Short Tour of the Picos de Europa
I had been on holiday a few times to Northern Spain but never cycled there. There have been two impediments: transport to get to the area and the weather. As a departure from all my previous trips, I decided this year to hire a car, both to allow me easier access to the Picos but also as an insurance policy if cycling proved impossible. Here is the report of the trip.
Arrival in Bilbao
I travelled from Manchester to Bilbao. I picked up a car at the airport, which was very cheap - £58 for six days. They gave me an Audi A3 saloon, which was a bit tight for the bike box. Having been unable to find my way to the hotel, I eventually parked in an underground car park, a couple of hundred metres from the Silken Indautxu, where I was staying. I unpacked the bike in the car park and then carried the box to the hotel, which they agreed to store. It was raining heavily, so I ate in the hotel. A 20 euro menu, including wine, was very good value.
DAY 1 POTES ROUND TRIP - 109km - 1872m climbing
I set off for Potes just before 9 and arrived about 1130. The first 150km are along the motorway but the last section is along a twisting road. I parked in a free car park on the edge of town, reassembled my bike and set off by 12. Briefly the sun shone.
The first ten miles are an easy ride through a spectacular gorge, leading to Hermida. It's the main route into Potes but lightly trafficked. At Hermida, I turned right to take the road to Puenteventa. It was the first of the many spookily empty roads I was to ride. The road climbs for several miles through woodland. The town is 30 miles into the ride. I stopped for a piece of tortilla. It was raining by the time I got back under way but it was fairly light and blew over after half an hour.
The second part of the ride was more challenging. The road climbs for over 20 miles, with a stiff section up to a reservoir. The dam wall is huge and it seems improbable that one can ride to the top but the road snakes up the mountainside to get you there. There are some great views.
Having climbed the best part of 6000ft over 50 miles, the last part of the ride is a very long descent. The road was in good condition and not that steep, so it made for a very easy and satisfying finish. I had my rain jacket on but it felt a bit cold, which was sign of things to come.
I stayed in an apartment in the centre of Potes, the Sierra de Oso, which was very well furnished and reasonably priced. There was a brief thunderstorm shortly after I arrived, which I was glad I missed. Potes looked a bit forlorn in the rain but it is a pretty town. Away from the main road there are a cluster of smart bars on the Calle Abandon. I ate at the Sólidas. I had roasted octopus, which was very tender but a bit over salted, followed by a stew of pork cheeks. It wasn't cheap but was the best food of the week
DAY 2 RIAÑO
I set off on the 56km drive to Riano just after 8 – it took nearly an hour and a half to get there. The road out of Potes is spectacular and would be a beautiful ride. The Hotel Presa in Riano let me check in my luggage and I got ready to set off. I had a base layer, top and rain jacket, long gloves, a pair of tights and overshoes on but I hadn't reckoned for quite how cold and wet it was. Riano is over 1000 metres above sea level and I climbed another 300m into a headwind with driving rain. At this point I was soaked through and getting very cold. The prospect of another 45miles and 5000ft of climbing, with thunderstorms predicted, just didn't appeal, so I decided to abandon, racing back to Riano. I had packed for cool not freezing conditions and unfortunately the Rapha raincoat which had been very effective in similar conditions two years ago in the alps has lost its waterproofing. If I could repack again I wouldn't have bothered with the summer gear but put in my winter kit. It was a shame, as this ride would have taken me into the heart of the Picos. Later in the day I saw that the weather had made the Spanish news, with snow falling at 1700m.
Back in Riano, I made the best of the day. It has a spectacular location but is quite an unattractive town, where I wouldn't choose to stay again. I had expected to watch the European Championship match between England and Wales in the hotel but it wasn't showing on terrestrial TV. Very kindly a bar found a German satellite station showing it, so I settled in to watch and had a couple of beers.
In the evening I had a very basic meal of egg and chips, with some jamón ibérico thrown on.
Day 3 Cangas de Onis - 65km - 1023 climbing
I set off before nine for Cangas de Onis. The drive was every bit as good as the day before. The road travels through a long gorge. I felt a bit car sick, it was so twisty.
Having parked in the town and assembled the bike, I had a decision to make about whether to tackle the Lagos de Covadonga. It was raining and the mountains were deeply covered in cloud, so I chose to miss it. The ride was due to be the highlight climb but in the circumstances seemed like it would be no fun at all. I did a forty mile loop instead.
The first stretch was again a very lonely but attractive climb over the foothills to the coastal plane.
There was then a fast stretch to Ribadesella. Ribadesella is very pretty resort but not at its best that day. As I entered the town, it began to rain very heavily. I scrambled for cover in a cafe, dripping all over their floor. By the time I had eaten, the rain had eased but I felt even more justified in passing up Covadonga.
I rode 10 miles out of Ribadesella before taking a rural rode back to Cangas. It's unmarked on some maps but in decent condition. I didn't see a soul for the next six miles. The road climbs gradually before really kicking in. The surface was a bit mossy and my tyres started slipping, so I had to get off and push for the last bit. Because the road was so narrow and steep, most of the descent was spent on the brakes. It came as a bit of a relief to get back to civilisation.
Thoroughly soaked but not cold – the temperature had been better – I put on some dry clothes and then drove to Llanes. I had been there a couple of times before, first in 1992 and then in 2006. It's a wonderful resort town with great beaches and some good bars and restaurants. I stayed in the hotel Miroalas who gave me a lovely room overlooking the harbour. They also had a drying room for my clothes. It was still raining when I went out in the evening, layered up against the cold. I ate at the Siete Puertas, which had a very reasonable menu, with fabada, beans and blood sausage, followed by hake. It lacked sophistication but I was starving and it certainly did the trick. There are probably better choices for a more gourmet experience.
DAY 4 Llanes
The weather was brighter and warmer in the morning, with only a couple of showers forecast. The ride out from Llanes was I think the highlight of the trip. The LL7 winds its way up into the mountains. There are great views from the top of the pass and a wonderful descent.
The next section of climbing was less attractive and in rain but the pay off was great. There is a long shallow descent, with the Picos to the right forming a wonderful backdrop. The road then follows the river down through the valley. Turning off eventually to the left, another lonely road takes one back across the foothills to the coastal plane. I had to follow the N634 for a while but this was practically empty because the motorway now runs alongside. One last steep climb goes via Andrin, which has a particularly lovely beach, then I was back in Llanes. It was a good way to finish.
It's a two hour drive back to Bilbao. This time with the aid of googlemaps on my phone, I found the hotel basement car park, which made the boxing of my bike an easier task. In the evening I went to the Casca Vieja, which is full of bars. The streets were packed with people of all ages. The contrast to British city centres couldn't be more marked. I tried a few pintxos in a few bars and then ended up in the Sideria Asador. Even though I managed to hang on until 9.45, it was pretty empty and only started to fill after 10. It was a fun experience. There is a huge cask of cider from which everyone pours their own drink, holding the glass in the stream several feet away from the tap. A huge t-bone steak and cheese with walnuts – you are given your own nutcracker – made it a meal to remember.
Return from Bilbao and concluding thoughts.
I returned to the airport early the next morning.
Going to the Picos always had an element of weather risk. On the upside, thunderstorms which had been predicted didn't materialise but it was considerably colder than normal for June, even for this area. It is without doubt an exceptionally beautiful place, still off the beaten track, as hours on the road seeing barely a car proved. I had two very good rides, one where I felt it was an endurance test I passed and another I failed. I would like to return, hopefully with better weather and, if not, a better wardrobe.
Although necessary for this trip, I found the driving between places took something away from the idea of a tour. It also took something away from the completion of a ride because I wasn't at my destination. There were certainly advantages of riding without panniers. Next trip, however, I think I will return to the traditional tour