With the promise of cobbles we wasted no time getting to the start. I wanted to document the bike and tire choices of the different teams.
A quick pour-over coffee from our sneaky breakfast camping kit and we were off.
A quick check of the Beardy mobile's wheel nuts was in order - we didn't want a wheel flying off on one of the many, many cobble stone sections we would have to thunder over to track the stage.
Arriving at the start, there was a lot of interest in the team bus area - as the media pack hunted for unconventional bike set-ups.
I found the odd cyclocross brake lever, 30mm tires and even a cyclocross bike or two being readied for the stage - but it seemed that most of these would be sitting on the roof of the team cars before being swapped in mid-race.
Once I had what I needed we headed off to our next location – the Cote de la Citadelle de Namur. It was a category 4 climb on cobbles with a view out over the river and the town of Namur.
Good fortune was smiling upon us as we managed to find a park near the top, before stumbling upon a great location with multiple vantage points to capture the approaching cyclists.
There was a significant crowd building near the top so I moved to grab a spot next to an older man and his grandson. What I didn’t know was that his wife had just left the spot temporarily, after waiting there for hours.
When she returned I offered her the spot back, but she took it in her stride. Even after waiting all that time she wasn’t fussed if I took her spot, so long as I could get the shot I needed.
She then further increased her lead in the ‘nicest person ever’ stakes, opening up her small picnic cooler and offered me a cold drink.
To honour her kindness, I got ready to take the best darn shots of my life. Unfortunately, just as the riders came into view, a canon was fired from the citadel, scaring me half to death.
I was certainly grateful I wasn’t standing up on the wall with many of the other photographers – I may have lost my balance.
As soon as the last rider had passed, I warmly thanked the old lady and set off in search of cobbles.
Looking at the map and the estimated driving time it was going to be tight to make the first section. We discussed it with a couple of the other photographers and we decided it was worth the risk.
It looked like we might just make it as we navigated our way around the race route and, once sufficiently in front of the cavalcade, tried to get back on course.
The first intersection we arrived at was closed. A nearby police officer advised us to turn right, where we would be able to get through.
Soon we found ourselves on a cobbled farm road and I was certain we would have no hope of catching the race – time was short and I could already see the helicopters in the distance.
Luckily, we found the course and they let us through.
When we arrived at the first sector it was packed with people on the embankments of the road and spilling into the fields.
I felt bad for the farmer as I tried to pick my way through the lettuces without causing too much damage.
The condition of the cobbles was much worse than I’d expected, and there were two big dips that caused the cars to bottom out – making for a horrible scraping sound as they tried to drive past at high speed.
As the riders came past, chaos reigned. With so many people trying to get a glimpse, and the road being so narrow, there was a lot of bustling going on. Something had to give. I was forced to take a step back. Lettuce was crushed.
Our next stop was another section of cobbles, the longest in the stage (with a big corner midway). The cobbled roads don’t show up on Google so I hadn’t had a chance to do any research on this stretch – we were, to a large extent, flying blind.
When we finally arrived, after rattling our way through two cobbled sections to get there, we bumped into Rapha’s mobile cycle club, setup on the side of the road. We stopped for an espresso and a catch-up with some of the Rapha staff we had met along the way. They kindly offered me a bike so I could ride up to the corner and check it out before we drove down (I wanted to scout ahead as there was no turning back). Plus I just really, really wanted to ride the cobbles.
So I set off and got just a little bit carried away – the crowd on the roadside cheering me along like a pro.
When I got to the corner there were already bunches of photographers setting up. With ample parking nearby, they all wondered why I was now riding to locations. I didn’t tell them – I figured it added to my mystique 🙂
The spot was so good that I rode back to fetch Mrs McBeard and the car.
As we waited for the riders to arrive, clouds of dust were being stirred up by each passing car, and I had to cover my lens to stop it getting dusty.
The first spot I had chosen was right on the exit of the corner. As the first bunches came around, I almost got taken out by Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali and Andriy Grivko taking it wide (check it out from 2 angles below).
Once the last of the riders had passed, the crowd huddled around TV screens in the backs of cars and camper vans to watch the finish.
We decided instead to get moving. Easier said than done; the tiny cobbled roads that stretched in every direction were already choked with traffic.
It was going to be a late one.
See beardy’s coverage of previous stages below.