The Shot: Contador’s longest goodbye

2017 Vuelta a España, stage 20

The 2017 Vuelta a España was expected to be epic. The route was brutally mountainous. The climbs were steep. The foreign start in Nîmes was unique, and even the long transfers between stages were testing. Fans and critics alike anticipated an emotional ride. It was Alberto Contador’s farewell tour. Fireworks were predicted, and El Pistolero delivered.

At every stage start the Trek-Segafredo bus was surrounded by Spanish devotees calling out for the Campeón. The race course was populated with spectators brandishing homemade signs for ‘Berto, waiting for a split-second glimpse of him for one last time. His every attack injected suspense into the press tent at the finish. Everyone assumed he’d have his last hurrah on the slopes of the Angliru.

And so stage 20 was eagerly anticipated. It rained from the get-go. It was at least 20 degrees celsius colder than the day before. The winds ripped race banners down and blew flags sideways. It was punishing. The race would blow apart.

As photographers, our preparation process is always intense. While prepping the gear we think about what kinds of shots we want from a finale like this. Is it a wide-angle or telephoto? Is it the emotion, up close, or is it the scene as a whole? How will we shoot it and from where — coming up a steep ramp or the inside of a turn? How close will the motos be? Can we expect to get two or three angles out of one spot? Will the weather hold out, and how dark will it be; should we lock the ISO so we don’t risk getting too grainy or will that be too challenging if the sky darkens further? If it starts raining again will we bother fumbling with rain covers on the camera or shoot without and hope the lenses stay dry? This is our last chance at a Contador victory — forever. Should we shoot wide open or be safer at f/4.5?

In the end I chose to shoot on the inside of a hairpin on the climb roughly 1500m from the finish line. It was the last spot with any fans although there were bigger crowds farther down the climb. The hairpin was close enough to the finish to be decisive if things played out like I hoped. It was a wide turn but steep on the inside and had a decent run up to the corner so if the motos were not too close to him, I could theoretically get a long shot before he was near. I chose to lock the ISO allowing enough light for decent exposure but not so much that it would be bright and grainy. Fortunately, I could look two hairpins down the road from me to see the approach. I did about 15 test shots before they arrived since the clouds were moving fast and the light kept changing.

When he finally came into view I held my breath without realizing it. I couldn’t mess this up — Contador’s last race, the penultimate stage, the colossal Angliru, the foul weather, his solo escape. And then, just like that he was there. He took the hairpin on the outside, much farther from me than I hoped, but it allowed me to track him through the entire corner. And while I shot frame after frame I kept thinking “Please look back, please look back, look back please!” And that is exactly what he did. He looked back once over his shoulder at the race behind him.

This was his swan song. It was the longest goodbye.

Key image specs:

Canon 1DX
Canon 16-35 f/2.8L IS III USM
1/640 sec @ f/3.2 ISO 400
Focal Length: 35mm
File format: RAW
Shot from inside corner of hairpin at 1500m from finish line