Basque-ing in glory
While I’m no stranger to the early morning, Álvaro could quite happily live out the rest of his days without seeing the sun rise. My plan for a dawn riding shoot was met with a dark glower and some muttered Spanish (no doubt unsuitable for your tender reading eyes). Luckily for our continued bromance, the cloudy skies allowed several presses of the snooze button before it was time for me to bounce and Álvaro to stagger out of bed.
The shoot was in honour of a new Santini kit launching for the world championships. They clearly wanted a champion beard to model it, so I shook out my flowing follicles and prepared to ‘ride’ to the occasion. Basque-ing in my moment of glory as I swanned up and down the Basque country back road, a sleep-deprived Alvaro grimly pressed the camera shutter and ignored my sparkling puns.
It turns out pouting and pedaling at the same time is hard work! Magnífico as my beard looked, maybe I won’t swap being in front of the lens for being behind it quite yet.
Is it even a sport without carbon?
Today’s Stage 17 would finish with a super steep stitch up, gradients reaching 24% up Balcón de Bizkaia. It was another bus-access-only situation for photographers, so we decided to go rogue with our own car and bike combo. Skipping the bus gave me time to shoot the start in Getxo, which fluttered proudly with red, white and green Basque flags. While cycling is hugely popular here, it can’t quite match up to their own Pelota Vasca, which is similar to squash but uses your hand instead of a racquet. (I’m still struggling to get my head around a sport which doesn’t use half your paycheck for carbon upgrades).
The Basque are as independent as cats, swapping out the policía and Guardia Civil for local replacements. The police manning the city road blocks were a little too enthusiastic for their newfound roles, letting more and more cars onto the course while the motorbike police desperately tried to get rid of them before the race came through. As a result, the first few kilometres of the stage were total chaos.
Once the peloton made it through the (thankfully neutralised) traffic dodgems, the course went straight uphill. A breakaway was forming just as they reached us and riders were already popping off the back. It was going to be a tough day in the saddle.
As the race headed for the coast, my personal challenge was to find a spot where I could could capture the famous San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, an isolated island hermitage. In the end I had to climb up a concrete retaining wall (don’t look, Mum!), navigating a precarious ledge while battling the same thorny bushes of Stage 12 and – to top it off – avoiding a cluster of spiders. My legs cramped as I waited for the bunch, but I finally got the shot and could wobble my way down again.
There ain’t no party like a Basque-street party
Last but not least, Balcón de Bizkaia. Álvaro got me as close as possible, 4km from the cumbre and with a 26km head start on the riders. Weighed down by my camera bag, was it going to be enough?
Luckily I was wearing my press vest and accreditation, because I was told to get off my bike immediately, but managed to talk my way past. I wove my way up between walkers and other riders that had hopped back on their bikes as soon as they were out of sight of the police. I was still grinding up the maximum gradient of 24% when I heard sirens in the distance – no pressure! I drew on the encouragement from spectators lining the side of the road and gritted my way onward.
1km from the summit was a tight switchback completely packed with people and photographers. I knew these guys would have been here for hours sussing out the best spot, so I ditched my bike and squeezed my way in. The fickle mountain fog had returned, but the colourful crowd made up for the total whiteout. Just like Stage 20 of le Tour de France, the Basque people know how to party, and the local police didn’t seem worried about breaking things up.
The brutal grind was even enough to crack Quintana, but Woods smashed his way up to take the win. I was more than happy to leave the final kilometer to the pros and cruise straight back down to find Álvaro.
(Big thanks to Chris Auld for the great shots of me busting a gut - that bag isn't light)