Sunday, 21 August 2011

Vuelta a España - Stage 3 Preview

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Stage 3 is, at 163km, among the shortest of this year's race. It features two categorised climbs - Cat 3 Alto del Barro and Alto de la Santa, located 117km and 150km from the start line. Overall, the parcours is once again relatively flat so with that long build-up to the mountain we can expect an early breakaway as those riders with little or no chance of a General Classification win hunt for points. A mass sprint at the end is also on the cards, but not guaranteed - the climbs aren't big enough to halt a breakaway if they make it that far.

Castillo de Petrer
The route begins at Petrer, home to around 220 shoe manufacturing companies and known unofficially as Petrel. However, Petrer's history goes back much further - there are traces of Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iberian villages nearby. It became a town under the Romans who called it Villa Petrarium, then gained importance during Moorish times. It was the Moors who built the imposing and very well-preserved Castillo de Petrer in the 12th Century; it stands on a hill to the north-east and has been given the 3D buildings treatment on Google Earth, viewable at 38°29'2.73"N 0°46'3.62"W. The local population was primarily Moorish by the 16th Century, meaning the town lost a great deal of its citizens and workforce during the Expulsion and required around a hundred families to be relocated from elsewhere, but the local economy suffered. It was not until the 18th Century, after Petrer had been fortunate enough to back the winning side in the War of Succession and was granted various privileges as a result, that it really began to recover. Today, Petrer is home to the lowest number of foreigners of all the major towns in the Alicante region, just 3.34%; the majority of them from Latin America. Whilst this means it hasn't benefited from the economic advantages brought by immigration (are you listening, Tories?), it does mean it's kept its Spanish factory town character and offers a far more genuine - if less picturesque - Spanish experience.

We leave town along the CV-835 heading south-west, soon coming to a large and unchallenging roundabout, until it joins the CV-83 which turns west to bypass Monovar before becoming the CV-836 at Pinoso. There's a big roundabout on the way in which might be hazardous in the wet, but as we've entered a semi-arid region rain is excessively unlikely, then a sharp left-right-left route through town before continuing south.

After 25.8km, the peloton reaches Rodriguillo, then passes through a gap in a ridge before the road becomes the C-3223. After a few more kilometres, the riders pass through another ridge - forested along the lower slopes but bare rock at the top, it rises to almost 100m above the road. If it's hot - which it probably will be - this is going to be a very testing section of the stage, involving 23 flat kilometres through the arid landscape. If there are winds from the south, east or west, it'll be even worse.

The parcours reaches Los Baños de Fortuna - a village (Los Baños) and a town (Fortuna) separated by fields and fruit groves - after 50km. There is very little in Los Baños, but the dusty little community is not without its charm - it looks precisely how a rural Spanish village should look. Fortuna is a different matter entirely - as a spa town with almost 10,000 inhabitants, it has much to offer including important Roman remains at la Cueva Negra and the Iglesia Parroquial de la Purísima Concepción, an 18th Century church sympathetically restored to its original Baroque splendour. The narrow streets, following a grid pattern around town, are picturesquely run-down. Despite this, getting through the town is a simple process thanks to the Av. de Narcirso Yepes and Av. Salcillo which sweep past the geographic centre in a long curve, turning right into the Av. de Vincente Medina which becomes the RM-411 heading away from the town towards Fenazar which is located 7km to the west. Fenazar has a very attractive white-painted church and little else, which makes it seem odd that the population of 300 are regularly the hosts of 700 tourists during any one week in the summer - however, the views from the village to the mountains explain everything.

River Segura near Archena.
A few kilometres out of town, the road follows a wide bend around a farm and then deviates 90 degrees to the right, heading west. It passes alongside fruit groves then across a straight irrigation channel before coming to the complicated junction with the A-30 motorway, passing under an elevated section and around a roundabout to join the MU-554 and onwards to Archena. Home to 18,000 people, Archena hit the headlines in 1963 when a military arsenal, about 1.5km from the town, exploded; which caused a "rain of rocks" to fall upon the buildings and cause much damage, the blast being felt as far as 20km away. The fact that nobody in the town was killed is celebrated each September in the Fiesta del Polvorín. The peloton enters the town via three roundabouts, going straight across the first two and then taking the second exit on the next which leads onto the Av. de Mario Spreafico before crossing a narrow bridge over the Segura river. Parts of the town could be at best described as higgledy-piggledy and at worst as resembling a slum, but there are some fine buildings here. The Av. de Mario Spreafico joins the Av. del Carril which curves through the town centre. The peloton tales a tight left onto the MU-530 Av. de Daniel Ayala and then left again at a roundabout onto the Av. de Antoñete Gálvez, a long and straight road without obvious hazards towards the outskirts of town where the parcours reaches another roundabout. The road is almost perfectly straight all the way to Yechar, passing through a variety of arid and arable areas - the latter being criss-crossed by irrigation channels - en route.

Just past Yechar, the road makes another 90 degree deviation and travels south-east for while before switching south-west again. It passes through an industrial complex and over two roundabouts, turning right at a third onto the C-415A and heading west to Mula. South of the road is a viaduct and a mansion topped by a Baroque construction similar to a belfry.

The fake castle above Mula...
Mula's aesthetic qualities are assisted to great extent by its castle, perched dramatically upon rocks above the town. In fact, it all seems just a little too dramatic -  a delve into the structure's history will reveal the truth: though there are traces of a real, defensive castle built by Moors here, the current building has stood only since the 16th Century, a fact much at odds with its early medieval appearance. It was never supposed to withstand attack or protect its occupants from anything more deadly than rain, having been built for no reason other than to give Mula the aristocratic air that the town thought it deserved.

...and its real counterpart at Pliego.
The parcours then continues through Mula, taking the Av. Juan Antonio Perea until a sharp left brings the peloton out onto a roundabout, from which point they join the C-3315 to Pliego. There's another Moorish castle here, but this one has remained unchanged - except for the gradual decay caused by nature - since the 16th Century, when its four-century military history came to an end. The riders follow the Av. de la Mula into town and, on the way out, the Av. de la Alhamba. On the south-eastern edge of town the route climbs into a forested area and reaches the intermediate sprint, 97.8km from the start. This is an especially beautiful section of the race, the rolling contours of the hills standing in stark contrast to the geometrical shapes of the irrigation ponds dotting the landscape.

After 109.2km and a long, straight stretch is a very sharp right-hand turn onto the C-25 heading south-west, quite possibly a hazard due to being situated among open fields. This can cause the road surface to be covered in dust which, if the front tyre hits a deep section - ie. in a pothole - can be almost as dangerous as a patch of ice. Various unsurfaced tracks lead off into the hills and forests as the route veers left and right before entering a hairpin and climbs up to El Berro, spread out across the hillside and, in parts, attractive. A large, gleaming white statue of Jesus looks over the town from higher up the hill. Nearby are the spooky ruins of the Sanatorio de Tuberculosos de Sierra Espuña, in use between 1917 and 1962. In the 1980s, one wing was restored and converted into a youth hostel but the scheme soon folded and the building has been abandoned ever since. Access to the site is strictly forbidden as the uncared-for structure is beginning to collapse. However, locals - primarily teenagers from nearby Alhama de Murcia - do occasionally visit; many of them reporting that they have experienced terrifying supernatural phenomena in and around the remaining buildings including a shadowy and emaciated female figure seen by many people and murmured voices which were sufficient to scare off the youth hostel's caretaker who gave up his job and never returned.

The road leaves town heading east, picking a winding route around the stepped fields as the Category 3 climb of Alto del Berro; entering more forest and negotiating three hairpins, one of which takes the peloton round the burned-out Casa Forestal los Quemados. After a left-hand bend comes a fork in the road where the riders will take an unlisted route east, which gently descends for a few kilometres before entering a series of nine hairpins where the road drops 75 vertical metres in 0.2km. It then takes a long, straight and gradually descending path down to a Z-bend, then turns right at a roundabout to join the C-3315 which travels south-east before another Z-bend and a tight right bend take it south-west, traversing a forested hillside with excellent views north across the orange groves. We then travel south, then east and along a straight road into Alhama de Murcia.

Castillo de Alhama de Murcia
Archaeologists have discovered Neolithic remains in Alhama, but it didn't become an important town until the 1st Century when the hot springs guaranteed Roman attention and development. The Moors also made good use of this natural feature, naming the town Al-Hamma - "thermal bath." Located in a fertile valley, Alhama was always going to be highly desired by invaders. The Moors built the castle in the 11th Century and remained there for three hundred years, after which it became a Christian fortress. In the 16th Century it passed into the ownership of the Marqués de Los Vélez who converted it into a stately home, but this was to be temporary new lease of life because in the next century it was abandoned and partially ruined. Fortunately it was saved during the 20th Century and the remaining parts made good. Restoration work is still in progress, ensuring its survival for future generations. Standing high above the community it once variously protected and controlled, it remains an imposing sight. Other highlights of the town include the Iglesia de San Lázaro Obispo, a 14th Century church built on the site and incorporating into its structure parts of an older mosque and the now-ruined ancient towers built by those long-ago Moorish inhabitants.

The passage into Alhama is straight-forward along the Av. Sierra Espuña which is wide and has little in the way of street furniture, but the sharp right corner onto the Rambla de Don Diego could cause problems especially if there are any patches of diesel or other oily substances left by cars and trucks coming to and from the town centre. When they reach the roundabout, the peloton will turn sharp left before coming to another roundabout and then right to join the N-340A. The road is flat and almost perfectly straight, the roundabout with a fountain featuring three figures coming as something of a relief just before Totana at 141km from the start. The stage's second intermediate sprint is here. Near to the town is La Bastida de Totana, in times long past a fortified town with as many as 300 households. One of the earliest and most important Argaric culture towns yet discovered, it's currently the subject of much research and within a year or two should have gained a visitor's centre.

The road into Totana's centre is hazardous due to a number of raised traffic-calming sections, various street furniture and a tricky entrance to a roundabout. The route takes us to the  the Calle de Sol, then along Plaza de la Constitución past the town hall and across a bridge heading north before taking a relatively simple route through town to Camino de los Molinos and out of town until, 146km from the start, the parcours reaches the second Category 3 climb of the day; the summit coming a little over 4km further on. The route passes near another statue of Jesus, an ideal spot for those riders who are so inclined (eg; all the Italian and Spanish ones) to cross themselves in preparation for the descent, for which caution is advised on the Vuelta roadbook due to the gradient and series of tricky bends. The race returns to Totana once again via the N-340A, joining the Av. de Lorca where we'll hopefully be permitted a chance to see the fortified church and coming to the end of the stage.

Predictions: The Missile won't have been too pleased about Stage 2's result, a race he was easy favourite to win, and might be wanting to reassert his authority over the final sprint today - especially with that impudent pup Marcel Kittel lurking among the Skil-Shimano guys, all ready to take on the World's Greatest Sprinter crown the moment Cav looks like slowing down a bit. On the other hand, it could go the other way entirely: these are still early days, and Cav might be happy to hang back a bit and let Kittel take the stage. After all, a win by a rider from a wildcard team would be a defeat for him too, but if he knows he can take Kittel when he needs to being beaten by the young German wouldn't have the psychological effect on him that it would on them. But all that might be la mierda del toro - all it would take for a gang of chancers who fancy their luck to mess things up would be a good ride over that first Cat 3 and then keep going, not letting up until they reach the line. Who can really know? It's that kind of stage, and the Vuelta is that kind of race.

Weather: Petrer: 35C, sun, wind east 14.5kmph, 5% rain; Pinoso/Archena/El Berro/Totana: 37C, sun, wind east 22kmph, <5% rain. Windspeed may be greater on the hills.

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