Dirty on Sanchez
The start for stage 8 was in a town named Hellín, in the south-east of Spain. A quick glance at Wikipedia didn’t reveal much - only that there were a tad over 30,000 cycling-mad Spaniards living there in 2014, and that they are pretty handy at traditional tamborada drumming.
We had received a request to take the Škoda video team with us in the car today. This seemed simple enough, so we agreed. However, no matter how hard we tried to shoehorn them in, my bike and all our camera (and personal) gear meant that we needed another vehicle. Luckily, we’re talking about a car company here, and another Škoda was soon made available to follow us on our daily exploits.
The first spot we targeted on stage 8 was a category 3 climb at Puerto de Biar. The idea was that we could then cut across the course and make it to the mountaintop finish on the Xorret de Catí climb. La Vuelta were really giving the fans something to cheer about - this was the second mountaintop finish in 8 stages, with an astonishing 7 still to go! If the last one (on stage 5) was anything to go by, the atmosphere would be amazing, and the sides of the road jam-packed.
The first climb wasn’t anything to write home about. Still, I set about looking for the best angle anyway, and I found it perched in a tree (overlooking a castle in the distance). Then an El Pozo motorbike with a photographer on the back arrived. It was Sanchez (or at least that is what I would have named him, on account of his thick moustache).
This was the third time Sanchez had pulled up and shot next to me, cutting my grass. I was convinced he was looking out for me, in a brazen attempt to steal my spots. I waved at his moto driver to move out of my shot and Sanchez yelled something back at me in Spanish. When I asked The Don to translate he said it was something along the lines of that I was ‘always climbing up something’. Sanchez then gave me a smile and moved out of my way. Maybe I had him all wrong?
The riders passed and we sped off with the Škoda film crew in hot pursuit. Our plan to use the diversion worked perfectly, and we were waved through to the climb.
Ever since we picked up our Škoda Octavia in la Vuelta livery, people have been hassling us for freebies. It has become as much a part of cycling in Europe as the bicycle itself - spectators expecting free stuff, and lots of it.
Thinking ahead, Don Álvaro had collected piles of the Škoda ‘We Love Cycling’ stickers that the fans seemed so fond of (although, to be fair, they could likely have said ‘cycling sux!’ - or worse - and still been wildly popular, on account of being free). We stashed the stickers in the centre console as a kind of strafing countermeasure against the encircling hordes that beset upon us whenever we pulled to a stop.
The steep slopes of Xorret de Catí were the perfect opportunity to do some promotion on behalf of our sponsor. Accordingly, we wound the windows down, cranked the tunes and held stickers out the window for people to grab. Hundreds of hands waved for a sticker and after a while we were overwhelmed. At that point we resulted to simply throwing fistfulls at a time out the window - like bread crumbs to hungry pigeons. The crowd quickly collected them all, like a carcass picked clean. Soon we had used up our stash and began to get nervous. The vultures were still swarming - and the official Vuelta caravan (which held more appropriate inventory for these life-and-death situations) had not yet arrived to reinforce us. It was quite a scene.
The only other problem with the sticker throw (aside from running out) was that I wasn't paying much attention to the actual climb. Unfortunately, this meant that we pulled up much too early. I set off by foot to see if there was a better spot up higher and, after over a kilometre of hiking, I found the place I was looking for. I had used a lot of time walking up and the police motorbikes had already started flying past, meaning the road would soon be closed. The Don was sitting in the shade, munching away on some frutos secos, and unaware that the plan was about to change. I came running down the hill, shouting at him to get back in the car - so we could get up to the spot while there was still time.
The atmosphere at the top was electric, with thousands of spectators packed along the narrow road. This made it difficult to get a clear view of the riders - so I got my elbows out and prepared for the worst. As the riders came past the crowd surged forward almost like a mosh pit, and I did my best to line-up my shots without getting smacked in the face by a TV moto or flying beer can.
The best part of today (apologies to the cyclists) was our accommodation. Just a few kilometres back down the climb in Castalla, which (in contrast to yesterday's 2 hour drive to the hotel) meant some time to explore the local town after we had finished editing images.
There were a couple of restaurants down the hill (according to our host), but all we could find were tapas bars overflowing with people. They were so busy that people were spilling out into the street as the frazzled staff tried to reign in the chaos.
We eventually found a restaurant and had, what might be, our most authentic experience yet. As soon as we sat down we were presented with a sharp knife and a plastic glove. I might have watched a little bit too much CSI (or Dexter) in my time, and was, initially, quite confused and, truthfully, a little unnerved.
Or at least until I noticed The Don grinning at me, sensing my unease. He pointed to the selection of chorizo, salami and other cured meats, hanging near the counter. “Just cut off what you want” he said. So, it was (more or less) like an episode of Dexter after all!
Next up was the main course, featuring salad, olives, crusty bread, a huge bowl of aioli, a plate of grilled meats and, of course, patatas fritas. The only problem was I had forgotten my camera to capture this meat-lover’s paradise.
Not wanting to miss this moment (and share it with you), I ran back to the accommodation, passing a couple of guys drinking in the street. Moments later they saw me flash past the other way, camera in hand. On the third pass (as we headed home) they asked what I was doing. Don Álvaro told them I was from Australia - and they almost fell off their chairs. “What the hell is an Australian doing in Castalla, in the middle of nowhere?”