You'd think that on signing up for an unsupported 700 km gravel race with 16,000 metres of climbing, these stats would provide the event's main challenge. Not if the event is the GranGuanche Audax, a gravel race spread over five of the eight lumps that form the Canary Islands archipelago.
With a route split between different isles, the necessity to catch ferries from one point to another can cause riders additional difficulties. And although there's a relatively comfortable 12-day time limit to complete the race, there are incentives to do so faster. Like the fact that if you complete the GranGuanche in what its organisers call "audax pace" (just above two days in total, including ferry times), you’ll get the €180 race entry refunded. An exciting incentive, but one that will come with its own price.Photo: Henna Palosaari
With rugged terrain ranging from sandy beaches to snowy peaks, empty deserts and rainforests, black lava fields, pine forests, and tropical canyons, there's plenty to enjoy along the route. Yet, for many riders, it's a struggle to take in the scenery.
Finnish cyclist Henna Palosaari was on the final island of the GranGuanche and a little over 100 km shy of the finish line when she made the decision to scratch. Photo: Lucie Dennis
"I walked to breakfast, and almost immediately, the pain in my Achilles returned," says Palosaari, a few weeks after the GranGuanche. "I didn't know what to do. To ride or not to ride. I wanted to keep riding. I had made it that far and had the idea I might still cruise through to the finish at El Hierro at my own pace".
Despite her proximity to the finish line, the previous 24-hours had cracked Palosaari’s body and mind, slowly but surely. Not that she was new to long bikepacking trips, having managed a month and a half long stint on the bike in 2020. However, with limited winter riding, a less than optimal position on the bike, and possibly the wrong saddle, the niggles that were manageable on shorter trips became unbearable.
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While cycling in Tenerife, her irritating saddle got ever more uncomfortable. The cold conditions high atop Mount Teide also challenged her ability to eat, just as the terrain turned into loose mud and rock. Palosaari stopped but struggled to eat and soon felt the power going to the pedals shrinking by the minute. Finally, she let her riding companions Lucie and Simon go ahead as she tried to settle into her own pace.Photo: Henna Palosaari
"In the afternoon of the third day, I was so exhausted that the only thing I could do was cry. I had to lay down a couple of times," she confesses. "My legs were empty and it felt like I was spinning two empty nuggets on the pedals. The only thing I wanted was the climb to end, but it kept going and going. It felt like the longest climb of my life, maybe because it was."
After a much-needed refuel at a local restaurant, Palosaari tried to push on to get the next ferry in Los Cristianos. But that's when she started to feel her Achilles begging her to stop. And the saddle sores were getting out of hand, too.
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"When I reached the city of Los Cristianos, I could pedal only with my right foot. But I made it to the ferry. I was happy, tired and broken. I ran into Lucie and Simon, cried some more and ate some French fries before catching the ferry," she remembers.
After a good night of sleep, the Achilles hadn't improved. To make things worse, Palosaari had fallen while getting off the ferry and hit her right leg hard on the deck. Although there was only 110 km to go, she decided to pull out of the GranGuanche.Photo: Lucie Dennis
"It's not easy to recognise the limit between good and bad pain, but I knew this was not good pain anymore," she says. "I wouldn't have been able to forgive myself for making my Achilles worse and then needing months of rehab instead of taking the hard decision to quit."
A harsh reality
Riding his first ultra-cycling event, Henning Bommel, a former track cyclist who finished 5th at the 2016 Rio Olympics (team pursuit) and part of the Velocio's No Boarders gravel team, also discovered the GranGuanche was not to be taken lightly.Photo: Stefan Haehnel
"We asked the organiser Matteo for the best way to get to the start point in Órzola [from the registration point in Lanzarote], and he suggested preparing a Komoot track. He said that it was a nice route and only 45 km long," remembers Bommel.
"That's when we realised that we are no real ultra-cyclists yet. To me, 45 km on gravel is still half a ride. It was absolutely out of my imagination to add this bonus stretch before kilometre zero. So we took a cab, hopped off around the corner so that nobody could see us and took off a bit ashamed".
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Bommel was cycling in the teams' category with his friend Paul Voss (a three-time Tour de France finisher), which meant the two could help each other. In addition, Stefan Haehnel, a photographer and experienced ultra-cyclist, was also riding with them to capture some of the action. Having a photographer taking the shots was the right move, as they wouldn't have had the time to stop.Photo: Stefan Haehnel
"Riding in the night, you don't see much besides the 15 meters in front of your wheel anyway," says Bommel. And that turned out to be the central refrain of GranGuanche: ride at night, ride during the day, and sleep a couple of hours here and there. Nevertheless, Bommel says he managed the sleep deprivation surprisingly well, and his short naps were enough to regain energy and focus back before getting on the bike again.
The night ride in Gran Canaria was no different. And the six hours that followed their 9 pm departure were anything but pleasant.
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"It was an endless climb in the dark, with near-freezing temperatures and strong winds at 1,900 metres," remembers Bommel. "We were freezing and hoped that the temperatures would get warmer as we descended." Photo: Stefan Haehnel
But even the long gravel descents required all their attention, and they only took three pictures over that stretch.
"There was nothing we wanted to save for later," says Bommel. "So when we reached Puerto de las Nieves, we boarded the ferry immediately. I fell asleep as soon as I took my seat".
Teamwork makes the dream work
The German trio landed in El Hierro, the last island, on the 21st of March, two days after leaving the port of Órzola in Lanzarote. Meeting up with five riders competing in the solo category, the guys decided to get half a night’s sleep and start the final 110 km at 5 am. Initially riding with the fastest guys, they eventually decided to take it easy and soak in more of the scenery.Photo: Stefan Haehnel
"We wanted to take pictures, stop for a coffee and enjoy riding. As we were the first team that made it to El Hierro, we had no rush either," explains Bommel.
After 62 hours, 34 of which they'd spent riding, Bommel and Voss arrived at the Bahia restaurant, the official finish of the GruanGuanche. The first team, they still agreed to take it down a notch if they ever make a second attempt on the route.
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"We'll do it in five days, sleeping at night and riding in the day," says Bommel. "Because when you do a bikepacking adventure like this one, it's part of the whole experience to enjoy the ride and the nature around you".