It started casually enough. Ray was walking from their London flat on Tavistock to the Russell Square tube station. Along the way he glanced through the window of Student Travel Associates. He recognized a number of his students making travel reservations for various trips during the upcoming break in the schedule. On the spur of the moment, Ray decided to feed his new obsession with letterpress by visiting the Gutenberg Museum. He inquired into a trip that would start at the museum in Mainz, Germany, and end at the Plantin Moretus Museum in Antwerp, Belgium.
It didn't go unnoticed that a train ride between the two cities would pass through Liège, Belgium, on what just happened to be the opening day prologue of the 2004 Tour de France. Two tickets Thursday night from London to Frankfurt and two return tickets from Antwerp to London on Monday seemed perfect. Everything that was going to happen in between would be figured out on the fly.
It was as simple and as random as that and a copy of the Lonely Planet travel guide for Germany and Belgium.
No hotel reservations. No train reservations. No knowledge of what the route of the Tour Prologue in Liège would be. Just tickets for going and for coming back. Ray and Jill had not taken a trip in decades with so little planning and this one covered 2 countries.
RAY AND JILL CAUGHT THE PLANE to Frankfurt and connected with the train to Mainz. They found a cozy small hotel nearby to spend the night in Mainz, and they were off. It was like being a student again, and the "plan" sure looked like it.
What could go wrong?
The short answer is, "The trip was far better than anything we could have ever planned."
THE PHOTO ABOVE SHOWS RAY AND JILL standing on the street right against the police barrier at the one-kilometer marker from the start / finish line. They could see every cyclist in both directions along that nice, long curve. The news that night said there were 650,000 people along the 6.1-kilometer course. After the prologue ended they walked to the train station to head over to Antwerp and it appeared all race fans had the same plan.
There were thousands of people stalled at the doors. Ray and Jill had tickets, but getting inside looked about as likely as getting in Fort Knox. But that is another quirky story that is explained in our book, Moments Carved in Paper no. 4 : Endurance Letterpress.
FAST FORWARD TO RAY'S AND JILL'S FIRST Tour de Lead Graffiti in 2011 and their venture into endurance letterpress. They decided to do the first one as a Kickstarter project and invited people to join them to watch the daily live broadcast and then help design and print a poster chronicling the race highlights.
Everyone involved crowds around the TV to watch each stage of the Tour de France live on NBCSports from about 8:00am until noon, looking for usable moments or incidents or comments. After the official results are posted and the jersey awards are presented, everyone heads to lunch—always at The Glass Kitchen and always with dessert (usually rice pudding, coconut cream pie, or carrot cake). The discussion is all about the Tour—what was seen, heard, remembered, and potential design strategies for the poster.
Then everyone piles into the car to head over to Lead Graffiti, a 2,200 square foot letterpress studio, to get started on how to represent the day's race stage using wood & metal type and other objects related to cycling (or not) that are printable on about 45 copies of the 14.5" x 22.5" poster.
To explain a bit about how Ray and Jill like to work, "We crave spontaneous projects where you are planning the piece on the press, often locking up for one color and not always knowing what you are going to be doing for the next color. That not knowing, the mystery of where you'll end up, is the fun and exciting part that keeps us going, searching for whatever lies at the end."
Every person involved signs in each day on the poster, just like the cyclists sign in at the start of each race day in the Tour de France. In 2015 Tour de Lead Graffiti had guest contributors on 20 of the 23 days. In the past, collaborators have driven as far as 378 miles from Middlebury, Vermont, and flown in from Indianapolis and Dallas to sign in, eat pie, and print a poster before midnight.
The Tour de France has 21 stages and 2 rest days that form the basis for the posters. Lead Graffiti produces a clamshell box set holding all 23 race posters plus 4 other prints : a portfolio title page; a story page describing the race elements used for each broadside; a colophon page listing the physical elements of the project, who did what, etc.; and a composite print with all runs overprinted onto a single sheet (the 2014 composite print peaked out at 109 runs). After 5 years and 115 letterpress posters, the Tour de Lead Graffiti crossed its own finish line.
IT COULDN'T HAVE BEEN A BETTER START. Collaborator Megan Zottlemeyer, a fellow letterpress printer from the Lancaster, PA, area, joined the Tour de Lead Graffiti for the opening day 2011 poster. To set the scene : it's the first day of racing and a 2-lane road was packed with 198 riders about 8k from the finish and starting to get itchy. Teams were beginning to gather to help slingshot their champion sprinter across the approaching finish line.
A spectator, standing on the very edge of the right hand side of the road with his hand on his hip, turns to follow the peloton of riders as they speed by at 30 miles per hour. An oncoming rider clips the spectator's now projecting elbow and veers into the mass of speeding cyclists, many of whom collide on the asphalt, while others collapse in the ditches, blocking the road.
The tangled and immobilized mob stranded 120 riders for almost 2 minutes, while another lucky 70 speed ahead gaining time on the stragglers.
The "spectator," symbolically visualized with the elbow A, and the massive crash with its resulting critical time gap (referenced by a twist on the words to a long-running television ad for an emergency aid device) gave Ray and Jill reason to believe this project just might work. Total effort spent in watching the tour broadcast, talking about the race events, and the physical production of the poster took 16 hours and 45 minutes.
The Tour de Lead Graffiti race had started and would last for 5 years.
Whether you are a fan of the Tour, cycling in general, a Francophile, or letterpress enthusiast, you will enjoy the color, playful typography and amazing real life stories behind the 115 posters of the Tour de Lead Graffiti.
Ray still gets up every morning during the Tour and watching it live on NBCSports. Every year. Every stage. Every day.