“Slowly it just becomes this moon landscape. You really feel like you're in a movie, like Interstellar or The Martian. I've never been to an island like that. You have the lava fields, it's a little bit unreal, actually.”
These are the words of Therese Sundström as she reminisces about her time ascending Mount Teide a few months before our conversation. Now back home and battling with a much colder climate, the Swedish cyclist speaks wistfully about her time on the Canary Island. “After the climb, I felt exhausted, but it felt like the mission was completed,” she smiles.
Sundström was in Tenerife on a photoshoot with ASSOS, capturing some of the Swiss manufacturer’s latest women’s kit offerings. It’s a brand she has been working with for years, in a relationship that goes much deeper than solely modelling the newest bib shorts or jerseys. “I don't want to be a walking mannequin,” explains Sundström. “I really want that connection. I give feedback on the kit and I think I represent the wants of many women who are normal cyclists when it comes to what you need from your kit.”
The prolonged incline and unpredictable weather on Teide served as the perfect place for Sundström to test ASSOS’s UMA GTV range – a collection designed for comfort and ease of use on long endurance rides. Sundström’s ride took close to five hours, with a hefty 2,536m of elevation gain. This meant that for most of the day she was riding in a solid climbing rhythm, without much movement of her body. For this reason, it was imperative that the kit fit well, with no chafing or restrictions.
“I can’t give too much feedback on the kit,” Sundström admits candidly. “I think that’s why it's so good. I wasn’t even thinking about it. It was so comfortable I almost forgot I was wearing it; I just focussed on riding.”
The mild February weather also helped ensure that the Swedish rider’s Teide attempt was enjoyable – the heat wasn’t as stifling as it can be in summer months on the island, and a breeze at the top of the climb kept her refreshed. Inevitably, she had to stop for nature breaks throughout the day, and she notes that the ‘Bisiclick’ feature on the UMA GTV shorts was an asset in ensuring she didn’t have to spend a long time at the side of the road.
“It made it so much easier. The magnetic clip feature in the shorts meant I could just pull them down without taking my jersey off or anything. The short pee stops meant my legs didn’t tighten up and I could get going again quickly,” she explains.
Despite wanting to keep the ride moving, Sundström is quick to note that the ascent of Teide wasn’t about a Strava time or racing other riders. Instead, it was a personal challenge and journey, one that gave her the freedom to escape into her own world for a couple of hours. “Whatever challenge I do is my adventure and my own goal,” she says. “If someone else was riding with me and said, hey, I will beat you to the top, I’d just say: have fun. I will not race you, I just want to do this for me.”
Throughout the hours she was tapping up Teide, watching her surroundings switch from green forest to barren, desert-like stretches of sandy land, Sundström found herself in a headspace that many cyclists discover when embarking on solo ventures.
“When I’m doing a long ride like this, I zone-out and get into my own space,” she says. “It's a little bit scary because it's like I haven't used my brain for a few hours. It's such a nice release of energy. I don't focus on anything else other than just being in the now and enjoying it.”
“It's about just being very present. People talk about mind-space and cycling is very much my meditation. I just get my emotions out through physical activity.”
Sundström paints a picture of complete tranquillity all the way up the daunting Mount Teide. But, having not attempted such mountainous terrain in the winter months leading up to the ride, she admits there was some suffering involved during the climb too. “I was a little bit fatigued, so I definitely had brain ghosts asking me what I was doing,” she says. “I hadn't really been climbing for the whole winter, so my body was definitely trying to fight me a little bit. But I just wanted to get to the top.”
The determination that Sundström showed on the day she climbed Teide wouldn’t come as a surprise to those who know her. The Swedish athlete rarely shies away from a challenge, even attempting an Everest attempt of Alpe d’Huez a few years ago. “I got to 5,500 metres, that is like five repetitions of it. Then I kind of cracked and said, this is not worth it,” she says.
But regardless of if she completes the challenge or not, it’s clear that Sundström enjoys the process; pushing her limits and finding where her body can take her. “I don't put too much pressure on myself,” she says. “If I didn’t make it to the top of Teide that day, it's not the end of the world either. I still would have felt the same way. It still makes me feel good.”
It’s this love for the bike and what it can offer in terms of self-discovery that has left Sundström with a long bucket list of epic challenges she hopes to complete. The Everesting attempt still haunts her, and it's one that she’d like to achieve fully one day. In the nearer future, though, she will tackle the Badlands ultra-cycling gravel race in Grenada, as well as the 1,000km Race Across France.
In addition to her personal challenges, Sundström enjoys helping other cyclists achieve their goals. A trained chiropractor and physiotherapist who has worked with professional teams in the past, the Swedish rider finds satisfaction in being part of the success of others. “I spent four years living in Girona helping professional riders to stay well and put in good performances. That is actually something that gives me almost more pleasure in sport. It's not always my performance. I am so happy for other people's performances,” she says.
Her work within the professional peloton means Sundström is familiar with the needs and requirements of athletes. It’s why she wasn’t surprised to see the amount of WorldTour riders in Tenerife at the same time as her. “The national park, Parador de Las Cañadas del Teide, at the top of the climb is at a high altitude, so many professionals stay there,” she says. “Altitude gives you huge efficiency in your performance, so many cyclists and triathletes like to spend time there.”
Did the effects of altitude hinder Sundström on her ascent of Teide? “A little bit,” she says. “You can definitely feel that it's colder up high. When you are down in the forest, you are protected from the wind. Then when you come up, it's a little bit more straining. You can’t do as many small sprints without needing a break once in a while just to catch your breath.”
It’s comfort that Sundström sees as the key for anyone planning to attempt an ascent of the looming Mount Teide. The steady but unrelenting slopes make for long hours in the same position in the saddle, and the changeable conditions on the way to the summit of the climb means that preparation is key in terms of clothing.
“Make sure you have your kit dialled in,” she says. “Also, do some training beforehand. Just get your body used to the endurance a little bit before tackling something so hard."
"Mentally and physically, it’s pretty tough, but the feeling of relief and the reward at the top, it’s so worth it."