800 metres of inhumanity - Leon to Oviedo and the Angliru
"800 metres of inhumanity. No climbs have these percentages. Pedalling does not move you forward"*
Never having been to northern Spain, it was an easy choice for the prologue of our 2013 cycle-tour. I´d ridden across Andalucia, and north to Merida, but the damp, grey Cantabrians never seemed much of a lure..basically because of the unpredictability of the weather. Notorious for the rain and fog that clings to the peaks, its a myth that the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain..it doesn't. It falls mainly up here! However, the chance to tick a few off the bucket list was enough to overcome my avoidance of cycling in the cold, grey and damp of the Picos de Europe.
Day One of the "Circle of Death Tour" and we´d set ourselves a heady target. A decent lead out north from Leon to Oviedo, taking in the Asturian nightmare, "the Angliru" (No. 8 on the "procycling" bucket list). A great morning sunshine greeted us as we wound through the streets of Leon. For various reasons, the "grand depart" was the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, a modern landmark building in the centre of Leon. Highly praised by those in the know, I didnt see what the fuss was all about, admittedly, it was closed, but the stained glass effect was somewhat diminished by the scum that layered the multicoloured widows, Gordon Liddy would not be happy ("..somebody ought to clean these windows..there is an tremendous build up of gook all over them!"). Noticing the impatient looks on fellow crew, we set off north on our annual adventure. The lazy start in in the bright warm Sun was sedentary, a little map reading and a few unplanned detours through some back streets saw us heading north to the Puerto de Pajeres (1378m). The topology of the Cantabrians means that the southern slopes are more gentle, before crossing the divide into tumultuous lumpiness between the peaks and the Atlantic. The road to La Robla was gently rolling, and could have been any normal Sunday morning ride, nodding at the other roadies out and about, cursing the odd discourteous driver, soaking in the countryside, having a laugh and a chat. From La Robla, the road rises and twists and turns through the verdant fields and slopes. Always up, but never more than a steady incline, its the length of the climb that starts to make the legs know this is mountain country. 60km of "up"...it starts to tell.
Puerto de Pajeres (1378m) is a typical alpine "reveal". Up to here the roads have been contained within a valley, either side of the road hemmed in by steep fields or wooded glens; the road always curving through the pass with never more than a kilometre or more visible ahead. As the road approaches the summit, the valley broadens and flattens, and the incline starts to level off...taking you to panorama that reveals the hinterland of the Picos, twisted convoluted valleys, dominated by snow capped peaks. The vista is invigorating, and foreboding. Scanning the peaks trying to identify the the summit of the Angliru, and then looking into the valleys below, it was clear there was some serious climbing between where we were, and where we wanted to be. The day had started...
The severity of the descent is a stark contrast to the subtle and relaxed ascent. The descent is exhilratingly fast, swooping broad bends mixed with tight elbows and short flat sections. The HR raised through excitement not exertion, we plummeted down the road that clung to the valley walls, following the fast flowing river as if we were carried upon it like flotsam. The descent dumps you fairly unceremoniously in a crumpled, dishevelled little town, Pola de Lena. It gave me a shot of "valley bottom fever", an overwheleming feeling of being hemmed in and a real desire to get out of it, to climb up and away from this claustrophobic place and up to clean air and broad vistas.
The maps give little indication of the vertical topography of the area, we knew where we were going, which roads to take, but no idea what they were like, and how long any climbs would last, or how severe they were to be, and from Pola de Lena, the climb proved to be immediate. A steep ramp from the town that rarely relents. Harbs was away with his usual gusto, but not having a clue what was ahead, I paced myself a little slower. Good job, this was no short ramp. The climb away from the drab little place was 6km and just shy of 500m of ascent, a nasty little surprise that we were not expecting. It was getting pretty hot, teetering around the 30´s and the lush greenery meant it was pretty humid too... The narrows roads snaked up the side of the valley, dappled shaded sections, exposed switchbacks looking over the mountains, tiny hamlets...passing John Deeres with dogs chasing them. Tranquil and idyllic, save for the salty sweat seeping into the eyes, the aching in the quads and calfs, and the knowledge that we´re burning all this energy and we havent even got to the foot of Angliru yet!
The climb peaked on a shoulder that signified the entrance to the crucible of the Riosa region, that tumult of hill and dale that forms the foothills of cyclings most feared climb: the Angliru. The twisted and contorted valleys below were lush and green, meadow and hedgerow, clusters of hamlets and farms salting the landscape. The descent to Vega and the official start was fast and narrow, high hedgerows and overhanging shrubbery, twisting narrow country lanes, the odd John Deere and trailer...typical rural cycling. The signposts in Vega are clear, "Angliru..this way". This is what we came for.
The climb ascends from the off, relatively gentle for the first 1km, and then it becomes a real climb; pushing hard I opted to keep in as low a gear as possible all the way, this was no time trial, the ambition was just to get up, non-stop: I wanted to save whatever energy I had.. Lucas and Maddy in the Land Rover gave ample moral support, and handed out the bottles and gels as needed. I knew that the Angliru has two distinct and very different phases, the first 5k is just a steep, but very doable, climb. It rarely goes beyond 10%, averaging about 8%. Read that again..., thats 8% for 5k, that is a sustained and taxing climb by any measure... And riding those 5k is very different from looking at profile on a web site. The road snakes up the sides of the nursery slopes and over to your left you see the high palisades of the limestone ridge that looms over the valley, the Angliru, I felt like Ahab, hoping that I wouldnt lose my legs to this monstrous cetacean.
A respite comes at about 5k, a small plateau, a green rounded top, where you can bale out by hooking a right and heading down toward Oviedo, or bite the bullet and head for the summit. It was a glorious day, families were having picnics, twitchers watched for Falcons, children ran amongst the meadows. It was like a scene from a movie...just before the Nuclear detonation shatters the peace and harmony and wipes them all out. As you round the corner from the flat it assaults your senses, you know immediately that this is going to hurt. This is radically different from the first section, approaching the bottom and looking to see the road go around the next corner, you had to tilt your head up. Thats right, to take in the next small section you had to tilt your head up it was that steep. I attacked as best I could, straining at the bars, forcing down on the pedals, praying for forward motion. I only survived by tacking across the incline, desperately seeking to take the sting out of the incline. Gritting teeth and creaking cranks I made the first corner, only to be greeted with the same tortuous climb.
From the plateau, the Angliru rarely dips BELOW 14%. And those sections are not split by life giving wide switchbacks. The Angliru is long stretches of ascent with very little relief, if any, even the few curves are short and steep as chuff. The kind Burghers of Riosa have now placed sign posts at every ramp letting you know the minimum and maximum gradients of the section you're about to assault; the curves are named and "minimo 13.5% - maximo 17%", and other such mind-warping statistics displayed. The strain was constant, the effort shuddered through the entire body, every muscle group was being called upon to move you forward. The lactic in the legs was hurting, the lungs were hurting, my head was pounding, sweat cascaded from every pore and dripped and splashed onto the bars, I couldnt lift my head from staring at the wheel and just focusing on propelling my way up this whale. I´d rounded the Picones, (maximo 21%), and the Cobayos (maximo 21.5%) and for a fleeting, minuscule moment, I believed I could do it, that i had enough training miles in my legs, enough stamina, enough determination to summit this climb without stopping. Sure I was hurting, but the adrenalin was taking care of that. I rounded the next corner, steep, insuferably so, and tacked and inched my way forward.....only 2k to go, just 2k. And then I made the mistake of lifting my head...
The sign said "minimo 16.2% - maximo 23.5%"...for 400 metres. My legs were taken away with a single glance. Instant meltdown. Ambition died. I just stopped and fell off. The 400 metres ahead were just crazy steep, and impossible for mere mortals. I started a slightly hysterical giggle: this climb is nuts.
I sat and pondered the vast gulf that existed between hopeful amateurs and the professional peleton. That the pros race up this climb is mind boggling. The lactic dispersed, and my body started to regain a level of functionality. I looked over the Riosa and wondered how Harbs was doing way below. Lucas and Maddy pulled up and we swapped incredulities. The occasional car that passed was always struggling in first gear, high revving and straining. Lucas had the Landy in first low, first high was never going to get up this climb: this is not a climb to stall on: roll backwards and you're over the precipitous edge. As we messed about, we saw Harbs emerging form the shade of the trees and onto the stretch below, far below. Progress was painfully slow, some bloke who had parked to admire the view got out and walked past him. He looked like a snail crawling the edge of a straight razor, crawling, slithering, and surviving, this was his dream, his nightmare, and he was surviving.
He rounded the switchback, pain writ large across his face..we cheered, we shouted, we took the piss...its was very funny. He got as far as us...and fell off.
Somewhat recovered, we determined to summit the climb, at first I was all for chucking the bikes in the back of the Landy and driving to the top, but Harbs had bigger conviction than I...embarrassingly, he was happy to try and ride up. Bastard! So we set off again. We didnt get far, another 200 metres or so, but the next corner was in sight and it was walkable, I knew that after that corner there were no long stretches at that gradient, but there were some steep ramps to come, and less than 2k to go. It was doable, just. Zipvit gels were sucked down, and I set off from the bend with renewed determination. It was cooler now, a slight breeze, the rest had enabled some recovery and although still painful, the legs were working.
The summit was a bit of an anti-climax to be honest. After all the hype of the billboards at every corner, the pain, the hysteria..., the summit is eerily free of any signage telling you you're actually at "the top". Theres a small "mirador" with stunning views to the north and east, and a small car park; but this is not the top..the road still climbs...not severe, but its still "up", so it cant be the top. I cycled further up the beyond this false hope...and slowly the road levels and starts to sweep over the cusp of the ridge and start a descent. This is where we called it. The top. The Angliru..Done! No souvenir shops, bratwurst stands, or hairy bikers. Just a few cows, the silence of the mountains, the glow of the setting sun. This is truly an epic of a climb. Without doubt the toughest we´ve done: much harder than the Mortirolo, just as majestic as the Gavia, and we had it all to ourselves.
The descent was fast and furious, bones ached, the last few Km to Oviedo a chore, and only the lure of a cold coke kept us going. We collapsed at the hotel, day one over. Cycling´s toughest climb....Done.
We stayed at the Ayres Hotel in Oviedo - Stunning Calatrava designed hotel.
Ascent: 4,569 m
*(headline of Marca newspaper 12th September 1999 - the day the Angliru first appeared on the cycling calendar - "800 metros inhumanos. Nunca se han subido unas rampas con estos porcentajes. pedalejas y no avanzas" - Marca newspaper 12th September 1999.)