Friday 26 August 2011

Vuelta a España - Stage 8 Preview

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We've had one mountain stage during the first week and some of the plain stages have been anything but flat; today and tomorrow are guaranteed knee-breakers and are likely to have a detrimental effect on the individual time trial specialists who have their sole chance to show what they can do in Stage 10 and ensure all the riders appreciate the rest day following the TT.

Remnants of the Moorish defensive walls at Talavera.
The stage begins in Talavera de la Reina (for more information, see yesterday's preview) along the long, straight Paseo de Padre Juan San Mariana. However, straight doesn't equal easy - there are plenty of speed bumps, roundabouts, street furniture and tricky corners o the way out of the city, meaning even the neutral zone isn't a simple process and could claim a few scalps before the racing is even properly underway. The first corner is a tight right-hander onto the Calle de Olivares and carries the peloton past the Alfar del Carmen, a 17th Century church that lay derelict for many years before a sympathetic restoration completed in late 2010 and new life as a library. Opposite, on the right, is the Iglesia de San Andrés. The road ends with a 90 degree left to join the Calle de San Miguel which sweeps to the right, then a less acute left is made technical by the addition of a small roundabout forcing riders to take a deviating line to the right, tucking in sharply to avoid the corner of the footpath. The Calles de la Marqués de Mirasol and Almanzor shouldn't pose any problems, though the roundabout at the end when the riders cross the Av. de Pio XII requires some thought - the right and left lines have pros and cons of their own, though the left looks the preferable way. The following road is straight, followed by an egg-shaped roundabout with a fountain hence a potentially slippery section if the wind is strong and blowing from the right direction, then passes over railway tracks on a wide bridge and becomes the CM-5100 at the roundabout, easily negotiated by taking the line to the right of the centre. The remainder is flat and with the exception of two bends and a large roundabout poker straight, meaning that the real start at 7.5km will be reached within minutes.

Not far from Cervera de los Montes and in the same province,
Toledo, is Illan de Vacas. With a population of six, it's the
smallest municipality in Spain.
Just to the west and lying next to a lake is Medillin Hill, the site of the British encampment during the Battle of Talavera in 1809. A fly-over carries the peloton over the A-5 motorway then past open-cast mines before the road bends left and right, passing some ruined buildings on the left and then entering a section along the side of a steep slope, potentially hazardous if wind and rain have deposited dirt from the scrubby hillside on the road and almost certainly a place for punctures. The parcours flattens out in less than a kilometre (though the terrain doesn't) and trees replace the jara shrubs as the race enters the irrigated area around Cervera de los Montes, a village 6.6km from the start. The road in narrows sharply and has a number of raised speed bumps. The origins of the village are not known, but it acquired official status in the middle of the 17th Century after religious figures from Talavera built houses here - it was a larger community in the past, reaching over 800 inhabitants in the first third of the 20th Century but was home to just 329 in 2006. The church is a solid and attractive structure, built of large blocks of grey stone and looking rather North European - a complete contrast to the bright village hall which is unmistakably Spanish.

The route begins to climb as Cervera is left behind, reaching 610m after a few kilometres as it passes by a forest. It reaches another roundabout just before Marrupe, where the peloton turn left to pass along the Carretera de Sotillo south-west of the village and soon finds itself on another potentially slippery section with wooded slopes either side. After around 3km, it reaches Sotillo de las Palomas - like its neighbour to the south, Sotillo's population in much reduced but, despite now being home to only 200 people, is officially a town; having been granted such status in 1692. Having clipped the very edge of the town, the road turns northward once again and passes an artificial lake surrounded by trees.

Terrapins are a common sight in the Rio Tietar.
A Z-bend a short way before Buenaventura may prove hazardous, especially on the first bend which intersects with an unsurfaced farm track and may be dusty as a result. The road into the village features two wide bends, one passing by the Ermita de San Sebastián with its gateway that looks like a Neolithic dolmen, but is then straight for the remainder of the way through - a few raised speed humps should therefore cause no problems. There is a fine village square with some good jettied buildings, but little of it can be seen from the road. Just outside the village, there may be mud on the road where a footpath crosses the road between the fields either side and road crosses a bridge - however, it's flat and wide and should not be a hazard. A little further on is a longer bridge over the Río Tiétar, with a modern concrete span supported by what appear to be much older stone piers, and the road becomes the AV-927 which carries the race to the junction with the CL-501 where the peloton turn right and head towards Madrid.

The CL-501 heads north-east, passing by green hills and farms, coming presently to a large roundabout at the junction with the AV-P-705; a much narrower and twistier road with some tight bends. There are some superb views from here into the valley we've just left. Molino del Labradero watermill is one of the most picturesque buildings along the stage - the most, if you prefer tumble-down stone ruins set among shady woods and babbling brooks to high-and-mighty Renaissance and Baroque. High ground to the west leaves no doubt that the race is heading into the mountains, as becomes even more apparent when the road begins the Category 1 climb after 37km, soon reaching Gavilanes.

There are few twists and turns on the way into the town, then a slightly difficult corner in the centre of town as the race reaches the Plaza de Sagrada Familia before it curves around onto the Carretera Mijares. There follows a hairpin and a 90 degree left, then the climb suddenly becomes steeper before reaching Mijares after 4km. The town sits right in the heart of the Valle del Tietar with mountains stretching to almost 2000m on three sides, making the views the best reason to visit. There is also an interesting church and many interesting - if ramshackle - ancient buildings, some with aesthetically-pleasing but terrifyingly unsafe-looking wooden balconies. The AV-P-705 leads to the Calle de Mayor which continues into the town centre, but the peloton will turn the other way to join the AV-901 which passes up to the northern edge of town, then loops around to the south and travels into a hairpin from where there are superb views over the valley, then passes over an old bridge. Once through a Z-bend, the parcours begins to climb steeply once again and reaches 1000m within a kilometre.

The next hairpin is a site of especial beauty, the road crossing by way of an old stone bridge a mountain stream as the water falls onto large boulders further down. The parcours changes to travel south, then west as it makes use of the contours of the land to find the least steep way up, then reaches a very tight hairpin and travels north again, crossing the same stream a second time via a bridge 150m higher up the mountain. For some reason, there's a stone-built public oven - about the size of a small bus stop - next to the stream. Another hairpin leads to a right-hand bend which looks set to be trouble-free, then leads to the next hairpin. The following section is spectacular as the road clings to a very steep mountainside, the gulley to the right dropping down 100m and the summit to the left rearing up 650m above the road. At one point, it passes a waterfall flowing through a deep slot it's cut into the rocks, no doubt over many hundreds of years; using a bridge perched on the slope. Down the gully stands a ruined bridge apparently of great antiquity. The last trees of any size can be seen nearby - from here until the descent, it's all ground-hugging shrubs, heather and moss. A hairpin in a narrow gully takes the route west again, leading past barren rocks. Just around the following hairpin is a roadside trough which, by the looks of it, was a welcome sight for many centuries to the horses and oxen that pulled loads up here and a little way further on the peloton reaches the highest point of the climb, 1570m above sea level.

Two hairpins lead down to some roadside buildings, then a reasonably straight section will encourage high speeds before the road rounds a bend and traverses another steep slope with views to the forest and lakes further down. Four hairpins in half a kilometre drop the route 100m before it straightens out and leads into Villanueva de Ávila, which although small has some attractive architecture; the buildings designed to cope with both the high summer heat and deep snow in the freezing winters. There are three raised speed humps, then a hairpin on the outskirts before the road heads into a forested section where corners could be slippery due to mud, gravel and leaves washing down from the slopes. A high bridge with one main arch and one smaller arch carries the road across a river a short distance from Burgohondo, where it changes name and becomes the AV-900. A local legend states that this bridge, of Moorish origin, was the meeting point of a poor boy and a beautiful girl from a rich family - their love, as is the way in legends of this sort, having been strictly forbidden by her father. So that she would not be seen using the bridge and questioned about where she had been, the girl would cross the river by jumping from rock to rock below the arches on her way to secret meetings with her beloved until one day when she fell in and was drowned. Her ghost can apparently sometimes be seen in the waters below the bridge, where it has been known to lure men to their own deaths.

Burgohondo is home to the Ermita de los Judíos, "the Chapel of the Jews." The building was constructed in the 14th Century and served as a synagogue, but later became a Christian site - as is made clear by the paintings on the walls within which, featuring the Crucifixion, Christian saints and the Virgin, would most certainly look out of place in any Jewish place of worship.

A short film (in Spanish) about the Chapel of the Jews.

Despite being home to less than 1300 people, the town has become famous for its cuisine and gastronomes travel for many miles to visit the restaurants, some of which serve fish caught in the crystal-clear river. It's also famous for giving the world two professional cyclists: Jesús Hernández Blázquez of Saxobank-Sungard, born in 1981 and an ex-training partner of Alberto Contador when he was a member of the Basque Iberdrola team and a friend of Rabobank's Luis Leon Sanchez; and Rubén Calvo, born in 1985, who now competes in professional mountain bike racing.

Carlos Sastre, winner of the 2008
Tour de France, is a native of
El Barraco.
The road begins to clim again as the town is left behind, passing arable land and woods en route to Navalmoral de la Sierra which is reached 81km from the start. The road turns a 90 degree left corner right on the outskirts of the village, then an equally tight right before joining the AV-905 heading east and coming to the feeding station. It passes through more fields, then enters an area of scrubland and becomes straight as it approaches the next village, San Juan de la Nava, passing straight through, over a bridge and onward to the junction with the N-403 leading into El Barraco, which hosts the start and finish of the annual 122km Ciclomarcha Carlos Sastre cycle race. Sastre was born here, as was his father Victor; himself a cyclist and the creator and director of the Fundación Provincial Deportiva, a unique school of cycling which has successfully developed a number of promising local talents into world-beating professionals including Carlos's brother-in-law José, who came 3rd overall in the 1998 Vuelta and tragically died of a heart attack five years later when he was aged just 32, Omega-Pharma-Lotto's Óscar Pujol and Movistar's Pablo Lastras, one of the very few riders to have won stages in all three Grand Tours (the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia and this race).

Fiesta de las Luminarias
The road through El Barraco passes the town hall and central square; allowing us a chance to see some of the town's old buildings, some of them constructed using large, roughly-hewn blocks of local stone. Right on the south-eastern edge, the route turns a sharp left and continues along the AV-P-306 which, after a while, follows the course of a small river and is surrounded by greenery irrigated by the water. Some kilometres out of town is a narrow bridge followed by a junction between the road and a dusty track, a possible danger point as riders forced to drop back from the peloton when constricted by the bridge try to catch up; then a short distance on it begins a Cat 2 climb, reaching 1000m just outside San Bartolomé de Pinares. Four switchbacks take the race up the slope immediately south-east of the town, then the 1214m summit comes just before turning onto the AV-P-307 heading north - however, the parcours continues to climb. San Bartolomé de Pinares' has half a church - the end with the tower still stands next to the ornate stone arch that forms a gateway into the churchyard, but the other half has fallen down. For more than two centuries, ever since a mysterious disease killed all the horses in the vicinity, the town has held a unique annual Fiesta de las Luminarias during which large bonfires are lit on the streets and the horses ridden or jumped through the flames. While the horses probably don't like it very much, owners bring their most valuable animals in an effort to drive out the evil spirits that were blamed for the epidemic and take very great care to ensure no harm comes to their expensive beasts.

But for a few gentle bends, the AV-P-307 is almost perfectly straight as it passes through the arid landscape all the way to La Cañada. This town forms a single municipal entity with the nearby village of Herradón de Pinares and the two communities have seen fit to vote in two members of the extreme right-wing Democracia Nacional, an equal number to the centre-right conservative Partido Popular, the deputy mayor openly expressing Nazi sympathies. Fortunately, it's an uninteresting little town without interesting architecture and so there's no reason to bolster up Democracia Nacional's reputation by remaining in the area and contributing to the local economy. After passing through an ugly new development on the southern edge of the town, the parcours turns a sharp right onto the CL-505 which, following a twisty section just beyond the town, is argely straight as it passes Navalperal de Pinares on the way to Las Navas del Marqués.

Castillo-Palacio de Magalia.
Those readers who have also seen our earlier stage previews may be thinking that, thus far, Stage 8 has been oddly devoid of castles - it seemed that virtually every village, town and city the race passed through earlier in the race had at least one and often two. Las Navas del Marqués, meanwhile, provides one more than sufficient to satisfy the castle fans with the Castillo-Palacio de Magalia, which is unique due to having two flat vaults in one of the towers. Though it looks like a medieval castle, the structure is in fact a Renaissance palace; however, the defenses are more than decorative and demonstrate that violence was still an ever-present threat during the 16th Century when it was built by Marquis of Las Navas, Pedro Davila y Zuniga. It was abandoned during the 18th Century, then sold in the 20th to a commercial concern who later gave it to the Spanish state to be converted into a cultural centre. It became a residential hall for the Women's Section of the fascist Falange party after the Civil War, eventually being put to good use following the introduction of democracy and now hosts cultural events and conferences. Recently, the town has gained another cultural centre in the Convento de Santo Domingo y San Pablo; built in 1546 then abandoned in the 19th century to those looters brave enough to venture inside despite the stories of terrifying moans said to come from ghostly monks (but, upon investigation, discovered to have actually come from non-ghostly owls). Masonry was carted off for use elsewhere, a bronze tombstone marking the grave of the same Marquis who built the Castillo-Palacio was stolen by left-wing forces in the Civil War (subsequently returned, and now on display at the site), then the building was left to rot - the mild summers and cold winters of the region taking little time to reduce an uncared-for building to rubble. In 2004, it was sold and is now run by the Ministry of Culture who use it to host art exhibitions and other events. The owls, presumably, are now terrifying stupid people elsewhere.

The peloton leaves the town heading east on the AV-P-308 and, having crossed a wide bridge, begins to climb Cat 2 Alto de Santa Maria. The first hairpin follows a 90 degree left-hand bend and the altitude reaches 1200m halfway round. The next, coming in close succession, carries the race up to the 1435m summit just before the road becomes the M-535 at another hairpin, south of Santa Maria de la Alameda. The descent is long and fast but relatively free of obvious hazards other than a bridge set among stunning scenery as it crosses the Rio Aceña  followed by a 90 degree right bend, then it begins to climb again into Robledondo, located 155.5km from the start and 1330m above sea level.

The Rio Acena Road Bridge, one of
Spain's most popular sites for
bungee jumping. Each to their own.
Santa Maria de la Alameda is officially a part of the Comunidad de Madrid region but it not geographically linked to it, being located within an enclave between Segovia and Avila. Not far to the south is a high bridge where the M-505 crosses the river, one of the most popular places in Spain for bungee jumping. Robledondo is an attractive village, though it has little to detain visitors for long. The road passes straight through with four raised humps, then turns sharply south for the beginning of the first intermediate sprint along a road offering excellent views of the Monasterio de El Escorial desde la Cruz Verde, many kilometres away. A short climb ends at a crossroads just east of what appears to be an ancient defensive earthwork, very much along the lines of Bronze Age forts in Northern Europe (40°34'23.28"N 4°12'14.15"W). At the end, a 90 degree left followed by a hairpin lead to the junction with the M-505 near a restaurant named La Venterola. It heads east, then south to a cafe at Puerto de la Cruz Verde, a popular haunt of the motorcyclists who come from right across Europe to ride on the local roads, then enters a twisty section heading north-east before the peloton turn left onto the much narrower Carretera de Robledo leading into San Lorenzo de El Escorial. This road could be slippery, especially if the August rains that sometimes fall in this area have washed leaves and mud onto the tarmac from the forested hill to the north. A forest track joins the road about halfway along, forming an added hazard as agricultural vehicles may have left mud on the road here. As the race enters the town, it passes the Casa del Infante with its formal gardens.

Monasterio de El Escorial
The second intermediate sprint takes place in the town, using the narrow streets and tight corners around the enormous Monasterio to create a testing course that may see several crashes and possibly even lead to a few riders abandoning the race. The Monasterio, which combines a palace and a basilica along with an actual monastery is commonly, widely and even rightfully considered among the most beautiful and spectacular buildings anywhere in the world. Begun in the 16th Century, it covered over 33,000 square metres by the 18th when it became known as the 8th wonder of the world. It was built largely as a reaction by the Catholic King Philip II to the Protestant Reformation, using finances from royal coffers swollen by gold brought across from Spain's New World territories. His design brief was straight-forward: "simplicity in the construction, severity in the whole, nobility without arrogance, majesty without ostentation." The half-million tourists who come every year are doubtless struck by the building's success in achieving all of those aims. On the outskirts of the town is the so-called Chair of Philip II, where legend has it that the king would sit whilst viewing the construction of his remarkable Monasterio. Whether he did or not and whatever it originally was, the "chair" had been there for a long time before he sat on it - it's visibly ancient and is probably pre-Roman.

A view from the west, showing the vast scale of the Monasterio.
Having raced through the streets, the peloton turns onto the Ctra. de la Presa and Calle Fuente de la Teja as they head upwards into the forest north-west of the city, then a hairpin leads onto the Pista Forestal as it traverses the hill and leads gradually back down to join the the M-600, which turns left into El Escorial. The peloton passes along the Calle de San Sebastian which has several speed humps, then joins the Av. de la Arboleda Pascual. At the end, it turns a sharp right and travels under a bridge carrying train lines and becomes the Av. de Reyes Católicos leading back to San Lorenzo de El Escorial, then turns right into the Calle del Doctor Don Juan Abelló Pascual, much narrower.  A final 90 degree left corner leads onto the Calle Cañada Nueva before the final run to the finish at 177.3km. This stage, however, does not end with a straight-forward sprint - there are two ramped sections rated at gradients of 27 and 28% which, though short, will feel like hammerblows to the kneecaps this late in the race.

Joaquin Rodriguez
Predictions: We're back into the hills for this one: after a flat (well, flattish) start, it's pointy stuff all the way starting with Cat 1 Puerto de Mijares featuring a harsh 1050m of climbing - and parts are very steep. Pay attention here, because whoever rides well on this climb will also do well on Angliru, the mountain that could decide the overall winner of the race (and may very easily decide which riders are going home early). There are several climbers - and a few puncheurs, for that matter - who are showing early promise this year. Daniel Moreno is one of them, the first man up Sierra Nevada in Stage 4. So is Chris Sorenson, who followed him up and was second over the line. What we need to remember, though, is that the big climb comes early on in the stage - when at the summit, the riders have still got 120km to go and there isn't a flat section anywhere among them. Will Moreno and Sorenson be able to keep up the pace? What you need for this sort of stage is a combination of grimpeur and Classics specialist, a man who can race skywards with the best and then keep going and going and going. That sounds rather a lot like Joaquin Rodriguez.

Weather: Mercifully cooler again. It'll be hot at the start, around 26-27C right up until the foot of the first mountain. As would be expected, the temperature will drop progressively with altitude, finishing up at about 19C at the summit. Top temps on the other side should reach no more than 26C and then becoming cooler on the following climbs with 24C expected at the finish. Light headwinds shouldn't cause too much hardship and no rain is expected anywhere along the parcours.

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