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Giro d'Italia

Getting the shot at the Giro d’Italia: Egan Bernal on the Splügenpass

James Startt could only choose one location to capture stage 20 of the Giro, the second climb of the day. It proved a good choice.

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For the cyclists, Saturday’s stage of the Giro d’Italia from Verbania to Valle Spluga-Alpe Motta promised to be the last big test with no less than three major climbs on tap. But one look at the roadbook made it clear that it would also be one of the most visually stunning.

Starting in the elegant port town of Verbania, the route would first lace its way along the coast of the Lago Maggiore, one of five finger lakes in northern Italy, before moving into Switzerland. The Swiss detour also included two of the race’s toughest climbs as the riders first hit the Passo San Bernardino and then the Splügenpass, both 2,000-meter affairs that promised to be sufficiently challenging prior to the final climb up the Alpe Motta back in Italy.

Leaving early we rolled along the Lago Maggiore, a magnificent mountain lake seemingly lost in time. I had vacationed in Cannobio, one of the first towns along the route, and the town, as well as the entire lake, was just as much a jewel Saturday as I remember it from years ago. But while I would have loved to stop and capture the pack rolling along the lake, it was clear that there would be no opportunity to pass the riders or cut them off later in the day. This would be a one-spot stage.

Crossing the border into Switzerland, the road soon started climbing and when we passed a sign announcing that the summit of the San Bernardino was still 28 kilometers away, it was clear that we were about to discover a unique climb.

I could only think how disheartening it must be for riders to see the same sign. And it truly appeared endless, as there were seemingly three summits. But while I was again tempted to stop and photograph near the summit, the climb was still relatively early in the race, and I feared there would not yet be sufficient action yet.

As the last mountain stage, not to mention the last road stage in this year’s race, Saturday offered any rider hoping to improve his overall position a last real opportunity. Attacks not only had to be hard but long.

The second climb up the Splügenpass I thought would be more spectacular. Initially, I regretted my choice to drive along. But as the road climbed and the weather worsened, the stage was set for plenty of drama. Just before the final kilometer-mark, I found a set of switchback turns that had all of the right ingredients as it offered numerous positions, some with fans, others without.

The weather only worsened as the riders closed in.

Romain Bardet and Damiano Caruso had launched an attack descending the San Bernardino along with several teammates. As they came into view I shot them first below on a road that cut through the snow, then from behind as they came around one of the final hairpin turns, and finally as they passed right by me.

With only a 40-second gap, I barely had time to turn around and get Egan Bernal and the pack doing virtually the same thing.

Relaxing a bit after the leaders passed I continued to photograph other riders as they passed by. I saw many levels of exhaustion but I also heard plenty of cheer and encouragement from the fans that managed to make their way up. These, too, are special moments.

Returning to the press room after the final rider passed, I uploaded my files and made my edits.

The spot proved fruitful and numerous shots were satisfying. The images of Bardet and Caruso were strong, but I preferred those of Bernal with his distinctive pink jersey contrasting with the snow. I particularly like a shot from above as there are three distinct visual parts to the image, the dark black of the road, the blinding white of the snow, and the bold pink of Bernal’s jersey.

But in the end, I preferred what was virtually the final shot as Bernal passed by. We only see him from behind, but in the background are the snowy slopes along with a distant line of fans in the background. Somehow I reckon it is this image that best surmises the day.

Egan Bernal Giro d'Italia
The shot from above also made for a striking image – but not as powerful as the image of Bernal from behind. Photo: James Startt