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The Basement Tapes: James Startt from Issue 104

Interview by Tim Schamber with images from James Startt

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In issue 104, our 10th annual Photo Annual, we showcased 12 photographers and 1 collector that are at the top of their game in cycling photography. Here’s the extended interviews from Peloton magazine: The Photo Annual.

James Startt.

Paris, France

James, we’ve worked together for a long time. Overall, 2020 was a difficult year. How did you manage artistically in a city like Paris? Well during lockdown, I just spent a lot of time walking around the one-kilometer radius allowed, sometimes photographing details of my neighborhood. I’m not sure that I created any masterpieces, but the exercise kept me visually engaged. And then once we were traveling again, I was back at the races, doing almost as many as in a normal season.

For this issue, you chose portraits. What made you steer toward them and choose them for the Photo Annual? I have been drawn more and more to portraiture. I love the simplicity of focusing on the human face. But this series has taken my portrait work to another place. There is very much an element of oral history still alive in the sport of cycling and with this series of historic champions I try to capture that. Their stories are rich, and their lives well lived. In the best of these images, their faces reflect just that. I also am intrigued by the placement of an old artifact like a jersey, a trophy, and to see how they react to them.

You are one of the few journalists who both photograph and write about an event or race. If you were to choose one, would you rather write or photograph? Photography most definitely. While I enjoy both, I began writing stories to get my pictures published and not the other way around. But I do like crafting a good story. This series on historic champions is the perfect combination as it gives me the opportunity to really sit down and absorb their stories, which are so rich. Jean Forestier for example, told me about how he won Paris–Roubaix on a warped wooden rim or how, when he won Flanders, none of his teammates even bothered to show up and he had to borrow some Belgian francs from a French journalist in the morning to buy some food at a bakery.

Antonin Rolland.

There’s nothing like the Tour but you also experienced the Giro in full force this year. How are the two different in your opinion? Well, I have only really covered the Giro these past two years. I’d always heard what a special race it was, and how it had so much soul and character. And it absolutely lived up to its reputation. There is a tremendous vibe there. Tremendous racing over the stunning stage that is the Italian landscape, while the race organizers still very much have a family spirit.

We all see the wonderful images from a race but few of us understand the grind. It’s not all baguettes and rosé! A grind it can be, both physically and mentally. I did 25 days on a moto between February 1 and March 15 and needed about 10 sessions with a kiné [kinesiologist] to work on my back. I literally could not stand up straight after all the hours of maneuvering on the back of a moto with three layers of clothing, the rain gear, etcetera. Physically, I was a broken man! And the Tour is another beast. Physically demanding, yes, but even more mentally exhausting. Every year it just gets harder and harder to photograph. There are more and more situations that are off-limits, more and more controls, more and more traffic jams. I am very concerned with the direction the Tour is going, to be honest. This year I completed my 32nd Tour de France. It is safe to say that I am closer to my last Tour than my first one, ha-ha!

Cyrille Guimard.

The world of photographing races is much more complicated now with Covid restrictions and protocols. Do you see the sport ever going back to how it was before? Certain things will slowly come back, but other are gone forever, especially in a race like the Tour, which was becoming more and more exclusive even before Covid hit. For me, the smaller races are the best. They are still so much fun to cover. Many, like the Tour de La Provence or the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge, are held in stunning regions and you can really absorb the simple beauty of a bike race.

Give the readers a basic breakdown of the equipment you use and why. Lately I have relied on my Nikon D5 and my Z7. The D5 is better in low-light conditions or with a high ISO and it produces more images per second, all of which are crucial when shooting cycling. But the Z7 is a stunning camera. At 45mpx it borders on medium-format quality. It is just tremendous for landscapes or portraits. In terms of lenses, I rely on my 70–200mm as well as an old Sigma 12–24mm. It is perhaps less precise than a Nikon lens, but I really like the way it distorts on the edges—there is an element of fisheye without being as exaggerated. Together, they cover most of the bases most of the time at a bike race. But I also have rediscovered the beauty of a simple 50mm lens in recent years. I just have Nikon’s basic 50mm with a F1.8 aperture. It is inexpensive but stunning. Most of my portraits were taken with that lens as well as any bike-tech shots that I do. It is housed in plastic but has great glass. I can put it in my pocket, so it is a no brainer. And it has become my go-to lens when walking around Paris.

Sagan and Maertens.

Walk us through the story of your Maertens/Sagan image. Oh, this image has a real back story, and this portrait session produced some of my favorite images of the year by far. I have visited Freddy Maertens a couple of times in the past years. He is just a jewel of a person. Anyway, last winter he told me how much he admired Peter Sagan and how they were friendly and often visited when Peter came to race Flanders. I told him I wanted to document this friendship and a couple of days before Flanders I contacted Peter’s people to see if it would be at all possible to get the two together in the days before Flanders. The answer was unconditional. If it was for Freddy, it was possible, little matter that Sagan was a big pre-race favorite or that we were in the time of Covid. There is a true mutual admiration between the two and Peter was only happy to get together with Freddy. Thanks to the Koers Museum in Roeselare, I was able to get one of Freddy’s and one of Peter’s original world championship jerseys. I gave Peter Freddy’s old jersey and Freddy Peter’s. It was icing on the cake really. It all came together quickly, in less than three days, I think. And while I had photographed both on numerous occasions, I was nervous. I only had a small window, and everything had to come together perfectly. But when I look back at the series, I have to say that most things did!

Instagram: @jstartt

From issue 104. Buy it here.