Back in the summer of 722 King Pelayo was in a fix. For several years he had been asserting the independence of the Kingdom of Asturias from the Moors (Arabs) who controlled most of Spain. The Moors had finally grown tired of this irritation and sent a force to put down the rebellion. Cornered, with as few as 300 men and facing a much larger force,Pelayo did what all good Christian kings did in those days and offered a prayer to the Virgin Mary. She duly appeared and her miraculous intercession ensured a famous victory beginning what became known as the Reconquista.
The site of the Battle of Covadonga deep in the mountains of Asturias is commemorated by a shrine, large basilica and monastery and is also a major tourist magnet full of associated purveyors of religious tat. Of much greater interest to the cyclist is the old mining road that climbs the mountain above the shrine. It wends its way upwards for 12 kilometres to the now abandoned mine and to two small bejewelled mountain lakes. The beauty of the setting is undeniable and from here you can look across to the highest peaks of the Picos de Europa.
La Vuelta a Espa?a first visited Los Lagos in 1983 and has established itself as the iconic climb of the race. Since Marino Lajarreta’s maiden victory the race has climbed up to the lakes on a further 18 occasions with Britain’s own Robert Millar taking the honours back in 1986. Victory on top of Lagos de Covadonga is to the Vuelta what victory on L’Alpe d’Huez is to the Tour.
I first became aware of the climb considerably before the first visit of the professional peloton as Covadonga was a regular summer’s excursion for my family during our visits to my grandparents in Llanes. Indeed, I first conceived of climbing it on a bicycle back in the summer of 1981 during which I had cycled with a friend from Northants to Spain. Having cycled 1100 miles to get there, though, the beach seemed much more attractive and we never attempted the climb. I always assumed that there would be many further opportunities, but the years passed and now I find myself in the summer of 2014 with both the time and the means to finally fulfil my ambition.
Although the foot of the climb is only about 45km from Llanes (where I’m staying) I hadn’t tackled an HC (Hors Categorie) climb before, so I decided on a conservative approach by driving to the mountain town of Cangas de Onis and cycling from there. This meant that the family could make a day trip of it and take a bus from Cangas to the lakes. In the summer the road above Covadonga is closed to traffic after 8:30am meaning that the regular bus service (every 15 minutes) is the only way to get up to the lakes. You can park all day in Cangas for 2Eu and the return bus ride is 7.50Eu for an adult, 3.50Eu for a child.
Cangas is 12km from Covadonga and although you are heading uphill straightaway, it’s a very gentle gradient so that would suffice for a warmup for the climb proper.
As you approach the sanctuary you can see the basilica on the hill above you. But as the road sweeps around to the right you’ll see the turn off to Los Lagos on your left. The gradient immediately steepens and you start climbing steadily through a long series of switchbacks. At this point you are climbing the wooded hillsides and you only get occasional glimpses of your increasing altitude when you get gaps in the trees. Because the road is closed, most of this part of the climb is accomplished in peaceful solitude with just occasional tour buses coming up or down. Although the road surface is smooth throughout, it’s quite narrow so be prepared to pause as buses pass. This whole section lasts for about 5km and has an average gradient of about 7%. Most of the time the slope is pretty consistent so I got into a steady rhythm and stayed well within myself. I knew that the next section would be a tougher examination.
As you finally put the trees behind you, you see a small green sign announcing the Cuesta de Huesera. Welcome to the boneyard! With dazzling white limestone cliffs to your left bouncing the sunlight onto the 800metre strip of tarmac at a solid 15% gradient, La Huesera will be the section on which your attempt to climb this mountain will live or die. I immediately switched to my “bailout” 27 tooth rear cog and ground my way up this ramp at little more than walking pace. The hairpin at the top provides momentary relief, but the altitude gain is still unrelenting and the climb continues steeply through more switchbacks until you finally crest a summit.
Los Lagos de Covadonga isn’t going to give in easily, however, and this crest merely signifies a short pause in the climbing. By now I had been climbing for over an hour and I found the last two sections after short descents very demanding. The reward, though is an expanding vista of the high peaks of the Picos de Europa. The final section of the climb comes after a brief descent to a collection of shepherds huts known as Vegas de T?on. It’s a long and hard 10%+ and had me wondering if I would ever make it, but as I crested the final bend the first of the lakes, Lago de Enol lay before me. I carried on past the lake to the road’s end at the second lake, Lago de l’Ercina before slumping on to the short cropped alpine meadow, ambition accomplished.
The end of the road is a scant 23km from Cangas, but in that distance you’ll climb over 1600m. The difference between this climb and those of the high Alps is its relative low altitude. Lago Enol is only 1134m above sea level. Compare this to the Col du Galibier topping out at 2650m means that as well as all the climbing you have to do to get up there, you have thin air to contend with, too. Without having experienced the climbs in the Alps I would reckon that the Lagos de Covadonga climb might be at the more achievable end of the HC category climbs of Europe. I certainly found it a tough day out, and although I had only cycled 46km by the time I had returned to the car, my legs felt as though they’d had a hard day out.
Getting to Covadonga
You can fly by Easyjet from Stanstead to Asturias airport near Oviedo or to Bilbao. There is also the overnight ferry service by Brittany Ferries from Plymouth and Portsmouth to Santander. This service is very popular so booking early for a summer trip is recommended. But, since Santander is only 60 miles from Llanes it would be straightforward to book as a foot passenger and take bikes giving you a much cheaper and more flexible option.
There are loads of hotels in Cangas de Onis, but we always stay on the coast at the Camping Las Conchas in Poo (they don’t take reservations so don’t arrive on a Friday night). There are also plenty of hotels in Llanes, but when my brother or parents come over they always stay in the Montemar.
Staying on the coast gives you access to all the fabulous beaches in the area so family can chill while you test yourself on the climbs.