Wednesday, May 22, 2024

John Pierce – Part Two, the Better – and Worse – Aspects of the Sport

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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.

John Pierce
John’s first Tour de France in 1967 and Felice Gimondi battles up the Col du Portilon. Tom Simpson passed away on this race.
Photo©John Pierce / PhotoSport International UK USA Asia
John Pierce
Still capturing the sport’s top level at this year’s Tour de France; stage 21 in Paris and Team Sky’s Chris Froome rides onto the Champs Elysses followed by Steve Cummings.
Photo©John Pierce / PhotoSport International UK USA Asia

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.”

John Pierce
John (front, 2nd right) and his club mates petitioned for Bristol’s purpose built cycle race track, 1km around. This image was taken on the day it opened with only the asphalt to be laid – but the local newspaper needed a photo.
Photo©John Pierce / PhotoSport International UK USA Asia

“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.”

John Pierce
Brad Wiggins’ style certainly unique.
Photo©John Pierce / PhotoSport International UK USA Asia

“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.”

John Pierce
Chris Froome is one of the more prominent technology users, using his radio and power meter religiously on most race days.
Photo©John Pierce / PhotoSport International UK USA Asia

“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.”

John Pierce
John’s wonderful image of Eddy Merckx in the 1974 Giro d’Italia, losing time in pink, dropped on Mt Grappa.
Photo©John Pierce / PhotoSport International UK USA Asia

“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.”

John Pierce
Stephen Roche concentrates on the Pla d’Adet in the 1993 Tour de France. John told Roche the day before that the St Lary Soulan stage was key to the overall.
Photo©John Pierce / PhotoSport International UK USA Asia
John Pierce
Chris Froome rocketing up Mont Ventoux in Stage 15 of the Tour de France 2013 and distancing Nairo Quintana in the last few km’s.
Photo©John Pierce / PhotoSport International UK USA Asia

“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.”

John Pierce
Peter Sagan taking the stage win in Clovis at the Tour of California ahead of Mathews, Boonen and Hausler.
Photo©John Pierce / PhotoSport International UK USA Asia
John Pierce
World Champion Peter Sagan in the Green Jersey of Points Leader lunges brilliantly for the win in Stage 16 of this year’s Tour de France, pipping Alexander Kristof.  Third is Sondre Holst Enger (Nor & IAM Cycling), fourth John Degenkolb (Ger & Team Giant-Alpecin) with Michael Matthews (Aus & Orica-BikeExchange) fifth. 
Photo©John Pierce / PhotoSport International UK USA Asia

“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.”

John Pierce
John would rather have film in his cameras than CPUs.
Photo©John Pierce / PhotoSport International UK USA Asia

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.”