Contributed by: Guy Wilson-Roberts
There is a brief moment when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record. — Yousuf Karsh.
Cycling fans are spoilt for race coverage these days, from direct race coverage on our televisions to Cycling TV on our computers (perhaps sneakily running in the background during work hours). We can get up close to all the action, and catch all the moves – almost like being on the roadside.
But the still image, the photograph, still holds top spot in capturing cycling in all its spectacle, glory, and suffering – the soul and spirit, to paraphrase the great photographer Yousuf Karsh. Think of some of the top races or iconic moments in cycling and how the photograph captures the essence of what bike racing is all about: Fausto Coppi riding alone in the mountains, Eddy Merckx in agony after being punched by a spectator on the Puy de Dфme in 1975, Greg LeMond’s elation after the Paris time trial at the Tour in 1989, Lance Armstrong’s two-fisted salute after winning in the rain at Sestriere in 1999, a dejected George Hincapie next to his broken bike during Paris-Roubaix in 2006.
There might be a proliferation of amateur photos on the Internet these days, but it takes a professional to deliver the results that are really memorable. PEZ readers get to enjoy the shots taken by one of the best in the business, Cor Vos, who has already seen more bike races than most of us ever will and viewed them all through his camera lens.
PEZ caught up with the man himself recently to find out more about his work, and how he manages to take such great pictures. As Cor explained, he’s “of 1948 vintage” and could probably fill many more columns with his stories from over the years. But first of all, we wanted to find out more about how he got his start in the business.
“I was a cyclist, in 1968, but not a very good one,” he explained. “I had fast legs, though. I could sprint very well, but when it ‘went-up’ I lost courage. But cycling was my life at that time. I did everything for cycling. And I was already a ‘gadgetman’ in those days, even though the word gadget didn’t exist at that time. I wanted the best material, like the lightest bike in the most beautiful colours. I always rode on a Bianchi in the colour turquoise. I am still a gadgetman now. It’s in my blood.”
Riding might have been his passion, but an accident forced him to take a new direction.
Cor Vos and Marketa Navratilova.
“My career as a cyclist came to an end with a serious crash in 1968,” Cor told PEZ. “I was nursed in the hospital for weeks and the doctors advised me to stop active cycling immediately. About 6 months later I bought my first camera and I still have it: a Russian Zenith 3M, extremely strong, with a 135 mm lens on it. The camera was so solid that you could probably smash a nail into the wall with it. And if you put a film in it even today, it will still work. This camera will soon, together with other tributes, move to the Tour of Flanders Museum in Belgium.”
It didn’t take Cor too long to apply his twin interests of gadgets and cycling to photography.
Cor’s big break was getting on a moto at Le Tour, and the first person he got to focus on was his own countryman, Joop Zoetemelk.
“I took my very first picture at a cyclocross race and sold it for 2.50 Dutch Guilders, at that time around $0.75. But after practicing one or two years, the time came for me. The local newspaper, Rotterdam’s Nieuwsblad, published in 1972 my first pictures. Five pictures to be exact. Every year, traditionally in Holland, people organize the Dutch Team Championships and in 1972 I was so lucky that in almost every category a team from Rotterdam won the race – so cash money for me!”
A year later, with the Tour de France starting close to home, a new opportunity opened up.
“The 1973 Tour started in the Netherlands and that was my chance to see the biggest race in the world from close by,” Cor recalled. “Our Joop Zoetemelk won the prologue and the first stage was Scheveningen to Rotterdam. I can remember it was a very short ride: just over 80 kilometers and the race was over within two hours. I think it was the shortest stage ever in the Tour. Felix Lйvitan was then the big boss and he allowed me to follow on the motorbike as a Dutch photographer in two stages. But two-three years later it was bingo for me: I became one of the seven photographers on motorbikes who could follow the whole Tour and I kept this up for the next thirty-two years.”
Of course, having a good motorbike driver was essential for capturing the action during the race.
“Joop Zijlaard, well-known as a pace-maker on a derny during many 6-day races, was my first driver on the motorbike,” Cor explained. “Joop was the owner of one of the best restaurants in Rotterdam and was driving for a sort of hobby. After 6 years he said: it is enough. He couldn’t make any free time anymore for the driving and to be away so much from home, so I had to find another driver. During his farewell party, the truth came out: he had just passed his motorbike road test and had driven the motorbike for 6 years without a licence!”
Cor might have been living every cycling fan’s dream in the early years, following races all around Europe, but it was not an easy routine.
Covering a race like Milano-Sanremo was a huge undertaking – driving from Rotterdam on Friday, the race on Sunday, and then returning home the next day.
“In the beginning of my career it was all low-budget. Hotels didn’t have 3 stars for us then. Yes, they existed, but we could not afford them. Please realize that you cannot follow a cycling race by yourself. You have to at least have a chauffeur for the car and a driver on the motorbike. And sleeping with three men in one hotel room is not everything…
“We also used to drive a lot at night. Milan in Italy is 1,300 kilometers from my hometown of Rotterdam. We would leave on Friday night, follow the race Milan-San Remo on Saturday, and then by car back to the Netherlands. It was very labour-intensive! I sustained that for many years. Now we do it all by airplane.”
Sean Kelly on the cobbles en route to Roubaix.
Early in his career, Cor explained that he was mostly interested in the close-in shots of the riders, capturing the minute details of their struggle (Yousuf Karsh would likely have approved).
“In those years I followed cycling from very close. I always wanted to take the ‘real race pictures': the demarrage [breakaways], and the sweat, the joy, and the tears. Only many years later, I also started to make ‘post cards’ and take beautiful scenery shots. In the early years magazines and newspapers did not ask for those pictures.”
A gorgeous view in Ireland.
It was clear that Cor had not only the passion for cycling and photography, but also the talent as well. The awards and professional recognition came early in his career.
“In 1975 I sent my first pictures to the Zilveren Camera Award (Silver Camera Award) in the Netherlands and I won two prizes in the sport category. In 1978, I was again the first prize in sport and in 1980 the second prize in the ‘motordrive-series sports’ with a series of Jan Raas climbing the Keutenberg in the Amstel Gold Race – who was very angry with the bikedriver of Belgium TV in the race, right next to him, so he could not pass. In the newspaper I had an unbelievable number of photos: 46 pictures were published on that Monday after the Amstel Gold Race. Much later, in 1995, I got my ’20 years Tour de France-medal’ from Jean Marie Leblanc.”
The famous sequence of Jan Raas.
But while it was a serious business capturing the sweat, the joy, and the tears of the riders up close, there was also time for a little mischief making – but not always on Cor’s part.
“I can remember as if it were yesterday that Hennie Kuiper [just a year younger than Cor] sent me and Joop ahead on the motorbike to see how much advantage the leading riders had,” Cor recalled. “The communication radios did not exist then. I wanted to help Hennie, so we hit the gas and sped ahead. After a half an hour we still didn’t see any leading riders. There was no leading-group at all – just the riders kidding around!”
Hennie Kuiper was not only a class racer, but a funny guy as well.
With so many years so close to the peloton on the motorbike, friendships formed off the bikes and Cor recounted for PEZ some of his memories of prominent riders throughout his career.
Cor was always close with Gerrie Knetemann.
“Just as in daily life you have friends, people you know, and people who you don’t get along with. In cycling you have the same thing. Gerrie Knetemann was my guy: fantastic humor, always laughing together. Unfortunately he died young in 2004 [Knetemann was only 53]. As a cyclist, Bernard Hinault was very serious and severe. Now, after his active period, you can laugh with him and have fun. Laurent Fignon could ‘shoot me’ and I still don’t know why. We just didn’t like each other I guess, which was very different from Greg LeMond – a ‘golden’ guy and a beautiful cyclist, just like Lance Armstrong.”
In keeping with his interest in gadgets, Cor embraced the switch from film-based ‘analogue’ photography early but, as he explained, digital technology was not without its initial problems.
Cor’s last analog race – Worlds in Colombia in 1995.
“I took my very last analogue picture during the World’s in Columbia in 1995,” he explained to PEZ. “Abraham Olano won the race, with a flat tire, solo. His teammate, Miguel Indurain, was sprinting for second place with Marco Pantani. I had to develop the film and get it straight into the scanner without drying. Because of the time difference with Europe, it was already midnight in the Netherlands and the largest local newspaper, the Telegraaf, was waiting anxiously for colour pictures of the new World Champion. Plus, once scanned, a 3-megabyte picture took 28 minutes to send.
“So I never regretted it, as one of the first Dutch photographers to change from analogue into digital. In 1996 a lot of my colleagues laughed at me when I stood at the finish line with my tower-high digital Canon camera. The difference in quality with a colour slide film was extreme. Those first digital cameras had a resolution of 1 megapixel and there was at that time no screen to see your pictures on the back of the camera to check the results. Now, though, especially in sports photography, digital is a long way ahead the quality of analogue – and the ease of operation is unprecedented. As well, with a fast Internet connection we send 30-megabyte pictures in less then 30 seconds though to the server in Rotterdam.”
With more than thirty years in the business, Cor is less personally involved these days in taking all the pictures for his service. He employs two photographers – Marketa Navratilova from Prague, and Wessel van Keuk, who have taken over moto-duties and work under the trademark of Cor Vos. Still, he still likes to be present for the key moments.
“I take the pictures before the start, some pictures along the way, and give instructions to Marketa or Wessel,” he explained. “I also take the finish pictures with my ultra-long 600 mm lens. Sometimes it goes wrong. With such a cannon it is very difficult to pick the right winning rider out of a bunch of sprinting cyclists. Sometimes it happens that I gamble wrong, but I always have a back-up of one of my colleagues with a shorter lens.”
Marketa Navratilova hard at work in the press room at Le Tour.
With less time at the races, Cor told PEZ that he had just a few more free hours in the day, which is currently being devoted to digitizing his archive of old negatives and colour slides – some of which we’ve been able to share with PEZ readers.
“It’s ‘monk’ work,” he said. “But with many pictures I can still tell you with which camera and lens I used to take them.”
It has also brought back many memories for him of earlier days, and of some of his favourite races such as the Tour of Flanders, especially when the sky is overcast and the cobbles shiny with rain, or when its either raining or dusty for Paris-Roubaix – the extremes of the weather.
“Those are the best pictures to take,” Cor said.
With the archive digitization project well underway, PEZ asked the very difficult question to Cor of which exactly were his favourite pictures, out of the thousands he had taken throughout his career. He went back more than a few years in making his selection for PEZ, choosing these two shown below.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Dutch riders feature strongly, as well as the great Bernard Hinault who always seemed to have a new grimace for the camera. Classic images of cycling’s soul and spirit, indeed.
Cor’s vast catalogue of photos is available for browsing and buying at his website www.CorVosPro.com, but there’s no better way of enjoying his photography in all its glory than simply tuning in to PEZ.