We weren’t the only ones looking for a miracle at sign-on in Lourdes this morning. The fountain of holy water, said to be a cure for any number of ailments, was overflowing with tourists and pilgrims capturing their very own drop of this mythical liquid. Since Álvaro and I were hoping to pull off a very risky diversion later in the afternoon, I thought it was a good time to ask for a little help from my similarly bearded compatriot in the sky, and duly splashed some water of life on my facial follicles.
We also made a stop in at the Grotto of Apparitions, where the Virgin Mary herself is said to have appeared in 1858. A few riders were also taking the opportunity to light a candle and say a quiet prayer of their own. If ever there was a day to ask for help from above, then today’s 200.5km stage – with over 5000m of climbing through the Pyrenees to tackle – was certainly it. Feeling suitably enlightened, it was time to head into the clouds ourselves.
g’Aspin for air
I was no stranger to Col d’Aspin, the first major climb of Stage 19; previous experience on the mountain leant me more than just a pervasive sense of deja vu, as I knew exactly where I needed to be for the best shots. I had Álvaro make a beeline for a spot that had proven fruitful in previous tours.
On location, Kei Tsuji and I were the only ones brave (or stupid) enough to risk it all and scale the cliff beside the road. After a few minutes perched precariously on the edge of the drop in anticipation of the peloton, a gaggle of moto-tographers pulled up too. Luckily they didn’t have enough time to scramble up before the race arrived – I guess Kei must’ve enjoyed a morning on the holy water as well.
With the peloton long gone, and the broomstick bus in the distance, poor Peter Sagan – still all bandaged up from a heavy (and rather rare) crash a few stages previously – was one of the last riders to pass by. Visibly wincing in pain as he crested the summit, it was going to be a very, very long day for the hardy Slovak.
The holy tap runs dry
On paper we had plenty of time to make the diversion to get back in front of the race, but given we were heading to the final climb of this year’s Tour de France, anything could happen. With this in mind I instructed Álvaro to put pedal to the metal – it was his time to shine. The lack of photographers on Col d’Aspin briefly had me worried, but in the end I had nothing to fear; the Don was once again in fine form, even passing a number of team cars, his hand firing in staccato bursts on the horn.
It was with immense satisfaction that we arrived on time at Col d’Aubisque, beating many of the other photographers who simply don’t have a speed demon like the Don at their disposal. Parked up and with a few different angles already in mind, the only thing standing between me and dinner (plus copious beers) was the fog.
The fog had been hanging around in the valley for most of the day, and on the drive up the mountain, many sections had been cloaked in its embrace, obscuring the dramatic vista. Just as the riders were about to come into view, it descended on us; my luck had run out. I knew I should’ve brought a bottle of holy water along with me – the beard splash was not enough!
So there you have it: the final mountain descent of the 2018 Tour, with all the leaders of the race perfectly in a row – and a beautiful mountain backdrop completely covered in fog. Thanks a lot, big bearded guy upstairs.