The Bucketing list
Photographing this year’s La Vuelta is a little different to the other grand tours I've covered. I think this is due, in no small part, to the fact that so many stages offer up only one spot to shoot. I usually try to shoot 3 (or more) spots per stage, so each Beardy’s Caravan story can bring as much of that stage to life as possible. Given that so many La Vuelta stages have offered only one or two spots (due to restricted access to the many mountaintop finishes), Don Àlvaro and I have had to adjust to a new routine. Luckily, this is usually accompanied by an adventure or two, so you, the reader, don’t miss out.
Today, at least, we didn’t have to catch another bus to the finish. A stage 17 press comunicado came through at the last minute with updated details; we could drive to the finish if we arrived before 3pm. This gave us some flexibility - and put our fate in the hands of The Don, rather than a 30 year old bus with a dodgy clutch.
The finishing climb was Los Machucos, a new climb, apparently, that boasted some scary numbers. With gradients exceeding 28%, I was a little worried the Škoda would struggle, let alone the ageing bus fleet La Vuelta officials seemed so fond of.
The start town for stage 17 was little more than a couple of houses and a church. Moreover, it seemed the priest had received a VIP invite, and was keen to take full advantage of his moment. As I was chatting to a couple of riders before sign-on, he came over and asked me if I could take a few snaps with his phone. He then got in amongst the riders and posed, beaming like the Cheshire Cat. I did my best to make it work and he thanked me warmly, seemingly pleased with the results. I hoped this was a good omen for the day to come.
First indications weren’t promising, however, as we set off towards the finish. The next two hours were spent ploughing through heavy rain - but at least it was cooling things down. The Don also got to tick another item off his strangely specific bucket list; this time it was overtaking two Guardia Civil vehicles on a narrow back road, with one wheel in the gravel.
I was half expecting to see one (or both) of the police cars light up, and pull us over. Fearing the worst, I had given them both a polite wave as we went flying past, in a pre-emptive strike to smooth things over. I hoped this gesture, plus my good Christian deed at the start, would credit us enough karma points to allow The Don to keep speeding like a demon towards our destination.
Thankfully, it would appear my investment strategy was sound. We made it to the bottom of the climb without getting arrested.
Our karma credits wouldn’t last long, though, as we arrived to find the climb closed to traffic.
I hung my head - I couldn’t believe this was happening. Or maybe I could, and that was why I was so worried. Don Àlvaro went looking for someone to talk to, while I started to begrudgingly assemble my gear for the long walk of defeat.
Thankfully, it turned out to only be a temporary closure. An ambulance came careering down the hill and off into the distance, after which the climb was opened all the way to the top.
The parking at the summit was questionable at best, the grass quickly turning to mud under a sudden rush of vehicles. The Don and I were a little worried about what it was going to look like after the stage was complete. There was a tractor parked nearby, which we assumed was the recovery vehicle.
I set off walking down to the steeper section of the climb (at 1km to go). I had devised a plan to shoot the first riders from a field overlooking the climb, then move to the road to get a series of close-ups. However, it was still raining lightly and a thick mist had descended over the mountain - all but obscuring the view to the road below.
As I was checking for another angle, the priest from the start drove past in the official convoy. He recognised me, stopping to say gracias once again. Not normally the religious type, I decided this was about as close to a sign from above as I was ever going to get. So I waited and, sure enough, the clouds lifted and I got my shots!
Contador brought a tear to many a Spaniard’s eye with a strong attack. It was not enough to win the stage, but was a fitting reminder of when a young el Pistolero would dance on the pedals, putting some of the greats to the sword. We will miss you, Alberto.
When we returned to the carpark, there was mud flying everywhere. We were in the same boat, our wheels spinning in the mud as we looked to slip and slide our way off the field. That tractor sure came in handy.