The Shot: Racing up the Tour’s lonely Mur de Péguère

2017 Tour de France, stage 13 Saint Girons – Foix, 101km: Bastille Day on the Mur de Péguère

I can’t count how many times we have been on the race course along a mountain ridge and said, “Wouldn’t this shot be perfect if… [there weren’t any cars, any fans, any barriers, any race banners, any clutter].” On stage 13, we got just that. It was an exceptional mountain stage in the Pyrénées, remarkably short at only 101 kilometers and featuring three category 1 climbs without a mountaintop finish.

It was hard to decide where to shoot that day. The last climb, the Mur de Péguère, was expected to be explosive and decisive with extremely narrow tarmac and gradients topping 18 percent near its summit. The Tour last went over the Mur de Péguère in 2012. That day, it was packed like sardines with fans taking up the road, which had been nefariously littered with tacks, flatting more than a few tires.

This year, the Tour revisited the Mur on Bastille Day. Organizers decided to close the steepest length of the Mur de Péguère to the general public to avoid a 2012 rerun. In theory, that meant the shots would be perfect, without any cars, fans, barriers, race banners, or any clutter. It was a dream come true, right? But this is the photographers’ dilemma. Shoot the earlier climb, the Col d’Agnes, with more of a Bastille Day atmosphere — campers, picnics, costumes, and flags — but where the race would invariably be more together? Or, go for the super-clean, racing action shots showcasing the sheer brutality of the Mur de Péguère with nothing to ruin your background. Jim and I debated ad nauseam.

Clearly I went with the latter. It was surreal. Spectators lined the start of the Mur three-deep. Then you reached the gendarme line, and it was empty. Nothing. No barriers, nothing except road a little wider than a car. For more than five kilometers, it was just forest road at 16-18 percent gradient. It was beautiful. But something nagged at me. I felt perhaps I had made a terrible miscalculation. There was nothing for context. There was nothing that said yes, this is the Tour.

It was too late for regrets. So, I parked between the last two kilometers and walked down to one of the few open sections of road. The trees parted ever so slightly to reveal the surrounding vista. I didn’t have to fight for position with other photographers. My only company within more than a kilometer was a Belgian colleague. He and I both laughed at the situation. Our shots would be “perfect” by normal standards, and yet they would be strange. Our only obstacles were the race motorcycles and cars. At one point just before the leaders came, five random young Frenchman walked out of the woods and attempted to plant themselves within our shots. We both yelled until they moved upon the stern urging of the nearest gendarme.

I relished in the freedom to get good clean shots of riders suffering up the climb, full-bike, and drive-side. Since I was shooting into the sun and rolling clouds, I could even set up a remote flash which is often impossible on mountain stages with all the unpredictability. In the end, the shots were good. Solid. But it was lonely. If the race climbs a mountain and there are no fans to yell and scream and honk their horns, did it really happen? Was it really that hard? Does it feel like the Tour de France?

Key image specs:

• Canon 1DX
• Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L IS III USM
• 1/250sec @ f/5.0 ISO 125
• Focal Length: 16mm
• File format: RAW
• Shot from the last 2 KM along the Mur de Péguère