144 – León in Lycra

This post is dedicated to discovering this unbelievably beautiful region on two wheels. Cycling is super popular in Spain, at least among men. I meet very few ladies when I’m out with the bike. And when I am out with the bike, especially if alone or in company of my girlfriends (I have been trying to organise a female cycling club), I regularly get catcalled or whistled at. Must be the lycra. I wouldn’t have guessed that torturing one’s testicles on the saddle for several hours could stimulate libido. 

Apart from being very male-dominated, road cycling in Spain is popular, widespread and surprisingly safe. The overwhelming majority of drivers is considerate to the cyclists and leave them more than the mandatory 1.5 m, and most of the cars (and buses) will not overtake unless it’s safe.  There has been an ongoing discussion about codifying this (or resistance to, more precisely) in the Czech Republic, and the most common argument against it is this: “but we – cars – would have to cross the middle lane while overtaking”. Oh, I see how that can be an insurmountable problem. I wonder, what do you normally do when overtaking anything else, jump over it? Can your car grow wings and soar? And the cyclists, do you push them off the road directly? Actually that’s rather a common practice on british roads, usually peppered with labelling the cyclists with either a C- or a T- word. None of this happens in Spain, which I still find hard to believe after two years of cycling here, given the Spaniards are not the most relaxed people (or drivers) on earth. 

The prettiest view in León: Reservoir of Riaño and peak Yordas in the background

The entire north of Spain is a cycling paradise. Other parts of the country are lovely too, but the bonus in the north are the temperatures that never get unbearable, for the time being at least. The northern regions of Asturias, Cantabria and León regularly host stages of La Vuelta a España. Alto de l’Angliru, La Camperona, Lagos de Covadonga, Riaño, Puerto de Tarna were al featured in the recent years, so if you want to compare yourself with the best of the elite riders, you have infinite possibilities. If you just want to enjoy fantastic rides, then low traffic and breathtaking scenery compensate for the difficulty of the route you chose. I was alone, so I haven’t done any extreme ride, but I explored my surroundings to a fair measure. However I would love to come back here for a proper cycling holiday, possibly with company, as riding 100+ km on my own is perfectly doable, but more tiring than necessary.

Lois / Catedral de la Montaña: a quick, mostly flat spin that can be easily done after office hours and before sunset. Take the N-625 towards Riaño (which too, is an option for a decent under 3 hrs ride if you want to squeeze some mild climbs in), but instead of continuing towards the reservoir, turn for Lois just before entering Las Salas. The road gently climbs through the gorge of river Dueñas for about 10 km, then the valley opens to reveal a magnificent church that seems a little out of place in such a tiny village. The nickname “Cathedral of the Mountains” does it justice. You will have to return the same way if you are on a road bike, as the paved road ends in Lois, but if you’re on a gravel bike, it’s worth continuing on the dirt road to the village of Liegos about further 10 km away (mostly downhill), where you get back on tarmac and you can loop it all the way around the reservoir to Riaño and back home. Strava details here

Puerto de Tarna + Puerto de las Señales: this was the longest ride I’ve done during my stay in León, 120 km and mountainous, maybe a little bit too long for a solo ride, but worth the effort. Start climbing towards Riaño and around the reservoir through the valley of Esla towards Puerto de Tarna mountain pass (1492 m). This was part of a Vuelta stage few years ago, only they climbed Tarna from Asturias and descended into Riaño (which is the clever thing to do, as I learned at my expense, because the wind almost always blows that way). From there continue the to gain altitude for a few more kilometres to Puerto de las Señales (1625 m). The overall climb is long, but steady and the gradient is not terrible. The beautiful views over the reservoir of Riaño and the peaks on both sides of the Esla take your mind off the effort (to a point). The only problem is, as mentioned, the wind direction, as you are likely to climb into a headwind. I should have listened to the advice of my neighbour and do the ride clockwise. Once over the second pass, it’s a long descend to Puebla de Lillo and around reservoir of Porma to Boñar. The hardest part comes (at least for me) towards the end of the ride, the last 20 km on the state road are a bit bumpy, and before reaching Sabero you have to climb what would normally be just a hill, but now you have 100 km in your legs and the 3km/200m ascend is straight and all in front of you and just takes no end. Therefore, your mental strength and granny gear come in handy. Strava details here.

Santuario de la Virgen de la Velilla: 70 km and hilly, can be easily completed after work (at least in july when the sun sets at 10 pm). Get on the road 626 at Cistierna and follow it until Puente Almuhey, where you turn into the valley of Tuéjar (the sanctuary is signposted). You will reach the church of Virgen de la Velilla (where the road ends) after about 10 km of a gentle climb through beautiful villages scattered in the valley. I already mentioned Renedo de Valdetuéjar and the story of the monumental façade of the noble palace in my previous post, today I will speak about another village, San Martín de Valdetuéjar. There are two reasons it deserves to be visited. 1/ Lagunas de San Martín: your only option in the area for a swim in water that doesn’t stop hearts or break bones. There are many river beaches in the mountains of León, but swimming (or even a dip) is only for the bravest of the brave (I did, in case you wonder). The two flooded mines next to the village have pleasant temperature for swimming, and are also a popular spot for a relaxing beach day (or night) for local families and young people. There are no structures, so bring food, drinks, bluetooth speakers, inflatable flamingos, anything you normally need for a lazy day on the beach. 2/ Second point of interest are the peculiar mermaids on the façade of the local romanesque church dedicated to Saint Martin, dating to the 12th century. According to the legend, a group of local monks could not resist the graces of female pilgrims that took refuge in their monastery one night. When the abbot realised what had happened, he cursed the women and turned them into mermaids that inhabit river Tuéjar to this day, while the men got away with merely building the church in question as punishment, if you want to call it that, and adorning it with the images of mermaids as reminder of their sin. Because, of course, the devilish women took the pious men against their will, kicking and screaming. Naturally. Strava details here

Valporquero de Torío climb from Vegacervera: when I visited the caves of Valporquero earlier in the month, I made a promise that I would come back with my bike. When the time came, I only had time for an afternoon ride, so I parked in Vegacervera, rode through the gorge of river Torío and climbed to Atalaya de Valporquero and back. The climb to the caves is a cul-de-sac, but it can be incorporated into longer routes, for example you can cross through Correcillas to the neighbouring valley of river Curueño, and you can even continue to climb all the way to San Isidro ski resort and descend through the valley of Porma to Boñar, which makes for an epic all-day ride with some serious climbing. The possibilities are endless. Strava details here.

La Camperona – the iconic hilltop stage finish featured in Vuelta a España 2014 and 2016 and the ultimate proof that professional cyclists are all high as kites. In case you had doubts. Let’s not talk about the fact that climbing 3 km of gradient oscillating between 16 and 24% at 15 km/h (like Nairo Quintana) at the end of 200 km long stage is beyond reach of common mortals; it’s their job after all, they train for it, and human body can be forced to achieve many insane deeds. I just don’t understand why would anyone put themselves through that much suffering sober. You want me to climb that thing? Give me any drug I can get away with. On the other hand, that is exactly the question I ask myself every time I go for a hilly ride: “Why am I trying to convince myself that I like cycling uphill?”.  Because I most certainly don’t. Yeah, the feeling when you reach the top is very rewarding and all that, sometimes the views are superb, but my legendary exclamation “Fuck Strava!” says it all. (It was during cycling holiday in southern Spain last year and someone suggested I should climb a little more than to the bar where we were due to have lunch after having already climbed for 20 km, to complete some stupid Strava segment. As if.) Nevertheless, when my neighbours in Verdiago suggested I should give Camperona a go, my ego prevailed. I even created a moderately successful fundraiser for the occasion, given London to Paris 2020 had been understandably cancelled. And to tell the truth, the fact that I was putting myself through that ordeal for charity was the only reason I did not give up. La Camperona is simply painful. I moved at the critical speed of 2.8 km/h, where it’s difficult to even stay on the bike (seems like I may have some core muscles after all), I stopped in the hairpin curves to bring my heartrate to a level that didn’t seem alarming (also because that was the only place I could stop and get back in the saddle), and when I finally made it close to the finish, where the gradient briefly drops to 11% (as opposed to 24), I experienced the most exhilarating feeling of being able to breathe as the road felt flat. And when I reached the top I threw up. Bakewell cherry tart flavoured energy gel. Not ideal. Strava details, even though they are nothing to be proud of, here

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