Graham Watson: retired after 38 years in the peloton
For a long time there’s been one constant in the pro cycling peloton: a photographer named Graham Watson. He has covered numerous generations of champions and helped document a sport arguably more than anyone else in the media.
But the time for him to hang up the camera has come.
Watson has called time on his career and he will now spend the season based in New Zealand, the home country of his wife Jo.
His story is one that has never really been told but he’s been an omnipresent fixture in cycling for many years.
His last race was the 2017 Tour Down Under. There were some obligations that he had before formalising his decision; he let publishers know of his retirement and worked with his collaborators to figure out how they’ll cope in his absence. But today he let the world know that it was time for him to stop photographing cycling.
Since the inception of RIDE Media, Watson has supplied images to our magazine. He has become a friend and we’ve shared many experiences at races together over the years. And it seems odd to think that he’ll not be there any longer.
With this in mind, it’s pertinent to ask a few questions and find out what he takes out of a career that has spanned 38 years.
– Rob Arnold
Click the SoundCloud file and listen to part one of our interview and/or read the transcript of our discussion below.
RIDE: I’m talking with Graham Watson who has just announced some big news. It means that the cycling peloton as we know it is going to be different from 2017 onward. I wonder if you can explain, just quickly in this little interview, what’s happening?
Graham Watson: “Well, I’m retiring – or I have retired as of the end of the Tour Down Under last month.
“It’s been a work in progress for a year – and probably five years – since I realised I wanted to stop while I was still young enough to enjoy something else in life and to kick back and reap the benefits of all my hard-earned money, and just basically get out while I was young enough. That’s what I’m doing.”
You just turned 60 last year and that was the catalyst – is that right?
“Yeah. About five years ago I was, not slowing down, but I was starting to feel the pace a little bit – as you do when you’re 55.
“You know, photographers have to climb up trees to get pictures and scramble up rocky slopes and jump into ditches – and things like that… fall of motor bikes. So I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to be doing this until I’m 65, that’s for sure.’
“So I thought, ‘Well, 60 is probably a good time to stop; it’s almost retirement age but still…’ youth is on your side, so to speak. And you have the chance to find another kind of lifestyle or just watch the world from a different point of view. That’s really what I’m doing.”
If were to analyse it, there would be numbers that would be most intriguing. But let’s just start with the obvious one: how many years have you been doing this?
“I think it’s 38 years, officially, as a cycling photographer and about 45 as a photographer.”
And can you try and paraphrase a couple of little things – like, how many photos do you reckon you would have taken?
“Aaah… I actually worked it out. It’s possibly about – it doesn’t sound much actually – it’s probably about one and a half million, based on the old days when [I was] photographing black and white negatives and not going to many races. I was probably taking about 1,000 images per year up until the last 15 years when I was probably taking about 60,000 digital images per year.
“On average, including the colour slide films in between – and the half-digital, half-film period I went though in the mid-1990s – it’s probably about 1.5 million images taken… with a margin of error of a 100,000 either way.
“I have thought about it.”
And how many days do you think you spent on the back of a moto in these last 38 years?
“That one I haven’t worked out. It started out just with the Tour de France in 1977-1978 and then gradually escalated all the way through to 20 years ago when I started doing about 165, 170, maybe even 180 days on the back of a motorbike for the 12 or 15 years.
“You’d have to bring the average down to find [the definitive answer].
“There may be 130 days per year on average since I began.”
That’s a fair core-strength work-out because it’s not easy days really, is it?
“No, it’s not. You’ve got to be pretty robust and it seems to favour bigger photographers than lightweight ones because the lightweight ones have no… they’re too skinny and they get cold when it rains and things like that. It’s the heavier photographers who seem to last the longest.”
While we’re trying to do big, broad brushstrokes overviews, is there a favourite moment that you’ve had in that 38 years in cycling?
“Ah, no. Not one single favourite moment.
“There’s hundreds which I could probably narrow down to dozens and then, maybe, to three or four… you know, the favourite moment when you’ve taken what you know is your best ever shot, which [for me] was way back in 1986 when Hinault and LeMond came up Alpe d’Huez and I was literally a spectator at the side of the road, without the motorbike in those days, and these two gladiators came up the road side-by-side, no crowd barriers, no helmets on, no glasses… just two of the best ever cyclists out there came right towards me and I got a great shot of them.
“That’s a moment to remember – because that’s a moment that went right alongside 100 moments that went wrong.
“I saw things also when Lance Armstrong, for example, in the 1999 Tour de France. He was in the time trial and I was alongside him on a motorbike and I suddenly realised he was waving at me. And this was the time trial that put him into the yellow jersey on stage seven, I think. Things like that, you remember: for good or for bad, you remember them because they’re quite special.
“It doesn’t always happen that they future Tour de France winner suddenly waves to you in the middle of a very important TT – but he did. And, again, it’s something you mark down as something a little bit special no matter what happened since then.
“I’m trying to think, in the modern era… but I can go back further if I can and I’m sure I’ll think of some as we talk along.”
It’s interesting that you reference Lance quite early in this discussion because you could talk about hundreds of people – thousands probably. But I gather that he would have had a… he had a huge impact on your life for a start: he helped you make a fair bit of money. But then also there was a lot of vitriol around his demise. Is that something that sort of contributed to you deciding to call it quits?
“Oh no. I think Lance… whatever he did wrong, he did wrong. And, you know, bygones are bygones.
“He played a huge role in my career. Probably halfway through my career, if you like. And yeah, I made a fortune off him and would never say a bad word about him but, I mean, we’ve all moved on.
“I mean, Lance retired, probably – realistically – he retired in 2005. Although he came back… and it takes a few years to adjust.
“Dare I say it, [when] a seven-times Tour de France winner stops, suddenly there’s a huge gap in the sport.
“And, as a photographer – and probably as a journalist – you actually feel this for a while. [There’s] not that central figure anymore. But within two years you start seeing other guys come through and they deserve – and they get – the attention that you pour on them by taking their pictures.
“I mean Lance, with all due respect, he will never be forgotten obviously. But you move on to the next champions and it’s been that way ever since…
“For me, since 2005 – even after his comeback in 2008, 2009, 2010… it’s already seven or eight years since and we have definitely moved on. He’s still there, of course – not for a good reason, but he’s still there.”
It would wrong to focus on any one individual because there’s such a vast archive of memories that you’ve collected. How are you going to see your days out now? What are you going to do?
“I love cycling. One of the frustrating things over the last few years…
“I think there was a time in my career when I started to see things, like me cycling – me riding a bike – between races, was far more important than photographing the race.
“The race was business, money… obviously a passionate lifestyle, an adventure. But I found myself being able to ride my bike less and less and less.
“I was putting on weight.
“You eat late at night, you don’t sleep that well…
“And so one of the things I plan to do is actually get out on the bike a bit more down here in New Zealand and try and push the clock back a little bit to when I was younger and slimmer and more athletic – and actually maybe even go back to Europe and do some of the mountains that I photographed.
“That’s a bit of a dream but it will happen, I hope.”
…I think it would be fair to say that, of all the people in the cycling media space, you would have seen more of the pivotal moments in professional cycling than pretty much anyone. Would you agree with that?
“Ah, yeah. If you put it that way.
“You can put it many ways.
“But I saw Eddy Merckx on the last day of his last ever Tour de France back in 1977 and, roll on 38 years… I’ve seen Chris Froome win three Tours de France and Richie Porte win the Tour Down Under and there’s a massive… it’s more than a generation.
“I’m not sure what you call it: it’s more of an ‘era’ – more like three generations, four generations that have come through my camera lens through my career.
“Through those pivotal moments, I’ve been there as well: the famous attacks, the crashes, the Tour de France wins, the Tour of Italy wins, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…
“There’s an absolute jumble of memories and moments out there.”
I think that 2012 was probably a key time because you saw a Brit win the Tour de France for the first time. Did that have a big impact on you? Or it didn’t really matter about nationality?
“Ah… yeah, it did.
“As you know, as a journalist, when you’re working you do get emotional, you do get involved, but at the end of the day you’re just trying to do a job.
“So when Wiggins won the Tour de France in 2012, of course I was delighted but at the same time I wasn’t remotely surprised: he should have won it in 2011, [but] he broke his collarbone.
“Actually, 2012 could have been his second Tour de France win. It was no surprise.
“To me, it was just a matter of fact that he was going to win: he was that good.
“And you kind of know. You knew he was that good. You’ve known him long enough, you’ve seen him slim down, you’ve seen him training… you see the glint in his eye.
“I was not surprised when he won. I wasn’t emotional about it.
“But in hindsight, when he went on to win the Olympic Games time trial – and then [break] the hour record – you looked at that 2012 season, that 2012 Tour de France and especially the Olympics and it was probably, if I can say it, the highlight of my career as a cycling photographer.”
Well, there we go: we picked one but there’ll be others if we keep talking long enough, I’m sure. You’ve done hundreds of books over the years and they’re all photo books but you tend to caption them and write forewords – or collect forewords by other people – do you feel like, with all the memories that you’ve collected, that you could now do a book that was in the written form, without imagery even?
“Yes, I’d like to. It’s something that I’ve got to think about sooner or later, before people forget about me. But it’s a massive undertaking which, because of the amount of cyclists – the generations of cyclists – that passed through my cameras, my lenses, there’s an awful lot to take in and there have been a few bad years with drugs and stuff.
“And I’ve got to try and find a way of integrating people like Lance into that book without offending people. Like it or not, he did win seven Tours de France. Like I say, he’s been a huge part of my life, a huge part of the sport as have many other people who have fallen off the rails a wee bit.
“You can’t just sort of chirp about Lance and, I don’t know… Pantani, without also realising the negative sides of them. You’ve got to be very careful how you put it into a book without making yourself look very stupid or very arrogant…
“But there’s definitely a book out there; it’s just a way of me finding a way of putting these champions into it without upsetting people.”
The benefit of being a photographer is that you’re an observer. You’re not putting needles in their arm, you’re not participating in any wrongdoing, you’re just collecting the memories that exist.
“That’s exactly true.”
– Part two, coming soon…