The Excitement, Beauty and Glory of Cycling in Watercolour: Greig Leach

There can be few artists that can capture the moment of a bike race better than Greig Leach. Painting small postcard sized watercolours of the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Spring Classics, among many other races, Greig creates his images ‘live’ as they are happening without any knowledge of the end result. In this way he has produced some stunning work that distils the distinctive movements of riders, flashes of colour and the excitement of the race into a beautiful piece of art that tells the story of each stage.

Hailing from Richmond, USA, which witnessed Peter Sagan’s first World Championship victory, Greig relies on watching races on TV and his recent paintings of Paris-Nice caught our eye at Ride Velo. We had to find out more about the man behind these glorious images that celebrate the glory, the pain and the beauty of bike racing.

Can you describe the creative process of painting your cycling work? 

All of the cycling work is created live without any knowledge of the results of the stage or the race. I will watch the race play out on video, and pause the broadcast when something catches my eye. I pick the imagery for the visual impact or to tell the story of the racing as it unfolds. I try to be as unbiased as possible, but just like anyone else I have my favourite riders and teams. So once I see what I want to paint, and have paused the image, I will first do an ink drawing of the image on the screen and then lay in the colors in a quick watercolor wash technique. Each painting has the race, stage, and the names of the riders (plus their teams) written on the back of the postcard sized painting.

Is it important to be there 'live'?

Being on site is something I have only managed to do one time. That was here in Richmond, VA for the 2015 UCI Road World Championships. Being live adds another layer of excitement to the paintings, and affords me the opportunity to capture some images that rarely appear on the broadcast…It’s important to create the work in as close to live time as possible. It provides a freshness and energy to the work that can’t be achieved when working from still photographs. This artwork is as much about story telling as it is about the art.

Why do you think cycling races make such good art?

Cycling affords me the chances to use what I love most about creating art, capturing the figure in motion and colour. Certainly the pro peloton is about both. I was an amateur racer way back in the 70s and have continued that passion for riding and racing (although I haven’t raced since 1979 - I still ride at near the same level I did when I was.) It’s a sport I know about, am passionate about, and is majestic in its imagery. The old adage to writers is to write what you know. I think the same applies to painting, and I am truly painting what I know.

What are you looking forward to painting this year?

As you know I just finished one of my favourites of the season, Paris Nice. I always look forward to Paris Roubiax. This year I plan to paint the Giro d’Italia and am working towards creating my third book that will be based on my Giro paintings and writings. Of course, the Tour de France is the pinnacle of the season. I usually paint the Criterium Dauphine, although this year I may take on the Tour de Suisse instead. I am still working on getting to Bergen in Norway for the Worlds in September. I have a few things working, but I don’t know if it will work out or not. I will certainly paint the racing from home even if I can’t do it from Norway.

Have you any plans for an exhibition of your paintings?

I will be exhibiting some of the work in conjunction with a bike week event in Williamsburg, VA, and then I am always on the look out for other opportunities.

Who are your cycling heroes?

When I was young I first discovered bike racing while in Paris. It was Eddy Merckx who first opened my eyes to this sport. In later years I have been a fan of Jan Ullrich, Pantano, Thomas Voeckler, Sylvain Chavanel, Tejay Van Garderen, Levi Leipheimer, and George Hincapie. I am still a fan of Lance Armstrong’s racing, just not much else about him.

What do you think of the modern generation of riders and how do you think they compare to those of the past?

I think the new young riders, particular the young Frenchmen, Peter Sagan and others have brought back the excitement to racing. I am not a Team Sky fan- they seemed to have taken the passion out of the sport. It’s as if it can all be reduced to watts, lactic thresholds, and heart rates. I enjoy the long shot attempts in the breaks, the sheer guts of Nairo Quintana, or the instincts of Julian Alaphilippe.

Can you tell us a bit about your own cycling history?

Cycling has always represented freedom to me. I still have the same thrill that I had as a young kid, when I discovered that I can go anywhere I want, and that I can get there on my own power. As I said I got into racing when I was about 15 in the Washington, DC area and raced for about 5 years. In the States back then, no one knew much about professional cycling, nor was there much hope of turning pro. Eventually, I realized that I was a much better artist than I was a racer, so I concentrated on my training as a painter, and left cycling to be the thing I enjoy. I still have that same sense of freedom every time I ride, that eight year old kid still is inside me delighting in being able to go anywhere under my own power. Also in the 70s I had the wonderful job of being a bike courier in downtown DC. I was actually a member of Union #1 of Messengers and Bike Couriers. Now, I am a member of RABA (Richmond Area Bicycle Association) and try to ride about 100 miles a week. Lately that has been tough. Like most long term cyclists, I have had a number of run ins with cars. The worst was about two years ago. It put me in the hospital for a week, and left me unable to put any weight on my left leg for four months. Fortunately, I have recovered well, but I may never get back to full speed again.

What bikes do you own and where do you like to ride them (and how often)?

At this point, I still have my original Reynolds 531 racing frame, although It is no longer a functioning bike. In addition I have a steel Bianchi that is my city bike, and then I have a Masi Evolutione- that was my present to myself after the aforementioned bike wreck. Oh yes, I have the aluminum off brand bike catalog bike that I was riding the day of the wreck. It needs a new fork (the only damage from getting hit by the truck - it seems I was more of the victim than the bike.)

Have you any notable cycling achievements or ambitions?

No real achievements on the bike. Just the joy of riding. I do hope to ride across the country someday. I joke that it is what I plan to do for my 70th birthday.