My previous experience of cycling through winter has been a mix of sub-zero temperatures, rain, sleet and snow, all usually accompanied by a raging head-wind. Even in our mild winter this year it can be a struggle to find the motivation to get out and ride in what is a bête noire for the cyclist in the UK. Being the grump that I am, I have always fiercely battled on through the crud and grime of a Scottish winter in the (mistakenly) self-righteous belief that it made me tougher and stronger. Now, after being fortunate enough to have an extended period working as a guide for Marmot Tours in Gran Canaria this February, I am regretting not grasping the opportunity sooner to get some winter-warmth in my old bones. I loved the experience so much I had decided after only a few days on the island that I would be returning to cycle there myself as soon as possible.
And so it was that I stood at Edinburgh Airport Park and Ride bus stop, shivering. I had decided to pack light and brave the sub-zero temperature and heavy snow that was falling by arriving at the airport wearing only shorts and a t-shirt. My discomfort was short-lived and I was soon in the airport checking in. I was slightly nervous of my venture – Was I fit enough? How would I size up against the other riders? All were moot points. The beauty of a Marmot Tours trip is the flexibility to ride at your own pace for the week and still be fully supported with two fully equipped vans on the road.
Gran Canaria is not immediate on every cyclist’s list of winter destinations, but on arrival it was clear that the island is a bit of a well-kept secret among the cycling fraternity and the airport was filled with people pushing bike boxes around. I have been guiding with Marmot Tours for three seasons now and I have always loved the destinations I have been working in, but Gran Canaria was different. It was the first place I had been that I knew I had to come back and ride. I had been struck by the variety of terrain that the island had to offer with the dry south of the island a direct contrast to the lush afforested north of the island. The climbs were sublime, the scenery was amazing and the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. Added to that was the itinerary of the trip that Marmot Tours had put together with only two hotels on the schedule for the week adding to the laid-back feel to the week.
I arrived at the airport to be greeted by the smiling faces of my guides for the week; Pedro and Graham. I was riding a hire bike for the week and had arranged to ride from the airport to the hotel (an option for all riders on the trip and one I would highly recommend if you are able). Setting off from the airport I was slightly concerned I had bitten off more than I would be able to chew. Ahead of me lay a hard week of big climbs and steep gradients. Names such as the Valley of the Tears haunted my thoughts and I was worried that if I didn’t keep my powder dry now I would crumble on roads that lay ahead. In retrospect the week was tough – arguably the toughest “Classic Cols” trip that Marmot Tours have on their books, but highly enjoyable and manageable and the island is such a great place to ride I was glad I had taken every opportunity to squeeze as much pedalling in as possible there.
Another reason I was looking forward to coming back to Gran Canaria was for the food. Both hotels that we stay in offer huge breakfast and evening meal “Eat as much as you like” (and I did) buffets and I intended to make full use of those. The spread of food: soup, salads, vegetables, meat, fish, cheese, nuts, fruit and desserts meant that it was a common sight each evening to see me making my way back to the table with my 7th course piled high on my plate.
The variety of routes on offer in Gran Canaria was fantastic and one rider who was on a trip that I was guiding commented to me on the first day of cycling “Last year I rode in Tenerife and for me this first day in Gran Canaria has been better than my whole week in Tenerife”. I have never ridden in Tenerife, but can understand his sentiments. It is hard to choose one highlight from the whole week of riding, but perhaps the Forest of Tamadaba was it. The aromatic smell of the pine trees, intensified by the heat of the day was pungent as I rode around the edge of the towering cliffs above the Atlantic Ocean. The roads were rough on this looped section, but that somehow added to the feeling of primordial wilderness that the area held.
The two toughest sections of the week were at the start and end of our six days of riding (seven if you count the ride from the airport). The first of these comes on “Day 2” with a climb that is often described as one of the toughest and challenging ascents in Europe. At 23kms with a 5km section at an average of 11% it was never going to be easy and indeed it was the moment in the week where I really suffered. I hadn’t done myself any favours by riding an extra 9km climb beforehand as part of the “Challenge Route” up the stunning Barranco de Guyadeque – worth it alone for the descent. However the easterly wind and heat of the day had already started to eat into my reserves and by the time I hit the steep ramps of the climb at Pasadilla I was starting to suffer. It took me a long time to reach the eventual summit at Pico de Las Nieves and when I did I was completely stuffed. The 5km steep section had been hard, but that was only part of the story – I was only half way!
The climb continued to punish me and as I slowly crawled up its slopes I couldn’t shake the desire to “down” a can of ice cold coke, but instead I had to content myself with sun-warmed water from my bidon. When I passed an empty crushed can of coke lying in the gutter it was as if the gods of cycling were looking down upon me and mocking my feeble attempts to conquer this mountain. I suffered like a dog and, alone with my thoughts, I considered every pedal stroke and wondered why I took part in such a masochistic activity. My answer was at the summit. I felt euphoric, although with what little energy I had left my enthusiasm probably only came across as mildly content. The views were stunning and the can of coke I had been dreaming about on the ascent was like nectar from the gods. From the summit it was descent all the way to the hotel – well almost. The final nail in the coffin for me was the short climb that has already become legend in Marmot Tours parlance. ‘The Wall’ – 200m of steep pain that in itself is really just a blip on the profile, but after 95km of riding and 2700m of ascent it was Mount Everest to my George Mallory. I made it to the summit, just, and struggled up the final drag to the hotel. I left my bike and I almost ran to the swimming pool, diving in and then lay floating in the water for several gorgeous minutes, thankful I had survived the day. All that lay ahead for the rest of the day was to pile my plate high again with as much food as it would take.
With Day 2 vanquished I was able to look forward to the rest of the week with less trepidation. Only the spectre of the Valley of the Tears lay on the horizon, but that was one of the reasons I had returned to Gran Canaria. Ever since first setting eyes on the climb, I knew I had to return to sample its delights. If you asked a child to draw their impression of a road on the side of a canyon it would look like the Valley of the Tears. The zigs and zags of the road that cling precariously to the steep sides of the mountain look highly improbable and when I first saw them, it made me laugh out loud. “We’re going up that?” I exclaimed to myself. The climb itself is one of those that are spoken about in hushed tones among cyclists. It is held in equal amounts of reverence and fear and it is one that you expect to see vultures at the roadside waiting for riders to fail in their attempt. I could imagine cyclists sitting beside their bikes on the precipitous slopes in tears writing a final letter home to their mother telling her they loved her, but they would never see her again. In short it was one of those climbs that you just knew was going to be brutal, but as a cyclist you would never feel complete until you had taken on its challenge. So, for the science bit – The Valley of the Tears (VOTT) rises from 300m at the El Parralillo Dam on the GC606 to the summit at 1,380 metres. The average gradient (which takes into account a 1km descent (it is a 12% average, discounting the descent)) is 10% and maximum gradient is more than 25%. In short, it is a beast of a climb! My abiding memory from visiting there as a guide previously was standing at the junction at the bottom and hearing a shout from above “Scot, Pedro – I’ve punctured. Can you help?” The client was in fact 2km up the climb, but was able to lean over the climb and shout directly down at us.
When my time came to ride the VOTT I was prepared, both mentally and physically. I knew what I had let myself in for. I had eaten and drunk sufficiently. I had calculated my average speed and worked out how long it would take me to get to the top. All that was left was to get going. And I did and it wasn’t as bad as I had expected. The hairpin bends helped. I took the climb in stages, focussing on the next 100m section ahead of me and with that, I slowly made progress. The views were spectacular and there was a real sense of ascending something magnifiencent. It was one of those climbs that hold a special ambience all to itself. It wasn’t just a steep road that made its way up a mountainside. It had that intangible quality that marks it distinctively above many other climbs. It may not rank in popularity yet as other such climbs such as the Stelvio, Galibier and Tourmalet, but it’s time is coming and I felt honoured to have worshipped at its altar.
As with all good things, they come to an end and perhaps the only negative of having such an experience was the inevitable downer that comes at the end of a trip and the return to the cold. For me, being able to ride daily without the need for donning several layers of weather-proof clothing had been a delight and the temperatures that regularly peaked around 25°C lifted my spirits.
For me, cycling is a huge part of my life and I am fortunate enough to work and ride in these amphitheatres of our sport. Across Europe, cyclists make pilgrimages to these places to take on the challenge of the gradients. Many are well known, others less so, but all have their distinct personality and charms that attract those on two wheels. For me, Gran Canaria is brimming with that personality. No longer will I see it as a “holiday island” that attracts the beer drinkers and party goers. Those aspects are there on the island, side-lined to the coastal periphery, but for those who want to explore, head inland, into the mountains, and you will find an abundance of pleasures to appease the needs of any cyclist.
My week of cycling on the island is packed with stories of pain and euphoria. I could have written thousands of more words regaling my experiences, detailing the routes and listing the numbers, but I think that detracts from the sense of discovery. The numbers are there if you want to go and find them, but riding a bike is a very personal thing. There is so much to cycling that cannot be written about and each rider will take something from a bike ride, adding their own stamp to the experience. The voyage of discovery is there for you to take as soon as you swing your leg over the saddle. Get out and ride!