The battle for booty
If I’ve learned anything chasing grand tours in my little Caravan these past 3 years, it is this: things never seem to go to plan. It is a hard thing to explain to someone who has never tried chasing something like le Tour de France (even on this, my third attempt). However, given this is lucky stage 13 - and with what I am sure you have already guessed is to follow from this ominous introduction, I will do my best.
It is not for a lack of resourcefulness. Regular readers will know I risk my accreditation pretty much every day to try and nail the shot. As a case in point, on the 2 previous stages I have covered for this year’s Tour, I have already managed to take on the French constabulary twice, as well as put myself in the dog house with Mrs McBeard on multiple occasions.
It is not for lack of planning. This is no half-cocked operation, dear friends. Along with being known as Beardy, I am developing a new nickname - 'Shrimp Eyes'. Coined last year, and ratified by successive Caravan team members (including Stuntman Mike and Lieutenant Dan) it is apparently on account of my eyes increasingly closing over as the stages wear on - until they are just two thin slits.
Why, you ask? Because I am up all night. After I have put out the latest stage of the Caravan, I am busily preparing for the next day. I have already done basic research before the race begins, however there are weather reports to consider, updates from race officials to decipher, tips from photographers and teams to work in and, finally, a route to plan that will yield the best possible spots to shoot from.
So, after such rigorous preparation, how can it still go belly up? Because this is Europe - and this is cycling. Access roads are closed without notice, or rerouted completely. The police are rarely on the same page as the race organisers (especially in regional areas) and, understandably, adopt a ‘block first, ask questions later’ approach, even to vehicles who have the appropriate clearance. Old vehicles (or even tanks) breakdown, cattle decide the middle of the road is where they want to mingle - or the cyclists get a tailwind, and blitz everyone home.
Some photographers hire an army of assistants to shoot various locations (especially the finish) for them, so they are guaranteed to get the shots they need for media. I have also heard of one photographer who hired a local rally car driver to make sure he was able to get around (using old farm roads the driver knew like the back of his hand).
I take a different approach - and embrace the chaos. Just me, my camera, a packet of grissini - and a partner-in-crime to help me get around (in this case, my wife Mrs McBeard). Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose. Sometimes we manage to salvage near-disaster and make lemonade. However, we always give it our best - and make sure we record the adventure, so we can pass it along to you.
Clearly, then, after such a long-winded rant, today (stage 13 of le Tour) didn’t go to plan. It almost seemed doomed from the start. Not only was it stage 13, but it was only half the length of the previous stage (and most other stages of the race). It was also Bastille Day, so every man and his dog would be out celebrating along the course.
Still, with such an action-packed Pyrenean stage on offer, and an electric crowd to spur me on, I wasn’t going to die wondering.
Firstly, though, I had a bit of fun capturing the crowd, both young and old, clambering on top of each other in the hope of claiming some booty from the publicity caravan.
The wrinkles of wrath
The Col d’Agnes was packed-out with the typical campervan convoy, parked nose-to-tail on every flat-ish section of grass. It was going to be hard to find a spot amongst all the grey nomads and their fully-entrenched, high-tech setups. They had spent days (or, by the look of some of them, years), staking their respective spots, and they weren’t about to surrender them to some beardy-come-lately. At least, not without a fight.
Accordingly, I was relieved when we only had a short walk on our hands to get back to the action after parking only a few hundred metres down the descent on the opposite side. I would escape the wrath of a thousand walking sticks for another day.
I set to work calculating the angles, before setting Mrs McBeard up with a sweet spot amongst the crowd. I then got busy climbing up some rocks to get an overhead view of the riders and spectators below.
The choppers buzzed overhead and, soon enough, the riders appeared.
Once the last riders had suffered past, we hoofed it to the car to make the perfect getaway. There was only one team car between us and the ‘voiture balai’, or broom wagon - things were looking good.
After yesterday's incident there was no way we were going to miss the diversion to the finish, following the map so closely that I was on the verge of going shrimp and cross-eyed.
There it was, the entry to the diversion. The team cars were lined-up with their indicators on, trying to make the finish before their riders.
Then we saw it. The most heartbreaking of gestures. The gendarme controlling the exit crossed his arms in an ‘X’, followed by a vigorous shake of his head. No one was getting through.
There was a lot of pleading going on from the car at the head of the queue. The team cars behind quickly became impatient - also trying their luck with the officer. However, it soon became apparent to all that there was no way this guy was going to budge. Yesterday we were welcome, today we were not.
Perhaps now my little diatribe at the top makes a little more sense. How could you possibly plan for a stage when the rules change each day? I guess it keeps this game interesting.
Dinosaurs for the downtrodden
All was not quite lost. There was one more diversion up ahead - so we gunned the motor and muttered a few prayers.
Unfortunately, by the time we backtracked and made our way through Bastille Day traffic to the entry, the riders could smell the finish.
With nothing left to do we headed back to the hotel, more than a little downtrodden. Pulling up at the our restored manor house accommodation, though, put us in a much better mood. Situated in a secluded valley in the heart of the Pyrenees, and complete with topiary dinosaurs, it was quite a sight!
Our host welcomed us, asking about the tour. When we told them that we were photographers they told us about about another guest they had hosted two years before, who was also a Tour de France photographer. It turned out to be none other than the great Graham Watson himself!