Friday, 9 September 2011

Vuelta a España - Stage 20 Preview

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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 stage begins where Stage 18 left off, in the fine Basque city of Bilbao. Setting out from Botikazar Erribera (or Botica Vieja, as the Spanish language road book prefers it) no the northern bank of the river, the riders travel east for 0.22km before turning right at the roundabout and along the Puente Euskalduna, the bridge they crossed twice in the opposite direction yesterday. They then arrive at the Sagrado Corazón, taking the opposite exit onto the On Diego Lopez Haroko Kale Nagusia (Gran Vía Don Diego López) before a left turn at the Plaza Don Federico Moyua to enter the Alameda Recalde. Having crossed the Puente de Salve, the race follows the first slip road on the right down onto the Maurice Ravel Etorbidea and progresses eastwards towards the tunnel separating it from the Zumalakarregi Etorbidea, following the route round a wide left-hand bend and onto the N-634. The neutral zone comes to an end 9km from Botikazar Erribea, roughly halfway between Kukullaga and Agirre-Aperribai.

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
Having passed underneath the A-8 motorway, the race travels by various communities including Elexalde and Gumuzio before reaching countryside followed all too rapidly by industrualised areas. The road swings back and forth across the motorway before a slip road leaves on the left, curving around to the right and swooping under both the N-634 and A-8 into Amorebieta-Etxano. Turning left at the upcoming junction carries the peloton along the San Miguel Kalea or BI-3334. Straight ahead at the roundabout on the edge of the town leads towards a large B-shaped intersection, with the BI-3334 merging back into the N-634 before it travels east past more industry and comes to Arriandi - a town given over almost entirely to industry - with 21.4km ridden from the start of the race. Durango comes next; the town made famous by the discovery of the prehistoric Ídolo de Mikeldi, a four-legged animal roughly the size and shape of a boar. Its purpose remains a mystery, but the most likely explanation would be an object of worship among the ancient pre-Roman tribes who lived here thousands of years ago (it can be seen in the Museum of Archaeology, Ethnography and History in Bilbau). The Cruz de Kurutziaga, a heavily-carved Gothic cross and the only one of its kind on Europe, attracts more visitors to the town that any other feature - the one outdoors is in fact a replica (an identical replica stands in the same museum as the Ídolo de Mikeldi), the original having been moved inside the Ermita Cercana de la Veracruz nearby following a vandal attack in 1981. Though the majority of the figures represented upon it are recognisably characters from the Bible, the presence of various suspiciously pagan-looking symbols has led to much speculation as to who carved it and why.

Palacio de Berriz
The first climb - uncategorised, hence no points - begins just outside Durango before the race continues along the N-634 past Trana-Matiena and on to Berriz, 30.2km from the start. Zaldibar lies 2km ahead. The peloton turn left, passing under the A-8 once more and entering the small community on the Bilbao Etorbidea. Just a few kilometres away to the north-east is Mallabia, the home of the Orbea bicycle firm - producers of some of the most desirable bikes in the world, including those ridden by the Euskaltel-Euskadi team. The route joins the San Andres Etorbidea in the middle of the town, leading out to a wide 90 degree right shirtly before a wide, unchallenging hairpin located 1.55km after the motorway underpass. The summit, at 310m, comes at the second of the two sweeping left-handers soon after the hairpin; then the race reaches an industrial unit with a truck depot making it a potential spot for hazardous diesel spills on the road. 310m is reached several more times before the easy descent into Ermua. Ermua, though inhabited since at least the bronze age, grew up as it became a dormitory town for the local industry, with many of the inhabitants employed in the metal working factories. However, unlike many towns of its type, which apparently exist solely as a place in which to store a workforce overnight, it's a place with a unique character of its own and several fine buildings. Among them are the 16th Century Palacio Lobiano, considered one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture in the region, and the 18th Century Baroque Palacio de Valdespina. The town has also produced two professional cyclists - Pedro Horrillo, wingman to Oscar Freire until a horrific accident in Stage 8 of the 2009 in which he plunged over a 60m cliff and was left with multiple fractures and a punctured lung, ending his career; and Igor Astarloa, who paid tribute to the town when announcing his decision to retire after doping allegations in 2010.

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
Having passed to the left of Eibar's bullring and football stadium (football being another sport beloved by the Basques, bullfighting being an atrocity sadly endemic throughout Spain), the route crosses the A-8 on a fly-over. There are a few bends on the way up - though no hairpins - but due to the lower speeds during climbs they shouldn't cause problems. The summit, 560m above sea level, comes shortly after the peloton emerge from forest by some buildings. The descent is similarly easy, though a long, thin traffic island just as the race enters Elgeta could prove hazardous to the unwary. Elgeta has an immediately noticeable different character to the towns north of the climb the race has just completed, being predominantly rural in nature - the name is derived from the Basque term elke, meaning "cultivated field." The town looks modern, partially as a result of heavy bombing right up until 1937 during the Civil War. It retains a handful of older structures, however, including the Iglesia Sra. de la Asunción, dating from the 14th Century but much re-modelled in the 16th; the Torre de Urrupain, not actually a torre at all and more fittingly also known as the Casa Abidrío, with an impressive Baroque facade; and the ruined 13th Century Ermita de Uriarte.

Ubera. The year? 1970. (From kzgunea)
The road book itinerary takes a little departure from reality again in Elgeta, instructing us to turn left onto the GI-2631 - unfortunately, the GI-2631 is quite a long way away to the east and doesn't go to the next village Ubera. The GI-2632, meanwhile, not only goes there, it also runs through Elgeta; making it seem by far the more likely to be correct. After turning a tight - and potentially slippery - left onto this road, the peloton encounter right-hander, wide but steep hairpin 0.73km later. The final descent into Ubera is fast but not technical with the exception of a final right-hand hairpin on the entry into Ubera. Preceded by a sweeping 90 degree left, it will be approached at high speed and riders who haven't studied the route could very easily find themselves taking the section too fast and crashing into the trees on the left side of the road. Add to this the rural nature of the surroundings and there's an added hazard posed by the possibility of mud on the the road.

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
Though Bergara - called Vergara in Spanish - has a fine selection of interesting features (especially the megalithic monuments including dolmens and long barrows in the surrounding hill) it experiences very little tourism, both as a result of and resulting in the town's reliance of heavy industry and metal working. It's very much a town where people live and work rather than holiday, but a tourist in the area could spend a day or two without getting bored. Highlights include the Casa Arrese, dating from the 16th Century and a superb example of a Renaissance urban palace; the Torre Gabiria, constructed during the 15th Century with various features added during the 16th, prior to to a fire in 1719 and subsequent rebuilding; the Torre Moyua, more palace than defensive tower, though it incorporates various decorative elements based on defensive architecture; and the Hórreo de Agarre, a large granary held together entirely by dove-tailing with no nails used in its construction.

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.

Elosua (CC3.0)
The initial part of the descent to Elosua shouldn't be particularly demanding unless the weather's wet, though there are some potential trouble spots further down. The most evident are the series  very sharp bends starting 0.33km after the junction with the GI-3742 as the road follows the contours of the mountain; a section which, with fast entry speeds, descending altitude and trees, have all the ingredients necessary for a few crashes. Having left the forest and entered open countryside, the route negotiates a medium 90 degree left leading past a building, then enters a very tight 90 degree right. Two smoother rights lead into a straighter section, followed by a sweeping left-hand bend and another very tight 90 degree right back among trees. Once exited, a final straight leads to a junction with the GI-631 where the race turns right. Though this road features many bends, it's slightly uphill and will thus reduce speeds becoming less dangerous as a result. It's crossed several times by footbridges, each of which are likely to be packed with spectators - none of them stupid enough to try dropping anything onto the riders as they pass below, we hope. Police may prevent them from tying banners, flags and suchlike to the bridge to prevent this risk. Presently, the peloton come to a tiny village strung out along the road in a narrow, forested valley - Aizpurutxo, 79.3km from the start of the race. It's a poor, ramshackle, rather dirty and utterly charming little place.

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.

Until the late 15th Century, Zumarraga was a scattered collection of tiny hamlets and isolated farmsteads, a place apparently hardly even noticed with the first documentary evidence of its existence as a community only a hundred years previously. Gradually, an urban centre began to form and in the 16th Century the parish authorities applied for the right to relocate the parish church from its original site in the mountains to this new town. From this point, it developed rapidly; growing much larger during the 19th Century and becoming the fine and pleasant town that it is today during the early part of the 20th Century. By 1977, the population was almost 13,000; though this has fallen to around 10,000 today.

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
Once out of the tunnel, the peloton arrive after 1.55km at a pair of roundabouts. Turning right at the first and left at the seconds takes them onto the GI-637 heading south and, a short way along the road, passing underneath the AP-1 motorway and crossing the river twice in within a kilometre. The route follows the road out of the next roundabout and heads to the left. At the large and complicated interchange just beyond the upcoming bends, the race turns right to travel along the GI-632. Category 3 Alto de Kanpazar with 273m of climbing in 5.4km begins at the 106.6km point.

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
Despite Elorrio's reliance on heavy industry and the large number of industrial plants in the vicinity, the town is famous for its splendid architectural heritage and has a range of grand palaces and religious buildings. Among them are the Palacio de Estéibar-Arauna, the Palacio de Arabio and the Portal de Don Tello. The latter - the last remnant of the town's medieval wall - is still equipped with a cannon. Also not to be missed are the Iglesia de la Purísima Concepción, considered one of the finest Renaissance churches in the Basque Country but in fact of 15th Century Gothic origin, and the  Necrópolis de Argiñeta - one of the oldest Christian burial sites in the region. It's also the birthplace of José Antonio Ardanza, CEO of Euskaltel - the sponsors of everybody's favourite orange-clad Basque cycling team,.

Torre de Muntsaratz
Atxondo (if you're using a Spanish map, look for Axpe Achondo) is located 122.5km from the start of the race. The race just clips the northern edge of the town before heading on towards Abadiño 2km further up the road. The town's most famous building is the ancient Torre de Muntsaratz, dating from the 9th Century as a defensive feature before restoration and conversion in the 15th Century to a country stately home by and for the aristocratic Muntsaratz family. There are more than sufficient other mansions to keep a visitor going for two or three days' stay in the town.

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.

Mañaria may only have a population of some 500 people, but it's produced no fewer than three professional cyclists - namely, Julián Gorospe, winner of two Vuelta a Espana stages and one in the Tour de France prior to retirement in 1994; his younger brother Rubén who became assistant director of Euskaltel-Euskadi following his own retirement in the same year; and Unai Uribarri, a domestique with Euskaltel-Euskadi. This is, without any shadow a doubt, a town in love with the sport - expect the entire population to be out to cheer the Vuelta on, with an especially warm welcome for the riders wearing orange.

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)
Nearby, and easily seen from the crossroads, is the Santuario de San Antonio. One of the largest and most revered shrines in the region, it occupies a site believed to have been the home of Mari, the greatest deity in the pre-Christian Basque religion. There is a tradition involving suspiciously pagan, pseudo-Freudian imagery that a young woman can increase her chances of finding a male partner by sticking pins in a cloth kept in the church - a white-headed pin will bring her a blonde man, a black-headed pin a dark-haired man.

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)
Arroiabe's population has doubled since 2000, turning it into the present day sprawling metropolis home to 62 people. The village's pretty church stands on the southern edge, maintaining an air of serene separation from the earthly activities of those who live nearby - it's an impressive sight. 1.5km later the race arrives at Mendibil before skirting past Arazua-Ubarrundia and traveling underneath the E-5 motorway to Gasteiz (Vitoria on Spanish language maps). At the next roundabout, the race turns left and continues to the Zurbanoko Atea with several speed humps, turning left and then right for the Hezeguneen Ibilbidea. Left again at the next roundabout leads up to the Bulevar de Salburua and under the railway, the left again at the next roundabout (a long, elongated version) carries the race along the Calle Venta de la Estrella and, having negotiated another roundabout, the Itturitxu Kalea before it becomes the Zumabide Kalea running up to yet another roundabout and the Maite Zúñiga Kalea. Left at the following roundabout exits along the Martin Fixz Kalea, which becomes the Tanis Agirrebengoa Kalea before a tight right turn onto the Gaztelako Atea.

Gasteiz (CC3.0)
A final left leads along the Gasteizko Hiriburua and the final section, a straight and flat 700m sprint with the finish line at 185km.

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.

As has been the case in Bilbao, the Basques demonstrate their seemingly effortless ability to combine centuries-old and cutting-edge contemporary architecture in a harmonious whole in Gasteiz - there's nowhere else in the world where venerable palaces and churches sit side-by-side with shining towers of glass and steel quite so successfully as they do in Euskadi. Among the churches are the Catedral de Santa María (the Old Cathedral), itself an expression of that Basque skill as it combines elements from the 13th Century to the present, and the Catedral de María Inmaculada (the New Cathedral), which looks medieval but is in fact a product of the Gothic Revival during the early part of the 20th Century and is unique for its Art Nouveau interior decorations. Among ancient architecture, highlights include the remnants of the medieval defensive wall, once 900m in length and completely encompassing the city as it stood when the wall was constructed; the early 13th Century Torre de Doña Otxanda, a superb example of medieval defensive architecture now put to excellent use as a museum of and centre of research in natural sciences which counts the oldest specimen of a butterfly ever discovered among its exhibits; the Museum of Fine Arts, housed in one of the best examples of a Renaissance palace; and, nearby, the 13th Century Torre de Mendoza - no decorative stately home, this one, designed solely with strength and ability to withstand attack in mind, could perhaps best be described as looking "purposeful." It currently houses a museum of heraldry.

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?
For those who appreciate the modern, the ARTIUM is as good a place the start as any. This stunning white structure, built in 2001/2002, houses the Basque Centre-Museum of Contemporary Art and includes works by many of the greatest names in 20th and 21st Century art including Picasso, Miró, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Muñoz and Dali. Also not to be missed is the remarkable Museum of Archaeology, somehow looking as though it was always meant to stand next to the Museo Fournier de Naipes (the playing card museum) despite being separated by several centuries and an ocean of architectural difference: the former is housed in a strikingly contemporary building, the latter in a fortified medieval mansion. The amorphous whole, known as Bibat, is highly symbolic of both Gasteiz and Euskadi; an embodiment of that Basque tendency to remember what was good in the past while always striving for a better future.

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.

More Stage Previews: click here.

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