The money stage
In the leadup to the McGregor vs Mayweather bout in just a couple of days, it was time for me to assemble my money team (we used the good plastic cutlery this morning) and strut a bit of Beardy bling (no, not you, Michael).
While they are fighting for the Money Belt, I’m doing it for my peeps - all of you - and my craft. We were just going to add a little swagger for stage 6. And so, I present, the money stage.
Škoda had organised a flight above the peloton for me in a helicopter - they are total OGs. I had never been in a helicopter before - so I was more than a little excited (and blown away). However, I was also a little nervous. The Don and I were, by this stage, a well-oiled machine, and I still had photos to deliver. Having never shot out of a helicopter, I had no idea if I would be able to get anything I could use.
I explained this to the Škoda team, who responded that, after the helicopter, they had organised some time in a race car to really lay on the VIP treatment. I’ve heard about these drivers. They just stick to the race route and don't have the minerals to take risky diversions like my own personal racing drivers, Stuntman Mike and Don Álvaro.
Accordingly, I knew the race car would almost certainly mean a lack of shots - so I politely declined (feeling rather sheepish, I really wanted to go for that ride). I couldn’t bail on both, so we would just need to find a way to make the helicopter work.
The first step was to find out where the helicopter would be dropping me off, so I could get The Don to meet me and we could jet off chasing the riders.
The Helicopter pilot gave me a rundown on helicopter etiquette. “This is the window. You can open it, but don't stick anything out”. Wow, I thought. You can open the window? Having never been in a helicopter, I never really thought that you would be allowed to open a window like that.
The takeoff was much smoother than I expected and we were soon circling the stage 6 start town of Vila-Real. I could see the team buses leaving in a long procession towards the finish. We continued circling for 20 minutes, without so much as a glance of the race. Then I had a terrible thought that, maybe, we would not be following the riders, and that this was some kind of joy ride only.
I politely snapped away, trying to act excited. Deep down I was freaking out, worried I wouldn’t get any shots and was wasting valuable time. As I was contemplating my hopeless situation, the pilot pointed towards something in the distance and roared the helicopter towards it. “We found them!” he excitedly exclaimed, causing me to laugh out loud into the intercom. I enquired as to what had happened. “We lost them for awhile there” he replied.
As we hovered above the stage 6 highway, with the riders looking like ants below us, I snapped away until I lost sight of them between the buildings. Happy with this batch of shots, I looked across at the pilot to give him a nod and a smile - we’d hit pay dirt.
Unfortunately, out of the corner of my eye, I also caught a glimpse of one of the other passengers leaning forward to grab the airsickness bag. Let’s just say he forgot to remove his headphones in time, meaning his microphone captured the whole thing for the rest of us to hear in glorious stereo sound. Anyone who has listened to the hidden track at the end of Ash’s seminal 1977 album will know what I mean.
So that was my first experience in a helicopter. Thanks Škoda, but I think I will stick to climbing trees for the time being.
Once I had my feet firmly back on terra firma, I pinged Alvaro my position to see how far away he was. He messaged back with a rather straightforward “NO WAY!!”. He was already 7km forward of our position, so I told him to hold tight. I looked back at the Škoda team - it looked like I would need that ride in the race car afterall!
I followed the GPS closely, so I wouldn’t miss The Don. This was going to have to be a fast exit as the race cars couldn't stop for long. Sure enough, the dropped pin was accurate and it all felt a little like a military operation out of some big-budget Hollywood blockbuster; a helicopter drop to a waiting vehicle, who then rushed us to the rendezvous with my contact on the inside.
Unfortunately the spot we ended up at wasn’t the best for photos, and the road ahead was already closed to us. With riders approaching, I grabbed my bag and shuffle-ran off up the road, looking to improve my situation. There was so little time I just ploughed through the bushes with little thought.
I had previously been under the impression that Australia had some of the prickliest, most inhospitable bush going around (we do). What I hadn’t experienced though, until now, was that we have some rather healthy competition for the crown. Just about everything I grabbed was covered in thorns, tearing into my legs and hands. Limping back to the car at least I managed to I find a bidon or two to add to the #bidonwatch collection.
Booze and brine
There was still two more spots for the day, so I wasn't too worried about this one not working out exactly how I would have liked. The helicopter adventure had meant no food stop thus far and, with the Škoda pantry running dangerously low, #DashboardDelicacies was reduced to 4 slices of chorizo and some leftover tortilla de patatas from our mate JR at the Paella restaurant in Castellon.
This didn’t go very far, so I opened a jar of olives. However, this was also when disaster struck. Don Álvaro accelerated past a car and the fresh jar of brine splashed all over my shorts. I tried drying them with paper towels, but soon gave up and just cranked the heated seats to full.
The last two nights have been late ones and we are both starting to feel the fatigue that only a long night's sleep could undo. Still, food trumps sleep on the Caravan and, as we had some time, I suggested we get something to eat in the next town.
We stopped in at a local bar. I only had €6.50 to my name and was confident there wouldn't be a cash machine in this small town. The Don ordered a couple of sandwiches as well as a beer for me and a Fanta for himself. I was worried it was going to amount to way more than €6.50. I handed over the coins and the lady seemed happy enough, so we just left it at that.
A beer, a sandwich and a quick snooze was sure to bring me back to life - things were looking up. Unfortunately, the snooze would never eventuate and the beer had just made me feel more tired as I dragged myself around on the last climb looking for a spot.
I decided to get some closer shots of the riders today after shooting from afar on yesterday's climb. So I settled in amongst the crowd, snapping each of the riders as they came past.
Then, mid-frame, I felt an arm under each armpit as someone grabbed me from behind and lifted me clear from the road! It was the fun police, the Guardia Civil, coming to spoil my shot. I didn’t have my red vest on today on account of the intense heat.
Missed it by that much
The finish was back down on the flat. The diversion that Don Álvaro suggested was such a small road that both the car GPS and Google Maps refused to use it, no matter how many waypoints we dropped or alternative route buttons we clicked.
The Don asked a group of spectators next to our car park about the road, hoping they were locals and, sure enough, they had driven up the road earlier today. What we hadn't planned on, though, was the traffic jam of team cars and general public milling around the exit point.
We were leaking time. Still, I was confident that with Don Álvaro’s superior horn usage and driving skills, we could make it. Just metres from entering back onto the course there was a blue truck blocking both lanes. The Don did his best to convince the guy to move, without luck. This forced us back down another road - and away from where we wanted to be.
I saw the motorbike pass at the end of the road, as we raced towards it. We were too late, the red flags waving meant the road had now closed, leaving us to watch the riders hurtle towards town, and the finish, without us.