The Gran Guanche is a non-stop bikepacking event across the Canary Islands. Our good friend Till Schenk reports how he and Annika Vossen experienced this race between breathtaking scenery, ferry rides and sleepless nights. A GRAN FONDO Contribute-Story: aaand action!
38 hours of suffering and no end in sight
The wind is howling, humidity dripping off the trees and the temperature starts creeping towards freezing. We were warned not to attempt El Teide – the highest peak on the Canary Island of Tenerife and the highest mountain on Spanish territory – this very day with rain and ice storm forecasted and now we find ourselves leaning sideways into the cross winds with close to no visibility. The trees look like mystical creatures in the fog which has taken over the higher parts of the mountain. It is a gruelling yet magical atmosphere that puts a frozen smile on our suffering faces.
Together with Annika Vossen we are 36 hours, 440 km and around 9,000 m of climbing into the self-supported GranGuanche bikepacking race. Awake for 38 hours without a second of sleep, the legs burning with every pedal stroke, we are running out of time to make the last ferry of the day to the 5th and final Canary Island of this event.
38 hours before, as the alarm awakens us in our apartment on Lanzarote at is 3:45 AM, we are greeted by a power outage. We work our way through the dark, losing valuable minutes but eventually find ourselves rolling down to the start in Orzola. Too late. As we roll towards the start, the gun goes off. We quickly strip down to our cycling clothes and start chasing the red taillights climbing towards Mirador through the dark.
After climbing the village of Tabayesco with its amazing views over the lava fields and the ocean, having acted up in the early hours, my stomach finally settles and we are heading full gas into the descent chasing towards the beaches of Famara. All is going to plan. Only my brakes have been rubbing for the past hour – ever so slightly – I thought until we are finally heading into the descent down the Fire Mountains of Timanfaya Volcano Park. A magical place with its black lava rocks and brutal cross winds. Going down, Annika, who weighs 20 kg less than me, starts rolling away from me. The brakes are rubbing way more than expected but there is no time to fix them.
One of the most beautiful stretches on Lanzarote, the coastal road along the village of El Golfo is ahead of us. After descending 7 km down to the ocean, our chase is suddenly coming to a halt. The road is blocked. Absolutely no passing through for the next hour. For a split second the dream of making the 10 AM ferry is shattered. Then my fight kicks in and I set out for a 25 km all out, into the headwind time trial including the 7 km climb we just descended.
It is foot down from here and whoever wants to hang on, can hang on. Only Annika does and with burning legs and lungs we arrive at the ferry with no time to spare.
Island 2 – The obstacles continue
45 minutes later, we roll off the ferry, ready for the island of Fuerteventura, but only 3 km later my brake is rubbing again, forcing us to a proper stop and get the bigger tools out. 20 minutes later we are rolling again. The sun is burning down, but the views with the dunes to the left and the desert to the right are way too spectacular to care about the scorch.
After leaving the ocean behind, the mountains of Fuerteventura await and with that a trip down memory lane. When I was a guide on Fuerteventura, I once sent 2 chaps asking for the hardest route I could find high into the mountains. By the time they returned, the only words they had for me were ‘if we could still lift our arms, we’d punch you in your face.’
Now Annika and I are climbing up these very mountains with the sun being absolutely ruthless. Lanzarote and Fuerteventura have their very own way of being insanely beautiful and stunning, and despite the suffering we enjoy every kilometre of it.
After a quick stop for supermarket lunch, we were very well on schedule to make the evening ferry to Gran Canaria. An island neither of has ever been on before.
With nightfall, the first signs of exhaustion and the need for sleep set in. We ignore it because in this race ferries are for eating, refuelling and at best resting the legs for a minute before heading out again.
A lot of fellow riders decide to spend the night in a hotel on Gran Canaria but we ride on to make the ferry to Tenerife in the morning.
Pushing through the night
Gran Canaria is jaw-droppingly beautiful, from the beaches to the rain forest and the endless views. So they say – we wouldn’t know. We arrive and leave Gran Canaria in the dark. In between, we climb well over 2,000 metres. The low temperatures make us lose feeling in our hands and feet. 24 hours into the race, we are following the beam of our lights with tired eyes.
Riding a bike at night doesn’t compare to riding by day in the slightest. With the reflection of the bike light in the mist, you don’t see what’s ahead of you. You ride only by the feel of your legs. A small beam of light illuminates the road right in front of us as we are blasting down at up to 80 km/h, putting every single sense at high alert. It is exhausting but stunning.
After the final longest and steepest climb on Gran Canaria, there is an endless descent towards the ferry. Hands and body burn and the focus is as razor sharp as it can be after being awake for a day on the bike. We make the ferry in time and refuel at the ferry port gas station.
Snow, storm and a little disaster
Every fibre of the body wants to go to sleep, but, again, there is no time. The bikes and food need to be prepared. For the 4th island, Tenerife, everything needs to be prepared and working perfectly. I heard wild stories about the unpredictability of the almost 60 km climb up Teide mountain.
Once we hit the national park, I receive a message, warning us not to climb Teide today as a snowstorm is moving in.
The message comes at a point where Annika and I are going through our lowest lows. We haven’t slept in over 36 hours, the energy is drained, about 450 km and 9,000 m ascent behind us. The temperatures drop close to 0, rain and fog are blowing sideways across the road – and the mind games begin.
Don’t get me wrong, Teide in this setting is magical: like riding through a fairytale forest. Still, every pedal stroke hurts and we are losing time. It will be a close call to catch the last ferry.
I keep pushing into the stronger and stronger headwinds, burning myself out, try to recover, and do it all over again and again until finally the 45 km descent to the ferry begins. Surrounded by spectacular mountains and the descent ahead, life comes back into my body, I put my head down and we start smashing the descent.
The ferry is suddenly within reach again, I try to shift into an even lower gear, but nothing happens. I try again. Nothing. Slight panic inside me takes root. I try again. Nada. In that moment the hope for the final ferry shatters. I forgot to check the shift lever battery and there is no more switching gears.
Standing roadside, 40 hours awake, 480 km ridden, 10,000 m climbed combined, freezing to our bones, we put on absolutely every piece of clothing we have with us and start rolling the remaining 35 km downhill. Once again following only the beam of the bike light, but, with even less in energy in the body, it becomes absolute torture for me. The steep descents and constant turns make my neck burn. The hands hurt to the point of not wanting to brake anymore and for the final 12th kilometre the rain sets in, soaking us completely. Having accepted that we won’t make that last ferry, we go all in with a hotel room near the ferry port.
Real food, a shower and washing our clothes for the first time as well as six hours of sleep make for a fully recharged and highly motivated morning.
La Gomera. Saving the best for last.
The sun is shining as we hit the harbour, but straight ahead the mountains greet us with dark clouds. The riders who made the ferry the night before had caught serious rain on their loop across the island.
We are heading into the first climb and for the first time in 500 km I managed to slightly pull away form Annika, quickly catching up to a rider who was off the ferry slightly faster. He is stronger on the hills, me on the flat sections. Not exactly a winning recipe for 3,200 m of climbing, but then crossing the first peak he stops to put a gilet on. Instantly, race mode kicks in. I go past and attack the descent and then straight back up the next climb. Past the ocean, rainforest and the black cliffs. The views are spectacular. My race tactics? Not. I haven’t packed enough food to attack like this, but heading into the climb I feel like I have to risk it. I really don’t want to get re-passed by people I passed earlier on this suicide mission. Pushing way outside my comfort zone, I am trying to break the competition’s elastic and with it their will to pursue.
A Formula 1 style cafe pit stop saves me. 1 Coke, 1 Fanta, 2 Snickers and off I go. Rain sets in before the descent, the rain jacket comes on and once the fog clears, a world looking like a scene from Lord of the Rings opens up in front of me. I am in awe.
The finish is near but what is supposed to be a fast 20 km descent drains the last focus and energy I have. The crosswinds are so brutal that I unclip twice in a turn to not be blown off the road.
Behind me, Annika is racing her own race against another female rider, attacking over the peak into the wet descents. She still has this beautiful approach to descending of someone who has never seriously crashed.
The final meters are pure bliss and joy. I have pushed full gas almost all day, thinking the other riders must be right behind me only to find out at the finish that I pulled away by 20 minutes.
A little while later, Annika comes rolling down the hill as well, finishing her first ultra race as the first female.
Gran Guanche a race across 5 very unique and different but amazing Canary Islands. This is a memory for a lifetime and as I write this, Annika has headed back to attack the gravel version of this race. See you out there!
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Words: Till Schenk Photos: Johannes Schenk