Lagos de Covadonga
Spain's answer to the Alpe d'Huez?

We are in Northern Spain for a few days, en-route to the Pyrenees and the Dordogne, staying at Arenas de Cabrales in the Picos de Europe, Spain's first National Park. It is lovely place, easy to get to. Just an hour and a half's drive from Santander after a relaxing ferry crossing from Portsmouth.

The Picos de Europa is a great place for cycling, walking and rock-climbing. The most famous landmarks are the imposing 500m cliff face of Picu Urriella, or Naranjes de Bulnes as it is more commonly known, and the Cares Gorge. The Cares Gorge is an accidental tourist attraction - many years ago when hydro-electric power was developed, a channel was made diverting the water of the Cares River at Cain to be utilised 12km down stream at Poncebos. A path was constructed for servicing the HEP water channel and it became a major attraction - the Cares Gorge is stunning, there is no road and the path has allowed many people to enjoy it. It really is one of the wonders of the world and the local government know it. The northern end at Poncebos is only 6km from Arenas and easy to get to. The southern end at Cain is in the middle of nowhere and reached by a narrow and steep road. Not able to walk the gorge both ways in one day and not willing to base yourself at Cain? Simples - a minibus runs allowing you walk one way. Mind you it takes around 3 hours to walk the route and at least 2 hours to drive to Cain from Arenas...

Anyway back to the cycling. The Vuelta has visited this area many times. Recently a stage finished at Sotres, which is 15km further on from Poncebos deep into the mountains. Alberto Contador clinched a Vuelta success with a stage win at Funte De, which as the crow flies is only a few miles from Sotres, but about 100km by road.

The most famous climb of the area is undoubtably Lagos de Covadonga (indeed only Pico Valetta and Angilira come close in all of Spain). It has featured over 20 times since 1983 with our own Robert Millar (remember him?) winning in 1986. Climb by bike lists it as 1,056m of ascent over 16km, starting at 78m and finishing at 1,134m and averaging 7.4%. But this does not tell the story - the first 5km are almost flat - the real climb is from 158m to 1,134m in 11km with a 30m descent 1.5km from the end. This really makes the average over 9%

I had decided to bring my new gravel bike on this holiday - an aluminium Trek Checkpoint with disc-brakes and 35mm tyres. I am used to climbing on my carbon Madone with rim brakes and 23mm tyres so this was a different experience. Despite the clouds obscuring the mountains, it was a hot and humid day with no breeze and I was feeling the extra weight of aluminium and disc brakes and every single mm of those 35mm of tyres. On the plus side, being 11 speed  with a long cage I have a 32 tooth sprocket on the back and a 50/34 compact on the front so the 34-32 gear certainly helped.

The road surface is good and the traffic is professional drivers only. It is a really popular tourist spot but cars are not allowed up - they have to park in one of 5 car parks and get a coach to the top. It can be unnerving sharing a narrow, steep twisty road with coaches (Sa Colabra?) but I would rather share the road with the pros than the tourists. The biggest problem were the cows, sheep and goats wandering around like they owned the road.

Actually the animals weren't the biggest problem - the biggest problem, when already in the lowest gear, was an 800m section advertised by this sign:

Not what you want to see when already in 1st gear
Winterfold Hill in the North Downs may be steeper but no where near as long. 800m at 15% made me question my choice of holiday bike. I am going searching for flat gravel paths to see what it is like in it's natural environment.

Unlike French mountains, there are no markers counting down the distance and telling you the gradient and at the top there is no sign to take a photo at. The number of cyclists was very low but the lakes were thronging with people who had taken the easy way up.

The un-catalogued Checkpoint ALR6 -  I had the groupset upgraded to Ultegra
The scenery at the top was compromised by the low cloud but there is no doubt that on a sunny day this would be an absolutely stunning location. The vertical gain is over a kilometer, but starting so low compared to alpine climbs means that you can take a few liberties. All mountains must be treated with respect but the weather forecasts had been so accurate that I was comfortable at this height sans gilet and arm-warmers. I could always get a taxi down if it was too cold!
Lago Enol, the first of the 2 lakes. Though prolonged heavy rain does make a third lake appear
The very top bit of road was quite poorly surfaced so maybe a gravel bike was the correct choice. The disc brakes certainly give confidence on the descents, especially when needing to slow down for cattle, and I was no longer rueing my choice of bike. The adventurous hikers walk deep into the National Park from here away from the crowds.
The profile from - look at that red after 11km

Martin Harris
July 2018


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