I wanted a late summer break for some sun and some climbing in the mountains. Having been to the Alps on several occasions, I was looking for something different. The Picos de Europa in Northern Spain was suggested and in August myself and another club member headed there went there for an adventure and to tackle some of the most iconic and brutal climbs of the Vuelta.
And straight away a baptism of fire awaited. We arrived at our hotel in Potes I packed our bikes and warmed up for the week with a climb up Fuente De - the climb made famous in 2012 when Alberto Contador won to take control and eventually win the Vuelta. On paper it’s seems straight forward - 16km at an average of just over 4% but after a flight, 2 hour transfer and in 25 degree hear it was a challenge to the legs. We reached the summit and then had a fun descent back. But what it did was introduce us to the wonderful scenery, the fantastic roads and the courteous drivers of the region. What a great start!
Over the next few days we averaged 150km and 3,000m Of climbing a day as we progressed through the Picos and encountered the two most brutal days on a bike I’ve ever had. Until this week Liege Bastogne Liege was the hardest day I’ve had on a bike. I’ve done Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the Cingles du Mt Ventoux twice - but none of those would compare to what was coming up.
Our first full day took in the climbs of Puerto de Piedrasluengas and Puerto de San Glorio. Two wonderful climbs. But as the day went on, the summer gave us one last glorious hoorah, and as we reached Puerto de San Glorio and we started up the climb, the temperatures soared and it reached 53 degrees centigrade (43 in the shade)! The heat soared and our pace slowed, struggling to take on enough water. At one point when we finally rode though some shade it was time for a break and recover some energy to the reach the top. I have never looked forward to the breeze of a descent as much as that day. The evening was spent rehydrating!!
The next day was another classic Vuelta Climb - Lagos de Covadonga. The climb has been called the 'most important climb in the modern history of the Vuelta' and has always been a bit of a fighting ground for the competitors. The challenge comes 7km from the lakes when there is a 800m section of 15%! We were told that the climb was shut off to cars - however the numerous coaches taking tourists up to the lakes on the narrow roads provided a sometimes scary obstacle. The decent tested my nerve, approaching bends at speed only to find a coaches approaching and nowhere
easy to get out the way!
Day 3 took us to the town of Riano - a new town built when the old town was flooded for the building of a huge reservoir.
But what a site the huge reservoir was, surrounded by the mountains as we rode all round it’s outside on the wide and quiet roads.
Day 4 was a long long day, taking us to more of the historic climbs including Alto de Cobeteria and the Ventoux of Spain - Alto de Gamoniteiro.
But what had come before was just a warm up for what we had in store the next day. In the damp mist of the morning, we set off from the hotel in St Christiana de Lena to take on the Alto de L’Angliru - perhaps the most famous and brutal of the climbs the Vuelta has to offer.
Although it was only included in the Vuelta for the first time in 1999 as a rival to the Alp d'Huez and Mortirolo), it did not take long before it was dubbed 'the most demanding climb in professional cycling'. The is 12km, but it has an average gradient of over 10% and has extended sections of 20-25%! It was here that David Millar threw down his bike metres from the finish line in protest of the brutality of the climb in the conditions. It was here that Contador said farewell to racing with his win just a couple weeks after we had left.
In short, it was the hardest climb I’ve ever done and never have I felt so relieved to reach the top. Never before have I gone up a climb and just never thought I would make it to the top. Avoiding horses in the road was one challenge. But struggling up sections, losing grip on the road and wondering with each pedal stroke whether the bike would actually go forward or just slide back under me was scary. And just when I thought I couldn’t go on.... the road levelled out and the finish was in sight!! Reaching the small car park at the summit was a mix of elation and relief - the pain was over!!
The last day of the bike too us back to Potes and finishing off ten week as it started, with a climb of Fuente De. And just as much as an achievement for me, by the last day I had also started to enjoy descending!!
Coming home, I could reflect on some hugely challenging and a enjoyable cycling. The climbs and scenery was equal of anything I’ve ridden in the Alps - while the quiet roads and incredibly good surfaces made fast descents a delight.
And the madness of it all - One day I know I will go back and tackle the Angliru again....