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The Shot: 2016 Tour de France Stage 12, Montpellier – Mont Ventoux (Chalet-Reynard, revised 6km down)
Stage 12 of the 2016 Tour de France was already off to a notorious start when race organizers ASO made the prudent decision to change the finish line from the iconic summit at Mont Ventoux to Chalet-Reynard (6 kilometers below the top) because of ongoing gale force winds topping 100 kph. Everyone seemed pleased with the decision — for the sake of rider and fan safety — except the photographers, who would bemoan the loss of the epochal spire and its representation of sheer brutality. That is not to say that we, the photo corps, were not concerned about safety. That goes without saying. But what kind of mountain stage photos would we actually capture in the tree-lined final kilometers now that the finish was at the ski station?
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The finale began normal enough, with a surviving breakaway reaching the last kilometers ahead of the GC contenders. Exciting race action (spearheaded by eventual stage winner Thomas de Gendt and Serge Pauwels) and super-charged fans. Nice photos. Nice action. Nothing epic. Yes, this is how we think.
But here’s where it changed from just another mountaintop finish to the most unfathomable and contentious conclusion to a stage in the Tour de France, ranked alongside the most memorable Tour stages in history. There was, of course, no cellphone service in the last 2km. None of the photographers knew what was about to happen, and only those that witnessed it up close actually saw what happened: Several race motorbikes became entangled with the wild fans lining the race corridor near the 1km mark, propagating a collision — a sandwiching if you will — of race leaders Richie Porte, Chris Froome, and Bauke Mollema between motorbikes. What ensued will be talked about and argued over for decades.
I was positioned around 700 meters from the finish line. Jim was at the finish and we had our third shooter Leon on an overhead shot in the corner just before where the crash happened. I literally had no idea what was happening. When I saw Mollema and several other GC riders pass me, I figured Froome must have been dropped or had an ill-timed mechanical. But when I saw the yellow helmet bobbing through the alley of fans, I knew something was weird. It didn’t appear to bob like a rider’s head might when he has hit the wall. I can’t explain it but I knew it was off. When Froome rounded the corner in my sights he appeared like a mythological creature, an alien figurine, a unicorn. My brain could not comprehend what I was seeing. An inner monologue accompanying rapid fire shutter clicks went something like this: “WTF WTF WTF WTF WTF WTF WTF WTF?!?!?!?!?!!?!?!?!”
Even an hour later, my head was spinning. Chris Froome — a master climber, the current race leader, and a two-time Tour de France winner — was running up the climb without a bike. All I can say is thank God I had my frame set, my focus lined up, and my wits about me to adequately capture the scene unfold. Moral of the story: Be prepared, and be prepared to be dazzled. It’s the Tour, after all.
Key image specs:
Canon 24-105mm f4L IS USM
Focal Length: 24mm
1/1250 sec @ f/4 ISO 400
File format: RAW