As the bell rang for the first time a huge feeling of relief came over me. The bell signalled the start, and the small band of racers were off.
We have all lived through the turmoil of 2020, nothing was ever what we expected and everything was changing in front of our eyes. Doom scrolling and hand sanitizer had become the only consistent thing in my preparation for FURTHER 2020. With the bell ringing, the race was on and surprisingly, the calm had returned.
I am an English man who is fortunate to be abroad, in the mountains. My first language is very much image, followed by spoken English and much of my reach and community is in the UK. A large part of FURTHER is British. A few weeks before the start of the race the UK government imposed a mandatory quarantine on people entering the UK from France…. due to this, FURTHER lost over 40 riders, 3 photographers, sponsors putting boots on the ground and it almost ended the race for 2020.
Quarantine had already changed the race in more ways than most realised. I had been working on the route much of the year, along with the 2021 route. My start location had changed a few times due to the virus and I was determined to have the race start and finish in the mountains or at least close this year but was very fortunate to be given the chapel at Château de Queille.
Earlier on, the UK had also placed Spain and Andorra on their quarantine list and FURTHER 2020 was going to both. My Checkpoint was still OK, as that was on the border of France and Andorra. I had made the dates, it had got a sponsor and I could not change this. My original intention being that, from the checkpoint the riders would then cross the border into Andorra. Borders had become real again, no longer historical. Instead of crossing borders, the race became about going up to the borders.
So FURTHER had to stay inside the borders of the Ariège 09 Department. With the bringing together of the 2020 and 2021 route, and some hard edits, I found the new race route. This new route changed the amount of tarmac and affected the constant ‘which bike’ question. I also had to impose my curfews, which I will talk about more another time.
The original plan was for me to be the race director and to take some pictures with my Pentax 67 film camera. The other photographers would be getting the stories out in the field. I could tell the story through social media… simple. This year nothing goes to plan right?
I had become the race director and the only photographer.
I knew this would be hard to do so I just made my rules, which was rider safety first, race director second, photography third and social media a distant 4th.
This year’s race started at Queille, which is much closer to the mountains than last year, but still a distance away, it always takes a little longer than I think to get out there. With my timely arrival at the start, I was struck by how hard it would be to take pictures and be the director, simultaneously. My photographic head was left in the 13th century chapel and we filled in the paperwork and I gave out the trackers, mountain rescue whistles, bonk bags and mountain rescue orange caps. With the help of Ben who I had recruited to help me , we had coffee and croissants and gave the brief.
I have always loved that pre-race nerve thing. When you are on a start line, time has a strange quality to it, emotions are flavoured. For this reason, I told the racers only that the start would be between 9 and 10am. They were instructed to listen for the bell that would ring to signal the start. I asked Ben to ring the chapel bell at 9.20am. Tedde, the dot man in Holland, was the only other person who knew the time. When the bell rang, some riders were faffing about, eating croissant, finishing coffee, but not James Hayden… he was up and gone before most had said ” Fuck.. it’s the bell !!” James was here to win.
Ben and I headed out after the riders. I checked all the trackers were working. The dots were moving, the dots matched faces. As we went south to the first sector, all was going to plan and I slowly put on my photography head.
Using the Pentax 67 alongside my digital camera added to my head swap complications. My thinking was digital for reportage type things, the Pentax 67 for the slower mindful work, the portraits and landscapes.
If you know cameras, I don’t need to say, but most would not know what it is. The Pentax 67 is a big, heavy camera that’s not been made for 20 years. Slow to work, slow to change the film and fully manual. The results can be stunning when got right. There is a reason it was a favourite for fashion and landscape photographers before the great digital apocalypse.
The contact sheet shows me working in a slow Pentax 67 way, and then forgetting and going into reportage mode, forgetting to swap cameras. There are parallels with the racers here…it’s the right camera for parts of FURTHER, but not all of FURTHER. Like the bike, none are correct and none are incorrect. Some bikes did some things really well.
It goes without saying that I could not be everywhere at all the times I wanted to be and I watched the dots along with 15 000 (!) other people and the race went exactly how I had planned it. I was so excited, pleased and in love with all the riders.
The bell tolled again at the end of the race. We drank a glass of Blanquette and toasted James and everyone else.
I can’t wait for next year, but maybe I will just wear one head.
Words and pictures by Camille McMillan.