ICF Marathon Classic Series: Descenso Internacional Sella (Spain)
This race is absolutely mad. If you ever get the chance, do it. Doesn’t matter if you paddle surfski, K1, canoe. Just do it. This race is a real experience to say the least and as such one that is hard to put into words. The Sella Descent is the biggest race of the Spanish river series and one of the largest kayak races in all of Europe in terms of paddlers, boats and definitely spectators. In this blog we’ll try and give you a sense of what makes the Sella so special and hopefully tempt you into racing it yourself.
History of the Sella race
In 1929 a time long before carbon fibre materials, trailing rudders and wing paddles, a group of friends travelled down the River Sella from the town of Arriondas towards the sea side town of Ribadesella. They were accompanied by a horse and cart following them on the road above the river. These friends, formative in Spanish paddling, worked their way down stream for 7 hours and fell only a few kilometres short of reaching their goal of Ribadesella. From these humble beginnings the race has evolved.
Today it is the Fiesta of the Paddlers. The horse and cart has been replaced by a train laden with cheering spectators, the paddlers make the full 19km descent in just over 1 hour and the boats and the paddlers are international with K1, K2, C1 and C2 crews coming from around the world to contest this race.
Another great little video of the race is the 1979 edition which shows the both the race on the river and the spectators in cars and train along the river.
The presentation of the Sella in constantly evolving including with each edition of this kayak race being the race poster. This is awarded each year to a Spanish artist and has generated a superb gallery of race posters enough to entice any paddler to race.
The Sella isn’t exclusively for the elite or amateur adult paddlers but also for the next generation of paddlers. The organisers of the Sella and local clubs have collaborated in recent years to host the Mini Sella to engage and captivate the younger generation of paddlers and perhaps give them something to train for while mum and dad are hard at training too.
During the week before the Sella race senior, a few hundred kids under the age of 18 enjoy a mass start from Llovio to paddle with their parent chaperones 3.6km to finish under the same bridge as the adults in Ribasdesella. An excellent initiative by the Asturian paddling community there and one that could easily be mimicked by other paddle race organisers of any discipline. Here’s a little snippet of the finishing stretch of river:
Dionisio de la Huerta, the original paddler and a foundational member of Spanish paddling, knew how to make a race spectacle. With the live national broadcasting of the race the organisers put on a show down in the streets of Arriondas, the start line town, to display the many countries entered in the race. During this ceremony the national flags are hoisted and representing athletes or local children march the streets holding up signs noting the countries involved in that year’s edition. This all just keeps building towards the excitement of race day.
Not only does it build the local vibe up but adds to the experience which has attracted top paddlers with the likes of Hank McGregor (RSA: yet to crack a win), Andy Birkett (RSA: a regular), Mads Brandt Peterson (DEN: 2019 winner), Jeremy Candy (FRA), Fran Balboa (ARG) and more from around the world.
With a lottery system in place to assign your start position there are other ways to be on the more favourable downstream end of the start gates where your paddle is locked at the start. The first is the entry of the paddlers via their international organisations. This will get you up the front (downstream side) of the category and hopefully away from the mayhem behind.
The other is the seeding time trial the week before the race. This is approximately a 4km down stream paddle from Llovio to the finish line in Ribadesella. This event gives you a seeded position in the start gates and will likely bring you more forward in the rankings.
Primarily the race is a K2 race with the men’s K2 and K1 categories lined up on the most downstream end. Then the open women’s and then veterans up above Arriondas start line bridge to accommodate the hundreds of paddlers.
The Sella Descent
The midday start to the race lets you build your nerves all morning… The towns along the river have an electric vibe to them with masses of paddlers, land crews and party goers (yes you read that right…more in a moment) heading upstream to converge on the start line at Arriondas. Traffic and logistics can be interesting here.
As the middle of the day approaches the fiesta is in full swing with thousands of people lining the banks, people swimming in the river, chanting and paddlers quietly warming up. In true fashion of this race the start line ceremony is not going to short change you. The banks full of people wearing traditional Asturian dress while the party goers in the local way practice their cider pouring skills with bottle on high and glass low.
As the speeches begin the paddlers take to the start gates where their paddles are locked until the start light goes green. This is several metres up the rocky bank of the river and adds to the chaos of the race in the name of fair play. With approximately 500 kayaks lining the bank and enough paddlers to match seats for the le Mond style start the speeches wind up and the regional Asturian anthem is sung with the whole crowd singing in unison. It’ll give you goose bumps the first time you experience it.
If you’re adrenalin isn’t going at this point there is something wrong! As one Irish paddler put it to me once after 3 espresso shots and the start format, you’ll hear the anthem and the next thing you know you’re in your kayak 3 kilometres downstream and won’t know how you got there. The start is hard to describe other than chaos. With some luck you’ll get an opening in the shallow river to slide through rather than end up in one of the many log jams of kayakers that are formed. For a sample, this is my start from 2014 before the GoPro’s were knocked down as paddler were being thrown everywhere.
If you get a clean start that is a huge bonus. If not, you’ll be fighting through hundreds of paddlers and their waves going everywhere across the river at the start. The river is usually in flood for the race day itself. Depending river height – gravel races and narrow fast flowing chutes are common as you progress down river.
These are made especially tougher when you need to negotiate the shallows, rocks and swirls with the swarms of paddlers around you. This can be seen in my 2019 attempt which resulted in a broken paddle shaft when trying to portage around shallow sections in the river.
By the time you hit any white water the pack has thinned out and you’ll be looking to chase down as many paddlers as you can through the Llovio. From Llovio the tide can be a deciding factor with those who have burnt their matches early in the race unable to pull through the shallow or potentially opposing currents for the final 4km to the bridge. To watch the whole race, check this video from the RTVe national broadcaster:
It should be noted too that unless you are the winner once you’ve finished this epic race, you’ll need to paddle 4km back up stream to the car park at Llovio to get united with your land crew. The Ribadesella town is closed to vehicles as finish line party is well underway and ready to kick on into the night.
As a festival of paddling in past years there have been several races that followed the race. In the 2014 edition there was a whole week of prize money and racing nearly every day after the Sella which you can watch on our YouTube playlist here.
Regardless of whether you will have your name immortalised in the cement of the foot path everyone is a winner with the huge fiesta in the finish town of Ribadesella after the race. The town knows how to put on a show and the streets are full of paddlers, land crews, party goers and tourists alike. It’s an epic way to celebrate the finish of an epic race.
For those lucky enough to have win the race overall you’ll have your name immortalised in the cement of the foot path next to the finish line above the river Sella. Good luck to those who contest the race in a few weeks’ time, viva Asrturias!
Some notes for interested paddlers:
- Commit early as this race occurs during the peak summer tourist season of the north of Spain. So, booking your accommodation ahead is definitely the way to go.
- Be a tourist – the Picos de Europa are nearby, food is great, and the ocean ski scene is booming in the north of Spain.
- Pumps are a must, and electric pumps are allowed too.
- Weights of the kayak are not tested, and there are rumours of some winners having used 5kg K1s made especially for this race.
- Trailing rudder is a must
- Spare paddle if you’re going over to run the river in the weeks leading up to the race. You’ll take a good inch off the end of your carbon blades bashing the paddles ahead of the race. Race day generally has higher water.
- Don’t be too surprised when someone pushes their paddle off your stomach or face at the start...
- Kieran Babich