Tour de Lead Graffiti

The evening of June 5th, Rob and I were strolling around First Friday in Philadelphia, popping in and out of galleries, when something caught Rob’s eye. An avid cyclist, Rob has become increasingly obsessed with the Tour de France over the last few years. So when we wandered into the AIGA gallery to a room filled with Tour de France prints, he was in heaven. 

We circled the gallery numerous times as he explained to me the details in some of the prints while also searching for prints of days that stood out to him as memorable Tour moments. Looking for more information about what we were seeing, we ended up talking with Ray Nichols, the mastermind behind the project, Tour de Lead Graffiti. This is where we learned about how the project, which involves creating a letterpress printed poster for each of the 23 days of the Tour, was soon to embark on its fifth year, as the 2015 Tour de France was scheduled to begin on July 4. When Rob mentioned to Ray that I was a graphic designer, Ray graciously invited us to join as collaborators for one of the printings. 

Within 10 minutes of leaving the gallery, Rob and I talked about it and were fully on board to participate, reserving Stage 7, Livarot > Fougères, as our big day.

Although sports are not exactly on my list of likes and my experience with watching the Tour is limited to when Rob points out crashes, close finishes, or spectators dressed in ridiculous costumes, letterpress printing is something I have wanted to learn more about. I’ve always loved creating with my hands, whether paper crafting, sewing, bookbinding, etc. but having a job in tech, it’s not something I’ve been able to make time for in a few years. 

The morning of Stage 7, Rob and I drove down to Ray and Jill’s home in Delaware to watch the live coverage together. I can tell that Rob enjoyed having someone to discuss Tour-related topics with, instead of being met with my blank stares. The actual race was fairly uneventful, compared to previous days which were full of horrendous crashes and dreadful weather. Aside from a few cows wearing Tour colors, the most notable moment occurred when Cavendish was interviewed after his 26th stage win, first this Tour, and released a lengthy exhale of relief which the announcer dubbed, “the sigh heard ‘round the world.” 

At lunch, we discussed the significant points from the race, as well as more about ourselves, our goals of traveling, where we were threatened to have our home burned down if we don’t visit the Borghese Gallery in Italy, and we ate delicious desserts to store up power for a long day of printing. Well, not Rob. He’s watching his sugar and carb intake. 

Then it was off to the studio, which felt like a museum filled with beautiful, old, printing equipment. Ray, still very much a teacher at heart, explained all of the machinery to us as we took photos like tourists. Working as a designer in an age where everything is done on a computer, I was blown away to see the history of my field, and also grateful that I don’t need muscles to operate the equipment of my day job.

We worked together to plan the layout of the poster and learned the lingo of the trade, from quoins to lockups. When it was time to run that first test sheet through the press to print the blue circular quote, I was in the driver’s seat, feeding the paper through. I grabbed the printed sheet and was awestruck. Those delicate, softly debossed, blue Garamond letters were on that paper because of us. Because we worked in concert to select type, place it, lock it in place, spread ink, and run the machine. It was beautiful. 

The rest of the day was much like that. Each new part of the poster that was added to the paper felt like the fulfilling moment of snapping in a puzzle piece. And at the end of the day, we had a stack of completed posters which tell the story of a specific stage of the 2015 Tour de France. But more valuable to us than the posters we left with, was the experience of spending the day with Ray, Jill, and their son Tray, learning a centuries-old technique, and combining Rob’s love of cycling with my love of design into one special day.  It is something we’ll carry with us forever, and we’re grateful that they graciously shared their project with us.