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An interview with Marc Meilleur, motard extraordinaire, December 31, 2003
The Meilleur Motard
By Chris Henry
You've seen the great photos of cycling's top events, catching riders in the midst of their struggles to get the better of one another, battling the elements, and capturing the drama that make the highs and lows of the sport so exciting. Perhaps you haven't seen the motorcycle drivers who carry these photographers and make it all possible. Cyclingnews' Chris Henry decides it's time to introduce one of the men who helps bring the images of cycling to computer screens and magazines: l'Equipe moto driver Marc Meilleur.
I had never been on the back- much less the front- of a motorcycle before that fateful day when I climbed aboard a big blue Kawasaki to watch stage 15 of the 2002 Tour de France from what is without question the best seat in the house. Mild trepidation may be a modest understatement, but I was eager to jump at the chance, even if my first introduction to a motorcycle meant six hours and several major mountain climbs...and descents. Sunburn aside, witnessing every aspect of a typically animated stage from Vaison-la-Romaine to Les Deux Alpes from the moto remains one of the most exciting days of my life.
Since then I've gained not only an appreciation for just how exhilarating the moto can be, I've also developed an appreciation for the men who pilot the bikes in the biggest bike races on the planet. The moto drivers, or "motards" as they're called in French, are a special bunch. To watch these guys in action is to watch a group of people who truly love what they do, and one of the joys of travelling to races in France, Belgium or Switzerland has been the friendly hellos and brief chats with the bunch before and after the course.
One motard I always look for is Frenchman Marc Meilleur, a former professional six day rider on the track and current motard for the top French sports newspaper l'Equipe. With the big red l'Equipe logo fixed to both his bike and his helmet, and top photographers such as Bernard Papon perched on the bike's back seat, Marc is generally easy to find. Just look for the center of the action and he'll be there. That's his job.
After the 2003 season wound to a close, I asked Marc to join me for a café and share some of his experiences on the moto. Cycling fans around the world see the racing through the TV and camera lenses of many talented photographers, but few people are lucky enough to witness just how much goes on inside the peloton, particularly in a race as big as the Tour. The controlled chaos of race vehicles, camera bikes, commissaires, team cars, etc. that surrounds the race itself is an impressive display.
Instinct and a little luck
I was somewhat surprised when Marc told me he has only been working as a motard for three years. Naturally I had assumed that working in the Tour and major events on the UCI calendar meant years and years of experience, which I now see as a testament to his skills and his passion for the job.
In fact, Marc's first race on the job was the 2000 edition of Het Volk, a major one day race in Belgium which heralds the start of another classics season. Not a bad start, I thought, so I asked him how the experience went. Was he nervous?
"I wasn't nervous in the way you'd expect, about being on the motorcycle or in the race," he explained. "I was a pro, and I'd done races like the Four Days of Dunkerque, so I knew what to expect. I was more nervous about how well I was doing my job for the photographer."
That statement sums up Marc's dedication to the job. He knows all too well how much is involved for a photographer to get the perfect shot, and working for a paper as big as l'Equipe carries big expectations.
"L'Equipe wants the key moment," he said, thinking of races like the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix. "When Van Petegem attacks and drops everybody... That's what they want in the paper the next day."
While ultimately it's the photographer who frames the picture, Marc plays a large part in the setup when the race hits crunch time. For Marc, it's all about the learning process. His background as a rider has helped him understand racing, being able to predict key moments from riders' fatigue and body language. Not one to brag, Marc still shares a few moments when he got it just right, and by extension so did his photographer.
In the 2001 Paris-Roubaix, a classic wet and muddy 'hell of the north', the photographer Marc was carrying was not completely at ease and didn't have a plan laid out for where he would try to capture the action. Eager to stop for passing shots along the 16th section of pavé at Saint-Saulve, the photographer was eventually convinced that he should trust Marc's judgement and press on to the next section, the dreaded Arenberg Forest.
"I said 'no, don't stop here'," Marc explained, referring to the Saint-Saulve section before Arenberg. "I had seen the leaders' faces, and I knew they were going all out before then, so it would explode in Arenberg. I kept going, felt a particularly slick section of cobbles, and pulled over."
What happened next? You guessed it, riders started falling on the slippery stones. Among them, French contender Philippe Gaumont of the Cofidis team. Marc and the photographer were right there when Gaumont fell, unfortunately breaking his leg in the crash. "The photo went everywhere," Marc said with a smile. "But still, you need to have some luck."
In 2001, Marc had a great Paris-Roubaix. This year that wasn't the case. A different photographer was along for the ride for the 2003 edition and tensions were running high. "You need to have a good relationship with the photographer," he said, acknowledging the other side of the equation and insisting that getting good images comes from perfect cooperation between the motard and photographer.
Practice makes perfect
Surely luck plays a part, but Marc makes sure he's prepared. He dutifully videotapes every race he can, and keeps a library of tapes which he watches over and over. He does this for several reasons. First, to see where in a given race the attacks typically happen. Is it on the Muur van Geraardsbergen in the Tour of Flanders, or on Tenbossestraat? Or somewhere in between? Marc needs to know, or at least have a good idea of the possibilities.
Furthermore, which climbs in a race like Flanders will work for photos? Photographers are not permitted to take pictures from the motos on the short, steep 'bergs' that help define the race. Instead, they are dropped off along the climbs or near the tops to shoot the field as it pounds past, scrambling back to the motorcycles to repeat the process another 20km down the road. Marc has learned the hard way that dropping off the photographer too early can mean leaving him in the shadows or with an unappealing angle. It pays to know what's around the next corner.
It also pays to identify cyclists quickly, and not just by the faces or numbers. "I recognized the legs," Marc said of a particular fall in Paris-Roubaix. "'There, Tchmil fell!' I told the photographer. Later he asked me, how'd you know that?"
Quite often, photographers such as some of those who shoot for l'Equipe, do not specialize in cycling. They may arrive in Paris the morning of Paris-Roubaix after shooting a football match in Germany, making the ability of Marc and the other motards to understand the race and help guide the photographer crucial. A photographer who doesn't follow every race may not understand what Marc knew in the spring of 2002. After seeing Belgian Mario Aerts taking pulls that left the leaders gasping in the Critérium International, he was certain that in the Flèche Wallonne classic a few weeks later, Aerts would be the man to beat. Aerts won Flèche Wallonne.
Luck certainly played a small part in landing Marc the l'Equipe job. At the 1999 Paris-Nice, Marc was present in his role as trainer for several riders. He had heard of a l'Equipe motard with a familiar name, and wondered if it could be the man who was Marc's first trainer back when he was a budding junior racer in Saint Denis. Sure enough, having not seen each other in 25 years, Marc and his coach were reunited. His old trainer, working for l'Equipe, helped get Marc a job during the Tour de France driving the truck used as a mobile film processing lab. In the process he became friends with several photographers as they retrieved their film each day, and after finally buying a motorcycle (Marc had driven motos in the past), his coach told him, "you'll do Het Volk next year."
L'Equipe was looking for another motard who knew cycling and could help photographers identify riders at key moments of the race. Marc was sold, and the following spring began learning the ropes in the spring races. He has progressively covered more races each season since, and is poised to take over the spot of top motard for the paper when his former teacher retires.
"After 2-3 years I'll be good," he says modestly. "Then I'll really understand the whole thing- the races, the parcours, the photography... I need at least two years with a full season."
Busy off the bike
Three days after I sat down with Marc, I bumped into him again at a cyclo-cross race in Persan, outside of Paris. I had a hunch he might be there, as the race was near his town, but hadn't phoned ahead. He was there to encourage several of the young riders he trains on the road and on the track, and as cyclo-cross was just being used as an off-season diversion and exercise in bike handling, he had no qualms about also laughing (in good nature) as his pupils slid around the muddy course.
Marc continues to train young riders, and has helped a few to noteworthy successes. With a diploma from the Institut National du Sport et de l'Education Physique (INSEP) in Paris, Marc learned his skills as a trainer alongside French track star Florian Rousseau, who after retirement as a professional will return to head the track sprinters program at INSEP. Unlike Rousseau, Marc decided that pursuing a more comprehensive education was not in the cards, and opted to keep his involvement in coaching on a somewhat smaller scale.
Nonetheless, he was worked with the French junior national track team, a number of regional amateur clubs, and Stéphane Kraft, who went on to a professional contract with Cofidis. He also worked with Cyril Bonnand, a consistent national performer in France's cyclo-cross circuit and, to Marc's satisfaction, winner of the race in Persan where we last met.
With the 2004 race calendar set, Marc is already busy planning his schedule for the coming season, eager to complete his own training as ace moto driver for some of the sport's top photographers. As for me, I look forward to seeing Marc and his colleagues at the races, as well as the photographs they help produce.