It was the event of the summer and with the dust having settled on the Grand Départ, photographer Simon Wilkinson reflects on two incredible days in the county’s history. Sarah Freeman reports.
When Simon Wilkinson heard the Grand Départ was coming to Yorkshire he was braced for the inevitable inquisition. As a keen cyclist and professional sports photographer, he has covered the Tour de France on numerous occasions. With the announcement it was coming to his home county, he knew that friends and colleagues would expect him to be involved.
“This wasn’t going to be an event that I could watch from the bottom of my street,” says Simon, who lives in Ilkley with his wife and four children. “So many people kept asking what I was planning to do that I had to ask them to stop because the truth was I didn’t know. The one thing I did know though was that this was going to be huge for Yorkshire and I had to raise my game.”
Gradually an idea formed. Taking the old philosophy from Yorkshire County Cricket Club, which used to let only those born in the Ridings play for the team, Simon’s original plan was to assemble a crack team of photographers from God’s Own Country, whose work over the weekend would form the basis of an exhibition.
“I didn’t want just newspaper photographers, I wanted those who specialise in fashion and art. I knew it was a bit ambitious, but I began to put a few feelers out and the response was pretty positive.
“Tim Clayton, who began his career on The Yorkshire Post and who now works as a sports photographer in New York, was keen to be involved and I was also put in contact with a big fish in the LA art photography scene. This guy had the thickest Californian drawl you could imagine, but it turned out he had been born in Shipley.”
However, it quickly became clear that the cost of flying in photographers from the other side of the world and covering their expenses for the weekend was prohibitive and while Simon approached a number of his commercial contacts as potential sponsors, there wasn’t enough time to get the necessary funding in place.
“When the bottom fell out of that idea I wasn’t sure what to do,” he admits. “Six weeks before the race and I still didn’t know what I was going to do.”
It was a meeting with the media team at tourism agency Welcome to Yorkshire, which had been behind the successful Grand Départ bid, that Simon finally had his Eureka moment. His plan was to publish a book, but while many coffee table photography books takes months to edit and design, he would have just two weeks.
“The idea was to get the book out before the Tour de France finished in Paris. I didn’t know whether it was even possible, but I spoke to a designer I knew who reckoned it was. That decision almost killed me.”
While Simon runs his own agency and had a team stationed along the route, the idea of the book was to source the best images from all the professional photographers covering the event and members of the public.
“Until the Saturday, I wasn’t even sure that we would have a book. The weather had been terrible in the lead-up to the event and if it had been misty and rainy in the Dales, the whole project would have been a complete washout. Fortunately, the sun broke through the clouds and we couldn’t have asked for better weather.
“When I saw the photograph of the crowds lining Buttertubs Pass on the first stage I knew that had to be our front cover and by 11pm on the Sunday night I had managed to contact the photographer, James Maloney, and secured the rights. That was the easy bit. The difficulty was the sheer volume of images, which wasn’t helped by the fact we put a call out on Facebook and Twitter for people to send us their photographs.
“Our inbox was inundated with about 3,000 separate images taken by those who had lined the roadside. In the end, only one of those made it into the final selection, but it was important to me that we saw as many images as possible.”
The book, Two Days in Yorkshire, covers the two stages of the race minute by minute, but also offers some behind the scenes images of the build-up to the event.
“My favourite photograph that I took has to be of Tour de France legend Bernard Hinault, who won the race five times in the 1970s and 80s. We took him up to the pub in Cragg Vale. I knew all I had to do was sit him down with a pint and that was it. To me that is an image which sums up Le Tour in Yorkshire without being clichéd.”
Simon inherited his talent for photography from his father Barry, who for many years ran a successful picture agency in Bradford. Despite an initial reluctance to follow in his dad’s footsteps, he did end up working for the Sun’s picture desk for seven years before returning home to Yorkshire to set up on his own.
“The Grand Départ was a big deal for Yorkshire and a big deal for me. The aim of the book was to produce a fitting tribute to two remarkable days and with the second print running having almost sold out, I couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out.”
• To order a copy of Two Days in Yorkshire go to www.twodaysinyorkshire.com