Thursday, 1 September 2011

Vuelta a España - Stage 13 Preview

Santa Marina, Sarria.
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Ever since the route was first announced, riders have been saying that this year's Vuelta is a difficult race. Stage 13 proves their point and may well be unlucky for some - especially those that don't like climbing because there are mountains all the way.

The first two, both respectable Category 3s, come in the first 35km; then there are two Cat 1s between 60 and 100km - though how the 1670m Puerto de Ancares got classified as a Cat 1 is anyone's guess. As if that wasn't enough, there's one final Cat 3 and an unclassified climb in the last 40km too. Deep Heat muscle rub, anyone?

Sarria is a stage town for the very first time today. Located 111km - the minimum distance required for a legitimate pilgrimage - from Santiago de Compostela on the Way of St. James, Sarria is known for the the splendour of its churches; twenty of which are of particular architectural interest. Of equal fame are the Torre la Fortaleza de los Marqueses de Sarria, a picturesque and ivy-covered edifice which is all that remains of the medieval castle, and the 13th Century Monasterio de la Magdalena. The town's fortunes are closely linked to the popularity of the pilgrimage - during a long period when it was almost forgotten, Sarria was reduced to just 70 hourses.

Rua Maior, Sarria, 1965.
Human inhabitation of the region extends back far beyond the introduction of Christianity into Spain - there are dolmens, ancient forts and rock carvings near the town that predate the churches by thousands of years. Archaeologists have also discovered the remains of two Roman villas in the locale along with a grave marker now displayed in the Museum of Pontevedra. The Moors, as is the case across much of northern Spain, left little trace of their occupation; but their tolerant attitude towards the religion of their native subjects permitted the construction of many churches and the development of the Monasterio de Santo Estevo de Calvor, established in 785, and so there is no lack of grand buildings despite looting by the French in the 19th Century.

The neutral zone begins just south of the town's main part on the Calle de Benigno Quiroga, also known as the LU-546, which heads north-east into town. The peloton will turn left at a fork in the road to travel along the Calle de Matías López and then left again onto the Rua de Calvo Sotelo. This leads over a wide bridge and on to the LU-636 which they turn right to join, continuing on the same road until the reach the start of the race after 5.2km. There's a short but steep climb in the first few kilometres, then the first categorised climb - Alto O Pico da Pena, summit 950m, climb 430m - begins after 6.3km. The road, previously dead straight, becomes twisty at San Antolin and passes a steep wooded slope to the right and curves around it near Galegos. There are some difficult bends as we reach 900m above sea level a short way on from the junction where the LU-0503 joins the road.

Becerrea. Any town where locals create their
own mini-beach at the side of the road
sounds a fun place to me.
The summit comes after 15.3km at a tight left corner in a forested section, another 90 degree left lies around 0.35km further on but shouldn't cause problems, whereas a bend about the same distance further still comes after a 50m descent and will be taken at higher speed, making it a potential hazard. A small climb precedes a hairpin bend, then it's downhill into Vilouta. Another descent leads into a hairpin just north of Tortes before a short climb past Eixibron. To the right of the road is a tiny village named Herbon with the low stone houses traditional to this region. The road enters forest concealing a hairpin which could be a hazard due to slippery leaves etc., then turns 90 degrees left for the final short descent into Becerreá at 25.3km.

While not without its charms, Becerreá is perhaps not the most aesthetically appealing of towns - there's a little too much grey concrete for that. However, the busy social calendar revealed on the municipality's website suggests it's a fun and pleasant place to live and all in all rather likable. Once within the town, the road merges into the N-VI, called the Calle Carlos III as it passes through. The first intermediate sprint begins at 27km from the start, travelling uphill. A very tight right corner to join the LU-0708 marks the beginning of the second Cat 3 climb, Alto de O Lago, at 28.3km. There is a difficult hairpin around 0.9km from the junction.

The road reaches 900m above sea level as it enters forest, then veers off to the north when it emerges to avoid a steep 200m slope. It then passes beside more forest along a ridge and takes a 90 degree right as another road joins from the left, closely followed by another on the right - both look to be poor quality, leading to the possibility of mud, dust or grit causing a hazard - before traversing the ridge, being joined by a third road and then crossing over the top at 34.6km, the summit of this climb. The landscape east and west is some 200m+ lower and the ridge stretches off north and south, giving some of the best views of the stage. After around 5km, it climbs back to over 1000m again, then descends to a crossroads where we go straight on. The descent is fast but relatively untechnical.

When the road reaches a fork, the peloton turn right and head towards Navia de Suarna. It then follows the high ground around the beautiful Val de Córneas, coming soon to a forest and a crossroads where they turn right again. The steepest - and fastest - part of the descent begins just around a left hand bend, 0.8km from the crossroads. The view on a clear day from the bend to the high mountains in the distance are spectacular. A difficult left hand bend leads into two sweeping bends, the first left and the second right, then the parcours drops below 700m on a short twisty section immediately afterwards with more tight bends to come. Perhaps the most dangerous is the very tight corner in forest at 42°58'3.30"N 7° 1'49.34"W, a very likely point for an accident.- and the final hairpin upon entering Navia de Suarna.

The medieval bridge at Navia de Suarna.
We enter the town across a cobbled, very narrow bridge - there's only sufficient width for two bikes to cross side-by-side with any safety; though three might just make it with luck on their side, so expect to see this attempted as nobody will want to lose time in the bottleneck that will invariably form at the entrance to the bridge. Any rider hitting the rough stone walls will be able to consider themselves fortunate if all they do is scrape the skin off their legs.

The village is very beautiful indeed with many stone buildings of great antiquity and a medieval castle. There are much older buildings, including dolmens, scattered around the area. As we leave the bridge we turn left onto the LU-702 - though the road passes through thick forest, it's mostly straight and shouldn't create any issues. We follow it until we come to a tight right corner where we join the Estrada de Navia A Rao where we begin the ascent of Alto de Folgueiras de Aigas, the first of the two Cat 1s. The first hairpin comes after approximately 0.1km, the second 0.4km after that. At the next, a little further through some trees, is a large and rather spooky looking abandoned building on the perimeter of Munis; then the road veers away back into forest, climbing up to another hairpin before two simple bends take us above and past the village. There's a tight right corner about 0.5km ahead, then another right, a left and a final right a short way further.

A sharp U-shaped bend followed by yet another 90 degree right corner mark the point where we top 800m. Having passed some houses, we reach a Z-bend followed by a fork in the road, this marking the summit. We take the left route and begin the steep, fast descent which has many technical bends and 15 hairpins of varying complexity. The views are good here, especially to the east over Rao far below. A little way on, the race reaches Murias. The village's finest feature is its location among the green mountains, some of which have dramatic rocky cliffs, but there are interesting buildings too - the old village granary, built of timber and equipped with unusually tall mushroom-shaped legs (the rats round here must be good at jumping) and, east of the village, a peculiar round structure formed of a low stone wall with a door. Whatever it was, it looks ancient. The road leads down to the southern extremity of the village then loops back up to the north before beginning to ascend in preparation for the beginning of the second Cat 1 climb, 1670m Puerto de Ancares, after 84.6km from the start.

Balouta (borrowed from Mi mágico León Blog).
Leaving the village, we loop around the mountain immediately west of Murias and once again travel south on a road that is twisty in places - although it's not an especially challenging section, there is an increased likelihood of punctures caused by sharp stones washed down from the slopes above. The final section leading into Balouta as - apart from a tight bend near the town - straight, but climbs steeply. Balouta has a number of round stone houses known as pallozas, constructed of infilled dry stones with a thatched roof, the style of which has probably changed little since the Neolithic roundhouses they closely resemble - they are, in fact, the model for the Celtic roundhouses inhabited by Asterix and Obelix. Some are in a sad state of disrepair, a few have been converted into garages while the owner lives in a more modern dwelling nearby, others now have corrugated iron or plastic roofs, but many appear to be well-loved family homes and it's frequently possible to see craftsmen using the age-old skills passed down to them through many generations as they re-thatch a roof or repair the walls.

Puerto de Ancares, the highest point of Stage 13.
The parcours reaches 1100m just as the peloton reach the village and continues to climb, reaching 1300m at the first sharp bend leading into a Z-bend. The first pair of hairpins - both rising through 10m - come shortly afterwards. Having climbed another 20m, we reach a crossroads and turn left and, within a kilometre, reach 1500m along a straight section. The highest point (42°52'13.54"N 6°49'3.31"W) is reached at a series of five hairpins from where, if the weather is clear, the mountain's real summit more than 300m higher can be seen to the south. It may well be cold at the top, this being an area with a moderate climate, and possibly foggy too.

The steepness of the initial part of the descent can be clearly seen on the stage's altitude profile, but what can't be seen so easily is the number of very tight hairpin bends - the riders will need to exercise extreme caution here and any who dare to tackle it at high speed are either very talented descenders indeed or mad. It's the sort of road that sorts one from the other - and can end the careers of those it finds lacking in the skill it demands.

We drop below 1000m along a straight section leading south of Tejedo de Ancares, not quite reaching the village before they turn a sharp left and right to proceed onwards to Pereda de Ancares, the road descending in the latter half. Pereda has more of those picturesque pallozas and a church that is really little more; though it has a bell tower and a tiled roof. Candin comes 2km later as the peloton reaches a crossroads, passing straight through to by-pass the village, then a junction with the CV-126-15 leading to Villasumil - they don't go that way, but the camera operators aboard the helicopters are very unlikely to be able to resist the attractive little community with its stone houses. The final categorised climb of the stage, 1045m Cat 3 Puerto de Lumeras, begins 2km later after 112km from the start, reaching the highest point in a wide open area where three small roads join 4.7km later. - this shouldn't be much of a test for the climbers, even so soon after the last climb, but will be a real knee-breaker for the rest. There are four hairpins on the descent - the first of medium difficulty and unlikely to cause problems; the second tight and difficult, making it a possible hazard; the third wide and easy and the fourth - which curves around a mansion - medium difficulty.

San Andres, Vega de Espinareda (from Panoramio)
Having passed south-west of Fontoria and the junction leading to it, the peloton take a sweeping bend south and head into Sésamo. The largest town we've seen for some time, Sésamo has a variety of interesting buildings such as the ancient houses with their rickety wooden balconies near the church. It's no richer than the mountain villages we've been thrpugh earlier today, however, and many of the structures are in an appalling state - this is a tour of the real Spain, not a trip around the sanitised parts usually visited on package tours. The LE-712 passes straight through, descending, bringing us to Vega de Espinareda within seconds.

We enter the town along the Av. de los Doctores Terrón, past a fine villa next to the road, and across the river on a wide bridge. Just to the north-east, within easy view, is the town's original three-arched medieval bridge. There is a fine old monastery, sympathetically restored, dedicated to San Andres. The road enters two wide bends once it's through the town centre, then enters a series of bends in forest north of El Espino. The Vuelta's road book states that it becomes the LE-711 here, our Rough Guide map (and Google Earth) claim otherwise - however, the names of Spanish roads do seem variable and either, or possibly neither, might be correct. Whatever it's called, it climbs towards the next village, Ocero, 131km from the start and the beginning of the second intermediate sprint. One thing not to be missed in Ocero is a remarkable sculpture, apparently carved from a real tree trunk and depicting a figure pinning a poster onto the trunk. As the peloton reach the forest south of the village, it begins climbing again - but since this one is uncategorised, there are no points to be had. A little way further on is a junction, where the LE-712 turns right - the way ahead in the LE-711 to Sancedo, the way we're going.

Cabanos Raros' flag.
Two relatively non-technical hairpins take us down through 70m and join up with the last section before the village before the road travels straight through and becomes almost perfectly straight en route to Barrio de la Mallarinas, then twisty again through Barrio Valle del Agua. A crossroads - straight through - brings us to Cabañas Raras; a town with a remarkable flag that looks as though it was designed on an early computer. Just south of the town is a large roundabout, something of which we've seen far fewer on this stage than in most of those that came previously. The race travels straight across - the route around to the right is shorter, but that to the left is considerably less tight and as a result could be the quicker choice. The parcours either side Cortigueira is straight and relatively level, making it a suitable place for teams wishing to put the pressure on opponents to push the peloton up to a high speed. However, there's a large truck depot just to the south, making this a very likely spot for diesel spills.

A fly-over carries the race across the A-6 motorway just before Columbrianos - there's a noticeable change in the feel of the surroundings here: they no longer look nor feel like sleepy mountain villages and pallozas have given way to modern industrial units; these are the suburbs of the city, and soon the stage ends. Yet Columbrianos still relies upon agriculture for a large percentage of its annual income, giving it the character of an independent market town rather than a mere satellite conurbation, and its church - with a tower rebuilt in 1948 after it was destroyed by lightning, is pretty.

Just outside of the town is a roundabout leading to a junction with the N-VI, the peloton turning right onto it and travelling west for a short while. Soon, they reach another junction leading onto the Av. de Galicia, then turn right at the first roundabout onto a connecting road, turning left at the end onto the Av. de la Cemba. Very soon, they reach a sharp left onto the Av. de Portugal, one of the main routes into the heart of the city. They take the third exit at the roundabout ending the road, then almost immediately take a sharp left for the Av. de los Escritores and, having passed by the railway museum - a must-visit for anyone with an interest in steam power - right for the Av. de la Libertad. The road is straight with a roundabout after 0.2km followed by a 0.4km straight, another roundabout followed by another 0.4km to the stage finish 158.2km from the start.

Castillo de Templario, Ponferrada.
Ponferrada, with over 70,000 inhabitants, is the second largest city in the region and has a wealth of attractions for visitors. The castillo is undoubtedly one of the most interesting, occupying a city centre site that has been fortified for many thousands of years - archaeologists have discovered traces of fortresses from as long ago as Celtic times here, beneath later structures built by the Romans and Visigoths. In 1178, the site was transferred into Templar ownership by Fernando II, no doubt keen to enlist their help in keeping the Moors at bay. Following the Order's dissolution early in the following century, it was given to Fernando IV's younger brother, Infante don Felipe. In 1340, it was given by Alfonso XI to his chief steward, a man named Pedro Fernández de Castro who was responsible for the construction of many of the buildings and fortifications we see today. It then remained a possession of the Royal family until the middle of the 19th Century, when it entered a period of dramatic decline - large sections of it were sold off and demolished so that the masonry could be used elsewhere in the city, reducing it to little more than a quarry, despite the city growing wealthy after valuable tungsten deposits were discovered nearby. What was left became a listed and protected National Monument in 1924, ending nearly three quarters of a century of neglect and willful damage.

Basilica de la Encina.
Tungsten is not the only mineral to have been mined in Ponferrada - there are numerous traces of mines dating to as long ago as the Roman period, many of them producing precious metals and explaining why the fortress was important to them. The city's churches are also of interest, especially the Renaissance Basilica de La Encina - construction began in 1573 but was halted several times due to economic recession and plague, the building not being completed until 1670. As a result, it combines elements of typically Renaissance architecture and others from later periods; this is not, however, the reason for the Baroque upper half of the tower, which was completed in Renaissance style and later partially destroyed by lightning with Baroque repairs carried out as a result.

Predictions: Odd one, this. The finish is tailor-made for a sprinter and would especially have suited Mark Cavendish or Marcel Kittel - unfortunately, Cav's long gone and the word on the wire is Kittel will be abandoning the race after Stage 12 (Update: Kittel's decision to leave the race has now been confirmed). However, those two Cat 1s could put all the sprinters out of contention every bit as easily as the finish could take glory from a climber. So, it looks like it'll be a puncheur - or perhaps anyone who feels they have the strength to break out early and maintain a good lead.

Weather: Looks set to be much the same as Stage 12 with temperatures ranging from 20C at the start, down to a low of 12C on the Puerto de Ancares anda high of 24C at the finish. It's likely to be wet again with rain predicted from the 60km point, getting heavier as the race climbs Ancares and then clearing up from 120km to the end. The wind, though moderate, will be changeable: crosswinds for the first 20km, tailwinds for the following 30km, crosswinds all the way to the top of the Alto de Folgueiras de Aigas and an extremely welcome tailwind up Ancares which should continue through the rest of the stage. As ever, weather can change rapidly and is very difficult to predict at altitude - with three peaks over 1000m and Ancares reaching 1650m, things may prove very different for the riders.

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