Mountain Biking in Gran Canaria | Riding A Challenging Ultramarathon Course On Bikes
"The valley spreads out below us… looking like an almighty game of Jenga gone wrong."
Words and photos by Dan Milner
A while ago, when the mountain bike was endearingly called an All Terrain Bike (ATB) humans decided to pitch themselves against horses in a gruelling head-to-head slog to the finish. Far from some kind of Hollywood Knights of the Round Table movie plot, this man-versus-equine event was a cross-country race, held annually in Wales’ green and pleasant lands.
On the start line runners and mountain bikers lined up against horse riders, all focused on the finish line 22 miles away. Needless to say the horse retained the trophy —or at least their riders did— for nine years, until in 1989, mountain biker Tim Gould turned heads by taking it from them. Less surprising was that he also beat the first runner by 19 minutes. The bike became supreme.
I guess things have changed since then.
Today I'm in Gran Canaria, and the runners would have ten hours on me. I’m halfway through a three-day traverse of the island's rugged volcanoes when the memory of Tim Gould’s win randomly crosses my mind. It might seem a strange blast from the past, but when you have a bike on your back, you have time to think. But it’s not the idea of shanks’ pony beating true horsepower that has me thinking, but that our ride is taking us three days to cover the same 86 kilometres that ultrarunners recently completed in just ten hours.
Gould might have beaten both runners and horses on that triumphant day, but despite being armed with the latest plush-suspension bike designs, we’re now paling into insignificance when it comes to mountain bike achievements. It would surely be enough to make Gould frown.
The idea to follow the route of the 2013 Trans Gran Canaria ultramarathon running race came easy. After all, I’d previously ridden both the 156 km-long UTMB circumnavigation of Mont Blanc and the 96 km circuit of the Lavaredo Ultra Trail and learnt quickly that such races provide a pretty easy way to find a route for a long distance mountain bike ride. After all, you just have to rummage in the Google search engine, download the appropriate GPS track and then follow it.
"Our ride is taking us three days to cover the same 86 kilometres that trail runners recently completed in just ten hours"
But I’d also learnt that such routes aren’t necessarily optimised for mountain biking, and I’d learnt this the hard way. Our first day tracing Italy’s Lavaredo GPS track through the Dolomites’ steep terrain had thrown a whopping 3000 metres of climbing at us. We crawled into our refuge at 11 pm, after 14 hours on the trail.
And now on Gran Canaria, sweating up a steep, rocky staircase with my bike slung across my back, I’m reminded of this naive approach I take to bike adventures. “What have we bitten off?" I mutter between gasps. But adventure is like that. It seems easy to throw caution to the wind with whimsical: “What can possibly go wrong?" remarks, but the unknowns and the mental challenges of such adventures are an essential part of their rewards. They keep trips from being mundane. But you can have too much of a good thing, right?
Fifteen hours earlier you would have found me riding along the seafront of Gran Canaria’s capital Las Palmas. Attempting the challenge with me are James Brickell, James Richards and local rider Celestino Alonso. We each wield a sparkle in our eye and a spring in our pedal-stroke. We’re about to try and traverse this Atlantic island off road, passing within a hair’s breadth of its highest point, the 1949-metre high Pico de las Nieves.
"In the distance loom the mountains of Gran Canaria’s interior, a jumble of geomorphic shapes that look like broken asphalt."
By the time we finish our three-day ride, we’ll have climbed a muscle-mashing 4,800 metres, and descended the same, almost all on the many rocky footpaths that criss-cross the island. “What can possibly go wrong?" we laugh uneasily. Lending our departure some deserved drama is a brisk February wind that catapults seagulls across the sky while huge rolling waves crash across the rocks just off shore. In the distance loom the mountains of Gran Canaria’s interior, a jumble of geomorphic shapes that look like broken asphalt.
Our progress starts well, following the race route as it weaves between villages that sit on the island’s wide shoulders. We pedal between plantations of bananas —Gran Canaria’s biggest industry— each shrouded in netting as if they were some kind of yellow contraband to be hidden from the unwanted attention of a fictitious banana police.
We grunt up the first few steep climbs, determined to pedal everything in our way. And then, just as we begin to feel the weight of these climbs, the light begins to dim, and somehow we realise that most of the day has suddenly slipped behind us. A quick glance at my altimeter reveals the reason for our heavy legs and our now-longer-than-expected time on the bikes.
We’ve managed to squeeze in nearly 2000 metres of climbing (and 700 metres of descent) just to reach our first day’s end point; the 1450 metre high Cruz de Tejeda pass. The maths is baffling. It’s becoming clear that secreted among this island’s spectacular volcanic gorges are some serious undulations— something that is not readily conveyed by the meandering dotted lines of the footpaths marked on our map.
"It’s clear that among this island’s spectacular volcanic gorges are some serious undulations… not conveyed by the meandering dotted lines of the footpaths marked on our map."
We’re tackling our ride self-supported, carrying just the basic mountain bike clothing essentials on our backs, something made possible by planning overnight stops at comfortable hotels en route. We spend our first night in the well-appointed four-star Parador Hotel on the Cruz de Tejeda pass. Here our luxury spa experience is followed by the donning of less-than-formal dinner attire in a tussle between social decorum and basic human need. Luckily for us the hotel staff are as chilled as the wine, and our shoe-less dress code raises few eyebrows. Perhaps stranded on an Atlantic island 150 kilometres from the nearest mainland demands this kind of relaxed approach to life. What else can you do?
Looking like the archetypal island drawn by a five-year old, Gran Canaria is as circular as you can hope to find for an outcrop of rock battered by Atlantic weather. While only fifty kilometres in diameter, any human-powered excursion into the island’s interior necessitates some serious commitment to pain, as we are finding out.
As we start our second day of riding I’m already sharing the pain the thousand or so runners would have felt by the time they reached the Cruz de Tejeda. They might not have stopped here to lavish in the comfort of a king-size bed, but nor do they have a monopoly on masochism. Our ride heads straight into a tough, loose, first-gear climb towards the Pico de las Nieves. We grind upwards, darting in and out of swirling mist and tangled trees, their branches drooping with moss. These sights compliment the feeling already instilled by the volcanic outcrops and wild, Jurassic Park-like terrain around us —a feeling that we’ve gone back in time, to a prehistoric era. The landscape around us is alien, but also one of the most beautiful I’ve ever laid eyes on.
We emerge from the forest near the island’s lofty summit —itself complete with the now-ubiquitous radar outpost on top— before taking a rest on a warm rock shelf to check the map. To our left the TGC route dives into the Tejeda valley and on towards Artenara, the destination for today. It all seems quite simple, but Celestino has other ideas.
“I think its better to go back," he says, a freshly rolled cigarette dangling from his lips. For a moment we stare at him with disbelief, before he expands: “This trail is good, but the one back there is better." We pour over the map to try to understand Celestino’s proposed retreat, finding it hard to believe that the trail he is pointing at on the map will be as rewarding as the one that alluringly spirals downwards at our feet. ‘Trust me," he says, with a sharp intake of breath that re-emerges filled with blue tobacco smoke.
"A half hour later the bikes are back on our backs. “Never trust a local," I laugh."
Smoker or not, Celestino sports the kind of wiry build that would do any trail runner proud. It’s a physique that seems to work well on the bike too, and he has humbled us on most of the climbs so far. As a rider and a guide, he’s already earned our trust. We’ve already deviated from the actual TGC route by including the Pico de las Nieves peak in today’s ride, adding an extra climb to the agenda, just to tick this summit off the bucket list. “One more deviation wont hurt," we reason, picking up our bikes and heading back towards the Cruz de Tejeda. A half hour later the bikes are back on our backs. “Never trust a local," I laugh.
Leading us up and along the northern edge of the Tejeda valley instead of the southern fringe taken by the TGC route, we will climb and descend an equal distance as if we’d ridden the TGC route on our way to Artenara, the end point of today’s ride. As we clamber up a steep rock face, we have only Celestino’s word that our efforts will be rewarded, but once we top out on our 1,760 metre high point we soon appreciate the local tip off.
The valley spreads out below us, rising to the south in a tumbling wall of volcanic plugs and pillars, looking like an almighty game of Jenga gone wrong. Ahead of us sits a spectacular ridgeline along which a writhing snake of a trail twists and turns, dipping into a dark forest and, at times, veering alarmingly close to the cliff edge. This fast, furious descent to Artenara is unlike anything else we ride on the island, the usual rocks replaced by earthy loam. By the time we pull up at the door of our accommodation our broad smiles are easily hiding the exhaustion within. Only the grime etched into faces gives a nod to another big day now behind us.
A night in a guesthouse converted from a cave delivers perhaps the quietest nights sleep I’ve ever had, setting me up for our final day ahead. Despite sampling plenty of our hosts’ home made wine, our heads are clear for the final attack. We’ve now been on the bikes for a total of sixteen hours, six more than the quickest runner completed this entire route, but for us competition is another country; instead our challenge is less about Strava and more about the unknowns, about riding descents for the first time, about pitching our bike handling skills at whatever the trail hurls at us.
“It’s a long way down isn’t it," says James Brickell, peering off the edge of a vast, precipice. I look over his shoulder, aware that vertigo is already grabbing at my balance, to see the distant whitewashed houses of Agaete, our final destination, sitting a very, very long way below us. The easy-rolling forest tracks we’ve ridden from Artenara have lulled us into a false sense of security and now we’re faced with a vertical kilometre of committing, rocky descent down to sea level.
Our trail drops off the cliff edge and spirals downwards in a steep test of mettle for mountain biker and runner alike. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to run down this rocky chute after covering 80 or so kilometres, but then I guess most trail runners would scratch their heads in bemusement at the sight of us carrying bikes up steep mountainsides. Whatever, the trail ahead is a formidable challenge for either party.
We roll into our descent with less of a sigh and more of a whimper, our hearts lodged in our throats as our wheels roll over the first of a thousand steep, uncompromising rocky steps. We zigzag down, edging around tight switchbacks and giving thanks to the unbeatable grip that comes free with volcanic rock, until finally the trail eases its ferocity and we roll out onto a grassy plateau.
Regrouping, we take a moment to look back at the descent, tracing the ambitious route of this challenging trail back up an impossibly steep cliff face, and we smile. In less than an hour we’ll be downing bottles of beer in a bar in Agaete, celebrating our triumph at nailing this 86 kilometre route on bikes. But for the moment we ponder this trail miracle, and the possible reasons for it existence.
This one trail, maybe the most challenging of all we’ve ridden in three days, gives a nod towards human endeavour. I ponder life in the 1490s when Gran Canaria was ‘conquered’ by the Spanish, and what forces would drive someone to begin hiking up this vertical rock garden. Undoubtedly they were based on need rather than pleasure.
But then I realise they would probably say the same about us, questioning why we would need to ride bikes across a harsh, uncompromising volcanic landscape for no other reason than for a challenge. But we do. They might also ask why someone in shorts and a vest might run up the same 4,800 metres of knee-punishing ascents. Certainly they’d puzzle over the mentality of people trying to race against horses.
But sitting here, surrounded by golden grass and a handful of dusty, tired friends, I realise that it’s through these endeavours that we really learn about ourselves, which after all is life’s biggest challenge.