Legend has it that in the mountains of Asturias, on the slopes of the long sinewy climb El Jito De Escarandi, there’s a monster called the Grumante. The Grumante is a gigantic cyclops that lives in the rocky caves, and stretches out his gigantic arms to capture and eat those who prowl around the mountains looking unhappy.
So, as if a 14.5km climb with 17% spikes wasn’t enough to keep us worried, we have to pedal up the climb with a forced smile across our faces for fear of reprisal from a disgruntled mythical beast. Let’s backtrack a tad, though, and allow me to explain why we’re in the region of Asturias and what we have planned for the days ahead.
Although it is well-known for cycling, Asturias is not always the first choice for those looking to escape for a week away on the bike. While most favour the warm-weather training camp destinations used by professional teams, those looking for something that ticks both the riding and cultural boxes need look no further than the northern Spanish region.
The Vuelta a España might have visited this part of Spain on numerous occasions but to non-Spanish cycling tourists, the Picos de Europa national park remains something of an uncovered gem — one that the man behind Astur Cycling is hoping to show off to the world.
Landing at Asturias airport we are greeted by David, a local who — after years spent working and living abroad — settled back in the region and set up Astur Cycling. “I always had this idea in mind for a while,” says David “I came back to Spain. And then that idea that I had in mind, but in the background, I said, ‘okay, why not, let's try this.”
David discovered cycling whilst living in Barcelona in 2006 and moved into triathlon, completing three IronMan triathlons before ditching the running and swimming and focusing solely on cycling. A passion for riding in the area turned into a passion for organising annual trips for his friends, which in turn morphed into a holiday business.
Last year was to be David’s maiden year, and he had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to show it off to guests for over a year. Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic had other ideas… The restrictions on travel meant that everything was put on hold and Astur Cycling’s trips were mothballed until this year.
“I'm from here and I know the potential that this area has for cycling trips,” David tells me, glowing with an eagerness to put Asturias on the map for those travelling for cycling from outside of Spain.
What makes the area stand out from other cycling tourism destinations, says David, is the rare combination of different terrain. “We have the mountains, real mountains rather than coastal lumps, so close to the sea. I think almost nobody has that.” There are many things aside from that both on and off the bike that make this region unmissable.
When life gives you apples
Just over an hour away from Asturias airport sits Cangas de Onis, the town where we are staying — a picturesque place in the heart of the region with a Roman bridge ‘Puente Vieyu’ as its focal point which crosses over the Sella river. The town is a lively hub of bars, restaurants, and shops and is well-situated near to the best riding in the area. It seems the perfect place to kill some time on the evening of our arrival and before our big ride.
Spend any amount of time in the Asturias region and you will notice the omnipresence of cider-themed shops and sidrerias. The apple-based drink is a staple all over the area but the beverage itself is almost of secondary importance to the way it reaches the glass.
Woe betide anyone who opts to neck from the bottle or serve themselves, tradition dictates that a skilled Escanciador (cider waiter) should hold the glass low and the bottle high, pouring from a height (often whilst not looking) in order to maximise the bubbles in the drink. Later, David explains that traditionally the glass is shared between a group with each person drinking their share before throwing out the dregs, however, as it had for many things, Covid has put a stop to that.
Cider isn’t the only thing on the menu, however. Astur Cycling’s trips are aimed at bringing both quality cycling and off-the-bike luxury in the form of four and five star accommodation and some of the area’s top culinary experiences. We are assured that we’re in for a treat at dinner — and as we drive up yet another curving mountain road we have an inkling that we’re in for a stunning dinner spot, or some late-night hill reps.
Our destination is Casa Marcial, a two Michelln Star restaurant centered around local cuisine. The restaurant started life as a bar run by the same family generations before and has kept its homely roots and local connection despite its fine dining reinvention. Even as a vegetarian in a meat-heavy culture the tasting menu was a delicious insight into typical Asturian flavours.
Covagonga and El Jito De Escarandi
We wake up to an azure sky and an early morning mountain haze. Well-fuelled from the night before, we’re excited about the ride ahead. We had been warned about the changeable maritime climate in Asturias, and came prepared for all eventualities. With this crystal clear day, though, you could be forgiven for being slightly perplexed at the region’s reputation.
Asturias is synonymous with big-name Vuelta climbs like L’Angliru but, in typical local guide style, David is more interested in showing us the lesser-known gems of the area. So we head out in the direction of El Jito De Escarandi. This is usually the final route of the six-night Astur Cycling itinerary, but ours is a flying visit so David is keen to ensure that we experience the ride that he usually saves until last.
When riding in Asturias, there is no such thing as an easy day. Those who watched the 2021 Vuelta a España will know the brutality of the climbing in this region and each of David’s routes incorporates over 2,000m of elevation — on this particular day we have 3,000m on the menu. Of course, there are flat routes around here, but when the mountains are as stunning as they are in Asturias it would be frankly rude not to climb them.
Besides, if channeling your inner Primož Roglič while battling up the iconic climb to Lagos de Covadonga — which also features on the itinerary — in the rain (or sun) is not your vibe, then David has you covered. His aim is to provide two vans at all times for guests to hop in and out of during the rides whenever the going — or the weather — gets too tough.
As we head towards the first climb of the day, sans electrical assistance, we pass through Mestas de Con which David explains is famous for ‘Gamoneu’, a cheese of protected origin named after a village in the region. Like cider, cheese is also a staple of the culture here. If strong blue cheese is your thing then opt for the ‘Cabrales’ which is a blend of cow and goat and/or sheep milk the origin of which must come from small herds in the Picos de Europa to be authentic.
After winding through the valley, we soon reach Arenas de Cabrales where the 20.4km climb to El Jito De Escarandi begins. The climb starts gently but don’t waste energy on the lower slopes as you will need it later if you want to be able to enjoy the panoramic views of the national park near to the top. As we climb, the morning light reflecting off the jagged limestone cliffs immediately reminds me of the Dolomites. In fact, the general feel of the area is very reminiscent of il Dolomiti; thin air, remote, verdant landscapes and imposing mountains. Even down to the way the sinewy roads are lined with cattle who warily eye us, mouths grinding (the cattle, mildly more than us), as we climb.
Halfway up the climb comes the town of Sotres, the highest village in the Picos de Europa, if you’re not concerned about climbing El Jito in record time then it’s definitely worth exploring the narrow streets and climbing up past the pastel-coloured houses to the church for the views of the valley below.
Towards the top, the climb levels off slightly before rising again for a few kilometres to the very top of the peak. The view and scenery is enough for me to repress my inner Grumante, as I look down with satisfaction over the elevation we’ve gained. As the road crests over the top of the mountain slope, it is flanked by rock — giving the impression of an archway or finish line marking the end of climbing and some short respite in the form of a smooth and flowing descent.
Amy wore Velocio kit during our Asturias ride
After the descent comes the valley road next to the Cares River before we reach the coast and Pimiango. Here, the landscape changes from wide panoramas surrounded by limestone rock to tree-lined roads which open out onto sea views. As we head towards the coast we catch a glimpse of Asturias’ infamous unsettled weather, low clouds descend, cloaking the mountains and giving the previously bright views a moody atmosphere. Rather than take anything away from the experience, though, it creates a sense of quiet calm as we climb up away from the coastline.
The route ends here, and after a long day in the saddle and aching quads the transfer back to the hotel by car is welcome. David explains that anyone looking to put more kilometres in the bank would be able to adjust the itinerary accordingly as I wonder who is the person volunteering for more time in the saddle after 136km and 3,000m.
On the way back to Cangas de Onís, David points at some of the roads that form part of Astur Cycling’s itinerary. Twisting mountain passes surrounded by towering trees swing in and out of view. The gradient rises and the mist descends — it would be easy enough to imagine yourself as a certain Slovenian grand tour leader on the rampage up this climb, heading towards an epic stage win.
Whether your goal is to push your limits or not, if you are looking for a cycling holiday that departs from the typical destinations with plenty of cultural and culinary experience on offer, Asturias should be at the top of your list. As a self-proclaimed fair weather rider who has spent time in some of the go-to Spanish destinations, I was somewhat sceptical of what Asturias could offer. I was pleasantly surprised, and indeed blown away by the spectacular scenery and savage terrain.