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Getting the shot: Mathieu van der Poel in the Roubaix showers

Sometimes for cycling photographers, the best images come at the very end of the day.

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Bike racing, it is said, is more often about reacting to the moves of others than imposing one’s own. And photography is very much like that as well. And this year’s Paris-Roubaix once again served as a reminder.

Roubaix is my absolute favorite race. It always has been and always will be. As an amateur racer, it was the one race I most wanted to do. And as a photographer of the sport, it always produces an overwhelming amount of images. Be it the forlorn cobbled roads of the north of France, the historic velodrome in Roubaix or the iconic concrete showers, Paris-Roubaix is a timeless race with endless contrasts.

As is the case every year, I spent most of the day chasing the riders from one cobbled section to the next, always calculating the time needed to make the next cutoff, in hopes of coming away with that winning shot.

But this year, while cobblestone sections from Troisvilles to the Carrefour de l’Arbre produced a wealth of solid images, it was not until the end of the day where I finally got my most satisfying images.

Any cycling fan, of course, has seen images of the historic showers of Roubaix, and to be honest, in recent years, I have come up with very little there. The scene has simply been photographed so much and fewer and fewer riders seem to show up, preferring the comforts of the showers in their team bus.

But this year was different. There were only a few riders in the showers when I arrived and I did not think I would stay long. But suddenly Mathieu van der Poel, one of the biggest protagonists of the day, entered. Finding a stall near the entrance, he undressed and headed to the first shower. He was calm as photographers followed his every move. I fired away and got a selection of shots. And while I liked some of them, they were firstly interesting because they captured one of the greatest riders in the sport, and one that seems destined to win Roubaix, in this historic space.

Moving around I then focused on others.

At one point John Degenkolb, a former winner, came in with his son. I knew I was having a good day. Degenkolb was covered in dust, and I was fascinated by the contrast of him, as he slouched against the wall of his stall with his jersey off, with his son so peacefully standing next to him. The juxtaposition of Degenkolb, utterly disheveled and destroyed by the race, next to the innocence of his son, was unavoidable. Again I shot away until I felt as though I had captured the scene and once again moved on.

John Degenkolb and his son in the Roubaix velodrome showers after Paris-Roubaix 2022. (Photo: James Startt)

But before leaving I ventured into the second room. I saw no one at first, but sensed someone was sitting in a nearby stall. Peering over I once again saw Van der Poel. Now dressed in his team shirt and shorts, he sat alone, lost in his thoughts.

There was a certain silence in this room and we were virtually alone. Moving slowly, I tried to respect his space while finding a position that captured the scene of this lone figure isolated in the concrete walls of the showers. For a while I simply sat there with him. But finally I started shooting. It was impossible for Van der Poel to ignore the noise produced by the rapid fire shutter of my Nikon D5, but he was unbothered.

Perhaps he was simply waiting for his soigneur to bring him something, or perhaps he simply needed a moment to reflect. I really don’t know. But he allowed me to sit with him for a moment and document the scene. And I knew then that these would be my best pictures from the day.

Mathieu van der Poel after Paris-Roubaix 2022. (Photo: James Startt)

Looking back over my shower scenes from this year I am still uncertain which image I prefer. I suspect with time, the Degenkolb image will resonate more and that the contrast between him and his son will prove more engaging. But as a fan of the race, and with an understanding the drama of the day, my shot of MVDP speaks to me more. And for the moment at least, it is my shot of the day.