Bradley_Wiggins_CD_2011 (pic Petit Brun)

As Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins have blazed a triumphant trail in the 2012 Tour de France, Neil Stevens has been involved in another type of stage race. Neil’s a keen cyclist, but he isn’t one of the participants in this annual Race for Madmen. The Hertfordshire-based illustrator and graphic artist is a longstanding Tour de France fan, whose studio name is Crayonfire. So while Brad has been marshalling the peloton, Neil has been capturing the landscapes, the riders and the style of the world’s greatest bike race. I talked to him just before the start of this year’s race.

The pedal power of Twitter
When the 98th Tour de France ended on 24 July 2011, Neil Stevens was still a week away from tweeting — “Vive le Paris! Vive le Tour!” BMC’s Cadel Evans had won the race, but completing 21 days’ worth of illustrations was also a sporting challenge.

It all began a month earlier, when Neil decided to fill a gap between commissions with a project based around his favourite sport. “When you’re in a quiet period you’ve got to be inventive,” he says. “I had time on my hands to watch, so I thought, I’ll just illustrate every stage of the Tour de France.”

He announced his plans on Twitter, not realising that cycling fans, bloggers and lovers of vibrant, contemporary illustrations would get quite so caught up in the action. Towards the end of July, Sport magazine did a feature on the cycling prints and, as Neil recalls, “I woke up to hundreds of emails!”

Every second counts
Bradley Wiggins will enter Paris on Sunday with a cushion of more than three minutes — a huge margin compared with the eight seconds enjoyed by the 1989 Tour de France winner Greg LeMond. Time is also of the essence when you decide to draw every stage of a three-week, two-wheeled procession through the Alps, the Pyrenees and many points in between. So when Neil embarked on his 2011 Tour series, his style was “deliberately simple and geometric”.

The strategy for last year’s Tour de France was all about watching the action on TV, then sketching (with a tablet), scanning in and building up the scenery in layers “like a theatre set”. Finally he added textures and shading, to create 21 charming vignettes of the peloton racing across the French countryside.

The best-laid plans
Team Sky’s preparations for Bradley Wiggins’s 2012 campaign have been faultless. Neil also assembled some of the key elements for his prints before the 99th Tour de France got under way. “I’ve got a whole back catalogue of hills, mountains, cyclists, people, cars, flags, sun . . . ”

As well as the scenic prints that capture the landscape of the race, cycling fans can also buy Gallic-flavoured Tour Type illustrations based around each stage number. Though Neil says, “I don’t do humour or caricature”, he has also captured Tour greats Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and Eddy Merckx in another series that evokes the vintage cigarette card look.

As of June 2012, more than 2,000 high quality digital prints of last year’s Tour de France series had been sold through Crayonfire Prints. That is largely thanks to Twitter, word of mouth (designer Paul Smith is a fan) and some timely pre-Christmas exposure in a Sunday Telegraph supplement.

J’adore le vélo
I wish I’d started earlier, but I only discovered the Tour de France in 2010. Neil’s introduction was around 1987 — the annus mirabilis of Ireland’s Giro d’Italia and Tour de France winner, Stephen Roche. In the past 25 years there have been many doping scandals, disqualifications and days of shame for cycling. But British fans who’ve stayed the course will feel amply rewarded with a Wiggins win this year.

Like millions of TV viewers and roadside spectators, Neil Stevens is in love with the Tour de France. “The jerseys, colours, caravans and the whole experience of being in a mountain stage”, are an endless source of inspiration. As Bradley Wiggins leads the “Sky train” into Paris tomorrow, look out for Neil’s pictures of British cycling’s biggest day out.

To see Neil Stevens’s cycling prints and other work, visit the Crayonfire shop.