Sunday 14 August 2011

Vuelta a España - Stage 10 Preview

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The last stage before the rest day, Stage 10 is the 2011 Vuelta a España's only individual team trial and takes place on a parcours running south from the grand university city of Salamanca down to the little village of Torre Zapata and back up again, a clockwise loop of 47km ending slightly north of the start. The Vuelta road book describes it as "completely flat," but it's not - there are no leg-breakers today, but a 165m climb during the first 22km is sufficient to make the going considerably more difficult for some of the TT specialists, a few of whom are known for their dislike of any sort of ascent. With all the climbing coming early on and a long descent to follow, this looks set to be a very fast course indeed - possibly even fast enough to bring new Vuelta records.

The University dates from 1218, making it the oldest in Spain and the third oldest in the Western world - only Bologna (1088) and Oxford (1096) are older. The 30,000 students provide the largest slice of the city's annual income; many of them coming from overseas, paying to attend and coincidentally bringing with them the benefits of a diverse multicultural society.

The 15th Century Torre del Clavero, all that
remains of a fortified home once built by the
de Sotomayor family - whom we encountered
previously at Herrera in Stage 7.
Salamanca has Celtic origins, having been established around a fortress constructed by the Vaccaei, a fierce tribe known for their deadly skill in battle (their name is believed to derive from vacos, a word meaning "killer") and their egalitarian society in which food and wealth was equally distributed, a system which to our ears sounds like some radical ideal. It then passed into Roman hands, with Hannibal laying siege in the 3rd Century BCE - they left us with the wide and picturesque 1st Century CE bridge, still in everyday use. With the decline of the Empire it came under the control of the Alans; this presumably being the period that the city became an episcopal see, presumably because there are no records of the establishment of the see but documents dating from the Visigothic period that followed the Alans mention its existence.

The city surrendered to the Moors in 712, but was unable to enjoy the benefits of their science, culture and society as the region became the centre of ongoing battles between Muslim and Christian forces which left it a depopulated backwater. In fact, it could very easily have become just another of the once great cities that now exist as forgotten villages throughout Spain had it not have been chosen as a suitable new home for a group of Christians looking to resettle the area after their victory against Abd al-Rahman III in the Battle of Simancas, which saw the Duero region return to Christian control. More organised Christian resettlements took place under Alfonso VI of Castile and Raymond of Burgundy in 1085 and 1102. However, it was Alfonso IX of León's Royal Charter of 1218 allowing the formation of the University that really jump-started Salamanca's new lease of life - it quickly attracted scholars from across Europe, rapidly becoming one of the world's foremost centres of academia.

The Baroque New Cathedral.
The medieval period saw the University - and the city - reach new heights, being instrumental in the establishment of the basics of modern law guaranteeing the rights to freedom of thought, freedom to own property, corporeal being and freedom of religion. These modern beliefs are reflected in the response when Spain's Jewish population were expelled in 1492 - rather than taking over the Jewish Quarter and destroying the synagogue, the city fenced it off and used it to raise rabbits but otherwise preserved intact in the hope of the Jews being permitted to return, becoming known as la Barrio del Conejal after the rabbits until modern times. The 17th Century was difficult, the entire kingdom of Castile becoming decadent under ineffectual leadership, but Salamanca as a whole returned to its earlier dynamism in the following century when the New Cathedral and several other fine structures were built. Large parts of the city suffered serious damage caused by the French cannons during the Battle of Salamanca in 1812 - but the French didn't have it all their own way, ultimately losing the battle to the Anglo-Portuguese forces led by Wellington and were forced out of Andalusia for good.

The Romanesque/Gothic Old Cathedral.
There is, needless to say, a very great deal to be seen in Salamanca; but sights definitely not to be missed include La Clerecía, home of the Pontifical University, a building that was expanded after the Jesuits who originally built it spread a rumour among the local population that treasure was hidden in a building already occupying the land they required, causing them to tear it apart as they searched and making the land available; the Convento de las Agustinas e Iglesia de la Purísima with a dome that collapsed during construction and was rebuilt in 1675; both Cathedrals; the Palacio de Monterrey, the Huerto de Calixto y Melibea, a garden where remains of the Roman defensive city walls can be seen; La Plaza Mayor, site of many of Salamanca's finest buildings; many of the University buildings and especially the Main Facade; the 15th Century Casa de las Conchas which served for a while as the University's prison; the 16th Century Casa de las Muertes, the House of the Dead, named after the carved skulls used to decorate the structure (sadly, most of them have weathered badly and no longer look like skulls, though some have been recarved) and which, unsurprisingly, is said to bear a curse stating that anyone who lives within will soon die - a legend that could have led to the house falling into an irreparable condition since for many years nobody would dare to enter it; Casa Lis, the Museum of Art Nouveau and Art Deco and, for students, the little stone frog atop a carved skull adorning the University's main building - legend has it that all scholars who see it will be successful in their studies.

Typical landscape south of Salamanca.
The start ramp will be erected on the Av. Saavedra y Fajardo, pointing south towards Stage 9's finish town Béjar and very close to the Roman bridge and Casa Lis. The first section climbs only a few metres and is straight so expect some very fast starts as the riders make their way towards the first roundabout, taking a wide route around the large central island and continuing straight on out of the city. A fly-over carries them across the A-66 motorway - look out for the enormous bull silhouette on a ride nearby - presently arriving at El Ventorro, more a loose collection of buildings than a village. Another fly-over leads back across the A-66 shortly before Orejudos.

Crossing the motorway once more, the riders come to Mozárbez located 11km from the start; believed to be the site of an ancient fort and famous for the large numbers of scorpions which seem to find the little village a desirable place to live. At Montellano, they turn a sharp and potentially slippery right turn onto the narrower DSA-206 heading south-west and passing into an area with more trees than previously. The parcours leads through Cuatro Calzadas, one of those unattractive hamlets consisting of houses strung out along the road and little else, the attractive meandering stream on the other side of the road being far more pleasant to look at.

The road is long and mostly straight, the only bends being gentle and undemanding curves - an ideal time trial road, in fact, which will encourage high speeds and get the riders to the stage's southernmost point at Torre Zapata rapidly. The village has little to offer, meaning the difficult and very tight turn onto the DSA-207 may prove the most exciting thing to have happened there in some time: if it isn't host to at least one crash, we'll be surprised. From this point, the riders are heading back towards Salamanca.

Main Facade, University of Salamanca.
Once again the road is almost straight, though it turns a 90 degree left corner upon arrival at Morille and a similarly tight right around 200m later. Morille was famous in times gone by for its millstones, the production and sale of which made it a reasonably wealthy place. Nowadays, it exists primarily on income generated by tourism, especially ecotourism, and is a popular base for cycle touring and hiking. Though small - the permanent population is less than 300 people - it has some good buildings, pretty cottages and a fine collection of sculpture on public display. Once the village is passed, the road becomes mostly straight again for some way apart from the sweeping bend among trees. Just to the west is a tiny village of large houses known as La Regañada, a name that translates as The Scolding.

The DSA-207 ends a short way further on with a right turn at the junction with the DSA-204 which comes 30.5km into the stage - a junction that, being surrounded by dry fields, is another potential hazard due to slippery dust, puncture-causing stones and mud and diesel deposited on the road surface by farm vehicles. This road is even straighter, hardly deviating at all until a pair of Z-bends right at the end when it joins DSA-210 at a simple junction where the riders won't even need to apply their brakes. A bridge carries them over a stream just east of Aldeagallega, then a few more bridges pass by on the way to Porquerizos and, a short way further on, the CL-512 leading into Aldeatejada 41km from the start, then to a large roundabout junction with the A-66.

La Plaza Mayor.
Having got past the roundabout - it's quicker to travel around to the right - they come to another, where the line to the left is quicker, then continue north into the city until they reach a crossroads. Here they turn a sharp right onto the Carretera de Fregeneda and cross the river via the Roman Bridge. The surface is cobbled, but the stones are small and flat, hence should cause no problems unless wet in which case they may prove very slippery. This section of the river, with tree-covered islands, is especially beautiful. At the far end, they turn right onto the Paseo del Rector Esperabé (also known as the Paseo del Doctor Esperabé) and then left after 140m onto the Calle San Pueblo leading north into Salamanca's heart. After 0.8km, the arrive at La Plaza Mayor and the end of the stage.

Predictions: It's a time trial and Fabian Cancellara is in it. It's not rocket surgery.

Weather: A bit hotter than it has been for the last few days with temperatures ranging from 27-29C expected along the whole route. Winds will be light but variable as the route's direction alters, changing from headwinds and crosswinds during the first half to crosswinds and very welcome tailwinds as the riders head back to Salamanca. No rain is expected anywhere on the route.

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