For a riding holiday with a difference, I decided to set sail for Northern Spain where dramatic scenery, sunshine and empty roads await.
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Waiting for embarkation on the quayside in Portsmouth, the plan for my maiden overseas cycle tour was still a touch light on detail. It went something along the lines of: catch ferry to northern Spain, turn left towards the Pyrenees, bag some big Tour de France cols, return to port, sail home.
But as it turned out, even this rather sketchy itinerary was ditched somewhere in the Bay of Biscay at the suggestion of a Spanish passenger and fellow cyclist. He maintained that by heading for the mountains I would be missing out on some of the most spectacular coastal riding in Europe, which just happened to include his home province of Asturias.
One of the beauties of cycle touring is that route plans, whether meticulously detailed or pathetically threadbare, can usually be jettisoned instantly when better alternatives emerge.
So, as I rolled off the ship’s car ramp and struck Iberian tarmac, I turned right and pointed my wheels towards La Coruna at the far end of the region known to the locals as España Verde.
Green Spain encompasses the provinces of Pais Vasco (the Basque country), Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia, and it turned out that my Asturian advisor had his own self-interest at heart in suggesting that I go west.
He wanted some company as he pedalled home to Oviedo and I, knowing barely a word of Spanish, was glad to have an English-speaking guide of sorts for at least part of the journey.
This region of Spain turned out to be a revelation. Largely overlooked by the sun-and-sangria brand of British holidaymaker, it is a favourite destination of the Spanish. The Madrilenos in particular flock here, keen to escape the suffocating mid-summer heat of the capital.
In addition to the cooling sea breezes, they come for the startlingly vivid greenery, the bountiful fresh seafood and the spectacular rocky coastal scenery, bisected here and there by world-class sandy beaches. They also go there to enjoy the walking and mountain biking to be found in the easily accessible Picos d’Europa mountain range.
Despite its proximity to the mountains, riders following the impressively engineered yet lightly used coastal highway will find there are few major gradients to deal with.
European Union money paid for the numerous, and no doubt hugely expensive, bridges and viaducts soaring over the gorges that slice through the more elevated stretches of coastline.
And it is only in these sections, if you choose to explore the largely bypassed fishing villages, that you will have to face the occasional thigh-burning ascent to get back on track.
On my trip, a detour inland involving an arduous ascent to Oviedo after a thoroughly ill-advised but sumptuous three-course lunch with beer, wine and coffee, turned into an epic battle of mind over matter.
It was a struggle that – it seemed to me at the time, at least – would have done justice to Oviedo’s most famous cyclist, the late José Manuel Fuente, nicknamed El Tarangu. He was a legendary climber, a contemporary of Eddy Merckx and a two-time Vuelta a España winner.
The ride back down to the coast from Oviedo was fast and furious, and set me up nicely for the remaining days in the saddle before I reached La Coruna. After treating myself to a couple of nights in one of the city’s most expensive (though remarkably cheap by British standards) hotels I retraced my route by coach back to the ferry port before unwinding on the return cruise to Portsmouth.
Brittany ferries: Brittany Ferries
Brittany Ferries sail from both this port and from Plymouth to Santander in Cantabria. From there, for cyclists it’s simply a matter of choosing to go left, right, or even carry straight on to the Picos d’Europa. Whichever direction, in this part of Spain you really can’t go wrong.