‘An evening with Phil O’Connor’ where I had this epiphany and my heart felt like it grew two sizes.

My dad taught me about cycling with these iconic pictures. They were the illustrations to the to the fairy tales of my youth, depicting both heroes and villains in out of this world settings.

I saw the souls of the riders in these shots. I looked into their eyes and was right there with them, staring out into a world defined by who wins and who loses.

It’s difficult to pick favourites from Phil’s epic collection than spans three decades. But, if I close my eyes, relax and let my mind wander, certain ones just keep coming back to me.

The Battle

Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault on the Alp d’Huez 1986

The Mystery

Robert Millar at the Vuelta a España 1985

The Tragedy

Marco Pantani 1999

These pictures tell you everything you need to know about cycling. The pain, the passion. It’s brutal, it’s beautiful.

As I grew older, I continued to learn, reading books about these great men. And it’s no coincidence that my favourite cycling books of all time relate back to these photos. I feel like they foretold the future. They were incredible pictures back then, and even more incredible now given what’s happened since they were taken.

When I read these books Phil’s pictures were so clear in my mind, I felt like I already knew part of the story because he had taken me there before.

Cycling is such a different game now, with riders masked by helmets and sunglasses, making it difficult for personalities to shine through. There are still great stories today but none feel as great to me as those that came out of the pre-sunglasses days. It’s difficult to imagine photos as iconic coming from the tours of today.

I guess that’s nostalgia for you. It’s easy to look back with rose tinted glasses and wish I’d have been around to witness the things Phil did. Yet, when Phil looked back and talked about the challenges of taking a shot, having to get it right, because – with film- you only got one chance, he was so positive about the future. He loves digital and phone cameras and has truly embraced the technology of photography now.

I really admired that about him.

It was fantastic to spend a night in the past and to ponder how it led me to where I am now. Strangely enough in the end, it encouraged me to be more positive about the future. I imagined what parents will tell their children about the era of cycling I’ve witnessed. And I realised the likes of Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome will be talked about for generations to come. They all have great stories and appear in iconic photos of their own.

I’m not sure who the Phil O’Connor of this era is, but I’d bet anything they’ve been just as inspired by him as I have.

Many thanks to Phil for letting me use these pictures. A fascinating and moving exhibit of his photography is on display at Musette Cafe Aldbury until the end of July.

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