28th April 2022
700km Granguanche Audax Gravel Ride
Images courtesy of Matteo Minnelli.
I don’t generally get seasick but the trip across to Gran Canaria was bad, I spent most of the two-hour crossing desperately trying not to lose the breakfast I had just shovelled down, I don’t have the best relationship with ultra racing.
Riding through the Pyrenees for Further was my first ever ultra, at around 700km through the Pyrenean Mountains with large sections of unrideable terrain it was tough, deliberately and perhaps sadistically so. I felt hugely out of my depth and had no grand ideas of finishing in the top few riders, but I wanted to finish. The experience was humbling, it was far tougher than I had imagined, temperatures reached the late 30s, and there were hours of hike-a-bike and very few opportunities for re-fuelling. Progress was slow and my planning was bad. At one crucial point in the course a large number of riders, myself included, decided that completing the route simply wasn’t possible within the time limit and scratched from the race. I met with a friend, we had a three-course dinner, a decent night’s sleep, and the equivalent of three breakfasts eaten straight out of a shopping basket sat outside a supermarket before riding back to the start together. It was still incredibly challenging but we had time for photos, coffee, and ice creams, the company helped me through that day and I felt a huge sense of relief.
It’s not that I don’t like racing, riding your bike as far or fast as possible is an incredible experience and something that I love, the achievement outweighs the discomfort and your body can always do more than you believe it can. The relief came from the fact that there is something I enjoy more than racing…travelling. My trips abroad nearly all consist of long bike rides, they will be tough at points but without time pressure I’m free to take in my new surroundings, enjoy views, take photos, meet new people and eat local foods. Maybe I just shouldn’t race?
Over the next few months, any initial sense of relief was replaced by a nagging sense of self-doubt and inadequacy. Despite my reluctance to ruin another nice holiday with a race this feeling had been lurking in a dark corner of my brain for a while, giving me a little kick from time to time, there was an ultradistance demon that needed slaying. This is where Granguanche Gravel caught my eye as it’s set up as an Audax, not a race. Audax events are about completing a given route within a set time and riding with others is encouraged, rather than banned like in a lot of races. Of course, there will always be fast riders racing to be first over the line but for the rest of us, it’s about completing the route in an achievable timeframe.
Granguanche was everything I dreamt it would be and more. The route itself is tough but stunningly beautiful and incredibly varied, the perfect way to explore the chain of Canary Islands. The Audax format Matteo has chosen worked out exactly as I hoped, I had been able to push myself physically and mentally but know that the support of another rider was never far away, I never felt unsafe and although there are some remote sections you are never too far from a town should you have a need to stop or scratch from the ride. I had zero mechanicals or issues but some other riders had needed the help of bike shops or emergency shelter and although a large proportion of the route itself felt very remote the island's coastlines are fairly well populated, coasting downhill will quickly bring you back into civilization should the need arise. The timeframe given by Matteo meant that you could push yourself but if things don’t go quite to plan, as is often the case, you’re still able to finish the route. My 4 days turned to 5 days and even without the need to ride at night, you could complete the route at the 6-day pace. Granguanche isn’t just for the serious racers, it’s also an excellent introduction to the crazy world of ultra-cycling.
Two editions of the Granguanche route have previously taken place, the Road and Trail versions. This Gravel version of the route covers five of the Canary Islands; Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, GranCanaria, Tenerife, and El Hierro, this means ferry crossings to connect the islands somewhat dictate the pace of your ride, some islands have a few options per day, but sometimes there’s only one if you miss it you have a 24-hour wait until your next chance.
Organiser Matteo has planned the event thoroughly, a route guide is given with a 3, 4, or 6-day pace scenario, detailing the ferry crossings required to keep on track for your chosen pace. There will no doubt be points where you either arrive early for your crossing or that you miss it altogether and these periods of enforced rest will be time to sit, relax and refuel. Faster and slower riders will regroup and can all enjoy some downtime together in preparation for the next island.
My biggest mistake of the ride came long before it even started. A 04:30 alarm to get up for a flight is not the best way to prepare for an event that begins at 10 pm that evening and involves a 60km ride to the start line before a 110km night-time ride. A mixture of nerves and adrenaline somehow kept me going through the first night and the company of a new friend, Hari, meant that the journey across Lanzarote passed quickly. 24 hours with no sleep meant the 2 hours before the morning ferry to Fuerteventura were spent crashed out on a concrete floor at the port, less than ideal preparation for another full day’s riding.
Fuerteventura was hot, dry, and barren but the first part of the ride weaving its way along the coastline was one of my favourite parts of the whole route. Sandy beaches separated rugged cliffs from the vivid blue Atlantic Ocean, views stretched for miles as we picked our way along loose gravel paths. Eventually, we headed inland where the temperature rose and rough washboard tracks took us into the mountains, with the climbing on this day being ‘just’ 2400m stretched over the 160km, it was one of the easier islands. I rode a large chunk of the route with Martin, a friend from back home in Brighton, but he left me on the last big road climb of the day aiming to catch the last ferry of the day. A plan that was quite feasible until the final 20km which seemed to take a lifetime, we had both imagined this last section to be an easy flat cycle path along the coastline but instead, there was a characterless tourist complex to pass through followed by a slog along a soft sand beach towards a minor road that dipped relentlessly up and down underneath a motorway that further sapped already low energy reserves. We met again at the port of Morro Jable, both exhausted and hungry, and decided to get food and a hotel for the night in anticipation of the first ferry of the morning.
Here is where I questioned my decision to enter another endurance event, laying on a bench holding a sick bag, trying not to vomit, tearful, wondering why I put myself through this and knowing that I would be needing all the fuel that was trying to leave my body to get through today's 140km and 3900m of climbing. Fellow riders Martin and Dani had it worse than me, both spent the final hour throwing up and Dani was so bad she collapsed in the bathroom and had to be wheeled out by staff, Martin managed to walk himself off the boat but decided to take some time sitting in the shade on dry land to recover.
Gran Canaria was the highlight of my trip, the nausea quickly subsided as I got on my bike and started pedalling, we left the busy town through a green ravine where the plants, trees, and flowers were a welcome sight after 2 days of arid rocky desert-scapes. There were some tough climbs on this island including a section hike-a-bike in near 30-degree heat but the struggle became a distant memory when temperatures dropped to a comfortable 20 degrees through mist-draped pine forests as I neared the summit. I met with fellow riders near the huge spherical military radar at Pico de las Nieves and we layered up clothing ready for the descent, a few minutes later we were greeted by the most incredible vista, a lush green land of dramatic rock formations that felt like entering a movie set. Weaving through this Jurassic Park landscape were seemingly endless smooth ribbons of tarmac that barely purred beneath our tyres, truly a road riding dream. Further along the route rugged gravel tracks zig-zagged their way down to the sea as the sun fell low in the sky and long shadows flickered across the orange-tinged rock. After a terrible start to the day, I am reminded that moments like these are why I ride.
Having set myself the aim of the 4-day pace scenario I managed to keep on track until arriving at Tenerife, I had caught a later ferry than I’d hoped from Gran Canaria so booked a hotel for the night along with Oisin and Peter, a pair of riders I had met on route to the start a couple of days earlier. We hoped that waking up at 3.30 am the following morning would give us the time to ride the 170km and 4600m of elevation required to cross Tenerife and make the only ferry of the day to El Heirro at 5.30 pm. My stomach had other ideas, most likely a combination of an unusual diet, dehydration, and build-up of fatigue from the heat and effort of the last few days. I was feeling pretty bad and struggling to take in food and water, I told the guys to go ahead as I felt I was slowing them down. I knew that due to earlier flights home they were on a tighter schedule than me, if I missed the ferry I would still have time to take tomorrows one to the final island.
Despite my low energy levels, Tenerife was beautiful, within just hours of riding the microclimate and corresponding flora and fauna changed. Dry earth where only scrubby bushes and cacti live made way for palm trees and flowers, and higher up where the clouds form lush greenery, ferns, and mosses tangled around the bases of huge trees. That in turn disappeared as temperatures drop and pine forests rise above the clouds and make way for moonlike high plateaus dramatically strewn with volcanic rock thrown from Mt Teide. By the time Teide came into view, I knew I wasn’t going to make that 5.30 ferry so I decided to relax, enjoy the scenery and try to reset my tired body at a café near the summit. A Polish couple spotted the number stuck to my bike and invited me to join them at their table where they asked all about the route and insisted on paying for my drink and snacks.
It was downhill on the road from here but rather than dropping all the way to the busy tourist town of Playa de las Americas I booked an Air BnB a little way up the hill. At my accommodation I was greeted by a fellow guest and rider, Barbara, who was touring the Granguanche route on her loaded 30kg bike at the start of a year-long cycle tour, she had a tent to sleep in and time for rest days, hiking and beach stops, I instantly wanted to do that too. I ate a hot meal and slept deeply and the following morning I had breakfast with Barbara who also met me for lunch later that day, then Martin joined us mid-afternoon and we shared stories of our adventures. These are experiences I would have missed had I caught that ferry the previous day so it didn’t seem so bad, the recovery day also stood me in a better position to enjoy riding the last island of El Heirro.
Despite the final stage of the route being a mere 120km it packed in 3700m of climbing and some questionable weather conditions. Martin, Hari, and I decided to leave for sunrise in the hope to finish mid-afternoon. Riding here was tough, the climbs were a lot steeper than the other islands, the off-road sections rougher and the gravel deep and loose. The weather was also constantly changing and we had a good few hours of climbing in the rain where the temperature dropped to 8 degrees, a shock after the previous 4 days of sweltering riding. We stopped, shivering and tired at a bar towards the coast for two rounds of coffee and cake as this was our last resupply point for some time. I again spent the day riding with Hari and together we were able to laugh our way through even the toughest sections, we both had low points that day but it was never more than a few minutes and we would regroup and carry on together. We reached the finish line late afternoon to warm welcomes by Matteo and some of our fellow riders, it was timed perfectly for the beach BBQ that the faster riders just started preparing, our timing was impeccable.