In 2005, photographer Timm Kölln began an ambitious five-year project to document professional cycling through the voices, faces, and bodies of the athletes who define it, traveling to major races around Europe and shooting riders alone against a white backdrop moments after they stepped off the bike. The result, The Peloton: Portrait of a Generation, collects ninety-six photographs and interviews with professional cyclists—some superstars, some journeymen, others now-forgotten names of the sport. Kölln’s photographs capture the utter limits of physical experience in an athlete. His interviews (conducted by journalists from the magazine Rouleur) skip the familiar clichés of sports journalism to offer unvarnished and nuanced perspectives on what it means to spend a life on two wheels. Looking ahead to the start of the 2011 Tour de France tomorrow, I recently spoke to Timm from his home in Berlin.
For you, was it the cycling or the photography that came first?
Photography. I grew up in Spain, and when I was a kid my parents wouldn’t let me have a bike. They thought it was too dangerous to ride in Barcelona. But I always had this dream of having a racing bike. And when we moved back to Germany, the first thing I did—I think we’d been in Berlin for two days—was buy a bike, not a racing bike, but a bike.
I was always inspired by older sports photography, and that also influenced me in my approach to cycling. When thinking about how to do the portraits for The Peloton, I thought the only way to get as close as possible to the riders’ states of mind and efforts on their bikes was to shoot them without helmets and without glasses, an image we rarely get in sports media.