Let the games begin
When I cracked open my 2018 Tour de France road book to examine stage 1, it was with a bit of disappointment that I discovered the route wouldn’t be crossing the Passage du Gois – even though the famously hazardous passage was front and centre on the 2018 Tour poster. But, money talks and football rules, and because of the World Cup the race was pushed back a week. I guess no one checked the tidal chart.
This meant that instead of sending the riders down a slippery, muddy road strewn with seaweed for stage 1, the race would be taking the only other road off the island of Noirmoutier-en-l'Île. The problem for us – and everyone else hoping to be at the stage start – was that this was the very same bridge we had to drive over to get there, and therefore it had to be closed by 8.15 am.
I was up at the crack of dawn, with food, camera gear and computer already packed. Álvaro surfaced half an hour later, rubbing his eyes. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my time in Europe, it’s that the Spanish don’t like getting up early!
We left on the dot of seven, but when I punched in the directions, I couldn’t help feeling we had left it a bit late – with our arrival at the bridge estimated at five past eight. The thought of missing the first moments of the Tour was too much to comprehend.
Nearing town, I was relieved to see the official motos up ahead, so I told Alvaro to follow close behind; if we could blend in, we would get across the bridge for sure. Thanks to this tactical bit of camouflaging, we made it with no stress.
Safely on the island with time to spare, I couldn’t resist taking a peek at the famous tidal road, so I asked the gendarme guarding the entrance if we could leave the race route to take some photos. To my surprise, he let us in: hopefully, this pleasant exchange with the local law enforcement was a sign of things to come!
Once through, another barrier a bit further along impinged our progress, so we parked and made our way by foot. Even though I’d been denied the chance of shooting the peloton in full flight on this stunning bit of road, it seemed luck was otherwise on my side; we were soon passed by two old fellas on bicycles. The early morning sun was sparkling off the water's surface, as old mate one and two posed on their bikes - what a scene!
A balanced breakfast
Our quick photo stop ended up being 20 minutes and on returning to the roadblock we were greeted by a much less friendly gendarme. Making the dreaded X with his arms, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. Had we blown our chance to make the start? Luckily my negotiation skills have come a long way over the years, and he eventually let us through. High fives all around.
Time had evaporated like it always seems to on the Tour, but if there’s one thing we make room in our day for it’s the local delicacies. The hospitality area at the start village looked the goods, but even for me, oysters for breakfast seemed a bit much. Álvaro’s eyes lit up at the Haribo sweets, chicken drumsticks and pomme frites on offer – it wasn't even 10 am, but within seconds his arms were filled with food.
Back in the car, our first stop was the bridge we had crossed earlier in the day. We nabbed a park and I squeezed into the conga line of photographers balancing on the railing. After the more relaxed atmosphere of Switzerland, this was a firm reminder that I’d be bumping shoulders a bit more often at cycling’s biggest race.
Like a well-oiled machine, we made it to our next location (another bridge – there’s a few of them in this part of France) with less than five minutes to spare. Evidently, I wasn’t the only one with this idea and was astonished to see a bunch of other photographers there already. I guess we hadn't pushed it as hard as we thought.
Getting out of the town on the other end was a nightmare. Pedestrians and cyclists had started making their way back through the streets, and Álvaro broke in the horn of the Skoda with a long succession of beeps. I shudder to think what everyday spectators must think of the press sometimes, bombing into their town at the very last minute – while they have been waiting hours for the race to arrive – then blasting their way out again.
With two shoot locations in the bag, we still had room for one more before the finish line. We stopped in a typical French town complete with a church, a village square filled with people, and even a member of the local clergy – who caught my eye standing atop a stone wall. While Álvaro whipped up a couple of sandwiches, I went off to explore.
After chatting with a few locals in ‘Frenglish’ and taking a few snaps, it was time to hit the road again. On the way to the finish, I lacerated the roof of my mouth on the crusty baguette my Spanish sidekick had made for me. Occupational hazard, I guess.
At the finish, it was back into the scrum. Maybe I’ve forgotten over the last year how insane the Tour is, but jeez there were a lot of photographers! One thing I haven't missed about it is the argy-bargy to get a shot. I'm not sure what some of these photographers do in their free time, but my guess would be Greco-Roman wrestling.