Graham Watson in his high visibility saftey gear!
Graham Watson

Few outside of the professional cycling circuit know of Graham Watson, but within cycling circles, and among professional photographers, he is widely regarded as a great bloke and a photographer of the highest order.

Right now Graham is in France – most likely hanging off the back of a motorcycle with a brace  of very expensive glass and metal around his neck and going at great speed through the organised chaos that is a pro-cycling race. And, as his schedule shows, he’ll be flat out until the end of October with races all over Europe.

The 67th running of the Paris-Nice race started this Sunday past and is the first “real” race of the European classics season and of the International Pro-Tour for the year.

As Graham says at his website:

Gone are the training camps, and the thousands of miles of training for those camps. Gone too are the preparatory races of Australia, Qatar, California, Italy and Spain- races that have prepared 300-400 elite cyclists for a rendezvous such as Paris-Nice or its sister in Italy, Tirreno-Adriatico.

And it is not all just about the hard work that any professional snapper has to do in preparation and in getting the all important money shot for the day.

Graham isn’t alone on the pro-cycling circuit in his appreciation of the finer things in life:

Paris-Nice is a race that can only be loved, and I place myself near the top end of its list of admirers. Consider why: an eight-day jaunt from nearby Paris to Nice that takes one through the dead-centre of a country so full of diversity. Although the first four days can be cold and miserable at times, the scenery is to die-for, at a time of the year when France is devoid of tourists and other spoiling factors. P-N allows all of its followers to experience once again the unique flavor of France, from people-watching at some pavement café in a Provençal village, to eating and drinking oneself silly. Cycling and gastronomy seem to go hand-in-hand, and Paris-Nice affords an excellent opportunity to indulge one’s curiosity in the dark evenings.

Cycling and gastronomy seem to go hand-in-hand, and Paris-Nice affords an excellent opportunity to indulge one’s curiosity in the dark evenings. It has to be noted that stage two takes us close to white-wine Sancerre and red-wine Burgundy, while the following days spent close to the water sources of St-Yorre and Vichy, allow weary photographers and journalists to flush their systems before the wines of Cotes de Rhone and Provence take their toll.

I met with  Graham at the 2009 Tour Down Under in Adelaide in late January. As noted here previously I was there taking photos for the Spanish daily newspaper, El Pais, and having a look around the pro-cycling scene from the inside for the first time.

Graham and I had a chat about life as a pro-cycling photographer – and beyond.

The Northern Myth: Do you work for yourself or a photo agency?

Graham Watson: I work for myself.

TNM: How long have you been a cycling photographer? And how did you start?

GW: About thirty years. I was a studio photographer in central London taking portraits and wasn’t getting paid enough to afford the train fare so I bought a bicycle and rode into town each day – about 20 kilometres each way. I got very fit, joined a club, took up racing and had the ambition to become the next Eddy Merckx and all that…and realised that I was awful.

At the same time, when I realised how good I wasn’t going to be, I went to the Tour de France as a spectator. I thought, wow, I’m a photographer, and I love cycling. I’m no good as a cyclist. I’ll switch roles.

It took me about the best part of twelve years to really establish myself…this was in the late seventies.

TNM: So you’ve seen all the recent changes in the Tour de France, and also all the changes in technology?

GW: Yes, and I used to burn through a camera every year. Not so much now, these new cameras have no moving parts. They don’t last forever but you can drop them, you can get them wet, and they still work. In theory every three years you change all your equipment.

TNM: You live in London, what football team do you support?

GW: If I support any, traditionally it would be Millwall. My father worked on the docks in south-east London and that was his club. And it became my club. But I mean they are an awful club – football hooligans and all. I suppose if I’ve got a favourite team now it is Liverpool.

TNM: I’ll forgive you your trespasses, I am a Chelsea supporter.

GW: Thats OK.

TNM: Anyway, enough of all that – Nikon or Canon – and why?

GW: Nikon – I started with Nikon years and years ago – I’ve always loved their cameras. Canon overtook them in technology about ten years ago, and I wavered for a moment…but the Nikon is a real camera.

The Canon camera is a computer – it does all the thinking for you. I always say that they make good photocopiers and printing machines but they shouldn’t bother making cameras. Nikon makes real cameras – Nikon is an optical company that specialises in that area, so a Nikon is a photographer’s camera.

TNM – Nikons always feel better in the hand to me – more intuitive.

GW: Yes, they are far more ‘user friendly’, when you pick them up they have a great feel about them whereas a Canon feels very bulbous and they are much heavier.

TNM: When did you last break the law, and how?

GW: Errr…probably I broke the law yesterday by traveling on a motorbike going much too fast…downhill on Willunga Hill during yesterday’s Tour Down Under stage. But strictly speaking that is not me breaking the law.

TNM: Your most treasured possession?

GW: My freedom.

TNM: Your desert island disc?

GW: It would have to be the song “Mac Arthur Park”, by Richard Harris – he was an absolute nutter!.


TNM: What do you sing in the shower?

GW: I don’t sing in the shower.

TNM: Tell me something that you’ve never told anyone else before.

GW: There is nothing…

TNM: How many times have you come off the bike when you’ve been shooting from the back of one?

GW: I’ve been really lucky. I’ve chosen good drivers and kept largely out of trouble. I’ve probably really only fallen off , in real spills, about three or four times in thirty years.

TNM: Any serious injuries?

GW: No not really. My worst injury was when I did a marathon in Tahiti about twelve years ago. I rented a little Piaggo scooter to go ’round the island. The island at night-time is really dangerous because it is very twisty. I was actually the passenger on the back of a scooter driven by a journalist, and the guy was a complete idiot. I laugh now because I fell off and had the worst crash of all there rather than in a bike race…which was stupid.

TNM: The best bike race or ride that you’ve ever seen?

Paris-Roubaix 2001. Foto: Sirotti
Paris-Roubaix 2001. Foto: Sirotti

GW: Well, my favourite one-day race is Paris-Roubaix. My favourite stage race is obviously the Tour de France – it really pushes you to extremes to get the work done. One particular favourite Paris-Roubaix would probably be the race in about 2001, where it was extremely muddy, really treacherous…and there are pictures that you, you know, you will live with forever.

It is a really tricky question as to which is my favourite – I see so many races. It is almost like the next best race cancels out the last one you saw.

TNM: Where do we go when we are dead?

GW: Probably I’ll go to heaven!

TNM: Which Lance [Armstrong] do you like best – version 1 (pre-cancer), version 2 (post-cancer) or version 3 (post-retirement) that we are seeing now?

GW: Probably version three, because it is a melange of all three. To me he has always been a great guy. But there is still a bit of mischievousness in him. There is the lance as a powerhouse of a sportsman but now there is also the very mature man in him – so I’ll go for version 3 – a much more rounded person.

TNM: What does cycling need more of now – more law or a better sense of ethics among the riders?

GW: I would think it needs more clarity in the law and the rules – and the ethics – they will come together. They won’t come without each other.

The laws, you know, they are pretty ambiguous and all over the place – they are not yet controlled by Governments – it is more controlled by the UCI [Union Cycliste Internationale] and they don’t have to powers they need.

The laws should be made world-wide and very clear – the ethics will fit into that. You can’t have one without the other.

TNM: Are there any particular issues that stand out?

GW: As a photographer I don’t really study the ins and out of it. I got tired of all the politics since 2005, when the drugs issue really started being highlighted by the media. In a perfect world all the sports would be getting a closer examination, and I think that is starting to happen now.

TNM: Speaking of other sports, in cricket for example, top cricketers can have cortisone injections and all manner of other medical treatments while they are playing a match, and nobody blinks an eye. But in cycling, and in other sports there seems to be a different set of rules that apply.

GW: It’s not just the rules but also a different set of opinions as well. I think that it goes back all the way to the death of Tommy Simpson [an English pro-cyclist who died on the Mont Ventoux stage of the Tour de France in 1967] , and I think that from then on cycling became the most scrutinised sport and (in many people’s minds) will be forever associated with drugs. And it has never lost that image.

And, because where there is money involved, and where there is money there is corruption, and there is a profit to be made. But, cycling will forever be associated with the death of Tommy Simpson, because there were drugs and a bit of alcohol involved. And we’ve never shaken that image off.

I ride a bike for two hours every other day…whenever I ride a bike for four or five hours I’m buggered for two or three days and I’m in my early fifties. But even allowing for half of my age I don’t know how they do it. I can’t say that it is too extreme but if you take the extremity away from cycling…then there is no more sport. But it is the sort of sport where you are always going to have people looking for…not just the edge but just to be able to ride the next day. I don’t know the answers.

There are people in the marketing side of the sport who say that “We should never let it come out in the public”, because other sports hide their indiscretions. They are trying to protect the business side of the sport, which is what cycling is, a business. The only way to go is to clean up the sport as much as we possibly can, and to be the example to other sports to show that we are doing the best possible.

TNM: Do you worry about young riders coming through – do they need a better career structure in the sport? In a lot of other sports people have their post-sporting career managed and set up during their career.

GW: We aren’t living in a perfect world, most riders who earn more than, say $US100,000 a year are going to have financial advisors. You hope most of them are good!

TNM: Do you enjoy your work – traveling around the world taking photographs of cycle races?

GW: Yes, I love it. It is not a job, it is something I love doing and I make a living out of it, which is very, very different from a job.

TNM: It must be hard to make a living out of this – I mean there are a lot of other photographers who would start off with a tremendous investment in camera gear and travel and all the other things you need…for a freelancer to make a proper go of it must be difficult.

GW: It is very, very hard to get started now, almost all the doors have closed, the opportunities have gone. On the other hand, with the Internet and with digital cameras everyone has the opportunity to get in – but it is extremely hard. It is very expensive to travel around the world and the opportunities to sell your pictures have gone…or almost gone.

The [large picture] agencies have done their damage and people like myself and two or three other photographers have commandeered the market as well. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for a newcomer to get in to.

TNM: Thanks very much for your time and I hope you enjoy the Tour Down Under and Adelaide

GW: Cheers and see you next year.

I look forward to catching up again with Graham, and all the other new friends I made in Adelaide, at next year’s Tour D0wn Under.

If you want to have a look at Graham’s unique perspectives on life as a pro-cycling photographer, more of his stories of life on the road and his wonderful images, go to his website here.

Got a view about Graham’s work and views on pro-cycling and beyond, photography or the great Nikon-Canon debate – register and leave a comment!