Thus far on our la Vuelta Caravan, we’ve had a bit of everything. We’ve been in helicopters and race cars. Been molested by police yet also kindly accommodated by them. We’ve started a new cooking show concept (#dashboarddelicacies), and revisited a few old favourites like #bidonwatch and shuffle-running. We’ve gorged at press buffets and local restaurants. We’ve had troubles getting to starts and missed finishes completely. It’s been quite a week!
About the only thing we haven’t had much of is much sleep. This is a constant problem on the Caravan, getting enough sleep to be semi-functional the following day. Running on adrenalin only gets you so far, and, inevitably, I will turn into ‘ol shrimp eyes - the goal right now being to avoid that inevitability for as long as possible (especially as we are only at stage 7).
For new readers, a typical day doesn’t start too early, but runs really late. After capturing the stage, we need to get to our accommodation (often hours away), eat, edit images, upload a story and then do all our planning for the next day. A short day on the Caravan is 14 straight hours and, well, let’s just say you don’t want to know what a long day is!
And, my lord, the heat! A punishing Spanish summer is making everything even more difficult. I now completely understand, and support, the siesta.
Unfortunately, I did not get that siesta I had planned for stage 6, so we decided to get an early night and try to claw some sleep back. This meant skipping our usual course planning, shifting it to the morning of stage 7 instead. We had a basic plan set out, but no idea of the final details.
Luckily, Don Álvaro knew Cuenca (the finish town for stage 7) well and suggested the last climb as a key stop. He described it as a very steep, cobbled street and when I checked it on Google Maps I knew it was the way to go.
However, then I discovered the bridge that was only 300 metres from the cobbles. You could catch the riders a second time as they passed the town in a kind of canyon. Sadly, no matter how we calculated the route, there seemed no way to make a stop on the way to Cuenca. Therefore, after a brief stop at the start line we would be headed straight to the finish. We were betting everything on the cobbled climb and bridge.
Don Álvaro pointed out the local highlights along the way, including bull road signs, sunflower fields and the clear water of Hoces del Cabriel. This really is a beautiful country.
We made it to Cuenca in one piece, however it seemed that some of the other Škoda vehicles hadn’t been quite as fortunate. Škoda mobile mechanics had set up a body shop on the street and were patching up a number of dented panels. I also noticed a motorbike petrol tank that somehow got chucked in the mix. I asked the guys how much to get the tank painted and they all laughed. However, they were also then quick to hide it away, not wanting to get busted for doing a little work on the side. At least we now knew what to do if we put a dent in our Škoda.
The pressroom was calling and Don Álvaro was in a hurry, more than a little worried we might miss the lunch banquet. When we arrived at the gymnasium of a local school (which would, I imagine, normally smell of sweaty gym gear) we were met with the aroma of a thousand garlic cloves and stewing meat. The caterers had no qualms about us loading up our plates to bursting point, leaving The Don and I in peace to gratefully chow it down.
Cuenca was only 2 hours drive from Madrid so, after lunch, we said ‘hola’ to Don Álvaro’s parents. Montserrat and Fernando were lovely people, however it soon became clear that they hadn’t travelled down to watch the race - but rather check up on Don Álvaro and make sure I was taking good care of him. Apparently he looked reasonably well nourished, so I got the tick of approval.
We had a bit of a walk to get to the cobbled climb, so we said our goodbyes and went to find a spot. The town of Cuenca is perched on top of a rocky cliff, with the gorge down one side and a castle on top. The walk was very steep, however I didn’t really mind on account that it was noticeably cooler today. We even caught a couple of drops of rain - the first I’d seen since leaving Sydney over 10 days ago.
The climb was filled with people. The Guardia Civil were also doing their best Rambo impressions, hanging off the side of Landcruisers, all kitted-out with large machine guns. It was kind of scary, and I was truly grateful that I had remembered my red vest today - so, hopefully, I wouldn’t get molested again.
We went to check out the bridge, discovering it to be completely empty. Then I saw the Guardia Civil guarding the entry. I flashed my vest and accreditation but was met only with a very serious shake of the head. I don’t get the logic behind some of these closures - don’t they want great content from their race? There was no reason in the world why a couple of photographers couldn’t safely shoot from that bridge. I was turning as red as my vest in frustration.
Still, I had my secret weapon. I unleashed The Don on them, expecting fireworks with a high probability of a punch-up (followed by manly hugging). However, this guy was stone cold. Don Álvaro gave him everything he had, and then just turned back to me and shrugged. There was no way we were getting access.
All we had left now (for pretty much the whole stage) was the climb - so we needed to make that count.
We headed back to the cobbled street and found a spot. I was still fuming that my hero shot had been scuppered. However, when the first rider came into sight, I quickly forgot about my troubles. What a scene it was, the crowd had gone bananas, and there was suddenly action happening everywhere!
The first rider was sticking to the gutter, to avoid riding the cobbles. I pushed as far back as possible just to get a shot. Then, one after another, the riders came up in the gutters on alternating sides. It was difficult to get a good shot without getting in the way. I even had my knee touched by a rider’s wheel as I crouched in the gutter.
After the last rider had passed, we started the long walk back to the pressroom. Suddenly, I had a lightning bolt of inspiration. Was it worth a gamble to try and capture the riders back down in the gorge anyway (without the bridge)? Out of nowhere I started running, startling The Don. He shouted that it was too late to make it, but that didn’t deter me. Somehow, due in no small part to some fancy shuffle-running footwork, and some monkey-like climbing skills I managed to catch the peloton and gruppetto in two more spots.
We had salvaged the day, and will sleep well tonight.