In terms of photographic opportunities, today we were in for another one spot special – which gave me the opportunity to saddle up once again and get the Grand Tours Project band back together. After four stages in the air-conditioned comfort of the car I was keen to get back on the bike, and also keen to see how riding every kilometre of the Vuelta was going for Uri and Sylvain.
The fatigue was writ large across their faces as they pulled up out the front of my hotel at 6.30am. Sylvain, who has ridden every kilometre of three Tours and a Giro, said that this year’s Vuelta was by far the hardest route – there’s simply no easy kilometres, it’s either up or down.
I, on the other hand, had had five days off the bike and was feeling rather sprightly. This was instantly obvious on the first climb of stage 14 to Puerto de San Isidro, as I danced on the pedals away from my two companions a la Contador. While the legs felt good, the chilly five-degree temperatures were taking some getting used to, and I tried to imagine the 43-degree heat of the early stages as fingers and toes went numb.
I was itching for a coffee stop as we crested the category one Alto de la Colladona, but my need for a brew was nothing compared to the ravenous hunger of Uri and Sylvain, more than halfway through their gruelling journey. When the bartender placed a pile of pastries filled with nuts on the table they disappeared in an instant; the second round evaporated just as quickly.
No rest for the wicked
Renewed by a brew and the few crumbs of buttery pastry I’d managed to salvage from Uri and Sylvain’s face-stuffing session, the long and winding descent was good fun. However, in typical Vuelta style, as soon as the road flattened out again we hit another cat 1 climb. Though difficult, this would fall far short of the day’s brutal finishing climb up to Les Praeres: four kilometres at a leg-searingly steep 12.5% gradient.
I don’t know where the Vuelta organisers find these monsters – which often resemble a goat track covered in fresh hot mix concrete – but they’re awful to ride up, let alone race. I thought it was going to be a good opportunity to recce the climb to shoot it later, but within minutes of starting my ascent up the thing I was chewing my stem, sweat dripping down onto the inside of my sunnies.
After just over half an hour of toil I made it to the finish, where I found trusty sidekick Álvaro waiting in the ŠKODA with plenty of water and other refreshments. But with the peloton already on the approach there was no time to relax, so I quickly got changed, grabbed my camera gear and hoofed it back down.
Though I hadn’t managed to see much at all except my stem on the way up the climb, I needn’t have worried – a bunch of red-vested photographers had already found the best spot, where the trees opened up presenting a great view of the mountains with around one kilometre to go.
The corner was strangely quiet, making for a nice clean shot of the lead riders, but as the main bunch approached more and more people crowded the inside of the corner, obstructing my shot. At first we politely asked if they would move to the opposite side of the road, but as soon as they did more spectators simply appeared and filled the vacant space.
To make matters worse, the Guardia Civil showed up too to ‘control’ the crowd, stinking up the frame in their black Rambo uniforms. With storm clouds covering the sun and thunder booming in the distance, my mood also darkened as I considered the possibility of a heavy downpour over a kilometre from the shelter of the car.
Thankfully, the weather held out just long enough for me to photograph all the riders and make a quick dash back up the hill to the car. It was complete chaos getting back, but lucky I’ve got Álvaro – the Don was already waiting in the queue of cars and we made a clean getaway as the skies emptied.