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The high mountains are all ridden, but there's still plenty of climbing to be done in the 2011 Vuelta - a fair bit of it in today's Stage 18 with a total of 2110m of categorised ascending and plenty of extra uncategorised climbs to make sure everyone knows they've been working hard.
The people of Solares have evidently been hard at work praising the gods of cycling this year - they've been doubly blessed. Not only did they get to see an intermediate sprint on their streets yesterday, they also get to be the start town today.
With its light, airy buildings and wide avenues, Solares looks every inch the modern town: it could easily have been designed from scratch by a philanthropist architect in the 20th Century as an example of an ideal Utopian community, but this is as a result of good management - it's in fact much older, as proved by the existence of the early medieval period Pico Castillo, assorted private houses dating from the 12th Century, the 17th Century Palacio de los Marqueses de Valbuena and the vast early 19th Century spa, restored and modernised in recent years to form an up-to-date resort.
|Juan Antonio de Saro y Galban
A roundabout in the middle of La Penilla shouldn't cause problems as the peloton won't turn here, but it's slightly off the centreline of the entering and exiting roads and thus could conceivably clip the wheels of any rider either not quite awake yet of pushed onto it by the sheer weight of numbers still making up the pack at this early stage in the race. The next village, La Cueva, derives its name not from a cavern but from the Latin name of the Roman road that connected the Bay of Santander to the iron ore mines of Peña Cabarga. To leave the village, the route turns left and then right to get onto the N-634a leading to Villabáñez after 17.7km, passing by the beautiful Colegiata de la Santa Cruz at Socobio. There are five speed humps along the road traveling through, then easily the ugliest bridge we've seen so far in this year's Vuelta carries over the river and into Vargas. An very tight left at the roundabout in the middle of town leads south-east along the N-623, following the river for a while as it winds its way through the green landscape, then arrives at Puente Viesgo 22km from the start. This beautiful little town with a very fine church stands on a stretch of river that, with its white water rushing between rocks, surpasses everything man-made along its banks. We pass by one bridge, the Gran Hotel and a second bridge before leaving the town and continuing onward to Aes, negotiating a roundabout halfway between the two communities.
The initial part of the descent is fast and, with fairly gentle curves, not too technical. However, it reaches hairpins very soon; the first arriving 1km after the forest is left behind and the second 0.4km futher on. Neither are especially steep, but both are tight with the second being the more difficult of the two and bending through more than 180 degrees before straightening out. A very tight left, around 100 degrees, lies 0.2km ahead; then there are 1.4km of gentle curves and fast descending to the next hairpins. The first is easy; the second drops 14m and is very tight - and is surrounded by trees, making it potentially slippery and very hazardous indeed: if it's raining or has rained in the past few hours, crashes can be virtually guaranteed at this point. One final hairpin comes after another 1.5km of high-speed downhilling - this one is much less steep than the last, but is tight and again surrounded by trees. Combine these factors with the high speeds at which riders will enter the section and crashes are very likely here too. There's a tight left after 0.3km, then we approach Selaya along a road almost perfectly straight with the exception of a slight left and a 45 degree right as we enter the town.
The route passes by the high, mountainous landscape to the east and travels by Ajanedo - site of the Cueva de El Salitre, a cave with paintings dating from the Upper Palaeolithic, a period lasting between 30,000 and 11,000 years before the present. The road ahead through a gorge, as the CA-641 joins from the left, may seem familiar - it's the same section with ten hairpins in half a kilometre that we passed by yesterday. The road joins the route which enters a deep gorge leading to Mirones and through another - perhaps even more impressive due to the greater height of the cliffs either side - gorge, and reaches Mortesante 185.5km from the start. A 90 degree left comes a little later, followed by straight sections towards Rubalcaba. A 90 degree left comes a little later, followed by straight sections towards Rubalcaba - a little village made famous by the la Casa de Miera-Rubalcaba, a house declared to be of Interés Cultural - Cultural Interest - in 1994. The road into Liérganes, a short way ahead, is extremely narrow en route for the centre of the village, potentially causing a pile-up and crashes, but then opens up again before leaving and heading towards a roundabout. The peloton turn right here onto a route that the road book says is the CA-640 but our maps call the CA-651, heading into Hermosa and including a hairpin along the way. There's a series of tricky bends on the way through the village, then the route straightens out as it approaches Valdecilla.
|A cannon, cast in La Cavada, mounted on two pedestals
formed from blast furnace slag in the town's Parque de
|Panoramic view of Puerto Ailsas
|Iglesia Ruperstre de San Juan
Having passed through the centre of Arredondo, the route rounds a medium left and 90 degree right on the edge of the town followed by a second medium left leading onto a straight section running along the perimeter of a forest. A medium right - potentially hazardous due to the trees - comes after 1.4km; then a medium right enters a poker straight section into Riba. The intermediate sprint begins here with 134.3km ridden since the end of the neutral zone, then the peloton turn a 90 degree left corner to join up with the CA-266. The Cat 3 Puerto de la Cruz Usaño climb with a 235m ascent in 3km begins here.
|Landscape near Matienzo
Matienzo, 138km from the start, is a place of very special interest to geologists. It sits in a large flat area surrounded on all sides by high crags, the flat land having been created by the process of clay decalcification over many millions of years. The mountains are limestone and riddled with caves. In many places, it's possible to see short streams emerge from the ground and run along the surface for a short distance before disappearing into deep holes dissolved into the limestone. Having left the village behind, the race passes to the right of Cueto and, after 5km, begins the final climb: Cat 3 Puerto de Fuente las Varas with 310m of climbing in 4.6km. A medium left in forest leads to a gentle right and the first hairpin, a wide right-hander with a 90 degree right 0.25km ahead. Two sweeping lefts lead to a medium right, then a medium left leads up to the second - also unchallenging - hairpin and a relatively straight 0.92km stretch ending at a medium right. The summit, 450m above sea level, lies at the junction with the S-550 1.1km later where we turn left.
|Puerto de Fuente las Varas (from Foro-Ciudad)
The initial part of the descent is fast and non-technical until we reach El Portillo with a sharp 90 degree left, followed by another unchallenging stretch to just past Redolfo and a second 90 degree left. Both are surrounded by open land and so may prove very slippery due to mud on the road surface following rain. A sweeping right leads towards a junction with the CA-652 where the parcours continues straight ahead, arriving at what could be a very hazardous right-hander hairpin 0.56km later: the combination of high entry speed, tightness of the bend, steepness of descent (nearly 15m) and trees on a higher level than the exit will mean that extreme caution needs to be exercised here and crashes are very likely. The route follows the edge of the forest for a short while, turning 90 degrees left as it leaves the trees behind; turning three more similar bends in the next 0.6km. A gentle right leads onto a straight 3.1km run through Solorzano and into Hazas de Cesto 157.4km from the start. As we leave the village, the road becomes the CA-269.
|You don't see this at Benidorm! The often deserted beaches
of Cantabria, such as this one at Noja, have a charm very
hard to find at the tourist traps
Predictions: The last of the difficult stages are done, and this time on Tuesday night we pretty much all expected Juan Jose Cobo to have secured his overall GC victory with a ride up the Pena Carbarga as good as the one he managed up Angliru. However, a certain Chris Froome had other ideas, securing a remarkable stage win in which he showed the cunning of a ninja and the sneakiness of a ferret to slip past Geox's new hero with only metres to spare even as the commentators were announcing Cobo's victory and also ensuring that several riders have everything to play for as we move into the final stages of the race.
Cobo can still win - he remains race leader and has a respectable lead. However, Froome isn't very far behind and, if he can put in two or three of the sort of performances of which he's left us in doubt he's capable, he could just find himself on the top step of the podium in Madrid. On the other hand, his team captain Bradley Wiggins is also not too far behind - we don't think this year's Vuelta is Brad's, but it could happen. We'll be putting our money on Chris though.
In saying that, there are still a few decent climbs to go and there's still a possibility that a climber could take this one. Moncoutie, perhaps?
Weather: Much the same as the last few days - temperatures ranging from 22C at the start down to 18C at the highest points and up to 23C at the lowest. The wind will be changeable - expect a gentle tailwind for the first 40km, encouraging high speeds which could help prevent breakaway attempts. This will change to a gentle crosswind for the first pair of mountains, changing again to a headwind for the following 20km or so. A gentle tailwind will assist on the way up the third mountain before a headwind for the rest of the stage makes the final push to the finish line require that little bit more effort. Once again, no rain is expected anywhere on the parcours and it should remain sunny throughout.
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