It was May 1981 when Phil O’Connor took his first race picture; Manxman, Steve Joughin winning a stage of the Tour of Britain, the ‘Milk Race’ as it hurtled into Bournemouth – some months later he managed to get it published in a cycling magazine.
Phil tells us about this image;
“This picture is an important personal milestone for me. Although it is not the first picture I have had published, it is the earliest of my pictures to be published. Great Britain’s Steve Joughin won the stage from team mate Mark Bell, a last minute inclusion in the team, along with fellow Merseysider Phil Thomas.
“Taken in the days when the Milk Race was dominated by anonymous riders from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, any British success was a treat, as the outstretched arms of Joughin and of the fan on the left shows.”
Phil freelanced until March 1988 shooting a lot of cycling but also running, ice hockey, football, rugby and basketball for local papers until he got a job at Sporting Pictures and remained there for the next four years; honing his skills, working alongside Fleet Street’s finest photographers he photographed numerous major sports events including the Seoul and Albertville Olympics.
“Well, this is just an ordinary picture of Jonathan Boyer right after the start of the Mulhouse time trial at the 1981 Tour de France.
“Little did I realise as I clicked the shutter on my Nikkormat that this would be the first of my photographs to be published. It was used in a magazine called ProNews, now long defunct, but at the time was a large format magazine with a radical campaigning edge.”
He left in March 1992 to create a brand new transparency library at ‘Cycling Weekly’ magazine.
It’s glossy, monthly ‘twin’ magazine – but now late lamented – Cyclesport was created not long after he joined the weekly magazine and these two magazines became his commitment until May 2006.
During that time he captured images of some of the sport’s most famous – and notorious – protagonists and some of the most historic events of the era.
His hardback book, ‘Phil O’Connor’s 21 Years of Cycling Photography‘ records many of these riders and events.
Phil has kindly consented to allow VeloVeritas to reproduce some of the most memorable pictures from the book.
“Every year I would follow this race on a motorbike and every year I would be too late to take this picture as we zoomed past the spot at 70 mph!
“Eventually I remembered in time and was able to capture the beauty of the Isle of Man, something that the riders probably do not notice.
“The picture is taken at the top of the mountain, Snaefell. The riders in the International have to tackle the six-mile climb three times in the 113-mile race, and anyone who has ridden up it will tell you that once is enough.
“Beyond the hills is the Irish Sea and beyond that is Cumbria in northwest England. If you look closely on the right of the picture you can see the railway line that snakes its way to the top of the mountain from Douglas.
“Belfast’s David McCann in the green and white jersey won the race. As it was Olympic year, the Australians used the race as the selection race for the Atlanta road squad.
“Here you can see Robbie McEwan trailing Ireland’s former Tour de France and Giro d’Italia stage winner Martin Earley, who also went to Atlanta to ride the mountain bike race.”
“I took this photo with about 100 metres to go to the finish in Herezele, Belgium.
“If you want to get a photo of a rider giving 100% then this is a good place to be, and if the photo is of a star like Kelly then you cannot really go wrong.”
“He may not have had the most aerodynamic position, but Induráin produced a stunning amount of power in time trials along with his famous ‘Espada’ machine with which he regularly crushed his rivals both physically and mentally.
“He was without doubt the master of the time trial, especially in the Tour de France. The time gaps he could build up against his main rivals were such that he rarely had to attack them in the mountains.
“On the few occasions that potential rivals attacked thinking that he was vulnerable, Induráin was able to respond.
‘As a winner of the Tour de France five times in a row, 1991–1995, the man from Navarre will go down in history as one of the all time greats.”
“Unfortunately the Tour no longer uses this climb. It is hardly surprising as the Tour has grown so much that logistically it could not get away with it.
“Just look at the mass of spectators that are forming this human corridor for their hero as he snakes his way around the extinct volcano, which sits like a walnut whip in the middle of a vast plain.
“A difficult shot to get, especially with a large format camera – the only way that you will succeed is by being the last person to get out of the rider’s way!”
“On a miserable wet day near Maastrict Lance Armstrong wrote the first chapter of his incredible comeback story.
“He finished fourth, just 8 seconds behind Sergei Gontchar’s bronze medal, and then finished fourth in the road race just a few days later.
“While he may have been annoyed with these two results, they did signal his return to top flight racing after his battle with cancer.
“The following summer there was no doubt he was back when he won the Tour de France for the first time.”
“I have always enjoyed taking portraits and this one in particular is a favourite. He still looks young and brash and a bit of a college type.
“He had the world at his feet not knowing what horror was to befall him some months later and the successes that were to follow.”
“This was Armstrong’s first Tour and the last time he would be wearing number 181. From now on only number 1 would do.
“Descending the Col de l’Homme Mort, with the Maillot Jaune on his back, his mind tuned to holding on to the race leader’s jersey until Paris. You can see every muscle in his body straining as he powers down this hill concentrating intensely.”
“This was the fog-shrouded stage in which Miguel Induráin blasted his rivals’ Tour dreams as he motored to the summit with Luc Leblanc. A pre-shaven-headed Marco Pantani finished 3rd on this stage ahead of a gasping Bjarne Riis and Tony Rominger.
“The Italian climber was heading towards a podium finish and making it clear to everybody that he was a future Tour contender. The demise of the Rominger challenge, who had prepared by training in the rarefied Colorado atmosphere, and the crushing blow inflicted by Induráin on his rivals, meant that the nature of this Tour changed.
“The press room became a miserable place where all the members of the media shrugged their shoulders and wondered what they were going to write about for the next ten days.”
“This was taken on the first day that Pantani was in yellow. On the previous day he had won a rain-lashed freezing stage to Les Deux A