Every now and then a location comes along that breaks the internet. Stelvio Pass does it, Jacob's Ladder in Tasmania does it. And now I’ve found Furka Pass in Switzerland - courtesy of stage 6 of the Tour de Suisse.
There is something about the dilapidated Belvédère Hotel, perched precariously on the apex of the hairpin that seems to gets people talking. Maybe because it was a favourite of Sean Connery (as well as Pope John XXIII) and featured in Goldfinger? Or that it looks straight out of a Wes Anderson film?
Its backstory is equally intriguing. The hotel was built in 1882 (3 years before the invention of the automobile), and is still inaccessible for much of the year. Early guests who braved the climb by cart (or bicycle) were rewarded with views over a sprawling glacier, which can still be seen in scenes from Goldfinger. The glacier has long since retreated, and the pass bypassed by a tunnel, leaving Belvédère Hotel an empty and forlorn figure amongst the unrelenting Alps. Basically, it’s Furka’d.
With a byline like that, I knew that every photographer and his dog was going to be on that certain corner and, darnit, I was going to be one of them!
Still, after my successful trifecta of climbs yesterday, I wasn’t about to settle for just one today. So I plotted every conceivable route from Furka Pass to Klausen Pass, looking to somehow shoot both.
The solution didn’t stay hidden for long. Zooming in and following the race route through the valley (after descending Zurka) I noticed that, after 5km, the road split with the riders taking the slower number 2 road. However, there was also a second number 2 road (does that make it number 4?) that turned out to be a highway!
It gave me just over 25km to get ahead of the riders. They would be travelling downhill, and if the gap between the breakaway and the last riders was too big, it would be impossible. However, as this would be after the first climb of the day, the gap shouldn’t be too long. Worth the risk.
So I set course to Furka. As I pulled up at the carpark there was already a group of photographers assembling. I checked the angles and started scaling up the cliff adjacent to the hotel in the hope of finding something unique. After 20 minutes climbing around on the rocks I found the angle I was looking for. The only problem was I would never get down in time to make the second climb in time.
So I retreated back down the cliff and took my place in-line with the other photographers, but not before pinching a chair from the cafe to get a slightly better angle.
Bristling at the broom
When the broom wagon came into sight I was already in the Skoda, ready to go. The next hour or so was full of nail-biting intensity as I swept behind the broom, then onto the highway, bristling to overtake anything that got in my way. The race road was so windy it was often unsafe to overtake but as soon as we hit the flat I zoomed past everything in sight at warp speed; except a lone military motorcycle. Lucky he signalled to me to slow down, aware of a well-hidden speed camera up ahead.
The moment the road split onto the highway the speed limit increased to 120 km. I knew then I was a real chance to make it. I even caught a glimpse of the lead race motorcycle over on the slower road; we were neck-and-neck, but I still had 5 km of highway left up my sleeve.
When I pulled back onto the race route, I fell in just behind the lead official car. With accreditation-revoking calamity imminent, I now found myself in the official race procession. I tried to casually overtake the lead car, and finally got past them. Luckily, they didn’t seem to mind too much.
So I made it to the Klausen pass and found a spot on the descent. Given the extreme lengths I had gone to in order to get ahead of the race, and the Furka pass being the focus of most of the other photographers, I was reasonably confident I wouldn’t have a lot of competition at this spot. As it turned out, I had the place all to myself - with not another press vest to be seen.
With my confidence levels at an all time high I started plotting how I could make the finish too. It looked possible on the map but, with 2x HC climbs already in the riders’ legs, I was guessing the time gap between the first and last riders might ruin my chances of making it.
Fearless in Fantini
When the last rider finally passed it had been almost 20 minutes since the first. I stuck to the broom wagon like a magnet and we followed the Nippo Fantini rider. He was riding the rear bumper of the team car and we were all hitting speeds of well over 100km. Suddenly he over-cooked a corner, unclipped one foot and yet somehow managed to keep the bike upright at mind-bending speed. I could feel sweat burst out of every pore on my body, I was sure he was finished. Yet he hardly missed a beat, and refused to slow down, holding over 80kph on the flat until he caught back onto the grupetto.
But could I still make it? I took the diversion that re-joined the race route at the top of the last category 3 climb before dropping down to the finish. Sadly, I then spotted the helicopters up ahead - I’d missed the window to get to the finish. Fittingly, the railway boom gates came down in front of me.