Even though it was perhaps 75km away I’d only been to Spain a handful of times and always to point cameras at people. As I drove south in January in a small, under powered two wheel drive car with precious little in the way of comfort or extreme weather ability and only a radio for company. I remember shunning the idea of going in my Land Rover because a thousand miles in that would negate any financial prospect of work this side of a casino win. And anyway, all be it winter this was the Mediterranean and headed further south deep into Spain, how dark could the blue skies turn in a couple of days?
Long hours alone spent wondering if I was indeed on the road my map had said was right as roads were dark and with no hard shoulder to rescue you. I remember being surprised at how industrial the outskirts of Barcelona were, then how quickly one flowed through Valencia , if indeed it was Valencia. And then how fast the weather changed. It stayed changed but this was just the beginning.
Before long it became sleet and then matured into snow. And I don’t suppose they get much snow in this part of southern Europe because people didn’t seem to know how to drive in it.
As I passed the odd clump of lights in the fields of darkness I spotted signs for the peninsular I had photographed a wedding at a decade earlier. That was a wedding in shorts. This was a honeymoon in hat and gloves. I was here to spend a couple of days with the Orica and Astana teams on their sunny Spanish training camp and I arrived at the hotel in snow. At least I thought it was the hotel. The sign had blown over and my first introduction to the team from down under was interrupting their dinner and pleading for a pilot boat in.
I remember learning not to judge anywhere on arrival and always sleep on it first, aged 11 in a rainy first Alps encounter at 10pm in Austria. And sure enough, 12hrs later we had moved to a postcard. So I went to bed and tried not to think about having to make cyclists look good tomorrow when they wanted to be anywhere else but here.
The next morning the snow hadn’t moved in and the sun was shining. After a breakfast with champions where I had to explain my long held theory that there are no three cereals that can’t be combined to make a greater breakfast cereal to old friends and team clothing supplier Giordana, the boys in blue reappeared in increased layers and shivered their way though a route briefing while I pressed buttons at them wearing a down jacket.
Thankfully in a more comfortable and at least four wheel drive car we headed out of the retirement complex like landscape in the direction of the nearby mountains, that were more looking through dense cloud than clearly overlooking us. The team grinding it out in the warm sun knowing or at least seeing clearly what was above and ahead of them.
As much as it was likely skill over design, watching professionals ride through snow at normal their usual pace on tyres with a small coin sized contact point and so narrow that deflating them a little does little, was confidence inspiring in the way seeing impossible angles and speed matrixes carried off down hills by the pros can be to a layman.
Stops to give direction, sugar and hot energy drinks made for atmospheric photographic intimacy where there wasn’t the time or space or even the light to look hero like.
It did seem like a good test for Giordana and their protection offerings that must have worked if I could find the Yates boys round a corner atop a mountain after a squall stopped taking scenic pictures on a phone. Professional cyclists are a hard bunch anyway, one would have to be, but to see stoicism in adverse conditions is neither uncommon or unimpressive. Every time.
Even a retirement village in winter can offer it’s advantages to a group of young athletes after a kicking by the weather and a warm spa and a nice dinner that teams obviously have a different dining area and personal chef for did the trick. After the typical couple of hours backing up photographs and recharging batteries I hit the sack that night hoping the next day the snow would have started to retreat for my drive further south to bump into team Astana on the sunshine strip that I always remember being parodied by a photo of a motorway bridge and the headline ‘Flyover to the Costa Del Sollihul’.
Venturing out and into still white and hillier coastline further south I remember feeling my feeble two driven wheels struggling to disperse weight and hold grip and thinking this is the kind of day you dream of having a 4×4 for and I did. A thousand miles away. I pulled into the hotel car park as I watched the last of the locals try and navigate the hill it was on badly. It wasn’t their fault, they and their Seat Marbellas probably have precious little experience dealing with temporary road surfacing like compacted snow and so stopping and having a look at the view from half way up a steep now white incline probably seems like a good idea until you become the front end of a bus taking you a different way home.
As I drove down the steep metal ramp into the underground car park I remember thinking how hard it would be to escape that take off ramp in this weather, but assumed it’d all be over by that pantomime ending.
Inside another hotel overlooking a picturesque vista you couldn’t see I walked into old friends from the motherland at a Shimano press launch, probably dreading the next day’s beautiful mountaintop road tests they were sitting through the pre-flight briefing for.
My Astana holiday was grounded. And the ground wasn’t safe. There wasn’t going to be any accidents for the sake of training for a season before it had even started for these superstars so sadly and somewhat pointlessly I imagine they had flown around the world to ride indoor trainers for a week. There could still R&D time and personal alterations made by the tailors in waiting from Giordana, but photographically it was to present a challenge in this indoor gym in 1980s decor.
Heading back north the next day the snow had melted the countryside into a goldfish bowl of dampness and reduced visibility and gale force winds. My thoughts were with the friends atop a mountain with a new groupset that likely couldn’t have been firther from their minds. On looking at maps the week before I had the vague idea of driving the long way home via a stop off at the Rotor factory further inland, but the roof of the hotel reception trying an aborted take off in front of my eyes put me in the slow lane home instead. with 12hours of patchy radio reception ahead of me if the front wheels could stay in their required trajectory.