By Ed Hood and Martin Williamson
They’re standing beside PEZ at the 150 to go mark, in the mist and cloud and once again, QuickStep have done the job.
The break survivors limp by before a snarling Ezequiel Mosquera flashes past, intent on putting as much time into the other ‘heads’ as he possibly can.
And now it’s 18:00 and we’re in the bus driving down the cloud shrouded road back to the press room.
Ten hours ago the rain was falling on the trees outside our balcony when we awoke. Through the gaps in the foliage we could see the tips of the foothills of the Picos, bursting through the clouds.
Vehicular access to the Covadonga climb is tightly controlled on race day so we’ll be heading up into the clouds by shuttle bus; ‘just one bus, 30 people, no more!’
The press room, where the bus leaves from is 25 K from the top of the climb, at Cangas de Onis, just two K from our austere digs out in the wilds.
The press room feels like the Marie Celeste compared to a Tour press room. With our words and pictures fired into the cybershere, it’s time for a beer and some tapas.
We arrive back at the press room at 2:55 and the ‘only one bus’ is pulling out.
Desperate journos chase it; ‘wooooaaaahhhhhhhh !’ as one guy thumps on the side of the coach as it accelerates down the street. A Vuelta staffer jumps out in front of it, the driver isn’t impressed; ‘the bus is full, I go !’
Just as it looks like one of the journos is going to have a seizure, Maria – head of the press – appears; ‘there are two buses, now!’
The guy at the bus door asks us to show him our names on the list – which we registered for at 10:00 am.
We’re not on it, he shrugs and hands me the list and a pen – we’re on our way!
Al updates us; ‘9 riders away in the rain, time for my siesta before the finish.
I’m not doing the report, so I probably can’t sleep. Now, if I was doing the report I’d probably would sleep through it!’
Covadonga village and the climb is locked down tight – we’re glad we did our preview, yesterday.
The rain is drizzling, the bus engine whines in low gear and the ‘civilians’ on foot stare enviously in through the windows, their up turned thumbs elicit no mercy from our stoney faced driver.
Cyclists get in the way, our man crunches a down shift; but still we drone up through the trees which slap the side of the bus for it’s foolishness in venturing up here.
‘Honk ! Honk !’ he blasts the air horn, to no avail, another crunching gear change.
The rain has made the greenery even more lush – it’s like driving through a rain forest – ‘Parp ! Parp!’
‘Nico Sijmens (Cofidis), Pierre Cazaux (FdJ), Oliver Kaisen (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Carlos Barredo (QuickStep), Martin Velits (HTC-Columbia) and Greg Van Avermaet (Omega Pharma Lotto) peloton at 7:37’
Al keeps us right as the cows look up from their grazing.
The cloud is closing in – not good news for the auto focus, the horn blasts get longer, ‘Paaaarp ! Paaarp !’ as desperate cyclists and walkers battle up through the gloom.
Martin is happy though, he can’t see the 500 foot drop on his side of the bus.
Visibility is almost zero, white mist envelopes us but still we climb.
Three to go and we drop down the first dip – slowly.
The last kilometre, it dips, the lake is over to our right but we can’t see it in the murk.
Guys high on wine stand in front of us and stop the bus – wild!
Eventually, we pull in to the car park just down from the summit.
Track suit bottoms, Goretex jacket, hat – it’s not a nice day.
The visitors’ centre near the top is shut, we take a few pics and wonder what we’ll do for the next hour.
But then we hear a familiar sound, ‘the skirl of the pipes’ – they have bagpipes in Asturias too, not just Bonnie Scotland.
The sound of the pipes leads us to a big hospitality tent, just off the summit – free soup, nibbles and drinks – this is more like it!
And there are TV monitors – perfect.
The break is still clear but behind, Mosquera has marshalled his foot soldiers; grim faced they fire the first salvos, but it’s General Mosquera who’ll have to fight the last minutes of the battle all alone, ten kilometres up into the Picos.
Barredo attacks the break, Velits counters, but the Spaniard is smooth and fluid to the hunched back and bent elbows of Velits.
Up front Nibali throws his best men into the fray.
The tent roof is leaking but there are lovely cakes being passed round, we can live with a few drips.
Barredo is only losing time slowly, Wilfried Peeters screams up in the team car; ‘you can do this Carlos!’
The piper blasts our ears as back among the GC guys Kreuziger drives through sodden green forest, few have been able to hold the infernal Galicia and Liquigas tempo.
Sergei Ouschakov pops in for a beer – whilst having a smoke.
Time for us to go, brave the rain and take up our position on the finish straight.
The PR girls dish out the last hats of the day as the soigneurs scurry up the hill.
And then they appear from the mist, Barredo triumphant; the break survivors scrabbling for crumbs.
Sijmens second, Velits third; then it’s Mosquera, fighting for every tick of the second hand.
Nibali, the other Velits and Rodriguez are glued to each other.
Tondo is a loser, today.
Already, riders are free wheeling off the mountain; the Galicia guys and Nico Roche well wrapped up, Frank Schleck bare headed – that’s not a good idea, Frank.
Many are wasted.
We have to get back to the bus – there’s no way we want to walk out of here.
Still the stragglers ride home; there’s Johnnie Walker.
And then it’s time for the pictures that you only get if you’re on the territory and looking for them.
The soigneurs scurry back to the cars – they don’t want to be left here, either.
Riders stop to chat to friends on the way back down, team mates chide them, ‘get back to the car, you’ll get cold!’
Nibali makes the UCI dope test chaperone run to keep up with him.
Cav has a quick word with Martin.
Rodriguez can’t find his team car and jokes about hitching a ride.
And now we’re on the bus, and it’ll be some time on Tuesday when we pause and think; ‘we were at Lagos de Covadonga on Sunday, wow !’