Rider Turned Photog: Léon van Bon Gets PEZ’d!
Rider Interview: What do you do when you hang up your racing wheels and you want to stay close to the action? DS, team press officer, mechanic…. What about photographer. Léon Van Bon: Multi National champion, double Tour stage winner, Classics and Worlds podiums and a career that took him all round the globe, and now a top photographer.
Léon Van Bon – Photographer
The Tour de France 2015, ‘Dutch Corner,’ l’Alpe d’Huez and miraculously, we’ve found a parking space. Another car with credentials on the windscreen appears, ex-pro Léon van Bon, who’s now a photog, is at the wheel; I know Leon from his days on the winter boards. He asks us if we can squeeze back a little and let him in, ‘no problem, Leon’. The corner is as mad as ever, maybe even madder, Pinot hurtles past in his glory, the French fans go ape. The rest come past in dribs and drabs in various states of disrepair; there’s the voiture balai, the ‘sag wagon’. Time to ‘get outta Dodge’.
Dutch Corner – Tour’15
Léon gets to his car just before us; ‘follow me!’ he tells Callum. The time to get off a mountain in le Tour on a day like this is usually measured in hours. In 10 minutes flat we’re in Bourg-d’Oisans on the valley floor albeit Callum and I are in a state of mild shock. Now we know how Leon could win Tour de France sprints – the man is rapid!
The madness of l’Alpe
High times we had a chat with the Dutchman who won Tour and Vuelta stages, was an Olympic medallist and World Professional Road Race Championship podium finisher.
Rotterdam ‘6 Days’ with Stam
PEZ: Your career finished as a six day guy and it started on the track too?
Léon van Bon: Not really, in my club when I was young it was normal to ride road and track. The club had a little track, not too steep and until you were 12 years-old you were allowed to ride it on your road bike so you could get used to it. But I rode the national track championships as a youngster and won titles as a novice, junior and amateur. [Leon also took silver in the World Junior Points Race Championship in 1990 and silver behind Italy’s Giovanni Lombardi in the 1992 Olympic Points Race in Barcelona. ed.]
PEZ: You were versatile too with two third places in the u23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a far from flat race.
If you want to be a good pro then you have to be able to ride all sorts of races. Whilst I was on the podium in the u23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, I could never have achieved that in the professional version.
Amstel with Novell
PEZ: Stage wins in the Tour de l’Avenir in ’92 and ’93, those were big results.
They were even more important back then because cycling was structured differently and that was one of the few ‘open’ races where amateurs could ride against pros. Cees Priem offered me a contract with TVM at the end of 1992 but I said that I’d like to do another year as an amateur and I preferred to ride for Jan Raas’s team, WordPerfect for whom I rode stagiaire at the end of season 1993 then as a full pro in 1994. The team became Novell for 1995 then Rabobank in 1996 where I stayed until 2000.
PEZ: You rode the Tour de France as a neo pro in 1994.
Yes, and there’s a bit of story to that. I wasn’t even reserve for the Tour and was sitting in café watching the European soccer on Thursday night. On Friday I got a phone call telling me to report to Lille for the Tour start. The Tour team reserves weren’t answering their phones – probably because they didn’t want to ride the Tour – and I was in the race because Fred Moncassin had broken his ankle stepping down of the stage at the Tour team presentation. It was agreed that I’d ride until the rest day; which is what I did – it was a really huge experience as a young pro.
Next to Classicsman Peter Van Petegem
PEZ: Your first Grand Tour stage win, the Vuelta 1997.
It was a huge boost – something you think you can do and hope you can do but once you get the win then you know you can do it. It changes your mind set knowing you can win at that level.
Tour de France 2000 stage 6 win
PEZ: And that year you were on the Worlds podium.
Yes, I was third. Laurent Brochard of France won which was perhaps ironic because it was Brochard I beat to win my Vuelta stage. I had great legs that day and the circuit suited me; people said I made a mistake by going too early – 350 metres to go – I was a little disappointed on the day but I hadn’t expected to win a medal so a few days later I was thinking that a podium wasn’t so bad.
National championship win
PEZ: The next season, 1998 was a very strong one for you with victory in a Tour stage and the Hamburg Classic.
That was one of my best seasons. To win a Tour stage is even more of a high than to win one in the Vuelta. I wasn’t one to dream about Tour stage wins as a youngster but it’s not until you win one that you realise just how big the race is. In the post-race criteriums the people go crazy when they see as a Tour stage winner. There’s also a story to Hamburg – after the Tour I was mentally tired, I’d had enough, it had been a long hard season; I’d been on the podium at the GP Costa degli Etruschi back at the start of February and even before that was racing in Mallorca. To relax I’d started digging a pond for my fish in my garden during the day then riding criteriums in the evenings. But the Sunday after the Tour finished it was the Clasica San Sebastian, a race with parcours which didn’t really suit me but on the big climb of the Jaizkabel Mountain I had good legs and finished eighth behind Casagrande. I thought to myself that maybe I better prepare properly for Hamburg the next weekend which was a race that did suit me. I beat Michele Bartoli to win in Hamburg, I hadn’t even told my wife that I was going to ride a big race that day, one of the neighbours came and told her.
PEZ: National Champion in 2000.
That was in Gulpen but if you rode for Rabobank then you were riding for the strongest team in the race – but it was nice to pull the jersey on.
PEZ: You joined the Mercury team in 2001, that team wasn’t the best organised and collapsed, do you consider the move a mistake?
Definitely not, I have no regrets about joining the team. At that time I was sick of cycling, not happy with how Rabobank had dealt with me. With Mercury it was back to what cycling should be about, with friends having fun – my time with that team brought my motivation back. It’s true that for the second part of the season we didn’t get paid but what that meant was that the guys that were there wanted to be there. I won the Tour of the Netherlands and even though the mechanics weren’t getting any salary they still came and did their job because they wanted to.
PEZ: After Mercury you went to Domo-Farm Frites in 2002 and won the National Championship for them in 2005.
Yes, that was before the team split with Patrick Lefevere going on to Quick-Step and Marc Sergeant to Lotto. I worked with Lefevere but stayed with Sergeant as the team became Lotto-Domo then Davitamon-Lotto. That national championship win was even more satisfying than the first because there was just me and one team mate against around 20 Rabobanks who didn’t want me to win. I think that day was one of the best of my career. In the week before I’d been moaning to my training partner, the Belgian rider Gert Steegmans that I was tired after the Tour de Suisse and not going well. There was an early break which I missed but bridged over to with Rabo’s Karsten Kroon on my wheel, he wouldn’t come through because there were Rabos in the break. When we got across I heard him say to his team mate, Maarten Den Bakker; ‘Van Bon is very strong today!’ There were eight of us in the break with three Rabos; but the Rabos stopped working, they thought they’d have a better chance in a bunch sprint and the break was absorbed. I attacked 500 metres from the finish; Rabo’s Steven De Jongh was second. At finish of the Belgian Championship, Gert Steegmans asked someone who had won in the Netherlands, when they said it was me he said; ‘No! That’s not possible, he was terrible all week!’
Tour du Suisse stage win
PEZ: You won Nokere Koerse in 2007 – a nice race to have on your palmarès.
I’d gone back to Rabobank that year and it would be my last at that level before I joined Marco Polo. It wasn’t my best year but yes, that was a nice win although I adopted a team role for much of the season. It was Theo De Rooy who took me back to Rabobank but he was fired after the Rasmussen mess at the Tour de France. Theo was one of the guys with Rabo who wanted me back but not everyone did, so at the end of the year there was no renewal. I was 36 years-old by then and joined the Marco Polo team which was at a totally different level but it was fun and I travelled a lot – Thailand, Japan, the USA, South Africa, China, Korea, Ireland. . . I didn’t make any money but sampled a lot of different cultures then rode the six days in the winter to make some money.
Happy with Mercury
PEZ: You won the Rotterdam Six Day with Danny Stam in 2011, that must have been a nice experience?
Yes, in front of a packed stadium in my ‘home’ six day but by then my focus was no longer on winning.
Leon van Bon, Jacky Durand and Christophe Bassons in Paris-Nice
PEZ: How did you get into photography?
When I was the Junior Worlds in Moscow I bought a camera and took some pictures, guys in fur hats and the like, I experimented with the images, making them into albums and a poster.
But when you’re a pro there’s not room for things like that; albeit some pros now seem almost to have a second career on Instagram? When my oldest daughter was born I bought a camera to record her early days but had no idea about the technical aspect of photography.
Paris-Roubaix alongside Tafi
PEZ: But now you do all the big races?
I was still racing with Marco Polo at the time but thought it would be good to do some days on the Tour de France taking pictures; I just did four days to see if I would like the lifestyle. I obtained credentials without any trouble, it’s always easier if you were a rider – and then I started to get assignments. To start with the other photographers were helpful but then maybe they start to see you as a rival. Now I do all the big races, it’s all happened so fast – it’s a bit scary!
Tom Boonen in Het Nieuwsblad’15 – Léon Van Bon at his photo work
Van Bon unhappy with photographer Cor Vos