Focus on the greatest racers

From Eyes on Le Tour De France, at the White Cloth Gallery, Leeds.
From Eyes on Le Tour De France, at the White Cloth Gallery, Leeds.
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He began his career photographing the rich and famous, but having been bitten by the cycling bug, Graham Watson has spent the last 40 years capturing the sport’s greatest names on camera. Sarah Freeman reports.

Graham Watson never had any ambition to become a sports photographer.

From Eyes on Le Tour De France, at the White Cloth Gallery, Leeds.

From Eyes on Le Tour De France, at the White Cloth Gallery, Leeds.

It was back in 1972 that he began his career working as an assistant to a London society photographer, Lenare, whose clients included foreign royal families.

While as a first job, it wasn’t a bad one, as Watson was biking into the capital for his various assignments he gradually became more interest in his mode of transport than his destination. Five years later he had crossed The Channel and was among the crowds of spectators lining the route for that year’s Tour de France.

By the time the peloton passed by, Watson was hooked and he decided to turn his lens on cycling instead.

“That’s how it all started,” he says. “That was the start of the adventure.”

From Eyes on Le Tour De France, at the White Cloth Gallery, Leeds.

From Eyes on Le Tour De France, at the White Cloth Gallery, Leeds.

One of the images he took while out in France was of Eddy Merckx. Widely considered to be the greatest pro-cyclist that has ever lived, he had already won the Tour de France five times. However, the 1977 race was one too many for Merckx and he could only manage to hold onto sixth place. While he might have ended the Tour disappointed, Watson was pleased with his photograph and when he returned home decided to enter it into a photography competition organised by Cycling Weekly magazine.

“I won and it sort of opened a door for me. I tell people that I was in the right place the right time.”

While Watson started as a general sports photographer, by the turn of the decade he was already specialising and since 1983 he has not photographed anything but cycling

Over the last 40 years he has shot thousands of images, capturing the sports famous faces and the peak of their profession as well as the not so famous faces as they have battled for survival on some of the world’s most gruelling courses.

With just over a month until the Tour de France arrives in Yorkshire, White Cloth Gallery in Leeds ia showcasing a selection of Watson’s work as well as images taken by fellow cycling photographer Bernard Thompson, who died in 2007 at the age of 83, in its Eyes on Le Tour de France exhibition. Part of the Yorkshire Festival 2014, the city centre gallery, which is now home to more than 150 framed stills, will also be screening a series of cycling films throughout this month and next.

Together Watson’s photographs are a step by step guide to the sport’s best ever moments. In one corner of the gallery there is Chris Froome arm raised in celebration after winning last year’s Tour de France. In another there is Cadel Evans on the podium following his success three years ago and elsewhere close ups of Mark Cavendish as he also tasted victory. There’s atmospheric shots too of the peloton rushing through tunnels, along the coast and up towards the mountains.

“The Eyes on Le Tour exhibition is incredibly inspiring,” says the White Cloth Gallery’s co-director Peter Dench. “Graham’s work captures some incredible landmarks in the sport, but it also portrays in close up the key figures who have pushed themselves to the limits in a bid for cycling success.”

Next month another photographic exhibition will open in Leeds. Again it’s tied to the Tour de France, but Bicyclism will celebrate the passion of the amateur rather than professional cyclist.

The brainchild of the photographer Casey Orr, producer Jenny Orr and writer and musician Boff Whalley, the series of portraits will feature stunt bikers, archive cycling images and those ordinary men and women who pedal into work each day.

To get a feel for his subject matter, Whalley decided to cycle stage one of the Grand Départ. After 100 or so miles, with still another 15 undulating roads to go, he says he came to two conclusions – firstly that the Tour de France is as gruelling as it looks on the TV and that no amount of lycra or carbon fibre could ever make him a pro. It also confirmed what he loves about getting on a bike.

“Cycling comes in all shapes and sizes.

“In the spirit of this domestic fairness, there’s one basic rule: if you stop moving forward, you fall off. It’s a simple machine, with a simple eco-friendly ethos, nevertheless it comes with an incredibly huge history that belongs as much to each of us as to the professional riders who will sprint into Harrogate this summer.

“That history – the part that’s ours –comes with a flickering super-8 memory of us as kids being taught to ride by our parents, pushed along in parks while we shout, ‘Don’t let go. Promise you won’t let go’.

“Only they’ve let go 30 seconds ago and our own cycle of learning has begun; a cycle that comes full circle when we teach our own children to ride.”

• Eyes on Le Tour: Photography by Graham Watson and Bernard Thompson, White Cloth Gallery, Leeds, to August 22; Bicyclism, Leeds City Museum, June 24 to July 7.