I might be opening up quite the can of worms here. You see, I’m going to make an impassioned argument on the eve of Paris-Roubaix that this—a picture taken on the finish line in 1990—is the greatest cycling photograph ever taken. Actually I’m hard pressed to even think of a worthy runner up. I can find interest in this picture every day I see it.
It stops me.
Knowing that Steve Bauer (right) was one of the eternal seconds of the sport (shared by Raymond Poulidor, Joop Zoetemelk, and Jan Ullrich) helps. Knowing that he lost after 160 miles by the depth of his front tire helps too. Knowing that Eddy Planckaert said he would have been unable to live with himself if he had not won Paris-Roubaix at least once in his career counts for quite a bit as well.
I love so many things about this picture. After the big stuff—the startling composition with both riders pushed to opposite edges of the frame, the anticipation of the crowd behind them, and the sheer determination written on both of their faces—the smaller details are equally as captivating.
The cartoonish superhero shape of Planckaert’s left leg is something that stands out. I’ve never seen this picture very large, but what I have seen tells me that there is very little of his thigh that is blown out and bleeds into the white barrier. That then means that his leg was really shaped like that. Belgian strongman you bet. It’s hard to tell, but it’s possible that Bauer has both index fingers on his brake levers while Planckaert has a full grip on the drops. This could have been the difference. Certainly Bauer’s pedigree suggests that this is probably his white gloves blending in with the white bar tape, blending in with the silver brake levers. Both men are flashing their teeth in pitched battle. Planckaert’s mouth though is open, while Bauer has his clenched so tightly I wonder if he chipped anything that day. Knowing that sprinters figured out 20 years ago that relaxing the muscles in their face makes them faster, this too could have been the difference. I love that the sun is on their backs in a race that is known for foul weather. Which then puts both men’s faces—so important to the story here—in shadow, but revealed just enough for the viewer. I even like the clash of helmets—Planckaert is old-school European with the leather hairnet, while Bauer, the invader from the new world, has gone high tech with neoprene and styrofoam.
I once gave a presentation about what makes a great photograph. There are four things really—subject matter, lighting, composition, and style. A great photo only has to have one of those four, but if it only has one, it has to have whatever that thing is in spades. (Most great photos have several of those things.) Because this photo is an editorial piece it naturally is a bit lacking stylistically. But the other three things it has in spades. It’s about as close to perfection as it gets.
(And if Graham Watson ever decides to sell this print I’ll probably scrape together the cash to buy one.)