The Time I was Hired to be a Photographer in the Pyrenees: Part I
Updated: Nov 4, 2019
This is part one of a three part story that I wrote well over a year ago. The next two parts will be up in the weeks to come.
All good stories have a beginning. The protagonist wakes up, pours his coffee, and goes about his day. Completely oblivious, his next chapter is set to begin. It is almost always something simple - a chance meeting at a coffee shop, a phone call from a friend - but there it is, the action that silently sets the ball in motion. In fact, the poor bastard usually remains in the dark as to the significance until well after his world is changed.
This story begins back on February 26th, 2018 with five simple words that I have heard literally hundreds of times. “Wanna go for a ride?”
As I read them, sitting on my couch bleary eyed sipping my first cup of coffee, it took me a minute to see who the message came from. I leaned in squinting and saw Cat McLeod’s photo at the top of the screen. Cat’s idea of “a ride” is a little bit different than the average person. He runs Leod Motorcycle Escapes, a company that pairs international motorcycle tours with track time at MotoGP tracks. His rides almost always require plane tickets and a passport. He continued.
“A surprising vacancy... a need for a photographer. Your name has arisen.”
After asking where this ride would take me, he replied with one word.
Yes, that Aragon. Motorland. The one with the bitchin’ wall in the background.
I gave Cat a call and discovered that the trip was more than just a couple days at a world famous MotoGP track. We would be spending 10 days (mostly) in Spain, six of those would be ripping through the Pyrenees on our way to and from Aragon. The first and last days would be spent in Barcelona.
Cat does not mess around with his tours. He takes pride in getting everything just right. So much so that this particular trip had been in the planning stages for 4 years. All of the participants would be on new BMW’s, the three star minimum hotels we would be staying at featured the word “Castle” on more than one occasion, and our tour guides were seasoned veterans of the roads we would be attacking. In short, no bronze package here.
Looking at the list of participants was a little intimidating. Let’s start with Misti. She was a journalist documenting the tour for Roadracing World and a Canadian magazine called Motorcycle Mojo. I was supposed to be following her around as her photographer. Easy enough, right? I mean latching onto a fellow moto journalist for a ride is kinda what I do for a living. Then I read a bit further. Misti is also a California Superbike School instructor who had top 25 finishes in AMA Pro racing. Well, shit.
She also had traveled with Cat before, and she was not the only one with an international resume.
Brad was going on his third Leod Escapes tour, and if that was not impressive enough he had 50 years of riding experience. Paul was on his third tour as well, while Michael, Justin, and Nicole were all taking their second trip with Cat. My friend Aaron was going on the trip, and while he had not done a Leod Escapes tour he had ridden in Japan, England, and America - at a pace a couple notches above mine. Even those without a bunch of tours listed in their profile had more riding experience than me, like Steven who had 15 years to my 10.
My riding experience was limited to being a backmarker in the AFM and trying to keep up with Fish on CityBike photoshoot rides. I had been the photographer on a dirt trip in Nicaragua before, but the bikes there were so shitty that everyone was in the same small, sinking boat. That was also my only international travel. Well, there was that one time when I was a 12 year old Kahlua mule in Mexico, but that is a long story for another day.
I hoped that I would have the skills to keep up, but I would have to wait to find out. While I got the call in February, the trip wasn't until October. Fortunately the time flew by and eventually I was on a plane to Spain.
Good stories tell a tale greater than that of the protagonist. Sometimes there is an obvious agenda, sometimes it is a bit more subtle. It is often the job of the storyteller to both entertain and educate. While the story might be greater than the protagonist, it is always told through the eyes of the hero.
Day Zero: I got in a day before the riding began to do a bit of sightseeing. I spent the bulk of the day wandering around the city of Barcelona. The first thing I noticed about the city is that scooters were EVERYWHERE. There is no doubt in my mind that a moto culture this expansive is the reason that Spain has more racers at the World level than America does. The country not only accepts that two wheels are good for everyone, but they seem to encourage it. Moto parking was in-your-face prevalent and most drivers were happy to make space for anyone on two wheels. It’s almost as if the city understood that small, inexpensive vehicles were a great way to get around, and that drivers respected their fellow humans. Weird, right?
The other thing that was very obvious is that Barcelona and the entire Catalonia region was in a state of political unrest. Banners, yellow ribbons, and graffiti calling for independence, democracy, and the release of political prisoners were everywhere. Ribbons were painted directly on the road all over the region, drawing attention no matter where I went. As a guest of the country I was not there to choose sides, but I did take note of the difference of how Americans and Spaniards treat each other when it comes to politics. Our tour did spend the majority of our time outside of what the Catalan people consider Spain, so I did admittedly only see one side of the coin.
I was happy to have a full day to walk around Barcelona as the architecture in the oldest sector was mesmerizing. Walking through doorways that have existed for hundreds of years was a very humbling experience, one that I strongly suggest you take in for yourself.
As the sun started to go down it was time to meet those intimidating names on my computer screen and have our first dinner together. Dinner in Spain typically starts around 10:30 PM, which was a bit of a culture shock for a couple of the tour attendees. Putting personalities to the names and their impressive resumes was mildly comforting. It turns out that most riders/racers put off a relaxed vibe no matter what country you are in. That being said, some of the fastest people I know are extra nice... right before they hand me my ass on the track.
The night was an early one for most of us - read pre-midnight - and gave me plenty of time to lay awake wondering how the first day on the road was going to be.
Day One: Our bikes and guides both came from a company called IMT Bike, and their Barcelona headquarters was a short walk from our hotel. We had met our guides at dinner the night before. Sergi would be leading us on our adventures, and he was made for this job. He had extensive knowledge of all of the roads, towns, and sometimes most importantly, the coffee stops on our route. He proved to be a very fast rider when the pace warranted it, but was hyper aware of the rest of the group. His knack for putting people at ease before we saddled up was impressive. He was also invaluable to my photography needs. The roads that we were on did not have the typical amount of “run-off” as I am used to in Northern California. Back home if I saw a good set of corners for a photo opp I would just pull over one corner later and get my shot. Spain did not have roadside photography in mind when they built their infrastructure. Sometimes there was not a safe place to pull off for a mile or more, and it was often near very shitty photo ops. Sergi was able to tell me almost the exact mileage (kilometerage?) to the perfect spot.
David was the man in the van. Not because he wasn’t a talented rider, but more because he drew the short straw. He races and does track instruction when he is not wearing the tour guide hat. David was responsible for our luggage getting from hotel to hotel, and also served as a good marker for the end of the train when I stopped for photos. When he passed by I knew It was time to hustle back to the bike. When I was playing catch up to the group seeing David meant that the rest of the pack was in striking distance.
Both Sergi and David were worth more their weight in gold to the success of the tour.
At IMT Bike headquarters our group got familiar with the motorcycles we would be piloting for the next few days. I was on a 1200 GS, or should I say I was right at home on a 1200 GS. Even in the city I was immediately comfortable thanks to spending some time on one for a past job. Other choices for machines on the tour ranged from F800GS’ to R1200Rs to S1000XRs - obviously there is deal with IMT Bike and BMW.
The roads that we took leaving Barcelona climbed in a series of twists that found us following scooters piloted by suit wearing professionals and students clad in shorts and flip flops - all riding as if they were being scouted to be the next Repsol factory rider. If you have read any of my WSBK and MotoGP race coverage you know how I feel about the future of American racing. If you haven’t, “it needs a kick in the ass” is the general take away. Just spending 15 minutes on the road with the Barcelona locals reinforced to me that the Spanish moto culture is something to be studied for said foot to butt adjustment.
Finally out of the city we saw the signs of industry melt away into first suburban, then rural backdrops as we approached the pre-Pyrenees. Carving a road that followed the Rio Ter, I was reminded of some of my favorite routes in northern California thanks to the mountains and trees lining the horizon. We would eventually reach those mountains, climbing over 6000 feet in around twelve and a half miles. The views from this stretch of road quickly reminded me that we weren’t in Kansas California anymore, Toto. We spent the rest of the day on some of the best roads I have ridden, ever. Climbing up and down the Pyrenees on our way to La Seu d’Urgell had us logging just over 141 miles total on the day.
With the riding over we settled first into our rooms, then the bar, then dinner, and after I did a brief walk around the city it was back to the bar again. As mentioned earlier, I was hired to be the photographer for the tour, so all of the fun riding notwithstanding I was still working. I left fun Max in the Aerostich and put on my professional face. This did not gel with Misti or her friend and fellow Canadienne Nicole. "So why are you so damn serious", Misti asked as she took a sip of whiskey at the bar.
I looked up at her and then over at Nicole. Nicole's face said it all. “Yeah, quiet guy, we are here to ride motorbikes. You know that is fun, right?”
Good stories have a turning point. Sometimes it is a moment of clarity that thrusts the hero into a period of emotional or spiritual growth, sometimes it is the introduction of characters that compliment the hero and help him along the journey. The hero didn’t realize it yet, but he was having drinks with the turning point to this story.
Day Two: We started the day by doing shots of what became known as “Rossi Ball Sweat”, or the actual name - Monster Energy “The Doctor” Edition. We then mounted our steeds in preparation of riding a handful of mountain passes made famous by the Tour de France. In total we rode five passes covering over 150 miles of sweepers and switchbacks as we danced between to border of Spain and France. Did I mention having to stop for livestock in the middle of the road a couple of times? I learned very quickly that the Cow warning road signs needed to be taken very seriously. Not just for the 2000 pound chicanes but for their poop. There were times where the traction through corners was literally shit.
Our hotel for the evening was described by our Sergi as being surrounded by “a circus of mountains”, and while we all laughed at his words at the morning briefing, none of us could have painted a better picture. Waterfalls cascaded hundreds of feet above us, fed by a source unseen; the light of the setting sun accentuated the beauty.
Again we found ourselves at the bar, then dinner. As we finished dinner we were informed that the bar was closed. The waiter saw the heartbreak on our faces and gave us the option of paying a flat rate up front for "bottomless wine". We retired to a lounge area with our share of the 6 euro all you can drink adult grape drink for another bonding experience. Things get a little fuzzy here as the bottles outnumbered the people, but in the end we prevailed leaving nary a drop behind.
Day Three: I miraculously woke up without a hangover. Good thing, too. On the books for the day were another five mountain passes. We spent the day primarily north of the Spanish border riding some of the more famous and oldest sections of the Tour de France. For scenery, this was my absolute favorite day. From the ribbon of tarmac carved into the side of the mountain we towered over tiny villages, the switchbacks multiplied upon themselves bringing us to physical and emotional heights some of us were not prepared for. We settled in after just shy of 138 miles for another incredible Spanish meal and the bottles of wine that went with it. We were told that we would be covering a bit more ground the next day, basically double what we had done the day before. Of course we planned accordingly and stayed up past midnight talking about the days shenanigans.
Day Four: With 264 miles of twisties scheduled for the day we got an early jump. We were due for another 5 passes...then we would stop for lunch. After the first pass we rolled into in the medieval village of Ainsa for coffee. Ainsa features an 11th century castle and a slightly more modern 12th century church. I was too busy walking around trying to imagine what life was like on the cobblestone streets when these buildings were constructed to have any coffee, but I did take some photos of the inside of the shop. The dining area was watched over by the only suit of armor I saw on the whole trip, and the view was fit for a king.
After we did the remaining semi technical mountain passes we began our final descent into the village of Alcaniz at what I would describe as a brisk pace. Local police might have had other words for it but lucky for us we did not give them the chance to chime in. While I will not admit to breaking any international laws I will say that we made it into Alcaniz a half hour earlier than anticipated...And I stopped to take pics. It was the perfect warm up for what we had on tap for the next two days. Motorland Aragon. Ready for part two?