In December 2014, my long time employers had selfishly decided to close down the plant that had been my bread and butter for the last 18 years. So, being one never to turn down an opportunity I decided to take an extended holiday before resuming my search for someone else to finance my seemingly ever distant retirement.
I’d always wanted to take my motorcycle to Europe again after only two previous trips as a much younger man; to Brittany in 1982 and Nuremburg in 1992. Having my own place in Asturias and the covenience of the UK to Spain ferry links the destination was a no brainer. It was February and the downside was that we were just on the back end of the worst snowfalls that Asturias had experienced in many many years. Oh well, this weather beaten two wheeled traveller wasn’t going to be detered by a few feet of snow and temperatures approaching zero on ungritted roads.
My top box and panniers were clipped onto my trusty Honda VFR800 and I set off at 5am on 15th February for a chilly but uneventful journey to Portsmouth, arriving at 8:45 for the11am ferry to Santander.
There were only two other motorcyclists on this crossing; one, a full on Paris-Dakar adventure boy, hell bent on blasting through north Africa to get as close to the equator and back in his alloted two weeks off work – and good luck to him! The other was a mountain of an Irishman, Darren, who had only passed his test 3 months previously and had probably taken out a mortgage to buy a suitable touring machine and all the paraphenalia required for his ambitious expedition. His plan was to ride to Athens (via Portugal of all places!!) and then book a return flight to London, enabling him to service his obligations of six days at work before returning to Athens to continue his two wheeled journey home via eastern Europe.
Walking around a ferry in motorcycling gear certainly attracts attention from incomprehensible numbers of has-been, wanna-be and born-again bikers who are more than willing to exchange motorcycling anecdotes to kill some of the 24 hours of sailing time. The journey was certianly more pleasant than tearing southwards on endless French motorways at this time of year. The bay of Biscay was remarkably kind to us and all the sick bag dispensers remained unused as we sailed into Santander harbour.
Idle chat developed into the first day’s riding plan as myself and Darren surveyed the thin grey blanket of cloud above. “How do you fancy a guided tour of the Western Picos Darren?”. “Sure, that would be great so long as I can get to Oviedo before dark”. “That’s great, we have four or five hours before dusk.”
I messaged my friend Martin and arranged for Darren to stay overnight at his Bike Barn in Pola de Siero, twenty minutes from Oviedo. As we skirted Santander harbour looking for the exit I had this fantastic motorcycling route spinning around in my head; west to Unquera on the A8 motorway then a loop upwards into the mountains through Puentenansa to Puerto de Piedrasluengas and back down to Panes via Potes. From here we would wind our way up to Arenas de Cabrales following the Rio Cares on the AS114 and on to Cangas de Onis, the main tourist town in this area.
We fuelled up and were in Unquera in no time at all. The route from here is unbelivably picturesque and must certainly be in the top ten of European motorcycling routes – afterall, I had devised a cycle ride over these roads during last years Vuelta and used motorcycle touring websites to aid my research.
It was a comfortable 10 oC in the lower reaches of the ascent and we decided to stop for a photo opportunity at the spectacular dam which restrains the Embalse (reservoir) de La Cohilla. This point in the ride saw the end to all pleasantries …..
As we passed the dam, the temperature immediately plummeted to 4 oC and a snow plough channel presented us with four feet of glistening icy wall either side of the road, which would often narrow down to a precarious single track. Thankfully the air temperature remained positive up to the Mirador de La Cruz de Cabezuela where we stopped for another photo opportunity.
At the junction with the CA184 there was a sign indicating that the Puerto de Piedradluengas was closed to traffic. Thank god for that! I was starting to get slightly concerned for our survival as the heavens had now opened and that horrendous core-soaking type of drizzle had begun to sheet from the sky. We descended at a very cautious pace, not only due to the rivers of water blanketing the slippery road but also, the lack of windscreen wipers on our visors meant that it was almost impossible to see the road ahead!
No more photo opportunities for me thanks! – I’d seen enough rain to last me a lifetime and visibility was extremely poor. We took a right in Ojedo, near Potes, and then a left in Panes onto the AS114. The rain was still teaming down and I was desperately requiring the servicios so, I pulled in at the petrol sation in Arenas and peeled off my water-logged gloves. Darren pulled in behined and crawled off his steed, shivering. Little did I know he was only wearing his shower-proof gear and was now carrying about a gallon and a half of chilly water about his prescence. “I should have put my full waterproofs on” he chattered. “I think I need to book into a hotel here and dry out”. Luckily for him, there is a great choice of hotels in the town due to the big local tourist attractions of the Cares Gorge and the Funicular de Bulnes.
I messaged Martin with the cancellation and exchanged farewells with Darren. I then spent the next ten minutes trying to get my multilayered “waterproof” gloves – which were now full of water! – back onto my frozen hands. No amount of straining provided the desired result so I completed the remainder of the journey in my “waterproof” cycling gloves which were handily stowed in my top box.
I was within an hour of my house now and looking forward to a night huddled around a convector heater with the dehumidifier buzzing in my ears. However, the difficulties had not yet ceased. It was already dark by the time I reached Arriondas and the main N634 was closed west of the town – a 50 foot retaining wall had collapsed due to the weather conditions. The diversion involved a mountainous journey on what could only be described as dangerous, twisty farm tracks from times gone by – all this on a motorcycle, in the dark with a raging torrent flowing across one’s visage! (Darren messaged me the following day to say that he had got lost on the same diversion and it had been two hours before he’d found his way back to the N634).
Soto de Duenas ….Villamayor …. Alto de La Llama ….. Anayo …. the welcoming shelter of my house in Robledo. It’s nice to remind yourself from time to time that the hardest days of your life are often up there with the most memorable – and in a strange way the most enjoyable. Thanks for the company Darren, and it’s nice to know that you eventually dried out on your next leg to Portugal.