There isn't much time in the middle of a grand tour to reflect on the size of the task in front of you. Nor the achievements behind you. In fact, the thought (that I hadn’t had time to think) didn’t occur to me until the very last day of the 2017 Caravan - today’s stage 21 of la Vuelta. However, on the long, 400km drive to Madrid, I had the time and headspace to reflect on the year that has been.
It has taken 6 grand tours (3x Giro d’Italia and 3x Tour de France) on the Caravan, for me to finally make it across to Spain. Don’t get me wrong, as a fan of cycling, La Vuelta has been a race that I have wanted to cover for a really long time. It has just taken a while for me to get all my ducks in a row. Previously, it would have meant dropping either the Giro or le Tour, however this year I was able to make the logistics work (by negotiating a shorter Tour de France and French holiday with Mrs McBeard) and get to all three.
The Giro and Tour each have their own unique ‘feel’, and I was relieved to discover that la Vuelta a España also has a distinctive personality. I had been a little concerned that, as it is run by the same company who runs le Tour de France, it would be a carbon-copy of le Tour. Thankfully this couldn’t be further from the truth (right down to the strange podium gifts), with La Vuelta standing out to me as, perhaps, the most unique of the three.
Of course, having Don Àlvaro helping me along has opened a number of doors that would, otherwise, have been firmly shut had I not had someone aboard that spoke Spanish. Perhaps this is why I have found La Vuelta so different? His first-rate cycling, history and geography knowledge provided invaluable insights into Spanish culture - the land, the food and the people. He also had some great la Vuelta anecdotes, that helped me better understand what gives this race such charm.
So, for a moment, I allowed myself to forget about the race, and just look outside the window at the scenery flashing past. It is in these moments that I contemplate just how lucky I am to get to experience all of this. To combine my love of cycling, adventure, storytelling and photography together into a single vocation is a privilege - one that I am extremely grateful for. The fact that I get to share it with all of you makes it the best job in the world.
I sometimes wish you could all be here with me - experiencing the towns I have visited, interacting with the locals I have been lucky enough to meet, sampling the local cuisine, and, of course, witnessing the daily spectacle of the race. I hope that this document of my adventures goes some way to making you feel like you were here with me. From the Wild West of southern Spain to Contador’s emotional masterpiece on Andalucía, I hope my musings inspire you to come on your own Spanish adventure soon.
I often think about how my perspective as a photographer varies from that of the riders. Do they get to appreciate the scenery as they ride along? Do they get to taste any of the local food? Do they get stuck in street parades, get to cut their own Chorizo or drink 1am beers with locals in a tapas bar?
Do they get to read Beardy’s Caravan?
Stage 21 didn’t start until 5pm, so it was going to be a late one. We visited the start to see Alberto's last sign-on, and Froomey mount his Spanish-inspired steed.
The late start and accumulated fatigue of the previous 20 stages was taking a toll on the both of us. The Don’s tribute beard was evolving from bum-fluff to proper bristle - he was becoming a man before my very eyes! Still, it looked itchy - I’ll bet he can’t wait to shave it off. As for me, I had transformed into my other other alter ego, ol’ Shrimp Eyes, and was having trouble keeping upright.
Accordingly, after sign-off, we headed straight for the finish and the press room for a sit down. We wanted to get the images and story from the start of the stage sorted before the riders arrived, as the final podium wouldn’t finish until 10pm - and I didn't want to be working all night.
Plus, there was a La Vuelta after party, and Don Àlvaro was keen to hit the dance floor (and, possibly, some señoritas). I was pretty sure I would be making a quick exit, as the idea of partying all night then catching an early flight was enough to make even ‘ol Shrimp Eyes, the ultimate low-power mode human, cringe.
As I tapped out these words in the press room, I kept a sharp eye out for the riders. As soon as they entered the city, all the photographers in the room grabbed their cameras and headed for the track.
There were shots available from both sides of the course. As the riders passed us on one side, we all ran to the opposite side, to chase them on the next pass. Back and forth this repeated, until the last lap, when all the photographers got into position to shoot the sprint finish.
Matteo Trentin won the final sprint, however Froome sprinted as well, earning just enough points to hold onto the green jersey.
A modern great
Froome didn’t just win the green and the red jersey, he won pretty much everything else as well. This included the Tour/Vuelta trophy, which must have come as a surprise to him - as he seemed particularly excited about that one. Whatever you think about his (or his team’s) measured approach to cycling, there is no denying that he is one of the modern greats of the sport, and will be remembered, in the decades to come, as being almost unbeatable in his prime.
(That being said, he might well be glad to see the back of his great mate Bertie - so he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder constantly...)
With the podium completed, and officials already dismantling what was left of the 2017 Vuelta, we had come to the end of our adventure. I was well and truly ready to hang up my accreditation lanyard and cameras until next year.
I would like to extend a very special thank you to all those who have made the 2017 Beardy’s Caravan triple crown possible. Firstly to Mrs McBeard, for letting me go galavanting around Europe for so much of the year (while she studied at home in Sydney) - and also for coming along for the Tour de France leg, sacrificing days of leisure to drive me around.
To Stuntman Mike for being my go-to wheelman and for taking a month off work to come and chase the Giro around Italy with me.
To Don Àlvaro for being my translator, driver, tour guide, beer drinking buddy, geographical whiz, personal photographer, and all-around nice guy at the Vuelta.
To all my sponsors - without whom, none of this would be possible. Thank you to Olympus, Santini, Škoda, Shimano and Giant (make sure you support them if you can).
Lastly - a very big thanks to all of you for reading, liking, sharing and commenting on the 2017 Caravan. I love getting your feedback, thoughts on the race and Beardy crowd shots - it truly makes all the sleep-deprived hours away from my loved ones worthwhile.
On that note, if you have any suggestions for how we could make the 2018 Caravan even better - please let me know!
Until then, friends.