Thomson Tales

Painting The Road

The painted roads of cycling’s biggest events are as much a part of the fabric of the races as the peloton itself. Where did it come from and who started it?

Painting The Road

The painted roads of cycling’s biggest events are as much a part of the fabric of the races as the peloton itself. Where did it come from and who started it?

In the captivating realm of World Tour’s grandest spectacles, where the blur of a peloton rushes through towns and mountain passes to the soundtrack of whirring helicopter blades, there exists a tapestry hardly studied but always noticed. The painted roads of cycling’s biggest races.

As dawn's first blush caresses sleepy countryside scenes, devout aficionados, armed with cans and pots of vibrant hues, craft pithy sonnets to their beloved heroes upon tarmac ribbons and cobbled collages. Up with the larks, avoiding the gaze of authority, they creep and create their art before a long day of patient waiting is greeted with the fleeting glimpse of a kaleidoscopic rush of jerseys. Their painted messages of support glanced for a second, immortalizing forever.

Seemingly part of cycling’s folklore forever, these acts of highway vandalism connect the race to the fans and help to create the stadium atmosphere on once benign thoroughfares. Imagine these climbs bare and empty, the fans sedate in armchairs, silently nodding approval to the battle commencing before them. The buzz of the race is not just the battle for a jersey, it’s the landscape, the sound and the intangible frisson that defies definition. But where did it all start, and who are these passionate pre-daylight painters?

Life Before Television

Scrolling back through pages and pages of photograph record of the biggest races in cycling, it becomes clear that the phenomenon rises along with the idea of racing as a spectator sport. Once the domain of newspaper reports, gradually television encourages the looking glass and greater number of fans – both watching on TV and standing on the roadside. Valentino Petrelli’s famous 1953 image of Fausto Coppi acknowledging the ‘vai vai Fausto’ message in the snow is the first I can find. This, Petrelli later admitted, was written by the photographer himself to create the now legendary photograph from the 36th edition of the Giro d’Italia.

While Petrelli had an early eye for the impact of messages in the landscape, the trend doesn’t catch on until Finish Lines of the early 70s are adorned with crudely templated logos of forward thinking sponsors. As if sparking the idea amongst fans, especially in Italy and Flanders, tarmac paint appears more and more during the decade on the bergs of the classics and the mountains of the Giro, reaching a crescendo through the 80s and into the 90s.

Creativity Flourishes

In the beginning we see messages; short, sharp proclamations of love or simply the repeated name of someone’s hero. Pantani, Pantani, Pantani over and over like a glitch in the system. As the century turns into a new one creativity flourishes, color embellishes and humor pervades. Just as the roadside fan dons fancy dress, the graffiti artist clicks into bigger and bigger gears. In recent years a few groups have gained notoriety and even official commissions because of their initially clandestine art.

Guilty76’s fame began in 2015, when their Mont Ventoux street mural was so popular that the police even considered it something to be preserved. The police even aided them in the process, making sure that traffic didn’t disturb the process. Painting at night isn’t just for the sake of secrecy, these roads are open but for the race. Rolling road closures ensure the peloton safe passage but the same luxury is not afforded to the painters. These days permits are acquired to help get the job done, with local mayor’s seeing the benefit in the branded streets of their municipality broadcast to a world wide audience of millions.

Puncheur are another group whose work has become well known and transferred over to the official. Their portraits during the classics of Boonen, Sagan, Van Aert and more seem as much a part of the Flanders Classics identity as the broadcast logos.

Rules of The Road

There are rules. At the Tour de France there are teams of painters employed to cover up or adjust artworks that may offend, you can use your own imagination there. Much like graffiti on wall, road art has it’s own code. You must not paint over an existing artwork. This spirit of fairness has resulted in the most famous stretches of road in cycling being covered on every available inch, leaving a carpet of positive messages under the tire tracks of the peloton.

Road grafitti at the tour de france thomson bike tours

Part of The Story

When we ride the routes of the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Spring Classics we do so to soak up the atmosphere as much as we do to take on the challenge. Conquering mountains to the sound of roadside encouragement from excited fans adds a whole new dimension. The scenes we see in our minds are not just the mountains, the summits and the weaving descents. They are those painted roads, as famous as the champions who compete on them.

Who could not be inspired to eek out those extra few watts on sight of a message dedicated to Pogačar, Kuss or Van der Poel. It says they were there and that you are too. Riding the same roads as them, performing in their stadium, maybe just a few hours before they do. There is no experience like it. Indelible memories. Let’s Go Again.