Our plan for Stage 19 was to stop at three carefully selected locations, including the finish. The riders started much earlier than usual, on account of the scale of the stage (236km with 5000m of climbing), so we skipped the start and hit the road.
Our first location was along the small Lago d'Orta, not far from the starting line in Gravellona Toce.
Driving along looking for spots, we stopped next to a grand villa with an equally impressive garden overlooking the road. The owner was incredibly friendly and, when asked if we could take pictures from her garden, she invited us in and went and picked some small mandarins that she called bergamot.
We munched on a couple of wedges (despite Wikipedia describing Bergamot oranges as inedible - I noticed a distinct hint of the bitterness of Chinotto) and waited for the riders.
Once we had taken photos of the peloton, we said our goodbyes. As we departed, she told us a little about the house and that had been in the family for three generations.
Speaking of history, location 2 for the day was by Forte di Bard, a fortified complex built by the House of Savoy in the 19th century, and overlooking the emerald green river below. For those interested, the narrow gorge through which the river runs has been used for millennia to strategically control the route between Italy and France. The fort itself replaced previous structures built in the 5th and 10th century (the latter being razed to the ground by Bonaparte himself).
Making good time we were able to stop and buy a couple of ingredients to make a panini.
As I was waiting for the riders I noticed a couple of cars from the race procession try and stop at the same little shop, but then, seemingly under time pressure, decide against it and speed off again. The riders were close.
Our final location for the day was at the finish of the climb to Cervinia. I was supposed to be looking for potential locations but, after a almost 3 weeks on the road, I was struggling to keep my eyes open.
So, with the riders still some distance away, we pulled into a cafe for a much-needed doppio.
The location we eventually chose was about 3km from the finish line, featuring a series of switchbacks that led into a tunnel. The crowd was starting to build as more and more people made their way up the mountain.
Parking just above the tunnel we met a fellow photographer, Kei, and his friend and ex-pro rider Takashi. They were in the process of consuming a fine bottle of Brunello di Montalcino and invited us to taste some. It was amazingly good. We stayed for a chat before heading down to find our spot.
The sun was out and there were shirts off everywhere as the crowd soaked up the perfect conditions.
The first rider came into sight; it was Fabio Aru. The crowd went bananas. Sardinian flags were raised high and the Fabio fan club (who had chartered a bus) was in full voice.
With each passing rider the spectators became more and more lively. By the time the grupetto arrived just about every rider was getting a push. There were even deals being made – a bidon for a push. I was envious as my tired legs walked back up the hill to the car.
See beardy’s coverage of previous stages below.