For a long time I’ve pondered a minor but intriguing conundrum regarding the documented history of bicycling. The images all make it look like things happened a hundred years ago. The film of Coppi racing in the 1950s seems as if Thomas Edison himself was the cameraman. The sequence of Tom Simpson collapsing on Mont Ventoux is so low-quality that I’m surprised he wasn’t riding a penny-farthing. Even up to and including the early 1980s every still could have been shot by a Leica from the ’40s or a Rolliflex. Not until toe clips are on the wane, in the Fignon glory years, do most images start being in color. And that’s only about 25 years ago. You’d think that Tour de France photographers were under the same stressed, remote, combat-zone emergency working conditions as those covering Vietnam or the Korean War.
Is it that color film was too expensive and cycling wasn’t “worth” the cost in terms of newspaper and magazine sales? Is there some advantage in making the heroes of the past seem farther in the past than they were? In terms of technology and racing strategy perhaps a few things have changed. More riders are in better condition for more of the year; the bikes are made of more esoteric materials; everybody has to wear a helmet all the time, so the forms on the bikes are more remote and impersonal (as in ice hockey–what a loss to the fans!). But graphic technology was capable of much better 30, 40, even 50 years ago. In about 1962 the film of Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was shot in black and white for effect; color film had been the norm for years. Color television was pretty standard well before 1980. So why do our cycling heroes of those eras look like they were photographed by Matthew Brady?
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.