Tuesday 9 August 2011

Vuelta a España - Stage 2 Preview

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The 175.5 Stage 2, starting with the Vuelta's first ever visit to La Nucia in Alicante, is almost entirely flat with the exception of the race's first mountain - Category 3 Alto del Relleu. Though just a short way from Benidorm, La Nucia nestles in a valley of fruit trees and has a distinct lack of the sort of rowdy nightspots offered by its better-known neighbour, meaning that it's visited only by tourists seeking the quieter, real Spain. It was probably the fruit from the town that gave rise to its name - La Nucia comes from the Arabic naziha which means delicious, revealing the Moorish history of the area.

La Nucia
The population of La Nucia fell from almost 5000 at the turn of the last century to 1400 in 1922, due to large-scale emigration from this part of Spain to Algiers. It took many years to recover, but since 1981 when it was home to 3419 numbers have risen fast. La Nucia is now home to more than 15,000 people, many of them Spaniards who have grown rich from the tourist traps on the coast and many others British and German who have built retirement properties here - around 40% of the local population were not born in Spain. It has the feel of a large and vibrant country town which comes as a pleasant relief following the skyscrapers and commercialisation of Benidorm. Despite the rapid growth, La Nucia has kept the distict flavour of a Spanish town and many of the narrow streets are lined with houses in the traditional style painted in bright colours.

Many Spaniards in the locale remain dependent on agriculture, though an even greater number now work in the tourist industry. Almonds, olives and citrus fruits grow in picturesque groves around the town. It now also has a university, housed in a remarkable building that combines the traditional vernacular style with clean, modern additions reminiscent of Le Corbusier - the result is pleasing. Those visiting the town shouldn't miss the Fuente la Favara garden park with its waterfall, where locals gather in the shade under the trees to share food and wine. The race leaves town on the CV-767, negotiating a pair of roundabouts before it reaches the N-332, a road of which we'll be seeing plenty today; and then via more roundabouts onto the CV-770 just north of Benidorm at a point offering excellent views over the resort which has more skyscrapers per capita than anywhere else on Earth. The N-332 passes La Cala and Villajoyosa.

Villajoyosa also has an unusual history. Having been inhabited since the Bronze Age, it became an important town under the Romans who built recently-discovered baths, villas and a garrison here. Then in the early  Middle Ages, it was entirely deserted, leaving just a few small hamlets in the hills surrounding the town. Its strategic value was recognised in the 14th Century when Jaime II of Aragon began to develop it as a fort controlling the coastline from invading Moors and troublesome pirates, which began to attract aristocratic families to the area. The fortifications were added to and improved during the 16th Century and many parts are still extant, some of the best in the region - the Torre del Aguila (Tower of Eagles) is an especially good example. A hundred and fifty years later, the Moors had relinquished all hold and ambition on Spain and the pirates had been suppressed which led to the town's expansion outside the walls and it began to grow, now standing at almost 35,000, many of them employed by the chocolate factories which provide as much income to the town as does tourism. The Museo chocolates Valor is worth a visit, but perhaps best avoided by those on weight-loss diets. Here, the route turns right into the mountains and past a large lake.

The Sierra de Aitana foothills seen from near Orxeta.
After 21km, the peloton reaches Orxeta. Like most towns in the region, Orxeta has a Moorish history. However, while Moors and Christians were persecuting one another throughout Spain during the Middle Ages (and both persecuting the Jews) Orxeta provides an unusual example of medieval tolerance - following his suppression of a Muslim revolt during the 13th Century, King Jaime I forgave those Moors living in Orxeta and permitted them the right to live in peace provided they in future obeyed him and paid their taxes. By the early 17th Century, there were more than 200 Muslim households in the town; contributing enormously to the local culture. Unfortunately, following riots and intolerance elsewhere in the country, Spain expelled its Muslims in 1609 which reduced them to just 45 households three years later. The Moors left a castle, now ruined but picturesque.

Orxeta's Christian population grew during the 18th Century, almost quadrupling to over a thousand people by the end of the century but then began a gradual decline, falling to around 400 by the end of the 20th Century. Since then, tourism has brought new people to the area - as is the case at La Nucia, some newly-wealthy Spaniards and some foreigners; and the population is now 875. Sadly, as tourists are beginning to discover the little town and ugly new villas are going up in response, it is likely to lose much of its charm in the coming years. The economy is currently largely agricultural, based on citrus, almonds, carob and grapes both for eating and wine production. In addition to the castle, sights include El Estrecho, a narrow gorge, the caves in the surrounding hills and the Festival of St. Nazaire and St. Thomas of Villanova in late September. Orxeta is exited on the C-770, continuing for a few kilometres to the CV-775 carrying the peloton to the next town through rolling hills.

Casa Fortificada la Garrofera
After 29km, the parcours reaches Alto de Relleu, at Category 3 the only categorised climb on this otherwise flat stage, a long and not very steep ascent from 275m to 450m, taking the peloton into one of the most pleasing settings for any of the towns along today's route - that of Relleu; a town with just over a thousand inhabitants that sits in a valley surrounded by mountains rising up to 1200m. Relleu's Roman importance was unknown until one Dr. Alejandro Sendra unearthed a grave marker on his property in the town, which prompted exploratory digs and geophysical work. Not only have these turned up many Roman discoveries, they have also drawn attention to the remains of an Iberian industrial site predating the Romans by at least four hundred years. There is also a ruined 11th Century Moorish castle, built by the ancestors of those Moors in the area who, following the Expulsion in 1609, refused to leave the country they had inhabited for centuries and fled into the mountains, resisting attempts to remove them for many years. Their influence can still be felt in the narrow streets of the centre, which have far more of the look and soul of an Arabian souk than a European town. Look out for the bilingual roadsigns in the area, written in both Spanish and the Catalan language Valencian and the Casa Fortificada la Garrofera, a large house that was at some point fortified and now has turrets placed halfway up its corners. The route passes right through along narrow, windy streets.

15km from Relleu is Aigües, where there was once a large and important castle of which just one tower now remains. The town is home to a holiday resort, currently being renovated, where the majority of happy visitors probably remain unaware that having started life as a spa taking advantage of the natural aquifers in the area and much frequented by aristocratic types in the early 19th Century, it became a sanitorium for children with tuberculosis in the days when that terrible disease was untreatable and, as such, must have been the site of the horrible deaths of many children. The name comes from the aquifiers, aigües being the Valencian word for water, and the spa was known as Aigües de Busot, the Waters of Busot, after the nearest town. In time, the spa became so successful that it grew large and swallowed up Busot which is now just a neighbourhood. The aristocratic presence has left many fine old villas and mansions in the town, many of them still standing.

Campello's watchtower.
Campello, home to 30,000, is the next large town on the route; where the peloton will arrive after 56km from the start. Campello is of particular interest for the Illeta dels Banyets, lying just off the coast and which until the construction of a causeway in the 1940s was an island. Also known as La Isleta, this little island no more than 190m long and 60m was inhabited  from before 3000BCE right up until the Middle Ages and has, at various times, been home to a huge variation of temples and other buildings. It was home to a fish processing facility constructed by the Iberian culture long before the Romans arrived and then a thermal bath, a fish farm and a temple once they'd taken control. Remains of a temple dedicated to the Phoenician goddess Tanit have also been located as have traces of Moorish inhabitation lasting up until the 11th Century when the island was abandoned, remaining uninhabited every since. Like the other towns along this coastline, Campello suffered numerous raids by Barbary pirates in the past and so the watchtower - which still stands and is remarkably well-preserved - was constructed in the middle of the 16th Century. Campello's tourist industry is boosted by the town's port which, in the summer, can be home to as many a 70,000 temporary residents who sail in from all around the Mediterranean and further afield. The peloton crosses a bridge just outside the town.

Alicante, with the port.
The race approaches Alicante along part of the 6.2km  Playa de San Juan beach. This is an area with a very long history - archaeological finds reveal inhabitation 7000 years ago. It had become an important place by Classical times, handily placed to take advantage of trade, and was a result the scene of much conflict between the Romans and the Carthaginians - the latter naming the town Akra Leuka ("White Mountain") which some claim is the root of the modern name (others say it's from the Arabic term for "city of lights").

With the decline of Rome, Alicante came under the control of the Visigoths for a brief period until the entire eastern coastline and southern Spain was conquered by the Moors during the 8th Century and then became part of Valencia in the 13th Century, following the Reconquista which ended Moorish control in the preceding century, under King Jaime II. The castle, still standing on a rocky outcrop high above the modern skyscrapers. During the 15th Century, it became one of the most important trading posts in the Mediterranean region, with vast amounts of oil, rice and other goods passing through each year, with each trade subject to taxation.

The city remained subject to regular and costly pirate raids, however, so in the early 17th Century King Filipe III issued a decree ordering the expulsion from Spain of all moriscos (Moors who had converted - either genuinely or who continued to follow Islam secretly) who, with some justification, were seen as being sympathetic towards the pirates. This proved an extremely unwise move and proved to the aristocracy that they depended on the lower classes for their wealth - with more than a fifth of the workforce gone, Alicante entered a period of decline and several aristocratic families found themselves bankrupt. The decline was hastened during the 18th Century when Alicante gave its backing to the wrong side in the War of Succession, a decline that persisted right up until end of the 19th Century when international trade brought more ships to the area and especially during the First World War when, due to its neutral status, Spain became one of Europe's most important trading centres.

Alicante today, with the ancient castle standing high above the city
It was heavily bombed during the Civil War, including one especially horrific attack by the Italians during which 300 civilians were killed. The years under Franco were of course difficult, as they were elsewhere in the country but especially so here as the city had been the last of those supporting the Republican government to fall to Franco's forces, leading to punitive action. However, even the Falange Party could see that there was money to be made by attracting foreigners to the region and began to develop it as a resort from the 1950s onwards. This process continued following Franco's death and Spain's shift to modern democracy under Juan Carlos I, helped no end by cheaper flights and an increased willingness among tourists to visit what was no longer a fascist regime. Hotels were built and businesses sprang up or opened new branches in the city to take advantage of the ever-increasing numbers of visitors, gradually transforming the ancient city into the wealthy, modern metropolis it is today. Other sights to look out for include Plaza de los Luceros with a central fountain that resembles a British Eleanor Cross, Basílica de Santa María, Iglesia de Santa María, Monasterio de Santa Faz and the Central Market.

Santa Pola - the name is popularly supposed to have from Saint Paul but is more likely to have come from the Latin palus, meaning a wetland or bog - is a city of almost 33,000 people reached on the N-332. Like Alicante has a port and a castle. However, it is far less developed than Alicante and, as a result, far more beautiful. Remains found in the numerous caves along the rocky coastline reveal inhabitation as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic era and archaeologists have discovered many Neolithic artifacts nearby, most notably at the delightfully named Cueva de las Arañas del Carabassí ("The Cave of the Spiders"). Later, it became an important trading port for the Iberians with ships passing to and from Greece regularly. The Romans, who left a necropolis among other features, continued to use the town in this way - the Emperor Majorian's fleet docked here whilst preparing to set sail to attack the Vandals, but was burned before leaving. The town was abandoned following the decline of the Empire, though there is evidence that it was used by the Visigoth fleet up until the 7th Century. The first post-Classical documents to mention the town date from the last 13th Century and fortifications including the Torre de Tamarit ("Tower of Tamarit"), restored to its original state in 2009 in a project that arguably destroyed its Romantic beauty. The castle, Castillo-Fortaleza de Santa Pola, was begun in 1557, like most along this coast in response to pirate raids. It now houses two museums, one devoted to the history of Santa Pola and the other to fishing and seafaring.

La Torre de Tamarit in 2006... and 2010, post-restoration.
Once through Santa Pola, the parcours turns inland towards Elche along the CV-865, a 16km road with several roundabouts - however, since most are in open areas there has been sufficient room to construct them with straight carriageways bisecting the central island, thus reducing the hazard for the peloton. The route through the city is complex with may turns and roundabouts, eventually exiting along the CV-855 towards Dolores where, on the C-3321, the riders come to the intermediate sprint. A few kilometres on the reach Daya Vieja, a small town completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1829 and not rebuilt for almost 30 years. It's a small town with very little grand architecture, but the central street - along which the riders pass - is pretty. They will leave on the CV-901, negotiating a big roundabout with tight turns on the edge of town before making their way to another roundabout where they turn right onto the CV-860 heading south and soon arrive at the complex junction with the CV-910 heading east over a wide bridge crossing a narrow river - the river has wide, green banks either side, suggesting it's not always narrow - and on towards Guardamar de Segura on the coast.

Castillo de Guardamar del Segura
The northern end of Guardamar is separated from the the sea by an unexpected pine forest, the result of attempts in the early 20th Century to halt the erosion of sand dunes. However, the trees rapidly invaded nearby fields and took over large tracts of land, leaving them as the dominant feature in the area today - they're really quite attractive and it'll be a great pity if they ever give way to high rise hotels and tourist traps. When looking at a map of Guardamar, it's immediately obvious that the town is laid out on a rigid grid pattern with few deviations from the north-south and east-west covention. This is not due to Roman origins, but stems from the town having to be completely rebuilt following the same 1829 earthquake that destroyed Daya Vieja and which left 3000 people in Guardamar homeless - it was also responsible for destroying the ancient upper parts of the castle, though the more recent gothic walls below still remain. Many of the new buildings are constructed with masonry recycled from the old town, so it's not unusual to see an ancient stone arch incorporated into the structure of a much more modern house.

The parcours passes along the western edge of the town on the N-332 and past La Laguna de La Mata and Laguna de Torrevieja, a pair of vast saltwater lakes used since ancient times for salt production, before reaching Torrevieja which is located 155km from the start line. Changing onto the CV-898 leading into the town, travelling along the Carreterre del Torrejón, C. de la Mata, Avenue de Alfred Nobel and Av. Dr. Mariano Ruiz Casanova, closely following the beautiful rocky beaches before turning into town and using a road a street away from the beach. Another beach section brings the peloton to the Paseo de la Libertad which runs around the harbour, then onto the Av Desiderio Rodriguez with numerous raised traffic-calming bumps before it reaches the roundabout at which the peloton turns right onto the CV-95. This road then passes under a fly-over carrying the N-332 before reaching a roundabout where the riders will turn left onto a sliproad joining the road they've just passed under and continuing south towards the end of the stage.

Torre del Moro
Torrevieja is named after the many observation towers located along the coastline, built before the modern town began to spring up in the early 19th Century - the late 18th Century Iglesia Arciprestal de la Inmaculada Concepción church makes use of one of these towers, using it as part of its own structure. Other features worth watching for are the Torre del Moro, believed to date from the 14th Century and likely built on the site of an older structure; the 18th Century salt warehouse and the modernist casino built in 1896.

The N-332 passes through first countryside and then built-up areas, soon reaching Dehesa de Campoamor - sadly not the most attractive point along the stage, as uncontrolled development aimed at bringing tourists to the area between the 1960s and 1990s has destroyed much of the area's natural beauty and historic buildings. The route then passes via a tight corner down to the Playas de Orihuela where the stage ends. With a straight final section up to the finish line, the race is likely to finish with a sprint.

Predictions: It can be very hard to predict the outcome of a stage so early in a three-week stage race - in fact, it can be very hard at any time in a sport such as cycling, which is why our predictions so infrequently prove correct - and it's harder still on a course such as this one. With the exception of that Cat 3 in the first third, it looks set to be a day for the sprinters - provided all the sprinters get up and over the climb in good shape, that is. In fact, should one of them managed to really blast the rest into the weeds as the finish line approaches, it's just feasible that we could see a sprinter in yellow tomorrow. There is, of course, a certain Manxman who is capable of doing that in the final seconds. He hates climbing, but the mountain is early in the stage and he has remarkable powers of recovery. If he manages it, he will join the elite band of riders who have won stages in all three Grand Tours during a single year - a nice addition to his already impressive list of achievements, and a handy way to let young pretender Marcel Kittel know who the daddy is.

Weather: La Nucia, Orxeta, Aigües, Alicante, Elche, Dolores, Guardamar de Segura: 33C, sunny, wind 24kmph east. Punta Prima: 31C, sunny, 26kmph wind east.

Hot enough to bother those who dislike it, riding humidity through the day will make it begin to feel uncomfortable later on though the stiff breeze will improve matters in that respect. However, the wind is just enough to cause problems, especially on open sections such as along seafronts.

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