|Stage 11 finishes at 1750m above sea level in the
Manzaneda ski resort.
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Let's hope all the riders got plenty of relaxation and visits to the masseur during yesterday's rest day, because Stage 11 is a killer - there's a 450m climb in the first 15km, which ought to put paid to the first few breakaway attempts unless an elite pack of climbers fancy giving it a go, then it's up and down all the way to a flat 15km starting at the 107k point and then, from 138km, it's a Category Especial (the Vuelta's version of Hors Categorie) up the forbidding slopes of Montaña Manzaneda with gradients approaching 11% in places. It's a demanding parcours in other ways, too - no more of those long and straight sections we saw in Stages 9 and 10, this one wiggles about all over the place. It's just possible that today will allow us our first glimpse of the rider who'll be wearing the Red Jersey for the celebrations in Madrid.
|Castillo de Monterrey.
|Cigarrones festival in Verin.
Fumaces, while giving the impression of having been a far more populous and bustling place in days gone by, is a rather decrepit sort of place with crumbling old buildings and inhabitants in similar shape - making it quite a likable sort of place, all in all, and worth a brief visit in passing. The road just scrapes the southern edge, but if you blink you'll miss it. The climb, a Category 3, ends 0.6km later but the road continues to rise gently towards the next villages, A Trepa followed by San Cristovo, which the book doesn't mention at all. Soon, the race reaches Ventas da Barreira, the informal name of As Vendas da Barreira. This is another village in a state of serious decline - whereas the N-525 once brought visitors, they and their money now pass by on the A-52 motorway which cuts the village in two, the eastern half connected by a bridge. The population is aging, the average age increasing every year as the young people leave to find work and more exciting lives elsewhere, and it looks as though the little community will be no more within a few decades. There is a strange stone cross near the end of the village: on one side of it, as expected, is Christ; on the other, standing rather than crucified, a queen dressed in a long cloak and crown.
|A Gudina's church.
The road is twisty, but the bends are all gentle for the first few kilometres and should cause no problems. Very soon, it enters a much greener region and begins to descend quite rapidly - the bends here are tighter and the combination of more technical parcours, wind-blown leaves and high speed could lead to crashes, especially if it's raining. A couple of tiny villages pass by, O Castro to the east and then Pradocabalos to the west. Soon, a river can be seen flowing to the left and becoming noticeably wider as the peloton moves along the road. As the race crosses a bridge, there are excellent views to some rich red cliffs.
|Iberian Wolves. It would be fantastic to see one,
but we won't.
Having rounded a right-hand bend, the road passes into a wooded section with superb views across part of the lake just to the north. It comes out at the Puente Bibey bridge which stretches 100m over the water to Viana Do Bolo, situated 51.5km from the start. Viana is largely agricultural, with several of the farms providing only enough food for the families that run them - however, many people in the area make a living through the sale of chestnuts which are exported throughout Europe, an industry which has fortunately survived the forest fires that have ravaged the area in recent years. Others work in the nearby hydroelectricity plants. The village has a long history, having been the site of a pre-Roman fort of which no trace remains at ground level, and numerous Roman artifacts have been discovered both coincidentally and during organised archaeological expeditions in the area. It's very much a village to get lost within, with ancient streets winding this way and that between a jumble of rustic hovels and very fine houses - one of the best is the Casa del Curas with a beautiful glazed gallery high up on one side, no doubt the scene of many pleasant afternoons spent watching life in the town. The castle keep dates to the 9th Century when it was built to protect against Moorish attack - it now houses a museum of ethnography and has an extensive collection of artifacts revealing the day-to-day lives of people in the area. Each year, during the Carnival, the town holds Domingo Gordo, "Fat Sunday," a huge feast attended by more than 3,000 people.
The race passes through town along the Traversia Nicolas Tenorio, Rua da Libertade and Calle Libertade, exiting on the OU-533 and beginning the Category 2 Alto Da Gonza. The next village is Mourisca, where the peloton turns right onto the much narrower OU-951 and presently reaches the stage's first hairpin bend. The parcours continues to climb, reaching the 1130m summit 61km from the start. The riders turn a 90 degree left and the top and descend towards Castromao, turning left just before reaching the village and joining the OU-804 which heads east towards the Embalse del Prada.
|Casa Do Bailarin
(for more pictures and information, click here)
The race passes by Casdenodres before arriving at Castromarigo, a village split into three separate parts among the trees. North of the village, the road enters a forest and takes a sharp bend after around 150m, descending as it does so and thus raising the likelihood of hazardous conditions. Another tight bend just north of Candeda - where we'll hopefully get to see the tiny chapel - should be less dangerous as the peloton will be climbing again, reaching 1000m above seal level shortly before they pass Meda. Another tight forest hairpin lies a short way ahead, pointing the route towards a 70m high outcrop which affords excellent views across the lake. The parcours turns a very tight right hand corner just before Prada, joining the OU-121 and coming to the feeding station. Prada dates back to at least the tenth century when it was mentioned as a parish in diocese records, but today is almost a ghost town except for during the summer weekends when the rich outsiders who have bought up the homes come to visit. It seems a shame when a village suffers this fate, but does at least mean that it'll be preserved as the attractive and interesting place it is and that those locals who remain will continue to receive injections of money from outside - it might not be real life, but it's better than the slow death endured by Ventas da Barreira. There are many old cottages in the village, some perhaps not quite as pretty as the others, a few of which have strange patterns carved onto their ancient stones; the Santuario del Cristo de la Ascensión with its outdoor pulpit used in the days when the church sometimes attracted more worshippers than would fit within is an interesting building.
The road leads north-east, on high ground with excellent views into the 300m deep valley to the left, then veers east to pass along the edge of a forestry plantation. There are some tight bends on the other side, not quite hairpins but just sufficiently demanding to require some skill, then the peloton rides out into open, rolling countryside - where, should it be windy, there'll be no shelter. Another tight bend leads into trees and past an abandoned hut dug into the bank at the side of the road, almost consumed by the woodland surrounding it. Coming after less than a kilometre are three descending hairpins - the first two are very steep, dropping about 20m. The road narrows considerably here, about 1.5km from Santigoso.
|A surviving part of the Order of Malta's complex in
O Barco de Valdeorras.
However, this is not a dusty backwater full of crumbling old buildings - as a modern, vibrant town, O Barco de Valdeorras has some very good modern buildings including a rather Bauhaus-like town hall. Another good example of modern architecture can be seen when the peloton turns left off the bridge and, after a short stretch along the Antigua Estrada, reaches the Edificio de Esquina which resembles a shorter, wide version of Manhattan's famous Flatiron Building. They turn left again here, passing along the Av. de Marcelino Suárez and beginning the first intermediate sprint running along the Av. Galicia - straight, flat and untechnical, so presumably an ideal place for the sprint specialists to bag the points. The Avenida ends at a roundabout and the race moves onto the N-120 as it heads west to Villamartin de Valdeorras.
|Villamartin de Valdeorras, despite having much of interest,
relies of mining rather than tourism and as such remains
The riders cross the river using a wide, modern bridge; but to the left can be seen the Roman bridge, much repaired over the years so that while it probably doesn't constitute a particularly good example of Roman architecture anymore, it has an aesthetically-pleasing collection of arches in various styles and shapes from wide and Classical to pointy and Gothic. A little further on, the road veers south along a short river inlet - on the opposite bank is a rocky stack, the top of which is inhabited each year by storks. Having passed through Freixido de Abaxio and onto the OU-636, the second intermediate sprint begins. After 130km from the start, the race reaches Larouco; another village that won't make it into any books of stately homes but with plenty of interesting cottages, some of them apparently much-expanded over the centuries to form large, slightly chaotic-looking homes. The 565m Cat 3 summit of Alto de Ermida comes 3.1km later after two wide and undemanding hairpins. This section of the descent, though steep in parts, should cause no problems unless it's wet as the hairpins are all wide - the only obvious potential hazard is a 90 degree left onto a narrow bridge, forming a bottleneck which will be approached at high speed, and a similar corner on the other side. It's a very beautiful spot, so let's hope the riders get through smoothly and the camera operators concentrate on filming the bridge and surrounding landscape instead.
|Inglesia de San Salvador, Sobrado.
The road forms an almost perfect three-quarter-circle loop then a left-hand hairpin. A wide 90 degree left, 1km from Sobrado, begins the stage's last climb - and it's the big one, the Especial Category ascent to 1750m. Before getting to the mountain, the race needs to pass through Manzaneda - a simple process via the Calle de la Cabarca and Calle del Reiguero. It's an unexpectedly pretty place after so many dull villages along this stage, a place of stone arches and spires added to buildings without apparent reason. Just over a kilometre outside town, there's a right corner onto the Carretera a Paradela which enters a Z-bend and begins to climb more rapidly, passing by Paradela de Abaixo before reaching a junction. Straight ahead leads into Paradela, right - the direction for the peloton - leads further up the mountain, reaching 1100m less than a kilometre further on. The road follows a 1km loop, featuring the steepest part of the climb with a 10.5% gradient about a large expanse almost free of vegetation, and soon reaches Cabeza de Manzaneda at the bottom of the piste, 162km from the start and 5km from the end. After 0.4km, they turn left and onto the final road to the summit, arriving at 1750m through five hairpins.
|In recent years, Manzaneda has spent much time, money and
effort developing summer attractions - among them, the vast
Bike Park with XC, DH and even North Shore-style Freeride
trails. It is, of course, also very popular among road cyclists!
|Pistes make superb mountain bike trails in summer.
Weather: Things may chance during the rest day, but at present it looks like we'll see the first rain of the 2011 Vuelta during Stage 11 - it's predicted all the way through the first half and then again towards the finish line, which isn't going to be welcome at all with all those climbs and descents. Temperatures will be much lower as a result, fluctuating between 16 and 18C during the first half, climbing to 22C in the lowlands before the final climb and dropping gradually as altitude increases to the finish - right down to a distinctly chilly 11C at the summit. Gentle tailwinds are predicted over the first half, then gentle headwinds for the second half just as the riders are becoming tired.
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