We all love Tour de France statistics: longest, fastest, highest, most stage wins, most appearances – currently a three-way tie between Jens Voigt, George Hincapie and Stuart O’Grady, all on 17.
As for who has worked on the highest number of Tours, Cyrille Guimard, first as a rider then DS then journalist, is a likely candidate. But you’d be hard pressed to find a photographer with 50 editions of the race under their belt.
John Pierce shot his first Tour as a young man back in 1967, the year Tom Simpson died on Ventoux. Had everything gone according to plan, the Bristolian may have unwittingly witnessed the tragedy first-hand.
“We never made it there,” Pierce explains. “There was a huge storm en route. Then we made it to Sète the next day when Barry Hoban was gifted the stage.”
His route from Bristol schoolboy to one of the great Tour de France photographers came about via his amazing and unconventional mother, wins on the precursor to the National Lottery, and a Lambretta.
Phyllis Pierce was a flight engineer in the RAF, helping design fuel systems for the Spitfire to enable the WWII fighter to fly inverted. “An unsung hero,” Pierce tells me. “I’ve got some medals here from the RAF.” She flew Mosquito fighter-bombers, Lancaster and Stirling bombers and Walrus flying boats. Of the four British female flight engineers operating during the war, she was the sole survivor.
Post-war, as well as being a cyclist, Phyllis raced motor scooters for fun – yes, scooter racing was a thing – winning the 24-hour Isle of Man race on her 200cc Lambretta, which John’s elder brother also raced. When it was John’s turn to choose the annual summer holiday, there was only one thought in his mind: the Tour de France. So they loaded up the Lambretta and headed south.
Prior to this, two small wins on the Premium Bonds provided the teenaged Pierce with two ever-present factors in his life: a bicycle, and a camera. “I bought the camera from Woolworths – an Empire Junior. Twenty-nine shillings and sixpence. I’ve still got it. A 120 roll camera with fast shutter speed, which is what you need for bike racing.”
Pierce used the opportunity to shoot the Tour de l’Avenir at the same time, the amateur version of the Tour run over the same roads on the same day as the main event until 1967.
Back home in Bristol, Pierce made a living working in a camera shop, while proving to be pretty handy on a bike too. The Raleigh-Dunlop Tour of Ireland became a regular hunting ground – he took a second in a bunch sprint in Sean Kelly’s hometown of Carrick-on-Suir – laying the groundwork for lifelong friendships and connections with cycling’s stars from the Emerald Isle through its heyday and beyond.
“Kelly is a good friend,” Pierce says. “But then he’s a good friend with everybody. I knew him from when I was race photographer on the Raleigh Dunlop Tour of Ireland, 1975 I think. I took his picture, I wouldn’t take a picture of someone who wasn’t any good!”
As for which of his 50 Tours – and counting – was his favourite, I wondered whether it came down to the race itself or his body of work. “I was thinking exactly that. The one everyone goes back to is 1989. It was a fantastic Tour, so much so that if it had gone for another two days, the yellow jersey would have gone back to Fignon again. We had a flight booked so that I could shoot the start of the time-trial, but not the finish. We were actually in the car as the race finished…
“That was the best Tour for sure. I should say ‘87 was the best. I instigated Roche’s move to France as an amateur. He had an invite from ACBB. I said go. Finish your apprenticeship, pack your suitcase and go. But it doesn’t come to mind as the best race for me.”
He’s no shrinking violet, John Pierce. Ask him a question and you’ll get a forthright answer, and not always the one you were expecting. The worst Tour, in his opinion?
“Wiggins,” he fires back without hesitation. “One word: awful. The whole race was awful. People would slap me on the back and say, ‘Hey, it’s a British guy winning the Tour.’ No. It never happened. Then he gets on the podium and talks about drawing the raffle numbers. Shut up. How embarrassing. What an idiot.
“But he won it. What can you do? That’s the first time I have packed up after the podium. He walked off, took off his jersey and walked away. Wouldn’t do a TV interview. And I didn’t want anything to do with it. It was just embarrassing. And it should have been the best because a British guy won the Tour; because I was still there.”
This is an edited extract from issue 17.5 of Rouleur