Saturday 21 January 2012

Vuelta a Andalucia Prologue Preview

The Vuelta a Andalucia kicks off on the 19th of February, providing us with a chance to get an early look at riders' form and - for fans in cycling's North European homelands - a reminder of what the sun looks like. It's an event with a long pedigree, having first been run in 1925 (though that was the last one until 1955), and has been won by some of the greatest names in the sport over the years, including Rudi Altig, Freddy Mertens, Gerrie Knetemann, Oscar Freire and Joost Posthuma.

Castillo de Sancti Petri, San Fernando
(image credit: Peejayem CC BY-SA 2.5)
The prologue is an almost perfectly flat 6km time trial to be held along the Avenida San Juan Bosco in San Fernando, a town known locally as La Isla - and it was in fact an island at one time though it's since been connected to the mainland and as such has become a peninsula, the natural defensive advantages of this geography being a major factor in the city's resistance to Napoleon's forces in 1810, when San Fernano and the Province of Cadiz surrounding it were the only part of Spain that didn't become subject to French control. There is archaeological evidence of human inhabitation stretching right back to into palaeolithic times in the region, but San Fernando didn't become a city until the Phoenicians developed it into an important centre of the fish salting industry. They also built a temple to their god Melkart here, which was later re-dedicated to Hercules when the Romans took control of the region. The Romans established many potteries and built the first bridge between the island and the mainland, which allowed the city to become rich - however, it was during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella that it really became prosperous, its port being one of the main arrival points for ships laden with goods and gold from the newly-discovered Americas. While San Fernando resisted Napoleon, it fell to the French in 1823, two years after his death. This point marks the beginning of the city's downfall - once the French had left, five years later, it became lawless until the 1868 Revolution when it was taken over by Juan Bautista Topete when he formed a rebel government standing in opposition to that of Queen Isabel II. As a result, the city came under frequent bombardment from the Royalist Navy and sustained much damage. The 20th Century was not kind to San Fernando - the hardships that all Spain endured under the Fascist government of Franco was compounded here by the loss of the ship-building industry and the decline of salt-manufacturing. Neither was ever replaced and, to make matters worse, the population began to grow rapidly during the latter half of the century and now stands at around 97,000 - this had led to widespread unemployment and poverty. While the city enjoys some income from tourism, it remains one of the poorest in Spain and as such will be thankful for the influx of people and euros attracted by the race.

The riders start just across the road from the police station (36°27'53.20"N 6°11'32.44"W) and travel south-west along the wide dual-carriageway road, past the Instituto de Educacion Secundaria Sancti-Petri on the left with a peculiar igloo-shaped portico and a conical steeple - this marks the location of the finish line. There are many empty lots along the street, behind which buildings in varying states of repair can be seen. but the clean and modern structures by the roadside show that limited prosperity is returning to the city. The road surface is good here, but a shallow gulley and low kerb on the right - separating the road from parking places - may be best avoided as it appears to collect dust which, very often, means there'll also be broken glass, stones and other puncture-causing debris. This feature extends along almost the entire parcours, in and out. Unless the road is resurfaced for the event, riders will also need to look out for potholes around a drain cover as they pass by the Calle San Nicolas as it leads off to the right 190m from the start (marked 1 on the map) - there's a narrow smooth strip to the left of the drain, whereas the route to the right is wider but will require deft handling to avoid hitting the kerb directly ahead which protrudes some was into the road before the roadside parking spaces begin again.

The parcours (click for enlargement)
(mapping: OpenStreetMap CC BY-SA 2.0)
65m ahead, the landscape opens up on the left of the road and we get our first glimpse of the remains of the salt-producing areas. Other than a few ramshackle bits of wood here and there, nature has taken over to such an extent that from ground level the area looks like a salt marsh. From above, the regimented and geometric layout can clearly be seen. Small craft are able to navigate the tidal channels and boat-owning locals may well use it as a good place from which to see the riders pass. 390m from the start, the parcours arrives at the Ronda del Estero roundabout (2). The palm trees in the centre are encircled by a ring of gravel which, if any has managed to get into the road, could cause problems in the same way that the gravel that collects on the outer edge of mountain hairpins does, but if the road has been swept the section around the ronda is not technical and unlikely to cause problems - however, construction sites along the road may mean diesel spills on the road surface as riders turn when arriving at and leaving the feature.

It's a pancake-flat parcours - expect to see the time trial specialists getting up to
full speed.
Having left the roundabout behind, the riders pass onto the Avenida de la Ronda del Estero; a road that is perfectly straight and, but for a few drain covers, free of hazards for half a kilometre. Due to the short length of the stage, riders will be likely to get up to high speeds on both the outward and inward journeys along this section. It ends at a roundabout almost identical to the previous one and presents the same dangers, then enters a 406m section that curves gradually to the right and is again hazard-free apart from a few drain covers. The next roundabout (3) also has gravel and is made slightly more technical than the last as the right-hand passage around it is tighter. The following 461m section is much like the previous but curves gradually to the left, the road surface remaining good throughout, then it arrives at another roundabout with more gravel (4). The passage around this one is tighter than the last, but not so tight as to make crashes likely. Meanwhile, the Avenida de la Constitucion de 1978 to the right is one of the main roads leading into the city and the road surface shows evidence of sand dropped from construction site traffic - this and diesel spills could form a potential hazard if not removed.

Iglesia de San Pedro y San Pedro
(image credit: Peejayem CC BY-SA 2.5)
The following section, just under 1km in length, is the final one before riders reach the turning point and head back to the finish line. It bends slightly left 110m after the roundabout (5), then runs perfectly straight until the very end. The surface is very good for the initial 190m after the roundabout until the road reaches the Calle del Pinto Torres Aley on the right (5a) - some rather poor quality repairs here had left a rough section and an ideal place for bits of glass and so on to collect, but this may have been put right since. There were a few rough spots by the construction sites a little further on, but if these have been completed the road is likely to have been resurfaced - in which case, it'll be a fast section. The road ends at the turning point marked by a small roundabout (6) on the Calle Cayo Junio Draco - passage around it is tight and the road here was in bad shape in the past due to heavy vehicles from the construction sites directly ahead, but again this may have been repaired.

The return journey uses the opposite side of the road which, for the first 800m, is straight and good quality; thus allowing riders to get a fast start. It then reaches same rough section as before by the Calle del Pinto Torres Aley (5a), but the hazard is increased here because vehicles leaving the marshy area to the right leave large amounts of sand (and, in wet weather, mud) on the road, making it slippery. Caution is required as far as the first roundabout (5). Getting around the roundabout is straightforward - the bends are reasonably tight, but the road is wide and offers plenty of room for a bike. The race is now on the 461m section  between roundabouts, the surface on this side being equally as good as the opposite but the passage about the next roundabout is also tight (4). The following 406m section is very good and ends in a less technical roundabout (3), as is the next half kilometre; though the open area to the right (3a), which appears to be used as a car and lorry park, tends to result in sand on the road - and as ever with trucks, possible diesel spills. If the wind is blowing from the east, riders may also need to look out for carrier bags and other litter blown across from this area.

Salt marshes to the east of the parcours
(image credit: Peejayem CC BY-SA 2.5)
The next roundabout is the Ronda del Estero (2) - there is another large, open area to the right here (2a) which makes this passage around it potentially more hazardous than earlier because gravel from the roundabout is joined by sand: photographs of the section show a lot of it on the tarmac. Once around it, the riders pass back onto the Avenida San Juan Bosco for the final section; as straight and smooth as the opposite side and hence an ideal spot for spectators who wish to see just how fast professional time trial specialists can ride - they'll be travelling at full speed along this final part of the course. The finish line is by the  igloo-shaped portico at the Instituto de Educacion Secundaria Sancti-Petri (36°27'51.00"N 6°11'33.90"W).

More stages: Pro 1 2 3 4 (not yet available)
Provisional start list

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