ROOTS is a series about cycling and culture between 1985-1995 that explores cycling’s wildest decade in all its glory and shame. Although cycling is the hub of this series, we will branch out to dust off forgotten tales and unpack those that need fresh perspective.
Asturias--the land of cheese, cider, and climbs--also represents an important stage, albeit hellish at times, for epic moments in cycling history. With its dramatic coastline and ominous inland mountain ranges, this corner of Spain has hosted some of the most exciting stages in La Vuelta de España. Within this lush landscape, you can find the Lagos de Covadonga: glacial lakes tucked between mountain ranges within the immense Picos de Europa national park. Cyclists flock to the Lagos de Covadonga to attempt the grueling 19 km climb that has made or broken famous professional cyclists over the years. It’s most challenging section, known as “La Huesera,” meaning place of bones, comes at km 12. This two km stretch has an 12% average grade. The last bit of “La Huesera” turns into a gentle 15% grade leading up to the “Mirador de la Reina”. It’s these extremely steep sections that discouraged La Vuelta organizers from including the glacial lakes in the race--until 1983.
For the first time in the history of La Vuelta, cyclists would ascend the Lagos de Covadonga. Up until this point it had been unthinkable to include a climb with such an extreme gradient. Even with the most advanced components of the time, professional cyclists only had a 42:23 gear ratio. Frankly, cyclists just didn’t do such tough ascents at this point in history.
French rider, Bernard Hinault, was general classification favorite and stage favorite. On the radio and in newspapers, journalists had coined the term “Lagos de Hinault” as one of the famous lakes called Enol sounds almost exactly like Hinault, especially when pronounced with a Spanish accent. Word spread quickly about the “Lagos de Hinault:” the most highly anticipated Vuelta stage and cycling fans everywhere began to buzz. Along with this play on words, excitement began to build around its live television broadcasting. For the first time in the history of La Vuelta, people all over Spain would watch famous cyclists suffer up “La Huesera.”
Just when the anticipation and pressure couldn’t get any bigger, Spanish cyclist, Marino Lejarreta, let some controversial statements slip. Lejarreta backed up his words with a strong start. He charged out the gates and caught fellow spaniard, Carlos Machín, who had gained a five minute advantage. Lejarreta dominated the race and proved that they weren't the “Lagos of Hinault” after all. Bernard Hinault admitted defeat calling the climb as difficult as Alpe D’Huez, yet fought back with vengeance to win the general classification ending in Avila. Between “La Huesera” and the stress of the rest of the race, Hinault ends up hurting his knee: an injury that eventually leads to his retirement.
Two years later on this same brutal Asturian climb, Vuelta history is made. Amid a bitter, ongoing rivalry between Pedro Delgado, Luis “Lucho” Herrera, and Robert Millar, the tension is almost tangible as they battle up “La Huesera.” In the final stretch up the Lagos de Covadonga, Asturian spectators on horseback watch the cyclists ascend the narrow asphalt. Herrera, Millar, Pello Ruiz Cabestany, and Colombian, Franciso Rodriguez, attempt to take down Pedro Delgado; however, he manages to hold the lead up the last, eternal kilometer to take home yellow jersey. Millar, a vegetarian Scotsman known for his provocative earring, crosses the finish line just 36 seconds after Delgado. Delgado would beat Millar up this same climb in 1992.
Only a year later and once again the world watched Robert Millar and Pedro Delgado duke it out at the Lagos de Covadonga. Millar had wised up; whereas, Perico pedaled like he had something to prove. Millar climbed in a calculated, steady manner, avoiding the cracks and crevices in the weather-worn road. Perico pedaled violently, pushing himself up the toughest bits with all the power he had left in his legs. It looked like Perico was charging to a win when Millar calmly, yet swiftly approached, overtook, and accepted the victory.
Spaniards continue to boast about Pedro Delgado’s grit and talent. Meanwhile, Colombia’s coming onto the scene and strong. Just three years earlier, “Lucho” Herrera won the Alpe d'Huez stage in the Tour de France, which made him not only the first Colombian but also the first amateur to win a Tour de France stage.
Stage 11 of La Vuelta starts in Santander and ends in the Lagos de Covadonga--179 kms ending with this famous 19km climb. With white arm warmers hanging onto the edge of his elbows, Lucho Herrera pedals powerfully, swinging back and forth, confidentially out of the saddle, alone. He briefly throws his hands up as he crosses the finish line and must brake immediately to avoid trampling the thick group of buzzing journalists who swarm him. He gets into the leader garb knowing he’s the first Colombian to earn the yellow jersey in a mountain stage. In 1991, Herrera would win again to become the first cyclist to take away two stage victories at the Lagos de Covadonga.