07 July 2014

Capa Covers the Tour de France

"FRANCE. Brittany. Pleybon. A crowd gathered in front of Mr. Pierre Cloarec's bicycle shop. The owner of the shop is racing in the Tour de France." Robert Capa (July 1939)

This weekend saw the start of the 101st Tour de France. Covering a total distance of 2,277 miles, this year’s race began in Leeds (UK) and will go through parts of Belgium, France, and Spain before finishing in Paris on July 27.

While fans today can watch television coverage of the race, in the early days one had to rely on photographs in the newspaper or a magazine to tell the story. In 1939, Paris Match hired Robert Capa to shoot the 33rd Tour de France. Having just returned from covering the Spanish Civil War, it must have been a welcome change for the young photographer.

With war clouds gathering, Germany, Italy, and Spain all declined to participate that year. Yet even in such tumultuous times, the race went on. Taking place July 10-30, the race covered 2,625 miles through France and Monaco, and was won by Belgian Sylvère Maes. It would be the last Tour de France until 1947.

Capa spent most of the 20 days shooting from the back of his friend, Taci’s, motorcycle, not the safest means of transport. While Capa’s resulting photos appear to focus more on the spectators and the cyclists off their bikes (not to mention his fellow photographers) than on the actual race itself, he still managed to capture the determination and camaraderie of the competitors as well as the genuine enthusiasm of the crowds as witnessed in the delightful photos above (I like to believe they were cheering on Monsieur Pierre Cloarec, whose bicycle shop they are standing in front of, but who can know for sure?). 

To see more of Capa's images of the 33rd Tour de France, visit here

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