Thursday 8 September 2011

Vuelta a España - Stage 19 Preview

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The Basque flag
It's been more than three decades, but finally the Vuelta returns to the Basque Country - home of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team which is partially sponsored by the autonomous Basque government and of Movistar. Love of cycling is in the blood of the Basques: Iban Mayo, Haimar Zubeldia, David Etxebarria and the great Miguel Indurain are all from Euskadi, the name of the country in the unique Basque language.

The beautiful landscape of Euskadi
Basque nationalism has a long history, having emerged as a political movement during the 19th Century. However, the Spanish government chose to ignore the region's calls for self-determination. The combination of political disenfranchisement and leftist opposition to Franco's fascist regime (which, it should be remembered, used techniques no better than those used by terrorist groups, including torture and murder of unarmed civilians) led quickly to the formation of groups willing to use violence in an effort to get their message across. The most infamous of those groups is, of course, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, "Basque Homeland and Freedom." Formed in 1959 and deemed an illegal terrorist organisation by the European Union and United States, ETA's gudariak (Basque word for "warriors") waged a fierce war against the state and left a trail of death and destruction in their wake - at least 820 people, including 340 civilians (some of them children) have been killed by the group since it began growing strong towards the end of the 1960s. ETA - along with other groups such as Iparretarrak ("The Northerners"), Komando Autonomo Antikapitalistak ("Autonomous Anti-capitalist Commandos") and Kale Borroka ("Street Fighting," a loosely-organised group of leftist activists) - began to step up its activities in the late 1970s, with a particularly bloody year in 1980 when it was responsible for 92 killings, making it simply too dangerous to hold cycling events in the region.

Bilbao - largest city in Euskadi and one of Europe's finest
This was shown to be the case in 1992, when a car bomb expolded in an underground car park the day before the Tour de France was due to arrive, causing many of the riders to consider leaving the race (they were subsequently persuaded to continue). Then, in 2007, the Tour was directly attacked - two small bombs using ammonal, which ETA had the ability to manufacture and had used on numerous occasions, were detonated at the side of the road shortly after the Caravan had passed. Though the blasts were small and nobody was injured, investigation showed that the bombs had used 0.5-1kg of the explosive and had been disguised as discarded plastic food boxes, presumably with the intention of maiming spectators - the first ETA attack since a ceasefire declared in March of the previous year, not the first time the group had broken a declaration of peace. A third ceasefire was announced in September 2010, with the organisation stating that it intended to use peaceful, democratic means in its ongoing fight to achieve total independence from the Spanish government and, ideally, a restoration of Euskal Herria, the Greater Basque Country which includes territory in France. In January 2011, the ceasefire was declared permanent and, so far, it appears that ETA really have turned their backs on violence - thus, Unipublic have decided that the situation permits the Vuelta to return to the beautiful region. The Basque people will doubtless be overjoyed to see one of the greatest events in their most beloved sport once again take place in their nation. Expect a party!

Panoramic view of Santona and the National Park (CC2.5)
The stage begins with the usual neutral zone starting on the Calle Castrejón El Arenai in Noja, right next to the beach and at almost the same place Stage 18 drew to an end, and heads east for 60m to a roundabout and a right turn onto the Av. de los Ris which the peloton will follow for 1.24km before turning left onto the Av. de Santander. This will lead east to the Plaza Noja, with 90 degree left and right turns to follow for the Av. de Cantabria, joining with the Av. de Zent Mar at a roundabout. As the road curves and comes to the beach, it becomes the Paseo Trengandín leading out of town and becoming the CA-147. Having reached Helgueras, the road becomes known as the Paseo de Brusco for 0.49km section up to a roundabout where the route turns right onto what the race itinerary calls the Calle de las Igueras - our maps say it's the Calle de las Helgueras which, in view of the village's name, is more likely. Having followed this road for around 2km, the race reaches a junction with the CA-141 and turns left, reaching the end of the neutral zone 0.73km along the road at Copillo. Cerecedas is the first town, contiguous with Argoños where the peloton turn left at a roundabout to keep going along the CA-141, turning right at the next roundabout to follow the road over a bridge and past Berria before passing along a causeway through marshland (a National Park) into Santoña.

Fuerte de San Martin
Archaeology has shown that Santoña has been inhabited since Palaeolithic times with many discoveries dating from that period being found in the town and nearby, but it was under the Romans that it first became an important town - artifacts left by them, including a valuable hoard of coins unearthed at the Iglesia de Santa María de Puerto, suggest that it was a major settlement by the 1st Century. In common with most European towns, it declined following the demise of the Empire and by the Middle Ages was a small community centred on a monastery; the abbot - one Paterno - began a program very unusual for the day to reforest the area in 1038. From the 15th Century, the town began to grow very wealthy due to the development of a ship building industry. A boom period came in the early part of the 18th Century when the shipyards were given Royal status and a contract to build fifteen ships for the Spanish Navy. Ships are no longer built here, but the port and docks remain busy due to the extremely productive fishing fleet and canning plants. Santoña has much to offer the visitor, those who can tolerate the smell of the fish canneries, at any rate - including the church mentioned above, said to have been established by St. James in 37 CE but in fact of 13th Century construction, once part of the monastery; the 18th Century Palacio de Chiloeches which later served as a military hospital and a prison, nowadays back in private ownership but sadly in a poor state and far removed from its former grandeur; three forts (Fuerte de San Carlos, Fuerte de San Martin and Fuerte de Napoleón) and a monument to Luis Carrero Blanco - victim of an ETA assassination in 1973 and, as president of the ruling Falange and most likely figure to continue the fascist Franco regime following Franco's death, arguably no great loss to the world.

Palacio de Condestables
The Vuelta enters the town along the Calle de la Alameda, turning right at a roundabout topped with a sculpture of a human figure and moving onto the Calle de las Manzanedo and coming to another roundabout after 158m. Turning right again, the race enters the Calle de Baldomero Villegas and turns a 90 degree right onto the Calle de Marismas de Bengoa; then 90 degrees right again for the Carretera de Cicero - also known as the CA-241 - making its way via a series of bridges and causeways across the wide marshes and, 10.8km from the start of the race, dry land at a junction with the N-634. The parcours turns left and heads into Cicero, then left past a roundabout towards Treto and across a wide bridge for Colindres - this route offers excellent views of the new suspension bridge just to the south. The race moves into town along the Calle de la Mar, contiguous with the Calles de Sainz Ezquerra, de la Magdalena and Ramón Pelayo. The latter takes the race to a pair of roundabouts on the edge of town - the left route about the first is the better option as it will line up the riders for an easy route about the second and the correct exit along the N-634. Colindres is a town split into two: Colindres de arriba is the older part with more to interest the tourist and Colindres de abajo is the modern part, where many of the residents work.

Casa de Musica
The majority of people would list Palacio del Condestable as the finest building in Colindres, despite having lain in ruins ever since an attack by French pirates in 1639; but for us the modernist Casa de Musica is by far the better structure.

Laredo is reached 15.7km from the start and hosts the first of the stage's two intermediate sprints beginning on the Calle del Duque de la Ahumada as it heads into the Plaza Capuchinos followed by the Plaza de la Constitución which is contiguous with the Calles de Revellón and del Emperador. At the end, the road suddenly takes a 180 degree bend and becomes the Calle de las Escalerillas and taking in a sweeping left before a tight hairpin. Gentle right and left bends lead south-west to a junction with the A-8 motorway with the race turning right to continue on the N-634 and along a straight 1.24km stretch into Tarrueza. More unchallenging bends lead to Liendo and Iseca Vieja before the race reaches a pair of very wide 180 degree bends, one left and one right to form a giant S - while the bends aren't a problem, the road does climb quite steeply here and rises almost 60m in 0.64km: a gradient of just over 10%. It continues to rise - more gently now - into the forest and heading south-east to the A-8, then swooping north-east before an easy 90 degree right carries the peloton into a descent and across a fly-over. Having passed by a junction on the left, the road enters a twisty section featuring a medium 90 degree right, medium 90 degree left, gentle right before a 130m straight, then a tight 90 degree left, tight 110 degree right and and a final medium 90 degree left before leaving the forest behind. After following the river for a short way it turns an easy 90 degree left onto a high, slightly curving bridge and turns 90 degrees right onto the CA-151 to head through more forest to Rioseco 33km from the start.

Iglesia de San Vicente, Rioseco (from Sobre Cantabria)
This Rioseco, rather confusingly one of three villages in Cantabria and seven throughout Spain to bear the name, is famous for the 16th Century Iglesia de San Vicente de la Maza, considered to be one of the most beautiful churches in the province. Surrounded on all sides by trees, only the tower and upper part of the roof can be seen from a distance but it's well worth a closer look. Remaining ont he same road, the peloton will pass by the church before reaching Guriezo where they'll turn left at the roundabout for the CA-520. The first climb - Category 3 Puerto de la Granja with 370m of climbing in 7km - begins at this point.

A tight 90 degree right and medium-tight left at Francos lead into a short descent along the straight road to Balbacienta, the road sweeping right to avoid the village as the climb really begins. A 90 degree left lies just beyond the last house on the left, followed by an equally technical right 160m ahead. The first hairpin, a left, comes three-quarters of a kilometre later. A right comes 210m after that, then a left 170m after that and a final right 110m later. All of them are wide and not especially steep, making it a relatively unchallenging section. An easy left/right Z-bend follows, then the race passes straight across two crossroads either side of copse before heading into forest with a medium 90 degree right coming soon afterwards. Medium left/right bends follow before a short straight leading to a medium right/left combination and a straight section up to the next hairpin, another wide one which shouldn't prove testing. The altitude reaches 300m just beyond before a gentle left/right Z-bend. A gentle right as we leave the forest leads us to summit, 42km from the start and 390m above sea level according to the official Vuelta statistics (our ESA statistics reckon it's nearly 20m lower than that, but ho hum).

The first descending hairpin comes almost immediately and, other than slight caution needed to avoid gravel possibly spread over the road surface, shouldn't be hazardous unless it's raining when all hairpins become hazardous. Two sweeping left-handers carry the peloton down to the second hairpin, a left. This one is an entirely different beast altogether; tighter, steeper and right at the foot of a vertical rockface that might not only deposit gravel on the road but could also very painfully stop any rider who enters the bend too quickly for his brakes to prevent it. The third hairpin, 330m later is no challenge at all; then the road descends gently around easy bends to Montealegre, rounding a medium 180 degree bend as it reaches the village. It travels right through, becoming almost perfectly straight for 1.1km until a sweeping left leads directly into a medium 90 degree right and onto the approach towards Sámano.

Painted palm print, Cueva de la Lastrilla
(from Gobierno de Cantabria)
Sámano is another town in two halves. The north-eastern part is largely residential and almost contiguous with much larger Brazomar that will, eventually, swallow the town up; the south-western is mixed, increasingly industrial towards the edge of town. In the middle, the fields reach right to the sides of the road as though the town wears a belt - the Vuelta will approach from the west and travel through this central section before turning right and traveling onto the CA-522, leaving the town without seeing much of it. Today, the houses and industrial units are arranged along grid patterns, giving the place a modern look, but it's been inhabited for a very long time - there are palaeolithic rock paintings, especially in the Cueva de la Lastrilla, to attest to this. When the race reaches the roundabout south of the town, the peloton turn right and after a straight section pass through a 90 degree left, 180 degree right and 90 degree left as they enter Santullan. Having reached the CA-250, they turn right.

Category 3 Puerto de las Muñecas, with 290m of climbing in 4.9km, begins 54.6km from the start. A straight section of around 1.8km leads into Otanes, a village stretched out for 2km along the road. At the south-eastern end we pass by a junction with the CA-523 and head into the forest which covers the hill the race is about to climb. A medium right and left almost immediately brings us to a clearing with two buildings, then 1km later the road is crossed by a footbridge followed by a medium right, an easy left and an easy right. A medium-tight right lies 0.43km ahead, the altitude reaching 200m at the apex of the bend before dropping slightly and then climbing more steeply. Another medium 90 degree left 0.29m ahead precedes a sweeping right leading into a straight that reaches 300m at the far end before a 180 degree right. A tight left at the end of the next clearing leads into a medium left, then a tight right and the 390m summit in a clearing where two roads join from either side with 59.5km ridden so far. From this point, the road becomes the BI-3601.

Having been kept away by the violence
of ETA and other armed groups, the
Vuelta returns to the Basque Country
after 33 years.
The descent isn't particularly challenging, but as ever in forested regions bends may be slippery especially after rain - and coming off the road is always more dangerous when there are trees to hit, as was the case when Vinokourov crashed out of the Tour de France this year. There's a tight left/right Z-bend 0.3km from the summit, then an easy right followed by a tight 110 degree left and 180 degree right into Las Muñecas. A 90 degree right lies just beyond the village, leading into a tight right-hand hairpin and left-right Z-bend a short way ahead. A 90 degree right 0.3km precedes a very tight left-right Z-bend and 90 degree left immediately afterwards as the race passes back out into open countryside. A slight left and slight right take the peloton along the BI-3601 to Riojadillo before turning a sharp left at the end of the town to take the BI-2701; then right after 160m onto the BI-3261 leading into forest where it splits to become the BI-3634 and BI-3631, with the route taking the latter.

After an initial straight section through the trees, the road enters a gentle right followed by a sharper right; then reaches a section with tight ascending hairpins leading into San Esteban. The first is a tight left, not steep; the second, after 150m, tight right, not steep; third, after 290m, tight left, not steep; fourth, after 240m, medium right, not steep. A straight section leads into a gentle 90 degree left leads into a sweeping 120 degree right followed by a gentle left, then a straight up to sweeping left-right-left bends carrying the road back into forest. Once out of the trees, to continue on the same road requires turning a 180 degree left, leading to a 180 degree right and then following a wide bend into Txabarri (note the unmistakably Euskara place-names beginning to appear) before the BI-3634 joins from the right. However, if we ignore the 180 degree bend and continue straight ahead, we round a 90 degree left and head past Larrea before joining the BI-3631 a little further on. The first route is 2.4km, the second 2.13km - we suspect that, in view of the Vuelta's notoriously inaccurate road book itineraries, the second will prove to be the one taken. Just past the second junction, the road turns sharply left and then right for no apparent reason other than to add a little technicality to what would otherwise be a straight and unchallenging section.

A 90 degree left leads into a twisty section with a wide 180 degree right-hander leading into a medium right descending hairpin, not steep. Another tight left-right bend without any obvious reason for its existence could prove hazardous to anyone who enters it too quickly, since it would be easy to leave the road and end up among the trees on the apex. Finally, a 1.46km straight section leads along the valley floor towards Güeñes, 77.7km from the start of the race.

Güeñes forms part of a chain consisting of four towns - Zalla, Aranguren, Güeñes, Sologutxi - that have grown and become contiguous, forming an unbroken urban area almost 6km east to west but only 1.3km north to south at its deepest point. It's the largest town we've seen on this stage for some time and has a fine 16th Century church, Iglesia de Santa Maria. There is also an atmospheric ruined mansion, now in a state from which it could probably never be restored to its lost former glory. One of the oldest structures in the town is the Caserío Errekalde, a superb example of the gabled farmhouses traditional to the region in which two stone barn-like sections are joined by half-timbered living quarters occupying the first and second floors in between, leaving an open area below for the storage of hay (for images, click here). Once, it was also the site of the wonderfully-named Palacio de las Brujas - the Palace of the Witches - but it appears that this building vanished some time after 1848 when it was last recorded. The race enters town on the Enkarterri Kalea (Calle de Enkarterri), then turns left just past the town hall onto the Estarte Kalea which runs into the Lambarri Kalea and Ibarguen Kalea, with numerous speed humps along the way. Lambarri Kallea becomes the Artxube Kallea near Goikouria as a road joins from the right, then becomes the Mulikar Kalea as it approaches Sodupe. As we pass the town by, the road changes its name again and becomes the Lorgi Kalea, then the Olarbarrietta Kalea as it heads back into the countryside.

Don Diego López de Haro,
founder of Bilbao
The route follows the BI-3651 past La Quadra (La Cuadra in the road book, which uses Spanish names rather than Euskara) and over numerous speed humps as we travel by Zaramillo and Abuio, reaching the feeding station after 87.8km from the start. 1.9km after Alonsotegi, the road becomes the BI-3742 with several speed humps and level crossing as it enters Bilbao and joins the N-634, turning right at a roundabout to pass along it. A left leads onto the Gurtubai Kalea, then the Calle de Rafael Moreno and the San Mamés football ground; then a right leads onto the Calle de Felipe Serrate. At the end, the peloton turn left onto the Av. de Sabino Arana and need to be cautious of the tram lines as they approach the Monumento al Sagrado Corazón. Turning left onto the twin roundabouts and again avoiding the tram lines, the race takes the second exit to cross the wide Puente Euskalduna bridge which curves to the left as it approaches the opposite bank and joins the Euskalduna Zubia. At the next roundabout, the riders will take the first exit on the right and head onto the Morgan Kalea, progressing along the river until reaching the Paseo Campo de Volantínand up to another roundabout. Left carries them onto the Zumulakarregi Etorbidea, swooping around wide bends to a large complex junction with the Maurice Ravel Etorbidea. Right continues on the N-634, heading through a tunnel and out of the city to Galdakao 109.1km from the start of the race. The race turns left onto the Camino de Aperribai, left again onto the Camino de Ergoien and begins the Category 2 Alto El Vivero with 360m of climbing in 4.3km after 109.9km.

Palacio Chávarri, seat of the Civil Government
Having passed underneath the A-8 motorway, the road turns sharply right and then 90 degrees left into a short straight before another 90 degree left. The altitude reaches 200m just as the race enters forest, reaching a steep section as it rounds a sweeping left-hand bend before a very short slight descent into a 90 degree right bend at the end of the curve and reaches 300m shortly afterwards. It becomes steeper again as we pass Ganguren and hits the 410m summit just as the peloton reach the junction with the BI-3732 and turn left to head back into Bilbao. The descent is relatively simple, though a 90 degree right 0.7km after the junction could prove hazardous especially during or after rain. The long straight to follow, down to Aranoltzo San Antolin, is likely to encourage high speeds. After passing across a fly-over over the BI-631, the route turns left onto the BI-3741and then right onto the BI-631 leading into Bilbao and towards the Zumulakarregi Etorbidea and into the heart of the city. The second intermediate sprint takes place along the Alameda Recalde before the peloton turn right at the Plaza de Federico Moyua and onto the Gran Vía Don Diego López de Haro, at the end arriving once more at the Sagrado Corazón. They once again cross the Puente Euskalduna, embarking on a second circuit up and over Alto El Vivero, following the same route. Once back in the city, the race crosses the Puente de los Príncipes de España to pass again along the Alameda Recalde for 0.35km, passing by the stupendously good modernist Basque Health Department Offices, before turning right again at the Plaza Don Federico Moyua onto the Gran Vía Don Diego López de Haro for a final 0.65 straight sprint to the finish line after 158.5km.

Estación Bilbao-Concordia
As we said earlier, Bilbao is not just the finest city on Euskadi - it's one of the finest in Europe and the world. There is evidence of human inhabitation of the locale dating back to around 4000 BCE, but the city dates only from the beginning of the 14th Century; having been established by Diego López V of Haro on the 15th of June 1300. López, afforded certain legal powers in his status as Lord of Biscay, guaranteed his new city would enjoy a successful beginning by granting it certain rights and advantageous trading conditions; ensuring that his city grew rapidly in both size and importance. Two centuries later, in 1511, Bilbao was granted jurisdiction over the estuary that now shares its name, an excellent natural harbour that it began to develop and soon made one of the most important - and profitable - ports in Spain. By 1530, it was home to 65,000 people and less than a hundred years it became the regional capital. However, the following centuries saw the population fall dramatically; largely as a result of the four plague outbreaks between 1500 and 1600.

Torre Iberdrola. Bilbao does not rely on past
glories and is ready to meet an even more
glorious future
The city weathered the economic chaos that affected virtually everywhere else in the country during the 17th Century due to the presence of iron ore deposits in the region and its well-established trading links with the Netherlands and Britain. It continued to grow during the 18th and 19th Centuries, soon filling the geographical space between the higher land to the south-west and north-east and beginning to spread along the valleys occupied by the nearby villages it has now swallowed up. It survived no less than three sieges during the Carlist Wars and increased its population by 69,000 people during the last two decades of that century. As might be expected from the Marxist-Leninist leanings of ETA and other separatist groups, the region supported the left during the Civil War and suffered heavy bombing at the hands of both the Nationalists and their German Nazi supporters. It was besieged in 1937 and all bridges across the estuary were destroyed. The city's industries began to be developed once again after Falange had taken power, especially the iron ore mines which, as tends to be the case under fascist regimes, saw the working classes suffer greatly in the poorly-built and disease-ridden slums that grew up to house them - another powerful contributing factor in the decision of some to take up arms, plant bombs and commit bloody acts of violence.

We couldn't really have done this article without including a picture of one of the teams most loved by
fans and respected by opponents in the history of cycling, could we? Euskaltel-Euskadi have for many
years been home to some of the world's most talented riders. The sport would be far poorer without
the familiar orange phalanx in the peloton.
Following the fall of Falange, democratic elections were once again held in Spain and the Basques gave their support to left-wing nationalists. The Basque Country came into being as an autonomous region, with far-reaching rights to self-determination, in 1979 - just prior to industrial crisis caused by a combination of worldwide economic downturn, the gradual shift of European cities from industrial to service economies and ETA's decision to attack industrial targets. Yet Bilbao fared relatively well as the 1980s progressed, always managing to remain a few steps ahead of debilitating recession and by 1990 was well on its way to emerging as the modern and wealthy service city that it is today. This transition was helped enormously by the construction of the Guggenheim Museum, one of the most famous and iconic buildings in the world, in 1997 - this kick-started the so-called Guggenheim Effect in which cities lucky enough to have such a museum experience rapid gentrification and a sudden, pronounced up-turn in tourism. Today, the museum is visited by around one million people each year - many of them guests in the city, injecting their cash into the local economy. Today, with its healthy economy and multicultural population standing at around 350,000, Bilbao - and, with it, Euskadi - looks set to enjoy far greater growth during the coming decades than most other cities on the Iberian Peninsula. It may well be the case that the inhabitants of the Basque regions over the border in France look upon this success and begin to press their own government for the right to join them, leading to the eventual reappearance of Euskal Herria as a political and geographic entity.

The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao - one of the most beautiful and iconic buildings in the world (CC3.0)
Predictions: This is it now - just today and tomorrow for the top riders to establish domination over the race. If they fail, it's going to be a vicious dogfight all the way through Madrid to the last lap about the Plaza de Cibeles, and after all this way nobody wants that. Sky have already said that they plan to attack all the way through the Basque Country, especially now that they find themselves with a potential favourite to win the General Classification - it's not who they thought it'd be, but a Froome's as good as a Wiggins (and there's till an outside change Wiggo could win, but he'd have to ride like the devil to pull that one off).

However, since this is the first time the Basque people's favourite sporting event has been seen on their soil for so long, it would seem highly likely that we can expect Euskaltel-Euskadi to pull out all the stops and go for a stage win. Fair play to them - they have our best wishes, even if it means the British-based team loses.

Weather: Warmer than it has been: 27C at the start line, then increasing gradually to a high of around 34C at Bilbao - more than enough to make extreme physical effort very uncomfortable indeed. A moderate headwind up to the 60km mark will be very unwelcome, especially over those first four climbs. The direction will remain the same but they'll become less strong towards the halfway point, then become gentle crosswinds for the remainder of the parcours. Once again, it's expected to be sunny with no rain over the entire route.

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