3 September 2015 0 Comments

Asturian Hills

Last year I achieved a long held ambition to climb up to Los Lagos de Covadonga in Asturias. It’s a climb that has famously featured in lots of editions of the Vuelta à España and involves just over 1000 metres of ascent. This year my ambition went a little bit further. Last year’s ride was basically from the bottom of the climb to the top and back. This year I wanted to follow the route of the Los Lagos Sportive which runs from the Cangas de Onis to the coast, then loops back to the top of the mountain and back. It’s a ride of only 125km or so, but packs in two big climbs prior to reaching the Covadonga climb.  The first one, La Torneria is a brilliant 2nd category climb that I had already climbed, the second, Alto de Ortiguera I hadn’t done except by car – it’s the main road from the coast to Arenas de Cabrales. To be honest, I wasn’t inspired by this climb so I thought I’d try it as part of a circuit prior to attempting the full route. Sure enough, although the traffic wasn’t a problem – Spanish drivers are generally very considerate of cyclists, it was just a steady grind up a narrow valley without views or much to commend it. I then reconsidered and decided to include the climb up to Riensena which I had done for the first time the week before (see my blogpost about this stunning ride). So, the route would be over La Torneria, up to Riensena, then swing south over Igena and Collado de Zardon to Corao before tackling the main event. The return route would simply be a reverse, missing out La Torneria as I reckoned my legs would be shot to pieces by then.

Luckily the day of the ride dawned cool and after pain au chocolat and several espressos at the campsite bar I set off about 8:30. On a whim, I threw in an extra small climb, the ascent of Alto de Andrin above the picturesque village of Cue. The climb has stunning views of Playa de Ballota and the rocky Asturian coast. I figured it would be a nice warm up prior to hitting La Torneria. I dispatched the climb in short order and was soon onto the first major challenge of the day. La Torneria proper is just over 400 metres of climbing, but in reality, because you start climbing as soon as you leave the coast, it’s closer to 500 metres. I took it very steadily through the groves of eucalypts letting their aromatic herbal scents hanging in the morning cool penetrate my lungs, opening up my breathing for the mountains to come. It was a full half an hour from Parres before I began the drop back down to the wooded valley of Caldueño. Once I reached the main road, instead of following the sportive route to the left I took a quick right/left dogleg and began the long climb up to Riensena. After the sleepy Asturian hamlets of Riocaliente and Mestas the road narrows and hugs a rocky valley side veering in and out following the contours and climbing steadily. It’s the sort of climb that you can remain seated for the most part but it’s almost 9 kilometres long. The top was almost 40km from the start point and nearly half of it was climbing!

The sleepy village of Riensena

The sleepy village of Riensena

Turning left onto the AS340 more climbing up to Igena followed, but once past the cheese factory you have a lovely long descent through pines and eucalyptus. It’s narrow and technical but the surface is pretty good on account of the Vuelta following this road last year. The lingering dampness under the trees caused me to slide a little on one bend, but I kept myself upright and focused my attention for the rest of the drop. Towards the bottom the trees open up allowing views of the rocky peaks around you. Here, at Zardon you really are in the wilds of the Asturian mountains and it doesn’t stretch the imagination too far to see wolves and bears among the boulders. In fact, a few wolf packs still roam in these wildernesses and maybe even a few Cantabrian brown bears cling on. Reports of sightings of bears are now incredibly rare but a small number of wolf packs have been counted. I think I saw one once on a childhood holiday, but I definitely remember my Abuelo telling me and my goggle eyed brothers bloodcurdling tales of being more afraid of the wolves than the fascist soldiers while on the run in the Picos late in the Civil War.

Fortunately the ascent to the Collado de Zardon is relatively short, about 100 metres of climbing before you are swooping down again through Labra to Corao. By the time I reached the main road I’d covered only 55km yet had been cycling for 2¾ hours. My legs already felt pretty cooked so I felt a quick stop for Coca Cola and espresso might help before I tackled the Big One. Not so much as it turned out. Lagos de Covadonga is a 13km climb which rises over 1000m. It starts fairly steadily at around 5-7% but has a steep middle section of 15% just after half way, an area known as  “la huesera“, or “the boneyard” and thereafter rarely relents to much below 10%. I knew it would be a struggle right from the start as my legs had a hard enough time on the switchbacks leading up to la huesera. By now the sun had come out and although I relished the shade provided by the luxuriant forest on the lower slopes, as I emerged into the boneyard the sunbounced off the dazzling white limestone and mocked my feeble zigzagging as I struggled to maintain forward momentum. The lack of traffic on the road helps massively although you do need to hold your nerve as the tourist buses wing their way up and down. A brief pause at the Mirador de la Reina allowed me to catch my breath before the last brutal sections of ascent. The climb was in the bag, but I was seriously worried about the return route. I hoped that the cereal bars and long descent would give me the energy for the hills still to come.

Los Lagos selfie

Los Lagos selfie

The last major ascent of the route was the 13km climb all the way back up from Corao to Riensena. A further Coca Cola stop in Corao gave me the courage to set out, but my legs were now struggling with the relentless upward nature of the route. Nevertheless I still managed to maintain some semblance of a reasonable cadence on the climb – it’s a gentle one with only a few sections where pedal stomping is required, but I confess to being pretty relieved as I began the drop down from Riensena to Mestas. The biggest problem was now proving to be concentration on the descents. The road here hugs the valley side and there are lots of blind corners with guard rails. A serious error couldn’t be contemplated but equally going to slowly was allowing my mind to wander. The long descents had also built up a lot of tension in the shoulders as I hugged the drop handlebars and repeatedly braked into the interminable bends.

As I rolled through Mesta and Riocaliente once more I had a decision to make. Do I reverse the route back over the Torneria or do I wimp out and head straight for the coast? It was an easy decision. I had covered 115km and had been cycling for 7 hours. My legs hadn’t felt this trashed since I last attempted the Fred Whitton. My miserable average speed of just over 16kph showed just how much climbing I’d done. I turned left and scuttled for the coast. There was one last climb to contend with – a mere hump of 60metres at Rales just before Posada, but I was dreading it. As it turned out I got over it fine and with a few more rolling kilometres to go it was a very tired cyclist that click-clacked into the bar at my campsite and ordered an Estrella Galicia. Never has a bland Spanish beer tasted so good.

According to Strava I covered 129.7km in a moving time of 7 hours exactly. It also recorded a total ascent of 5222 metres – a single ride record for me by quite a distance. Some of the climbing is brutal, most of it is at reasonable grades. All the roads are incredibly quiet (apart from the few kms from Cangas to the foot of the Lagos climb) and the views and environment that you ride through is simply stunningly beautiful.

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