The last bus to Sierra de La Pandera
In keeping with the wild west theme of yesterday, stage 14 was going to be a shotgun stage. We would be gunning straight to the finish, with only one shot to capture the riders. So we holstered our cameras, calmed out twitchy shutter-fingers, and shot out into the desert looking for trouble. Macho McBeard and Don Àlvaro - camera-slingers. Wanted at the press room by 13:30, dead or alive.
The reality was, of course, much less romantic. We were forced to make a break for the finish after a last-minute memo from the press officer forced a rather dramatic change of plans. Due to limited access to the finish, we had to drive the entire course before the riders, in order to catch the only bus to the summit of Sierra de La Pandera. The communication stated (verbatim) that the bus would be "leaving the press room at 13h30 (not later because there will be a lot of public and they’re afraid the bus can broke its clutch on the uphill road)".
This didn't fill me with a lot of confidence (and not just on account of the broken English). What kind of mountain and/or bus were we talking about here? I also wasn’t too thrilled that we would be sitting on that mountain for 3hours before the riders arrived, and for who knows how long afterwards.
With that in mind we packed our bags full of snacks, water and camera gear and set off as quickly as we could.
We made it to the stage 14 press centre with around an hour to spare until the bus left for the summit. Everything was set out beautifully for lunch - except for the food. After much thumb-twiddling and nervous glances at empty serving platters, the catering finally arrived (only marginally ahead of the bus). I was furiously munching my way through a second morcilla slider when the bus driver informed us he was leaving.
Climbing onto to the bus I noticed that there were only 8 photographers onboard - the precise number to travel comfortably in 2 cars that would easily be able to climb the hill. This was in stark contrast to the 30-year-old bus they had dragged straight out of the 80s and which, according to the press officer, might blow up on the steep inclines. There was also the matter of parking. Surely a bus would take up much more room than a couple of small vehicles?
The Don tried to press this point home to the official standing outside the bus and the driver, neither of which were prepared to negotiate. Instead, we headed off towards the climb, passing another photographer who had chanced his arm and tried to shoot the start before attempting to still make the bus. He missed by the narrowest of margins.
The drive up the mountain was long and tedious. I kept thinking the bus driver was going to push someone off the edge of the cliff as he pushed past with only centimetres to spare. At least the slow bus ride gave us a good chance to get to know the climb, however it was actually the steep descent (just before the final kilometre) that caught my eye.
This would, however, mean that I would have to walk down (away from the finish) for more than a kilometre and risk my return trip on the bus. We were under strict instructions to be back at the bus no later than 15 minutes after the podium ceremony. I had no intention of missing my only ride back to the press centre 30km away, so I asked the other photographers to please stop the bus if they saw me on the road. If that failed, I would throw myself in front of it. I would rather be squashed than perish on the perilous walk.
After driving over a number of smaller hills, I finally understood the concern for the clutch as we arrived at the climb. This thing was a real beast at over 2000m. The good news was it offered a chance to get some beautiful landscapes (instead of just close action shots).
With that in mind I did my best to avoid the crowd - other that a couple of loyal Beardy’s Caravan readers that recognised me and asked for a photo together. I found the spot I was looking for, away from the crowd, instead focussing on the riders against the mountains. After the leaders had passed, I walked back up the climb towards the finish, stopping to photograph each group of riders as they sweated by.
I then jumped to my hero shot - the steep descent before the finishing climb. It was even better than I had hoped - the sun was out and the shots were looking great on the back of my Olympus. Other than falling and bashing my shin on a rock, it was all going rather swimmingly.
Until I heard the podium PA in the distance. We were now running out of time and still a long way from the bus meeting point. We didn't want to miss our ride so the Don and I shuffle-ran for all we were worth.
It was, however, to no avail. The bus had already left - we could see it coming down the hill near the finishing straight. The Don and I, in a Thelma & Louise moment, stood in front on the oncoming bus, hands outstretched and eyes shut. Thankfully, he stopped!
The ride back down was much like the drive up - only twice as long due to traffic delays. The officials, perhaps to spite The Don and his reasonable request to ditch the bus on account of it being nearly empty, had filled most of the spare seats with guests from the VIP tents. As we hopped on they gave us a smug, knowing look - like they had planned it all along. Still, they had stopped for us, so we tried our hardest not to look incredulous. It was a full 8 hours from when we arrived at the press centre to when we returned - who knows how long it would have taken had we been required to walk back. We might still be out there!