We’ve spent a couple of nice days driving round the Picos de Europa mountains, exploring various ravines, gorges and vistas – but that’s quite easy in a reasonably hefty Nissan Qashqai (albeit with broken air conditioning, but that’s another story). These explorations included the Mirador del Fitu which offers some dramatic views in all directions, and located a mere 12.5 miles from our campsite, albeit 560 metres above sea level.
So, following my first and thoroughly enjoyable ride along the quiet Spanish roads linking one sleepy coastal town with the next, this morning I took my bike out again, but this time heading away from the coastline and upwards towards the skies beneath the mountains. From our campsite the mountains look imposing towering above us and make no effort to hide their sheer enormity. But not today – that challenge is clouded by, well, cloud.
Not only is it cloudy, it’s actually a little nippy, but fortunately the first 8.5 miles were pretty flat, giving me chance to warm my legs up nicely for what laid in wait. Those next 4 miles were a real slog, particularly given I’m far from peak fitness. Worryingly I reached my easiest gear rather quickly and after just a few minutes of climbing I was already looking at my Garmin computer and trying to work out how far I had to go.
Normally I like to cycle alone, and probably spend 99% of my time on the bike doing so – the sheer lack of traffic on the quiet roads around Somerset or the Cotswolds on a Sunday morning is something to be enjoyed. And with this being a Sunday morning, the road was quiet here today.
But this wasn’t something I enjoyed so much today. As I approached the cloud level, I started to have an eerie feeling of being alone on this hill, blindly heading into the mist in front of me on unfamiliar roads – this isn’t one of my well pedalled routes around the Mendips! When we had driven this road yesterday it had been a glorious sunny day and there had been plenty of traffic about, and many cyclists attempting the same ascent that I am now huffing my way up.
Not today. On my climb I was passed by just two vehicles – and what were the chances of one of these being a large camper van just as I was going round the inside of a hairpin, preventing me from using the whole width of the lane in order to make use of the ever-so slightly easier gradient?
As for fellow cyclists, I like to consider myself a better than average climber on the bike – uphill I regularly overtake far more people than come past me. So I was hoping for this today – to go cruising past a few guys struggling to the same target as me just to give my ego and confidence a bit of a boost. But no. I saw just one other cyclist – a lanky guy who went shooting past me on a mountain bike. Now admittedly the biggest gear he had on his rear wheel wouldn’t have looked out of place on a tractor – but still, as he sailed past me on his bloody mountain bike he took a bit of my spirit with him too.
Fortunately, the thick cloud meant visibility was reducing to probably less than 100 meters in places so this guy was quickly out of sight and out of mind (or so I was telling myself). Then I saw the 13km road marker. I knew it was 3km, or less than 2 miles, to go. I rammed a handful of jelly babies into my mouth to give a bit of extra fuel and maybe some sort of psychological boost. I’m head down and spinning rhythmically on, the hill not letting up, but neither was I. Then what’s this? The mountain bike is coming back in to view through the mist – not literally down the hill towards me, but I’m actually catching him. I suddenly start to feel good again – the energy comes back, the self-belief comes back and I’m up out of the saddle and powering up the hill.
My new found belief in my pace may have been misplaced because it turns out the mountain bike is in fact pulling over on the side of the road, presumably to start some sort of downhill trail – which seems absolute madness in this weather given it’s now pretty wet up here too! But I tell myself he has given up and give myself another completely unfounded ego boost as I carry on past him. 1km to go now and I’m starting to feel pretty good about my progress. I now have no doubt that I will comfortably reach the top and I haven’t unclipped from my pedals since I turned out of the campsite at the very start.
In fact, I’m now feeling so good in my progress that I’m a little surprised when I actually reach the peak – ok I couldn’t see it through the cloud, but I hadn’t been desperately hoping for it or counting down the last few metres – my mind had now switched to what I was actually going to do when (not if) I reached the top.
I pulled into the car park which had been rammed when we were up here taking in views yesterday. Today there was just a solitary park ranger-type vehicle parked up looking deserted in the mist. As I chomped down an energy gel I really wanted to continue onwards along this road rather than turning back home. Again we had driven it yesterday – it was a winding road down to the town of Arroindas and hadn’t seemed so steep, so maybe wouldn’t be so much of a challenge to come back up over after turning around at the bottom.
Ultimately my head ruled my heart after a few minute breather – it was pretty miserable up there so the roads were wet, visibility was poor and a lot of this road on the other side of the mountain was under tree cover, potentially making things even more hairy in these conditions. Add to all this that I had somewhat optimistically put my darkest sun shades on this morning, so I decided the best idea was to simply turn back and head home.
I descended the hill in about 15 minutes, having taken nearly 45 to get up it, then cruised back to the campsite feeling as though I had got fitter as I went on today, that I had plenty of cycling left in the legs, and therefore massively regretting not having been able to tackle that cloudy beast again from the other side.
On reflection, and looking forward to the challenge of the Alps, today I climbed about 560 metres in 7.3km at an average gradient of 7.7% (according to official figures; note that the cloud or weather pressure must have buggered with my Garmin, particularly on the descent). Still significantly short of what I need to do on 16 July so no doubt I need to find myself some more of these daunting lumps of rock to pedal up as our trip progresses, but having survived this rather comfortably today in the end, I do at least feel a little closer to the summit of those Alps.
Note that the cover photo of this post is the view from the top taken yesterday. There was no such view today. This shot is looking up in the direction of travel this morning.