Wednesday 31 August 2011

Vuelta a España - Stage 12 Preview

Corpus Christi, Ponteareas.
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Stage 12 is a transition, really, designed to get the Vuelta from one set of mountains to the ones climbed tomorrow in a more interesting way than loading them all onto the team buses and driving up the motorway. As this is the Vuelta, and the organisers seem to have deliberately made sure there aren't any easy stages, there are two fair-sized Category 3 climbs and four little uncategorised hills between 150-200m stirred into the mix too. All in all, it's a race for the puncheurs - too hilly for the flat-out rockets, while the grimpeurs will be saving their legs for tomorrow's mighty Cat 1 Puerto de Ancares - or even for a domestique who feels strong enough whilst his team captain concentrates on getting through unscathed. Whatever happens, expect an early breakaway; probably one composed of little-known riders keen to reveal themselves as the grimpeurs of years to come.

Castro de Trona, ancient defenses
Ponteareas is acting as a stage town for the second time; it hosted the start of Stage 16 in 1987, won by Frenchman Dominique Arnaud. It was the birthplace of Delio Rodriguez (1916-1994), whose record of 39 Vuelta stage wins set between 1936 and 1950 remains the all-time record. His younger brother Emilio (1923-1984), also born in the town, was a successful rider too, winning the mountains classifications in the Vuelta and several other races; as was Alvaro Pino in 1956, winner of five Vuelta stages. This is a town with cycling in its blood, so expect a party atmosphere - and if there's one thing Ponteareanos know how to do, it's celebrate: the annual Corpus Christi fiesta, in which they use millions of flowers to carpet entire streets and squares, has been officially declared to be of International Tourist Interest by the Spanish Ministry of Industry. Nearby is the Castro de Trona, the remains of an ancient defensive construction or village. Some of the rocks forming the remains are carved with mysterious petroglyphs. There is also a medieval bridge, believed to be the source of the town's name.

Pena dos Namorados, the Rock of Love, Pontaereas: huge
boulders each weighing many tonnes stacked atop one
another (presumably by glacial action). Or giants -
you never know.
The neutral zone begins on the Rúa de la Esperanza, a wide and modern thoroughfare with tall, airy buildings running along both sides. It runs sourth-east to the Plaza de Bullagal, turns right - potential for fuel spillages/puntures here - along the Av. de Constitucion and joins the Rúa de Concha Brey, running contiguously south-east past the Town Hall to a roundabout where a tight left turn sends the peloton along the Av. de Galicia towards the Rúa Real. The Rúa Real is also the N-120, which the riders will travel along after turning left at the roundabout. Three speed humps lead to another roundabout where they go straight through, coming immediately afterwards to a bridge over the Rio Tea - the bridge is wide and unlikely to create any issues, but the location is beautiful and not to be missed. Looking left, down the slow, shallow river, the medieval bridge can just be seen. The road is straight and wide, running past A Lomba, Areas, Gandara and Peso before reaching Rocha, where the real race begins after 4.8km.

The races continues along the same road, which remains poker-straight except for a sweeping left and steep (but mercifully short) climb into a wooded section between Periero and Confurco, reading 170m just before the peloton pass across a fly-over above the A-52 and begin to descend towards Cans. The rocks protruding between the trees on the hillsides above the village, at first glance natural, are the remains of fortifications dating back to the days of the . Turning west around woodland, the N-120 reaches Porriño which, just 7.2km into the race, marks the first of the day's intermediate sprints along the Calle Sequieras and Rua de Antonio Palacios - both are straight, but both have several speed humps. At the end is a sharp left at a roundabout to join the N-550 running south.

Porrino Town Hall.
The town is famous for the marshland directly to the south, which has brought added fortune to the area since, being an important resting point for migratory birds and reputedly one of the richest ecosystems anywhere in Europe, it attracts ornithologists and naturalists from far afield. Porriño was the scene of a small but very effective revolution of sorts in 377 CE: after a farmer and his family had been slaughtered by the local king, Ghrovary el Pueril (so-called because he took the throne aged 17) in return for failing to pay the punitive taxes he had levelled upon them, a band of around a hundred villagers decided it was time to act. They were soon joined by 400 commoners from the surrounding villages and, en masse, stormed the king's fortress and put him to death, thus ensuring that the nobility would thereafter treat them with respect. The town's name is believed by some to be derived - perhaps a little too circuitously for some others - from the Latin version of the king's nickname, puerīlis. Today, the town's wealth is based largely on industry and especially on the mining of pink granite - one of the nearby mines claiming to be the largest source of the material in the world. Local stone was used to construct Porriño's remarkable town hall which, rather than following the classical style shared by almost all other Spanish town halls, looks like a combination of elements taken from St. Pancras Station and Hogwarts Castle. The architect - Antonio Palacios, born here in 1872 - used a similar grand Gothic style at Madrid's Palacio de Comunicaciones, though on a scale magnitudes larger.

The road continues south, never quite making it into open countryside though the buildings become more widely spaced for a while, until it eventually meets the A-55 which has been running parallel to the right for the last few kilometres just south of Eidos. At a roundabout, the N-550 becomes the PO-510, a road heavily used by the trucks ferrying granite from the mine just to the east to the ships waiting at the ports to take it off to China, which has become by far the largest market for granito rosa Porriño, and other nations around the world; meaning that the road may prove to be hazardous due to diesel spillage - the fuel being as invisible as it is slippery on a road surface. It is, needless to say, far from the most pleasing landscape along the 2011 parcours, so it's a good thing for us that the route soon turns east and enters an area of oaks, green fields and pretty - if not especially interesting - villages; most of which just come into contact with one another, giving the distinct impression that we're really in a very large, very sparse city rather than travelling between independent communities.

After 23.1km, the peloton come to a roundabout in between Salvaterra de Miño and O Castillo and turn left onto the PO-403, now heading north. The road continues to Abelleira, encountering nothing with obvious potential to form a hazard. At Angoares is Igrexa Parroquial de San Pedro de Angoares, a church of unusually English Perpendicular appearance. It's tiny but somehow imposing and looks as though it'd have made a very grand cathedral had it have been built to a scale perhaps 30 times greater. In no time at all, the race reaches Ponteareas for a second time and passes through town back to the roundabout near the medieval bridge we saw earlier, travelling straight across and onto the PO-254 heading north-east and, 41.3km from the start, to Balneario de Mondariz. We enter along the Calle de la Constitución with its Z-bend, then turn an easy left onto the Calle Ramón Peinador which sweeps around the northern edge of town before turning south to join the Calle de Octubre leading out. There are numerous speed humps along the way.

A short way to the south from Mondariz is the Castillo
do Sobroso, dating to the 10th Century but occupying
the site of a prehistoric fort. Having been abandoned in
the 18th Century, it fell into disrepair until it was bought
by the Conde de Torrecedeira in 1923, who carried out
restorations at at his own expense until his death in 1967.
It has since passed into local government ownership and
is now open to the public.
Balneario de Mondariz has been a popular spa resort since Roman times, many traces of their presence having been discovered in the vicinity. Oddly, despite their appreciation of natural beauty and cleanliness insisted upon by their faith, the Moors didn't make their presence felt here and have left little trace, leaving the town almost forgotten until its rediscovery by the nobility from the late 13th Century. The modern town dates from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, when there was a craze for spas and the health benefits their waters are said to bring. The most impressive building is undoubtedly the vast Palacio del Agua, a grand hotel dating to 1893. The exterior remains much as it was then, while the interior has been much modernised so that the hotel can offer everything that the sort of people who like to pay enormous sums for supplemental health therapies and beauty treatments consider necessary during a holiday.

Cyclists and other proles who require nothing more than a sink in which to wash out sweaty clothing and plenty of food during a holiday leave the town via a through-arch bridge and soon come to Mondariz where a short and narrow connecting road leads to a sharp left onto the PO-252. Having passed a large industrial site,  the road narrows to pass across a tall stone bridge before climbing towards Quintans and A Portelsa da Bouza, villages immediately west and east. The Category 3 climb of Alto de Moscoso begins 1.4km after the villages, throwing in a woodland hairpin for good measure shortly afterwards, even though the terrain isn't at all steep yet - though it does become so for a short section a little further on when it climbs a wooded slope and enters a sharp left bend which, with the trees depositing leaves onto the road, might be hazardously slippery. By the time we reach A Rua, there are superb views across the Val de Tea, which the riders won't see as they're going in the opposite direction, then the route progresses along the side of a steep slope, dropping hundreds of metres to the left and rising hundreds of metres to the right. It's a very beautiful section, easily making up for the one south of Porriño earlier. The summit, at 400m, is reached just after we pass through As Xunqueiras on a forested hill. Immediately afterwards, we descend into Moscoso.

At a junction, we turn left onto the PO-250 - not, as the road book has it, the PO-252 which ends here. This road is much wider and heads south-west, descending through beautiful countryside until it reaches Amoedo, 62km from the start of the race. The road, also known as the Carretera Redondela de Pazos, is wide and smooth and descends fairly rapidly without dangerous bends, encouraging very high speeds - until Quintana, where a very tight right-left-left combination will take a few millimetres of rubber off the brake blocks.

We enter Redondela along the Calle de Xóan Manuel Pereira, leading us to the Plaza Ribadavia. The riders turn right at the first exit after the river (which passes underneath the Plaza) to enter the Calle Alfonso XII, which is narrow for a while before opening out into a riverside park and joining the Rúa José Antonio, which merges into the Calle General Rubin. At the end, the peloton turns right and joins the Carretera de La Coruna Tui, also known as the N-550 and, in less than a kilometre, the Av. Santa Maria. A little over 2km later, we join the PO-2901 heading for Viso and beginning to climb once again. There are two 19th Century stone and iron viaducts in the locale, the Viaducto de Madrid and Viaducto de Pontevedra. When the first of these was declared unsafe for use following completion in 1876, Pedro Floriani - one of the men responsible for its construction - climbed up it and attempted suicide by leaping off. His bid failed, leaving him paralysed for the rest of him life. Today, it is disused - the Viaducto de Pontevedra, meanwhile, is still in use.

We pass through Viso and its attractive little square, only slightly marred by some ugly 1970s houses, continuing along the PO-2901 which is now heading east to Alxán. When the road meets the PO-2908, the peloton turns left, coming presently to a roundabout where they turn sharp right to pass onto the PO-244. After 4.6km, having covered 81km from the start of the race, they reach the feeding station and the beginning of the Cat 3 climb of Alto Ponte Caldeas. Silvoso comes a short way on, the road remaining wide and smooth all the way without difficult bends all the way to the summit 88.2km from the start at 320m just past Roca. There is one of those ridiculously pretty, crystal clear streams running along the bottom of the shallow valley to the left. Roca, incidentally, being one of those tiny villages where almost all of the young people leave as soon as they possibly can, has many picturesque ruins; set off perfectly by the beautiful surroundings. It's always sad to see what must have once been a vibrant community in its death throes, but Roca is doing it in an extremely aesthetically-pleasing way. The descent is not challenging and ends at a T-junction where we turn left into Ponte Caldeas.

The bridge into the town stands high above the lazy, weedy water and, being wide, should cause no problems. The PO-532 running through to the west looks simple too, with little in the way of street furniture. Ponte Caldeas' name is believed to derive from an ancient bridge - the Ponte - and the hot sulphurous springs in the area, from the Latin caldas, scalding. Having left the Ponte Caldeas behind, the peloton reaches a roundabout near the village of Cunas and passes straight across it to find Tourón after a little under 3km. It clips the very northern tip of Buchabad, then passes a huge second-hand car dealership and repair shop - hence, possibility of fuel spillages on the road - before it travels on to Vilarchan, where a peculiar stone hórreo can be seen from the road. The stone legs supporting it some way off the ground reveal it to be a granary, but it's an unusually ornate one, looking distinctly like it belongs in a graveyard.

Igrexa de Peregrina, Pontevedra
We swing north to avoid A Reigosa, a large industrial complex home to several distribution points which will again increase the likelihood of diesel spillages, the west around an open-cast mine. Soon, the peloton reaches a crossroads and turns left, passing by various villages as it approaches Pontevedra along the Av. de Marco. There are two roundabouts immediately south of the city - at the second, having crossed a fly-over, the peloton turn right onto a narrower slip road and proceed to a third roundabout where they turn right again onto the Carretera Coruña-Tui. The Carretera becomes the Av. de Vigo, an urban street, and leads to left turn at a roundabout to access the Av. Fernandez Ladreda heading west. There are ten raised speed humps along its length and two roundabouts, making it quite a technical section. At the second roundabout, we turn right into the Calle General Rubin before turning left onto Av. Reina Victoria which initially narrows between buildings before opening out into a wide thoroughfare. Having reached a roundabout - site of Pontevedra's own answer to Manhattan's Flatiron Building which, though singularly unattractive, blocks the bullring from our sight - the parcours turns right and runs along the Rua de Alameda and takes a sharp left halfway along for the Rue de Echegaray. We pass straight over another roundabout and the road becomes the PO-308 on the other side, then carries across the Puente Barca bridge. Just to the right, still sticking out of the water, are the pylons of the old bridge.

Old stones at Combarro. The building on the
right is a horreo, a type of granary.
The bridge leads to yet another roundabout where the peloton turn left onto the Av. Barca, soon coming to a second roundabout and a left turn to join the Av. de Andurique - they're both easy corners - and continue along the PO-308 as it passes by Albar and through O Convento en route to Seara do Rio and another roundabout, going straight across. Having passed through Seca, the road follows the coastline for a while; passing by some modern sculptures that owe more than a few thanks to the megaliths erected by our Neolithic forebears. Very soon, it reaches Combarro and the peloton have to deal with a number of pedestrian crossings and speed humps before two bends lead to the harbour. Though the sleek, white yachts give the little town a modern appearance, it's actually of some antiquity as is revealed by some of the old stone buildings along the seafront.

Leaving the harbour behind, the road once again makes its way along the coast and passes through many small villages, mostly joined together to form a long, thin strip; then reaches Sanxenxo 124.4km from the start. There are many speed humps, but try to take your eyes off the racing as we pass the Nuevo Templo, a rather odd modern church with a many-tiered roof that makes it look a little like a Chinese temple as designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The road becomes the PO-504 as it passes a roundabout at the edge of the town and carries us north-west through more villages, wide and undemanding except for a few speed humps, then ends at a T-junction on the PO-550 where we turn right. This road is flatter, straighter and even less technical than the last, forming what is very much a transitional stage - the views as we cross the bridge near Cambados coming as something of a relief. The second intermediate sprint takes place along the Av. de Galicia in the town.

Sights from Cambados
Cambados is famous for its wine, called Albariño but nicknamed the Wine of the Sea as the salty and acidic local terroir make it especially suited to seafood - something else associated with the town, with the local shellfish being highly valued by gastronomes. We follow the PO-550 as it curves to the east and runs along the Estrada de Ribadumia. After a roundabout, it changes name to the PO-300; then we turn right 90 degrees onto the Estrada de Covas de los Lobos at Vilariño and come presently to Bouciña and Covas. A short way to the south-east is the Puente Barrantes, a wide modern bridge leading onward to A Escusa and a T-junction with the PO-9305 where we turn sharply left and then right almost immediately afterwards to join the Av. Rosalía de Castro or PO-9402. Having passed under an underpass beneath the AG-41we arrive at Meis San Martino, heading north-east to go back under the same road, which becomes twistier as we approach Meis. Reaching a roundabout at O Mosterio, we turn right onto the PO-300, past Meis and continue to the PO-531 where we turn right once again. The road is wide and easy, passing under the E-1 motorway a few times on the way to Devesa where the peloton turn left to join the PO-225. The road narrows slightly as it crosses a bridge just past the junction, the again as it rounds a bend and comes to the N-550.

At the junction, the race turns right opposite the Restaurante Corinto - potentially quite a hazardous bend, being very busy and thus having a likelihood of fuel spills and/or puncture-causing detritus from vehicle collisions - bringing the peloton back onto the Carretera Coruña a Tui for the final run back into Pontevedra. At a large roundabout they take the left exit to join the Av. de Santiago de Compostela, a wide and largely straight avenue leading to the grand Puente Santiago across the Rio Lerez. To the left can be seen the new Puente de los Tirantes, absolutely unique and perhaps the most beautiful bridge constructed in Europe during the last century. On the opposite bank we reach the Av. Buenos Aires and turn left, then right at a roundabout to join the Calle de José Malvar Figueroa before a tight left to the Calle del Doctor Laureiro Crespo. The finish comes after 167.3km on the Av. de Lugo.

Puente de los Tirantes. The single tower rises from a roundabout south of the bridge.
Local legend states that Pontevedra was founded by none other than Teucer, half-brother of Ajax and nephew of King Priam, one of the Greek heroes at Troy - the town hall still bears a carved plaque with a poem making such a claim. Legends don't necessarily need to be true, of course, which is fortunate as this one has been dispelled by archaeologists who can find no trace of a settlement of any size here prior to the 1st Century BCE. The Romans built a bridge - still in use, though reconstructed in medieval times - and made it an important city, which it remained into the Middle Ages. By the 15th Century it had become one of Galicia's economic and cultural centres, the shipyards generating vast wealth and building, among others, Columbus' Santa Maria. 

Convento de San Francisco
However, in the following centuries the port began to silt up and the ship building industry failed, taking much of the city's wealth with it. Galicia as a whole entered a period of decline as the rest of Spain entered the Renaissance, the population falling due to plague and skirmishes among noble families. By the 18th Century, it was less than half what it had been three centuries previously. By 1800, it was a provincial dead-end town, locals supporting themselves by fishing and farming, often at near-subsistence level. The turn-around came towards the end of the first quarter of the century when, having drawn up new boundaries for the provinces, the Spanish chose Pontevedra to be developed as a new regional administrative centre. As such, it gained a rail station, reconnecting it to the outside world from which it had been cut off once the harbour became unusable; and the economic and cultural recovery could really begin. By the middle of the 18th Century, Pontevedra became the hub of nascent attempts to revive the Galician language which had been all but replaced by Spanish - the world's first modern book in Galician, "A Gaita Gallega," was published here in 1853. As many as a third of the population can speak it today.

Praza de Lena
Despite starting the 20th Century with enormous potential to do well, cultural and industrial progress ground to a near halt during Franco's regime, though some new industries were established during the 1960s - most of them subsequently shut down due to the terrible environmental and health damage they caused. The city waited for freedom, and began to flourish once again following the advent of democracy in 1977. New buildings were constructed, bringing health and vibrancy back to the economy. During the 1990s, the city gained its first university which now attracts students from all corners of Spain and further afield, allowing the city to benefit still further from a multicultural society.

Among the multitude of sights, Pontevedra offers the Praza da Leña with its attractive mixture of buildings of varying ages; the Puente de los Tirantes; the Convento de San Francisco and the Museo Provincial de Pontevedra which houses a collection consisting of more than 16,000 works of art.

Predictions: Continuing our long history of successful stage winner predictions - we've got one right so far this year, and that one was so obviously going to be won by Rodriguez - we're going to point the finger of doom at Sylvain Chavanel today. Why? With no high mountains nor challenging climbs along the 167.3km parcours, this is the ideal sort of stage for a strong breakaway to whack up the tempo and build up a big gap between themselves and the main group. Of course, most of them will find the going gets too tough towards the end and fall back down the road to the peloton - or even the grupetto; but Chavanel is not as most riders and can keep going...and going...and going, right to the end.

Weather: Rain! Some people who watch the Vuelta are a bit surprised that it rains in Spain, but it does - and as we'll be spending a fair bit of our time on the plain today it's going to mainly rain on the race; or the first half of it at any rate, because it ought to lighten and clear up for the last 80km. Oh well. At least it'll be cool: highs of 20C are going to feel blissfully pleasant when compared to the hellish 35C+ temperatures recorded in the first few stages. In fact, we may even see riders reaching for jackets as the roll over the tops of the two Cat 3s - the predicted 16/17C up there can feel really quite chilly during a descent when wind-chill becomes a factor. You like echelons? Well, tomorrow could be a good opportunity to see them - crosswinds all the way will vary between light to moderate, almost certainly encouraging riders to adopt the tactic during those long low altitude sections. UPDATE: Reports from the finish line state it's beginning to rain with dark clouds and increasing wind - pointing to a possible storm later on.

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