Stage 20 - the one we had been waiting for. When a race throws you something as unique and picturesque as the Colle delle Finestre, it makes one part of your job easy. However, it also creates pressure to get great shots and, most importantly, it makes getting there, and getting a great location, the number one priority.
One problem. There had been a media communication that clearly stated the climb would be closed to all non-race vehicles.
With this in mind we left our hotel early and headed for the base of the climb in Susa. Upon closer inspection of the map, it seemed heading to Sestriere (the stage finish) was going the make for easier access to the location, with a shorter climb. I was happy with this resolution, as I would be the one riding up with my camera!
We arrived at the finish before the riders had even started. We went to the local store and bought some prosciutto and cheese to make some panini, fuelling up for a big day ahead. We then stopped for a quick coffee, and, just as the coffees arrived, I received a picture (via SMS) of Kei's car 500m from the top of the climb. Readers of yesterday's stage will remember Kei, my Japanese photographer friend, with whom we had shared wine and a stunning view of the Swiss alps.
Upon further investigation, it appeared that the officials at the gate on the south side of the climb were letting media cars through. Throwing back our coffees, we hit the road as quickly as possible. We took the race route and, sure enough, the man at the gate waved us through.
I couldn't believe my luck, driving almost to the top before seeing Kei's car on the last flat spot along the narrow road. Juggling the cars around we managed to fit both in - just.
With 3 hours to go before the action started we made some more panini, adding to the crumbs that we had been accumulating on the floor of the car from all the crispy bread and grissini-snacking.
The sun was, by now, covered by a layer of cloud and there was sprinkles of rain, so we packed our wet weather gear and walked to the top.
The scene was mind-blowing; there were people everywhere. Bikes piled up in the snow, beers flowing readily, recreational riders cheered on like professionals. The crowds continued to grow steadily as the race approached.
It took me a little while to absorb the atmosphere, before noticing the view. Looking down the climb you could see the gravel switchbacks zig-zagging almost out of sight. The snow covered mountains in the distance appeared momentarily from behind the clouds, then disappeared again.
I walked up and down looking for locations and colourful characters to photograph. At one point I was surrounded by a group of very drunk guys – who started singing to me. Soon others joined in. After a few moments, it sounded like half the hill was singing away to me – not that I knew what it was about.
I thanked them and politely edged away to find some other, less intoxicated, groups of people to photograph.
I scoped out my spots before settling in on my corner, patiently waiting. Serendipitously, the corner I chose became one of the most action-packed of the climb – and hours of entertainment for on-lookers.
This corner was one of the sharpest, meaning the cars had trouble getting round without reversing. If a car managed to make it in one go, the crowd let out a mighty roar.
I wasn’t sure how this would affect the race if team cars had to make a 3-point turn, mid-climb.
A helicopter was spotted hovering above the trees – the riders were on the way.
Anticipation continued to build, feeding the atmosphere. The crowd collectively craned their necks, hoping to catch that first glimpse of the leaders. Would it be Aru?
When they did come into sight the sound was deafening.
I waited patiently on my corner and, sure enough, the cars struggled to make it around.
It was fine for the first couple but as the bigger bunches came through, the number of cars increased. Then, the collision. A car, impatient, and accelerating to get around, hit the back of another car, which was rolling back to try and improve the angle. Another huge roar from the crowd and now the traffic was really banking up with more riders just about to reach the corner.
You could feel the tension rising in the teams further back in the cavalcade, you could sense disaster approaching. Luckily, they managed to get all the cars around just seconds before the next wave of riders reached them.
Deciding that this corner wasn’t the right spot to capture the drama of the climb, I tried to head down. However, the road was full of a mixture of cars, riders and people – slowing my progress.
Luckily, the riders were heavily splintered by this point, which allowed time to experiment with locations, angles and lenses, as I tried to do justice to the incredible scene before me.
The riders coming off the top of the climb were facing a long cold descent so fans were handing them newspapers to shove down their jerseys for extra insulation.
When the last of the riders had disappeared over the top there was a mass exodus of people rushing to get back down. The road was completely full of people, bikes and vehicles as I shuffled back, against the flow, towards where the car was parked.
I hopped in, shut the door and started downloading images as we waited – watching the stream of people heading off down the mountain.
Once most of the people had gone, we decided to drive down the front of the climb to our accommodation. As we started making our way up what was really a narrow goat track, a food truck appeared in the opposite direction.
There was barely room for two cars, let alone a car and a truck. We squeezed over as far as we could and the truck tried to get past up – but it was too narrow.
They tried again, getting precariously close the the edge of the road and the long drop below. I couldn’t watch.
Eventually, common sense prevailed and they gave up. We reversed down and they safely passed. I was a bit hesitant now, so we waited until the coast was clear and, thankfully, made it to the top and over.
See beardy’s coverage of previous stages below