As far as grand tours go, 9am is a fairly early start (unless you need to get your accreditation mid-tour). Not so early, however, that the corks can’t be popped on a couple of the finest local vintages, as sweet accompaniment to a little petit déjeuner de pain au chocolat. Freshly-made pastries and well-aged wine for breakfast - who wouldn’t want to visit the Tour Village ahead of stage 12?
Unfortunately, we had to resist considerable temptation and focus on shooting the riders. This proved a wise move as, not long afterwards, the car in front front of us was pulled over and randomly breathalyzed. According to Tour folklore (or at least the other photographers I have spoken to) the hospitality tent used to be a rather boozy affair. Those days are now consigned to history though - with a zero blood alcohol policy enforced along the race route.
I had visions of sunflowers against a perfectly blue sky in my mind. However, on account of the rain, this wasn’t to be. We sped past rain-drenched field after rain-drenched field, proud flowers soaked to the point they had bowed their heads. I hoped the rain cleared before the afternoon.
I had a spot picked out on the Col de Menté. However, a thick mist had settled in, all but obscuring the view. With a heart as heavy as the sunflowers, I abandoned this first location, pinning my hopes on getting above the clouds to shoot the finishing climb.
I had seen an image of Col de Peyresourde from the morning, resplendent in a perfect sunrise and sans mist. I took this as a sign that anything was still possible for a reversal of stage 12 fortunes. Still, it was hard not to think back to the Tour Village and imagine a sliding doors moment. Mrs McBeard and I with chocolate crumbs around our mouths and wine stains all down our accreditation lanyards, heartily joining the locals in belting out a few regional ditties...
Still, we had a job to do. With only one more chance to get up above the layer of cloud and capture the riders in the Pyrenees, we had to focus and deliver. The wine and chocolate daydreams would have to wait.
The diversion to the Col de Peyresourde was straightforward enough, until we discovered our GPS had visited the hospitality tent and was now dealing strictly in gibberish. Forced to blindly follow the wheel of the press car ahead of us, we hoped their GPS was on the Dry July bandwagon.
Some time later, I got the feeling something wasn't quite right. My grissini gut has become increasingly well-tuned to impending grand tour doom. What started as a slight grumbling soon became a significant intestinal incident. Did this guy know where he was going?
Sure enough, the press car pulled over shortly afterwards, and indicated to do a u-turn. Now we were in real trouble.
The most important rule of driving in le Tour is you cannot turn around or backtrack - you must keep going in the direction dictated. Still, with nothing in the bag for the day, and only one chance left, we were going to have to break this cardinal rule and swim against the stream.
Mrs Mcbeard looked unimpressed. “We can’t go backward” she reminded me, in a stern tone of voice that left little room for negotiation. Two stern talking-tos in 2 stages of Tour coverage - things have not started well. The Stuntman lives for these moments, leaving me in unfamiliar territory and running out of options.
Still, I’m nothing if not persistent. After trying my serious voice (didn’t work), rational arguments (nada), I resorted to begging and promises of foot rubs. Desperate times call for desperate measures my friends, and this was the only way to make the finish.
Eventually Mrs McBeard relented and we were finally moving again, only to spot a police car up ahead. Thankfully, this particular gendarme was far too focussed on his phone to notice us (he had that ‘getting to level 50 in Candy Crush’ look on his face), and we managed to sneak past without him even looking up.
We were home and hosed - almost. Our Skoda had been a little too fuel efficient, meaning we hadn’t filled up that morning. Now pushing 700 kms, the tank was getting low. As we started to climb the Peyresourde the predicted range dropped to only 35 kms, with the gauge reading well into the red. We still had to reach the summit, and get back down, before we could fill up.
We implemented some aggressive hypermiling skills, driving as frugally as one could while still following a bike race up a mountain pass. We even considered jettisoning some of the weight in the car (NOT Mrs McBeard, just so we’re clear), to then pick up again later. We figured as long as we summited, we could coast down the other side in neutral if need be.
On a roll
The photo from the morning proved accurate, the summit was still above the clouds that we had encountered on the lower climbs. The question was, would it hold? As I was doing my standard ‘pace up and down until you find the best spot’ routine the clouds started to roll in again, smothering the mountain backdrop.
No matter, it was still an amazing day of racing. The cracks are starting to show on the riders though, with more pain faces on this stage than I’ve seen in awhile. This year’s race has been brutal - bring on tomorrow!