Cycling’s Iconic Places. Lagos de Covadonga
Bernard Hinault says; “Lagos de Covadonga is to the Vuelta a Espana what Alpe d’Huez is to the Tour de France.”
Stage 15 of this year’s Vuelta a Espana finishes at Lagos de Covadonga, a magical mysterious place at the end of a long hard climb that has become part of the fabric of cycling’s third Grand Tour. This extract from a series I wrote for Cycle Sport magazine called Iconic Places, is about the climb.
The Bone Breaker
The lakes fill a high plateau, their surface mirrors a ring of towering mountains. We’re in the Picos de Europa, part of the Cantabrian Mountains in the Northern Spanish region of Asturias. The mountains are an extension of the Pyrenees, and Lagos de Covadonga means lakes of the deep caves. It’s a place of majesty, of history and of epic events, both cycling and otherwise.
Lagos de Covadonga looks like the writer JR Tolkien might have imagined his Middle Earth. Partly because of its remote unspoilt location, and partly because the caves would make a wonderful home for Tolkien’s mythical creatures.
Of course Tolkien’s words are fiction, although a fiction always inspired by real landscape. He would have loved it here, but the true history of Lagos de Covadonga is just as dramatic and full of mystery as Tolkien’s writing. This is where in 718 Christian forces won their first significant battle to push back the Moorish invasion of Spain from North Africa. Consequently, Lagos de Covadonga is regarded as the beginning of a historic period in Spain call the Reconquista.
A nobleman, Pelayo used Lagos de Covadonga as a stronghold from which he fought to set up the Kingdom of Asturias. Legend has it he received the ’Breath of the Virgin’ when she appeared before his soldiers here on the eve on an important battle in 722. The cave he and his men were in was converted into a place of worship, and both Don Pelayo and King Alphonse I of Spain are buried here.
So, the Tolkien imagery isn’t too fanciful, Lagos de Covadonga is a historic, mysterious and a starkly beautiful place. It’s located on the northernmost tip of the Picos de Europa National Park, 20 kilometres in a straight line from the northern coast of Spain, about 80 kilometres west of Santander. There are two lakes, Lago Enol and Lago Ercina, both filling the spaces where glaciers were born during the Ice Age.
The climb of Lagos de Covadonga was first used by Vuelta a Espana in 1983. It’s 14 kilometres long with an average gradient of seven per cent, very similar stats to Alpe d’Huez in fact. However, those figures hide a big difference between these two iconic climbs.
Lagos de Covadonga never comes close to the consistent gradient of the Alpe, except for in the middle where it’s consistently steep. There are no regular hairpins, just zigs and zags where the road tries to find an easier way up. And there’s no ski resort at Lagos de Covadonga, so no subsidised silky road surface. Then there is the ’Wall of La Huesera’. That comes seven kilometres from the summit and consists of almost 800 metres of 15 percent climbing. It’s a grim place in more than cycling terms, La Huesera means The Ossuary, and it’s the place where the bones of countless unknown soldiers from the eighth century battles were buried.
The climb starts easily in the tiny village of La Riera, but easy soon changes to a little more difficult at the sign for the entrance to the national park. One kilometre of four percent precedes the back-breaking mid-section of Lagos de Covadonga. A road shoots off sideways to the Santuario de Covadonga, and the climb racks up some more; seven, eight and nine percent, as the tarmac strip wriggles upwards. The route is shady at first, lined by Holm Oaks, but they thin out quickly with altitude and we enter the land of the Lammergeier.
Except for the rare Cantabrian brown bear, or even an odd pack of wolves that still prowl this wilderness, the Lammergeier, or Bearded Vulture, is the top of the food chain here, especially higher up the slopes. It’s a magnificent sight, a huge bird with a wingspan of two metres that sails on a thermal sea, eyes trawling the ground for skeletons. Ninety percent of the Lammergeier’s diet is bone marrow, which it extracts by picking up bones and dropping them onto rocks to smash them open.
The giant birds sometimes patrol together, which can be a scary sight. Eddy Planckaert, a tough Belgian sprinter and Classics winner, who won stages in the Vuelta during the eighties, remembers the Lammergeiers of Covadonga; “There’s nothing more motivating for a sprinter who has dropped back a bit on a mountain than to look up and see vultures circling above his head. I was on my own, plodding up the climb once, when I saw them doing that, and I caught up with the next group on the road pretty quickly after it,” he says.
The crux of Covadonga
A short section of 12 percent climbing at eight kilometres, just before the Mirador de Los Canonigos, is a prelude to the crux of Lagos de Covadonga. This is where the best climbers in cycling come into their own. Three kilometres of nine percent are followed by one of eleven percent, and then the ‘Wall of La Huesera.’
This is truly brutal, and where La Huesera ends there is still another kilometre of 11 percent, tipping up to 14 at the end. This is followed by 800 metres of flat before a ramp of 14 percent, which slowly eases before an alarming and abrupt 12 percent descent to Lago Enol, the first of the two glacial lakes
It’s leg breaking stuff. “But,” says Eric Caritoux, who took the race lead here in the 1984 Vuelta before going on to win, “The last few kilometres are quite cruel to climbers. I was second on the Covadonga stage, and I felt my efforts on the hard part of the climb were undermined at the end by the descents and short flat stretches.”
Raymond Dietzen of Germany beat Caritoux that day. He was a good climber but not as good as Caritoux, and the up and down nature of the final four kilometres levelled the playing field for him a bit against the Frenchman. There’s another sharp climb after the first lake, but another descent, nearly a kilometre long this time, before the final 1000 metres of five percent climbing to the finish.
Bernard Hinault is right when he compares Lagos de Covadonga with Alpe d‘Huez, the climbs are equally important to their country’s biggest bike races. But the way its big gradient numbers pile together in the middle makes Covadonga a subtly different climb to the Alpe. Still, the Vuelta visits Lagos de Covadonga with the same regularity as the Tour visits Alpe d‘Huez. And with four overall race winners triumphing on Covadonga out of 16 visits, to four out of 26 to the Alpe, it could be argued that Covadonga is even more important strategically.
Its reputation has certainly been built up by the Spanish press, who always feel they need to trump the Tour. They have tagged the climb as being super significant. The news paper El Mundo said in 2007 that “Covadonga is without doubt the most emblematic climb in the Vuelta.” Citing its place in Spanish history as adding gravitas to its cycling legend. El Pais, previewing the climb in 2007 used ‘The Legend of La Huesera’ as their headline.
Lagos de Covadonga stats
Length: 14 km
Average gradient: 7%
Maximum gradient: 15%
Summit height: 1134 metres
Height gain: 1056 metres
Appearances in the Vuelta: 16
Next appearance: 2010