Ride Review: Gran Canaria in the Spanish Canary Islands
Bicycling Australia journalist Peter Maniaty recently enjoyed the dream task of road testing the new 12-speed Campagnolo groupset in the Canary Islands. Here he showcases the cycling opportunities on 'Gran Canaria'.
Dogs, not birds. I’m reliably informed, rather than the yellow birds of the same name, dogs are in fact what the Canary Islands are named after. As in canine. True or not, according to Wikipedia the name Islas Canarias is likely derived from the Latin name ‘Canariae Insulae’, meaning ‘Island of the Dogs’.
Some historians suggest Mauritanian King Juba II named the island Canaria because it contained vast multitudes of dogs of very large size. (Curiously, all I saw when I was there were cats.) Others think the name may be more to do with seals, as in ‘sea dogs.’ Frankly, I have little clue and even less interest.
What I do know is this place is a bucketlist location for anyone with a love of road cycling. Looking back I still can’t quite believe my good fortune to have the chance to ride there on behalf of Bicycling Australia magazine for a few days at the recent 2018 Campagnolo Press Camp. It’s like nowhere else I’ve ever ridden.
Gran Canaria is a three-hour domestic flight south of Madrid. With a population of just under 900,000 it’s the second most populous island in the Canaries, and the third most populous in Spain after Majorca. It’s barely 100 miles off the west African coast and on a clear day you can see Morocco from the island’s highest point, Pico de Las Nieves, 1949m in elevation yet just 25km from the coastline. When certain winds prevail it’s even known for Saharan sandstorms to envelope eastern parts of the island.
Gran Canaria is not a large place. With an excellent highway system skirting the northern, eastern and southern coastlines, you can drive from one end to the other in about an hour. That said, some of the great fascinations are its diverse microclimates ranging from semi-arid to full-blown desert. Every valley, of which there are many, seems unique. The north-east region including the airport and Las Palmas is prone to changeable weather and strong winds (as evidenced by the high number of wind turbines by the roadside). It’s something of a haven for adrenaline-charged wind and kite surfers.
Cyclists tend to steer clear for the same reason and instead head south towards the tourist hubs of of Maspalomas, Puerto Rico and, our base, Puerto de Mogan – literally, the Port of Mogan. The weather here is generally warmer, drier and more stable, pretty much 365 days a year. I was there in mid-March and while it was freezing cold and sleeting in Madrid, Gran Canaria was nigh on perfect – about 15 degrees overnight, 27 degrees during the day, with not a hint of humidity. The sun can be deceptively fierce however, as a few of my European journalist colleagues learned first-hand, so be sure to pack your sunscreen.
Pick a road. Pick a valley. Pick a peak. Pick an adventure. Whichever way you decide to ride, you can be fairly certain there will be plenty of climbing involved and, not dissimilar to Adelaide back home, you don’t have to go very far before the road points upwards. In all, there are about seven main ride routes on Gran Canaria – with a multitude of variations, of course – making it the perfect destination for a training camp with your team and/or mates.
We only had time to ride two of these routes, but they were both memorable. (With its idyllic climate the Canary Islands are also one of pro cycling’s favourite training bases; we actually passed a Team Sky rider going through his paces on our first day – it may well have been the Spaniard David de la Cruz, but I’m not 100% sure as he was going too fast.)
Day One | Puerto de Mogan to Tasarte | 55km (out and back) | 1000m climbing
Day One saw us joined by 2008 UCI Road World Champion Alessandro Ballan, these days a Campagnolo Ambassador and still ridiculously fit. With Signor Ballan doing the bulk of the donkey work in the breeze, we rode tempo straight up the valley from Puerto de Mogan on the Atlantic coast to the small town of Mogan, a reasonably gentle 10km climb hovering mostly between 2-4%. Having only stepped off a long-haul flight from Sydney the afternoon before – and riding on barely two hours sleep – I took the opportunity to test my legs and reacquaint myself with riding on the right-hand side of the road. It half worked. From Mogan we swung left along the GC200 and began climbing our way steadily towards Tasarte.
There was the odd respite, including a short yet much appreciated downhill section, but it was mostly upwards for about 14km. There were a few nasty pinches, but generally the gradient remained between 6-7%, manageable enough even for badly jetlagged legs. Volcanic, jagged and harsh, yet somehow still green and picturesque, the scenery along the GC200 was jaw-droppingly spectacular. As we drew closer to the summit conditions also became windier and windier, so much so that at one point I actually felt my bike, a super light Canyon Ultimate CF SLX, was going get blown straight over the cliff edge to my right – with me still clipped in.
We stopped at the top for some windswept photos before heading back the way we’d just come. The return journey was a lot of fun, one of the more enjoyable stretches of riding I’ve done for some time with a series of long, sweeping, fast descents under perfect light and road conditions with very little traffic. It wasn’t supposed to be a race, of course. But as we all know road cyclists simply can’t help themselves. Before long the bunch had disintegrated as the ride turned into an all-out smashfest all the way back into town. I wasn’t the first rider home, but nor was I last. Which suited me just fine. I couldn’t stop smiling.
Day Two | Taurito to Puerto de Mogan via Las Filipinas and Tauro Pass | 60km (loop) | 1100m climbing
Day Two was completely different. Once again we rolled out under perfect skies on excellent roads, this time starting from the neighbouring town of Taurito. Today I was on a Ridley Fenix SLX disc, another fine bike but noticeably heavier than my featherweight German steed of 24 hours earlier. The first 15km saw us follow the rolling coastline eastwards towards Arguineguín, flanked by the azure waters of the North Atlantic.
Here we turned left and began to head up a very different valley. Hotter and drier than Day One, it struck me as being more reminiscent of New Mexico or Arizona with succulents and cacti flanking us on all sides as we snaked our way north. As it was on the first day, the early stages of the ascent were relatively benign, slightly steeper than a false flat but only just. The group kept a solid enough pace all the way into the small rural town of Las Filipinas which is where the real fun began.
After a quick stop to replenish our jersey pockets and bidons we set about the main Soria climb, a stretch of about 9km at 8-9% with short ramps of well over 18%. After feeling unexpectedly strong on Day One, I really felt this one and was quickly dropped.
With disconcertingly heavy legs, sweat soaked my arms and face as the sun beat down with surprising venom. It didn’t take long to realise this was not to be one of my better days on the bike. The wind dropped away and then came the *&^@ing switchbacks, made even worse by a rapidly deteriorating road surface. Having left the smoothness of the major GC roads behind us at the coast, the further we travelled up into this valley, the worse the roads seemed to get. One by one the remaining members of my bunch disappeared up the road and before long I was on my own, physically and emotionally. To really rub it in I was then passed by a middle-aged woman on an e-bike. (Seriously, WTF.)
I recall making her a desperate offer of $5,000 for her bike but, alas, she didn’t even say hello, let alone stop. Unlike my heart rate which seemed stubbornly stuck at 150bmp, the road continued to rise as I grovelled slowly past a series of ever-smaller farms and the occasional sparsely-fruited orange grove. From time to time one of the support cars would come back down to check on me. “I’m f*#ed!” was my honest reply. I figured there was no point making excuses. My candour drew a few laughs at least, momentarily lifting my spirits. Pedalling squares by now, I became a little worried about holding up the group, but I knew I couldn’t be too far from the top. Maybe I could actually do this?
Then came the bad news. We were actually taking a detour for the final part of the climb. Forget 8-9%. Now we were looking at another 2km of 15%+ on a truly diabolical country track, filled with potholes, loose gravel and blind 180-degree corners. Splendid. I persevered for the first section of this ‘road’ before I capitulated. I knew on this day I was broken and reluctantly succumbed to the combined masters of gravity, fatigue and Mother Nature, hitching a cheeky but much-appreciated ride for the final 1km to the top to pass. The great news is, the suffering (and, yes, ignominy) was worth it. Because greeting us at the top was one of the most magnificent stretches of road I’ve ever laid my eyes upon. Tauro Pass is, quite simply, a real-life postcard. Switchback after switchback after switchback.
And the best part was this time we were riding down it, not up! Having regrouped and refuelled overlooking a pristine mountain-top lake, the group rolled about 1km down to a lookout where we paused to capture the obligatory Instagram photos and Facebook videos. Looking out over the valley below it was like a dream. Was I really here? On the other side of the planet? Gazing out over such magnificent riding terrain? Yes, indeed I was.
Completing the somewhat random moment was an impromptu soundtrack of ‘Country Road, Take Me Home’ by the late John Denver, being played by a couple who may or may not have just become engaged on this picturesque roadside, right alongside our sweat-soaked Lycra-shrouded bodies. Photos done, it was time to belt down this mountain and its perfectly-sealed road surface. And belt we certainly did. Having suffered a massive high-side crash the last time I attempted such a slick descent in the northern hemisphere, I chose to play things relatively safe as we dropped around 750m in just 6km. It was still a joy to hurtle back down and then on towards Mogan and the coast. What a rollercoaster of riding conditions. What a rollercoaster of emotions. What a day!
As mentioned earlier, there are several other routes we never had time to try on our short visit to Gran Canaria. (We were only on the ground for four days, 7-10 days would be perfect.) From Puerto de Mogan it’s a 45km trip to the 1949m summit of Pico de Las Nieves, so a 90km round trip. They tell me you can also tackle it from Las Palmas with a 50km round trip, but it’s much steeper of course. The other ride they say you need to do, if you dare, is the ominously named Valley of the Tears. It follows the GC606 up from El Parralillo Dam taking you to around 1,380 metres. The average gradient is 10-12% with sections of up to 25%. Yes, that’s slightly tougher than most Aussie climbs, so be warned.
It doesn’t really matter when you go. It’s unlikely to be cold on Gran Canaria unless you’re very unlucky. Having said that if you intend to ride up (and down) any of the peaks it’s worth packing a wind-breaking gilet or jacket. The nights can get a little cool mind you, so take a jumper and some jeans just in case. There’s a bike hire business not far from the beach in Puerto de Mogan itself, however if you need a proper bike shop you’ll probably need to venture over to Maspalomas about 30km up the coast. Best to pack plenty of spares, especially if you intend to get off the GC roads as the road surfaces can become a little sketchy.
Gran Canaria relies heavily on tourism. Accordingly, you’ll find ample choice of accommodation to fit most budgets. We stayed at the reasonably plush Playa de Mogan, a modern(ish) resort with several pools, bars and restaurants. When we were there, shoulder season, it was busy without being packed and seemed mostly filled with overweight German and Scandinavian retirees, and the odd British family.
Apparently high summer is a very different story and it gets pretty crazy, so maybe avoid July/August if you can. You can eat at the hotel, but there are also plenty of supermarkets, bars and cafes within an easy stroll. While Spanish is the local language, the high volume of tourists mean most of the people you’ll encounter on Gran Canaria are likely to speak several languages, including basic English, especially the younger locals. As part of Spain, the Euro is the local currency.