I am still trying to put all my emotions down after being at the elite men's World Championship race in Glasgow last Sunday. James Startt and I met in the morning and agreed on a plan: we would start on Montrose Street to get some shots of the crowd and then jump on the shuttle bus to look for something else. But at the Worlds, nothing ever goes as planned.
When we arrived at the bottom of Montrose Street, the peloton was still outside Glasgow. But there were already crowds along the hill, screaming, dancing, and simply partying after each passing of the moto-ambulance or the police.
Seeing such an audience, where everyone was dressed in their national colours, climbing up the gates and the walls of the buildings on that street to find the right spot to support their favourite riders, gave us a booster of energy and made us feel part of the cycling community. But most importantly, it made us realise we were part of a historical moment. I grabbed my camera and followed James up the hill, but I lost sight of him after two minutes due to the chaos. I could hear the sound of the helicopter whirling above me. There was no more time left. I needed a good position, and I needed it quickly. I kindly asked some people leaning on the barriers if I could squeeze through. I wanted to catch the different efforts of the athletes going uphill, so I needed to be in the front. Quite unexpectedly, they let me through, more than happy to let me get the shots I wanted.
It was a good start, but I wanted something else from that incredible crowd. After the peloton had passed, I found James again. He said, "Follow me. We are going to shoot from there." There was the roof of a car park. I found myself among Belgian fans on my right and Dutch fans on my left. For a moment, I doubted I was really in Scotland, and I had a flashback to the final day of the Cyclocross World Championships earlier this year. There was the same atmosphere and touchable energy in the air, giving the riders the motivation to pedal harder and, in our case, as photojournalists, giving us the right inspiration.
Then the race moved on, and so did James and I. We got on the shuttle bus as the plan was to explore the circuit to find other good corners where to shoot from. But I improvised, following the flow.
As soon as the vehicle arrived at the bottom of Scott Street, an urban hill climb with a 13.8% gradient, I knew that was my spot. I asked the driver to stop, and before getting off, I coordinated with James that I would cover the finish line while he captured the final moments of action on Montrose Street.
I immediately found myself in a sea of excited fans. I walked to the top of the street, where I met a group of children who came from Spain with their families to watch the race. At my question, “Who do you support today?” everyone replied, “Pogačar, he deserves to win." It made me smile. It was simple and came from their hearts.
However, there was no more time to talk as the UCI cars arrived fast, and like a tide, people moved back. I had no doubt about the shots I wanted this time. I was looking for the photos of the riders out of their saddles, pushing hard on their pedals to reach the end of the climb. In particular, I wanted to catch their last sprints uphill before cornering on the right and adding some colours and details of people around me. When the athletes started the climb, the tide of people moved forward again towards their favourites; it was simply stunning to see.
I didn’t realise how good the Italian team was until I took the shot, and I started to dream for my nation, getting a glimpse of what would have happened next. The weather turned biblical and so did the hope of all the Italians there. A handful of kilometres later, the stoic Alberto Bettiol was in the front, leading the group of giants and fighting for the rainbow jersey under the epic rain. The last time the Italian team had a rider win the rainbow jersey in the men's road race as in 2008 with Alessandro Ballan, who topped off three years of Italy winning the world title with Paolo Bettini winning in 2006 and 2007. Pedal stroke after pedal stroke, under the stormy Scottish weather, leading the race with three laps to go, Bettiol made an entire nation dream. He decided to fly, but his wings did not open this time.
The Glasgow World Championships handed us a new world champion: Mathieu van der Poel. The Dutchman managed to conquer the rainbow jersey with the decisive attack 23 kilometres from the finish.
I went to the finish line, next to the best cycling photographers in the world, confident that Mathieu van der Poel would have won, while James was on Montrose Street, as agreed, capturing the final moments for silver and bronze.
Everyone was ready, holding their camera lens to capture the new world champion, and then we heard someone say, “Van der Poel crashed! His shoe is broken!” The photographer next to me immediately got his mobile, and we watched the live broadcasting holding our breaths. What we were witnessing was incredible: Van der Poel, injured, getting back on the saddle and increasing his margin over the trio formed by Wout van Aert, Tadej Pogačar and Mads Pedersen.
"If the crash had cost me the title, I wouldn't have slept for a few nights," the Dutchman said at the end. “Winning the World Championship is everything to me: When I attacked, I didn't think I was going to make an immediate breakaway: I turned around, saw that I had a few seconds and thought only about pushing to the finish. Seeing that nobody could follow me was a nice confidence boost.”
At the podium ceremony, I looked at the three giants standing in front of me. Each of them expressed a legitime hurt and human pride, to which all of us could relate.