Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Vuelta a España - Stage 18 Preview

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The high mountains are all ridden, but there's still plenty of climbing to be done in the 2011 Vuelta - a fair bit of it in today's Stage 18 with a total of 2110m of categorised ascending and plenty of extra uncategorised climbs to make sure everyone knows they've been working hard.

The people of Solares have evidently been hard at work praising the gods of cycling this year - they've been doubly blessed. Not only did they get to see an intermediate sprint on their streets yesterday, they also get to be the start town today.

With its light, airy buildings and wide avenues, Solares looks every inch the modern town: it could easily have been designed from scratch by a philanthropist architect in the 20th Century as an example of an ideal Utopian community, but this is as a result of good management - it's in fact much older, as proved by the existence of the early medieval period Pico Castillo, assorted private houses dating from the 12th Century, the 17th Century Palacio de los Marqueses de Valbuena and the vast early 19th Century spa, restored and modernised in recent years to form an up-to-date resort.

Juan Antonio de Saro y Galban
The stage begins at the bus station on the Calle de Calvo Sotelo before moving down the Av. de Oviedo and passing the Calle de los Mies del Corro. It's a short neutral zone today, ending after just 3km on the N-634 near San Vitores. The route passes La Herran and El Condado along the wide, unchallenging road before reaching Elguero after 5.3km, carrying on straight ahead a little way further on as it's joined by the A-8. After 9.5km, the race reaches Sarón and passes right through the town and under the A-8 to La Penilla. Sarón, like Solares, looks like a modern town - but in this case, it really is: the oldest structure here, built by Juan Antonio de Saro y Galbán, dates from 1876. Curiously, the town's name comes from de Saro's nickname - Sarón being a name apparently applied to tall men with beards in this part of the world.

A roundabout in the middle of La Penilla shouldn't cause problems as the peloton won't turn here, but it's slightly off the centreline of the entering and exiting roads and thus could conceivably clip the wheels of any rider either not quite awake yet of pushed onto it by the sheer weight of numbers still making up the pack at this early stage in the race. The next village, La Cueva, derives its name not from a cavern but from the Latin name of the Roman road that connected the Bay of Santander to the iron ore mines of Peña Cabarga. To leave the village, the route turns left and then right to get onto the N-634a leading to Villabáñez after 17.7km, passing by the beautiful Colegiata de la Santa Cruz at Socobio. There are five speed humps along the road traveling through, then easily the ugliest bridge we've seen so far in this year's Vuelta carries over the river and into Vargas. An very tight left at the roundabout in the middle of town leads south-east along the N-623, following the river for a while as it winds its way through the green landscape, then arrives at Puente Viesgo 22km from the start. This beautiful little town with a very fine church stands on a stretch of river that, with its white water rushing between rocks, surpasses everything man-made along its banks. We pass by one bridge, the Gran Hotel and a second bridge before leaving the town and continuing onward to Aes, negotiating a roundabout halfway between the two communities.

The parcours continues sourth-east, through Corvera and past Cillero, Borlena, Villegar and San Vicente de Toranzo (appearing on some maps as Corvera de Toranzo) before arriving at Ontaneda. Despite appearing quite larger, it's a small community stretched out along the road and contiguous with Alceda, but rarely goes back more than three houses from the road. Prior to the 19th Century, Ontaneda was frequently known as el Corralón de Alceda, "Alceda's Yard," but today is has far outgrown its diminutive parent. La Escobosa is reached and passed, then we arrive at Entrambasmestas, nestling at the foot of a forested hill and with its narrow streets, little houses and square complete with pavement cafe perhaps the perfect embodiment of a little Cantabrian village. As the race arrives at the village, the route turns sharply to the left then bends right as it changes onto the CA-263 heading along the edge of the forest - thus making it potentially slippery - and past picturesque Candolias and onward to Vega de Pas, the capital town of the municipality and, with 311 inhabitants, its largest. The race turns left, heading into the village and around some tight corners to join the CA-262 and crossing a narrow bridge on the edge of town with 50.3km ridden; marking the beginning of the Category 3 Puerto de Braguia climb which will carry the peloton to 725m above sea level after ascending 365m in 5.9km.
A hairpin lies approximately 100m from the bridge, not especially steep by quite tight, and a second with much the same description coming after 0.89km. A fairly tight left bend leads up to a series of relatively unchallenging bends after 0.6km, then two wide bends - the first traveling around a ruined house - and a 90 degree right lead into a gently curved section of 1.4km and another 90 degree right taking us up to a forest. The road twists as it follows the contours at the forest's edge, reaching the highest point as it rounds the second bend.

The initial part of the descent is fast and, with fairly gentle curves, not too technical. However, it reaches hairpins very soon; the first arriving 1km after the forest is left behind and the second 0.4km futher on. Neither are especially steep, but both are tight with the second being the more difficult of the two and bending through more than 180 degrees before straightening out. A very tight left, around 100 degrees, lies 0.2km ahead; then there are 1.4km of gentle curves and fast descending to the next hairpins. The first is easy; the second drops 14m and is very tight - and is surrounded by trees, making it potentially slippery and very hazardous indeed: if it's raining or has rained in the past few hours, crashes can be virtually guaranteed at this point. One final hairpin comes after another 1.5km of high-speed downhilling - this one is much less steep than the last, but is tight and again surrounded by trees. Combine these factors with the high speeds at which riders will enter the section and crashes are very likely here too. There's a tight left after 0.3km, then we approach Selaya along a road almost perfectly straight with the exception of a slight left and a 45 degree right as we enter the town.

Selaya, 64.3km from the start, is famous for its cubos del término municipal y rollo heráldico, 17th and 18th carved stone pillars acting as a combination of shrine, container for heraldic rolls and boundary marker. Having entered the village across the wide bridge, the race turns right onto the CA-264 and immediately begins the second climb, 840m Cat 2 Alto del Caracol featuring 600m of climbing in 10.8km. The first section of the road, though fairly steep, is unchallenging and the race should reach the small descent at 67km from the start very rapidly. The first hairpin - wide and not technical - comes immediately afterwards as the road begins to climb the main part of the mountain. A few bends through patches of trees could prove hazardous if conditions are wet, but will probable be problem-free. A wide left-hand bend leads into a gently twisting section of around 2.95km in length, climbing quite steeply up to 600m just before the next - also unchallenging - hairpin. A tight right-hand bend lies 0.4km ahead, then another gently twisting section rises to 700m and enters a 0.3km straight leading to the next hairpin, wide but - climbing 14m - steep. The next, 0.2km away, is much less steep and equally wide. Two left/right Z-bends, the first gentle and the second much tighter come within 0.25km of one another, the altitude reaching 800m just as we enter the second. The summit comes just as the race passes by a house standing alone on the left of the road and before reaching a rocky outcrop to the right. The descent is fast with a potential hazard coming just half a kilometre after the outcrop at a place where dirt tracks join the road, leading to dust, mud and grit on the road surface. Two tight left-hand bands lie a short way ahead, followed by the first descending hairpin which - coming after a steep section, being surrounded by trees and dropping 10m - is another potential hazard. Following 90 degree right/left/right/right turns in quick sucession, the race reaches a junction with the CA-260, turning through a tight 180 degrees to join it and ride into San Roque de Riomiera. The road turns a medium right followed by a medium left and another medium right as is passes through the town, arriving at a right-hand hairpin just around the following gentle left bend - it's a descending one, surrounded by trees in what looks to be a damp or even marshy area and as such is very likely to be slippery. A second and equally tight left hairpin lies 0.15km ahead, surrounded by trees once again but less steep and likely to be approached at a much slower speed. There is a narrow bridge 2.1km from the village and a sharp right turn to continue on the CA-260, the road ahead becoming the CA-642.

The route passes by the high, mountainous landscape to the east and travels by Ajanedo - site of the Cueva de El Salitre, a cave with paintings dating from the Upper Palaeolithic, a period lasting between 30,000 and 11,000 years before the present. The road ahead through a gorge, as the CA-641 joins from the left, may seem familiar - it's the same section with ten hairpins in half a kilometre that we passed by yesterday. The road joins the route which enters a deep gorge leading to Mirones and through another - perhaps even more impressive due to the greater height of the cliffs either side - gorge, and reaches Mortesante 185.5km from the start. A 90 degree left comes a little later, followed by straight sections towards Rubalcaba. A 90 degree left comes a little later, followed by straight sections towards Rubalcaba - a little village made famous by the la Casa de Miera-Rubalcaba, a house declared to be of Interés Cultural - Cultural Interest - in 1994. The road into Liérganes, a short way ahead, is extremely narrow en route for the centre of the village, potentially causing a pile-up and crashes, but then opens up again before leaving and heading towards a roundabout. The peloton turn right here onto a route that the road book says is the CA-640 but our maps call the CA-651, heading into Hermosa and including a hairpin along the way. There's a series of tricky bends on the way through the village, then the route straightens out as it approaches Valdecilla.

A cannon, cast in La Cavada, mounted on two pedestals
formed from blast furnace slag in the town's Parque de
Carlos III
When the peloton arrive, they turn left to pass along the Calle de Ramón Pelayo leading through Valdecilla and ending at the N-634a. They turn right and proceed to the Av. de Alisas as it becomes the CA-161, then pass through Ceceñas and come to a level crossing 3km after Solares. A right turn carries them south to La Cavada. The town, today home to just over a thousand people, grew up around an artillery factory established here in 1622 - prior to the factory's demise in the early half of the 19th Century, the town rang to the noise and choked on the fumes of four blast furnaces. Once the factory had closed, the locals - finding themselves without a source of income now that the locale's largest employer had vanished, looted the buildings for anything that could be sold or used to patch up their homes. Less than fifty years later, virtually no trace of the facility was left above ground. An old textile mill, built in 1847, may look familiar to some British viewers - it was designed to closely emulate those in Manchester with its large windows letting in plenty of light for the workers to see in the days before electricity was installed.

Panoramic view of Puerto Ailsas
One on the other side of town, the race passes along an almost perfectly straight section of 3.22km before arriving at Riotuerto and turning twistier as the Cat 1 ascent of Puerto de Alisas, featuring a 600m climb in 8.6km, gets under way. A 90 degree right among trees 0.3km from Riotuerto may prove hazardous if conditions are wet but should otherwise cause no issues. A wide right-hander follows around half a kilometre later followed by another 1.25km ahead at the foot of the rocky promontory to the left of the road. The first hairpin, a right, comes 1.9km later and is followed by a medium left bend bringing the altitude to 400m. Another 90 degree right just beyond the rocks leads into a medium left, followed by a straight half-kilometre to another hairpin. This one, a left, rises approximately 11m but isn't especially steep. The next, 0.4km ahead, climbs only 6m but is much tighter. Another 0.4km brings the race to La Calzadillas and 500m altitude, then we arrive at a very tight but not steep hairpin having traveled the same distance once again. A wider one lies 0.2km ahead and is followed 0.33km later by another, much tighter, leading into a sweeping 180 degree right-hand bend followed by a 90 degree right up to buildings. A line of trees conceals the layout of a right/left Z-bend, but it's not a technical one and shouldn't create problems. The next hairpin, 0.2km ahead, is medium tightness and not steep, then a straight 0.3km leads to a sharp right and left by farm buildings. The summit, 675m above sea level, lies just around the left bend by a little car-park/look-out offering views over the green hills to the Bay of Santander.

Iglesia Ruperstre de San Juan
The first 0.4km of descent is relatively flat but leads into a sharp right bend after which the road becomes steeper. An equally sharp left just ahead leads into a section with several bends, potentially hazardous, then a 90 degree right precedes a slight left/sweeping right bend into a tight right hairpin at the top of a very steep slope. A medium left just beyond carries the peloton onto a short straight coming to the next hairpin, a left-hander dropping around 8m. A sweeping right leads to a tight left 0.47km ahead, then 1.76 straight kilometres pass by before the next technical bend, a 90 degree right followed by another easy 1.5km. Two bends, medium tightness but at the foot of steep forested slopes, may prove hazardous due to grit, mud, or leaves on the surface; as might the tight right hairpin just after the second bend. The next, 0.5km further on, is in open country and should be simple, then the road flattens out considerably for the final stretch into Arredondo. Just out of sight around the high, rocky promontory south of the village is Socueva - the site of the remarkable Iglesia Rupestre de San Juan, a church built into a limestone cave during the early Middle Ages. Abandoned for many centuries following the decline of Moorish Spain, it's an eerie place today. Excavations in the cave have revealed that it's been used by humans for much longer than the church has been here, artifacts discovered here have been dated to the Palaeolithic period.

Having passed through the centre of Arredondo, the route rounds a medium left and 90 degree right on the edge of the town followed by a second medium left leading onto a straight section running along the perimeter of a forest. A medium right - potentially hazardous due to the trees - comes after 1.4km; then a medium right enters a poker straight section into Riba. The intermediate sprint begins here with 134.3km ridden since the end of the neutral zone, then the peloton turn a 90 degree left corner to join up with the CA-266. The Cat 3 Puerto de la Cruz Usaño climb with a 235m ascent in 3km begins here.

Landscape near Matienzo
A bridge carries the race over the Rio Ason and into a tight right bend leading to a sweeping left and then a right 0.2km later. Once out of the bend, the first hairpin is 0.22km ahead - it's a relatively easy one and leads towards a sweeping right bend followed by a junction as another road joins on the right. The second hairpin, a very easy one, lies 0.33km beyond the junction and the much tighter third 0.25km after that. Two simple bends lead to farm buildings and into the final section of the climb, the summit coming 0.68km after a barn at the left side of the road just as the parcours enters a sweeping right bend. A short forested section lies ahead, the road emerging very shortly into a open countryside dotted with small houses and farm buildings, turning a medium left at the edge of the trees. The following 2.9km into Matienzo consist of long straights and gentle bends, thus being very unlikely to constitute of hazard.

Matienzo, 138km from the start, is a place of very special interest to geologists. It sits in a large flat area surrounded on all sides by high crags, the flat land having been created by the process of clay decalcification over many millions of years. The mountains are limestone and riddled with caves. In many places, it's possible to see short streams emerge from the ground and run along the surface for a short distance before disappearing into deep holes dissolved into the limestone. Having left the village behind, the race passes to the right of Cueto and, after 5km, begins the final climb: Cat 3 Puerto de Fuente las Varas with 310m of climbing in 4.6km. A medium left in forest leads to a gentle right and the first hairpin, a wide right-hander with a 90 degree right 0.25km ahead. Two sweeping lefts lead to a medium right, then a medium left leads up to the second - also unchallenging - hairpin and a relatively straight 0.92km stretch ending at a medium right. The summit, 450m above sea level, lies at the junction with the S-550 1.1km later where we turn left.
Puerto de Fuente las Varas (from Foro-Ciudad)

The initial part of the descent is fast and non-technical until we reach El Portillo with a sharp 90 degree left, followed by another unchallenging stretch to just past Redolfo and a second 90 degree left. Both are surrounded by open land and so may prove very slippery due to mud on the road surface following rain. A sweeping right leads towards a junction with the CA-652 where the parcours continues straight ahead, arriving at what could be a very hazardous right-hander hairpin 0.56km later: the combination of high entry speed, tightness of the bend, steepness of descent (nearly 15m) and trees on a higher level than the exit will mean that extreme caution needs to be exercised here and crashes are very likely. The route follows the edge of the forest for a short while, turning 90 degrees left as it leaves the trees behind; turning three more similar bends in the next 0.6km. A gentle right leads onto a straight 3.1km run through Solorzano and into Hazas de Cesto 157.4km from the start. As we leave the village, the road becomes the CA-269.

You don't see this at Benidorm! The often deserted beaches
of Cantabria, such as this one at Noja, have a charm very
hard to find at the tourist traps
Having passed underneath the A-8 motorway, we reach Beranga and turn right onto the N-634 for all of 0.4km before coming to the CA-147 and turning left onto it. There are several bends en route to Castillo, but the road is wide and none of them are likely to cause any problems, though a roundabout just south of the town could prove hazardous in the case of fuel spillages. The race passes by the town, coming to another roundabout after 0.8km and turning right to head east towards Santoña on the CA-141. After 1.35km along the poker straight road, the route turns left again to Helgueras, then a medium left in the centre of the town followed by a left at the roundabout right next to the beach for the final section into Noja. The peloton turn left into the town, soon coming to a roundabout and a right turn onto the Calle de los Pinares and following it north to the Calle El Arenai leading onto the Calle Castrejón El Arenai. A slight rise in a 0.16km section leads to two medium lefts either side of a straight 0.45km, then a very gentle descent over 0.24km leads to the final straight and flat 0.16km sprint to the end; the race arriving after 174.6m.

Predictions: The last of the difficult stages are done, and this time on Tuesday night we pretty much all expected Juan Jose Cobo to have secured his overall GC victory with a ride up the Pena Carbarga as good as the one he managed up Angliru. However, a certain Chris Froome had other ideas, securing a remarkable stage win in which he showed the cunning of a ninja and the sneakiness of a ferret to slip past Geox's new hero with only metres to spare even as the commentators were announcing Cobo's victory and also ensuring that several riders have everything to play for as we move into the final stages of the race.

Cobo can still win - he remains race leader and has a respectable lead. However, Froome isn't very far behind and, if he can put in two or three of the sort of performances of which he's left us in doubt he's capable, he could just find himself on the top step of the podium in Madrid. On the other hand, his team captain Bradley Wiggins is also not too far behind - we don't think this year's Vuelta is Brad's, but it could happen. We'll be putting our money on Chris though.

In saying that, there are still a few decent climbs to go and there's still a possibility that a climber could take this one. Moncoutie, perhaps?

Weather: Much the same as the last few days - temperatures ranging from 22C at the start down to 18C at the highest points and up to 23C at the lowest. The wind will be changeable - expect a gentle tailwind for the first 40km, encouraging high speeds which could help prevent breakaway attempts. This will change to a gentle crosswind for the first pair of mountains, changing again to a headwind for the following 20km or so. A gentle tailwind will assist on the way up the third mountain before a headwind for the rest of the stage makes the final push to the finish line require that little bit more effort. Once again, no rain is expected anywhere on the parcours and it should remain sunny throughout.

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