Event Review

II Marcha Cicloturista La Peña Cabarga REVIEW

by Jonathan Cook

Starting in Solares near Santander in Cantabria Northern Spain and only in its second year, the Marcha Cicloturista La Peña Cabarga makes a traverse of the bay of Santander before heading inland on scenic roads, arriving back to Solares where a summit top finish and a brutal 6km climb up The "Rock" of Cabarga awaits.

Entry fee: EUR 35 (plus an additional 11 for an, "On the day license" if you aren't federated)
Distances: 137km, 69km
Start: Estacion de Autobuses (bus station Solares)
Finish: Summit top finish on Peña Cabarga
Timed: Yes with both climbs timed
Participants: 720
Feedstops: One
Signs: Fully supported/guided by motorbikes and support cars.
Event website: http://www.xn--lapeacabarga-dhb.com/
Inscriptions: http://www.uno.es/
Route: http://app.strava.com/activities/52276083

The Ride:

I came across this event whilst planning a long weekend in Northern Spain. Close to Santander which is a short flight or long ferry journey from the UK, it looked like an interesting event with lots of climbing and of particular interest was the summit top finish which also hosts the climax to stage 18 of this year's Vuelta De Espana.

Although in Spanish, I found the event website very helpful, containing all the necessary information, including the routes which were available for download. Entering the event was a little more tricky - through a different website for managing the inscriptions, again in Spanish. I also learned that in Spain you need to have a federated cycling license to participate in Marchas (Sportives) although it is possible to buy an "On the day license" which is what I did.

Flying is the cheapest option with flights to Santander, Bilbao and Asturias all within touching distance of the area, but by the time you add on bike handling fees and car hire the overnight ferry with your own car isn't much more expensive, and given that in the end we opted for a week's stay it gave us the flexibility to explore the area a bit more.

Our accommodation (http://www.ownersdirect.co.uk/spain/s19055.htm) for the week was near the medieval village of Santillana Del Mar which is 40 minutes from Santander and is, I'm reliably informed,  one of the best preserved medieval villages in Europe and also home to the famous Caves of Altamira containing prehistoric drawings and rock paintings.

I had also been informed it rains a lot in here May and for the first two days it didn't stop. However, venturing out in the rain it didn't take me long to discover the spectacular coastline, with a number of colourful fishing villages and at this time of year blissfully crowd free sandy beaches . I also discovered that the area definitely isn't flat. A short distance from the coastline lush green valleys and forests contain sleepy villages before you quickly find yourself rising towards the majestic Picos de Europa Mountains.

When I wasn't out on the bike we spent the afternoons and mornings exploring some of the interesting villages and towns along the coastline such as Comillas, San Vicente de la Barquera as well as the bigger city of Santander which is Cantabria's capital.

Registration for the event took place on Friday afternoon in the Ramon Pelayo Cultural Centre in  Solares, I decided to cycle there in the pleasant afternoon sun and inevitably ended up getting lost. Signing on was relatively straightforward, heading to the correct table and saying your number in Spanish, along of course  with some ID. I received a bag with a timing chip, number and my retro replica team TEKA cycling jersey with "En Su Cocina" (In your kitchen) plastered across the front of it in red which made me chuckle.  It was also possible to register on the morning of the event in the starting area at the Bus Station in Solares, but there were no "on the day" entries.

race pack
Race pack

I later learned the reason for the choice of Jersey was in honour of the event's Guest of Honour for the day - Reimund Dietzen who rode for the TEKA Professional Team which was based in Santander for a number of years. The Jersey replicates the 1987 design which was the year Reimund Dietzen finished second in the Tour of Spain. I was quite excited to learn he would actually be riding along with a number of other ex-professionals.

I made the short drive to Solares for the relatively relaxed start time of 9.00am and managed to find a parking space not far from the event start line near the Bus Station which was a hive of activity with riders preparing bikes. With a warm day in prospect riders were already in short sleeve jerseys and shorts  accompanied by pre race  electronic music echoing into the morning sun which made for a great atmosphere.

At the startline

With the mass start scheduled for 9am, riders began to form behind the start line and after a quick comfort break in one of the nearby cafes I took my place towards the front half of the group before The Mayor of Solares waved us off just after 9.00am.

I do enjoy mass starts as instantly you are part of a big group. As we rolled out through the streets of Solares with a support vehicle and motorbikes on hand to clear the way I would have loved to have said the first few kilometres were neutralised but, from the off, the pace was extremely fast as our peloton covered both sides of the road with riders jostling for the best position behind the motorbikes as we headed out around the Bay of Santander.

heading out in the sun
Heading out in the sun

I was determined to stay with the front group for as long as possible and as the route began to roll over some lovely terrain with the occasional kick in the road I began to enjoy myself and take in the coastal surroundings nestled into a large group with our marker car and motorbikes in view.

Once around the Bay of Santander we hit our first climb of the day as smaller groups started to form on the course. Local families lined the side of the road cheering riders on and several  motorbikes, all the way back to the last group, were on hand to guide riders. Although not a closed road event, the roads were very quiet and with the aid of the support vehicles it felt very much so.

riders lowers slopes
Lower slopes of El Caracol

Coming back into Solares the short and long routes split - with the short route heading straight up to the summit of Peña Cabarga. The rest of us turned left and began the longest timed climb of the day - El Caracol. After two hours and a 1000m of climbing with an average speed well over 20mph my legs decided it was time to slow down.

I joined another group as we began to wind our way along the valley floor with the climb alongside the river Miera through small villages such as San Roque and  surrounded by green mountains which made for a spectacular setting as I settled into a nice rhythm.

el caraco
El Caraco with support

In total the climb is 23km but the first 10km are relatively flat, after that it wasn't long before the gradient kicked up to 10%, winding through tree lined roads. With race bibs also containing riders names you got a personalised feel to whose wheel you were sucking which I quite liked. The next time I looked up, Race Number 1 - none other than Reimund Dietzen was in front of me with a small group of riders. He looked to be going well up the climb and was in good heart as he chatted to nearby riders. It is not everyday you get to suck the wheel of an ex-professional who has finished second  in a Grand Tour, so I took the opportunity to ride with him as long as possible. A short downhill section followed before the final 5km of the climb and to my amazement another rider waved a camera at me and asked  if I could take a photo of Reimund and himself while we were descending at speed. I gave him a nervous look - shook my head and said no thanks!

Riemund Dietzen descending like a pro

I was pleased to get over the top of the climb and put some time into Reimund as we were greeted to a wonderful descent back down to Selaya where, after 60 miles or so, we came to the only really feed stop on the route which was a welcome relief. Intrigued to see what might be on offer in a Spanish Sportive I was reassured to see the Spaniards have a similar love for cakes and bananas as we do.

Monument to the Indian Navy and Castile

The final run into the finale of the day was pleasant in the afternoon sun although, all the time, lurking on the horizon was the ever present Peña Cabarga dominating the surrounding landscape. As we traversed our way to the bottom of it, although very much smaller in scale, it reminded me a lot of Mont Ventoux particularly with the Monument to the Indian Navy and Castile adorning the summit. Another sweep through Solares for a third time followed by a sharp left turn and we were on to the slopes of Peña Cabarga. At 6km it isn't the longest of climbs but with an average gradient of 9.4%, the steepness certainly makes up for this. The lower sections are steep, straight and unrelenting before a moment's respite as the gradient drops right down and you are greeted with breathtaking views of the surrounding area before the slopes ramp up to 18% with some hairpins thrown in for good measure. With the heat the steepness was definitely taking its toll on some.

The Rock, it's steep

Thankfully support vehicles were on hand, strategically placed at two or three points on the climb, to hand out bottles of water to riders, and with the constant clapping and cheering from mostly local spectators spuring riders on with the occasional push on offer as well, it wasn't long before the finish line was looming  and what seemed like the longest 30 minutes of climbing came to an end.

spectacular views
Spectacular views

The views from the top are truly spectacular with a 360 degree panoramic view. In one direction you can see the whole of Santander and surrounding coastline and in the other green valleys stretching away into the snow capped peaks of the Picos de Europa. After some quick refreshments I descended back down the climb which was much quicker and made my way back to the Bus Station in Solares where a post event meal of mountain stew awaited riders and the electronic music, sun and party atmosphere continued well into the afternoon.

riders at the finish
Riders at the finish

I really enjoyed this event, it offers an interesting overseas weekend trip or longer to a beautiful part of Northern Spain and a chance to ride one of the climbs in this year's Vuelta de Espana on virtually closed roads. I was blessed with perfect weather conditions, which made for a great day out in the saddle. The event is well organised with a very friendly atmosphere and you are guided and protected around the route by support motorbikes all the way to the final climb. I thought it offered excellent value for money with a decent quality replica jersey on offer for all riders and a hearty post event meal.

Official Review

1. Feed Stops (correct foodstuffs and energy drinks, the right many, well spaced) 8 out of 10
2. Timing (correct and easy to use) 10 out of 10
3. Signage (Clear, concise, maps, profiles, route card) 10 out of 10
4. Facilities (HQ, Parking, Toilets) 6 out of 10
5. Support (Sag Wagon, Outriders) 10 out of 10
6. Friendliness / Professionalism (Sign-in, marshals, support) 10 out of 10
7. Website - ease of use (Online and postal entry, clear concise) 6 out of 10
8. The Course (Area of outstanding beauty/scenic, quiet roads, cleverly designed?) 10 out of 10
9. Would you recommend it. (Would you ride again?) 8 out of 10
Overall Rating 86.7%

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