|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 if 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
|Excavation of Roman remains in Talavera de la Reina.
|Moorish walls at Talavera de la Reina.
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.
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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