Podium Café: I'm curious about the logistics of putting together a book such as Greg LeMond: Yellow Jersey Racer. Writing a book about Greg LeMond is no small thing: he's big and people have big expectations about how you should tell his story. You were working with Bloomsbury in the UK and VeloPress in the US, so instead of having one editor looking over your shoulder, you had two. Did that add to the difficulty of the task or were the two more or less on the same wavelength not just with regard to the book's contents, but the production values you wanted to bring to the project?
Guy Andrews: To be honest I had total control over the contents and the production values, so it was a fait accompli for the co-edition publishers, they took the book as it was. We Americanised the text for VeloPress, but that seemed right seeing as the story is about Greg and he is American...
The production was a challenge as we did it all, from day one to the end result - logistically it was a huge job and a long journey, but the result was worth it. They are happy with the result.
PdC: When I reviewed the book I mentioned two other ‘biographies' done through photography, two books that I rate highly. The first was David Walsh's second stab at the Sean Kelly story, A Man for All Seasons. The part of that that I thought you emulated was using LeMond's own words to caption some of the photographs. That was all based on quite a long interview you got to do with him, yes?
GA: I have hours of tape with Greg, seriously days of the stuff. He talks a lot about his experiences, good and bad, he simply loves gassing about bike racing more than any rider I've worked with and he's so brutally honest. So we looked at the racing pictures and he just talked... So it was pretty obvious that was the only way to do the book.
PdC: The other book I mentioned was one you were personally involved with, Herbie Sykes's Coppi. You both told your stories through the stories of your subjects' peers, which widened the books out, in your case made it about LeMond's era, contextualised him. You were there in those years, the 1980s, when LeMond was riding, at the roadside. Where were you with regard to being a fan, did you 'get' him?
GA: All I know is that a few years back I asked him if he minded and he said he didn't. The honest truth is that I was never really a big fan of Greg LeMond when he was racing, which is probably why it was a really good idea for me, of all people, to compile a book about his racing career. Retrospectively, however, I realise Greg LeMond was the type of rider I'd always admire: an underdog, for sure, the misunderstood maverick, most definitely, and an outsider too...
There is no question that Greg's popularity dived during the LA years and people forgot about Greg's incredible achievements, so I started to re-watch him racing and was reminded of how very good he was on a bike. And although what he was saying about LA and co. wasn't popular, my interest in his assessments of the pro-cycling status quo increased. Then I interviewed him in 2006 at the height of the LA nastiness. It was quite an experience. I became a big fan.
However, in order to make this book happen, I realised that I couldn't tell his post-racing story. Despite almost everything he said being proven, I didn't want to dissect the mess... Which meant to make this book I needed to rely on some people who knew him back in the day, because I wanted to find out what they thought Greg brought to bike racing, what his true racing achievements were and how they came about.
Herbie's book on Coppi was definitely in my mind when we started on Greg's, the fact that it came together after finding all the pictures meant that the story was a very visual experience. With Coppi, Taz Darling, Herbie and I spent a good three or four days in various archives in Italy, then weeks of editing the pictures, then Herbie spent more weeks on the road chasing his gregari and writing those stories... That's book writing I guess - nobody realises how much effort goes into them, it's crazy.
PdC: I know that with me, I didn't always appreciate LeMond back then. I accepted the picture people like David Walsh drew, of LeMond following wheels (particularly Sean Kelly's wheel and particularly in the Giro di Lombardia in 1983) and I accepted the picture people like Stephen Roche drew, of LeMond being too timid to attack with him when it seemed they had Hinault on the ropes that time in the 1985 Tour. Even after LeMond retired, I accepted the pictures others started to draw of him, such as that he only rode the Tour, wasn't a man for all seasons as riders were meant to be back then. Over time, obviously, I've come to see those pictures were wrong and I've really come to appreciate LeMond, what he achieved and how he achieved it. But I know that, back then, I got him wrong, felt for Hinault in ‘85 and ‘86, Fignon in ‘89. It's funny the effect others' perceptions of riders can have on you.
GA: In 1980s cycling Greg was always an outsider, so he was terribly treated by his team management and some of his team-mates. But that hasn't fazed him, he's pretty resilient and doesn't hold grudges. My view is that David Walsh was way off the mark with those comments, but he was probably watching it from Kelly's point of view. Several riders of the time said to me that it was unfair to judge Greg as simply a follower, like Kelly says in Yellow Jersey Racer he was always a marked man, so he played that game and that meant he had to follow wheels at certain times, sure, but perhaps as an outsider this was overly-highlighted in the press. But what Hinault did to him in '85 and ‘86 was worse, much worse.
The times he made races and entertained are just as many as the times he may have sat in the group and waited, they just didn't make the sports pages. Greg also had to do a lot of his racing without a team backing him a hundred percent and that also often gets forgotten, I mean the '89 Tour with ADR? The team were great in the first week, but after that Greg was essentially battling the rest of the peloton pretty much single handed. And as for ‘just' riding the Tour? Well have a look at his palmarès. Compared to what they ride theses days the riders of Kelly and Greg's generation rode twice as much. His career changed after the shooting accident and he couldn't ride as much as he had in his early career when he rode as much as the rest of them, from February to October.
PdC: I know you have avoided a lot of images that have been reproduced over and over again when talking about LeMond, but when you started the book, started with the idea for the book, were there specific images in your mind that you wanted to include?
GA: Luckily the archives provided lots of gold and that made the editing process a time consuming, but rewarding job. I found some amazing images and the photographers of the time were really very, very good. Compared to what is being shot these days they had a better understanding of the riders, the races and how to be in the right place at the right time. Much of what they shot has never been used too, there's a lot in the archives simply gathering dust - I'd like to change that. The guys at Pressesports, Getty and Welloffside have been incredibly supportive of the project, as have many individual photographers of the time - they all had a Greg story too!
PdC: I want to talk about the process of choosing the pictures for Yellow Jersey Racer but before that I want to quickly mention the other book you published this year, Magnum Cycling. How did that book come about?
GA: Magnum Cycling was a perfect storm of a book for me. I know the guys at Magnum quite well and much of the work they had in the archive I'd already seen, after doing a few stories with them over the years for Rouleur, so it was a dream job and I loved every minute. I mean on day one being handed a folder with 35 contact sheets by Robert Capa of the 1939 Tour de France, it was a ‘pinch yourself' moment!
I also knew the guys at Thames and Hudson too, so it was an obvious choice to do the project, especially after taking some time out after leaving Rouleur. I really enjoyed the time in the archives in Paris and London and interviewing the photographers about their work and cycling. It's funny how much of a synergy cycling and photography have, for example Guy Le Querrec is a huge cycling fan. John Vink is currently shooting cycling again after years away... and that's really exciting.
PdC: After having spent a lot of time in Magnum's archives, the next thing you decided to do was bury yourself in more archives. The picture choices, some I guess are governed by things LeMond himself told you and some by comments from your other interviewees, but you yourself, what were you looking for, what story did you want the images to tell? It struck me that you were trying to correct the perception that people like me held back then.
GA: That was a conscious approach. I now admire the fact that Greg was an aggressive rider, he could rip a race to bits in minutes. I realised through re-watching many of his races that he was a lot more than just a ‘big engine' he had a ton of class and could outwit the very best of his generation, even with just a few team-mates and allies. Just watch the final kilometres of the 1989 World Championships, the last minute attack at stage 5 of the 1986 Giro d'Italia or the white-knuckle descent of the Poggio with Sean Kelly at the 1986 Milan-San Remo.
As a bike racer, LeMond had it all. That was always the starting point for the pictures, find the ones where he's on the attack - where he's making the race.
PdC: Another of the things that struck me reading the book was how generous LeMond is in sharing credit, passing credit on. He was one of the focal points in a decade of change, a decade in which I think it's not just rose-tinted exaggeration to say cycling changed more than it had ever changed before. Money came into the sport, technology came to the fore, the old ways of doing things were shaken up, the sport became less inward looking, less about the ‘home' market and more about the international market. And LeMond, he played a role in all these things, and is often credited with instigating them. But he's quick to pass the credit back, especially to people like Cyrille Guimard. Does LeMond's modesty here surprise you?
GA: Not at all. Greg is hugely modest and has immense respect for Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon and all of his old team-mates at Renault and La Vie Claire. Guimard in particular is a genius as far as Greg is concerned, he emphasises how ahead of his time he was and also how much influence he had on how Greg. Greg's attitude was really ground breaking because he questioned everything they believed about how a cyclist should be and that fuelled a huge change in cycling towards innovation and development.
It was a bit like the early days of the internet, where ideas were freely shared and everybody gained from the advances in the technology, where Greg just loved trying new stuff out and wanted every cyclist to benefit. Forget Sky's marginal gains, Greg and Guimard had that in spades, they were ahead of the curve on equipment, aerodynamics, bike fit, nutrition and training. Guimard was, perhaps, the finest team manager and coach the sport has ever seen, a real revolutionary thinker and with a bigger budget could have won many more races... who knows? There's certainly another book in there somewhere...
PdC: You've spent a lot of time in photo archives across the two books, Magnum Cycling and Yellow Jersey Racer. A lot has changed in photography across the decades: film stock improved, cameras improved, the ability of newspapers and magazines to handle colour photography improved, digital came along, access to races and to cyclists has changed. Looking at the evolution of cycling photography across the decades, are we in a good place today, do you think?
GA: I don't. The big difference is that there are many photographers now who don't really understand the genre or the sport - that's my opinion. I also think that ‘cycling photography' (if there is such a thing) is in a terrible state, there's a lot of inexperienced and very average photographers producing some rather adequate work, but it's dull as hell.
A good photographer can use any camera, mostly because they have the experience of using film and digital. Give them a box camera from the 1950s and they'll still get a story. The point is digital has made cameras simpler and easy to use, so it has democratised photography - everyone is a photographer. But it's like a machine gun: really dangerous in the wrong hands. Film slows you down, it's not better, but it does make you think. Get an iPhone and go to the top of Alpe d'Huez and you'll get something, for sure... But is all this blanket coverage such a good thing? I could go on... I'd like to put gaffer tape on those bloody viewing screens and make photographers shoot instinctively again. That said though, the best ones still do.
What the Magnum project showed me, however, was that they were looking at the sport for what it is and are not trying to create what was expected, they stepped back from the hackneyed, "shoot this, shoot that, shoot the shit out of it" idea and actually made their own view. Because cycling is a fast growing sport, everybody wants everything faster but that inevitably means that quality will suffer and over-shooting anything leads to repetition. Nowadays there is a ‘race check-list' mentality and that's not helping. Magazines are telling photographers what and how to shoot, so all they get is more of the same. Because most editors aren't great at the visual side, they simply look at what everybody else is doing - it's lazy and the result is all the mags just look identical these days.
PdC: Is access to the riders - on the bike, off the bike - having an impact here?
GA: Access is actually irrelevant. Look at John Vink, Harry Gruyaert or Guy Le Querrec's work in Magnum Cycling. It's all so fresh and different, even the work they were doing in the early '80s is more open and more informed that what is being done now. But it also has their signature: Harry's colour and composition, John's physicality and Guy's sense of fun. And they're definitely not trying ‘to be' anything else - their work is unmistakeable. Yet, they had very little or no access, limited time and basic equipment and still it knocks all that embedded team ‘content' of the past decade into a cocked hat.
To be honest after nearly ten years at Rouleur I was getting a little tired of the genre and exasperated with our photographer's work being endlessly copied. Magnum Cycling turned that around for me, I realised that quality work is always alive and it knows no bounds, because good photographers can photograph a traffic jam and make it look different, because they make life interesting and they change people's perspectives.
PdC: Your use of photography was one of the things that defined Rouleur magazine when you set it up, now you've produced two books about classic cycling photography - where does your interest in the medium come from?
GA: I was an art student for six years, so I spent a lot of time with photographers. I wrote about photography long before I wrote about cycling, I wrote essays on Chris Killip and Saul Leiter and I loved photography (despite studying furniture design and not being trained technically, as such). I've always taken pictures myself too, worked in the dark room at college and I loved its magic. I realised I had an ‘eye' for it, but was still amazed at what really talented ‘fully skilled' photographers could achieve. So, Rouleur was definitely an extension of that enthusiasm for the work.
The photographers in the early days of the mag were amazing to work with; Timm Kölln, Olaf Unverzart, Camille McMillan, Ben Ingham, Taz Darling, Gerard Brown, Geoff Waugh, Dan Sharp, Paolo Ciaberta, Nadav Kander, Rein van de Wouw and there's many more... but they all had a really interesting and imaginative approach and they were mostly working miles away from bike racing. They could all really surprise you too, you never knew quite what you'd get, although they'd always get something. So, if there was a mould to break I guess that was it. Make it your own. Basically do what the fuck you like. Have some fun. No rules make for great work, that's always been my philosophy.
PdC: You've had three big books out in just a couple of years - there was Bike Mechanic as well as Magnum Cycling and Yellow Jersey Racer - are you taking a well earned break at the moment or are you already working on a new project?
GA: There's certainly a lot more to come. I've just finished editing a really interesting book for Brooks saddles to celebrate their 150th anniversary and although it's not about bike racing per-se, I'm sure you'll find it fun.
Right now I'm working in the archives again and doing picture research for a load of new titles that, this time, I'm not writing.
And next year our new imprint, Bluetrain, will be working with Rapha on doing some new and original book titles specifically for them, that they will distribute. For that we're working with some of the old contributors from the early days of Rouleur, including Herbie Sykes. It's really exciting and I'm very happy to be working with those folk again. They made some great work for Rouleur back in the early days and now we have a chance to push that a little bit further.
There's also another Magnum book in the pipeline and some original titles from Bluetrain too. The editorial approach with Rouleur was always about doing good work and going the extra yard, getting away from the obvious and really surprising people - and it all takes time. For me though it seems cycling (and photography) books are just as popular as ever and I still love editing, which is how Bluetrain came about... So watch this space.
* * * * *
Guy Andrews is the founder and former editor of Rouleur magazine. His books include The Rough Guide to Cycling in London (Rough Guides), Road Bike Maintenance (A&C Black), Mountain Bike Maintenance (A&C Black), Pocket Road Bike Maintenance (Bloomsbury Sport), Pocket Mountain Bike Maintenance (Bloomsbury Sport), Complete Road Bike Maintenance (Bloomsbury Sport), Complete Mountain Bike Maintenance (Bloomsbury Sport), The Roadside Road Bike Maintenance Manual (Falcon Guides), The Cyclist's Training Manual (Bloomsbury Sport), The Custom Road Bike (Laurence King), Magnum Cycling (Thames & Hudson), Greg LeMond: Yellow Jersey Racer (Bloomsbury Sport (UK) | VeloPress (US)) and along with Rohan Dubash and Taz Darling he co-authored Bike Mechanic: Tales from the Road and the Workshop (Bloomsbury Sport (UK) | VeloPress (US)).
You can find him on Twitter @TheCoureur
You can find reviews of Bike Mechanic: Tales from the Road and the Workshop, Magnum Cycling and Greg LeMond: Yellow Jersey Racer on the Café Bookshelf.
Our thanks to Guy Andrews for taking part in this interview.