Greig Leach trained for the 2014 Tour de France by participating in the bike races leading up to the main event. And he’ll be out in the mix during the 2015 Union Cycliste Internationale Road World Championships that’ll descend on Richmond in September 2015.
But he’s not riding. He’s painting. And in time for the cyclist on your seasonal list, he’s produced Book de Tour: Art of the 101st Tour de France. He’ll be signing the coffee table-sized volume from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 21, at Carytown Bicycle Co. These are full-page illustrations with text describing the moment.
For Leach, growing up in Washington, D.C., meant freedom. “It’s about getting out and away, discovery, you get lost, find yourself again. I maintain that being on a bike is like being 7 years old again and being able to go anywhere I want.”
He’s taken a similar philosophy with his long career in art making.
The bold, active pieces recall earlier sports art by LeRoy Neiman. Leach recalls as a kid watching Neiman making images of the Olympics.
Neiman wasn't shy about marketing, either, and because the act of selling is often tied up with other matters not considered artistic, he often wasn’t taken with seriousness. The artist, who died in 2012 at 91, nonetheless enjoyed a full and globe-trotting career.
“The opinion is, 'Good art doesn’t’ sell,' so by definition if it’s good, it shouldn’t sell,” Leach says with a chuckle. “Protects my ego when they’re not selling."
Leach came to Richmond in 1977 to study at Virginia Commonwealth University. At the time, he was racing in amateur bicycle competitions that he left in 1979. He rode his bike here once, from D.C., using the back roads of the U.S. Bicycle Route 76.
This was the time of the film Breaking Away and the nation’s periodic love affair with bike racing. Leach laughs, “I saw it again the other day. There’s a scene where he’s chasing this truck and they cut to his feet, and he’s absolutely in the wrong gear.”
He graduated in Commercial Art and Illustration. His illustration instructor, the influential Mallory Callan, once took Leach aside to advise him, "Greig, you’re a painter; go be a painter. Someday you’ll do illustrations the way you want to." He says, "Forty years later, that’s what I’m doing."
While still in school, Leach gave a presentation at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts that at the time featured a sales gallery for regional artists. During the Q&A afterward, a petite older woman stood up and declared, “Who the hell are you and where did you come from?” Beside Leach, gallery manager Rebecca Dobyns — later a director of the 1708 Gallery — whispered, "That’s Theresa Pollak!"
“She was intrigued by my work,” he says, shaking his head. "I might’ve liked to have known she was there since I was going to classes in a building named for her.”
The process that led to the book started with his unhappily sitting at home and watching the 2012 Tour de France. This prompted a suggestion by his wife, actor Bridget Gethins, to record the event through his art and gauge public response.
Leach started that May with the Gyro d’Italia, followed by the Volta a Catalunya and then the Criterium de Dauphine, which, says Leach, is considered the final testing before the Tour. The Criterium uses some of the Tour's courses.
He painted by watching the races live at home, and then, when he viewed something that piqued his interest, he paused the TV and painted. “This is without knowing specifically what’s going to unfold,” he says. “I didn’t know the specifics, or how the day was going to end.”
He started a blog and a Twitter account where he posted the final products. Racers and their families and sports journalists began to notice and circulate the pictures.
The paintings take 10 minutes to make on 4-inch by 6-inch sheets. These are reproduced in the book at twice that size. While his output is large, the pieces are not, he explains. “This is insane, but not totally insane.” He uses ink and watercolors by Yarka St. Petersburg. Like a racing sponsor, Yarka partially underwrites his professional painting.
Leach, who has also worked as a courtroom artist when cameras aren’t permitted, sees his effort as a 19th-century journalism technique with a contemporary twist. “When you wanted coverage before the days of speed photography, you hired an artist, but in my case it's disseminated through 21st-century means.”
These bike races are avidly watched throughout the world. Following along with the cyclists on motorcycles are 10 to 15 photographers and four or five television cameras. “Richmonders need to expect a huge amount of media activity for the 2015 bike race here,” he says.
Leach, when in full bike art mode, puts in 12 to 14 hours every day of the race, which is divided among watching the events and painting them, photographing the work and color balancing, writing and posting to the blog, then linking all that to his website for perusal and purchase, and finally adding the results to Twitter.
“The racing stages vary. I may have seven paintings, sometimes as many as 13 per stage.”
The Tour de France is raced in 21 stages during 23 days. Which means he’s glued to the set for most of a month. His immediacy in getting his paintings onto the Internet caused Phil Liggett, the “voice” of the tour since 1974, to email Leach.
Liggett didn’t at first understand that the artist made this work while at home in Richmond. “Phil would email me and say, ‘Didn’t I see you at the such-and-such place in the race today?' "
Sheree Whatley, a founding writer of VeloVoices.com, interviewed Leach via email for a story there, and she ultimately became the editor for the Tour book. Sports writer Bryan Flaherty blogged for The Washington Post about Leach’s project and later became a backer for the book’s publication.
The only time Leach found it difficult to meet his deadlines was when he pulled a 12-hour bartending shift. Then, when editing the book and cycling to drop off pages at the Carytown post office, he was struck by a truck. “It’s a weird parking lot. I’d swung up onto the sidewalk – to be safe – and a guy coming out looked the wrong way and hit me.”
One painting went viral, and it’s on page 91 of the book. Alberto Contador crashed his bike but got back on and pushed onward 10 kilometers up a mountain. He was evidently in some distress. At the top, Contador reached over, hugged his companion, and got off his bike. When he tweeted out his thanks, he used Leach’s painting to illustrate this moment, and it was picked up by Eurosport rather than photographs.
“Turned out he’d broken his tibia,” Leach says of the biker’s endurance. “He continued to ride 10 kilometers. Up a mountain. Having had a crushed tibia, I really sympathized.”
To get the book off the web and into the world as a physical fact, Leach turned to Kickstarter. The book is self-published but locally through Dementi Milestone and printed by the Clarksville, Tenn.-based Jostens company.
Kickstarter premiums ranged from pins to a book signed by the Tour’s winner, Vincenzo Nibali – sponsored by the nation of Kazakhstan. Alexander Vinokourov, a gold medal-winnng Olympic cyclist and head of the winning team, received a book, as did the president of Kazakhstan and the nation’s U.S. ambassador. Which is one way of saying that the 2015 UCI Road World Championships – “The Worlds,” for short – will bring a true international event to Richmond.
“Unless you really follow cycling, I don’t think most Richmonders understand what’s going to happen here in September,” Leach says. Each team, with its support staff, numbers about 100 people. Cycling enthusiasts are wiling to drive distances for what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see legendary racers swoop by them. Downtown hotels are already selling out. The closest his editor could get was Ashland.
“You could easily see, over the time of the race, a million people show up,” Leach says.
Sheree Whatley refers to biking as chess on wheels. While a team sport, it requires strategy in addition to tremendous stamina — and sometimes, racers feel the need for a little assist. Outside of biking’s fandom, what most people know about the Tour de France is that its seven-time winner Lance Armstrong cheated with performance enhancing drugs. Leach observes, “Thing about it is, doping doesn’t keep you out of wrecks. Doping doesn’t keep you healthy — in fact it puts you at greater risk.”
Professional cycling is a grueling and sometimes dangerous sport. At the 2014 Women’s Elite Road Race, there was a 70-bike pile-up. About the only guarantee in professional bike racing is that there’ll be crashes.
Whatever happens in Richmond, Leach will be in the thick of it. He’ll leave his house. He’s considering another book to cover Richmond 2015.
“The plan is to be on site, doing video captures, spectators will watch me paint the race, and I’ll generate prints right there and they can buy a print of the painting."
The next season starts in less than five weeks.
Leach’s Tour book is $29.95 and available through local retailers and Amazon.