Graham Watson Interview - Road Cycling UK

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Graham Watson Interview

There can’t be many sports where the photographers are as well known as some of the participants, but to many cycling fans in the English speaking world Graham Watson is a name as familiar as many of the riders. Road Cycling UK grabbed a couple of hours with him between races to find out how that came about.

RCUK: So going right back to the beginning, how did you first get involved in photography?

GW: I left school in 1972 without any qualifications, no GCSEs, and a guy came round to school and said well you haven’t done very well what would you like to do? And he showed me a list of careers, one was carpentry and one was going into a bank, but I saw photography and I thought, well photography is a living

I was 16 at the time and I ticked on that and just that. And he sent me off to a interview basically for a company that employs people who don’t want much money – a portrait company in the centre of London called Lenare, who were like aristocratic society photographers.

The problem for me was I only got paid £8 a week. I lived down in Croydon, in those days, and so by the time you took off your national insurance and your train fare you had nothing. I bought a bike, rode into town every day for the best part of five years, and in that five year period I got into cycling – just through a local cycling club. You get pretty strong riding up and down every day into London.

I went to see the Tour de France in 1977 and somehow the two worlds merged for me, because it’s such a beautiful sport, and Paris being a beautiful city, and a love of cycling… So I thought this is an incredible opportunity, and that same year the company I’d been working for for five years, the couple retired, and they said ‘Well what do you want to do? There are other rival companies who will give you a job’, and I said ‘Well actually I’m going to take a year off and just roam around seeing what I want to do’.

During that year, late 1977 early 1978 I saw more and more cycling, and I also started doing other sports, winter sports, Skiing, rugby, 3 day eventing, stuff like that, to make sure that there wasn’t something else out there other than cycling. But by that time I was selling pictures to magazines around the world. And as simple as it sounds that’s basically when I started.

Graham Watson
Graham has taken some of the finest Classics pictures
© Graham Watson

RCUK: I saw on the website you won a cycling weekly competition, was that the first one you’d sold.

GW: It was a picture of Eddy Merckx, It was an old black and white picture, and unfortunately I’ve lost the negative and the only print I had – but it got printed on the back cover as the competition winner, in late ’77.

And so the adrenaline got going there, I had no idea that I could ever actually make a living out of it but at that age you have nothing to lose. You haven’t got any money so you think, well if I have no money, I may as well have a good time and no money. But then the commercial side gradually creeps in over a number of years.

RCUK: So how difficult was it making the transition from society portrait photography to sports?

GW: Photographically it’s very easy, because although the two subjects seem to be so opposite, in actual fact there’s a lot of portraiture in cycling photography. Because you’re dealing with humans, you’re not dealing with a racing car or a motorbike or a computer, you’re dealing with a human, so there’s a lot of portraiture and composition, and attention to detail, in photographing cycling – as there was in portraiture.

I still say all the training they gave me at Lenare, albeit with a huge camera was invaluable. You wouldn’t think you could put it to use in today’s world but it’s true – what’s left after the digital revolution – is composition and knowing literally when to press the button.

Graham Watson
The American revolution has boosted Graham’s popularity
© Graham Watson

So from the photographic point of view it was no problem, it was purely a question of breaking into a world which is very dominated by continental people. I try and tell people if you imagine being French and trying to break into the cricket scene or in India or wherever it wouldn’t happen, because there’s no market. And in those days – in the late 70s early 80s – the market – the English speaking market in cycling – opened up because suddenly cyclists from all over the English speaking countries: The UK, Ireland, America, Australia etc. all started breaking into it at the same time as me, and therefore publications that didn’t exist before or perhaps existed but in a more generic sense, suddenly latched onto the fact that these guys were challenging for the Tour de France yellow jersey, or winning a one day classic in Belgium and they all wanted pictures. And I literally landed at the right time.

RCUK: How difficult was it starting to get access inside the races, building up to the bike or whatever?

GW: It came about for the same reason, that suddenly race organisers who normally wouldn’t think twice about having an English photographer realised that a guy called Sean Kelly or Phil Anderson was winning races in Europe and than certainly in the Tour de France an American guy Greg Lemond came along; Robert Miller from Scotland… and suddenly the organisers – as chauvinistic as they were – thought, well the English speaking world is growing, why don’t we give this guy access?

Graham Watson
Chris Boardman the prologue specialist
© Graham Watson

But it took probably until the 1980s before people started opening up a little bit; it took me until 1987 to get a motorbike on the Tour de France. I managed to get one on other races about 2 years earlier but the Tour de France was the hardest thing to crack. But once you crack it, it opens up an even bigger world, because you have even greater access.

RCUK: What was it like first time on a bike?

GW: First time on a bike? Probably exhilarating but again another little aspect of the business was that you had to think about the motorbike driver as well as yourself, as well as the photography, as well as the light, all the technical complications of photography, plus working with somebody else, and trying to make sure he did what you wanted, it’s years before you’ve actually got to grips with it and matured enough to tell the motorbike driver how to get me these pictures, whereas in the beginning it was them telling me.

RCUK: Do you tend to get to work with the same rider?

GW: These days yeah, at the beginning it’s really hit and miss, you’re chancing your luck with people you’ve never met – word of mouth will give you a driver from some part of Belgium you’ve never met, doesn’t speak a word of English but knows cycling, which was one good thing. And occasionally you’d run into a guy who’d be crashing and doing things that were difficult to get on with. Over the years you suddenly find a good one. I’m with two drivers now – one of them I’ve been with about 18 years, a Spanish guy, and there’s a Frenchman who I’ve been with for about 9 years. Once you’ve found a good one you don’t let them go, you hang onto them.

RCUK: I remember seeing a photo you took a couple of years ago of a TV camera bike all over the road – I think in Paris-Roubaix, have you ever come close, or come off?

Graham Watson
For Fabio – Lance Armstrong wins
© Graham Watson

GW: You come off now and again, I had a little spill at last years Tour de France, but touch wood I’m lucky it doesn’t happen too often. Especially if you keep the good drivers, but inevitably, it’s not as dangerous as it looks, but there is danger.

RCUK: How do the riders feel about the bikes? Because they get pretty damn close sometimes don’t they?

GW: I don’t really think they mind, because it helps – it actually gives them pace. I never… well I wouldn’t say never get in the way, you know sometimes you can get in the way – but generally they’re so alert, their reflexes are so fast by the time they’ve got out of your way they’ve even forgotten that you were there. Sometimes things do go wrong, but I can honestly say that I never had any trouble.

RCUK: You’ve not had them chasing you after the finish line?

GW: No. I’ve been around so long now that I’m twice their age so most of them have, if not respect, then they’re a little bit timid. And the bigger guys, the more intelligent ones, they know that you’re there to take their pictures, and the reason you’re there is to get the pictures published, so they see you as an asset to their own image, their business.

RCUK: You don’t seem to get much time off. What’s a typical year like?

GW: My typical year is literally that of a cyclist, it starts the last week of January in Australia, and really kicks off the first weekend of February, and is non-stop until mid October. There might be a weekend in May or a few midweek days in August, after the Tour de France where it will get quiet for a few weeks but other than that I’m never around.

Graham Watson
The Stelvio pass
© Graham Watson

RCUK: And you do tend to find an event somewhere pretty much constantly?

GW: Yeah the way I also grew in the business, was once I became established in the mid 1980s or if you like the 1990s, I got myself in there, but I wanted to keep myself in there, and the way to do it is to go to Sunday races, to offer all your clients such a fantastic service that they wont ever go anywhere else for their photography. And even though the digital world has changed all that, by and large they’ve stuck with me.

But unfortunately after having gone to all the races – every week there’s a race – it’s very hard to draw back, so 15 years after the time when I went to every single race there was, I still go to every single race there is – because otherwise you basically give up territory to someone else. You have to still offer the same amount of service to people to make sure they stay with you.

RCUK: How has that been affected by the Pro-tour with all the races in parallel?

GW: It’s complicated, there are a few races that are overlapping, which is a bit of a pain -to say the least, but by and large the sport’s still built around the big major races that have been there for 100 years. So the Pro-tour is really just a marketing name, to try to formula one-erise cycling, by not falsely creating new events but to appear to be putting on new events.

RCUK: Just raising the profile of some of the events.

GW: Yeah but in actual fact it hasn’t changed at all, they’ve just added on races.

RCUK: But they are forcing some of the big teams go to the events that they wouldn’t necessarily have gone to in the past.

GW: Yeah. I mean that’s ok with me. The other thing about cycling as you probably realise is that it’s such a big thing, not the sport itself, but where they go. You might unfortunately end up in a place like Poland for two weeks, but also you get to go to much prettier places, with all due respect to the Polish. So it’s not a big problem – except when it does overlap. Then you have to cut one race short or just ignore the race altogether.

RCUK: What’s a typical day like on a big tour?

GW: It’s like most days, starts with an early breakfast. In the digital days now, a day ends when you’ve done all your work, so you start the next day without any residue from yesterdays work – it’s all gone. So basically you head off to the start of the race usually about an hour before it. Settle down, have a cup of coffee, and just see what’s going on, if there’s any news or gossip, anything that’s happened overnight. If someone crashed the day before you might want to try and find that cyclist first of all, to see what he’s doing, if he’s ok, if he’s going to continue, or is he covered in bandages which might be of photogenic interest.

Graham Watson
The Tour – three weeks, every July
© Graham Watson

The most important thing is you look at the topography and you see where the hills are and whether there’s mountains, whether they’re going to be crossing cobblestones which might cause a crash.

Over that first hour when you get to the start, you work out your battle plan, whether you want to be in front of the race because there is a beautiful mountain coming up, or there is something where you want to be there, or you hear a group of noisy supporters down the road.

But when there’s nothing else going on you tend to go in behind the race and just follow it along for as long as you can because when there’s 200 or so riders in a race there’s going to be a crash or two. So you do hover around the back for that and also when they have mechanical trouble they come back to their team cars to get tactical advice from their managers.

A lot of things go on behind the race which nobody sees, which is why I find I find it’s like a soap opera, the whole thing. And often behind the race you get to hear gossip that you wouldn’t normally see.

RCUK: Do you ever recce any of the stages beforehand?

GW: Not really it’s very hard because most of the stages in a major race, are 6 or 7 hours long. So by the time you’ve got to the start and got to the finish, and then you’ve got three hours work in the press room to download your images and email them off. It’s time for dinner – if the restaurants are still open.

RCUK: So the locations for the mountain shots are either places you’ve been before or…

GW: Yeah, over the years you build up a photographic memory of everything there is, and by and large all the races in the world – whether it’s the Tour de France or a race in Spain or Italy – they’ve been over the same roads but might come another way, or the light might be in a different direction, but by and large you know where you’re going. I know where I’m going.

Graham Watson
From February to October – it’s a long season
© Graham Watson

In the beginning, of course, it wasn’t like that – you had to either study the race route, get a map out and really look and the detail of every stage. These days you more or less wing it because you know more or less where you’re going, what to expect. Still every day you get a surprise, which is a nice surprise, it makes you sit up and take notice.

RCUK: What’s your favourite event of the year?

GW: You have to split it into one day races and stage races. The one day race is Paris-Roubaix, obviously all the cobble stones in northern France. A world that doesn’t exist any more.

Some people think Northern France is an awful place – I think it’s a fantastic place. You discover these little tracks and lanes that most people pass by on route or whatever. It’s a great day out – a fantastic adventure. You’re on cobble stones for a third of the race, a lot of things go on, a lot of crashes, a lot of strange things go on, all of which is of great interest to a photographer.

Some people think the Tour de France is the best race but in actual fact I find a race like the Tour of Switzerland or another race in Switzerland called the Tour of Romandy is far more attractive because it’s quiet, it’s beautiful, it’s out of tour season – it’s in May or June as opposed to July or August.

RCUK: So you get the best of the scenery without the hassle.

GW: Exactly. When you get the time of year between spring and summer it means you’ve got the risk of the weather which is still attractive to a tour photographer – you’ve got the snow on the mountains still – but you’ve got nothing on the roadside, it’s just quiet.

Graham Watson
Always in the thick of the action
© Gerard Brown

RCUK: And of course at least one British stage of the tour to photograph in two years time.

GW: Yeah. It’s the beginning, the very, very beginning but it’s a start. They came over here in ’94, and it’s fantastic. The French weren’t sure at all about coming over here, but we came over through the tunnel, and we had from Dover to Brighton, and then Portsmouth to Portsmouth. There were millions of people watching.

What the French people didn’t realise was that there was a train strike, at least on the first day, if not the second day – and even if people wanted to go to work they couldn’t. So the roads were closed, Tonbridge Wells was an absolute mess of people. As were Winchester and Basingstoke. The French were overwhelmed they couldn’t possibly imagine that so many people in England were interested – they didn’t know the train strike actually helped it. So I think Ken Livingstone’s done a good thing linking it into the centre of London because it will close London down, and people will have to watch it.

RCUK: What about sort of lenses do you use? There’s the classic stereotype sports photographer huge, long lenses but it’s not really like that is it?

GW: In cycling you can use long, long lenses but as people find out you eventually get what we call traffic in front of the race; cars, motorbikes, TV motorbikes, photographer’s motorbikes, official cars that precede the race by just a few metres. So long, long lenses, they’re useful if you have them, but I wouldn’t go out and buy one specially for cycling. Most photographers, like you say, it’s a cliché they have these long, long things on the monopod but by and large they get one or two good shots, because it’s a sport where you have to get very close to it, so the lens I’m using the most is the 70-200 and at the moment I’m on a 17-55 – that gives me the best of both worlds.

RCUK: You were very close to Lance Armstrong. How did that come about?

GW: Because I am almost twice the age of most of the cyclists, by the time people like Lance Armstrong took up cycling, he would have been seeing American or British magazines just when I started getting involved with cycling. It’s not vain to say they look at the photos, they see us taking the pictures like we all do, they see us in an article for example, by the time they become cyclists themselves they already know you – they actually physically know you. So I met him in 1991, in California, when he was turning professional and I happened to be the photographer retained by Motorola and he just came up to me and he said “My name’s Lance.”

He spoke to me because he had seen my pictures and I spoke to him because I had been told by someone “Watch out for him he’s going to be the next big star”, but you know you could not have met a nicer person. He was only about twenty years old when he came and said “Hi I’m Lance” it showed intent on his part of doing this business for the next ten or twelve years – he wanted to make sure he was on good terms with anybody who he could make contact with – his life for the next ten years he had planned out. It was a very strange relationship.

Graham Watson
Lance and Graham – friends off the bike
© Graham Watson

There are two Lance Armstrongs – the one before and the one afterwards. Basically the same people but the second Armstrong is far more mature than the younger one and not just because of the cancer. He treats people far better than he used to do, as most people would. At all the races he often came to me not for advice but for my opinion on something in the race. He would often say “What do you think about this? What’s the day’s stage going to be like?” As a photographer you can actually give advice because you’ve seen it all before and he appreciated it.

At some stage when he came back from cancer he was having a hard time finding a sponsor, finding himself again as a cyclist and again I was there at the right time, so I was able to give him a bit of advice – not how to race obviously but just determination and motivation stuff, and during the first Tour when he won, he came up to me and he said “Can you come to my hotel one evening?” so I did and he said “I want to do a book with you” I just laughed, but it happened eventually.

It was funny – when he asked me in ’99 he knew what he was doing. He was going to win that first Tour de France – and having come back from cancer you can imagine what it meant to him to do all this, record it, get it into a book. Greg LeMond had a book – all the top sporting people had had a book done in pictures, so he wanted to make sure he got one done. He had no idea then that he would win seven Tours de France – seven years on it was a different game altogether, a little thing that meant a lot to him, having a book done about him.

Graham and Lance’s book – Lance Armstrong – Images of a Champion – has been revised each year since that first victory and is still in print. Lance may be gone, but Graham is still there – following the peloton and helping the rest of us keep in touch with the colour, glamour and spectacular landscapes that form the backdrop to our sport.

You can buy prints, posters and books from Graham’s website:


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