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Stage 17, at 211km, is the longest of this year's Vuelta - and as if that wasn't enough, it features two climbs that whilst not particularly harsh in comparison to some of those encountered in earlier stages are nevertheless a challenge, especially after two and a half weeks and very nearly 2500km of racing. Oh - and Peña Cabarga right at the end. That one's a challenge whichever way you look at it.
The first categorised climb - there's an uncategorised lump just after 50km, too - is the Cat 3 Portillo de Bustos staring at 76.3km. The actual ascent is only 215m in 5.3km, not especially testing, but the 1000m summit is just high enough for the effects of altitude to begin having an effect and make the climb harder. The second is Cat 2 Portillo de Lunada, altogether a more formidable obstacle with an ascent of 475m in 8.5km and some very steep sections on the way up to the 1330m summit. Peña Cabarga, coming right at the end of the stage, is the real killer however. The top may only be 565m above sea level, but the climb starts at 20m and gets to the summit in 6.1km - to achieve that, there's some very steep bits along the way including a ramp at 19%; explaining how it is that this relatively small climb, more a hill than a mountain, came to be categorised as Especial.
|This is where the magic happens: Rioja vineyards near Oion
|Parque del Ebro
|Torre de Torremontalbo
|Ermita de San Andres
The race continues straight ahead along the N-124 and, less than two kilometres later reaches Haro where yesterday's Stage 16 came to an end. It passes alongside an industrial area, soon reaching a roundabout and turning left onto the Av. Logroño. Once over the next roundabout, the road becomes the Av. Juan Carlos I leading into the Plaza Manuel Bartolomé Carrio. A right corner brings the peloton to the Calle de los Castañares de Rioja, the second corner on the left turns onto the Av. Bretón de los Herreros or LR-202 with several speed humps leading out of the city and, 5km ahead, to Anguciana - a route that seems rather familiar, because it's the same one as yesterday but in reverse.
To get there, the race must first pass Busto de Bureba and, having arrived back at the N-232, turn left and travel along it for 200m to a right turning onto the BU-520. The first section is straight, then a series of wide bends rise to first 800 and then 900m before the road turns north-west and heads into forest, reaching the summit as it merges from the trees. A dirt track joins from the right, raising the possibility of mud on the road if it's used by the local farmers and 4x4 enthusiasts. A short way ahead is a bend of medium difficulty leading into a twisty section just before a pair of hairpins - the second, being tighter and dropping 16m, is the trickier of the two. A final right-hand bend leads to a crossroads at La Aldea del Portillo de Busto, where the peloton turn a sharp left to join the BU-V-5203. The parcours becomes straight and easy again as the race approaches Barcina de los Montes, 88.8km from the start, though there's one fairly tight left-hand bend just inside the village.
|La Plaza, Penches (from Penches website)
Just over a kilometre ahead are three tunnels: the first is short and bends to the left, the next two are approximately 100m long. The stage details do not state whether or not they're lit, meaning it's likely that they are. With 102km ridden, the N-629 joins from the right, running parallel to the N-232 for a short while. At the junction, the riders turn through 180 degrees and double back on themselves before it bends off to the north. The feeding station lies on this road, not far from the Cueva de los Portugueses - dwellings built into caves, believed to have been inhabited between the 8th and 10th Centuries and then temporarily providing homes for workers digging the canal at Trespaderne in the 20th Century.
|Convento de las Clarisas, Nofuente
|Alcázar de los Condestables de Castilla
|Palacio de Chiloaches
Just north of the town, once the road has become the BU-570, is a spot offering some of the finest views in Spain - the wide-open vistas of the mountains are breath-taking. There's also a snow plough, fitted with an enormous rotor that has no obvious use on the back, rusting away on a concrete plinth next to the road. The race passes through Bárcenas and reaches a 90 degree left turn leading onto a narrow bridge as it enters Las Machorras. Shortly afterwards the peloton reach a right turn onto the BU-572. Another narrow bridge comes after 0.3km, also marking the beginning of the Cat 2 Portillo de Lunada with 475m of climbing up to 1330m.
The climb is made up of long, straight sections until reaching La Lusa, at which point it becomes twistier and climbs more rapidly to reach the highest point just as the road becomes the CA-643 which the race follows for more than 14km as it loops back and forth to find its way back down the mountain. There's only one hairpin of any note but it's a tricky one, very tight and dropping 15m - however, ignore the riders here and concentrate on the view: not to be missed. Having negotiated a 90 degree left bend, the road traverses a near-vertical cliff - a spot where the riders will be taking very great care not to crash, not do anything else that might cause them to come off the road because it's a very long way down. The next hairpin is less challenging but leads into a steep descent to below 1000m, followed by a tighter one, a 90 degree left and a long curve into a twisty section. With 176.5km ridden, the peloton change onto the CA-260 at the foot of a steep and craggy cliff just before San Roque de Riomiera and after 2.1km, another narrow bridge.
|La Casa de Miera-Rubalcaba.
At this point, the road book becomes a little vague once again. The directions state to use the CA-412 after traveling 2.6km from the dam, then turn off to the left after 0.9km - however, doing so would bring the race to Socabarga which has no connecting road to the top of Peña Cabarga other than that already traveled and travels further than 2.6km. There are various turn-offs along the CA-412, leading into a network of narrow roads winding about the various hamlets and farms between the motorway and mountain but none seem to bear much resemblance to the directions and, while some do extend onto the mountain, they turn into tracks and don't reach the correct altitude. Since Vuelta itineraries and directions sometimes require - how shall we put this? - a little "creative interpretation," we think that the route is more likely to pass through Heras on the N-635 leading to the CA-412, then turning left at the first roundabout rather than the second - this measures out at 2.6km, but isn't the CA-412 according to either of our maps or Google Earth. It also takes the race along the road that does lead to the top of the mountain and thus seems to be the correct route.
|Camera Obscura, Peña Cabarga (from La Cuidad Habla)
The mountain is topped by a huge camera obscura in which an image created with light gathered via the lenses at the top of a tall tower are projected onto the walls of a circular room below, creating a 360 degree panoramic image of the surrounding landscape which includes the Bay of Santander and the higher mountains to the sourth-east.
Video: Vuelta '10
Predictions: Peña Cabarga was last climbed in Stage 14 of the 2010 Vuelta and won by Joaquin Rodriguez - who will be wanting to regain some of the success he enjoyed in earlier stages of the race. We'll be expecting Wiggo to do well as well today - he was always a superb all-rounder, but with his recent transformation he could make a valuable move back towards GC leadership over this parcours.
|Stage 14 2010 (yellow) and Stage 17 2011 (pink) overlaid for comparison.
Stage 14 was 32.2km shorter, 178.8km compared to 211km.
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