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Vuelta a Espana: On the scene at Alto de L’Angliru

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For my first trip to the Vuelta, I didn’t want to be too ambitious, since I had only been to Spain once before, had never driven a car there, and speak no Spanish. So, I decided to see just a few stages in the final week of the race. The whole trip was a big adventure, but the biggest adventure of the week by far, for me as well as for the racers, was definitely the stage 20 finishing climb to Alto de L’Angliru.

But before I get to the Angliru, here’s one shot from the finish of stage 19, for tgsgirl and all the other Crazy Thomas fans:

Having watched several previous Angliru stages on tv and computer, I was relieved to hear that most members of the press would not be allowed to drive our own cars to the finish, but instead would be taken up in shuttles. Everything seemed to start out smoothly as I arrived at the press headquarters, 13 kilometers from the finish, in time for scheduled noontime departure of the shuttles, and found a seat on the second of the three minibus press shuttles. At the time, I thought it a bit overly cautious of the organizers to insist that we be on the shuttles more than five hours before the riders were predicted to hit the bottom of the climb, but as it turned out, we needed just about all of that time to get to the finish.

The first glitch came as the other two shuttles and our police escort car pulled out onto the road to begin the parade to the summit. Our minibus stayed put, because the driver couldn’t get the sliding passenger door to close. It seemed jammed open, not moving at all. After wrestling with the door for several minutes, the driver and a few other guys finally got it to move by pulling the emergency exit lever inside the bus, but then the door wouldn’t latch, since it was in emergency exit mode, so two guys had to hold it closed from the outside while the driver released the emergency lever on the inside. Finally, we were off.

We made slow but steady progress for the first few kilometers, as cyclists and walkers made way for our little caravan on the narrow road. About eight kilometers from the finish, we stopped dead for half an hour, as a line of vehicles coming downhill inched past us. And just a few hundred meters after that, our police escort led us all into a small pull-out, where, after some discussion among the police and the drivers, we were informed that the shuttles could go no further. There were too many people on the road, it seemed, to allow for safe passage of the minibuses. So, we could walk the 8k to the finish, and after the stage, walk back down to the awaiting shuttles. I’d had plenty of time on the slow journey to make friends with my seat-mate, Rafael, a photographer for a Spanish cycling magazine, so we started walking up together. The road was spectacular, but a steep, strenuous walk.

After we’d gone about two kilometers, the wind picked up and it started to rain, hard, so we hunkered down near some bushes until the weather lightened, then started up again. Rafael, who was carrying a lot more camera gear than I was, was not eager to climb six more k, so when he saw a race organization car coming up carrying no passengers, he flagged it down, and we hopped in. I soon regretted this move, as the car reeked with the acrid smell of a burning clutch, and our young driver plowed up the road like a New York cabbie, hardly giving the startled cyclists and pedestrians any time to get out of our way. After a nerve-wracking couple of kilometers, the driver had to stop on a particularly steep ramp, and then he couldn’t get the car moving again. I’m not sure what was wrong, but the car seemed to be stalled, and even though the driver was using the parking break trick, the car just kept rolling backward when he tried to get going. Eventually, two more organization cars came up behind us, and they decided to roll our car back down to the last hairpin, and leave it there. Rafael jumped into the first of the newly arrived cars, and told me to get in the second one. My new driver turned out to be my friend Geoff, a Frenchman who also works in the Giro press office. Geoff was a calm and confident pilot, and we had a pleasant ride to the top in his nifty red car, seen here after we parked in the grass just past the finish line:

Just as it was starting to rain again, I found a couple of friends from cyclingpro.net broadcasting a live report from their car, and they invited me in to ride out the rain squall. With about an hour to go to the stage finish, the rain stopped, and it was time for me to walk down the course and find a place to take some pictures. I found a good spot about 1500 meters from the finish (I could tell it was a good spot because a couple of pro photographers were already there). From our hairpin, we could see the hairpin below, and also see several kilometers down the road, for a lot of advance notice of the approaching action.

I had heard that Contador was out in front on his own, and before long, he appeared, first on the hairpin below, and moments later, at our side.

Contador looked like I’d never seen him before, his face twisted in pain.

Wout Poels and Chris Froome came by next, closely followed by Zakarin.

Kelderman and Kruijswijk
Bardet
Woods
Nieve
Van Garderen
A scraped-up Marc Soler followed by Enric Mas
Diego Rosa
Chaves
Luis Angel Mate

After a while, I started walking back up to the finish area, which gave me a chance to take photos from a few other spots along the way.

Jack Haig
Sanchez, Perez, and Aru
Sanchez, Aru, and Ludvigsson
Daniel Navarro

A few hundred meters from the line, Orica riders Carlos Verona and Sam Bewley shook hands, and as they passed me, I heard Bewley say, “It’s been nice riding with you this past month, mate.”

The Angliru was one of the most fun and exciting days I’ve ever had at any bike race. Thanks for the memories, Vuelta! I’ll definitely be back!