The French Riviera is no stranger to international events (the Cannes Film Festival, Monaco Grand Prix and last year’s G20 summit, to name but a few) and last weekend, triathletes from all over the world came to the South of France as Nice hosted Ironman France 2012.
2 500 triathletes – heroes, or extra-terrestres [alien beings], depending on your point of view – swam nearly 4 km in the Med, cycled 180 km through Provence’s Alpes Martitmes, and then ran a marathon…all under a scorching summer sun.
Lance Armstrong had generated a fair bit of excitement in the triathlon world by announcing that his European Ironman debut would be in Nice. So the editor of my assigning magazine was, with many photographers and journalists, sorely disappointed to hear a couple of weeks ago that Lance had been taken out of the picture due to allegations of naughty doping.
Nevertheless, I went ahead and set my alarm for 4.30 am on Sunday, with sunscreen and energy bars aplenty in my photography kit bag….
Finding a motorbike in a haystack
Arriving just after dawn, I assumed it’d be easy to find my press motorbike. The race media contact had said that it would be driven by Jean-Jacques, numbered 54 and parked in front of MacDonald’s. However, when I couldn’t see a 54, my enquiry was answered with “Oh no, these are doctors’ motorbikes – press bikes are over there“.
“Over there” turned out to be “No, over there“, and it took a while squeezing through the early morning crowds of muscle to finally spot a man in a fluorescent jacket with a big 54 on the back. I held out my hand. “Bonjour Jean-Jacques“. But my smile was met with confusion. “Mais, I am not Jean-Jacques…” It took a few moments to establish my error: “The jacket – oh I see! No no, ignore the jackets, we all swapped them“.
Contortions at speed and a Belgian ear-bashing
So I had only just made it to the water’s edge in time for the ‘off’, at a cool 6.25 am. I took an overhead, extreme wide-angle shot to capture the full beach scene of thousands of athletes plunging into the sea. Bonus: minimal seawater splashes on my lenses.
By the time the leaders were hurtling around the bike course, the tarmac was starting to melt in the heat (almost) and Jean-Jacques’s moto generated a welcome breeze. Taking photographs with 2 cameras from the inside of a helmet while twisting 180º from the hip on a motorbike that is taking bends at eye-watering speeds is not the easiest thing in the world. Well done J-J for his solid driving.
Despite my hefty helmet padding, I felt the full force of being sworn at in Belgian by the eventual winner Frederik Van Lierde as we whistled along in front of him. Motorbike 54 was blocked on a one-way street by the police cortege and official race car in front – which were going at a healthy clip, at least twice the road’s speed limit – but apparently we were slowing Frederik down. Happily he went on to break the course record so no damage done…
No pain no gain
Back in Nice, there was a dangerous mix of speed and lethargy on the Promenade des Anglais. Thousands of spectators lolled at the edge of the seafront road and watched triathletes dizzily cycling back to the end of the bike course, alongside runners pounding the road in both directions on their marathon laps. Over-heated sunbathers confronted with all this unexpected activity looked spaced-out and daunted by the challenge of crossing the road between their hotels and the beach.
On the finish line press podium, we photographers sweated it out in position (by then it was 32º in the shade, had there been any). Frederik Van Lierde came home long before the number two, fellow Brit Paul Amey. Frederik looked suitably stoked with his performance; not so Paul. Not even managing a smile, he wobbled briefly as the medal was placed around his neck and then disappeared entirely. Half an hour later, I found him in the Croix Rouge [Red Cross] tent, strapped up to various drip tubes, completely out for the count. I appreciated the understatement of his tweet 3 days later:
“it was a hot, hard, long day, (as per usual!) but it worked out well……..“
You can see more of my triathlon images here: