It has been an astonishing 6 years since the Col du Galibier has featured in le Tour, making stage 17 perhaps the biggest stage of the race. Not just for the riders - but for the fans and, most certainly, the photographers. Last time Col du Galibier was included in the race, it was Andy Schleck who reached the summit first. That was in 2011. You know, that time Cadel Evans won the Tour de France.
From Briançon we had to take the long way around, as driving in the reverse direction over the climb was prohibited. The long way around meant a trip to Italy and back, which also meant a decent coffee at the most reliable caffeine dispensers in the country, the humble truck stop.
The route sent us through the Fréjus Road Tunnel, a 13km tunnel between Italy and France, which is also the 9th longest road tunnel in the world (remember that the number 9 is the number of magic and heaven?). This tunnel is a little magical - would you believe there is an underground laboratory situated inside it, halfway along?
As a side note, the Col du Galibier is also the ninth highest paved road in the Alps. There is that number 9 again, we were in for a magical day.
First, though, we had to deal with customs.
This was a bit of a problem as we hadn’t remembered to bring our passports. It seems that as soon as you have an opportunity to leave some gear behind at a hotel, or BnB, that gear ends up being the most important item of the day.
I wound the window down and apologised, stating my case. Then I flashed the golden ticket - my accreditation lanyard. I explained how we just had to pass into Italy momentarily and that we had left our passports in Briançon at the BnB.
He shouldn’t have let us through. It is mind-boggling to think, in this age of national security, a bearded foreigner could talk his way into a country without the proper paperwork…
Still, much to my relief, the customs officer shrugged his shoulders, and waved us through. He must have been a Tour de France fan. Or, maybe he has read the Caravan?
Yep, we were in for a magical day.
It is not everyday you are so spoilt for choice as a photographer. Usually you are made to work to get that shot - relying on your eye, timing, lighting and a dash of serendipity to all come together at once.
Then, sometimes, there are special places that just seem to do all the work for you. So much so that you could be forgiven for thinking you could simply point your camera up at the sky, with the lens cap on, and still get a stunning image.
Last year it was Mont Saint-Michel. This year it was Col du Galibier, possibly the most photogenic mountain pass of the Alps.
As a consequence I must have told Mrs McBeard to pull over at least a dozen times on the ascent, to photograph a unique spectator, or capture a beautiful vista - long before we got anywhere near where we would be shooting.
Inspired by our rest day ride, Beardy Junior had set off to ride the Biançon side of Col du Galibier in the morning, while we did all the work. To add insult to injury, he had left us with all his clothes, the picnic and the beers. He was expecting us to meet him on the summit - so he could get changed, eat and enjoy the atmosphere appropriately. Kids.
Chirping on the perch
While Mrs McBeard negotiated with a gendarme to get prime posting in the summit carpark, and Beardy Junior tucked into a huge sandwich, I looked for the best locations to shoot the riders.
My chosen perch soon became heavily crowded. However, with a long wait on my hands before the riders appeared, it was nice to have fellow photographers to chat to.
We worked as a team. I could pick out the riders in the distance with my 400mm lens, while another photographer had a crackly race radio that allowed us to work out the order in which the riders would come into view.
After the first half of the field came past, I legged it over the summit to a series of encouraging shouts of “Allez! Allez!” from the crowd. The descent was devoid of onlookers, bar a couple of photographers that had also popped over for a shot of the grupetto descending to the finish.