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Well, this is it folks. We've been to Cordoba, Burgos and Aviles. We've seen the arid semi-desert in the south and centre of the country and we've seen the lush, green fields of the north-west. We've even been up Alto de l'Angliru, perhaps the most challenging feature of any Grand Tour. Now we're on Stage 20, the last of the "proper" stages before the more-or-less ceremonial short trip into Madrid and the winners' podium.
But this is the Vuelta, and while we've seen all the challenges listed above and many, many more, there was no way Stage 20 was going to be easy. It's 185km long - far from the longest, but a serious test after nearly three weeks' of racing and 3050km, but the organisers have decided that's not enough of an ordeal so they've included some fair old mountains along the way too. The first, a Cat 2, is no Galibier but will certainly leave the riders on no doubt that their suffering is not yet over; the second is a Cat 1 with 555m of climbing in 7km; the third's a Cat 3 positioned perfectly to sap all but the very last grams of strength before the final Cat 1, a 505m wall. Lovely!
|Bilbao is stunning by night (and thus presumably not at|
all popular with nearby astronomers). There's much more
information on the city in the Stage 19 Preview.
The peloton continue through Galdakao, the wide and smooth road offering up no hazards en route. The town - home to almost 30,000 people and the birthplace of cyclists Ramon Gonzalez Arrieta, winner of the 1995 Classique de Alpes (which ran for fourteen years until 2004, living on since 2007 as a juniors' competition), and Igor Antón, who is racing today with local team Euskaltel-Euskadi - is unsurprisingly rather overlooked due to its more famous neighbour. However, it predates Bilbao; having been first mentioned as a town in a document connected to its official application to become part of the city during the 14th Century. The application was successful, permitting it to enjoy the same privileges and thus grow rapidly up until 1630 when it once again became a separate community. The Industrial Revolution, for all the pollution and suffering it cause, was good to Galdakao - quarries, mines, forges, a dynamite factory and, in 1882, the railway saw the city grow rich.
|Idolo de Mikeldi and Cruz de Kurutziaga, Durango|
|Palacio de Berriz|
Continuing along the N-634, the route reaches Gipuzkoa and then Eibar. According to the Vuelta itinerary, the race progresses along the Calle Iruri and Calle Juan Guisasola - however, there is no road called Iruri in the town - we think they mean the Calle de Isasi (or Isasi Kalea as we prefer to call it, since we favour the Basque names). Secondly, the Calle Juan Guisasola comes after, not before, the right-hand turn and is also known as the GI-2639 - they are not separate roads as the race details suggest. This leads to some confusion as to the precise location of the stage's first intermediate sprint - it's either on the N-634/Isasi Kalea before the turn, or on the GI-2639 afterwards. The first climb, Cat 2 Alto de Karabieta with 425m of climbing in 6.8km, begins immediately after the sprint.
|"Torre" de Urrapain|
|Ubera. The year? 1970. (From kzgunea)|
If you blink, you'll miss Ubera - it's a tiny village with few buildings, plus the race passes straight through. Following a few unchallenging bends right after the village, the road becomes straight for a 1.1km descending section likely to encourage high speed, followed by a tricky medium right/tight 90 degree left/medium 90 degree right combination before passing under the AP-1 and GI-627 into Bergara where the peloton turn right at the first roundabout onto the Calle de Amillaga. There are a number of speed humps from this point until we leave the village behind. At the end of the road they turn a tight left onto another section of the Calle de Amillaga, passing right across a roundabout and ahead onto the Calle de Leiziriako San Lorentzo. This becomes the Calle Mugerza and, after a short narrow section where the road is constricted by a building on the right, onto the Calle Zubieta which follows the banks of the river for a short distance before disappearing behind houses and becoming the Calle Mahasterreka. The Cat 1 ascent of Alto de Elosua with 555m of climbing in 7.3km begins with 57km ridden since the start of the race.
|Torre Moyua, Bergara|
A footbridge crosses the road on the eastern perimeter of the town, then two sweeping left-hand bends lead into a right-handed, tight and steep hairpin before the road leads right and right again into trees and a short descent. An easy 90 degree left leads past houses, followed by an untechnical section up to the second hairpin - a left, not too tight and less steep than the previous; then a similar one turning right 0.56km ahead. A long straight section leads up to the fourth, left, wide and not steep; the the road passes among trees and emerges near the fifth, right, wide and medium steepness, bringing the road up to 600m. The final section takes place along the following straight section, the summit reached at a crossroads on the edge of forest. There's a wide 90 degree left bend just as the road leaves the trees behind.
The road away from Aizpurutxo has many bends, but each is wide and as the road climbs slightly speeds will remain low enough to avoid crashes. However, one potentially dangerous point comes after 3.1km, in a place where the mountainside right of the road has been stripped bear of trees, allowing the topsoil to wash away. This has left bare rock, leading to a very high likelihood of gravel on the road which can easily cause loss of traction - and unpleasant crashes as a result, since crashes on gravel often result in gravel having to be picked out of the skin. Just after this section is a series of tight bends: 90 degree left/90 degree right/90 degree very tight right/90 degree left/90 degree left/very tight 130 degree right. Houses and other buildings begin to appear along the roadsides and then - having added another 7.4km to the total ridden - the race arrives at Zumarraga and a series of tunnels. All are illuminated, the first being 0.13km, the second 0.1km and the third 0.17km, resurfacing just south of a roundabout and almost immediately merging into the GI-632.
The peloton leave the southbound GI-632, curving back up to the roundabout they passed beneath and turning left for the westbound section, a road that will take the race all the way back to Bergara. An uncategorised mountain - hence no points, even for a rider who climbs it like a squirrel on EPO climbs a tree - begins as soon as the race leaves the town, the summit coming after 4.9km among farm buildings just after a series of wide, sweeping bends. A very tight pair of right/left hairpins form a S-shaped section 0.55km after the bus stops near the summit: they're steep, tight, surrounded by trees and lead straight into a tight left and medium right. Add all this together and mix in the high entry speed after half a kilometre of descent and we have the perfect recipe for some hairy near-misses if not a few actual crashes.
Another tight, steep right-hand hairpin follows after 0.34km with a medium left-hand bend in another 0.44km and a very tight right-hander - almost a hairpin - 0.2km after that before the road straightens out for the final stretch before Antzuola, with a slightly tricky section involving a central reservation and a strange roundabout. The descending road immediately after the village may also be hazardous, especially after rain when leaves from the thick forest either side of the road could lead to very slippery conditions. The same applies to two corners at the end of the section, one wide left and the next a tighter right. Having emerged from the forest, the road splits into two with the race taking the left path to travel through the 0.34km illuminated Zubiaurre tunnel passing underneath an entire suburb on the south side of Bergara. The feeding station is nearby.
|Postcard dated 1923 from Bizkaia|
Having climbed to 385m, the route passes by a house and enters a medium right-hand bend as the road becomes the BI-632. The 460m summit comes 1.1km after the bend by a recreation ground just over the border in Bizkaia Province. There a number of technical sections on the descent: the first is a tricky medium left situated 0.58km after the building at the recreation ground, a bend that wouldn't be at all difficult were it not for the preceding descent and surrounding trees; a tight right 0.85km later; a very tight (90 degrees +) 0.33km after that; a sweeping right 0.91km further on and a medium hairpin 0.32 after that to finish - it's an unusual one in that the entry and exit are roughly level, but the apex of the bend dips several metres lower.
Arriving at a junction shortly before Elorrio, the route turns right onto the Av. del Arrasate which becomes the Elizaburu Kalea following the junction with the BI-2632. At the end of the road, the road book itinerary instructs us to turn left onto the Calle San Pio, by which we think they probably mean the Calle de San Pio X or San Pio X Kalea. This leads onto what the Vuelta calls the Calle San Justo, in this case apparently meaning the Calle de San Fausto or San Fausto Kalea, location of the stage's second intermediate sprint. This route leads, as the road book says it should, to the BI-636 heading into Atxondo.
|Portal de Don Tello|
|Torre de Muntsaratz|
The race passes through Abadiño along the Alfredo Baeschilla Etorbidea, heading into the industrial Astola neighbourhood and around a roundabout into Durango. A quarter of a kilometre further up the road are two more roundabouts where the race turn left onto the Montorreta Kalea. The second left turning then leads along the Larrasoloeta Kalea, with numerous speed humps before it becomes the Santikurutz Kalea, then the Barrio de Santa Cruz which ends with a roundabout. Here, will pass right around and take the second left leading to the BI-623 and another left turn towards Izurtza. The road passes to the left of a large quarry - hence likelihood of hazardous diesel spillages on the road - and onward into Mañaria.
The race passes straight over a roundabout just beyond the town, reaching the first hairpins 0.37km later - two, a left and a right, in very close succession. Neither are particularly steep, but both are very tight. Coincidentally, have a look to the right of the road if you get the opportunity just as the riders enter the hairpins - our maps say there's nothing there, while Google Earth has blacked it out in the way they sometimes do when a government has asked them to keep something quiet. Whatever could it be? Should you be physically following the Vuelta, we suggest you don't go for a quick stroll over the fields to have a closer look because getting arrested by the Spanish secret services probably really sucks. The next hairpin is 0.35km ahead, a tight left, not steep and the next 100m further on, tight right, not steep. A tight 100 degree left lies in wait 0.47km up the road, followed immediately by a sweeping right; then there are two more hairpins starting after a quarter of a kilometre. The first - left, medium, quite steep - comes 77m before the second - right, tight, quite steep; leading into a long straight through forest and climbing to 570m, finished off with a sweeping right past a large building with a stunning backdrop formed by high peaks. A tight left comes up 0.12km later, followed by a medium right hairpin, fairly steep, 0.15km ahead and a medium right bend soon afterwards, at which point the road reaches 600m and passes another building. A medium left can be seen up ahead, leading into a large U-shaped bend - the entry is easy, the exit much tighter. The summit comes at a crossroads 138.6km from the start line.
|Mari, depicted in her "Woman of Fire"|
guise (with squiggly bits) (CC2.5)
The descent is neither challenging nor steep, consisting of long straights broken up by wide, sweeping bends all the way to the Urunagako Urtegia lakes where, after 153.6km, the race joins the N-240. We continue southwards past Legutiano and over a bridge crossing one arm of the lakes, then arrive 2.4km later at a junction on the left with the A-3006. This leads us to a junction with the A-267 2km away, where the race turns left under the AP-1 motorway. After another 2km, it reaches Landa, entered by way of a right turn onto a much narrower road, then right again a few metres later for the A-3002. 4.2km later, it reaches Ullibarri-Gamboa - a village that feels as though it's on the coast, standing on the banks of a vast lake named after the community - before the route follows the banks of the lake all the way to the wide dam that created it, continuing south into the countryside. A wide right/left U-shaped bend 0.2km after the dam leads to a crossroads, then onward to a medium 90 degree right 0.46km before entering Arroiabe.
|Iglesia de Arroiabe (CC3.0)|
Gasteiz, home to almost a quarter of a million people, is Euskadi's second largest city. Tradition states that it was founded by Visigoth king Liuvigild in the 6th Century as an attempt to emulate the grand Roman cities left behind with the fall of the Empire. Should this be true, his choice of location proved wise - the community was ideally placed to act as a hub of trade and communication between the Spanish central plateau and the north-western European nations, ensuring rapid growth in size, importance and wealth. As a port, it benefited early on from a multicultural society, with people from all around the Mediterranean, Europe and the wider world adding their skills and knowledge to the culture. The Jewish Quarter was one of the most important in Spain, a centre of learning and philosophy, prior to the Expulsion in the 15th Century. Long after they had been pushed out or forced on pain of death to convert to Christianity, Gasteiz did not forget its Jews - the old Jewish cemetery is preserved as a park, with a monument commemorating their contributions to the city. Gasteizit earned city status in 1431. It was the site of the decisive Battle of Vitoria in 1813 when the combined Spanish, Portuguese and British armies defeated the French, effectively bringing French control of the nation to an end.
|Bibat - the seamless combination of ancient and modern into a harmonious whole.|
Could there be anywhere else that symbolises the Basque Country quite so well?
Predictions: Yesterday proved an amazing day for the Basques - not only did the Vuelta return to their nation for the first time in more than three decades, the Basque rider Igor Anton achieved a superb stage victory; everything they and the legions of Euskaltel-Euskadi fans around the world hoped for. Now, can they do the same today? Or will Bradley Wiggins, now that a GC triumph appears to be out of his grasp, cut his losses and try to at least win a stage? Whatever happens, there's a good chance we'll see Chris Froome make one last effort to grab back those 13 seconds and catch Cobo.
Weather: A little cooler than Stage 19, starting out at around 25C before shifting up and down the scale between this figure and a low of 20C as the altitude changes during the first 140km. Following that, it's be warmer - rising from 27 to 28C - in the final 45km. Light crosswinds are expected up to 112km, then a light tailiwind for the remainder. No rain is expected anywhere on the parcours, but clouds in the latter half mean there's an outside chance of a few drops.
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