Bye bye Bertie
Sometimes you can just feel it coming. No matter how hard others try to resist it, or hold it back with the best-laid plans, the inevitable just has a way of persevering until it becomes, well, inevitable.
Everyone knew that Alberto Contador would, inevitably, attack - and attack hard - before this race was done. It was just a question of when. The last of the great attacking riders, ‘Bertie’ had performed admirably after an average start to this year’s la Vuelta, moving from 30th up to 5th in his final grand tour. And yet, you sensed he wasn’t quite done.
Destiny was to beckon one last time for this favourite son of Spain - and what a place to do it. Like Spartacus bowing out with a gold medal at the 2016 olympics, El Pistolero’s final competitive act as a professional cyclist was to attack a peloton littered with some of the world’s best cycling talent on stage 20, and put them all to the sword. On Alto de L'Angliru, Spain’s toughest climb, and in front of his home crowd, Alberto Contador wrote his final chapter in sweat and suffering to take the stage win.
It won’t get him the the tour win, it won’t even get him on the final podium in Madrid - but no-one on that mountain will ever forget what he did out there today. On aging legs, and with trademark grimace, El Pistolero fired one last shot as he willed himself up the iconic climb and into Spanish folklore. Like Pantani discarding his nose ring on Monte Campioni (on account of it weighing him down), Contador did what he promised to do - and left nothing out on the course.
None of this was lost on the fans who had lined the climb in the hopes of seeing their hero salute one last time. They roared like lions when he came past them in the lead. They shifted anxiously (but politely) as Froome, advantaged by Wout Poels’ support, started to close the gap. They wept and hugged as the news came across the radio that he had won. If they could have carried him on their shoulders, like an old bullfighter out of the arena, half of Spain would have shown up to honour him.
As for me, I will admit I was swept away in the emotion of the stage - cheering wildly in between shots. It was almost impossible not to get emotional. Love him or hate him, Alberto Contador had always followed his personal motto “where there is a will, there is a way” - and had provided some of cycling’s most exciting, memorable (and contentious) moments over his 15-year career. In an age of calculated team tactics and incremental gains, I wondered if we would ever see his like ever again. I suspect we will, with a generation of young Spanish cyclists growing up idolising their hero, and learning to dance on the pedals just like Bertie.
So, farewell and chapeau Alberto. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to document the latter part of your career, as well as have the opportunity to see one of the greats go out on top.
Back to business
As for the stage, it seemed as if providence was on our side. Iri and Jim (from BrakeThrough Media) called, telling us that they had a sticker for our car. This would allow us to drive the climb and not need to take the mini bus. This was great news, so we filled the Škoda with as many photographers as we could muster and, like a clown car at the circus, headed out. On our way to the summit we passed those that missed out, left to queue for the bus.
It was an experience just driving up the ridiculously steep 23.5% gradients of Alto de L'Angliru - I was glad I didn’t have to ride them!
Just 7km from the top we came to a complete standstill as traffic tried to pass each other on a particularly narrow pinch. It seemed impossible for two cars to pass on this particular section, but, with one door open (so I could keep an eye on the edge), Don Àlvaro delicately manoeuvred the Škoda past the other vehicles, with the parking sensors going berserk.
Shortly afterwards we were stopped again. This time there was a helicopter overhead, lowering a rope down to the road. As I got out to have a closer look, I found there was a stretcher on the road. An unfortunate bike rider had come to grief and was being airlifted to hospital. Hopefully he is OK.
This was, seemingly, the perfect opportunity for The Don to tell me a story about a previous Vuelta. A bus had broken down before the race, on this very climb, leading to it simply being pushed off the edge to make room for the approaching riders. It made me very glad we were in the Škoda today, and not on the bus!
Once the helicopter had the stretcher inside, it flew off to a standing ovation from the crowd - saluting the efforts of the rescue workers. Shortly after, the road reopened.
Wet ‘n’ wild
As if this climb wasn't steep enough already, rain was beginning to fall. After a bone-dry morning, this made the surface of the road extremely slippery. Further complicating matters for the riders was the wind, whipping over the mountain straight. It was so bad organisers were forced to disassemble sections of the podium/finish structures out of concern for spectator safety. The stage was set for an epic finish to remember.
At the summit the temperature was a chilly 6 degrees. Accordingly, we all rugged up and stood around the boot of the Škoda, enjoying a picnic. This was one of my favourite aspects of La Vuelta, and something that the bigger races missed - the opportunity to socialise. With less photographers competing for every shot there was more chat amongst the press. In this case, we were bonding over classic Vuelta stories and peanuts butter sandwiches.
We received news that the bus had been stopped on account of the mountain being too crowded, and dangerous, to continue. The other photographers were all going to have to walk up the climb! To make matters worse, the rain really started pouring down. Tough times for our photographic friends.
As for us, we were forced to pack the picnic away and retreated to the cars. I tried to venture out a couple of times before being driven straight back in by the wind and rain. So we simply waited it out, with the riders still 30km away.
Thankfully the rain and mist lifted just in time for us to see the riders way down below. Words do not do this climb justice, you really need to stand on the edge and look down to see just how incredibly steep it is.
With the riders back on the buses, and with Froome all-but-assured of taking the red jersey to Madrid, all that was left was for us to complete the 400 km transfer to meet them there. We’ll see you tomorrow for the final grand tour stage of the year!