Le finish line is in sight!
We survived our 800km drive from Basque Country, fuelled by coffee and the knowledge that the Tour de France finish line was almost in sight. Our soggy servo snack and beer for dinner didn’t do much to charge my batteries for the 21st and final stage – getting out of bed this morning was one of the hardest things I’ve done in a while.
Straight from the start in Houilles we were battling gridlocked traffic. Even our faithful ŠKODA had had enough, developing a flat tyre and refusing to drive any further (I could sympathise with the feeling). By the time we had fixed it we were running well behind schedule. So I decided to abandon our other photo plans for stage 21, and head straight for the Champs-Élysées.
Ah, gay Paree! Entering the outskirts of Paris, I couldn’t help but leave some of my curmudgeonliness behind. There’s a reason it’s the most visited city in the world. Bustling with tour watchers and colourful flags, there was a buzz of celebration in the air.
Monsieur Angry Tomato
All the photographers gather in the same location on the finishing circuit. From here you can see the riders twice every lap, with the famous Arc de Triomphe in the background. After 6 laps shuffle-running back and forth in a flurry of photo taking, we all migrated to the finish line. Paris is the most packed-out finish of the entire Tour, and there was a sea of fresh faces with each lens bigger than the next. Where were these guys in the dust of Roubaix or the madness of Alpe d’Huez?
I’ve witnessed enough Team Sky victories to know what to expect: the team finishing together, hands-on-shoulders across the line. But somehow the plan fell through this time, riders straggling in individually. So Geraint Thomas came to a stop in front of the photographers, trying to get the entire team together on the finish line. This was like throwing a freshly bleeding hunk of meat into a tank full of piranhas. The school of photographers descended on the riders, lenses snapping. Poor Fabrice the media liaison disappeared from sight with barely a gurgle.
I was angling to get a photo from behind the riders of the media mob crowding in for the shot. It was a real frenzy, with full-on yelling and shoving. Then suddenly I was grabbed from behind, and my photographer accreditation was ripped from my neck! I turned around to the reddest, angriest face I have ever seen. Unsure of what was going on, I tried to reason with him. But Monsieur Angry Tomato was on a rampage, ripping the accreditation off other startled photographers around me.
Clients were counting on me for the podium photos, but with my accreditation gone, was I going to be kicked out? There was no time to try and sort it out…I would just have to rely on my natural bearded stealth.
I still had my photographer’s bib, so that was something. Using the mass of media surrounding Thomas for camouflage, I held my Olympus up over the top and hoped for the best. It worked! I emerged from the fray with a shot of Thomas and his wife embracing.
Now for the final hurdle. I had to somehow get a good podium position without the authorities spotting my naked, accreditation-free neck. I made Álvaro walk in front of me as a human shield, staying glued to him like an anchovy on Salade niçoise. We shuffled up the stairs set up for photographers to shoot the podium, where I uncurled – here I was amongst friends, and safe.
As I waited for the podium, I reflected. Champs-Élysées might be French for the Elysian Fields, the paradise for dead Greek heroes, but today it was the backdrop for real-life heroes. Every rider in le Tour has sweated and bled, fallen and gotten back up, day after day, carrying the hopes of their countries with them. As Kristoff took the stage win and Thomas, Dumoulin and Froome were awarded the overall placings, I had to cough gruffly into my beard.
Drained by my unexpected outbreak of emotion, I got the final shot of the day – and the tour - and left the race with a huge sigh of relief.