GranGuanche 2021 Fairy Tale
The GranGuanche Audax is a self-supported bikepacking event that follows a challenging route across the Canary Islands. With help from the organizers, we’ve put together a detailed recap from second-place finisher Nils Correvon. Find his report and a beautiful gallery of photos here…
When I first heard about GranGuanche, it sounded like a fairy tale, a bikepacking route across the Canary Islands from one ferry to the next one. But more than just a route, Matteo Minelli turned it into an aesthetic and poetic adventure. Coupled with the aim of achieving the 700 kilometres in under 72 hours, the GranGuanche Trail Audax transforms the adventure into a physical and mental challenge where ferry schedules force participants to ride fast enough to hop on the next boat on time and unlock a new world made of endless gravel roads, empty deserts, black lava fields, humid rainforests, and steep mountains.
But before sleep deprivation, extreme exhaustion, and soreness amplified all my senses, I enjoyed a few days of riding Lanzarote with some fellow participants. As we bumped in the European Space Agency training to collect rock samples in the moonlike lava fields of Timanfaya, we knew the experience we were about to live would be epic.
The event started at Matteo’s place for a brief race meeting, and every participant received a personal quote on their registration envelope. The one from Jack Kerouac that Matteo wrote on mine took on its full meaning:
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
The start was set for 10 p.m. on Saturday in Orzola. Suddenly, as the sun was setting, the small fishermen’s village was full of cyclists kitted with their bike bags, headlamps, and nervous faces. For our last meal together, some skipped the seafood specialties and others went for it. Food poisoning and throwing up during the first night were probably better to avoid. For those who avoided the seafood, Papa Arrugadas, the traditional dish of the Canary Islands, was a perfect way to stock carbs for the night to come. I even ordered a second portion to take away, and my frame bag was then full of these salty boiled potatoes for the next 24 hours. And it was damn good to eat real food along the way, not only eating Snickers bars.
Like every ultra-cycling event, the race started at a stupidly fast pace, and we made it to Playa Bianca almost two hours before the first ferry. It was absolutely useless, as we were just too excited to have some proper rest before hoping on the ferry while the sun was rising. These little times off were also an opportunity to book the next ferry ticket online to avoid a crowded counter at the next port.
This first night also showed that even the route is mostly made up of fire roads, mountain bikes were a way better choice than gravel bikes to navigate through the sandy sections and rocky descents. Drawing from 10 years of experience in the professional road peloton, Oscar Pujol also taught a few of us how to pee while riding, which turned out to be a valuable skill to master when the tight ferry schedule forced you to ride relentlessly. And obviously a better technique than triathletes who just pee themselves during Ironman events as Marcin Kepka explained to us later. But enough talk of peeing, because we were on our way to Fuerteventura, where the race within the race would start.
Arriving with the first ferry in Fuerteventura at 9 a.m., we all knew covering the 160 kilometres in under nine hours to get the last ferry in Morro Jable to Gran Canaria would be the biggest challenge of the adventure. There were also long stretches without possibilities to resupply, so we had to play it smart. The race against the clock started in a small peloton that slowly narrowed to three riders. Juaquin David Martin, Toni Calderon, and Oscar Pujol pushed so hard that after almost two hours I decided to slow down the cadence and let them go. I knew I wouldn’t have been able to keep this pace for the next seven hours, and apparently, the three of them weren’t told The Tortoise and the Hare fable from De La Fontaine in their childhood. Two hours later, I found them on the roadside lying on the table in a small restaurant trying to hide from the blazing sun and refuelling their empty tanks. I waved at them with a big smile on my poker face (I was suffering like hell from the heat) and continued my way.
An hour later, Oscar Pujol passed me as I was desperately in need of carbs. I finally reached Pajara where I stopped at the first shop I found. Two ice creams, a Coke, and five minutes later, I was back on the road for the last 60-kilometre time trial, and I absolutely gave it my all for the last three hours. Arriving at the last minute at the pier, I was utterly roasted-cooked-steamed-fried, whatever your culinary preference is, but I made it and only Oscar was there too. The race was now a duel, and we were on our way to Gran Canaria to start the fight.
Behind us, the rest of the bunch will have to wait until tomorrow morning to get the first ferry. After a sleepless night and pushing hard to just miss the ferry by a few minutes, exhaustion started to affect decision-making. Marcin Kepka had to book a new ferry ticket for the next morning and he also had to book his hotel room again as he mistakenly booked the wrong hotel.
At the front, I was absolutely smashed after sprinting all the way through Fuerteventura to catch the last ferry to Gran Canaria. And the two-hour ferry ride to Las Palmas wasn’t enough to recover from the all-out effort. Fortunately, ultra-cycling isn’t rocket science. Thirsty? Then drink. Hungry? Then eat. Tired? Then sleep. So, I decided to get some sleep. As I wasn’t particularly keen on sleeping on a sidewalk in the city of Las Palmas, I walked into the first cheap hotel I found, closed my eyes, and four hours later my alarm rang. I jumped back on my bike and started the first climb in the dark on an empty stomach. Shops would not open before a good three hours, and I needed to keep moving.
I bumped into Oscar Pujol at 6:45 a.m., who also had a bit of sleep at the top of the first climb. Just time to say hello and I left the route to stop at the last shop before going all the way up to Pico de Las Nieves. Google Maps and the front door timetable say the shop should open at 7 a.m., yet at 7:10 a.m. it was still closed. The neighbour who saw me waiting restlessly in front of the door came to me and told me that the owner usually opens closer to 9 a.m. After a quick look in my bags, I still had some Papa Arrugadas, and they made a perfect little breakfast before I kept going.
Soon after reaching the top, I found a farm selling local products. I ate a massive piece of goat cheese, and that cheese worked some miracles! I found myself sprinting again during the last 50 kilometres to hop on the ferry at the very last minute for the second time. Aboard the ferry, I met Oscar Pujol again and the “eat as much as you can” competition started as we’d have to push through the night once we got to Tenerife.
During the race, we mostly ate on the Ferries, and it looks like other passengers were as hungry as us. Once we made it to the counter after a long queue, I discovered the dream food for any ultra-endurance athlete: Bocadillo de Tortilla, the Spanish equivalent to the Belgian Mitraillette. The thing has absolutely no sense for any normal human being as it is basically a sandwich filled with potatoes—carbs filled with carbs.
Behind, the pack would gather again in Agaete to take the last ferry to Tenerife. The faster riders might have seen the ferry as unfair since all the riders gathered again no matter how they had performed and started from scratch again on the next island. However, this might not be true, as Erwin Sikkens told us at the unofficial finisher party. Gathering with the fast riders at the ferry gave Erwin the impression that he was actually doing great by being at the front. The difference, however, was that the faster riders were able to get some rest, even some sleep before taking most of the ferries. In contrast, the not-as-fast riders weren’t able to.
Daniela Kirchner decided to keep pushing and pushing at her own pace without stopping, without properly sleeping, to stay with the pack. And she did that until the finish line, showing everyone she was the toughest among all participants. Erwin had to pay the price of pushing too hard, and he was so exhausted that it took him two days to cross Tenerife. But the good night of sleep he had helped him to recover and get into party pace mode to enjoy the rest of the course.
While the sun was setting in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, we knew we had to push through the night to reach Los Cristianos in the morning and get the first ferry at 8 a.m. Oscar and I knew we would have a small margin and therefore not have to rush to reach Los Cristianos. We both tried to guess each other’s strategy and ended up stopping at different places to resupply before the long night climb to Mt. Teide. Oscar got ahead in the climb, but I soon passed him in the fast descent. If riding downhill in the dark with a 90-watt bike light was a sport, I would probably be pretty successful. Oscar and I reached Los Cristianos approximately at 6 a.m., almost two hours before the first ferry. Hungry as hell, the only food I had left was M&M’s, and after 200 grams of M&Ms, I tried to sleep for an hour but couldn’t really sleep as I was still buzzing from the full-gas descent from Mt. Teide and knowing we would soon reach the last island. Behind us, some were pushing hard to make it on time, but after leaving a lot of energy to get through Gran Canaria and the necessary pace to push through Tenerife and reach Los Cristianos on time, no one else made it to the morning ferry.
As we boarded on the ferry to La Palma, I felt greater than ever and was ready to give everything in the last battle. Unfortunately, it didn’t last for long. What I had not expected were the combined effects of the rough sea and the speedy jet boat. I immediately got seasick and unable to eat. I got down on the floor, soon to be kicked in the ribs by the ferry lady who reminded me I must stay seated.
As we landed in La Palma, my eyes suddenly felt itchy, and it was like I had eaten sand. Looking up to the black cloud, I realized it was actually ashes from the ongoing volcanic eruption. Matteo told us later he was close to calling off the race due to the health concerns of breathing the volcanic dust. Fortunately, the wind was blowing the black clouds off the shore, and we were soon breathing some fresher air. Oscar Pujol quickly took the lead in the endless climb to Roque de los Muchachos, but I was pushing hard to come back until the lights switched off. In the last part of the climb, my vision suddenly became blurry, and I was barely able to stay on the bike and spin the legs. I got worried I would pass out and wondered—between hallucinations—if I should stop and call for help. I tried to eat everything I had but it was getting worse. After what felt like an eternity, I reached the top and started the long descent. I had to focus so hard to ride down a smooth fire road, and after two hours, I finally found myself back, full of energy for the last hilly part. I stopped at the last resupply point to get a well-deserved ice cream and was hyped to finish this incredible adventure.
As the sun had just set, I was approaching the finish line, which had a view of the active volcano, and suddenly the sky lit up in a powerful red. The lava bursts illuminated the sky, making for an unforgettable finish.
2021 GranGuanche Audax Results
- 1st: Oscar Pujol (68 hours, 41 minutes)
- 2nd: Nils Correvon (69 hours, 34 minutes)
- 3rd: Toni Calderon (81 hours, 20 minutes)
- 4th: Marcin Kepka (82 hours, 40 minutes)
The organizers of the GranGuanche Audax Trail have two upcoming events: the Audax Road on January 22nd and the Audax Gravel on March 19th.
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