Apparently, number nine is not only the number of magic and heaven, but, for Hebrews, it is also the number of truth.
Normally, I pay little attention to such numerological phenomena, especially when I’m sitting poolside sipping Rośe with Mrs McBeard in Aix-en-Provence, hundreds of kilometres away from le Tour. The only number of consequence there is the memorised room number to sign for the drinks tab.
However, with 3 HC categorised climbs and a budding Richie Porte bromance on my mind, I was keen to be at Stage 9 for what I suspected (and Richie eerily prophesied) would be a decisive stage.
So it came down to convincing Mrs McBeard to give up her poolside repose and instead wake up at 5:30am to drive 360km to the press centre at the stage 9 finish in Chambéry.
I'm not sure how I convinced her, but I should have recorded it. Untold riches await any man charismatic enough to persuade his long-suffering wife to abandon her long-anticipated holiday in order to take photos of cyclists.
Number 9 truly is the number of magic and heaven - and that, my friends, is the truth. Welcome back to the Caravan!
Ire & ice
We must have been the first ones through the press centre doors at 9.30am - there was not another soul to be seen. Compounding the issue, and Mrs McBeard’s ire, was the sudden arrival of heavy rain, right as we were trying to apply the decals to the car.
The weather had been quite the opposite in Provence, only a few hours earlier, and, stupidly, I had failed to pack any wet weather gear. On the drive to Col du Grand Colombier we looked for anything that could be used to shelter us from the icy rain. As Caravan policy, I draw the line at garbage bags with holes cut in the side. So, instead, we settled for a pocket-sized umbrella and a small microfibre cloth to cover the camera while we got soaked.
Regular readers may remember I shot on the Colombier during stage 15 of last year’s Tour, so I knew exactly where we needed to be. Still, I set off to double-check the locations while Mrs McBeard prepared hearty sandwiches on a friendly campervaner’s table.
As I hopped from one spot to the next, formulating my plan of attack, other photographers began to arrive. This gave me a chance to catch up on all the gossip from the first week.
By sheer luck (or divine numerological intervention) the clouds suddenly parted, just as the riders came into sight. The mountain top was bathed in glorious sunshine.
But things didn't quite go as planned. A small bunch of riders had dropped off the back by over 30 minutes, meaning, technically, we would have to wait until they passed before we could start driving again. Twiddling our nervous thumbs, fellow photographers started to break rank and drive off down the mountain. I hesitated at first, before deciding that following suit was the only way we were going to make the finish.
No sooner had I pointed the nose of the car downhill, than we saw the blue flashing lights of the gendarmerie in the rear view mirror. I pulled over and received a stern talking-to in French. Or at least I assumed it was a stern talking-to, I understood none of it. However, judging by the aggressive gesturing, loud shouting, ashen cheeks and occasional phlegm, I remain quietly confident.
Between the legs
After what seemed like hours under the watchful eye of the gendarmerie, we finally got the OK and raced back towards the finish. Our little Skoda handled the job beautifully, meaning we, for once, made it with time to spare. Stuntman Mike, now back in Sydney, would have been proud.
The self-satisfaction was short-lived, however, with my mood pivoting on the news of Richie’s crash. I heard his name mentioned numerous times over the PA, which is a never a good sign, before watching a replay of the crash on the TV screens near the finish.
It was on the exact section of road (down Mont du Chat), that he had mentioned was a dangerous descent.
I hung back from the finish and got caught in the media scrum around Warren Barguil. Convinced he had won the stage, I held on for dear life as the pack of media surged in, desperately trying to get a shot. I even tried a low angle between the legs of a security guard. However, he soon noticed and, well, let's just leave it at that!
It was only when Rigoberto Urán came up on stage I realised that Bargil had finished second in another photo finish.
One by one the riders came across the line, many completely exhausted or wounded after crashing on one of the technical descents.
Today was indeed the brutal and eventful stage I had anticipated, just not in the way I had hoped. Get well soon Richie (and all the other riders that were injured).
The Caravan returns for stage 12 in a few short days. Until then, a huge shout out to Mrs McBeard for being the greatest wife this bearded curmudgeon could ask for.