Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Tour of Britain - Stage 4 Guide

Bilingual road sign in Wales
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With the current popularity of a number of Welsh bands and stars, Wales has a far larger profile on the world's stage than it has for decades at present - only two decades ago, it wasn't at all uncommon for the Welsh to have to explain patiently where and what Wales is and that no, Britain is not England. Anyone unfamiliar with the ancient land of Cymru who is visiting for the first time to watch Stage 4, meanwhile, will be in no doubt that they're in a different country: for a start, they're going to see bilingual road signs.

The Welsh language, y Gymraeg, which had all but died out by the early 20th Century due in no small part to the efforts of the British Government and teachers who banned it in schools, is flourishing today. It's taught to all children in Welsh schools and around one fifth of Welsh people speak it to near-fluency - a figure that is gradually rising. A high percentage of those speak Welsh as their first language, using it daily in the home, and in some isolated pockets it's possible to find people who speak only Welsh; sometimes knowing only a handful of English words.

y Gymraeg is an entirely different language to English, stemming from the Celtic Brythonic family (as do Cornish and Breton) whereas English is derived from the Germanic Frisian family. It predates English by a large margin, with some researchers arguing that it's in fact pre-Celtic. For an example of the difference, look at these two pages on cycling: this one's English and this one's Welsh. The letters - some of which do not exist in English - are pronounced differently too; and there are eight digraphs each with a particular pronunciation, as well as six English letters that don't appear in Welsh.

The Brecon Beacons
While the stage misses the beautiful mountains of Snowdonia - including the highest point in the British Isles outside Scotland, Mount Snowdon - it takes in some of the most famous and attractive scenery the east and south of the country has to offer, including the Brecon Beacons (Bannau Brycheiniog) National Park. With two Category 1 ascents, one Cat 3 and a wide selection of uncategorised climbs (some steep, some long, some both steep and long and uncategorised for no evident reason), Stage 4 is undoubtedly among the three contenders for the 2011 Queen Stage.

Powis Castle (© Alexander Forst-Rakoczy CC2.0)
The neutral zone begins in Welshpool (originally known simply as Pool, the named being changed to avoid confusion with the English town Poole - the Welsh avoid the problem by calling it Y Trallwng) at Powis Castle, known in Welsh as Castell Coch, a vast medieval fortress much modified in later centuries to become a grand stately home - and while there are many castles in Wales, this one is frequently top of the list of those most popular among the Welsh because, unlike the majority which were built by the English following the invasion and subjugation of Wales under the English, this one was built for a real Prince of Wales in the days when the title referred to the Welsh ruler rather than being a hereditary, ceremonial title awarded to the eldest son of the English monarch.

The neutral zone begins on the A490 just south of Welshpool and heads north onto Berriew Road into the town, turning a tight left onto Broad Street and just reaching the High Street before a tight right turn into the much narrower Jehu Street and emerging a short while later onto Brook Street. Here, the riders will turn right towards Church Bank, then left and arriving soon on Salop Road ready for another right onto Smithfield Road leading to the bridge over the river and continuing above the cattle market. The third exit at the roundabout leads onto Severn Road and the B4381, coming to a right/left/left/right section as the road follows a large U-shaped bridge over the railway. The road becomes Leighton Road on the other side, soon arriving at another bridge over another river; then a T-junction with the B4388. Right leads to Leighton and the end of the neutral zone after 7km, this being the beginning of the race, then past Cilcewydd and towards Forden. At another T-junction in Kingswood, the peloton turn left to ride along a 0.34km section of the A490 and then continue straight ahead to rejoin the B4338 heading south.

Montgomery (© Ceridwen CC2.0)
Reaching a crossroads just on the outskirts of Montgomery after 9.2km, the race turns left onto New Road; coming soon to the B4386 and a tight right turn onto Chirbury Road towards the town centre and a second tight right for the B4385. At this point, the roadbook instructs riders to follow the B4385 to Abermule - however, there's a little bit of a problem with that, because the B4385 doesn't go there: it goes in the opposite direction some 4.5km to the north-east, heading into Garthmyl. However, just before it does so there's a left turn near a level crossing which leads onto the B4386 0 which does go to Abermule. Unfortunately, this isn't the only possible route as there are various ways along unclassified roads - however, it does seem the most likely to us. Thankfully for the riders, they'll have race officials to direct them.

Having reached the roundabout on the northern edge of Abermule, the riders take the third exit (right) and come 0.29km later to a left turn at a T-junction, taking them onto the A483 towards Newtown. The first of the stage's intermediate sprints begins at the St. Giles Golf Club, then the peloton follows the same road through the town before turning left at the fifth set of traffic lights and onto Dolfor Road.

Barry Hoban (from Velorunner)
Despite its name, Newtown has a history stretching back more than 600 years to the late 13th Century when it was founded on the orders of King Edward I as part of his attempts to control the newly-conquered Welsh. It grew considerably during the Industrial Revolution, its economy being based on several textile mills; later being selected as a post-war New Town in 1967 when its population grew even more rapidly, the town soon finding itself with the largest population in Mid Wales. It's home to Barry Hoban, the professional cyclist who in 1969 became the first British rider to win two successive stages in the Tour de France - a feat not achieved by any other British cyclist until Mark Cavendish managed it forty years later in 2009.

A tight right-hander U-shaped bend carries the race away from what becomes Middle Dolfor Road ahead, following the A483 on a long stretch to Radnorshire and Llanbadarn Fynydd - this is an area largely unpopulated except for the sheep that graze on the hills and frequently wander onto the roads, and it's very beautiful. It begins to climb immediately after the turn, heading into a medium left 0.56km later, then a pair of rights 0.25km later. The first is wide, the second very tight and a potential hazard point when wet. The following 2.71km are unchallenging, ending at a ride right-handed hairpin. The land to the left of the road begins to rise rapidly and before long the road winds around the foot of a small green mountain reaching around 170m above the road. Another wide right-handed hairpin lies on the other side with some potentially tricky bends ahead, then the race reaches Llanbadarn after covering 44.7km from the end of the neutral zone.

The drinks station is located by a caravan park some 6.15km after Llanbadarn, 50.8km from the start of the race and about 0.5km before Llanbister. As space is limited by the road leading to the park, we suspect drinks will be handed out from the right side of the road here rather than the left as is more usual. A medium left bend 1.85km ahead could be very slippery due to overhanging trees. Still on the A483, the peloton pass to the right of Llanddewi Ystradenni before reaching Fron at 61.4km - not to be confused with another village near Llangollen named Froncysyllte and usually known as Fron, including on maps, since even the Welsh have trouble with that fiendish a collection of consonants.

Llandrindod Wells has some surprisingly grand buildings
(© Ann Roberts, CC2.0)
In y Groes (Crossgates), the race arrives at a roudabout and takes the second exit - straight ahead - remaining ont he same road and arriving at Llandrindod Wells 3.5km later, having now covered 66km since the race began. There would never have been any chance of the Tour missing this town because it's home to the National Cycle Collection, a museum exhibiting 250 bicycles dating from 1818 to the present. Entry is a very reasonable £3.50 per adult, free upon presentation of a valid CTC membership card, and having visited in the past we highly recommend that anyone following the Tour does so whilst in the area. Llandrindod is a surprisingly grand place with many large and ornate buildings including some fine examples of Art Deco architecture, due entirely to the supposedly health-giving qualities of the local spring water. It experienced an economic boom from 1974 when it became the capital of Powis and home to people with salaries linked to national pay grades - combined with the low living costs in the region, this led to a large percentage of the population having a large amount of disposable income and thus to the establishment of many enetertainment venues. Around the same time, it began to attract large numbers of hippies - due in part to the psychotropic mushrooms which are said to grow in huge numbers all year round in the surrounding hills. The resulting alternative and health food shops, at first opposed by locals, have become beloved features of the town. Sadly, in the last decade, the town has declined greatly. Several businesses have shut down, forcing many people out of work - which has in turn attracted large discount retailers, causing more or the independents to go out of business. Today, it has an attractive faded grandeur; but in a few years it'll be a decaying wasteland.

Llanelwedd (© CC3.0)
Having taken the second exit at the roundabout onto Tremont Road, the race reaches the Metropole Hotel 1.5km later on Temple Street, marking the start of the second intermediate sprint, and will then take the second exit from the roundabout at the end of the road to continue in the A483 to Howey, very nearly contiguous with Llandrindod. The following 8.5km are unchallenging, though the wooded sections may be slippery when wet, until the race reaches Llanelwedd where a large quarry increases the likelihood of diesel on the road, spilled by the large trucks that visit many times each day.

After a very tight right turn at Llanelwedd and a sharp deviation to the left to pass onto the A481. Across the river ;ies Builth Wells where medieval monks created the first written versions of the Mabinogion, a collection of prose stories partially derived from ancient pre-Christian myth. The castle was originally built by Edward I, later playing an important role in the Welsh Rebellions of the Middle Ages. It replaced an earlier castle in the ownership of Baron Philip de Braose, a Marcher lord who controlled land in the fiercely independent Welsh Marches which paid little heed to the laws and statutes of either England or Wales. Today, only the castle mound remains but the lay-out of the walls and buildings can still be seen (52° 8'56.91"N 3°23'54.49"W).

The race takes the first exit at the next roundabout, then turns right onto the B4567 0.6km later - the roadbook seems to have forgotten this junction, instructing to keep left which would continue on the A481. It passes Aberedw and Alltmawr before a junction with the A470 and arriving at Erwood 88.4km from the start. There's some slight confusion with the guestbook once again here - it states that the village of Erwyd lies 2.4km from Erwood. However, Erwyd is the Welsh name for Erwood, itself a derivation of the Welsh term Y Rhyd, the ford. A brief check of the gazetteer sheds no light on the existence of another village with the same name in the area. However, measuring out 2.4km along the road brings us to Trericket Mill Guest House - having some knowledge of the area, we think that the organisers have mistaken it for a village and assumed that the name Erwyd on nearby bilingual signs is the name for it. The feeding zone is located at 93.5km by a "white house on the left," presumably here: 52° 3'26.83"N 3°17'33.00"W. It ends 1.6km later, shortly before the race reaches Llyswen.

Llangoed Hall (CC2.0)
Just to the north is Llangoed Hall, a house originally built for the Williams family in 1633, subsequently passing into the hands of a family called Macnamara who lost it in 1800 during a game of cards (which, let's face it, is an extremely cool thing to do). It was much remodelled in the following years by the new owner, beginning to take on the grand shape it retains today, those lines being much developed and refined by one Archibald Christie who had the somewhat eccentric idea that his 17th Century house was actually the 9th Century White Court (or, in Welsh, llys wen) of Rhodri Mawr, King of the Britons. In 1847, Llyswen was described in a guide to the British Isles as "a miserable village." In 2008, it earned a top ten place in a poll to find the most desirable places to live in the United Kingdom.

The Tour turns right at a junction in the village to remain on the A470 and, immediately after the bend, begins the first Cat 3 climb. The end, 2.4km later, is by a gate on the left side of the road, then the route turns right at the crossroads 2.2km later. Having passed Felinfach, the peloton come to a junction with the B4602 and turn right onto it, heading towards Brecon 2km ahead.

After leaving Brecon behind, the race once again joins the A470 and heads south-west towards the tiny village Libanus. The Cat 1 climb begins 1km after the village by a derestricted zone sign (51°54'45.90"N 3°28'20.86"W). The following 4.47km are almost straight, making the climb less technical but psychologically harsher, then the road arrives at some bends preceding the highest point 6.6km from the climb's start at the Storey Arms. A short way ahead, the race passes a reservoir on the right, turning right just past the dam onto the what the roadbook calls the B4059 - it's actually the A4059, but to be fair to them it looks like a B-classification road to anyone not familiar with Welsh mountain routes. There's a cattle grid 310m after the turn, then an 11.1km stretch to Penderyn with another cattle grid located at 139km point.

Penderyn is the home of the eponymous whisky, the only whisky legally produced in Wales for over a century (but most definitely not the only Welsh whisky. If you know someone who knows where they can get other Welsh whiskies, don't bother asking them because they won't tell you). In another few kilometres, the peloton reach a large roundabout and take the first exit for the A465, then the third exit of the next roundabout 1.4km later for the A4059 to Penywaun. The first exit at a third roundabout and second exit at a fourth leads to Aberdare. A series of roundabouts through the town leads to the Mountain Ash Comprehensive School at 155.6km from the start and the beginning of the third intermediat sprint. The first exit at a roundabout 200m later continues along the A4059 - there's a cattle grid 6km later and a large roundabout where the riders will take the second exit onto the A472 and another cattle grid 300m later.

Llancaiach Fawr, Nelson - the most haunted house in Wales
(© Ashley0690 CC3.0)
Having ridden 164.3km, the race arrives at Nelson, the location of a very beautiful 16th Century manor house named Llancaiach Fawr and once visited in person by King Charles I when he attempted - unsuccessfully, in the end - to persuade the house's owner Colonel Pritchard not to switch allegiance to the Parliamentarian side. Today, the house is famous both as a living museum depicting life at the time of Charles' visit and as the alleged most haunted house in Wales (and there are a lot of allegedly haunted houses in Wales). The riders take the third exit at a roundabout, then the second exit at the roundabout 0.6km ahead to continue on the A472. Reaching yet another roundabout, they take the third exit leading into Ystrad Mynach and a tricky left between two mini roundabouts leading to another roundabout where they'll take the second exit to remain on the same road. At the next roundabout, they take the third exit leading south along the A469 and through various roundabouts to Llanbradach and into a narrow section after 171.8m. The peloton pass straight through two more roundabouts, then arrive at Caerphilly.

The final climb - Cat 1 Caerphilly Mountain - begins at 176.6km on Castle Street near the castle and ends 2.2km later at a carpark. A short way ahead, the peloton turn right and continue on the A469 for 2.5km to another roundabout, taking the fourth exit for the B4600 Nantgawr Road and continue along it through the coming roundabout 400m later. This leads to a set of traffic lights 800m later and under the railway - a straight section permitting sprinters to get a lead over the peloton in preparation for the final section coming after the right turn onto The Crescent, a gently winding road which shouldn't slow the leaders down enough to make any difference. The finish line is 200m after the turn, 183.7km from the start of the race.

Caerphilly Castle - the largest in Wales (© Phillip Capper CC2.0)
Caerphilly's 13th Century castle is the largest in Wales and second largest in the United Kingdom, considered the finest example of early medieval concentric defences. However, even the extensive walls and moats were not enough for it to remain viable as military technology improved, and it entered a long period of neglect until 1766 when it passed into the hands of the Marquess of Bute who carried out urgent and extensive restoration work, preserving it for the nation. To display it as it would have been seen when newly built, several surrounding streets were demolished in the 1930s

Predictions: Those mountains will hurt him, but they're not big enough to prevent HTC-Highroad getting Cav to the finish ready for a final blast to the end. However, he won't have it all his own way - this stage will suit Geraint Thomas very well, and as a Welshman he'll be putting every gram of strength he has into doing well on this stage. We'll just have to wait and see whether he'll hold back and let a good place contribute to an overall GC win on Sunday or go for glory today, spending the rest of the race concentrating on putting on repeated good performances; but as the most successful Welsh rider in history, we suspect he'll want to put on a show.

Weather: While the day is predicted to be cloudy, no rain is expected. However, Wales is known for heavy rain and unpredictable weather so dry conditions are most definitely not guaranteed. It won't be hot - perhaps 13C at the higher points, 16C in the lowlands and if the sun comes out. It will be much less windy than the last few days, average wind speeds around 20kph - still enough for echelons as teams shelter one another - with gusts up to 48kph, still sufficient to cause problems so deep profile rims will be a rare sight.

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  1. Apologies if this one seems a little rushed, folks - bit lacking in time today. :-)

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