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Cyclist Big Rides: Europe

Big Ride: La Gomera

Trevor Ward
24 Jan 2017

Despite some ups and downs, Cyclist finds true love on the 'forgotten' Canary Island of La Gomera

It was love at first sight – I had never seen curves so sinuous, alluring and mysterious. Unfortunately, my wife was with me, so I would have to wait until the next day for a closer look. I took the local bus and beat an elderly German hiker to a window seat.

As well as enjoying the views, I listened for every change of pitch and whine in the engine.

Apart from a couple of sections where it seemed the gears would start smoking under the strain, the gradients felt constant and manageable. The road surface appeared smooth and unblemished.

And then a glance to my right after just 5km sealed my love: the view back down the valley showed a series of bends uncoiling towards a cluster of brightly coloured buildings and, shimmering across the sea wreathed in a wispy halo of cloud, the snow-streaked silhouette of Mount Teide.

In the middle of a romantic break with my wife, I had found the road of my dreams.

But my love would remain unrequited until I could return with a bike.

A year later, I am back on the Canary Island of La Gomera with a Pinarello Razha and a 106km route uploaded to my Garmin.

Object of desire

As the ferry from Tenerife approaches the harbour of San Sebastián de la Gomera, my pulse quickens.

Will the object of my desire from a year ago still have the capacity to thrill?

There it is, snaking upwards from the town’s jumble of pastel-coloured houses along one side of a deep ravine towards unseen, mist-shrouded peaks.

What had captured my imagination a year ago was how ‘tropical’ it had all looked and felt, even though the Tropic of Capricorn is several hundred miles further south and we are still technically in Europe.

The bus journey a year earlier had taken me only 15km towards the island’s interior – there is still so much for me to see.

Riding with me will be Marcos Delgado of Tenerife Bike Training.

Most of its tours take place in the shadow of Mount Teide where Marcos and his brother Alberto have developed a bit of a reputation for stalking the pros who train there.

Recent photographic conquests have included Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Aru and Chris Froome: ‘He was very friendly, was happy to stop and talk to us, unlike Alberto Contador, who was a bit arrogant.’

Twice a year Marcos brings a group over to La Gomera for a three-day trip. ‘We’ll try and do the best parts of it in just a day,’ he says as we dock.

‘It’s only about 100km but there will be a lot of climbing, so get a good night’s rest.’

I do so, but before setting off the next day I have to visit the tourism office to collect a permit.

The small print

It’s a densely typed, three-page document with various official stamps and signatures. My name is printed amid the Spanish legal jargon.

It resembles something as ominous as a last will and testament, but is in fact merely granting us permission to carry out commercial activity – that is, take some photos for a magazine – in the Garajonay National Park, which covers 40 square kilometres of the island, is a UNESCO-protected site and is the only rainforest in Europe.

While I’m scrutinising the small print to make sure Cyclist won’t be stung with a massive administration fee or a lifelong subscription to Fabulous Flora, the friendly woman behind the desk asks me what type of cycling we’ll be doing.

Road, I say. Oh good, she replies, explaining they are trying to attract more roadies to the island because we have much less of an environmental impact than our mountain bike-riding cousins.

Formalities completed, it’s time to do some cycling.

We clip in, and the climbing starts just three blocks from the tourism office.

The road wriggles out of San Sebastián and will continue its upward trajectory for the next 27km, taking us from sea level to almost 1,400m.

To put that in perspective, there are few classic Grand Tour climbs that long, and the ascent we’re about to embark upon is comparable to climbing the Col de la Madeleine or Croix de Fer.

Coming out of a Scottish winter during which the highest I scaled was barely 400m, I’m hoping Marcos – currently in training for the Lanzarote Ironman – will be gentle with me.

By way of encouragement, he says he’ll treat me to a glass of ‘leche con miel de palma’ at the top. I’m not sure whether milk with palm tree honey is the greatest incentive for submitting myself to the ensuing painfest.

Land of milk and honey

As we reach the point where my bus turned off the main road a year ago, it feels like my love – or lust – has finally been requited.

While the bus journey had been a series of jolting lurches as the driver struggled to find the right gears, and my views had been obscured by a tour group of Germans fighting for space with their backpacks and walking sticks, here on the bicycle everything is smooth, silent and uncluttered.

The gradient has been constant, hovering around 6%, allowing me to savour the views in all directions without breaking my rhythm.

We are nearing the top of a ridge, the sides of which tumble down into deep barrancos, or ravines.

The word ‘valley’ is too tame to do justice to the jagged, crevassed landscape that has been sculpted by millions of years of violent seismic activity.

La Gomera is Radiohead to Mallorca’s Coldplay.

The island is barely 25km in diameter, yet its mountainous topography – resembling a jelly mould – means there is nothing so straightforward as a nice, flat coast road.

Instead, its handful of coastal communities are linked by roads that head upwards and meet at an altitude of nearly 1,400m in the central plateau of the Garajonay National Park before plunging back down to the sea.

We haven’t even reached the rainforest yet, but it’s already feeling tropical because of the abundance of wild flowers, cacti and giant palms dotting the mountainsides.

An occasional sign points to a path or track that leads from the road to some unseen settlement, farmhouse or banana plantation.

It’s easy to believe we are on the very edge of Europe.

Last port of call

La Gomera was where Columbus took on his final supplies before setting sail in search of the New World, and today the island remains a setting off point for trans-Atlantic sailing and rowing attempts.

As the gradient slackens and we reach a section of false flat, I take a look behind me.

Teide floats above a mar de nubes – sea of cloud – on the horizon, looking otherworldly in the early morning sunlight.

Marcos reassures me there will be lots more stunning views of the volcano during our ride.

He also tells me that the islanders of La Gomera refer to Teide as if it belongs to them, not Tenerife, because they have the best views of it.

We’ve logged 15km by the time we pull into a clifftop cafe.

I’m not really ready for Marcos’s promised treat of milk and honey so opt for a café con leche instead.

I’m gambling on caffeine rather than calories to get me up the final 10km to the highest stretch of road on the island.

Before that, however, an increase in the number of tourist buses tells us we’re approaching one of the most spectacular landmarks on the island.

The road emerges from a cutting between two embankments to reveal the Roque Agando, a colossal, bullet-shaped volcanic outcrop.

It’s the most prominent of four volcanic plugs that define the boundary between two deep barrancos, and we suddenly find ourselves the centre of attention from selfie-stick wielding tourists not expecting to see a couple of road cyclists in these rarefied environs.

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