Welcome to a world of steep climbs, impossible gorge roads and wild bears. Welcome to Asturias and the Cantabrian Mountains in northern Spain. The moutains here may not rise to the skies, peaking out at 2,600 metres, yet the roads to the summit are steep and scenic, making these short, sharp climbs breathtaking in more ways than one.
Challenging and beautiful, from the famous climbs of Angrilu and Lagos de Covadonga, to the lesser known Gamoniteiro and Jito de Escarandi There’s a good reason why the Vuelta a España returns to these roads each year.
Day 1 – Angrilu and Gamoniteiro
Noon. I’ve been awake so long it seems cruel to ride and not sleep. Yet I’m busy sweating on the side of a Spanish mountain, unpacking and assembling my bike in slow-motion. I’m on the roadside beneath the stares of what feels like the entire village watching out of their windows. I scuttle off to get changed too, nobody wants to see that no matter how short of entertainment.
The ride begins. Eventually. I’m unprepared. I’ve not studied the routes I put together seven months earlier. I don’t even know which climbs I’m riding until I find the routes on my Garmin. Oh, Gamoniteiro and Angrilu, two of cycling’s hardest climbs? I’m sure it’ll be fine.
The first climb begins with a punchy 11% gradient where it remains. Welcome to the Asturias! 11% is the norm around these parts. Doesn’t sound much. By comparison most climbs in the Alps are about 7%. That 4% makes a huge difference. After riding 11% for a few miles, 7% feels almost downhill by comparison.
I love riding single track roads. I love riding in the clouds. Sure, there’s no views but the conditions are eerily still, magical. I can’t see a bloody thing and I’m loving it.
The road twists and turns. Tarmac disappears here and there, tyres jumping over the jagged rice pudding somebody has thrown down. Not easy when climbing 15% plus.
The antenna at the climb’s summit downs my Garmin. Heart rate disappears. Perhaps I have died and gone to heaven. If so, it looks a lot like Mount Ventoux.
Down we go. A short ride to Angrilu along a single track lane walled in by fern. I’m going back in time. Raptors will pounce any minute.
Surrounded by beautiful lumps and bumps. So green. That’ll be all that rain. The weather begins closing in. Gulp.
Hello Angrilu. Darn, it’s open. Up we go. Sorry legs. Angrilu is claimed to be one of the most difficult climbs in Europe, up there with Italy’s Mortirolo climb. Angrilu wins hands down. The gradient constantly shifting, it’s hard to find a rhythm. For the longest of days I’m climbing 20% plus out of the saddle. It goes on and on. I’m not even thinking anymore, all I can do is gasp.
Yet this climb is much more than steep gradients and pain. It’s a beautiful, leg breaking climb.
Cows know best. Turn ye ass around, they suggest.
The camera flattens the vicious gradient. If only my legs could. Thunder. The mountain gods have awoken. I conquer the summit and then my nerves to descend. The roads become rivers. Mud washes down the mountain. Chocolate rivers. By the time I return to the flatlands I’ve worn out brake pads and arm tendons.
GPX file on Strava: 49 miles and over 3,400 metres of climbing
Day 2 – Alto de La Farrapona and Somiedo
Warning bears. I’m pretty sure the sign is drawn to scale. There’s a certain thrill riding through the territory of something that could eat you. Sure, back home badgers are vicious little critters but still.
The ride begins through a gorge. The Asturias are riven with gorges. There’s something very Indiana Jones riding between these thin canyons. I almost expect the rock walls to close in on me like the scene from the garbage disposal unit in Star Wars. What a road. Once again I’m amazed at the feat of building a road here.
The climb of Farrapona begins through a typical lush green Asturias scene. There’s not a soul around. I see no other cyclists. Barely a car.
The landscape is constantly changing, a worthy distraction from tired legs and a speedometer struggling to top 6 mph.
The road sign deer look so majestic. They remind me of the time I won a small bottle of babycham in a tombola as a young teenager, giddy excitement as we smashed the lid off the bottle for a taste of the forbidden booze. So began that other obsession of mine.
Higher now, the views behind unrecognisable from the road I climbed. I’m not one to look back in life but it’s rewarding when climbing a mountain.
Yellow gorse blossoms brighten the landscape. It’s been another wonderful climb. Tranquilo.
The summit arrives as quickly as the tarmac road stops. Interesting.
Decision time. Onwards or to return from whence I came? The road ahead is rough and pitted with rocks, the descent steep and seemingly never-ending. The dusty trail weaves through the valley below but I see no end. Off-road time. It’s been a while since I changed an inner tube.
The dirt track resembles a river bed, gravel turning to rocks and back again. I zig zag, fingers and brakes tight, hands hurting already, back wheel sliding, skipping, bouncing, clunking. Sorry bike. Houses ahead. Hope.
Back on the smooth stuff. No punctures, no worries. Valley views for miles.
The scene reminds me of a verdant Midwest. Gel eating cyclists, not gunslinging cowboys roam these badlands.
Wild horses await at the top of the next climb, a mountain I wasn’t expecting on the route. Must prepare better. I’m cursing aloud. I’m done for. Water running low, the sun has no mercy. No shade. No views. Just up, up, up. So thirsty. A roadside waterfall is tempting. I’ve been told not to trust roadside water fountains in Spain, how about natural waterfalls? So thirsty. Ice cold water splashes against me. So cooling. So thirsty. Gulp.
My stomach rumbles as I return through the gorge where I began. It’s all in my head and not my stomach of course.
The final climb begins. I need to pass my car on the way. Must not climb in and go home. Tempting. Yet the jagged limestone rock formations of the final climb reward.
Near the summit of Somiedo are the remains of an old settlement. Teito traditional shepherd huts mingled among more modern cousins. I try to imagine living up here, no electricity or gas. Winters must have been fun. Progress is a wonderful thing.
GPX file on Strava: 67 miles and almost 3,800 metres of climbing
Day 3 – Lagos de Covadonga and Jito de Escarandi
Anticipation. Salivating. I’ve watched pro riders seemingly glide through the majestic landscapes of the Covadonga climb many a time in the Vuelta a España. Swooping downhill at the summit towards the mystical lake, the false flat, a moment of calm before a final flurry to the finish line. One day, I thought. Today was that day.
Mist. What else? This is the Cantabrian Mountains, protector of Spain from the Atlantic storms. 18 degrees here. 35 in Madrid. 30 back home in London. Cycling holiday eh?
It’s a beautiful climb. It’s rare television delivers. The mist barely lifted so I can’t comment on the views. Riding through the cloud brings an otherworldly atmosphere that I absolutely love more than any view.
The famous lake at the summit. At no point did I imagine I was in the Vuelta a España. Oh no.
One final push to another lake surrounded by green pastures, the one the TV shows from the helicopter camera before overlaying the top ten race classification. Serenity unlocked.
My original plan had been to ride the 20 miles to the next climb, Jito de Escarandi. But that was a big day. Too big. A short drive and I found myself rolling through yet another incredible gorge.
And then the road went up. I had little expectation of the road ahead.
So began one of the greatest climbs I’ve ridden.
Sweeping bend, gasps at every next corner.
The magic never stopped.
The valley climb passed through the village of Sotres. Most riders stop here. Yet hidden at the back of the village is a narrow white road. Here the climbing really begins. As signalled by the arrival of mist. More magic.
More cows. Pretty relaxed.
Up and up. The never-ending climb, gradients increasing near the summit. What a climb.
And back down through the gorge. It might as well be yet another gorge given the views are so different on the return. So tired now. The rides have built up. Sleepy. I’ve forgotten every word of Spanish I know. All two of them.
GPX file on Strava: 45 miles and over 3,500 metres of climbing
Day 4 – A ride into the magical Valdeón Valley
It was dark when I awoke. 6am. The lazy man doesn’t beat the rain. Get up bum. Duty called. I failed to eat a family sized cheese and potato omelette for breakfast despite retching a lot. The glamour of a cycle tour in the middle of nowhere. I’m still not getting used to the taste of iced coffee. With sugar. With milk. Ugh. Coffee should be three things. Hot, black and strong. This is none of them.
Driving 2 hours over mountains is a joy with views like this. No other cars on the road. The road is like a Top Gear wet dream. I spazz everywhere. Who needs hot coffee when you have adrenaline? Careful now. The roaming horses. The meandering cows. The easily spooked deer. The crazy goats. The beautifully quiet and twisting and dangerous roads. Zoom zoom.
An easier day awaits. 55 miles and 2,400 metres of climbing. Ha. Morning mist hangs over the water. Clouds low. I trundle off at speeds approaching stop.
You don’t quite see it here but the clouds hang low beneath me. To be above the clouds you must climb. Another climb I’d conveniently forgotten.
Almost time for the magical dead-end Valdeón Valley I first learnt about two years earlier from fellow blogger, the Man from Icon, who visited the region. It was duly noted and now here I was.
Down we plunge,a the heady thrill of knowing what goes down must climb back up the scary looking 20% ramps.
I’m mindful not to be blasé. Be in the moment. So many great scenes this week. Spoilt.
Who builds roads like this anyway? Yeah I know, let’s build village in this little valley, 500 metres below the rest of the world. This has to be the world’s longest cul-de-sac. I bet the milkman’s not happy.
By now I’ve passed the roadside waterfalls with their icy spray. I’ve entered a magical land. Damn I’m pretty sure I passed a unicorn back there. A sleepy cobbled village awaits at the end of all the swooning and gasping. The road is dotted with a few people old enough to have built the road. Back up we go. A different type of gasping awaits.
The climb out of the valley isn’t too bad given it’s fairly short. Well, at least the climb back to where the valley road begins. Turns out, this is about half of the actual climb. Bugger.
Being slow is not an issue with views like this. As with much of my riding in the Asturias, I kept coming across random people walking in the road a million miles from anywhere. Old men with sticks mostly. Sticks they first whittled at the age of five no doubt. Where they were heading or from whence they came I cannot say.
The climb goes on forever. I don’t know it but I’ve long since burnt through the morning’s cold omelette. The bonk never creeps up on you. It pounces. I’m done for.
Fortunately it’s all downhill from here. I snort a lime gel and squirt a lemon gel in my eyes. Anything to stop feeling this bad. Clank. My chain drops. I look down, seems I’ve also dropped my front derailleur. Oops. Had no plans for that big ring anyway, not in the Picos mountains!
My revival when it eventually springs is strong. At first I assume a tailwind but no, I am actually pedalling in circles again. Whoosh. Everything’s relative after climbing mountains at 4 mph for four days. 20 mph feels like you’re falling from space.
GPX file on Strava: 55 miles and almost 2,400 metres of climbing
Day 5 – La Cubilla
Storms forecast. A lie in. Body aching. The weather is why I’d rejigged my climbing itinerary. It’s why my rest day ride is now at the end. 42 miles and 1700 miles climbing. Enjoy. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a day too many.
Up and out. On the bike and dry. I’m fine. Life’s good. I’m not at work replying to meaningless emails or chatting shit in another bullshit meeting. I’m riding into the clouds.
The cows are always watching. Always watch out for cows, especially on the descents. Including their poop.
Water droplets form on the hairs of my leg. It’s not raining but I’m wet. The temperature dips, visibility reduces. I climb.
The views from the summit are quite spectacular. So I understand. I pause for a moment. It’ll be awhile until I return to such heights. Two horses grazing to my left. Neither of them give a shit. Temperature dropping. The forecast rain will soon be here. Better retreat to the lowlands.
More cows. The descent is like a poor video game, swerving to avoid potholes and cow shit and stones and cows. Stopping takes the chill from the air.
The rain begins to fall ten miles from home. I’ve done well. I’m already wet from the clouds but put the hammer down to avoid the rain. Idiot. I say hammer, it’s more like a toffee mallet.
Done. Five outstanding days of riding. Cycling in Asturias. Wow.
GPX file on Strava: 45 miles and almost 1,800 metres of climbing
How to get there
Fly to Asturias airport. Flights are infrequent. Bilbao is only a couple of hours down the road. You’ll need a car to get around between the climbs.
Where to stay
I stayed in Pola de Lena. Not sure I’d recommend it. The Angrilu, Gamoniteiro and Cubilla all start near here yet the town is pretty dire. I’d probably stay nearer to Cangas de Onis which is close to the Covadonga and Jito de Escarandi climbs, plus some amazing gorges. Either way you’ll need a car to cover the climbs.
If you’re pushed for time, I’d say you can reduce the climbs to the Jito de Escarandi and Covadonga, plus Angrilu and Gamoniteiro (the latter two are a 1.5 hour drive from the first two climbs). That’s two days riding but ideally you’d want a week to explore more.
Not all of Spain is sunshine and heat. Not the Asturias. Temperatures on my rides ranged from 10°C to 32°C. On average it rains every 1 in 3 days. You will likely get wet. Make sure you’ve lots of rubber left on your brake pads before you leave home!