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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|
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.|
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...|
|...and its real counterpart at Pliego.|
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|
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.
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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