Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs by Michael Blann is the best cycling coffee table book that we own.
We bought it in early 2018 and fell in love with it right away. Everything about the book oozes quality - from the weight of the hardback cover, to the thick, high quality paper pages, to the jaw-dropping photographs of cyclists in the mountains.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Michael recently.
Here we share the story of how he came to create this must-have book for your cycling library.
Part 1: Who is Michael Blann?
Michael Blann is one of the world’s best cycling photographers.
Traditional sports photographers tend to focus on close-up action shots of the pro peloton. In contrast, Michael likes to step back and look to the larger landscape. His signature style is the shot that views the mayhem of professional cycling from a distance, against the backdrop of the mountains.
Let’s delve into some more detail, in Michael’s own words.
How did you become a photographer?
I grew up on the south coast of the UK and got into cycling in the mid eighties when Channel Four started putting out late-night shows of the Tour de France.
I got hooked and ended up heading out to Australia to race for a pro team. But after a year I realised I wasn’t going to hit the big time, so I headed home and went to art college at Kingston University to do a degree in print making.
I soon started using photography quite a lot in my prints and started taking my own photos. After University I worked at an ad agency, managing all the photography as a print buyer and studio manager, before starting to shoot some of the campaigns for the agency myself.
I went freelance and was really fortunate to land the role as Getty’s London Creative Photographer, where I stayed for the next six years. When I got the job at Getty that’s when I got pretty serious about photography. Up until that point I didn’t class myself as a photographer.
What lead you to create your book?
While at Getty I was shooting everything from portraits to animals, to sports, to still life. As a photographer, I didn't really know what I was. I wanted to do a project with my own voice – and that’s how the Mountains project came about.
I had a commission for Shimano, who wanted two landscapes. I saw these landscape shots and thought, “Oh, maybe this is a good starting point for a personal project” – and so it began.
Part 2: What is "Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs"?
My work is all about connecting the cycling history with the landscapes.
I started the Mountains project to show the contrast between the vast landscape which has been there millions of years and this fleeting ribbon of activity which clings to the road.
Creating the first edition took three years. I never could have guessed it would have taken so long.
Deciding which of the 1,000+ images made the final cut was a painful and ruthless experience. Another area I had underestimated was the time required to pull together all the interviews with the various professionals. Originally I had only intended to include two or three essays (we ended up with 30) but such was the quality of writing from Robert Millar and Michael Barry that it became essential to expand on this component of the book.
The result of all this work is 254 pages of powerful, almost artistic photography that captures the vastness of the mountains, the chaos of professional racing but also the quiet tranquillity you get when you’re detached from the madding crowd below.
The photos of some of Europe’s most famous climbs, including Mont Ventoux, the Stelvio Pass and Alpe d’Huez, are interspersed with thoughtful, often moving accounts from well-known cyclists such as Stephen Roche, Greg LeMond, Geraint Thomas and Romain Bardet.
While it is a cycling coffee table book, it’s not just any cycling coffee table book! If you’re anything like us then you’ll find that the quality of the photography and essays mean you can easily lose hours absorbed in the detail the book has to offer.
The new revised edition is available in hardback, sized at 25.5 x 30.5 cm at £35 (+P&P). It contains 200+ photographs and 33 essays.
Part 3: How did you create the book?
What was it about Europe’s famous cycling climbs that drew you to them?
As I child I used to watch the Tour de France and hear all the exotic names of featured climbs. For example stages like Robert Millar winning over the Peyresourde in the eighties. [More on that big day of the Tour here.]
At the time, I never had any sense of where the climbs were geographically, but they always seemed really magical.
And so Mountains was really a bit of a mapping process. It was about going back and discovering the kind of landscape that linked to those famous names from cycling history. I wanted to visit those places to connect the history with the landscape.
How did you choose which climbs to include?
The climbs in the book are there because they’ve got cycling history attached to them.
However, some mountains are really photogenic and others aren't at all. So, there's always a balance between picking the most famous cycling climbs and the photogenic climbs.
Something like Alpe d’Huez is incredibly famous, but it’s not a great mountain to photograph because you can’t get a decent viewpoint. In fact, the one in the book is taken from the mountain opposite.
Then you get other mountains that might not be so well known, but are just amazing to photograph. The Gotthard Pass in Switzerland, which is the cover of the book, isn’t the greatest cycling climb (the last section is cobbled so it's pretty rough to ride). But, it photographs fantastically.
This balancing act between an iconic climb and whether they’re photogenic can be hard at times.
Read this for the individual stories behind five of Michael’s most evocative photos of famous cycling climbs (including Ventoux, the Tourmalet and Stelvio).
Tell us about your photography style and how you achieve it
When I began the project, all the existing cycling shots of the mountains were by sports photographers and they tended to be on the back of the motorbike, following the race as it went. So, all the photographers could really do is zoom ahead a little bit, jump off the motorbike and stand at the side of the road. Their brief from magazines was very much about getting the action shots with a viewpoint that is one of the people within that action.
My perspective was the opposite of this. For me, it was always about getting a much grander view of the mountains. In my heart, I'm more of a landscape photographer than anything else.
I've always photographed as a passive observer. I'm never in your face with the camera, I'm always slightly set back. The same methodology was applied to the mountain - I took a step back from the action and viewed it.
I guess you could say it's more of a classical point of view.
How do you prepare for a trip to photograph a cycling climb?
Before I leave, I do some research to see what other photos are out there. I use satellite imagery to work out the best vantage points to shoot certain mountains.
When I arrive, I do a recce on a bicycle and climb by bike to the summit and down again. A bicycle is the right speed and you can pull it over and take your time and look. In a car, it's always difficult to stop on a mountain.
Once I’ve worked out the information about where the sun is at certain times of day and where the best viewpoints are, then I go back, grab the cameras, and walk.
Quite often on the first day of photographing I’m getting my thoughts together as much as anything.
I’ll review the images that evening and then go back the next day and really get the best shots. Everything's shot using a tripod and I take a laptop, which is connected to the camera. I view what I'm taking as I go along. It forces me to slow down and consider things more.
What do you do if the weather doesn’t co-operate?
I guess it depends how bad the weather is. Expensive camera equipment doesn’t like getting wet, but I love it when there’s mist or clouds.
I don't like the blue skies. It looks too much like a chocolate box!
I avoid blue skies because they don’t have any drama. A milky grey or a cloudy sky is a bit more interesting – it’s hiding something or has something a bit more to say.
One of the most memorable shoots of Mont Ventoux I’ve done was for Rouleur magazine in the winter. I remember going up to the top and at Chalet Reynard the barrier was down (indicating the road was closed), so I had to hike.
It was February and as I was approaching the Ventoux there were some really heavy clouds coming in. I stuck on the longest lens I had and got my shot. What's great about the Ventoux, is it's got the weather station mast, so your eye automatically knows where the summit is. This cloud was coming in you could just see that weather station popping through the light. It made for a great shot. [See below!]
Part 4: Tips
What are your top tips for an amateur cyclist wanting to photograph cycle climbs?
There are lots of things an amateur can do to get better shots. Probably my biggest tip is to get off your bike and go for a walk, because you’ll get some of the best views that way and it’s really hard to take a good photo whilst you’re on the bike.
1. The best time to photograph is often in the autumn because the grass starts to go brown and it makes for a great colour palette.
2. Cyclists frequently climb mountains in the middle of the day and that’s not necessarily the best time of day to take photos. Early in the morning or later in the afternoon or evening are much nicer times of day be taking photographs.
3. Choose accommodation as close to the place you want to photograph as possible, because you can waste a lot of time going up and down mountains and miss the morning light. If you stay the bottom, you think you're getting up early, but by the time you get up there and it could be 10 o'clock which is almost too late.
4. Use a camera with manual settings rather than relying on the auto settings. iPhones are good for photographing certain things, but they’re not great for taking landscape photos because you don’t have enough control.
5. Drones are good for video work but I don’t think they’re very good for stills because you’re not looking through the viewfinder and it’s hard to get the right angle.
6. Always shoot to save highlights and don't worry about shadows. You can always lift shadows but if you haven’t taken the detail then you can’t get that back.
7. I don't mind having things like cars in photos as long as they don't take over. Sometimes if you haven’t got anything else they can be useful to give you a sense of scale.
A big thank you to Michael for taking the time to share these insights into his photography and the creation of Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs.
We also spoke to Michael about five of his favourite photos of famous cycling climbs - Mont Ventoux, Col du Tourmalet, Col d'Aubisque, Passo Giau and Passo Stelvio. He shares some great insights on how he shot them and the stories behind the photos, so definitely worth a read!
Looking for other great cycling books? Check out our pick of the must-have books for any cycling library.
Our pick of the best gifts for cyclists might also come in handy if you're trying to find that perfect present!