Tuesday 9 August 2011

Vuelta a España - Stage 5 Preview

For those of you unfamiliar with the
breed, this is a Unimog - the most "go
anywhere" of 4x4 vehicles.
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The Vuelta organisers call this a plain stage, which does rather raise the possibility that some of the mountain stages this year are going to need to be completed in Mercedes Unimogs rather than on bicycles - one uncategorised climb, one Cat 3, a Cat 2 climbed twice and two sections with 23% and 27% gradients isn't exactly the dictionary definition of "flat."

The fun begins right where we left off yesterday at the Sierra Nevada ski resort, with the neutral zone coming to an end just outside Granada. Granada is unusual for a city in this part of the world due to there being no evidence of a settlement here during Classical times - in fact, though there have been many discoveries showing towns and villages nearby date from the Bronze Age and earlier, there is no trace of Granada before the 7th Century CE, merely tiny villages where it now stands. Then, having got going, it appears to have been largely abandoned during the 8th Century. The Moors adopted it early in the 11th Century, establishing a city they called Madinat Garnata around the base of what remained of the 7th Century fortress. By the end of the century, they had created a large urban area and it was becoming one of the most important cities in the region.

Though besieged by Christian forces as the end of the Moorish period, Granada's defences and fortifications proved too strong and the city did not fall to them, passing into Christian ownership only as part of capitulations made by the Moors following overall defeat elsewhere. At first, Granada's Muslims were treated extraordinarily fairly by their new rulers, being permitted religious freedom and Islamic courts - even the first archbishop, Hernando de Talavera, was possessed of an attitude that seems strikingly modern: he apparently believed that Christians and Muslims were equal, held Islam in very high esteem and even learned Arabic, though he did so at least partially to assist him in his attempts to convert Moors to Catholicism. That respect, of course, could not last long in the viciously intolerant Middle Ages, and just seven years later a programme of forced conversions, conversion of mosques into the churches and widespread burning of Islamic holy texts began. The Moors were understandably not best pleased about this and riots broke out across the city, those involved being violently and bloodily suppressed and the entire Moorish community harshly punished. In 1502, they were banished from the city they had themselves created and then from all Spain 107 years later.

It may not have stood for as long as many Spanish cities, but Granada has packed a very great deal of history into its centuries. It was already famous for its many fine buildings during the 16th Century and kings of the time put vast financial resources into maintaining its splendour, this being the reason that so much still survives. Among its many jewels are the Catedral y Capilla Real, begun in 1518; the Monasterio de San Jerónimo, begun in 1504and the Palacio de Carlos V with its enormous circular central courtyard. There is, however, one structure in Granada that attracts more tourists than all the rest combined, possibly more than all the other buildings in Spain combined - the Alhambra, so famous that it's become a symbol of the nation. Moorish poets called it "a pearl set among emeralds," inspired by the forests that surround it on its perch above the city and it remains to this day the finest example of medieval Muslim architecture in Europe, despite the modifications made under Christian rule and the damage done accidentally, neglectfully and deliberately during the long period that it was but forgotten before being rediscovered in the 19th Century.

The Alhambra
The first historical reference to the site occurs late in the 9th Century, when a small group of Moors took refuge in a small castle. However, the castle proved weak and they were soon over-run by their enemy, so it once again fell out of use for over a hundred years until a small Jewish community living on the hill was permitted by the Moors to restore it in an effort to protect themselves. Restoration did not improve its defensive capabilities and the castle fell again - but not before the strategic potential of the site had been recognised; during the 13th Century under the reign of Ibn Nasr it was havily developed and gained no fewer than six palaces, massive walls, gardens, mosques, bath-houses and everything its fortunate residents might ever require.

Two large roundabouts on the N-432 just after the end of the neutral zone may cause problems as the peloton will still be large and tightly-packed. There are a few others nearer Atarfe, but the road shouldn't cause any issues.

Atarfe, north-west of Granada, is far smaller; but it too has much to see including a contemporary Temple to the Sun, resembling a modernistic reinterpretation of Stonehenge, and a park named in honour of Pink Floyd. It goes without saying that the hippy movement remains popular in Atarfe. The parcours then follows the N-432, taking it past the foot of  dramatic Monte El Piorno that looms 500m above the road before entering Pinos Puente 10km from the start line. The road out crosses a flat region, offering excellent views of the mountains, arriving in Venta Algarra after another 10km and Puerto Lope - "The Gate of Wolves" - after 14km, where picturesque ruined watchtowers stand on high outcrops. Once the town is left behind, the peloton face a 20km section through the arid fields which would support few plants were it not for the extensive irrigation projects which allow groves of fruit trees, the basis of the economy throughout this part of Spain. The road is wide and untechnical, but dust may make the tighter bends slippery as it heads towards Alcala la Real.

Alcala la Real
Leaving the N-432, the route turns right onto the Carretera de Granada which in turn leads to the Av. de Andalucia from which it's possible to see the fortified citadel known as La Mota above the town. There are twelve watchtowers - from an original 15 - dotted around the town, reflecting the enormous strategic importance in times past when several trade routes passed through, one of them being located at La Mota. These towers were constructed  during the 10th Century as a defence against the Vikings who would sail all the way from Scandinavia, such was the wealth of this region. The road into the town is not especially demanding, though there's a roundabout shortly before a tight right turn into the Calle de Miguel Hernandez, then a sharp left onto the Av. de Europa which leads onto the Calle de la Carrera de la Mercedes (with even better views of La Mota across a small park). As soon as the riders reach the Calle de las Tejuelas, they're on the N-432A which, after another tight left, leads out of town.

Traces of ancient dwellings on the Cabeza Baja de
Encina Hermosa.
The altitude descends as far as a junction with the JA-4304, then begins to rise again through a pair of easy Z-bends. It reaches 940m just as a hairpin carries the road around the mountain, its summit 300m higher, with excellent views over the Cabeza Baja de Encina Hermosa, a steep-sided wide plateau where many archaeologically important artifacts have been discovered. As this is an uncategorised climb, there are no points to be won. During the descent, the peloton doubles back on itself at a fork in the road and takes the A-6050 towards Castillo de Locubín; entry to the town requiring several fast bends. The road through is wide and uncomplicated, with the potential exception of four bends roughly in the middle of town, three more on the northern edge and one just outside.

"Locubin" comes from the Moorish name for the town, Hisn al-Uqbin; translated variously as the castle of the eagles or the castle of the caves; the latter seeming more likely due to the many caves in the surrounding mountains, where decorated pottery was left by shepherds 2400 years ago. The castle itself, topped by decorative palm trees and looking more Arabic than plenty of Middle Eastern fortresses, has rather ugly modern houses built right up against its walls yet still manages to be imposing. As soon as they've left the town behind, the riders begin the ascent of Cat 2 Alto de Valdepeñas.

Los Villares, seen from high in the surrounding mountains.
After rounding a series of very simple sweeping hairpins, the peloton pass by some small wooded patches before the road climbs more steeply, then heads onto a slightly gentler climb up to the the summit - 1090m - 67km from the start. The descent into Valdepeñas de Jaén is fast and technical with particular hazards on the bends just before and after the first forested section after the summit where the road travels beside a ravine, a hairpin approximately 0.5km further on and a right-hand bend 1km before Valdepeñas de Jaén's outskirts. The route through town makes use of the Calle del Obispo and Calle del Vilches, with sections rated at gradients 12, 15 and 23% before the intermediate sprint. Once back out into the open countryside, a series of hairpins carries the road up to almost 1180m before the parcours begins to drop downwards through more hairpins. This is another very beautiful section with superb views to the villages in the valleys, but it's technical with some demanding stretches around bends and through wooded parts so the riders will need to concentrate on the road rather than admire the scenery. Los Villares is approached from the south, the A-6050 carrying the peloton straight through before a difficult right bend - near industrial units, hence the possibility of diesel and other hazards on the road - and towards Jaén, 9km away and 103.5km from the start.

After a few kilometres, the road enters a section where it clings precariously to a mountainside. On the left, the mountain rises to almost 1300m, on the right it drops 30m. An apparently abandoned tunnel, barricaded off with armco, leads into the mountain. Mountains can be seen up ahead as the riders pass by Vadillos and Jabalcuz before turning east and, after a short distance, coming to a roundabout where they take the left exit to enter Jaén along the Ctra Javalcruz. The Ctra. de Circunvalación ring road takes them to the JA-303.

Jaen, with the castle to the left and the cathedral to the right.
With 117,000 residents, Jaén is a reasonably-sized city full of steep streets that give it an attractive and medieval air in parts. The origins of the name are uncertain, but it may come from the Latin gaien, meaning "green," but it may also come from the Ladino (the language of the Sephardic Jewish people, like Yiddish an early international language) variant of the Hebrew "Dayan," the name given to a rabbi highly skilled in Jewish law and thus qualified to preside over a beit din court - the city was home to a very famous beit din known as Hasdai ibn Shaprut (after its founder) in the 10th Century. The city's history extends far back into prehistoric times with many Neolithic and Iberian finds in the area, along with Classical discoveries including Roman mosaics and the Roman origins of the Arabic Baths. However, the city was not under Roman control until the time of Vespasian, at various other times in the ownership of Carthaginians - including Hannibal, who built fortifications here.

The Cathedral at Jaen.
Following the decline of the Roman Empire, the city passed into the hands of the Visigoths - however, their forces were never particularly strong in the region, perhaps because they appear not to have considered it of especial importance despite the wealth and strategic value of the city; leading to frequent rebellions organised by the Hispano-Roman nobles. The Moors, meanwhile, recognised it as a prize worth having immediately, and began to develop and improve it as soon as they'd conquered Spain, building numerous mosques, the castle and canals to irrigate the surrounding land. A period of conflict saw it pass into Christian hands during the 13th Century. After the 15th Century, Jaén entered a long period of decline. It was invaded and conquered by French troops during the War of Independence, which saw the castle converted into a garrison and many of the city's remaining treasures sacked, then experienced some of the worst horrors of the Civil War including mass executions and bombing by Nazi aircraft. Finally, in the middle of the 20th Century once democracy took hold in Spain, things started to look up.

Jewish Quarter, Jaen.
Among the many historical sites in the city are the ancient Jewish quarter, known as the Barrio de Santa Cruz, where there is the wonderfully-named el Callejón del Gato ("Cat-Faced Alley"), the Iglesia de San Andrés which was originally a synagogue and a superb street lamp in the shape of a menorah; the medieval walls; the castle, known as Santa Catalina and the 13th Century Basílica de San Ildefonso. There is also much impressive modern architecture including the regional headquarters of the Ministry of the Environment, Caja de Jaén, El Corte Inglés and several fine buildings on the University campus.

The peloton leave the city along the JA-3303, which involves numerous raised traffic-calming bumps and roundabouts before reaching a bridge over and junction with the A-316 which heads west, taking the race past Torredelcampo and on to towards a large junction with a sharp left corner and a roundabout where the riders join the JA-3309 heading south into Jamilena. The Calle Virgen de Estrella leads to a right turn, potentially hazardous, into the Av. de Andalucia and the Calle María Axuliadora. A bend to the right on the southern edge of the town is another potential hazard. Jamilena is home to la Capilla de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno where a beautiful painting of Christ, dated to 1883 and a copy of an earlier work, was discovered. It subsequently vanished during the Civil War and hasn't been seen since, presumably being added to someone's spoils and now locked away in a private collection.

Martos. The ruined castle can just be seen atop The
Rock, especially if you click on the image to
get the larger version :-)
There are impressive views south-east to the steep-sided mountains and a quarry along the JA-3309, which has few hazards other than some gentle bends and a tight left into the town, at which point the ruined castle standing almost 1000m above sea level on The Rock can best be seen. Martos has what is possibly one of the most complicated road networks anywhere in Europe, so it's fortunate that the Vuelta's route along the Av. de Jaén, Calle Santa Lucia, Callede Dolores Escobedo and Av. de la Fuente de la Villa is relatively straight-forward, though not without technical sections created by corners - especially that onto the Av. de la Fuente de la Villa - along with several speed bumps, a roundabout and a narrow passage along the Calle del Teniente General Chamorro Martinez. The peloton passes the bullring, with which Martos like many Spanish towns mars its beauty with blood and suffering, heading south-west to the junction with the A-316.

Torre del Homenaje
The castle, Castillo de la Peña de Martos, is of 14th Century construction and was built upon the ruins of a Moorish fortress, itself built on top of ancient Iberian ruins - it can only be reached on foot and then only with difficulty, locals recommending tourists allow at least 40 minutes either way; which demonstrates how difficult getting anywhere near it would have been in the days when attempting to do so meant avoiding arrows and other missiles. According to legend, it was here that the Brothers Carvajales, charged with treachery that had cost King Fernando IV an important battle. He sentenced the brothers to be enclosed within a spike-lined iron cage which would then be thrown off The Rock. However, the brothers continued to proclaim their innocence and, just before their execution was due, informed all present that the King would be summoned to appear before G-d to answer to his actions within the next 30 days. Fernando died on the 7th of September 1312, precisely 30 days after the brothers. The Castillo de la Villa de Martos, located in the town, is one of many other medieval defensive buildings in the town, including the Torre del Homenaje, the Torre Albarrana, the Torre Almedina and the remains of the city walls which once connected them.

The A-316 is largely straight as it heads south-west, really not the most interesting of roads as it passes through the monotonous landscape. Fortunately, it's not long before the peloton turns left onto the A-6051 and heads towards Venta de Pantalones - a town with a name that those English-speakers with a knowledge of Spanish will already be wondering about - where the second intermediate sprint begins. Two hairpins and a bend take the race 30m higher before the road climbs up through a twisty section towards Alcaudete with a population of 11,000, mainly employed in the farming and processing of olives. Every town and city through which the parcours travels in this stage seems to have a castle, but few are as impressive as Alcaudete's Castillo-Palacio with its 40m-tall tower. Built in the 12th Century, recreated as a palace in the 16th and then partially destroyed by an earthquake in the 18th after being used for some years as a hospital, the building later became the property of the family that stills owns it and who have spent much money and effort preserving it. Below the castle are several tunnels, leading down to the town. That this was a wealthy town can be seen also in the splendour of Iglesia de Santa María la Mayor de Alcaudete .

Inglesia de Santa Maria, Alcaudete.
The Av. de Andalucia around Alcaudete's centre is wide and simple, but ends in a roundabout where the peloton will turn right to travel along the N-432 which has four speed bumps. This road takes them south-west towards Ventas de Carrizal, where they turn left onto the JA-4306 heading east through the village and into a landscape far greener than we've seen for some time. This route heads back the way we came, passing by Castillo de Locubín and up over the Alto de Valdepeñas, finishing in Valdepeñas de Jaén.

Predictions: A puncheur - someone who can ride well on any terrain and keep on plugging away for as long as it takes. Hmm... are you listening, Bradley?

Weather: It's a hot one again, ranging from 30-34C across the entire route. Moderately strong crosswinds in the first quarter of the race won't cheer anyone up, but a moderate tailwind up the Alto de Valdepenas and on towards Valdepuenas de Jaen will be welcome. The lower terrain between the two climbs will be much hotter, though the tailwind up until 127.8km will help. After that, with the race changing direction, it'll become a headwind of moderate strength for the next 40km or so before the route once again changes direction and a tailwind assists on the second ascent. The entire route will be dry.

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