All images by Phil O'Connor, reproduced with his permission

Former professional photographer Phil O’Connor has not only been present at some of cycling’s most iconic moments, but he has provided some of the enduring visual imagery of a generation in the sport. The likes of Bernard Hinault, Greg Lemond, Graham Obree and even a young Bradley Wiggins feature alongside many more legends of the time in his 2003 collection Phil O'Connor's 21 years of cycling photography.

Following his retirement from race photography, O’Connor spent a number of years working on myriad photography projects, before setting up a business photographing sportives, which ran successfully until 2018. I caught up with him to find out more about his passion for the sport, and the stories behind some of his most iconic images, from an era in which taking thousands of shots and reviewing them instantly, before publishing hours later, was a distant fantasy.

After such a long and successful career, what made you take the decision to step away from race photography?

I was in the media from 1981 to May 2006. The first picture I ever had published was in May 1981 so I gave it 25 years, and I stopped on that day. I was working for Cycling Weekly at the time. I'd been there since 1992 and it was great. I've worked with some great editors and had some great experiences. But things were changing in the publishing world in terms of content. And I could see the way it was going I would do less and less races and more and more fitness type stuff. That wasn't really what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to bike races and I was interested in the people at the bike races. So I drew a line under that at 25 years and left.

Do you miss the camera?

I've lost touch with photography really, I hardly ever take a picture with cameras. I use my phone a lot. I invested in the iPhone 15 Pro which is incredible. The cameras on phones are so good, the versatility of the iPhone is so good, and I’ve got software on there, I’ve got Lightroom, so I can edit my pictures and gain pleasure that way.

So many things have changed from when I started, it was rolls of black and white film, manual focus, manual exposure... things have evolved over that period of time.

There must been days when you came away from shooting and you couldn't wait to see how the shots turned out – were there times when you took a picture and instinctively knew, this is going to be iconic?

Before I worked in Fleet Street I was freelance, so I would be at the Tour de France and in those days films had to be couriered back to Sutton where they were processed and put into the magazine and then ten days later, someone would come out to the Tour de France and show me a copy of Cycling Weekly and I would think ‘oh, okay, so it came out,’ so that was my first sighting of it. You didn't have that connection that we have now, where you see immediately whether it's worked or not, and also you can send it straight away.

That must have been quite a thrill?

Yes you’d get a real buzz from it. Back in the '80s, the colour front page of Cycling Weekly was done eight days before it was published. So you never had a live picture on the cover. We would finish on Sunday night in the newspaper office and we’d come in with rolls of film and get them processed and the pages put together, but the colour was selected for the following week's cover, not that week’s, because there wasn't enough time to produce a colour page in that time. It could lead to mistakes because obviously you had to try and predict who might be on the front cover not this week but the following week, but something could happen to them in the race. But it was just the way we worked.

That’s a classic example – Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond climbing Alpe d’Huez in 1986. It was a great race because they were on the same team, and it was going to be the first time an American was going to win the Tour de France, and Bernard Hinault was French and the crowd was French, and weren’t really that keen on his teammate winning the Tour de Franc ahead of him, so there was a lot of significance in the scene itself, but the beauty of this picture is nobody knew what was going to happen because we didn’t have the internet then.

This is Alpe d’Huez about halfway up, I think I walked about halfway up about hairpin seven or something, and it wasn't really until they were about five seconds away that you realised you had Hinault and Lemond together, and that would have been the same for everyone at the side of the road. So that's how things have changed so much.

It was a shock and such a buzz, but that’s how bike racing was then, you didn’t know what was coming up the road and not many people actually listened to radios; you just waited for whatever came up the hill. And technically, I love that picture because it's taken on 645 format so you’re taking one frame and that’s it. And it’s stood the test of time. I’m really pleased with that one.

So you have the added pressure of only having that one chance, and then they're gone, but that must have really enhanced the reward that you felt for getting something so good?

Definitely but there were plenty of days I didn’t get it right. A lot of us worked on the hairpins rather than the straight. So my decision on that day for whatever reason was to shoot straight down the hill rather than on the hairpin and it worked for me. Because again, if you know what's coming then you tend to position yourself accordingly, whether that means standing on the outside of the bend or shooting straight down the hill; if you know what’s coming you make a decision on where you position yourself, but in this situation, you’ve just got to go for it and hope for the best.

The Beginning

May 1981 – this was my first professional published photo. It’s in Bournemouth and it’s Steven Joughin winning a stage of the Milk Race with Mark Bell second. I’d gone down for the weekend and took this picture and I still love it, there’s so much in it when you look at it: the mayor and the tiny little grandstand on the right with Jim Hendry who died recently. I made a big print on the 40th anniversary of taking that picture and gave it to him. And he’s still got that top and he still fits into it! Obviously, I would have taken that picture at the time not knowing that I would spend the next 40 plus years of my life going to bike races and taking pictures.

Did you always know you wanted to become professional?

I wanted to get into photography, I had gone to the Tour de France the previous year, 1980, on one of these Thompson weekends. Me and a guy from the cycling club went over and I bought a camera with me. I took some awesome pictures, and at that moment the seed was sewn. I was racing at the time, and at that point I thought that I want to photograph bike races. And this guy I was with, Mark, we both had a fascination for what was going on in Europe. So we often used to go up to a shop in Leicester Square which used to sell foreign magazines. I could buy Miroir du Cyclisme and Vélo magazine so we could see these fantastic colour pictures, of Bernard Hinault, Roger de Vlaeminck and Francesco Moser, which weren’t available in the British press, so it was a window into that world of fantastic racing which we heard about but didn't really have a lot of connection with.

The Grand Tour Years

The following year, 1981, we went to the Tour de France on our bikes. We didn't want to read about it in magazines, we wanted to actually see it first-hand. I still look at the photos and sell them from time to time and I still cringe at mistakes I made technically. But I took them, and I was there, and really at that point that was when I knew this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I wasn’t worried about how I got paid or anything. I just knew I wanted to take pictures and I wanted to take them of cycling, because if you are a photographer and you’re taking pictures of something you love it will show in your pictures, and there will be days when things don't go right, but because you’re doing something you love it’s OK. If I take photographic jobs now which I don't want to do, then my heart isn’t in it, but my heart was always in going to bike races.

This is taken on Puy de Dome which was used in the Tour last year. For me I just love it because it’s Bernard Hinault who always makes for good pictures. He's not wearing sunglasses. You can see in his eyes because Lemond’s ahead of him, on this mountain, he is in focus. The flash has gone off precisely, I couldn’t have taken a better picture that day, and I'm glad it still lives on.

The worst thing that happened to cycling was sunglasses. Because if you can see the rider’s eyes you can see what’s going on and tell the story. If everyone’s behind sunglasses which they mostly are, you can’t really see into the rider that much. It was interesting, when Armstrong was in his pomp, when he used to make his big attacks, often the crucial one that was going to win the Tour he took his sunglasses off, because I think he felt they encumbered him. Obviously it didn’t please the sponsors, but I think in that moment when he was obviously going to absolutely rinse himself dry he would often take the sunglasses off. Like, this is your moment for winning the Tour; you want nothing to go wrong.

That’s obviously Lemond at the finish line at the Tour. At the Tour de France and all the big races there's a hierarchy for finish line pictures, there’ll often be three rows of photographers, and I wouldn’t ever be in the front row, so you’re not really going to get great pictures. On this day, I thought I’d go further down because Lemond was going to stop somewhere and obviously he would go and see his team and be congratulated. And I'll hopefully get something. And I did – I got that. I think I got one frame and that's it.

It was absolute bedlam. And I just hoped he would stop there when he crossed the line which is exactly what he did. All the others got their finish line shots and then ran down the road, but I got that one frame and that was all that mattered. He stopped right in front of us in that frame and then within the next five seconds it was just a mess of photographers and TV cameras. And I remember all the gendarmes trying to push everyone back, and this great big gendarme headbutted this photographer on the head and took him out, it was just chaos and mayhem. In those days I only weighed ten stone so I was only there for a moment, and then off, but it was all I needed, that one frame.

And I love it because he looks like a film star in that picture. That was his moment, the pressure was off. And I always loved these old jerseys they used to wear, they were so long with their woolly tops, I love all that.

This is a young Robert Millar, 1985 I think, it would have been May. I love the picture because he looks so happy. At this point they were about to give him the climber’s jersey, but he was leading the Tour of Spain. I had never been, but my editor at the time said could you go down there, and in those days it was a train to Dover, ferry to Calais, train to Paris and then Metro to Gare de Lyon, then a train from Gare du Lyon to Madrid through the night. I turned up on the train in Madrid in the morning, hired a car, and then drove to Valladolid which is on the north coast which was about 300 kilometres away. And it was the first time I'd ever driven on the continent, so it was really difficult, but anyway, I got up there, and I actually slept in the car because there were no hotels because all the teams were there.

In the morning I went to Robert’s hotel, and basically the following day was the last day in the Tour of Spain because he defended the lead so he thinks he’s going to win the Tour of Spain, but what he doesn’t know is that the next day his team mates were going to stitch him up and rob him of a Grand Tour win. So Delgado attacked with some other riders and got away, and they never told him until it was too late, and they were about 12 minutes up the road. It affected him as a person, I'm sure he felt hugely betrayed by that, that should have been his moment, he should have won a Grand Tour. But I love this because in that moment he’s happy because he’s got the jersey and he just seems to love the thought he was going to win. And that’s also my favourite jersey of all time.

Track pursuits

This is Francesco Moser, he was a track rider. It’s from the Grenoble Six Day and it was picked for the cover of Cycling Weekly, so that was great, I was really happy about that and also to see Francesco Moser, for me, he was kind of an idol for me, a hero of mine at the time, so I was saying earlier about how you'll do anything when you decide what you want to do in your life. I remember I got the overnight train to Grenoble, arrived in the morning, went to the afternoon session which I photographed and then in the evening there was a full session which is this and then afterwards I got the train back to Paris. But that picture ended up on the front cover of Cycling Weekly. When you look back on some of the crazy things you did… I was really excited about wanting to take pictures and get them published, and you’d do anything to get them published.

This is Graham Obree when he broke the world hour record – 30 years ago. Then Chris Boardman broke it five days later, From the picture before, Francesco Moser was the person who held the world hour record at the time. He did it in Mexico City and he went twice, the second time about six days later, and added a bit more. And it was always thought that it was on the shelf and no-one would ever break it, until this guy came along.

Obree was an extraordinary guy to be around, he was absolutely fascinating because he didn't do anything by convention, he had his own ideas about everything; about training, nutrition, and also as you can see, about bike design. So he was a fun guy to be around. And what I loved about that hour record is that there were only two photographers there, and I was one of them. He went the day before and he failed, because he wasn’t on his own bike, he was on a bike that was designed by Mike Burrows but it wasn't quite right for him, it made his wrists very sore. And then afterwards he just said, ‘oh, I'll go again tomorrow.’ And so Vic Haynes, the guy to his right, who was the organiser, had to pay for the UCI officials to stay one more night.

He said he’d go for the record but on his own bike, not on the one that Mick Burrows had made for him and he did, and he got the record: 51.596. It was just an amazing thing to witness. It was in Hamar in Norway in an almost empty stadium, watching this incredible thing happen. Graham just had an incredible inner desire and an incredible strength. I was also spending a lot of time with Chris Boardman at the time on his training. So I knew his record attempt would be five days later in Bordeaux in France. So it was a fantastic time to be photographing British Hour Record riders.

The Domestic Scene

That’s Glenn Nolan going for the London to Brighton record attempt. When I first got into cycling which was the mid-70s I was racing then there were these things called the RRA, the Road Records Association and they would just be these endless records, you know, like Birmingham to Ipswich; London to Edinburgh. But the absolute blue riband of all place-to-place records was London to Brighton. So I went up in the morning, got a picture of Glenn leaving, I think it started just off Trafalgar Square – you used to have to go from what was the centre of London, which was a post office. Unfortunately, he didn't get the record. But I love that picture because there’s just nobody about, it's probably about six o'clock in the morning. It's just the purity of it all really, it was just sad he didn’t break the record.

This is a young Bradley Wiggins. So this is 1994. This would have been from the March Hare meeting, a big professional race, but it would have had supporting races so there would have been a women's race, a vets race and a junior race, or it might even be juveniles. So I would just take the picture because it would have been needed for Cycling Weekly, but I wouldn't actually make any note of anything. I captioned it and put it in the folder, and it was in there for about 10 years. And then I found it one day when Bradley's career began to shine. I have pictures of a young Chris Hoy and some old Cav pictures as well, and I loved finding those old pictures from before they were stars. You just you couldn't predict it, when you looked at those pictures, what would happen to them. When I took this picture, a British rider had never won the Tour de France or won a Gold Medal at the Olympics in cycling so it’s just great to have that picture.

So this was called the Mercian Asphalt Two Days, it was a race in the Midlands somewhere and I just went up for the second day, it was about 1986. And it started off filthy, and then it started snowing, so for me that’s the best situation to have because if it starts off snowing a lot of people will think ‘I’m not doing this, I’m going home.’ But if it starts without snow then they’re committed and then you get these great pictures. There’s Steve Jones on the front, Jack Kershaw, then Bob Downes he was a fantastic rider, then Graham Jones, who won at the Tour de France in 1981, Steve Sebdon behind him who I used to train with, Nigel Dean. But it's just a horrible, brutal picture.

I shot a couple of rolls of black and white film and I put them on Facebook a couple of years ago and got so many comments. A lot of the riders follow me and they all had a memory of that day as well.

Something that’s changed quite dramatically is that I would have gone to a race like this, shot two rolls of film, come back and maybe three pictures would be printed and end up in Cycling Weekly on Wednesday, and that's it, then you put the negatives away never to be seen again. Now I can get them out, scan them all in and put them on Facebook. And these riders who follow me are seeing pictures of themselves they’ve not seen, from 30 plus years ago, and they just love talking about what they do and seeing themselves racing.

Artistic endeavour

This is kind of the other side of what I do. That’s taken at the Commonwealth Games in 1994 in Canada. It's just a bit of self-indulgence on my part, maybe, but it ended up in my book. It’s lovely low light, it was in the evening, so for me it was a picture that had to be taken, because it’s a lovely picture. I’m not a particularly artistic person; I think I'm more driven by recording, I think my interest has always been in the subject and what's happening to a particular rider, but there is still part of me that wants to take a picture like this.

In the early days, the early ‘80s, when I started out, I used to go to time trials and take a picture of every rider in black and white, and then make little contact sheets, little tiny pictures and then staple them to a piece of paper. And then they would be sent out with the results sheet and then people would buy them from me, so it's very early event photography. So this was a time trial, I think in Essex. I didn’t have a car at the time, so I’d have got on the train, probably from Liverpool Street station and got off at somewhere like Braintree, then cycled out to watch the event. And that wouldn’t have been a picture that I was taking to sell, because they’re much smaller in the frame, so I think they’re on the other side of the road, probably coming down on the slip the road, but I just love the purity of it. There weren’t many people about because in those days there wasn't Sunday shopping so you had very quiet roads in that era, and just the serenity of it all.

Recently I did a talk at a college about photography, and I included this picture, and said if I took that picture now the first thing I’d do is get rid of that telegraph pole line across the sky. And it’s interesting as most of the students said they’d keep it, but it kind of annoys me that it’s there.

This is the more creative side of me again. This is Tony Rominger training for the Tour de France, I’m not sure what year, I think 1994. So he was living in Monaco at the time, and these are the hills where Armstrong used to train as well. One of the last training rides he used to do before a major test was to ride up this hill as fast as he could and then go back and with his coach Dr. Ferrari check the numbers. Ferrari and Rominger were very much into numbers back then. And it's just the perfect picture. That’s a 300mm lens so that's what flattens the road out. It makes it look like they’re parallel but the one on the right is obviously higher than the one on the left, and he just falls perfectly into that little patch of reflection.

That’s the Tour of Romandie, the first year I went there, I think 1994. I went there with Kenny Pryde to do a load of features, took some studio lights, got portraits of Miguel Induráin, Claudio Chiappucci, all kinds of riders, but what I loved about this was one, that the scenery is absolutely electric, and two, that nobody goes to watch it. So you just had beautiful pictures like this, with about 3 people standing in the background. So I always loved the purity of these pictures.

If I look back at my very early Tour de France pictures, I've got a picture in my book from 1982 I think coming up Alpe d’Huez with Berhuald Hinault on the front and there’s nobody at the side of the road, and now of course it’s packed with caravans on both sides of the road from top to bottom.


Thanks to Phil for his time and for sharing some amazing stories. If you'd like to buy Phil's book you can do so directly from him at his website.

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