Sometimes life puts you in interesting company. This holds especially true as a guide – the company you keep often hits an interesting margin between friends and clients. Sometimes I’m just there hanging out, sometimes I’m a babysitters, others a coach and a role model.
With our three Irish guests last week, who I”ll call Sean, Conor and Patrick, I was quite the mix of all these things. I met them at breakfast on a morning when I had no guests to take out and was considering where I’d let my wheels take me that day. I overheard English, such a brilliant sound in a foreign country, and could tell they had the same dilemma as me – though for me the unknown was quite pleasing, for them it presented quite some stress.
So I did what I’m paid to do and got too work, asking them if they needed any help or guidance. I may have well as offered chocolate to a child, their eyes opened wide at the promise of salvation. They needed all the help, from route advice to moral support to clothing and food recommendations. I realized then how perfect this job for me is, since I usually think my way is the best way, I can impart my wisdom on as many cyclists as possible.
Two of the men were at quite a decent level of cycling and were physically prepared for anything Alta Valtellina could throw at them. The third had started cycling just a year ago, but his perseverance made up for any lack of fitness. More on that later. However, he had apparently lost sleep all week over the prospect of looming mountains and major rides.
We settled on the Gavia, I think because I had just done Stelvio the day before. Ripe with my guidance of what to wear and what to bring, we set off, though not until I had checked all of their positions on the bike and the state of their bikes themselves. All was in order.
They were thrilled to have me know every kilometer of the road, and pass that along to them. But what they really wanted was help in pacing, cycling form and descending techniques. I coached them into proper cadence, sitting properly on the bike and pacing well. Then at the top I became the great motivator, pace-setting and encouraging so they could have the best ride of their lives. I went up with the two stronger guys, had a quick espresso and turned down the hill to rescue the third.
I got to him about 5km from the top, definitely the toughest section of the road. Surprisingly, and thankfully, I found him in great spirits. My simple tips of keeping high cadence and sitting up straight to maintain oxygen supply helped him immensely, and he was taking his time, enjoying the scenery to ease any suffering he may have had. That was all forgotten once I got to him, as he had me talk his ear off to rid him of any ill thoughts in his legs. We made it to the top with no problem.
I honestly was sort of surprised. His legs look like they belong on a cyclist, but a once-over reveals he is definitely not in shape. Big guy, resting heart rate of 100. Its impressive and inspiring to think that in just a year’s time he got into cycling and turned his life around to be able to make it to the top of some of the hardest roads in the world. Bravo. Chapeau. Hell yeah.
A few good pointers on descending and we were home safe at the hotel. Arrival came with an invitation to drive out with them to the prologue of the Tour de Suisse, a professional bike race the next day. I was thrilled to see a race, but wary, because I’d figured out that they were a little weird.
The next morning we set out, sore from good rides in our legs, but our bellies full of good food and our spirits full of excitement. Some of the best riders in the world were competing, and since it was a time trial, we’d have time to see each rider go by one at a time, rather than frantically seeing the peleton whizz by in a second.
The car ride refined my assessment of the guys. Without a doubt, they were super friendly, but they were so awkward, even amongst themselves. You could tell by the way they carried themselves, but I held aside that judgement until it was validated by their interactions. It made conversation difficult – even interesting topics fizzled out easily, but whatever.
They were also incapable of getting close to the speed limit, and in spite of this, of following the GPS. Minor things that didn’t irritate me, but it left us taking the long way around Lake Como then across by ferry instead of just skirting one side of it. It turned out to be quite the welcome detour, as Como is beautiful and had never been. It is hard for a day of zero expectations to go wrong, so a little awkward company and a few wrong turns aren’t so bad.
We got to the race, and grabbing food for lunch at the grocery store were reminding how horrifically expensive Switzerland is. Whatever, its vacation. We fortunately made plans to meet at the car at a certain time, because we ended up getting separated quite quickly.
The course was a 10km loop around town that climbed a big hill, then went down the other side into the finish downtown. I started out wandering the course in the direction they were going, shooting a few pictures along the way. On my mind was the question, how do I want to document this race? One of my favorite cycling publications is Manual For Speed. They present something unique in race coverage, focusing as much on the spectacle itself as they do on the race. Or I could try to be like the famous Jered Gruber, one of my favorite photographers and capture the action in pure epic fashion.
But there is no creativity in ripping off someone else’s process, so I figured I’d just shoot what I was inspired to shoot. Find a cool spot and get some riders in it – see if I could place them in the context of their surroundings. That was made easier when I decided it wasn’t worth lugging my long lens across the world. Limited to a wide angle and a 100mm focal length, I had to incorporate the surroundings. Not so bad.
I didn’t end up taking too many pictures, but I had a great day. The race offered me the chance to explore Bellinzona, a pretty cool town that I would have never otherwise visited. Its got some narrow alleyways with brilliant markets full of local produce, bordered by wide boulevards with majestic buildings. The race passed a big castle on the hill, with some fairy-tale like grass covered stairs up to the top.
A day off for me doesn’t really mean no work. Since I wasn’t on the bike, I just had to get to the top of the hill to see the riders there. I got a great view of the town, saw the riders screaming down some gnarly corners, suffering up some meaty gradients, and the castle along the way. All while hiking around and exploring. That’s the way to see a bike race!
The ride home was awkward, dinner was awkward (thank god for my few words of Italian) but it didn’t really matter. The guys and I some good laughs, and at the end of the day, even if they were awkward, it was a good time. Sometimes the company we keep is strange, but opens up the best doors.