Tuesday 9 August 2011

Vuelta a España - Stage 7 Preview

Despite being the site of mercury mining
for 2000 years, Almaden is famous for
its wildlife - including the rare European
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The peloton might wonder if they got a dose of mercury vapours from the mines underneath start town Almaden today, because of there's one thing this supposedly plain stage isn't it's flat - but as the numerous climbs are uncategorised and thus feature no pots of golden climbing points waiting at the summits, the riders may well be asking themselves if they're mad to even bother. Don't think this will be an easy stage win for a climber though, because the organisers have cunningly arranged one intermediate sprint at 130km, another at 160km and then a probable sprint finish 27km further on. It's one of those stages that makes prediction impossible until the day - and even then, unless some plucky roleur fancies himself as Eddy Merckx for the day and hammers off on a heroic solo break, it could go to anyone and the race will in all likelihood be decided in the final few kilometres.

Almaden - and the mines that made it rich, also giving the town its name from the Arabic al-ma'din, "the mine" - owe their existence to the world's largest reserves of cinnabar, the ore from which mercury is extracted, and the town has produced more of the metal than anywhere else on the planet. This led to great wealth from the 16th Century onwards when new techniques using mercury to extract gold and silver from ore were developed, with the majority of Almaden's output being shipped to the Americas.

Work in the mines was extremely dangerous and death - from accidents as well as exposure to the highly toxic mercury - was common, so from 1566 to 1801 convicts and African slaves were forced to carry out the work (convict labour was halted in 1801, slave labour presumably continued for another decade until Spain abolished slavery at home and in all but three of its colonies in 1811). Conditions were so bad that a Royal commission recommended wide-reaching changes in the 1580s, an unusual move for those times which suggests just how atrocious the work must have been. However, even after improvements a quarter of all convict labourers died before their sentences were completed and almost all suffered at least some medical complaint, from severe pain in the joints to insanity. The last mine finally closed in 2000, following a fall in international mercury prices which left the operation no longer financially viable.

Almaden's hexagonal bullring is undoubtedly a beautiful
building. It's just a shame it can't be used for something
that doesn't involve the pointless torture of animals.
Almaden also has the second oldest bullring in Spain, unique for its hexagonal plan. Those of you who have read our previous Vuelta stage previews will know our opinion on the so-called sport of bullfighting, so that's all we'll say about the place other than that the riders start off right outside, then turn onto the N-502 and continue along the wide and easy road until reaching the end of the neutral zone in the extraordinarily flat landscape north of the town. The parcours remains flat for a few kilometres, then climbs Puerto Grande and Puente Rayo at 615m and 630m in the first 11km.

From this point onwards, the road consists of long straight sections with occasional tight bends; a tricky arrangement as the straights can have an effect similar to mesmerism, causing a rider's reactions to become sluggish when a bend approaches. After passing between forested hills, there's a potentially hazardous "U" shaped band leading to a very narrow - and extremely pretty - bridge at the 15km point; usually with no more than a trickle of water below, but the six arches, wide course and stocky foundations are proof that the river isn't always a tiny stream. As the road narrows to cross, this is another potential hazard as the peloton needs to spread out in order to pass by, regrouping on the opposite side. A wide expanse of green fills the space between and to either side of this river and its northern neighbour the Rio Frio, then it's back into more aridity as the race approaches a junction with the CM-4103, traveling right through and crossing another bridge.

Herrera del Duque Castle.
After 44.7km, the road arrives at a junction where the peloton turn onto the N-430 heading west, across another bridge. It passes south of a green ridge, then arrives at another of the deviously twisted complex junctions with which the Spanish like to decorate their nation's landscape. Here, the riders turn right onto the N-502a which extends via three long, straight sections to Herrera del Duque, located in a region rather surprisingly named La Siberia.

Herrera's peculiar-looking castle was built at some point during the 15th and 16th Centuries by the de Sotomayor family who had taken clever advantage of civil and military unrest throughout the country to make themselves fabulously wealthy and powerful. Sitting atop a rocky outcrop, it contrives to look far larger than it really is and, somehow, more impregnable - which it in fact would not have been, since medieval military historians have identified serious flaws in the design including weak points which would have been impossible to defend from within. The Plaza de España is considered the town's finest thoroughfare, its polished black jasper fountain standing in stark contrast with the gleaming white walls of the surrounding buildings, but there are many other fine streets. Near the town is a semi-ruined medieval bridge across a rocky stream, looking for all the world as though a giant has picked up a piece of the Yorkshire Dales and put it back down again here. A number of fine mansions stand within and around the town, the finest of them all being the vast and fortified Palacio de Cijara, built in 1873 to serve as the home of Count Villapadierna.

The road just clips the north-eastern edge of the town before veering north, a route which unfortunately gives us a view of yet another bull-torturing-ring before heading off and over another narrow bridge and entering one of the most beautiful sections of the entire 2011 race, the huge and fractal Embalse de Garcia de Sola, an artificial reservoir created by several dams and occupying a series of shallow valleys to form a lightning bolt shape some 60km from end to end. The parcours uses a modern concrete bridge across a narrow inlet, just to the right of a much older stone bridge, then comes to a longer bridge stretching across one of the main courses and offering superb views of the lake and surrounding countryside. On the opposite bank is Castilblanco, a town built on a hill rising around 50m from its surrounds, which the race passes by to the south, west and north.

An engraving of the Templar castle at Castilblanco.
Those who go in search of the white castle will be disappointed, as it vanished long ago - a pity, since it's said to have been very impressive and there's some evidence of Templar connections. What's more, it never was white - blanco is believed to derive from the tabards worn by the knights. However, the town has much else to recommend it, including the Iglesia de San Cristóbal - the tower of which is the last surviving part of the castle. Sadly, the church has been subject to several rather poor restorations over the years and has little of its original splendour. Prior to a fire in the 19th Century, it was famous for a remarkable carved wooden ceiling; this being replaced by a poor copy which was itself destroyed during the Civil War.

One Castilblanco is left behind, the N-502 climbs for a few kilometres before dropping into a forested section, crosses a bridge and then sweeps through several wide bends before coming to more forest. Soon, it reaches the dam holding back the Embalse de Cijara, another artificial lake, located within a National Hunting Reserve. Deer, wild boar, deer, otters, eagles, quail, bobcats and black storks are frequently seen around the lake. The road narrows as it passes into the pine forest surrounding the lake and takes in four potentially slippery bends before a very tight left corner, then starts to climb up to Puerto Rey; reaching an altitude of 620m just as the village is reached 109km from the start. The village doesn't have any of the grand sights to which we become so accustomed during the Vuelta, but that's due not so much to its diminutive size as to not needing them, such is the glory of its location high in the rolling hills and surrounded by mixed forest inhabited by deer and wild boar in great numbers.

The dusty little towns of Spain are often
quite poor, meaning that ancient
features such as this water trough in
Sevilleja de la Jara remain in place, rather
than being demolished to make way for
new  developmentsas they would
in wealthier towns.
The descent is fast, dropping over 100m in a little over a kilometre, but has just one wide bend and as a result should cause no problems. It then climbs again, reaching almost 700m before the road becomes poker straight for a while, then negotiates some simple bends just before and around Sevilleja de la Jara. The village dates from the 13th Century, when it was founded by a group of Moors fleeing persecution - they picked a superb location for their new home in an area made fertile by several small rivers and with mountains rising to over 1200m a little over a kilometre away. Today, the local economy depends largely upon hunting - you can say what you like about hunting, but hunters do want wide tracts of countryside well-stocked with wildlife, and there's plenty of that here. The views towards and from the village are stunning, especially after rain when the fields erupt with wild flowers, and we'll get some of the best of them as the peloton swings by the western edge. After another kilometre it passes east past Gargantilla, a small and unpretentious village lacking in fine buildings but rich in interesting - if somewhat neglected - detail, the sort of place that those tourists seeing real Spain and experience Spanish life as led by a probable majority of the Spanish people.

The road north to La Nava de Ricomalillo passes through a wide irrigated section, climbing slightly for a short way, and is mostly straight and free of obvious hazards. The date of the village's founding and the etymology of the name are unknown; but archaeological evidence points to a Roman presence and some scholars have suggested the name comes from a combination of the words nava, meaning plain, the Arabic rukun meaning corner and possibly maillo meaning crabapple. There is an attractive square, a pretty church and one or two other buildings of note, but the highlight of the town is the annual Fiesta de los Molinos, the feast of the mills - this takes place on the first or second Sunday in August, however, and so will not coincide with the Vuelta's visit. As the riders pass the town, they reach the 130km ridden point and begin the first of the stage's intermediate sprints, taking in two wide bends.

A few kilometres out of town, the road turns sharply right and into a hairpin to negotiate a wide ravine and then continues north through wide, arid spaces and past a green hill rising to around 250m above the surrounding countryside to the east. It turns north east to pass by Belvis de la Jara. Belvis is believed to be derived from the Latin bellum visum, beautiful view, and it's very obvious why the town should be so-called - the views of the mountains are spectacular and unimpeded by anything on the plains dotted with jara shrubs which have given this region its name. We won't be able to see much other than the church's tower, however, as the road passes 0.2km away to the north before entering a twisty section just beyond, the clips the northern edge of Alcaudete de la Jara as the second intermediate sprint begins after 160km. The N-502 continues north, long straight sections punctuated by non-challenging bends, then suddenly enters a wide expanse of green on the banks of a river north-west of Las Herencias. The landscape here is characterised by the circular irrigated fields which look like giant green vinyl records from the air. To the east is an area of low crags.

Monasterio de San Benito in Talavera de la Reina.
The road becomes straight and enters an industrial area, then comes to a roundabout. Passage about it ought to be simple, but with the presence of industrial units - including what appears to be a shipping container depot which will be visited by many trucks each day - there's a high likelihood of diesel spills: if the weather is dry there should be no problems, if it's wet things may be different. Once over the roundabout, the peloton approaches the Puente Nuevo as it crosses the Rio Tajo at a wide bend where there are several small wooded islands - the ideal place for herons, storks and the various other waterfowl that are regularly seen here. Once over, the race is in Talavera de la Reina. At a roundabout next to a park made ugly by what will thankfully be the last bullring we'll see today the peloton turns a tight left corner onto the Ronda de Canillo, which leads south west to the river and the Av. Real Fabrica de Sedas and - after 187.6km - the end of the stage.

Excavation of Roman remains in Talavera de la Reina.
Neolithic remains have been found in the vicinity of Talavera de la Reina, but it seems not to have been a permanent settlement until the Celts arrived and named the town the established here Talabriga. The Romans called it Caesarobriga, though they faced fierce resistance from the Celtic inhabitants which needed to be quelled before they could begin to make the town their own. They fortified it with defensive walls and added a new bridge, making it an important trading post along one of the main routes connecting southern Spain with the ports along the east coast and, ultimately, Rome; and so it wasn't long before the town grew into a city fully equipped with baths, theatres, villas, temples and all the other civic amenities considered essential to a Roman's existence. The Visigoths took control as soon as the Romans had left and built the first of the Christian churches in the city, including the original church on the site of a temple to Pales and now occupied by the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Prado that was begun in the 16th Century but much enlarged since so that it now combines elements of both Renaissance and Baroque. It is believed that Christian worship was permitted to continue on the site during Moorish rule from 712, the Moors being considerably tolerant towards their Christian subjects than vice-versa when the tables were turned some centuries later.

Moorish walls at Talavera de la Reina.
The Moors improved the city's defensive network, building new walls of which some well-preserved sections remain. They were also developed trade to new heights, making the city wealthier than it had ever been before and added water mills and irrigation projects to make sure the population were well-fed, and renaming it Talavayra. In addition, they facilitated the development of the potteries, trading the wares produced within them far and wide and showing great respect towards their Jewish owners and craftsmen.

Following the Reconquest and return to Christian rule, Talavera was granted the right to host two fairs each year which brought traders from far and wide and ensuring the city's continuation as a trading centre. The fairs are still held today in May and September. By the 15th Century, the potteries had begun to specialise in the production of decorative glazed tiles which can be seen in many churches and cathedrals around Spain. During the middle of the 18th Century, the Royal Silk Mills were established along the stretch of river where the stage ends, now known as the Av. Real Fabrica de Sedas. The potteries rose in importance again during the 19th Century and Talavera became the first Spanish city with a railway station.

Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Prado seen
from Alameda Park.
The first half of the 20th Century was difficult for all Spain and Talavera didn't escape - in September 1936, the densely populated Puerta de Cuartos neighbourhood was heavily bombed by Franco's airforce, causing many deaths and great damage. It subsequently suffered more bombing raids between July 1937 and March 1938. Following the return to democracy, Talavera has continued to develop its commercial and industrial interests, thus remaining among the wealthiest of Spanish cities and as such offers a quality of life far in advance of that found elsewhere.

It is a city with much to see. In addition to the Basílica, it has a Renaissance city hall painted in bright colours; the 17th Century Baroque Casa-Palacio de la Calle del Sol which features unmistakably medieval pilasters suggesting either recycling of material from elsewhere or, more likely, origins much older than is evident at first glance; the remaining Royal Silk Mills and the recently-completed Puente de Castilla la Mancha, the tallest bridge in Spain with high observation platforms permitting panoramic views across the city and surrounding region. The bridge is so high that workers on different levels noticed peculiar phenomena, such as those at the top of the towers working in falling snow while those working on the foundations worked in rain.

Predictions: We could imagine young Tom Boonen doing a good job on this one - though the stage is without massive changes in altitude, the constant ups and downs make it seem precisely the sort of stage upon which a Paris-Roubaix-hardened Classics specialist such as him can perform in a way that dedicated stage race riders cannot. Let's not forget Cancellara, though: he's the boss of the TT as we all know, but bear in mind he's won Paris-Roubaix twice and has demonstrated excellent form in the race so far.

Weather: Good news for the riders - the extreme heat is gone for today. However, cool weather for August in Spain is still pretty damn hot - we can expect temperatures to range from a low of 25C at the start, fluctuating up and down throughout the stage until reaching 30C at the finish. That's definitely warm, but a lot less so than the previous stages. It looks like we'll have crosswinds all the way, but they'll be gentle enough to not cause problems. Rain is very unlikely throughout the entire parcours.

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