I’ve spent enough time chasing bike races now that I might be a bit jaded about what it actually takes to ride a grand tour – day in, day out – for three whole weeks. Sitting in the comfort of the ŠKODA with the air conditioning cranked way up, it’s easy to look at the peloton’s average speed and yawn, wondering why they’re riding so slow today or why so-and-so is getting dropped from the grupetto.
So when Keith, the owner of Grand Tours Project , first approached me with the idea of riding every kilometre of this year’s Vuelta, the easiest thing to do was dismiss the idea as crazy. Did I really want to find out just how hard it is, and fill the cleated shoes of my lycra-clad subjects on the other side of the lens? No sir-ee bob!
But as the race loomed closer and closer, the idea of riding at least one week of it started to seem more and more like a good idea. It might have been my brief acquaintance with winter back home in Australia that made the sweltering summer heat of Spain seem more appealing, but whatever it was, I took the plunge and signed up to ride the first nine stages.
Long story short, this is how I found myself in Malaga on a glorious sunny day in late August – with only nine days and 1430km of pedalling between me and my personal finish line: the summit of La Covatilla . Think of it as payback. For every time I’ve complained about the heat while waiting for the riders to appear over the horizon, soaking in sweat as the summer sun beats down on a 200km stage: this one’s for you.
Stage one was a bit of a false start, with just 8 kilometres of the prologue time trial for us to complete. Still, our crack team of super endurance cyclists were rearing to go: Keith, Grand Tours Project founder (who, after riding every kilometre of all three grand tours in 2013, decided to offer the ‘opportunity’ to others as a supported tour); Uri, our ride guide and ex-pro with Amore & Vita-Selle SMP; Sylvain, a seasoned veteran of suffering now eyeing off his fifth grand tour; and Christian, a finisher of the Haute Route 2012 Alps, three-times finisher of L’Ardéchoise as well as La Marmotte and Wysam 333. Needless to say I was in good company – I just hoped I could keep up my end of the bargain.
When we rolled out at 8am for the 8km dawdle, the streets of Malaga were still half asleep, and we had no trouble sneaking in for a photo underneath the finishing arch. After rolling a few laps of the most scenic section of the course, we did as cyclists do and parked up for a coffee. For me, the quiet morning had also been an opportunity to scope out a few spots to shoot later in the day – I probably wouldn’t have the chance to both ride and photograph the race over the next eight stages, so I was determined to make the most of it.
Fighting jet lag
Apart from being a firm reminder that we were now running on Spanish time, the prologue start time of 5.30pm meant an even later finish for me and my jet lag. The upside was that the light just kept improving – it’s not often that a stage finishes during golden hour! But, by the time I’d shot half the riders I could feel the weariness kicking in.
To stop myself falling asleep on the job – which would have been easy in my adopted position, laid out flat on the warm pavement in search of the best angle – I decided to go for a walk. As I made my way towards the beach I found myself in the shade of a high rise building, which didn’t offer much in the way of interesting light, but I soon found a spot where a glimmer of sunlight was poking through, casting a shadow across the road and illuminating the riders in a golden glow.
After snapping off a few shots here, I pressed onwards to the port and lighthouse. My money was on Rohan Dennis for the stage win, who looked seriously strong as he came screaming by.