Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Vuelta a España - Stage 6 Preview

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Stage 6 is another plain stage, but as those of you who either read our preview yesterday or are fortunate enough to live somewhere with live television footage will be aware, "plain stage" does not mean "easy" in the language of the Vuelta. Today is no different - while there are none of the mountains that appeared in the "plain" Stage 5, the organisers have gone all out to include as many difficult sections as possible.

Ubeda with snow, showing some of its many historical
treasures. The church in the background is the Sacra
Capilla del Salvador.
Following an overnight transfer, the stage begins in a little park in the centre of Ubeda within sight of the Sacra Capilla del Salvador which, despite the name (capilla means chapel), is a vast 16th Century church larger than many cathedrals and ranked among the finest examples of Spanish Renaissance architecture. Among Ubeda's 48 other sites declared of national cultural or historic interest are the medieval Casa de las Torres and the Palacio del Deán Ortega. In fact, there is so much to be seen that the city has given rise to a Spanish phrase, andar por los cerros de Úbeda, "to walk around the hills of Ubeda," meaning to go off on a tangent. With so much history and so many historical buildings, it's easy to see how anyone attempting to give a tour would indeed go off on several tangents. We don't yet know the exact route the race will take out of the Ubeda, but the most likely will be via the Calle del Obispo Pobos and the Av. de Cristo Rey leading past the Hospital de Santiago and the bullring, where a fight will hopefully not be in progress so we don't have to have our enjoyment of a beautiful and heroic sport ruined by the sight of an animal being slowly tortured to death.

The Av. de Cristo Rey is wide and free of hazards, but leads onto two roundabouts on the western edge of the city, the peloton going straight over both and onto the A-316. Three more roundabouts mark turn-offs into industrial sites before the parcours leaves for a narrower road, then a sweeping left-hand bend turns south and south-west towards the end of the neutral zone just outside Baeza.

Like its neighbour Ubeda, Baeza was declared a World Heritage Site in 2003. We owe the city's beauty not to wise decisions to preserve old buildings in days gone by, but to economic hardship and recession: while the city flourished under Moorish rule and became home to 50,000 (three times the current population, the collapse of the Caliphate and return to Christian rule brought financial disaster and, like many Spanish cities, Baeza entered a long period of decline. This, combined with eventual economic collapse in the 17th Century, meant that new structures were too expensive to build and the population had to make-do-and-mend with what they already had. It must have been horrendously tough at the time, but those long-dead residents would hopefully take some comfort in knowing that their descendants are now beginning to grow wealthy from the tourists attracted by the ancient buildings. It is, nevertheless, fortunate that anything is left - the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 caused widespread damage. Sights include the Palacio de Jabalquinto, the Catedral de la Natividad de Nuestra Señora de Baeza, the former university dating from the 16th Century and the buildings around the Plaza del Pópulo. There was once a vast fortress located on a hill within the town, containing a castle and palaces and said to have been as beautiful as it was impregnable. It was destroyed during the 15th Century on the orders of Queen Isabel to prevent rebellions by local aristocrats and the masonry used in the construction of new buildings; leaving very little to see at ground level today.

Medieval streets, Baeza.
Having reached the end of the tree-lined Av. del Alcalde de Puché Pardo, the peloton turns right into the Avenida de Andalucia and passes a wooded park. There are at least eight raised speed humps along this road, which becomes the A-6101 and heads north-west to Ibros, encountering nothing else likely to present a hazard along the way. Once inside the town, the parcours travels along the Av. Joaquin Padilla which permits little opportunity to see the very few interesting and/or historical structures in the town before embarking on a 9km section leading to the roundabout junction with the N-322 carrying the race past the Estacion Linares-Baeza. Linares is some 2.5km further ahead, where the peloton leaves the road and turns south at a roundabout onto the A-302.

The parcours continues south-west, passing through a lush green area which stands in stark and welcome contrast to the surrounding landscape and the tragically semi-derelict Castillo-Palacio Tobaruela, of which it looks as though nothing will be left within another two decades unless someone fabulously wealthy rock star takes a shine to it and restores the old walls. Though imposing, it's not an especially attractive place and looks too spooky for many. Marilyn Manson, we have a job for you.

The N-323 leads to roundabout next to an industrial estate as the race reaches Mengibar, leading to the possibility of diesel spills which can be both lethal and virtually invisible especially in rain, where the peloton turns right onto the Av. de España which has a wide central reservation lying in wait to catch out any rider who ill-advisably picks this point to look around for team-mates. The Vuelta road book also warns of "steep gullies" here. Five roads lead off from the end, the parcours takes the fourth to pass along the C. Santa Amalia which leads straight on to the Carretera Espelliy and Carretera Espeluy, then the JA-3413 leading away from the town.

Iberian bronze, discovered at Mengibar.
Though Mengibar is today home to a little under 10,000 people, there is historical and archaeological evidence supporting the current theory that the great city of Iliturgi once stood here before it was razed to the ground and the population slaughtered by the Romans due to their constant trouble-making and refusal to pay taxes. Unfortunately, looters long ago discovered that valuable artifacts could be had by carrying out unauthorised treasure hunts in the vicinity, meaning there is precious little left for archaeologists to study and prove or disprove the theory once and for all. The JA-3413 is untechnical and soon leads to Cazalilla, 51km from the start line. The peloton enter town along the long Av. de Andalucia, taking a sharp left onto the C. Poeta Abendarrach, then an equally tricky left onto the C. Anch before reaching the Av. de la Constitución, then left again to travel along the Ctra. de Espluy through the centre of town. At the end, a narrow passage to access the C. de las Cuevas will pack a lot of riders into a small space, creating a hazard for those unwilling to fall back and wait. The JA-3410 takes us north-west away from the town and, after 3.5km, across a bridge into Villanueva de la Reina.

Villanueva de la Reina
Villanueva has a beautiful location, situated on the fertile lowland banks of the Guadalquivir river, and has been a stop-off point for travellers ever since the Romans first built a town here. Whilst it may lack the grand buildings seen elsewhere along this stage, there is much to appreciate and the town centre streets are wide and well-kept. Seven raised speed humps carry the peloton south of the centre and onto the JA-3409 as it heads west, back into the countryside. Some way on, having turned south-west, the road enters a twisty section which may prove dusty and slippery. 8km from Villanueva is Lahiguera, where a left hand corner as soon as the peloton enters the town takes the riders south to the C. de la Cruz del Pozuelo which has several speed bumps and a tight left onto the JA-3404 heading south. The road crosses one narrow bridge and features one sweeping hairpin rising through 30m, but it otherwise free of likely hazards until reaching Arjona, a town known as Urgavo to the Romans. It was an important place under their rule, as is made evident by the archaeological traces of large structures - possibly temples - found within the town. Under Moorish rule it became Arjuna Qal'at, which was gradually modified to the present form after the fall of the Caliphate.

The road narrows considerably as it becomes the C. del Matadero, then turns right onto the C. Pozo del Llano and C. del Tejar before a bend onto the C. Alcantarilla and C. Cañuelo. A sweeping bend leads to the C. Felix Rodriguez de la Fuente and right onto the A-321shortly before it becomes the A-305. After 2km, the parcours comes to a fork where the peloton will take the left path onto the A-6176 to reach Arjonilla, 77.4km from the start. The C. de Arjona into town is technical with a lot of street furniture and raised humps but should allow glimpses of the castle before the C. de los Molinos and C. Doctor Garcia Mazuelo carry the riders into the centre of town. A sharp left corner then takes them south along the JA-4401 and out of town.
"Olives,olives,olives.bilions of bilions. Today we gona ride almost the hole stage true the trees yards." (Fabian Cancellara, Twitter)
After some kilometres, the JA-4401 reaches the JA-5400 just south of Santiago. The parcours turns right on the potentially dusty junction before heading west towards Lopera, located 94.6km from the start. Lopera's castle is extremely well-preserved and looks precisely how a medieval castle is supposed to look, with high walls and enough turrets and battlements to keep even the most imaginative of Gothic novel-writers happy for years. There are far more modern defensive structures in the town, too - it became on of the most important sites along the Andalusian Front during the Civil War and saw one of the most important battles, leaving many gun emplacements, shelters and other features in the town and surrounding countryside. However, we shan't see much of it today because the peloton turn south onto the A-6175 almost as soon as the enter the town. Just north of Porcuna, the riders turn right onto the A-306 and head towards Cañete de las Torres.

The road passes over a bridge, but as this is a main arterial route it should be as wide as the road and create no problems, though cross-winds could be high if conditions are right. On the outskirts, the peloton turns left into Cañete de las Torres along the C. Federico Lorca which joins the C. Menendez Pidal. A left corner takes them to the Av. de Jaén, then the C. Antonio Mauro, C.del Molino and C. de la Glorieta - a route taking us around many of the medieval streets - lead back to the A-306 heading for Bujalance.

Bujalance's peculiar name derives from the Arabic Bury al-Hans, which became Burialhanç and went through  Burialhançe, Buxalançe, Buxalanze and Buxalance during the post-Moorish era before finally settling on its modern form. However, there has been a settlement here since at least Iberian times - a sculpture known as the Iberian Lion of Bujalance dating the the 5th Century BCE was found here; the fertile location attracting representatives of every ethnic group to have made Andalusia their home. It appears that the shift to Moorish rule was relatively peaceful with the existing population seemingly not too concerned about their new lords nor their religion and, as was the case in many parts of the country, they benefited greatly from it for the town soon acquired a castle - still standing but not in a very good state of repair and crowded on all sides by ugly modern buildings - and several markets. It also gained a fine mosque, but it has long since vanished - Ferdinand III, having conquered the town and returned it to Christian rule in 1227, ordered the mosque to be "purified" (a term very much reflecting the odious religious intolerance of the times) and converted into a church. The site is now occupied by the Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, famous for its remarkable Gothic altarpiece and leaning tower. Following difficult times marked by riots and plague, the 17th Century brought prosperity to Bujalance when it became a centre of cloth-making and there are many impressive buildings dating from this period. In 1630, it was granted city status. The industry lasted into the 20th Century, when the factories' large workforce placed the town firmly on the side of the leftists in the Civil War so that the city soon became one of the centres of the anti-fascist struggle; Madrid's La Estampa newspaper called it the Mecca of anarchism.

Villafranca de Cordoba's surprisingly
modern-looking convent.
The ringroad leads to a roundabout where the peloton turn right and rejoin the A-306 leading north-west, becoming the N-IV at El Carpio - unfortunately, we'll see little of this town and its solidly imposing Torre de Garci Méndez as the parcours skirts around the eastern and northern edges before it joins the A-421 and crosses a narrow bowstring arch bridge over the Guadalquivir and enters Villafranca de Cordoba 142.7km from the start. Very unusually for this part of the world, Villafranca doesn't have a castle - it appears to have enjoyed a relatively peaceful existence and has never really needed one, having been a fairly unimportant place until the last century when it became home to a number of kitchen furniture manufacturers and as such began trading with cities around the world. The peloton soon reaches a small roundabout with a little rock garden, where they turn left and then left again onto the CO-3103 and begin the first intermediate sprint of the stage. This should be straightforward as the road is untechnical and without potential hazards other than a slightly narrowed section where it crosses a bridge over a stream, so it's probably a safe bet to say that any breakaway group to have formed earlier in the day will get the points here.

After 151km, the road sweeps around a right bend before passing under the motorway and then turns sharply left onto a narrow bridge. This combination of high-speed bend, technical corner, constriction and possible slippery road surface due to the surrounding trees makes this seem the most likely spot for crashes on the stage as the peloton will need to sharply reduce speed and form some sort of order to get across, since the bridge looks able to take no more than three or four abreast - and even that would be pushing things. Once off the bridge, another tight left takes them back onto the road, back under the motorway and onward. North-east of the narrow bridge is an enormous dam, holding back the Embalse San Rafael de Navallana lake which, though located at an altitude of around 150m, has a distinctly Haute-Alpine look. The road then follows the Guadalquivir for a short stretch, passing south of a large mansion, then joins with the N-IVa heading west into Cordoba.

Cordoba, "the jewel of the world": inside the cathedral
Following a series of junctions, the route turns right onto the Av. de Carlos III, which is long and straight and has tended to attract large crowds whenever the Vuelta has passed this way before. A roundabout marks the end, where the peloton turns left before rounding a fountain and passing onto the Av de al-Nasir where the second intermediate sprint begins. Once done, the riders turn right onto the Av. del Brillante and right again onto the Av. del Calasancio which joins the Av. de San José de Calasanz after a short while. The route leaves the city and heads out into the countryside on the CO-3408. The land is arid for a while, but the peloton soon starts climbing into a greener area, ascending almost 300m between Cordoba and the junction with the CO-3404 which climbs higher, topping out at 580m after a Cat 2 climb which, in the steepest section, has a gradient of 14%.

Medina Azahara
The parcours passes through more forested areas, climbing and descending, before reaching the CO-3402. The descent from here is fast and twisty with many hairpins - there were once many more, but one especially snaky section has been replaced with a sweeping curve.

This route carries the race just east of Medina Azahara, one of the most astounding archaeological sites in Europe and the entire world. Once a city of palaces, work began here in the 10th Century to build the ultimate expression of the Caliphate's power, wealth and superiority over its enemies - which has led to a common modern description, "the Versailles of the Middle Ages." However, anybody with even the most rudimentary of imaginations cannot doubt that, at its height, this place easily surpassed Versailles. That height was a very short period of time - having been equipped with fortifications, palacial residences, mosques, bathhouses and aqueducts to bring water for the inhabitants, gardens and fountains, it was looted and suffered much damage in a civil war in 1010, less than a hundred years after building began, and was then subsequently abandoned to fall into ruin for nine centuries until attempts to study and preserve it began in 1910. In the following century, only around 12% of the entire site has been excavated but this already includes two palaces, two mansions, guard houses, administrative buildings, gardens and a vast reception hall.

Once the CO-3402 flattens out and once again travels through arid landscapes, it's not long before the peloton reach a roundabout on the outskirts of Cordoba. They turn left here, soon coming to another roundabout which they cross to join the Av. de la Azufarrilla (Azufarilla in the Vuelta details, Arruzafilla on maps). This leads over a roundabout with a spectacular fountain - best seen at night, when it's lit by coloured lights, and don't miss the small section of Roman aqueduct just before the roundabout - before turning right to join the Av. del Brillante leading south to the Av de al-Nasir where, after 196.8km, the stage comes to an end.

Cordoba at night
Cordoba has a population today of around 328,000 - less than a third of its population a thousand years ago when, according to some estimates (with archaeological evidence), it was home to a million people; roughly 1/265th of all the human beings then alive, making it the most populous city in the world and the European centre of science, literature, finance, art and philosophy (thanks almost entirely to its Moorish Caliphate rulers, one of whom granted the city the world's largest public library with between 400,000 and a million books , part of the same Islamic culture that certain people like to try to claim have contributed nothing to the world - although since Arabs were the first to come up with the mathematical concept of zero, there's some ironic truth to that)*. In the 12th Century, it was the home of Maimonides, perhaps the most important of all rabbis, whose Mishneh Torah remains the most valuable guide to the interpretation of Torah to this day and is a vital part of the daily study carried out by almost all observant Jewish people worldwide. The Renaissance, when cities throughout Europe began to grow, had a strangely opposite effect on Cordoba; by the 18th Century the population had fallen to under 20,000, not recovering until the 20th.

The Roman Bridge and the Mosque-Cathedral, Cordoba.
As would be expected, Cordoba offers far more to see than we can list here. However, among its many jewels are the numerous Roman remains including a near-perfectly preserved mausoleum in the Jardines de la Victoria, the 14th Century synagogue that was restored and reopened in 1985 to commorate the 850th anniversary of Maimondies' birth, the Torre de la Calahorra fortified gatehouse, the ancient watermills on the Guadalquivir river, the many palaces, the Mosque-Cathedral which began life as a pagan temple and the Roman bridge. It is not a place than can be seen in a day.
* Estimates range from 500,000 to a million - assume somewhere roughly halfway between is probably reasonably accurate.

Predictions: Could today be Bradley's day? We think it could. However, if he wants it he's going to have to beat Sylvain Chavanel; because this is the ideal stage for breakaway specialist Mimosa

Weather: Moderate headwinds all the way today and hot, too - so it's lucky the riders have the Jewel of the World to look forward to, otherwise they probably wouldn't bother. We can expect 31C at the start, rising to 33C by 20km and up until 140km when it could be a degree warmer. It'll drop three degrees or so at the top of the Cat 2 climb before Cordoba, then rise to 34C again in the city.

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