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Stage 9, like Stage 8, heads for the hills - but it's a very different sort of stage to yesterday's. Rather than testing the riders' strength with several medium-sized climbs, it starts off with a smallish Category 3 and then wears them down with a series of uncategorised little ascents before finishing off with a great big grind up to the Sierra de Béjar La Covatilla ski resort 1970m above sea level. However, the majority of the riding takes place upon the poker-straight N-110, meaning that despite its mountainous classification this is a stage in which sprinters could have as much to play for as the climbers, and the day's winner could very well be a non-General Classification contender who feels his legs are up to the task and mounts a successful breakaway attempt.
|Villacastin's coat of arms, carved in 1627.|
Modern interpretations of the name explain "castin" as being an archaic, formal deriviative of the Latin castrum, which has given rise to castillo, chateau and castle, but meaning "fortified" rather than a fortified building. Villa, meaning town, makes it the Fortified Town - not an especially helpful name in Spain where in some regions it seems that virtually every community of any size was fortified at some point, but a descriptive one nevertheless for Villacastin did indeed have fortifications: some rather superb examples of them, in fact, as the location was of great strategic importance among the defence network surrounding Tulaytula, one of the most most important cities in Moorish Iberia and now known as Toledo. The first historical evidence of Villacastin as a city comes from a document dated to 1096, a point at which the Christians were beginning to rise up against Muslim rule (and, unfortunately, show far less tolerance of religious and cultural differences than the Moors had) and the region became a sort of no-man's-land between the opposing groups.
|Inglesia de San Sebastian.|
|All that remains of Navalpino.|
The stage starts at Villacastin's football club, heading north east on the Carretera de Avila for a quick procession though the town. A tight left and right turn lead into the Calle de Correos, then the N-110 turns left at one roundabout and passes straight over the next to leave the town behind. A flyover carries the road above the AP-6 motorway and straight on to the first of the day's obvious hazards, a second large roundabout between the entrance to an industrial estate and the toll gates onto the motorway network. No matter which way the riders decide to go round, they'll be right in the middle of the areas most likely to contain lethally slippery diesel spills, all but invisible on the road surface. Having crossed another flyover carrying it over the AP-51, the road sweeps to the south-west among the rocky fields, climbing slightly towards the end of the neutral zone 5.2km from the start and Santa María del Cubillo 2.8km further on.
Santa Maria has a very attractive 16th Century parish church with an ornate turreted roof at one end and a belfry at the other with a red pan-tiled roof on the lower section in between. The parcours turns left off the N-110 and onto the AV-501 leading to a hairpin bend - both the corner and the bend may have diesel spills due to the large open-cast mine a short way on directly to the left of the road - and begins the first climb of the day, Category 3 Puerto de la Cruz de Hierro. The 1470m summit is reached after 8.6km from the start, shortly after passing a chain of wind turbines which either ruin or add to the landscape depending upon personal point of view. The descent isn't steep, but long straight sections will encourage high speed before the sharp right turn onto the AV-500 which runs straight for 14.6km. However, it's not boring - after a short while, the road crosses a bridge almost 0.5km long over the Embalse de Serones, a large artificial lake set among the rolling hills, some with lines of turbines marching over them. Egrets and black storks are common sights around the lake, those who are lucky may even see otters. On a fine day, this section of the stage could be one of the most pleasant anyone could wish for; on a rainy or - worse - windy day, it could be hellish.
Urraca-Miguel passes by on the right, signalling that there are just a few more kilometres to Bernuy-Salinero which the road just clips to the north. The village has an interesting little church and, immediately to the west of it, what appears from aerial photography to be possible modern structures built among the walls of a far larger, older, ruined building. Unfortunately, there seems to be no information on the site available online and so the only way to be certain would be to go and have a look - should they prove to be something else, the journey would not be wasted since it's the kind of village that has many hidden jewels. The sprawling industrial areas east of Avila soon become visible, the peloton reaching the city 33km from the start.
|Basilica de San Vincente, source of a good percentage of|
|Avila's complete medieval wall.|
|The cottage seen here is typical of the style in Aldealabad,|
but atypical of technique - most of the buildings use dry-
wall construction techniques rather than mortar.
|Puente Cobos, near Munogalindo, believed to be of Roman|
origin with some medieval restoration. The arches were once
much taller, but are now largely buried in silt.
|Stone cross, San Miguel de|
|The seemingly rather likable Duquesa|
Maria, depicted by Goya.
A short way into Piedrahita, the peloton reaches a roundabout and turns right, the road leading to a junction between the CL-510 to the right and the AV-102 straight on. They take the latter option and, 100km from the start, come to the a junction where they turn right again onto the AV-104 which is straight but for a wide bend at Palacios de Corneja. Despite the name, meaning Palace of the Crows, there is no palace here; merely a partially-abandoned and dusty little hamlet - which means that it has a particular charm all of its own, and the squat church built of irregular granite blocks is both interesting and pretty. The road crosses a modern bridge west of a stone clapper-type bridge, presumably of some antiquity but, in this part of the world, possibly relatively modern. It then passes San Bartolome de Corneja around a bend before entering a straight run into Santa Maria del Berrocal. This little town became famous in the past for its cloth-manufacturing industry, sending locals out to all corners of the nation to sell the cloth and make into clothes, drapes and other items so that today the berrocalenses (as they're known) can be found throughout Spain, Portugal and Southern France. The road passes through on the Calle Concepcion which becomes narrow but should cause no problems, then turns an easy corner onto the Calle Nueva del Sur which presently becomes the Calle Cruces, leading out of town and back onto the AV-104.
|Watchtower, Cespedosa de Tormes.|
Soon, the N-110 passes underneath the A-66 motorway and the peloton turns right onto the N-630, travelling parallel to the motorway for a while before breaking away for the first intermediate sprint along the Calle Filiberic Villaldecs lading into Guijuelo - which ought to be made more interesting by the large number of speed humps along the road. The parcours narrows and passes right through the town, the inhabitants of which enjoy one of the highest per capita gross incomes in Spain largely due to the local pork industry - Bellota Oro, "Golden Acorn," is made here and has twice been voted the best ham in the world. The road out of town is mostly straight and should be hazard-free, but the peloton will need to negotiate a series of complicated roundabouts and junctions to get onto the DSA-170 leading to Fuentes de Béjar. Note that the parcours drops 50m in the half-kilometre between reaching the outskirts of the village and leaving it behind on the DSA-250, generating high speed and possible accidents if there are any slippery patches or detritus likely to cause punctures on the final bend.
Ledradra is reached 150km from the start, the parcours becoming narrower and potentially hazardous as it travels through the village along the Calle Traviersa and passing the town hall before joining the Calle Arriba leading out. A short distance to the south, it takes in a 90 degree right bend with a bridge; a section made even more hazardous by the surrounding trees and likelihood of slippery leaves/puncture-causing thorns on the road. The road then begins to climb before reaching Sanchotello then travels into the village via a straight section with speed humps, then turns left and over more speed humps to exit. It's a small town with nothing in the way of grand palaces or castles to attract the tourists, but there are some very pretty cottages and old buildings to interest those who take the time to look. However, the location at the foot of the forested hills is the most beautiful aspect of the place. We remain with the DSA-250 as it heads south-west, soon coming to the edge of the forest and then to Navalmoral de Béjar, a village on the verge of being completely abandoned - from 1950, when the population was the highest ever recorded at 402, it dropped to 56 in 2010. This is a pity, because it's an attractive and unspoiled place with a very pretty church and several good buildings. There's a tight hairpin bend and a bridge on the outskirts as the peloton head south, then a few fairly sharp bends and a narrow bridge further on towards the next town.
|The medieval tower of the Inglesia de San|
As the peloton leaves Béjar behind, the riders begin both the second intermediate sprint and the final climb. This is an unusual situation, since sprints are more commonly held on flat sections, making the likely winners very difficult to predict - will it be a strong sprinter who can produce the explosive energy required even when riding uphill, or will it be a fast climber? An obvious choice would have been Alberto Contador, but he's not competing in the race this year. After four kilometres, having already climbed 200m, the riders come to a fork in the road and turn right onto the SA-100 and reach 1240m at La Hoya. 0.3km further on, they turn right onto the Carretera de la Covatilla and the climb becomes steeper with gradients up to 13.75%.
|The ski run at La Covatilla.|
Predictions: It's a long, lumpy lead-up to a hard, high mountain - in other words, the sort of sadistic stage that makes its victims suffer before going in for the kill. To be in with a chance of winning, a rider needs to be able to keep up the pace through the first 165km - no mean feat in itself, with that Cat 3 near the start and the assorted uncategorised climbs - then arrive at the foot of the last climb with sufficient energy for a successful assault. Back in the day, this would have been an ideal stage for Eddy Merckx - or these days, were this a women's race, Marianne Vos who is increasingly looking set to take his crown as the greatest ever all-rounder. Of all those in this race, who can do that? Joaquin Rodriguez is the first obvious candidate - he's shown the best form by far of any of the climbers so far in the race and can keep on going at a high rate of knots when other climbers cannot. Another rider who may do well here is LeopardTrek's Jakob Fuglsang, a very useful all-rounder who came second in Stage 14 back in 2009 - a stage not at all dissimilar to this one if much shorter.
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