GranGuanche Audax Trail – my first ultra race

For me joining the GranGuanche Audax ultra was a new experience. Despite having my fair share of gravel riding and bikepacking experience – as well as a whole lot of dotwatching hours under my belt – actually putting on a cycling cap with a race number and riding an ultra, was a new experience.

Read more below video

Although I kind of had a feeling what I was getting myself into, I also gathered a whole lot of information, tips and tricks from experienced riders during my preparations. However, as I realised quickly while riding, there is no perfect way of tackling an event like this – you’re going to get it wrong the first time anyway. Experience is an important thing in these kinds of rides.

First of all, let me tell you that the whole idea of gravel riding all of the main Canary Islands was a blast! I had never been there before but riding the islands by bike, connecting them together by ferries, seemed like the perfect way to explore all of them in one go. Especially with a gravel bike, you can get to places where no car or road bike will ever take you – taking in the islands the best way possible. 

Doing so during a race, however, might have been less ideal. The start at 22:00 in the evening meant riding across Lanzarote in the dark of night and not seeing a whole lot of it. Also riding through the night then catching the first Fuerteventura ferry in the morning meant I didn’t get any sleep that first night. This – combined with a too swift of a start – made for the perfect bad star, even though my dot on the map at that point in time suggested otherwise. 

By the time I had got myself to the second ferry on the other end of Fuerteventura by midnight of the second day, sleep deprivation was starting to catch up with me. Riding my bike for 26 hours straight through rough landscapes with lots of climbing and hike-a-bikes with a too heavily loaded bike was rough. 

The ferries had a crazy thing going for them – riders quick and less-fast found themselves together again at the harbours, starting each new island as a group. This meant that by the time I reached Gran Canaria – the third of the five islands – I was still riding at the front of the race. The only difference being that riders like Josh and Sofiane with actual experience were still fresh in legs and mind, whereas I was not. Gran Canaria started killing me slowly and I saw other riders moving away from me. 

The fastest of them caught the evening ferry on the other side of the island. Some others got a good night’s sleep, aiming for the morning ferry. I however found myself riding through the night again with only a few crappy hours of sleep on a deserted town square. While this meant catching up with most of my fast buddies again at the first ferry the morning to Tenerife, the difference in energy couldn’t have been bigger.

I had seen people like Sofiane win the Atlas Mountain Race on only a couple of hours of sleep, but I started to realise that I was definitely lacking mine. Upon arriving at Tenerife on the morning of day three, I was dead in the water. Getting from that harbour to a pre-booked hotel in the middle of the island took me all day and at that point I definitely said goodbye to the fast kids in the race. Sleeping that night on a real bed was everything I needed – those magic hours of sleep prevented me from scratching and quitting the race right then and there.

Despite the fact that day four would lead me up and over Mount Teide – yes, indeed the highest mountain of Spain – I felt re-energised. I felt stupid for pushing it so hard in the beginning and decided to take a lesson out of my own book of knowledge: party pace wins the race. And so, I did. I party-paced up Mount Teide and enjoyed it a lot. The landscapes were amazing and the gravel riding phenomenal. I met up with other riders overtaking me, but I couldn’t care less. I was enjoying their company as they enjoyed mine. The descent into the harbour was a blessing and I even enjoyed a mid-ride IPA beer halfway down the descent with fellow racer Michael from Germany and still caught the last ferry of the day to La Palma.

And that is unfortunately where my fairy tale (or should be ferry tale?) ends. I made it over to the final island and  slept in the same apartment as Josh and Sofiane, who had just finished the last stage that same day before ending back up at the harbour. La Palma however – recently famous for its active volcano – showed itself a true disaster island, as a huge thunderstorm landed on the island the night I arrived. With the danger of thunderstorms on the high peak and the gravel turning into slush due to the heavy rainfall, I had to scratch from the race, never seeing the active volcano at the finish line. I did however do so with a smile since I was done pushing myself over the limit and had found joy again during the last day of riding.

Despite not being able to finish the race, I had a great experience. The landscapes and gravel riding on the Canaries are amazing and I had a lot of useful insights about ultra-cycling. A race like this does strange things to the mindset. I found myself pushing myself way beyond what I thought I could possibly do on a bike, but also learned valuable lessons about my limitations and the value of sleep and packing light. 

You’ll never get it right the first time, but I enjoyed myself a lot nonetheless!

Feel like riding this route? Check out the GranGuanche website or click my Komoot collection below. Also be sure to check out the video I made about my adventures on the Canary Islands!

Zoals eerder gepubliceerd op de Gravel Union site.

Lees verder in het Nederlands op de website van Bicycling.

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