I had scoped out a couple of locations to target for the day, however the best spot presented something of a quandary. It was the final climb of stage 3, a nasty little category 2 called Alto de la Comella. Unfortunately, from there, the riders would descend straight to Andorra for the finish. Clearly, we couldn't cover both the climb and the finish, so we pinned our hopes on some mountain magic.
Not that this stage was short of the vertical stuff - we would also be dropping by the first climb of the day. In fact, the road basically went uphill from kilometre zero, right through the first 30km.
Back at the start line, we had walked past the Orica Scott bus, where the riders were on the ergos, warming up. This seemed slightly counter-intuitive as we were practically melting into the scalding sidewalk. Everyone (and everything) at the start was, to my mind, sufficiently warmed up.
Still, cycling is all about rituals, and the way they were working hard in the heat suggested that the team would be attacking stage 3 full gas.
At the other end of the spectrum, Team Sky were loading their bike cages with insulated bidons. This was something I hadn’t seen on a grand tour before - yet it made complete sense. Given the Team Sky juggernaut is all about marginal gains, the proof will be in the pudding. However, should icy bidons work, you can expect every other team to quickly jump on the wagon.
Bullfrog and toad
We found a nice little spot on the first climb, looking down the valley. I snapped the riders as they approached, winding up from a long way below.
As the riders got closer, I assumed a variety of positions - including one of my favourites, the ‘Bullfrog’ (see if you can spot it) - to ensure that each shot was slightly different. I am constantly trying to keep the content from each stage as fresh as possible, relying on a sort of photographer’s yoga to be able to consistently (and quickly) change the angle, whilst remaining balanced.
There were two options for us to make the final climb. One was to follow behind the convoy, waiting for the riders to hit the second climb (Coll de la Rabassa), and push straight ahead. The only problem with this strategy was that, if the race split (it did), or we were delayed (we were), the riders up the front might beat us to the punch, meaning we would be denied access to skip ahead.
The second option was to take a different road entirely, entering Andorra from the other side. However, this was going to make it very difficult to get to the last climb without traveling backwards on the race course (which, as we all know, is a cardinal sin).
As it turned out, fate forced our hand. A number of riders had dropped off on the first climb, delaying our speedy getaway. Moreover, once we did get going, we found ourselves stuck behind a particularly slow Volvo towing a trailer. At that point we had little choice but to take option two, and hope we could find a way to make it back up to the climb.
Lost in translation
Arriving in Andorra, we were forced to try our luck. This is where having a Spanish speaker on the Caravan can really come in handy, with Don Álvaro (thank you to Nikolas) able to quickly explain the situation to the local police in precise terms, and without the linguistic (and emotional) fluster I am well-known for in these parts.
Still, I was surprised when they let us pass so easily. Not wanting to give them a chance to change their minds, we set about climbing up the wrong way, waiting for the other caravan (the one filled with bags of lollies and useless plastic trinkets) to come bearing down on us like a runaway train.
With our hazards lights flashing, and taking each corner gingerly, hugging the curb, we crept up the mountain and almost got to our spot before the last officer we needed to sweet-talk informed us we couldn’t park there.
I wasn't sure what was going down in the conversation that followed. All I could say for certain was that it was getting louder and more heated by the second. So much so that I became worried Don Álvaro might push the guy too far, putting our day (and the rest of our la Vuelta adventure) in jeopardy. However, when I got the translation, I couldn’t help but laugh. Apparently it was along the lines of ‘as long as I can’t see you, it’s not my problem’. So we simply drove a little further on and parked without incident. No one messes with The Don.
I got to my spot and, shortly afterwards, the helicopters came into sight ahead of the riders. Froome was up front, with Chaves and Nibali on his wheel. However, it was when Aussie Lachlan Morton came past, just behind the group of GC contenders, that I got most excited. I was cheering him on so loudly the camera was shaking as I was trying to take the shot.
It was stinking hot and the riders were not permitted to take drinks on the last climb. So a young boy, nay entrepreneur, took it upon himself to keep the riders hydrated. He was handing out bottles of water that were quickly snapped up by the thirsty riders, making him, for a moment, possibly the most important person on the mountain.
As we waited and waited for the last riders, our decision to take the 2nd option was quickly vindicated. The wait was so long, in fact, that eventually we just started driving on the course, hoping the official-looking stickers on our vehicle would help us blend in. This did the trick, allowing us to make it back to Andorra without being pulled over.