Being half Spanish, as a child I would spend the summer holidays visiting my mum’s family in Asturias on the rugged northern coast of Spain. Back in the 70’s Spain was still in the sway of the ageing dictator, Franco (and my Tio Antonio still looks back fondly to those days). The roads were primitive and having spent 2 days driving down from the Channel ferries in northern France, we all dreaded the last section along the N634 from the border at Hendaya in the Basque country, to Llanes, the picture perfect fishing port where my Abuela lived. The 120 miles would take about 8 hours as the road wound up and down every inlet on the coast and you could spend miles behind a wheezing and clanking Pegaso truck. You would also see car wrecks of those whose patience had run out with depressing regularity.
Once in Llanes our rhythm adapted rapidly to the ?life of the Spanish paysano. Every morning I would go to my Tio Pepe’s for a pail of milk from his cow and maybe some eggs from his chickens. I’d help take the cow down to the stream for a drink and back to Abuela’s for breakfast. If I was lucky it would be one of those eggs, so fresh and with a yolk of deeper yellow than the cross of Pelayo on the Asturian flag.
My Abuelo would be seated leaning on his walking stick in the corner of the kitchen. He always used to frighten me with his grumpiness and lackof patience with 3 rowdy small boys, but when he smiled he lit up the room. He was a member of the?Spanish Marines?from before the Civil War and told us stories of being more afraid of the wolves in the mountain above Llanes than he was of the fascists.
Those mountains were a constant object of my imagination. I knew that beyond the coastal sierra lay the fabled Picos de Europa and my brothers and I always looked forward to the trips we made to this incredible mountain range. One annual trip would always be to the Lagos de Covadonga. The lakes Ercina and Enol are accessed by a road that winds its way into the mountains from the shrine of ?Covadonga, the very heart of Asturias where the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared to King Pelayo and his soldiers. They had their backs to the wall and the Moors were on their final push to complete their conquest of Iberia, however the vision inspired Pelayo and his men to defeat the Arabs and begin the Reconquista (which took several hundred further years of intermittent war). If Catholic shrines with their associated bus loads of tourists and tat stalls are your thing, then by all means, tarry at Covadonga; we were much more interested in what lay beyond. The climb up to the lakes is over 12 kilometres long and rises for 900m at an average grade of 7% with steeper sections of 15% and ends in a dead end with a small bar. It’s the perfect arena for a bike race and it’s no accident that this climb has become the Vuelta’s equivalent of the much more famous Alpe d’Huez in the Tour.
Back in ’86 Britain’s Robert Millar won in Covadonga and yesterday the modern Millar, David led onto the climb. His efforts led to nought as the super aggressive Carlos Barredo wrote his name into the honour roll of victors of this climb.
Cyclists will always want to climb the venerated climbs of the Tour (Mont Ventoux, the Tourmalet, Galibier and Alpe d’Huez) and the Giro (Passos di Stelvio, Mortirolo and Gavia, and I’m no different, but for me the climb I?most want to do is this one, Los Lagos de Covadonga, that rises through the mists into the centre of one of the most magical and wild places in western Europe.