Saturday 13 August 2011

Vuelta a España - Stage 9 Preview

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Stage 9, like Stage 8, heads for the hills - but it's a very different sort of stage to yesterday's. Rather than testing the riders' strength with several medium-sized climbs, it starts off with a smallish Category 3 and then wears them down with a series of uncategorised little ascents before finishing off with a great big grind up to the Sierra de Béjar La Covatilla ski resort 1970m above sea level. However, the majority of the riding takes place upon the poker-straight N-110, meaning that despite its mountainous classification this is a stage in which sprinters could have as much to play for as the climbers, and the day's winner could very well be a non-General Classification contender who feels his legs are up to the task and mounts a successful breakaway attempt.

Villacastin's coat of arms, carved in 1627.
Villacastin is acting as a start town for the very first time in the Vuelta's history today. The city's own history stretches back to the dawn of human inhabitation of Spain, with a wide range of artifacts manufactured or left by early man having been discovered by palaeontologists in the area. However, its Roman and Dark Age past is little known - in fact, other than the typically Roman road found nearby, there is precious little trace of Roman presence at all, putting paid to the once popular theory that the name Villacastin was of Roman origin. There is little trace of the Visigoths who took over where the Romans left off, too, though road builders in 2001 discovered buried ruins which were subsequently estimated by archaeologists to have been inhabited from the Mesolithic era through to the Visigothic, a period roughly equalling at least five thousand years - approximately four times longer than the period of time that has passed between the demise of the Visigoths and the present. Later - rather fanciful - theories claimed that the name must mean "the town of castles" and refer to the existing castle and a mysterious second one, somehow vanished without trace; this theory being supported by those who believed it by the presence of two castles on the city's coat of arms. However, no archaeological trace nor historical record of the second castle has ever been found, so that theory seems no more likely to be correct - the twin castles on the coat of arms are believed to represent the close ties between Villacastin and Castile.

Modern interpretations of the name explain "castin" as being an archaic, formal deriviative of the Latin castrum, which has given rise to castillo, chateau and castle, but meaning "fortified" rather than a fortified building. Villa, meaning town, makes it the Fortified Town - not an especially helpful name in Spain where in some regions it seems that virtually every community of any size was fortified at some point, but a descriptive one nevertheless for Villacastin did indeed have fortifications: some rather superb examples of them, in fact, as the location was of great strategic importance among the defence network surrounding Tulaytula, one of the most most important cities in Moorish Iberia and now known as Toledo. The first historical evidence of Villacastin as a city comes from a document dated to 1096, a point at which the Christians were beginning to rise up against Muslim rule (and, unfortunately, show far less tolerance of religious and cultural differences than the Moors had) and the region became a sort of no-man's-land between the opposing groups.

Inglesia de San Sebastian.
Following the Reconquest, the Christians set about excising all trace of Islam from the city by converting mosques into churches and erecting stone crosses at fourteen sites on the streets. A few crosses still remain, the most famous being the Cruz de Santiago on the city's southern perimeter along the road to Madrid. Whilst we may express horror at the Christian intolerance and cruelty towards the Moors once they'd seized power, we can still appreciate their contributions to culture and especially to architecture. Unlike many communities, Villacastin continued to grow both geographically and economically under their rule - observing their neighbours' success - in 1450 the elders of the village of Navalpino, some 5km away, elected to up sticks and move their entire population to the city, abandoning their village entirely. Today, no trace other than the ruined stump of the church remains. People from other villages similarly relocated en masse and by the turn of the 16th Century, it was home to more than 5000 people, attracting craftsmen from as far as Germany to work on its buildings, the Iglesia de San Sebastián being among those started in that century. Today, it's one of the most impressive churches anywhere in the country even though it only ever got one of the two towers originally planned. The 20m tall altarpiece is world famous.

All that remains of Navalpino.
Plague dramatically reduced the population in 1599, but having become a centre of the manufacture of fine cloth Villacastin attracted workers from elsewhere and recovered far more quickly than many other places. The cloth trade continued to develop, making the city even richer. 28 years later, when the city became part of the province of Segovia, a survey was taken and reveals it to have had  a hospital, two monasteries, several great houses belonging to various noble families and a wide assortment of buildings involved with the production, storage and trade of woolen cloth. Much of the industrial architecture was subsequently destroyed by Anglo-Portuguese forces during the War of Succession, the first in a series of factors that saw Villacastin enter a period of recession during which it became largely depopulated and it had been largely forgotten by the rest of the world when it briefly played host to Napoleon, who was trapped here with 60,000 troops by heavy snow in December 1809. The construction of the Carretera Nacional Villacastín-Vigo in 1860 led to some signs of an upturn, but the city - now a small town - has never regained the power and wealth it once held.

The stage starts at Villacastin's football club, heading north east on the Carretera de Avila for a quick procession though the town. A tight left and right turn lead into the Calle de Correos, then the N-110 turns left at one roundabout and passes straight over the next to leave the town behind. A flyover carries the road above the AP-6 motorway and straight on to the first of the day's obvious hazards, a second large roundabout between the entrance to an industrial estate and the toll gates onto the motorway network. No matter which way the riders decide to go round, they'll be right in the middle of the areas most likely to contain lethally slippery diesel spills, all but invisible on the road surface. Having crossed another flyover carrying it over the AP-51, the road sweeps to the south-west among the rocky fields, climbing slightly towards the end of the neutral zone 5.2km from the start and Santa María del Cubillo 2.8km further on.

Santa Maria has a very attractive 16th Century parish church with an ornate turreted roof at one end and a belfry at the other with a red pan-tiled roof on the lower section in between. The parcours turns left off the N-110 and onto the AV-501 leading to a hairpin bend - both the corner and the bend may have diesel spills due to the large open-cast mine a short way on directly to the left of the road - and begins the first climb of the day, Category 3 Puerto de la Cruz de Hierro. The 1470m summit is reached after 8.6km from the start, shortly after passing a chain of wind turbines which either ruin or add to the landscape depending upon personal point of view. The descent isn't steep, but long straight sections will encourage high speed before the sharp right turn onto the AV-500 which runs straight for 14.6km. However, it's not boring - after a short while, the road crosses a bridge almost 0.5km long over the Embalse de Serones, a large artificial lake set among the rolling hills, some with lines of turbines marching over them. Egrets and black storks are common sights around the lake, those who are lucky may even see otters. On a fine day, this section of the stage could be one of the most pleasant anyone could wish for; on a rainy or - worse - windy day, it could be hellish.

Urraca-Miguel passes by on the right, signalling that there are just a few more kilometres to Bernuy-Salinero which the road just clips to the north. The village has an interesting little church and, immediately to the west of it, what appears from aerial photography to be possible modern structures built among the walls of a far larger, older, ruined building. Unfortunately, there seems to be no information on the site available online and so the only way to be certain would be to go and have a look - should they prove to be something else, the journey would not be wasted since it's the kind of village that has many hidden jewels. The sprawling industrial areas east of Avila soon become visible, the peloton reaching the city 33km from the start.

Basilica de San Vincente, source of a good percentage of
medieval antisemitism.
The race reaches a roundabout and turns right onto the Calle de Theresa de Calcutta and passes over two roundabouts to a third where they turn left, once again joining the N-110 which is called the Carretera de Villacastín-Vigo along this section. It crosses several roundabouts and passes under a fly-over before joining the Paseo de Don Carmelo Delgado, passing south of the large Parque de San Antonio and joining the A. de Madrid as it approaches the Basilica de San Vincente. Having been begun in the 12th Century, this vast church took almost three centuries to be completed and is listed as one of the most important examples of Romanesque architecture in the world. It was built as a place of worship centred on the Cenotaph of Saints Vicente, Sabina and Cristeta who refused to sign a document stating that they would make sacrifices to the Roman gods during the 4th Century, only to be betrayed by that constant bogeyman of Dark and Middle Age myth, a Jew. They were put to death in a characteristically gristly manner, having their heads crushed - as is displayed with gory detail in wooden carvings on display in the church. As they died, angels carried their souls to Heaven while a large snake emerged from their bodies and wrapped itself about the neck of the Jew, who thereupon "saw the error of his ways" and converted to Christianity; later building the basilica in order to repent for his betrayal.

Avila's complete medieval wall.
Avila is particularly notable as it has retained its entire 11th Century defensive wall, enclosing more than 30 acres and believed to be the longest complete medieval defensive wall in Europe. It has a total perimetre of a little over 2.5km, is 12m tall and has no less than 88 towers. The entire wall is illuminated, making it the largest illuminated structure in the world. The cathedral appears more solid that most, the reason being that it was designed to act as both a place of worship and, should the need arise, a defensible fortress; rather than simply because it shared the only architectural techniques available at the time with castles. The apse is in fact one of the city wall's turrets. Believed to be the first Gothic church in the country, it is not known when construction began; though most historians choose either the 11th Century under Alvar Garcia and Alfonso VI of Castile or the 12th under Fruchel and Raymond of Burgundy.

The cottage seen here is typical of the style in Aldealabad,
but atypical of technique - most of the buildings use dry-
wall construction techniques rather than mortar.
The peloton continues along the Av. de Madrid, negotiating numerous roundabouts and speed humps until a right and left lead past the Calle de Don Suero Aguila and along the N-403 leading out of the city, passing over a roundabout in the dry and boulder-strewn countryside around the city to join then N-110A, then merging with the N-110 and reaching Bascoarrabal 41.5km from the start. The road is straight, but the surrounding landscape is fortunately irrigated, thus making it a far more pleasant stretch than it would be were it as dry and dusty as that surrounding Avila. En route, the peloton passes Aldealabad del Mirón; an interesting village partly for the very obviously Arabic first part of its name and partly because, as a small rural community that has changed little since it was established, it allows a glimpse of what life must have been like for the majority of Spaniards until the middle of the last century. Aldealabad has never been planned, so the houses have been built wherever a scrap of land could be found. To this day, most of the cottages in the village are simple structures of dry, rough granite, the upper floor housing the family and the lower floor used for the storage of harvested crops or, in winter, livestock; there are a few adobe houses that are little more sophisticated.

Puente Cobos, near Munogalindo, believed to be of Roman
origin with some medieval restoration. The arches were once
much taller, but are now largely buried in silt.
14km on from Bascoarrabal is Muñogalindo, nestling on the very edge of the plain at the foot of higher ground. It's a small community with a lot of history, the site of important archaeological finds such as the pre-Roman Peñáguila site (not to be confused with the modern community of the same name near Alicante). For its diminutive size, it has received more than its fair share of royal visits and, in 1812, Napoleon passed through, his troops looting the village's granary with no regard for what the locals would eat until the next harvest. It was due to be connected to the rail network late in the 19th Century, but the plan never came to fruition and as a result it managed to survive the Civil War untouched, attracting the attentions of neither side. The inhabitants continued with their lives much as their ancestors had done for hundreds of years well into the middle decades of the 20th Century when the population began to decline due to the large numbers of young people attracted to Avila and further afield, meaning that the village has changed little even in the latter half of the last century and first decade of this one. The finest building is probably the Casa-Palacio de la Familia Aboín, of medieval origin but much modernised during the 16th Century. La Familia Aboin were not the original owners of the house, having purchased it with the wealth they made selling off property purchased cheaply from the Marquis de Velada. This property had been sold to the Marquis' ancestor Teresa Carillo by the nuns of the Convento de Santa Clara de Rapariegos, to whom it had been donated by the Valderrábano family in 1470 - yet another example of how the aristocracy get richer and the rest don't. The Inglesia San Lucas Evangelista is also a fine building - little is known of its early history, but it's believed to have been the first church built in the village and to date from the 12th Century. It has benefited from a few additions over the years, the most modern being the restoration of interior and exterior woodwork in the middle of the 20th Century - sadly, in order to finance this essential work, the church was forced to sell some of its historical objects.

An example of the ancient building technique that was until
recently still common in La Torres - granite blocks infilled
with smaller stones, to be surfaced with adobe. Sadly, many
of these traditional structures are being left derelict - the
harsh local conditions soon reducing them into this sort of
state - or demolished to make way for modern homes.
After another few kilometres, the N-110 suddenly deviates 90 degrees to the right (the road is in open fields and permitted room for an uncomplicated bend rather than a sharp and hazardous corner) to negotiate La Torre. Despite the name, there is no tower of particular note in the village - it's believed to have derived its name from the Latin turris referring to the Roman villas of which remains have been excavated in the area. Having passed around the northern end of the village through a small copse, the road continues south-west for several kilometres until it reaches Villatoro. Today, it's small village home to a little over 200 people, but any visitor able to interpret simple clues will see that Villatoro must once have been a far grander place - it had a castle, of which only a tower remains, and the church is far larger than might be expected had the community always been so small. The village's position has a tendency to channel north winds directly through, thus creating a microclimate in which the inhabitants frequently have to tolerate temperatures far colder than the surrounding villages during winter, which can be a very harsh time of the year here. As the peloton approaches the village and the N-110 sweeps left to bypass it, the peloton continue onward into the village along the Calle Calvo Sotelo, rejoining the road on the other side at the point where it begins to climb the uncategorised (hence, without points) Puerto de Villatoro, topping out at 1385m - the actual climb being just over 200m - located at the the junction with the AV-P-637, after which the parcours descends 185m to Casas del Puerto de Villatoro which is located among very beautiful scenery.

Stone cross, San Miguel de
6km on, the peloton reaches the feeding station which comes 89km from the start. It passes north of San Miguel de Corneja, home to three ancient crosses and a traditional dish named Judías del Barco, "Jewish Boat," which evidently does not have kosher origins due to the bacon fat used in the recipe. After another few kilometres, the race reaches Piedrahita. The first documentary evidence of the town comes from the late 12th Century, but there must have been people here before that - as is apparently proven by the existence of standing stones in the nearby woods, believed to have been markers allowing ancient people to find their way home after hunting expeditions. These stones form the basis for one explanation of the name Piedrahita, which means "stone stuck."

The seemingly rather likable Duquesa
Maria, depicted by Goya.
The pleasant location made Piedrahita popular among the aristocracy in times gone by, and so the town has an unusually large number of grand buildings for its size. Many can be seen around the Plaza España; but the most famous is the Palacio de los Duques de Alba, of French Baroque style and set among formal gardens. It was built by Fernando de Silva y Álvarez de Toledo, popularly known as the Old Duke and a close friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; but became the home of his daughter Maria del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva y Álvarez de Toledo who made it a meeting place for artists and intellectuals - including Goya, who painted her in 1785 and with whom she possibly had a sexual affair. Maria, who held no less than 54 aristocratic titles but supported the poor, was known for her liberal attitudes and regularly courted controversy; one one notable occasion to show displeasure towards the French royals, she had made numerous copies of a dress designed exclusively for the French queen and gave them to her servants. Famous also for her height, when her remains were exhumed to be moved to a different site in 1842, it was discovered that her legs had been sawed off in order to fit her body into the coffin and one foot was missing. She was exhumed again 103 years later, when science was able to confirm that her death aged 40 was caused by meningoencephalitis and not, as legend had it, due to poison administered by Manuel Godoy on the rders of Queen Maria Luisa.

A short way into Piedrahita, the peloton reaches a roundabout and turns right, the road leading to a junction between the CL-510 to the right and the AV-102 straight on. They take the latter option and, 100km from the start, come to the a junction where they turn right again onto the AV-104 which is straight but for a wide bend at Palacios de Corneja. Despite the name, meaning Palace of the Crows, there is no palace here; merely a partially-abandoned and dusty little hamlet - which means that it has a particular charm all of its own, and the squat church built of irregular granite blocks is both interesting and pretty. The road crosses a modern bridge west of a stone clapper-type bridge, presumably of some antiquity but, in this part of the world, possibly relatively modern. It then passes San Bartolome de Corneja around a bend before entering a straight run into Santa Maria del Berrocal. This little town became famous in the past for its cloth-manufacturing industry, sending locals out to all corners of the nation to sell the cloth and make into clothes, drapes and other items so that today the berrocalenses (as they're known) can be found throughout Spain, Portugal and Southern France. The road passes through on the Calle Concepcion which becomes narrow but should cause no problems, then turns an easy corner onto the Calle Nueva del Sur which presently becomes the Calle Cruces, leading out of town and back onto the AV-104.

Watchtower, Cespedosa de Tormes.
After 4km, the road becomes the SA-104 and enters the province of Salamanca before passing through Gallegos Solmirón. In another five, it passes north of Bercimuelle and, after 124km from the start, Cespedosa de Tormes which has a partly-ruined 15th Century watchtower which, unless work to preserve it is undertaken, will probably be completely ruined in the near future. It also has a handsome church built in the the same century, with a very imposing altarpiece and an unusual clock projecting from the roof of the tower rather than being located on the walls as is more common. The road follows the southern perimeter of the town, a route which may involve hazards such as diesel spills and street furniture, the exits to the west. It soon reaches a bridge crossing the wide Rio Tormes, from where it's possible to see the much older bridge to the south which now only stretches halfway across, terminating at a silty island in the river which empties into the artificial Embalse Santa Teresa a few kilometres north.

Soon, the N-110 passes underneath the A-66 motorway and the peloton turns right onto the N-630, travelling parallel to the motorway for a while before breaking away for the first intermediate sprint along the Calle Filiberic Villaldecs lading into Guijuelo - which ought to be made more interesting by the large number of speed humps along the road. The parcours narrows and passes right through the town, the inhabitants of which enjoy one of the highest per capita gross incomes in Spain largely due to the local pork industry - Bellota Oro, "Golden Acorn," is made here and has twice been voted the best ham in the world. The road out of town is mostly straight and should be hazard-free, but the peloton will need to negotiate a series of complicated roundabouts and junctions to get onto the DSA-170 leading to Fuentes de Béjar. Note that the parcours drops 50m in the half-kilometre between reaching the outskirts of the village and leaving it behind on the DSA-250, generating high speed and possible accidents if there are any slippery patches or detritus likely to cause punctures on the final bend.

Ledradra is reached 150km from the start, the parcours becoming narrower and potentially hazardous as it travels through the village along the Calle Traviersa and passing the town hall before joining the Calle Arriba leading out. A short distance to the south, it takes in a 90 degree right bend with a bridge; a section made even more hazardous by the surrounding trees and likelihood of slippery leaves/puncture-causing thorns on the road. The road then begins to climb before reaching Sanchotello then travels into the village via a straight section with speed humps, then turns left and over more speed humps to exit. It's a small town with nothing in the way of grand palaces or castles to attract the tourists, but there are some very pretty cottages and old buildings to interest those who take the time to look. However, the location at the foot of the forested hills is the most beautiful aspect of the place. We remain with the DSA-250 as it heads south-west, soon coming to the edge of the forest and then to Navalmoral de Béjar, a village on the verge of being completely abandoned - from 1950, when the population was the highest ever recorded at 402, it dropped to 56 in 2010. This is a pity, because it's an attractive and unspoiled place with a very pretty church and several good buildings. There's a tight hairpin bend and a bridge on the outskirts as the peloton head south, then a few fairly sharp bends and a narrow bridge further on towards the next town.

The medieval tower of the Inglesia de San
Juan Bautista.
After passing through a tunnel under a motorway, the peloton turns left onto the SA-220 which leads along the northern edge of Béjar before turning sharply right and into the centre of the town. Having passed through along a route without difficult corners but including many speed humps and a lot of street furniture, they join the N-630. Béjar has been inhabited since at least 400 BCE, later passing to Roman control and, in 713, Moorish. It returned to Christianity in the 11th Century under Alfonso VI, the fortified citadel and walls being built at this time, but was subject to several Moorish raids. During one of these raids, Christian troops covered themselves with the moss which grows on the rocky hills and thus camouflaged were able to sneak up on the Moorish stronghold and defeat it, an occasion still commemorated and re-enacted at the Feast of Corpus Christi each year. In the 18th Century, the locale grew rich from the production of cloth and became known for the liberalism of its population. This industry, combined with easy access to Catalonia, also enabled Béjar to benefit from the Civil War when it produced many of the uniforms worn by the Republican forces. It has long been home to a Jewish community, their history and that of Spain's Jewish population as a whole being told at the town's Museo Judío which includes a great deal of artifacts and information detailing the lives of Jews forced to convert to Christianity during the 15th Century. Other points of interest include El Bosque, a superb example of a Renaissance ornamental garden; the 13th Century Iglesia de San Juan Bautista; the Iglesia de El Salvador which was regarded as the town's most beautiful building from the date of its medieval completion until 1936 when all but a few remaining fragments were destroyed by fire and the Palacio de los Zúñiga which is built on the site of a Moorish fortress and retains two Moorish towers. One other place to see, if you don't care about or can ignore what takes place there, the octagonal bullring which is the oldest in Spain. It's also the birthplace of three professional cyclists: Roberto Heras, Moisés Dueñas and Laudelino Cubino, the latter having won stages of the Vuelta a Espana in 1987, 1991 and 1992.

As the peloton leaves Béjar behind, the riders begin both the second intermediate sprint and the final climb. This is an unusual situation, since sprints are more commonly held on flat sections, making the likely winners very difficult to predict - will it be a strong sprinter who can produce the explosive energy required even when riding uphill, or will it be a fast climber? An obvious choice would have been Alberto Contador, but he's not competing in the race this year. After four kilometres, having already climbed 200m, the riders come to a fork in the road and turn right onto the SA-100 and reach 1240m at La Hoya. 0.3km further on, they turn right onto the Carretera de la Covatilla and the climb becomes steeper with gradients up to 13.75%.

The ski run at La Covatilla.
Before long, the parcours comes to a series of 14 hairpin bends which take the road almost 400m higher to 1716m above sea level. The following straighter section up to La Covatilla at 1970m, with gradients up to 9.17%, is a real knee-grinder and lung-burster; making this last section a place where only the strongest climbers can triumph.

Predictions: It's a long, lumpy lead-up to a hard, high mountain - in other words, the sort of sadistic stage that makes its victims suffer before going in for the kill. To be in with a chance of winning, a rider needs to be able to keep up the pace through the first 165km - no mean feat in itself, with that Cat 3 near the start and the assorted uncategorised climbs - then arrive at the foot of the last climb with sufficient energy for a successful assault. Back in the day, this would have been an ideal stage for Eddy Merckx - or these days, were this a women's race, Marianne Vos who is increasingly looking set to take his crown as the greatest ever all-rounder. Of all those in this race, who can do that? Joaquin Rodriguez is the first obvious candidate - he's shown the best form by far of any of the climbers so far in the race and can keep on going at a high rate of knots when other climbers cannot. Another rider who may do well here is LeopardTrek's Jakob Fuglsang, a very useful all-rounder who came second in Stage 14 back in 2009 - a stage not at all dissimilar to this one if much shorter.

Stage 14, 2009 (orange), when Fuglsang came second; and Stage 9, 2011 (pink) - the stages are similar
in many ways, so will he do well again? (Note - Stage 14 has been stretched so that the profiles can be
compared. It was considerably shorter than Stage 9, 157km compared to 183km.)
Weather: A little cooler than the early stages again, chiefly due to the majority of the course being at over 1000m. Expect around 25C at the start line, falling to 22C at the summit of the Cat 3 and fluctuating between 22 and 27 for the remainder of the route up until La Covatilla where it's likely to turn much cooler with 18C predicted at the summit. The first half of the stage will be subject to light headwinds, the second half to light crosswinds. However, as ever weather can change quickly in the mountains and wind speed could rise to moderate at altitude. No rain is expected anywhere on the stage.

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