Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Vuelta a España - Stage 11 Preview

Stage 11 finishes at 1750m above sea level in the
Manzaneda ski resort.
Stage Map: click here
Stage Profile: click here
More Previews: click here

Let's hope all the riders got plenty of relaxation and visits to the masseur during yesterday's rest day, because Stage 11 is a killer - there's a 450m climb in the first 15km, which ought to put paid to the first few breakaway attempts unless an elite pack of climbers fancy giving it a go, then it's up and down all the way to a flat 15km starting at the 107k point and then, from 138km, it's a Category Especial (the Vuelta's version of Hors Categorie) up the forbidding slopes of Montaña Manzaneda with gradients approaching 11% in places. It's a demanding parcours in other ways, too - no more of those long and straight sections we saw in Stages 9 and 10, this one wiggles about all over the place. It's just possible that today will allow us our first glimpse of the rider who'll be wearing the Red Jersey for the celebrations in Madrid.

Castillo de Monterrey.
Situated right on the Portuguese border, Verin, the start town, is famous worldwide for the water which bubbles up from various springs in the locale; water that supposedly offers a range of benefits to human health in addition the usual "stops you dying of dehydration" benefits linked to consumption of normal water and which attracts visitors from far and wide. It's also the location of an especially fine castle, the Castillo de Monterrey, about which the town formed and became one of the richest communities in the province of Orense. It's more a fortified citadel than a castle, including within its walls a small town (abandoned in the 19th Century) complete with a hospital and a monastery - nowadays, it contains a parador, a type of luxury hotel very popular among those who can afford it (ie, not amateur cycling journalists). Many also visit for the Carnival, which has retained its medieval flavour and remains untouched by the more boisterous Latin American-style partying that has changed most Spanish fiestas so much.

Cigarrones festival in Verin.
The neutral zone begins just south of the town's heart on the Av. Portugal near the Patio del Colegio María Inmaculada with its gleaming modern buildings, then changes onto the Carretera Cabreiroá via the Calle As Tuelas leading north to the Calle Constitución which in turn finishes back on the Av. Portugal, a short way from the start. The peloton travels the short distance to the end of the road, turns right onto the Av. Luis Espada and then right again onto the Calle de la Diputación and left onto the Calle Hermanos Moreno before reaching the technical right turn to join the Calle de Espido which ends with a 180 degree bend to reach the Calle de la Canella Cega. The road leaves the town and comes to a left corner onto the Calle San Antón, leading past Verin's curious Mercado Municipal which looks like a modern retake on one of those Viking longhouses with a roof built to the same plan as an upturned longship. An easy right puts them on the Calle de San Rosendo. The Vuelta road book seems to have forgotten to include details of how the race then gets to the Av. de Castilla - it has to be said that Vuelta route details are sometimes a bit poor when compared to those of the Tour de France - but the most obvious method would be by turning left at the roundabout at the end of the Calle de San Rosendo, then right almost immediately right to join the Calle de San Pedro which leads directly to the right road heading north-east towards Fumaces. The first climb begins as soon as Verin is left behind and the neutral zone ends just after a wide bend on the N-525, 9.5km having been ridden thus far.

Fumaces, while giving the impression of having been a far more populous and bustling place in days gone by, is a rather decrepit sort of place with crumbling old buildings and inhabitants in similar shape - making it quite a likable sort of place, all in all, and worth a brief visit in passing. The road just scrapes the southern edge, but if you blink you'll miss it. The climb, a Category 3, ends 0.6km later but the road continues to rise gently towards the next villages, A Trepa followed by San Cristovo, which the book doesn't mention at all. Soon, the race reaches Ventas da Barreira, the informal name of As Vendas da Barreira. This is another village in a state of serious decline - whereas the N-525 once brought visitors, they and their money now pass by on the A-52 motorway which cuts the village in two, the eastern half connected by a bridge. The population is aging, the average age increasing every year as the young people leave to find work and more exciting lives elsewhere, and it looks as though the little community will be no more within a few decades. There is a strange stone cross near the end of the village: on one side of it, as expected, is Christ; on the other, standing rather than crucified, a queen dressed in a long cloak and crown.

A Gudina's church.
The route crosses the A-52 on a second bridge a kilometre later before passing just to the north of Navallo, then begins to climb the uncategorised (and thus point-free) Alto de Herosa featuring an undemanding 150m ascent in 8km. After some wide S-shaped stretches alongside the motorway, it enters a straight part and comes to A Gudiña after 31.8km. This village exists in two parts - the first is little more than a series of houses and businesses that have grown up along the road, some of them attractive enough, the second is the main part and houses the unusual church which, though of typically Spanish design overall, somehow looks strangely megalithic with its large grey stones. Many other structures in the village are built along similar lines meaning that while the village is poor - visitors may still see carts pulled by oxen here, though tractors are more common - it achieves an imposing look. Near the end of the village, the peloton turns a sharp and possibly slippery left to join the OU-533 as it heads north.

The road is twisty, but the bends are all gentle for the first few kilometres and should cause no problems. Very soon, it enters a much greener region and begins to descend quite rapidly - the bends here are tighter and the combination of more technical parcours, wind-blown leaves and high speed could lead to crashes, especially if it's raining. A couple of tiny villages pass by, O Castro to the east and then Pradocabalos to the west. Soon, a river can be seen flowing to the left and becoming noticeably wider as the peloton moves along the road. As the race crosses a bridge, there are excellent views to some rich red cliffs.

Iberian Wolves. It would be fantastic to see one,
but we won't.
As the parcours passes San Cibrao das Viñas to the east, the river on the other side of the road is 100m wide and it becomes apparent that it's flowing into a lake - in fact, this is the southern arm of the artificial Embalse de Bao, considered small by Spanish standards at a mere 256 square kilometres. This an area where there are many fine old oaks, making the narrow lanes, green fields and little cottages look as though they belong in England rather than Spain. The wildlife, meanwhile, is a little different to that of England: this is one of the very last places where the Iberian Wolf survives, though the chances of ever seeing one are miniscule. The church is small and has a squat tower, surprising since almost 4,500 people live within the municipality it serves.

Having rounded a right-hand bend, the road passes into a wooded section with superb views across part of the lake just to the north. It comes out at the Puente Bibey bridge which stretches 100m over the water to Viana Do Bolo, situated 51.5km from the start. Viana is largely agricultural, with several of the farms providing only enough food for the families that run them - however, many people in the area make a living through the sale of chestnuts which are exported throughout Europe, an industry which has fortunately survived the forest fires that have ravaged the area in recent years. Others work in the nearby hydroelectricity plants. The village has a long history, having been the site of a pre-Roman fort of which no trace remains at ground level, and numerous Roman artifacts have been discovered both coincidentally and during organised archaeological expeditions in the area. It's very much a village to get lost within, with ancient streets winding this way and that between a jumble of rustic hovels and very fine houses - one of the best is the Casa del Curas with a beautiful glazed gallery high up on one side, no doubt the scene of many pleasant afternoons spent watching life in the town. The castle keep dates to the 9th Century when it was built to protect against Moorish attack - it now houses a museum of ethnography and has an extensive collection of artifacts revealing the day-to-day lives of people in the area. Each year, during the Carnival, the town holds Domingo Gordo, "Fat Sunday," a huge feast attended by more than 3,000 people.

The race passes through town along the Traversia Nicolas Tenorio, Rua da Libertade and Calle Libertade, exiting on the OU-533 and beginning the Category 2 Alto Da Gonza. The next village is Mourisca, where the peloton turns right onto the much narrower OU-951 and presently reaches the stage's first hairpin bend. The parcours continues to climb, reaching the 1130m summit 61km from the start. The riders turn a 90 degree left and the top and descend towards Castromao, turning left just before reaching the village and joining the OU-804 which heads east towards the Embalse del Prada.

Casa Do Bailarin
(for more pictures and information, click here)
When within 150m of the shore, the road turns south and passes through a series of four bends which have the potential to be slippery and hazardous. It turns to the east, straightens out for a while and then deviates left to pass along a bridge leading into A Veiga. As they enter the town, the riders will need to negotiate a roundabout with an enormous boulder planted in the centre, pointing to the sky like an ancient menhir. Soon they come to a stone cross, depicting Christ being offered a goblet of wine by a small child - an event I don't recall ever reading about, but my knowledge of the bits of the Bible coming after the Old Testament is admittedly slight. The road becomes the OU-856 at this point and passes through the town leading north. The route misses Casa Do Bailarin, but the camera operators are very unlikely to miss the opportunity for a few shots of this remarkable house which looks to have been created by the combined efforts of Antoni Gaudi and several billion barnacles. On closer inspection, it turns out the entire structure is encrusted with tiny pebbles, bits of colourful tiles, bottles, shells, tiny sculptures of all sorts of things and anything bright that whoever it was that decided to decorate the house in such a way could lay his or her hands upon. Strangely, the house is little-known outside A Veiga and locals are always a little surprised whenever a tourist asks for directions to it - it could very easily attract many people were it better known.

The race passes by Casdenodres before arriving at Castromarigo, a village split into three separate parts among the trees. North of the village, the road enters a forest and takes a sharp bend after around 150m, descending as it does so and thus raising the likelihood of hazardous conditions. Another tight bend just north of Candeda - where we'll hopefully get to see the tiny chapel - should be less dangerous as the peloton will be climbing again, reaching 1000m above seal level shortly before they pass Meda. Another tight forest hairpin lies a short way ahead, pointing the route towards a 70m high outcrop which affords excellent views across the lake. The parcours turns a very tight right hand corner just before Prada, joining the OU-121 and coming to the feeding station. Prada dates back to at least the tenth century when it was mentioned as a parish in diocese records, but today is almost a ghost town except for during the summer weekends when the rich outsiders who have bought up the homes come to visit. It seems a shame when a village suffers this fate, but does at least mean that it'll be preserved as the attractive and interesting place it is and that those locals who remain will continue to receive injections of money from outside - it might not be real life, but it's better than the slow death endured by Ventas da Barreira. There are many old cottages in the village, some perhaps not quite as pretty as the others, a few of which have strange patterns carved onto their ancient stones; the Santuario del Cristo de la Ascensión with its outdoor pulpit used in the days when the church sometimes attracted more worshippers than would fit within is an interesting building.

The road leads north-east, on high ground with excellent views into the 300m deep valley to the left, then veers east to pass along the edge of a forestry plantation. There are some tight bends on the other side, not quite hairpins but just sufficiently demanding to require some skill, then the peloton rides out into open, rolling countryside - where, should it be windy, there'll be no shelter. Another tight bend leads into trees and past an abandoned hut dug into the bank at the side of the road, almost consumed by the woodland surrounding it. Coming after less than a kilometre are three descending hairpins - the first two are very steep, dropping about 20m. The road narrows considerably here, about 1.5km from Santigoso.

A surviving part of the Order of Malta's complex in
O Barco de Valdeorras.
The road is straight and not technical as it travels through the heart of the village, descending as it heads north to a tight left towards a trickier section featuring five bends, a hairpin and another five bends as it makes its way along and down a steep slope line with deep gulleys. At the bottom is Villoria, 105k from the start; the peloton passes along the Rua de Portela and Av. Elena Quiroga to the OU-536 and the bridge crossing to the opposite side of the river to O Barco de Valdeorras, by far the largest town we've seen in a long time. The town has a lot of history, remains dating to the time of Europe's first human inhabitants having been found in nearby caves, and it was important to the Romans who began the mining industry which still forms the largest sector of the local economy. During the Middle Ages, it became a regional administrative centre and gained several stately homes of which some still stand. The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and Malta built a complex in the town, some of it remains. The 17th Century Pazo del Castro and nearby remains of a 13th Century castle should also be seen.

However, this is not a dusty backwater full of crumbling old buildings - as a modern, vibrant town, O Barco de Valdeorras has some very good modern buildings including a rather Bauhaus-like town hall. Another good example of modern architecture can be seen when the peloton turns left off the bridge and, after a short stretch along the Antigua Estrada, reaches the Edificio de Esquina which resembles a shorter, wide version of Manhattan's famous Flatiron Building. They turn left again here, passing along the Av. de Marcelino Suárez and beginning the first intermediate sprint running along the Av. Galicia - straight, flat and untechnical, so presumably an ideal place for the sprint specialists to bag the points. The Avenida ends at a roundabout and the race moves onto the N-120 as it heads west to Villamartin de Valdeorras.

Villamartin de Valdeorras, despite having much of interest,
relies of mining rather than tourism and as such remains
Villamartin, despite its selection of stately aristocratic houses and historic structures, continues to base its economy on mining rather than tourism and as such remains very much an industrial town; undeveloped and very real. However, it would be worthy of a short visit, partly because of that gritty realism and partly for the stately homes, Los Pazos de Arcos being a good example of the latter. On the eastern edge of the town, the race turns right onto the much narrower Calle Miguel de Cervantes to pass through town and join the N-536a running west towards San Miguel de Outeiro, another one of those villages offering much interest to those who seek a warts-and-all experience of life as lived by the majority of poor Spaniards away from the tourist traps. The road becomes the OU-603 here, following the river for a hile before turning off towards A Rúa. Unlike the rest of Galicia, with its mild maritime climate, A Rúa experiences enormous variations in temperature - since 2006, the lowest recorded has been  -7C and the highest 43C: ideal conditions for the growing of good quality vines, viticulture being the most profitable industry in the area. However, the excellent road links to nearby cities and beyond has led to it gradually becoming a popular tourist base and chalets are being built on the hillsides. The presence of a natural lake roughly 750m wide immediately on the south of the town may well encourage the development of a watersports centre in the near future, too. The peloton enters the town along the Calle Campo Grande which, roughly halfway through, changes name to be the Calle del Progreso and features four raised speed humps and then becomes the OU-533, where the next climb begins.

The riders cross the river using a wide, modern bridge; but to the left can be seen the Roman bridge, much repaired over the years so that while it probably doesn't constitute a particularly good example of Roman architecture anymore, it has an aesthetically-pleasing collection of arches in various styles and shapes from wide and Classical to pointy and Gothic. A little further on, the road veers south along a short river inlet - on the opposite bank is a rocky stack, the top of which is inhabited each year by storks. Having passed through Freixido de Abaxio and onto the OU-636, the second intermediate sprint begins. After 130km from the start, the race reaches Larouco; another village that won't make it into any books of stately homes but with plenty of interesting cottages, some of them apparently much-expanded over the centuries to form large, slightly chaotic-looking homes. The 565m Cat 3 summit of Alto de Ermida comes 3.1km later after two wide and undemanding hairpins. This section of the descent, though steep in parts, should cause no problems unless it's wet as the hairpins are all wide - the only obvious potential hazard is a 90 degree left onto a narrow bridge, forming a bottleneck which will be approached at high speed, and a similar corner on the other side. It's a very beautiful spot, so let's hope the riders get through smoothly and the camera operators concentrate on filming the bridge and surrounding landscape instead.

Inglesia de San Salvador, Sobrado.
The next hairpin is much tighter and made more hazardous by an unsurfaced track joining the road at the apex, a place where there is likely to be grit, mud and dust on the road's surface. Some way on, the peloton reaches a granite roadside fountain and turns through a very sharp left onto the OU-0701 - another point which may prove dangerous - reaching Mendoia (and not, as the road book has it, Mendola) shortly afterwards. Once through the village and past its attractive cottages built of undressed and unmortared stone, the peloton approaches Sobrado and passes by the Pazo de Barbeirón; a large and, if we're honest, quite ugly stately home which is now a hotel. The 12th Century Iglesia de San Salvador within the village is much more attractive.

The road forms an almost perfect three-quarter-circle loop then a left-hand hairpin. A wide 90 degree left, 1km from Sobrado, begins the stage's last climb - and it's the big one, the Especial Category ascent to 1750m. Before getting to the mountain, the race needs to pass through Manzaneda - a simple process via the Calle de la Cabarca and Calle del Reiguero. It's an unexpectedly pretty place after so many dull villages along this stage, a place of stone arches and spires added to buildings without apparent reason. Just over a kilometre outside town, there's a right corner onto the Carretera a Paradela which enters a Z-bend and begins to climb more rapidly, passing by Paradela de Abaixo before reaching a junction. Straight ahead leads into Paradela, right - the direction for the peloton - leads further up the mountain, reaching 1100m less than a kilometre further on. The road follows a 1km loop, featuring the steepest part of the climb with a 10.5% gradient about a large expanse almost free of vegetation, and soon reaches Cabeza de Manzaneda at the bottom of the piste, 162km from the start and 5km from the end. After 0.4km, they turn left and onto the final road to the summit, arriving at 1750m through five hairpins.

In recent years, Manzaneda has spent much time, money and
effort developing summer attractions - among them, the vast
Bike Park with XC, DH and even North Shore-style Freeride
trails. It is, of course, also very popular among road cyclists!
The Manzaneda ski resort is the only example in Galicia, with a history of skiing dating back to the 1930s when an intrepid band of enthusiasts trekked into what was then a very remote part of Europe. Finding the combination of beautiful scenery, range of slopes and forest very much to their liking, they recommended the location to others and an organised resort - albeit on a far smaller scale than today - soon grew up. Things really took off in the late 1960s and early 70s after the 10th Winter Olympics in Grenoble and cheaper flights saw the sport's popularity explode. Investment totalling 70 million pesetas in 1972 permitted the construction of a lift, new chalets and other facilities, making the resort even more famous. A series of warm winters with little snowfall proved disastrous in the 1980s and forced the management company to pull out but the Xunto de Galicia took up the reins and, taking some big risks, tentatively continued to develop the resort - fortunately, the gamble paid off and soon became profitable. Since the mid 1990s, they have also developed summer sports around the resort, with a a particular emphasis on cycling; the pistes doubling up as ideal mountain bike trails and bringing much-needed year-round income to the region. It now hosts a series of leisure facilities, including indoor climbing walls, karting track and a swimming pool; as well a choice of restaurants - Os Arandos is especially well-reviewed - and nightlife. Despite having a nightclub and several bars, it has concentrated on providing a family-friendly service sometimes lacking in other resorts and the pistes, ranging from yellow to black, suit skiers of all abilities and ages.

Pistes make superb mountain bike trails in summer.
Predicitions: Definitely a climbing specialist, but who? The obvious choice once again is Joaquin Rodriguez, but the other climbers aren't going to be too keen on letting him keep on having everything his own way, so we can expect a few of them to go all out and try to keep him in check today. The most likely challengers are Daniel Martin and Chris Sørensen - but Bradley Wiggins is always an outside chance.

Weather: Things may chance during the rest day, but at present it looks like we'll see the first rain of the 2011 Vuelta during Stage 11 - it's predicted all the way through the first half and then again towards the finish line, which isn't going to be welcome at all with all those climbs and descents. Temperatures will be much lower as a result, fluctuating between 16 and 18C during the first half, climbing to 22C in the lowlands before the final climb and dropping gradually as altitude increases to the finish - right down to a distinctly chilly 11C at the summit. Gentle tailwinds are predicted over the first half, then gentle headwinds for the second half just as the riders are becoming tired.

More Previews: click here

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