Putting the feet up
Today was the only stage of this year’s Vuelta without a single categorised climb. For the teams without a sprinter, it was as good as a rest day after countless stages slogging it out in the mountains. Fatigue was setting in for me as well, and I was grateful I wouldn’t have to pedal up any stupidly steep Spanish roads, weighed down by camera gear , on today’s outing.
After shooting the riders at sign-on in the medieval town of Ejea de los Caballeros – where, disappointingly, the start village’s food options hardly stacked up to the feast of Stage 15 – it was off to our first stop of the day.
We pulled up in a field where the wind turbines were spinning as quickly as the riders legs. I walked across a stony paddock to get a long shot of the race, the riders lined out in single file and truly belting along thanks to a blustery tailwind. If it turned slightly to become a crosswind, we could have a race on our hands.
Risk it for the biscuit
After nearly three weeks of chasing La Vuelta – not to mention riding 10 stages of it myself – the race was finally starting to catch up to me. I battled to keep my eyes open as we began our drive to the second spot of the day, the smooth highway and warmth of the sun through the windows encouraging me to have a kip.
My slumber didn’t last long as Álvaro soon turned off the highway, and we hit the bumpy, twisty back roads that crisscross the hilly Aragon region. I was straight back into my normal bolt-upright posture, gripping the armrest like my life depended on it.
We had no specific point in mind for our second shot, so I was pleasantly surprised when the diversion joined the race route in the town of Berbegal – a mere dot on the map but strategically placed on top of a hill, lending me a panoramic view of the Aragon hills. I was back to my rock-scrambling ways, putting life and limb on the line for the best shot. Gotta risk it for the biscuit, as they say...
A victory for the separatists
All that was left was to make it to the finish in Lleida in time. As we passed into Catalunya, the familiar red, yellow and blue Catalan flag (called the Estelada) began to appear everywhere. Perhaps its separatist origins were a source of inspiration for the breakaway, who were fighting on valiantly with the peloton breathing down their necks.
With 30 kilometres to go for the peloton, we were already at the finish, watching the race in a bar and munching on tortillas. The bunch had the breakaway in its sights, cutting the advantage from 2min30 to under 2 minutes in no time. Everything was lining up for the predicted bunch sprint.
At 15 kilometres to go, Álvaro and I sauntered over to the finish line, ready to shoot Viviani and Sagan go head-to-head in a sprint royale. I could hardly believe my eyes when the two remaining breakaway riders, Lotto Soudal’s Jelle Wallays and UAE’s Sven Erik Bystrom, came into view, still with a sizeable gap. Wallays could hardly believe it either as he crossed the line first, just metres in front of a fast-finishing Sagan. The Vuelta has been a race for breakaways, that’s for sure.