The idea was simple, the plan a little less so.
Fly home to France from the UK. Hire a small car and drive to Barcelona to pick up Julian from Giordana at the airport. Stay on the seafront near the Red Hook Crit. Photograph it, then depart the following morning for the Basque Country on the other side of the Spain to meet Giorgio from Giordana where we’d stay with the Orica and Astana Teams and photograph their rest day then subsequent time trial before driving back across to Barca then home.
The infamous ring road around Barcelona that I have previous with played it’s part before I even connected with the Americans, Italians, the hotel and the teams and could so easily have symbolised an un-straightforward road trip right there looking back at it, if it wasn’t an adventure involving cyclists. And to me, that usually denotes reason and sanity in the various daft adventures I’ve wandered off into the years and this was no different.
This wasn’t the first time a straight forward small Polo hire car was ‘upgraded’ to a huge Merc E class irrespective of my ideas of it needing to be small to get it in and out of tiny European hamlets across a country. The first time was Bavaria. Not so bad, but the second being Tuscany was until this trip the most out of place. Now, tiny, poor, hillside retreats feeling like they’re from a time of political upheaval and before satnav, parking sensors and horrifically priced alloy wheels became the new place to wish your swanky Merc was less swanky and less Merc and more Yugo.
Walking over to that evening’s Red Hook Crit to be was my first real experience of Barcelona. I don’t count the night before’s getting lost at an airport, high speed ring road rollerball chaos or the time before’s bypass entirely en route to Calpe to see a cycling team that involved the area’s first snow blizzard in 40yrs and a populous understandably unprepared of how to navigate it in twenty year old rear drive German saloons and artics alike. It struck me immediately how modern and young this city seemed. Affluent perhaps. Yes of course an A-list global tourist destination will always have investment and infrastructure to capture those dollars wandering in off the plan, but I thought it felt richer, deeper than that. Culturally so naturally, but functioning modernity along with the prized historic beacons attracting the outsider. Perhaps the plastic wrapped and scaffolded Gaudi towers might not agree, but here on the seafront a gigantic solar farm as modern concrete castle looking out over the med and shading our heroes in gaudy lycra from a blistering heat, it all felt kind of cosmopolitan and full of life in that way a rural community imagines a city to be and often is and some.
I wrote up my story of getting Red Hooked that night in Barcelona and that can be found here but this story kind of started at that point as Julian and I tried to get out of the car park we couldn’t find the night before and discovered that locally parking aid means more wing mirror battery than bleep warned avoidance.
I have made regular road trips over the years with all manner of co-pilots and I love driving, but the one thing that remains the same is the soundtrack needs to work with the vibe. Which usually means some manner of calmness for me, often electronic or called Miles Davis. But this time, Julian played DJ, and thank goodness for his ipod. Not a Mk1 Trans Am and I am even further from Burt Reynolds than Sally Field to be honest, but some imagery of that long straight speed limited road from East to west across Spain does remind me of certain visuals from Smokey and the Bandit when I think back to it. Planes are sensible but there’s no real alternative for me to cutting a country in half with a car and a series of coffee and pee stops overlaid by regional accents and radio jingles.
A mountainous right and flat plane left continued for hours as we overland through the centre of this country so filled with tradition and the scars of a not too distant political history to the replaying soundtrack of Baby Driver.
My last visit to the Basque country is memory of a place where history was punctuated by pock marked walls with the signatures of bullet holes of civil war as a relevant reminder of pride and fear and sorrow, living amongst a new generation and their cities of the west connected to the world live with phone lines but their past generations through brickwork scars.
Giving up on hope of a decent dinner on the motorway and being now glad of my huge fuel tanked Merc after not seeing any rest stops for what felt like hours, we decided to turn left and find a town from it’s signposts figuring there must be plates of hot food somewhere in it and probably then a filling station.
This was a weird place to find. It seemed normal enough and probably any weirdness was our joint dual carriageway tiredness but when I gave up on parking at a car park scene from a mid-eighties urban turmoil episode of The Equalizer and stopped the car on the high street outside the only visible ’restaurant’ to try a takeaway, the ridiculous conversation that followed all the way to the training camp village about the shocking local delicacy of eating puppies for dinner almost took me to an airport straight away. I’m not staying for a minute in a town that eats dogs! Puppy with tomato relish, puppy with mushrooms, puppy with ham, it was enough to put you off your dinner that you couldn’t have anyway. So we left and found crisps for dinner at a vending machine.
We arrived at the village I had booked us rooms at to be where the Vuelta was departing nearby the day after next in a lunchtime TT round an visual feast of a race track in the middle of nowhere at our b&b that was a warm and civilised gentrified home with a bigger Merc than ours parked in it’s courtyard much to my relief. And even more so there were Pro Cycling trucks made camp.
We met Giorgio and even had breakfast with cyclists from Montana that knew the only other people I had ever met from Montana. In an ‘oh you’re English, do you know the queen’ tourist moment, I asked if they knew these people I once rode with photographing a holiday across Tuscon’s hills and a Facebook message was sent and replied to in case the world was starting to feel a little large and needed reeling in a bit.
The following day was a simple and civilised pro team experience. Have breakfast with Orica and Astana, watch them do their chores and after the bike washing and wheel fixing, follow the Orica team out on a rest day training ride and rendezvous with a coffee and a sit down in an ancient fortified hill town of quiet squares and sleepy cafes and somewhat oddly a posh fashionable shoe shop and little else. With ever apparent patience, this A-team sat with coffee and good humour and a decidedly not best in show flat un-risen cake thing and ignored me pointing lenses at them relentlessly. Always with warmth and good manor to the man without a face or at least one made by Nikon.
Every time I have worked with this team my resounding impression is of a confident laid back approach to pretty much everything I see. From dinner to race procedure. That may well be the Australian connection but it is a refreshing approach generally. And it makes for a happy workforce. There are smiles and good humour from behind the scenes deep within this team and that makes being in the way with a camera a lot easier a role to balance.
The following morning we headed off to our date with professional cycling stickers daubed across the sun visors of the windshield. Not the place now to find yourself in the way with a camera despite the tolerances. Parked up and sandalled in the dry mid Spanish sun that small world of the cycling family started throwing up friends and colleagues with every service course.
We were here to meet and dine with and watch Orica Scott ride and Astana and come away with some feedback and requirements on kit (Giordana) and photographs (me). Based in the motorsport pits of this race circuit with these Panini sticker album heroes warming up on trainers plugged in to their escape from pressure through little white earphones I wandered freely amongst our teams and a couple of others I was friends with.
Watching Esteban Chavez and Christopher Juul-Jensen saddle up plugged in with young fans straining over barriers to see their cleated heros, I thought they ought be my turbo trainer sitting portrait sitters really. There’s is an intricacy to portraiture I have always understood and had a respect of. Making a portrait of a sitter is not entirely the same as documenting someone on a trainer warming up for a race, but there is similarity. While not directing movement you aren’t technically making the portrait, but intimacy is there and that requires sensitivity to come away with worthy material but not a reputation or an enemy.
Seeing the heroes of our jerseys roll out one leaving the unglamorous tidy up it’s afternoon slot we packed up and aimed to be off. I watched the last few riders head off to battle from a vantage point of a track top bridge with a handful of die hard fans getting baked to catch split second glimpses of their heroes. Headed out last was Aru and in a second the stage had changed from the grande finale of a closing scene to end credit departures.
Brief job done, it was now the road back at a curtailed 120kph and the Baby Driver soundtrack after one more night’s stop at what turned out in reality to be a hostel in a dead end town in the middle of nowhere. Not unlike a stone Bates Motel from the outside, a car park discussion in preparation of bed bugs shared with strangers in a dormotry for the night turned into a pleasant surprise of actually a quite nice room each with a simple but tasty dinner. Living on the road for weeks had taken it’s toll on each of our make ups and outlooks but one thing remained. A comfy German barge to cross the country back in and a knowledge that the airport was a lot easier navigated from the south helped create a comfortable feeling of going home and as much as the best road trips are about the journey rather than the destination, as good as this had been here I was simply looking forward to a licked knee and a head butt by Cadence the Ridgeback at the entrance to my village. On return to a canine’s world I suddenly remembered our shock dinner surprise in that town off the beaten track and headed to google translate. Perrito. There it was. Puppy. But with a little more insight found, in that night’s context on a snack menu, it meant hot dog. Of course it did.