Culture

Best images of 2020: Vuelta a San Juan

Virtually void of vegetation, the Alta Punta Negra call to mind the final kilometers of the Col de l’Izoard known as the Casse Deserte.

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Photographer James Startt returned to VeloNews at the beginning of 2020, and while it has been a strange season, he still managed to cover a large variety of races from the Vuelta a San Juan in January to the Giro d’Italia in October. In this series, he picks out his favorite images of the year.

The 2020 season actually started pretty well for me as I had a chance to return to the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina. Looking back, it seems quite literally like a different time and a different place, as I was far from the European racing scene and the coronavirus was still an abstraction. I got my first taste of racing in South America at the 1995 world championships, in Colombia, and have always loved coming back. I covered the Vuelta San Luis for several years and the first international edition of the Vuelta a San Juan in 2017. And while it had been a few years, I was excited to return.

I love traditional European road racing. After all, that is why I do what I do. But I also love the opportunity to cover races in other parts of the world — in Africa, South America, and the Far East. They always have a signature all of their own. And in recent years, I really love the races in Argentina. They always have a rich field of riders while the landscape and fans provide a unique stage.

I remember well my first year of the opening stage around the back hills of San Juan. And I remember the distinctive landscape around the Alta Punta Negra, an impressive dam on the western edge of the city. The summit of the Punta Negra is at nearly 1,000 meters elevation, but really what I remember most, from a few years back, are the sculpted hills just behind it. Virtually void of vegetation, the hills call to mind the final kilometers of the Col de l’Izoard known as the Casse Deserte. Visually, they are simply otherworldly.

I also remember how, in my first outing, I was frustrated that I did not capture this scene better. So this year I told my motorcycle pilot to drive well ahead of the race in order to have ample time to scout out a better vantage point. Following the long descent after the dam, we stopped several times and I climbed up the rock formations in search of the best vantage point.

At first, I positioned myself above the roadside to have the peloton in full view, but the visual impact of the hills was quickly lost with my wide-angle lens. Finally, a found this spot, away from the road and I started to climb. But the rock formation provided far from stable footing and it took several attempts to finally find my spot that provided the ideal vantage point above the road and with the hills in full view. And when I finally did, all I had to do was wait, because well, it was impossible to move.

I tested my frame with the vehicles ahead of the race and soon found what I considered to be the best telephoto option that would highlight both the riders and the landscape. And when the peloton finally passed, I clicked away.

Looking at the images after, I liked the way the telephoto compressed the foreground and the background. And the colors of the peloton provided the contrast I was hoping for against the barren background. Mostly I was simply relieved to finally get a satisfying image of this landscape, which quite frankly, is like none other that I know.