Cycling in Spain: Cangas del Narcia to Vilalba - 148kms

Connio's barren summit.

Descending from our rather lofty abode early next morning, I couldn’t help but notice the amount of cats wandering the streets. However, it wasn’t just the number that caught my attention it was their size and behaviour. Most looked emaciated, and like seagulls, they were foraging for any food scraps they could find. While Australia is certainly not immune to its own share of feral animals, Spain has reputedly one of the largest stray cat and dog populations in Europe. Spaying is uncommon, as are vaccinations. As a result, many starve and become susceptible to debilitating diseases which spread profusely throughout the stray population. Hardly an exhilarating start to my cycling day, I was to be reminded of the same gruesome thoughts far too often throughout the remainder of our journey.

A telltale sign that I hadn’t quite left the Asturias was the Puerto del Connio, a 16 kilometre climb through the Sierra de Ronadoiro. A popular communication route in the Western Asturias, it links San Antolín and other small villages in the region to larger towns like Cangas del Narcea. A regular climb in the Vuelta a Asturias, it has only appeared once in the national event, in stage 9 of 2006, which was won by Astana rider Alexandre Vinokourov, who later went on to take the red jersey, or ‘yellow hue’ as it was then. It was to be Vinokourov’s only Grand Tour victory of his career. Disqualified for blood doping during the following year’s Tour de France, the Russian wasn’t able to compete in any of the ‘Big Three’ until ironically, the 2009 Vuelta. Perhaps a little rusty, or just lacking the necessary ingredients to enhance his performance, he withdrew after the 11th stage of the race.

A typical sight in Spain.
While a category 1 climb, I didn’t start to think of the road up the Puerto del Connio as being steep until I’d travelled more than half its distance. Even then, it didn’t reach any higher than 7% until five kilometres from the summit. Shaded by beech and oak trees for part of the way, the protected forest is home to endangered wildlife such as the Cantabrian brown bear, the Cantabrian capercaille (which is a type of grouse) and of all things, a rare slug. While more prevalent on the Iberian Peninsula, it seems that this particularly large species of slug, known as the ‘Kerry Slug’, was first discovered at Caragh Lake in County Kerry, Ireland. Renowned for its more obvious attractions, typically its magnificent scenery, historic towns and unique culture, there’s obviously more to be unearthed from this beautiful part of the world than meets the eye.

Another typical sight along the way.

Typically, the higher I travelled the more the forest withdrew, until displaced by low scrub all the way to the top of the pass. Enticed by the spectacular views ahead, I had no reason otherwise to prolong my stay on the summit; just a lonely road sign informing me, and other passers-by, that I was standing 1,315 metres above sea level. The long descent towards the tiny village of Cecos, and beyond it Marentes, led me to the border between the Asturias and Galicia, another autonomous region jam-packed with rugged mountain ranges and free flowing rivers. Surrounded by coastline to the north and west, it borders Portugal to the south. Its political capital, Santiago de Compostela, is probably best known for being the destination of the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim walking trail, which spans more than 800 kilometres east to west through northern Spain. Also known as the ‘Way of Saint James’, it took its first step somewhere during the Early Middle Ages as a tribute to the apostle James, whose entombed remains were discovered, and afterwards enshrined, where the city lies today. A powerful symbol, it provided the expanding Christian Kingdom with the impetus to stave off any rival religions that were proliferating throughout other parts of Spain.  

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