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Cyclist Big Rides: Europe

Big Ride: Mount Teide, Tenerife

Mark Bailey
15 Jan 2018

We discover Tenerife's lunar landscapes and rock formations can provide a touch of magic to any two-wheeled adventure.

In the wilds of Tenerife a cyclist’s senses can become disjointed from reality. As I pedal through a volcanic world of red cinder cones, golden pumice fields and shiny black obsidian rocks, I can see the Teide volcano looming high above me, which makes me suspect, with a wince, that I must be much lower down the day’s big climb than I had hoped.

Yet when I glance in the other direction, I realise that – thanks to a confusing cloud inversion – I am already high above the clouds, which float, absurdly, below the pine forest I’ve just cycled through. Craning my neck at the sight of clouds hovering beneath trees, I feel like I’m staring at a landscape painting that has been hung upside down. 

Strangeness surrounds me. I can feel the sunshine toasting my back and taste the salty sweat dripping down my cheeks, but I can also sense the metallic chill emanating from the slabs of snow piled up by the sides of the road. I can smell pine trees – an aroma I normally associate with mountains – but also the thick scent of hot, sun-blasted sand dunes.

And although my brain knows I am miles from the ocean, when I curl around a bend in the road I appear to be floating on a giant wave of water. This hairpin bend slices through the smooth, flowing contours of a 10-metre-high solidified lava flow – known locally as La Tarta (‘the cake’) for its colourful layers of white pumice and black and red basalt – that appears to rise and fall like a wave about to crash against the shore. 

Am I low or high? Hot or cold? Cycling or surfing? In this hallucinogenic landscape I’m not sure whether to take a photograph or call a doctor.

This is all part of the kaleidoscopic beauty of Tenerife’s Teide National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where twisted pinnacles of rock erupt out of black fields of lava and dunes of sand tinted ochre-orange and emerald-green sparkle beneath red mountains as vivid as the Vuelta a Espana’s maillot rojo. The unique landscapes of Tenerife are unlike anything a cyclist will encounter on the continental cols of the Alps or the Pyrenees. 

Pro dreams

Cyclists demand more than just Instagram-friendly landscapes, of course, and this saddle-shaped island in the Atlantic Ocean, 1,000km south of mainland Spain and 300km from the western Sahara of Africa, remains the principal altitude-training destination of the world’s best riders. The pros are lured there not just by the fitness-boosting altitude of the Teide National Park, where they can train in the thin air at more than 2,000m above sea level, but also by the reliable year-round sunshine, quiet roads and epic climbs.

The week before we arrived on the island, Astana, Movistar, Katusha and Cannondale were all here. A few weeks later Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and their Team Sky companions were making their own pilgrimage to the island. Pro cyclists typically come here for three-week training camps, which says everything you need to know about the variety of routes available. And if they can keep coming back, so can we. Having explored the north-west corner of Tenerife for a Big Ride in 2013 (see Issue 13), Cyclist has returned to discover a less explored south-east route and gain fresh insight into this cycling mecca. 

My companion is Alberto Delgado (he had to be a cyclist with a name like that), who runs the Tenerife Bike Training company with his brother Marcos. Several guiding companies operate on the island but it’s hard to beat the local knowledge of Alberto – a ridiculously fit Ironman athlete who grew up on the island and knows every road, cafe, scenic resting spot and microclimate (there are 11 different climate zones on the island, so you can always find blue skies, even on rare rainy days).

The Delgado brothers offer guided training rides, and their seven-day trips finish with homemade paella and local chorizo sausage at Mama Delgado’s house. Never has a powdered recovery shake seemed so naff in comparison. 

‘Because the pro cyclists are making Tenerife their training home they are now exploring more of the island,’ Alberto says when we set out from Granadilla, a small town of peach-coloured houses in the south of the island, where our 141km loop begins. ‘When I see Chris Froome outside his hotel he always asks about routes. David López [also of Team Sky] was asking me about places to explore. We have seen Alberto Contador doing efforts on little-known roads. I think they like finding new roads to train on.’

Pros are quick to share their experiences on social media so it’s no surprise that amateur riders now flock here too. ‘We get lots of British riders but also visitors from Australia, America, Japan and Israel,’ says Alberto. ‘About 40% of our customers are return visitors.’ He confesses, with an apologetic grin, that he hopes we all have atrocious winters: ‘When there is bad weather in the UK everyone wants to come to Tenerife.’

SEE RELATED: How to become a better climber in just one month

The island has big cycling plans. A major sportive is being lined up for 2017 and the Vuelta a Espana organisers are rumoured to be considering a spectacular few stages on the Canary Islands next autumn. ‘It’s great to see this island where I grew up become so popular with cyclists but I have always known it is a special place to ride,’ Alberto says. 

We begin our ride with an undulating dash along the TF-28 balcony road that cuts along the south-east flank of the island and offers constant views of the glittering Atlantic Ocean below. Between the road and the ocean are terraced farmlands, tomato and banana plantations, and villages of colourful square houses that dot the mountainside like a spilled bucket of children’s bricks. 

The road surface along this stretch is mixed, with stretches of immaculate tarmac broken up by kilometres of bumpy chaos. I blast along the smoother sections and simply stand up and take in the sea views on the lumpier parts. From up here you can see the coastal town of El Medano. In 1519 the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and the Spaniard Juan Sebastian Elcano stopped in this town to pick up their final supplies of meat, firewood and water before continuing on what would become the first circumnavigation of the globe.

With slightly more humble travel plans (make it back to the hotel in one piece) we carry on riding over stone bridges, gliding through passes carved into the rocky cliffs. Bright clumps of bougainvillea brighten up the road and palm trees explode into the sky like frozen fireworks.

We pass the Barranco de Badajoz – a lush ravine filled with wild olive trees and tumbling waterfalls where archaeologists have discovered mummified corpses ritually prepared by the Guanches (the indigenous population of Tenerife) prior to the 15th-century Spanish invasion of the island – and head on to the eastern town of Guimar.

From here we take the TF-525 through the towns of Las Chafiras and Arafo but before going into battle with the colossal volcano we stop at the La Cueva de Nemesio restaurant for some food. Sitting on a sun-scorched patio, we devour Spanish omelettes jammed into butter-drenched rolls. Alberto says local cyclists normally tuck into rabbit stew or papas arrugadas – wrinkly baked potatoes sprinkled with cramp-busting salt and peppery sauce. 

Let the climbs begin

Then we begin the TF-523 climb – the first 18km segment of a two-stage ascent to the Teide National Park – the terrain changes, with a green, tropical landscape replacing the dry scrub and terraced farmlands of earlier in the day. Alberto isn’t feeling well and, selfishly, I am quite glad. After all, this is a man who has completed the Kona Ironman in Hawaii. We settle into a gentle rhythm and slowly edge up the climb. On the way up we take a break to peer over the steep drops into the deep gorges below. By the time we reach the top of the climb we’re pedalling through a dense pine forest. 

The junction between the TF-523 and TF-24 marks the start of the second 19km section of the climb. The TF-24 is a stunning forest road that heads into the Teide National Park from the lesser-known eastern approach. Giant pine trees line the road, decorating the tarmac with dappled sunlight. I engage in an impromptu sprint with a scuttling lizard but it gets away. 

The road here is smooth with a gentle gradient of 4%, though it occasionally rises to 11%, but it’s the length of the ascent that gnaws away at my legs. We’re now riding through the clouds I’d seen from the coast earlier today, but the mist doesn’t last for long. When we emerge from the forest into the Teide National Park – which covers 189 square kilometres of dramatic volcanic geology – the views dissolve all the pain in my legs. Up ahead, a thin sliver of road meanders across a snow-dusted landscape of forested peaks with the cone of the 3,718m Teide volcano on the horizon. 

‘Teide to the locals, tidy to a Welshman,’ wrote Geraint Thomas in his 2015 autobiography The World Of Cycling According To G. ‘It kicks up, and it kicks up again. That’s good. And equally really bad. But that’s climbing: the tougher the climb, the more appealing it is.’

Here we slice through the lava formation known as La Tarta and pause to stare at the volcanic rocks jutting out of the snow all around us. Snow is rare in Tenerife but we’ve arrived shortly after the biggest deposit in over 10 years. The mix of sun and snow is bewildering. Sweat from my helmet drips onto the road and mixes with the snowmelt trickling along the tarmac.

Getting high

Up here the altitude seems to enhance the surreal landscape, starving my brain of the oxygen I need to process what’s around me. We’re now more than 2,000m high and every pedal stroke feels infinitely harder than the last. When I battle around a hairpin it feels as though Andre Greipel is sitting on my chest. 

The benefit of the distracting volcanic terrain is that I push harder without realising it. As we pedal higher toward the Teide volcano, I see jagged red rock formations, eerie black rivers of solidified lava and vast pumice fields. The stunning sea of clouds that now lingers below us is caused by the moist trade winds condensing over the peaks of the island and meeting drier air at around 1,800m in altitude. 

The sight of the Teide Observatory, a cluster of white orb-shaped buildings, telescopes, satellite dishes and laboratories in the middle of this barren terrain, only adds to the feeling that we’re entering a lunar landscape. The observatory is home to some of Europe’s best solar telescopes and hosts astronomic equipment from institutions around the world. 

After we ride past the observatory we encounter pillars of black rock that rise up at the sides of the road like the walls of a fortress. Then comes an electrifying downhill dash on a long and straight road that pierces through the vivid terrain. We hit the drops and crank up the speed until we reach the junction with the TF-21 road where a batch of expensive carbon-fibre bikes, belonging to a tour group, lean incongruously against the whitewashed walls of a restaurant – lost, it seems, in the middle of nowhere.

We’re now in the eerie sunken caldera of Las Cañadas del Teide, which surrounds the volcano. All around us are lava fields, towering rock formations and sand dunes. Not surprisingly, this is a popular location for movie production. In fact, Alberto says he helped out with some of the logistical work for the latest movie in The Fast And The Furious franchise. Peering over a sand dune, we spot a woman taking a topless photo. Altitude does strange things to people. 

With a mix of undulating roads and long straights upon which we can pick up the pace, it’s an amazing place to ride, but it proves to be hard work as the altitude sucks away my energy. My throat is so dry I feel as though I have been sipping sawdust. This isn’t the traditional way to get dehydrated in Tenerife. As I pant across the sides of a volcano, I know that thousands of my fellow countrymen are simultaneously downing beers by the beach in the party capital of Playa de Las Americas. 

The Teide volcano is 3,718m high but the paved road reaches 2,356m, from where a cable car ferries tourists to the top. Along this same lofty road we pass the Parador hotel where Team Sky and other pro riders stay during their trips to Tenerife. We can see a couple of Astana vans parked outside. 

We pass the red pinnacles of the Roques de Garcia, the sprawling plain of Llanos de Ucanca, and the bumpy TF-38 road that has been twisted and tortured by the heat. I pause for a break. After breakfast this morning I had picked
up a handful of sand on the beach near my hotel. Now I am bending down and rolling up a snowball on top of a volcano. Nothing better sums up the diversity of Tenerife. 

What goes up

For the past few hours we’ve been engaged in a slow expedition up and over the volcanic heartland of Tenerife, so it’s nice to know that the final 27km stretch is a descent. When we start heading down, the landscape alters once again into a Wild West setting of scrubland, cactus and pine trees. The road swirls downhill like the slides at the water park near my hotel. It’s a fun end to the day and I’m happy to hand over the reins to gravity and roll downhill, occasionally toasting my brakes on some of the tighter bends.

After 14km we reach the mountain town of Vilaflor and stop at the Teide Flor restaurant for a drink. This part of the TF-21 road is known locally as the ‘Wiggins Climb’ because it was a popular training ground for the 2012 Tour de France champion.

When we arrive back in the town of Granadilla, following a final 13km dash, the sun is already beginning to set over the Atlantic Ocean. By the time we arrive back at our hotel, tourists are already dressed up and ready to flock to Playa de Las Americas’ pulsing nightclubs. I can do no more than hobble to my balcony and gawp back up at the Teide volcano looming over the island. Until the 18th century many travelling sailors believed Teide was the highest mountain in the world because, unlike with other mountains, they could see it rise up directly from sea level to 3,718m. They were wildly wrong. But after a day spent pedalling up it, my legs wouldn’t disagree.

The rider’s ride

Lapierre Pulsium 600 FDJ CP, £2,150, hotlines-uk.co.uk

I admit I was slightly perturbed by the French colour scheme on this bike, which is in honour of the Française des Jeux pro cycling team. Then I told myself that the Union Jack is red, white and blue too and my national pride was soothed. But on to more important matters: cyclists come to Tenerife to climb, and this bike – which comes equipped with Shimano Ultegra components – is light and stiff enough to handle the Teide volcano, and its 11-32 cassette means you’ll never have to pedal pentagons to get home. Equally adept on the rougher roads, it is built with Shock Absorption Technology – essentially an elastomer built into the frame – that helps to absorb bumps while retaining the bike’s all-important lateral rigidity. The slightly raised head tube and shorter top tube give a forgiving geometry for long days in the saddle, while the oversized head tube and down tube deliver added stiffness to ensure you don’t lack power when you want to open it up. 

How we got there

Travel

Cyclist flew from London Gatwick to Tenerife with Easyjet. Flights start from around £40 each way, plus £35 each way for a bike bag. Once we’d landed we hired a car through Hertz from £37 per day.

Accommodation

We stayed at the Hovima Jardin Caleta in Costa Adeje (hovima-hotels.com, £47-£117 per night) on the south of the island, from where there is easy access to Tenerife’s cycle-friendly roads. The hotel is a partner of the nearby Tenerife Top Training facility, which offers everything from pools and gyms to coaching and recovery massages. You can store your bike in your room and the hotel serves carb-heavy buffets to fuel long days in the saddle.

Guiding

Tenerife Bike Training (tenerifebiketraining.com) offers guided tours, such as the week-long Volcano tour that includes hotel accommodation, a half-board meal plan, transfers and a support van, starting at £695. Bespoke packages are also available. Visit webtenerife.co.uk for more information on the island itself.

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