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Chasing rainbows: Gran Canaria big ride

In-depth
20 Apr 2020
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Gran Canaria is an island blessed with year-round sunshine – except on the day Cyclist arrives. This article was originally published in issue 76 of Cyclist magazine. Buy issue 100 from the Cyclist shop now

Words Sam Challis Photography Patrik Lundin

The weather app on my phone says it will be 10°C with heavy rain showers. Craig, my riding partner for today, has a different forecast. ‘Sunny with patchy cloud and 18°C,’ he says confidently. Craig and I have been friends for a long time, and generally I trust his judgement when we’re out riding.

But today I’m unconvinced – my Met Office forecast seems pretty certain we’re in for a cold, wet day.

‘No they’ve got it wrong. The Met Office is always pessimistic,’ Craig insists. ‘Plus that is the forecast for the northeastern side of the island. Everyone knows that thanks to Gran Canaria’s different microclimates the best weather is on the southwest side, which is where we’re riding. Besides, have you seen our route? It’s worth the risk.’

Gran Canaria is renowned for its warm, dry weather. You can count the number of rainy days each year on a single hand, and thanks to its sinuous, well surfaced roads and dramatic landscape, it’s tailor-made for cycling.

And yet, unluckily for us, it seems we have timed our trip during one of the island’s rare unsettled periods, and despite being on the same latitude as the Sahara we’re facing conditions more typical of a wet weekend in Wales.

Under normal circumstances, I would take one look at the forecast and decide that my time might be better spent getting reacquainted with my duvet, but in answer to Craig’s question, yes, I have seen the route and, yes, it definitely looks to be worth the risk.

Seismic significance

Gran Canaria, like the rest of the Canary Islands, was formed by some hefty seismic events back in the Miocene period some 10 million years ago.

It’s still officially considered to be a geologically active volcano, but has been dormant for over 3,000 years, which is why Gran Canaria isn’t quite as obviously volcanic in appearance as some of its neighbouring islands. There’s no giant volcano like Tenerife’s Mount Teide, nor any jagged lava fields like on Lanzarote.

In terms of average elevation, though, Gran Canaria is more mountainous than any other Canary Island, appearing more like an arid version of the Alps. The terrain rises towards the centre of the island until it reaches its high point, Pico de Las Nieves, at 1,949m.

Any route taken from the coast will inevitably go in one direction – up – and sure enough, not long after rolling out from Puerto de Mogán on the southwestern edge of the island, we start gaining altitude.

Off the motorway that circumnavigates the island, local roads trickle down to the coast like rambling streams, so for now we tap out a gentle rhythm up a sociable gradient.

So far, Craig’s weather predictions are holding true. The day has dawned under clear skies and, because the sun has yet to gain enough height to spill into the valley, the temperature is brisk, so we are thankful for the steady gradient.

In the distance, however, things look more ominous – the border of two microclimates is visible, with the towering mountains inland clinging on to the clouds like a stick collecting candy floss.

Looked at on a map, the route we’re riding today resembles a string attached to a slightly deflated balloon. That string, about 10km long, leads out and back to Puerto de Mogán via the GC-200.

We reach our first junction, the neck of the balloon, and take the right fork at a junction we’ll eventually return to from the left side later today.

We join the GC-605, one of the main roads into the heart of the island that leads to the Roque Nublo, an 80m spire of volcanic rock that sits atop a mountain in the centre of the island. It is said to be one of the largest natural crags in the world and is one of Gran Canaria’s most recognisable landmarks.

The road wiggles left and right up the Barranco de Mogán ravine, which helps make what is a fairly tough ascent varied and engaging – one moment our shoulders are brushing towering strata of red rock, the next the slope has turned, opened up and we spin through copses of pinus canariensis, a vibrant species of large pine indigenous to the Canary Islands.

As we rise we meet the sunlight that’s creeping into the ravine to reveal a brilliant contrast between our predominantly rusty red environment and the green trees.

With the steadily rising temperature, little wind and a decent climb under our belts, we optimistically start hoping the weather will hold after all.

Yet those clouds are looming ever closer and the snatches of our road that I can glimpse up ahead suggest we’re heading right for them.

Going dark

The microclimate border couldn’t have been any clearer if there was a line painted on the ground. Actually, there is one painted in the sky – a rainbow frames our path into a curtain of rain that starts our journey into the island’s interior.

We unclip in a layby to take on a morale-fortifying gel and stand perpendicular to the weather. The effect is otherworldly.

Looking left all is moody, grey and obscured, while to the right a veritable paradise unfolds down into the ravine below us – wiggle after wiggle of the deserted road we have just ascended drops past the white speckles of settlements to the sparkling blue of the Atlantic.

It takes some significant willpower (and another gel) to clip back in and head into the gloom. Climbing up and out of the ravine reveals some more expansive views of the island. All around the land plunges and rises like a stormy sea, and the rogue wave of Pico de Las Nieves is now just about visible through the murk to the north.

The altitude has done for most trees but the valley walls to the side of us are unexpectedly verdant. The vegetation might be mostly scrubby, but there are some visually striking species on view, such as the Opuntia cactus with its red balls on top that look a bit like prickly radishes.

With about 36km ticked off, we reach the ceiling of our ride some 1,400m above sea level, but the temperature continues to drop.

Until now the gradient has at least served as a way to generate heat but now that the road has flattened the wind and rain are beginning to take their toll.

The weather has really closed in and we realise that’s because we’re riding through the actual clouds themselves, prompting Craig to point out that at least the rain soaking us is fresh from the source.

Salvation comes in the form of the town of Tejeda. As we snake down a long descent, the white houses of the town become visible on the slopes of the valley opposite. A break in the cloud allows the sun to illuminate the buildings, making them sparkle and teasing us with a warming glow.

As I shiver in my inadequate riding clothes, Tejeda seems like some sort of glorious haven – in my desperate state I could almost imagine the choral music.

The heavenly scene is completed with the quick flash of another rainbow, its end flowing right into the heart of the town. Our pot of gold takes the form of Canary soup, a delicious broth of vegetables that is one of the archipelago’s famous dishes. By the time seconds and coffee are consumed the weather looks to be changing in our favour, so we strike out once again.

We weave up through the main streets of Tejeda and begin once again to climb as we head westwards towards the highest settlement on the island.

The road is uncharacteristically straight, having been chiselled out just under a monumental ridgeline. On a clear day this stretch of road is home to Gran Canaria’s most spectacular view, which ironically isn’t of the island at all but of its neighbour, Tenerife.

The largest Canary Island lies just under 65km to the west, and its most prominent feature, Mount Teide, can be seen in panoramic glory from right here. Or so I’m told.

Without the luxury of being able to see much of our surroundings Artenara seems a curious place – strung out along the ridgeline in the lee of the prevailing weather. The settlement is all on the mountain side of the road, and a low white wall runs along the other side.

With the clouds billowing into the valley to our left, the wall appears to be the only protection between us and a boundless abyss.

While Gran Canaria as a destination usually conjures images of retirees relaxing poolside and snoring behind their books at all-inclusive resorts, this stormy weather is a reminder of the island’s turbulent history of pirates, battles and conquests.

These days a mountaintop town might seem quaint, and a handy place to stop for a drink, but the only reason it is here is because at one time its inaccessibility guarded the inhabitants against the marauders that plagued coastal regions.

Artenara, sitting at approximately 1,270m above sea level, is probably the most extreme example.

Altitude down, spirits up From studying the profile of our route last night I know the next 50km is predominantly downhill, and I also know that the first section is the best bit.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that (given better weather) the descent from Artenara would be one of my favourites ever. The same wiggling roads that keep things from becoming monotonous on the way up provide truly thrilling slaloms on the way down.

The hairpins are wide enough that there’s no need for heavy braking – it’s just a case of feathering the brakes, throwing the bike over and then bringing it upright to get ready to do the same again the other way.

Pines and firs whizz past left and right, sparse enough to give clear lines of sight. The slick roads mean we aren’t going at full lick but it’s still exciting enough to draw a grin from me through chattering teeth.

Losing altitude bumps the temperature up a few degrees, dropping us out of the cloud with the landscape opening up in dramatic glory.

Dense vegetation clings to these lower slopes where it isn’t so exposed but the land isn’t flattening out. If anything it seems to plunge down more violently, then rear up again.

That pattern is repeated as far as the eye can see – the scale is unbelievably vast considering the relatively diminutive size of Gran Canaria. The mountains recede as we get to the end of the GC-210 road not far from the western coast and the town of La Aldea de San Nicolás.

Without the protection of the mountains, this side of the island is rocky and barren of vegetation – in other words, more in keeping with what you’d expect of a volcanic island.

At the turn-off, we stop just long enough to eat some dark chocolate in the hope it will steel our fatigued legs against the route’s final climb.

The 10km coiling ascent will take us up out of La Aldea through a pass, after which it is a largely downhill blast back into Puerto de Mogán. As we grind up it we get a view of the sun dipping into a notch in the mountains ahead that is the climb’s summit.  

It causes the sky to rapidly and dramatically change colour as it lowers, as if an indecisive Instagrammer is playing about with filters.

Just then a heavy scud of rain blows up and over us. The wind funnels it straight through the pass and our final rainbow of the day radiates over the mountains, once again demarcating our route.

Thinking back to the rainbow we spotted near the start of the day, Mother Nature has provided some pretty stunning bookends to the route’s hardest riding.

We crest the climb, the sky clears and the road tilts back downwards for the final time. Craig and I share a grin as our freehubs start to buzz, and I think that he was right – no matter the forecast, a ride on Gran Canaria is always worth the risk.

A Gran adventure

Follow Cyclist’s route on the island of Gran Canaria

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/76grancanaria. From Puerto de Mogán on the south west of the island head north on the GC-200 for about 10km, then take the right fork onto the GC-605, signposted to Tejeda.

This road heads to the centre of the island, where you’ll need to take a sharp left onto the GC-60 to pass through Tejeda. Continue through Las Crucitas, after which you go straight over the roundabout onto the GC-210.

Stay on this road through Artenara, Acusa Verde and Candelaria until it reaches La Aldea de San Nicholas, where you’ll turn south once more on the GC-200, which you can follow all the way back round and down to Puerto de Mogán. 

The rider’s ride

Cannondale SuperSix Evo Dura-Ace, £3,699, cyclingsportsgroup.co.uk

Terrain as varied as Gran Canaria’s calls for a well rounded bike that’s light on the climbs, planted on the descents and comfortable enough to ride all day.

Cannondale’s SuperSix Evo ticks all those boxes. The frame and components are designed alongside each other – what Cannondale calls ‘System Integration’ – to ensure they work in harmony and save weight.

I never felt the frameset held me back on the ascents, yet neither did it feel skittish on the twisting descents.

The bike’s proprietary ‘Save’ seatpost is a neat idea, doing a lot to smooth out imperfect surfaces. It visibly flexes under impact but it didn’t feel unstable during seated grinds either.

Cannondale’s Hollowgram Si wheels literally round out a comprehensive package, their braking being admirably consistent in conditions that were often tricky over the course of the day.

How we did it

Travel

Several airlines serve the Canary Islands from the UK for around £60 each way. Cyclist flew with Jet2, which charges an extra £30 per flight to take a bike. The best way to get to Puerto de Mogán from the airport is to rent a car – it’s a simple 40km drive southwest on the GC-1.

Accommodation

We stayed at Hotel Cordial Mogán Playa, a large resort about five minutes walk from Puerto de Mogán’s harbour and beach. The hotel used to be a botanical garden so the grounds are leafy, and the modern rooms large and well kept. The staff were helpful, and keeping our bikes in our room was no problem.

Arguably the hotel’s best feature was its expansive buffet, which served as the ideal pre-ride fuel and post-ride recovery. For more information visit cordialresortholidays.com.

Thanks

Many thanks to Sylke Gnefkow and Mary González for providing accommodation, and Saro Arencibia from the Gran Canarian tourist board (grancanaria.com) for sorting our flights.

Thanks also to our driver, Lucien Froidevaux, who provided envy-inducing insight into how glorious the weather usually is. Lastly, a doff of the cycling cap goes to Benjamin Jaris of FreeMotion bike rental for the loan of our bikes. For more information visit free-motion.com.