A tale of ferries and chamois cream

Ever heard of ultra-cycling? Ever done it? I just finished my first ultra-cycling experience, Granguanche Audax Gravel, a 700 km and +16,000 m elevation race across the Canary Islands.

What an experience… even though I was only able to complete 580 km and +12,500 m of the race due to a strong pain in my achilles, which forced me to prioritize my health. But, the three days and four islands that I did get to see gave me a great taste of what ultra-cycling is, as well as how amazing the Canary Islands are for cycling.

 

In general, ultra-cycling events provide a great opportunity to step out of your comfort zone, test your limits and meet other like-minded people. When you’re training at home, it is hard to get into the right headspace, so if you want to see what your body and mind are really capable of, ultra-cycling is a great way to go. Maybe painful but fun in its own weird way.

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Lanzarote & Fuerteventura

 

We started the race from Lanzarote at 10 pm and cycled across the island overnight. Everything went as planned, I started out gently and riding felt good. I arrived at the harbor at 4.30 am and slept for 2.5 hours before taking the ferry to Fuerteventura. The ride across Fuerteventura was extra fun because I rode with Lucie Dennis, a badass female rider from France. It is always more fun when you can share the views, snack breaks and tough moments with someone else.

 

Now what makes GranGuanche such a special ultra-cycling event is the ferries. If you miss one ferry you might need to wait 12 or even 24 hours before the next one. Timing is everything! The first challenge was catching the ferry from Fuerteventura to Gran Canaria, as we only had nine hours to complete the 160 km and +2,300 m journey. But I was very pleased since we managed to make the last ferry to Gran Canaria, still feeling good and strong. 

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Gran Canaria

 

We booked a hotel in Las Palmas, ate well and slept for five hours until 4.30 am, before starting a daunting 140 km ride, with a total of 3,500 meter climb, across Gran Canaria. I had never climbed more than 2,500 m in one day, so I was slightly apprehensive. We started making our way up, slowly but surely. Simon joined us so now we were three, all pushing each other forward. We stopped for breakfast and coffee before heading out of the town to the first remote climb. It was long and heavy and then became way too steep to ride, so we had to hike with our bikes to get out of the canyon. Before the top we did two beautiful gravel loops before the final push to the top. At this point my legs were starting to feel it and I was getting quite uncomfortable in the saddle. If anyone ever tells you that you don’t need chamois cream for ultra-cycling events, don’t listen to themwhen you’re in the middle of nowhere and the idea of sitting in your saddle makes you want to cry, you’ll be happy you decided to pack the extra tube!

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We managed to finish the climbstill feeling relatively alright considering the circumstanceslayered up and started the descent. I might have uttered the words “who the heck thought it was a good idea to ride here when you could just drive with your car?”… I was starting to get a bit tired of the climbing part! Luckily we found a nice restaurant and stopped for a proper lunch. We might have gotten a little too comfortable and spent 1.5 hours there, and missed the 4 pm ferry. But we enjoyed it, and the 6 pm ferry would do just fine. After the break I struggled for a while with the saddle soreness, until everything became numb enough that I could focus on cycling again. The descent from Llanos De La Pez was one of the longest and most stunning gravel descents I have ever done. It is breathtakingly beautiful and even though we had to keep going so as not to miss the 6 pm ferry, we couldn’t help but stop to take some pictures. We made it to the ferry ten minutes before departure, despite the last minute road works that had us waiting for over five minutes. 

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Tenerife 

 

We got to Tenerife, bought some Bepanthen bebé for our saddle sores, stocked up on food and water and had one last delicious gas station coffee before starting the 170 km and +4,500 m ride across Tenerife. We truly enjoyed the first 6 km of flat road before starting the first part of the climb up to La Laguna. Luckily the climb was on asphalt, so it was doable even at night. However, 45 km and +1,200 m of climbing after the full day in Gran Canaria was quite heavy, and the temperatures dropped the higher we climbed. We decided to camp in La Laguna and after two hours of broken sleep, set out riding again at 4.00 am. There was still almost 130 km and +3,300 m to go before the one and only 5.30 pm ferry to El Hierro. 

 

The first hours went well but then we turned on to a small gravel road that led us deeper into the forest and to the bottom of mount Teide. It was freezingtemperatures had dropped to 4ºC. Besides being cold, I wasn’t able to eat or drink often enough on a muddy and rocky gravel track. That’s when the problems started. We stopped for a short break but I was still struggling to eat. We kept riding and I started losing power, but couldn’t force myself to eat enough. Eventually, I couldn’t keep up with the others so I found my own pace and kept moving forward, slowly but surely. By the afternoon I was so exhausted I just wanted to cry. I had to lay down a couple of times. I forced myself to eat something but my legs were empty and it felt like the longest climb of my lifeprobably because it was. 

 

I was also running out of water since there hadn’t been anywhere to refill my bottles. After a long, slow battle, I finally reached the road and soon found a restaurant where I was able to stop and refill. I should have eaten but I could only manage a cold coke. When I got back on the bike I was hurting a lot, my left achilles had started to bother me on the climb and the saddle soreness made sitting down extremely painful. I no longer thought I would make it to the ferry, but I was too tired to care. I just wanted to get off my bike. 

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Finally, I came to a descent, the first break in hours. I was sure I could make up for lost time until the headwind hit my faceI had to keep pedaling despite the downhill. It crushed me. When I reached the flat section of the descent with the strong headwind I got off the bike, again. I just wanted to get out of there. Unfortunately, the only way to do that was by bike. I didn’t care about the ferry anymore, but I also didn’t want to give up. I browsed my Komoot and saw that I could still make it despite the flat section and one more climb. So I forced myself to finish my sandwich and eat a couple of M&Ms and got back on the bike.

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The sugar gave me a boost—now there were six M&Ms in my legs instead of zero. I decided that no matter how bad it felt, I was going to power my way to the top of the last climb, which would just leave a 40 km descent. “1-2-1-2-1-2”, I repeated to myself, and eventually made it. I layered up and started descending. “This is more like it”, I thought, but I was still so tired that I started crying. The pain in my achilles was worse, so I just kept my feet still. When I reached the city I could only pedal with my right foot, but I made it to the ferry with an hour to spare! I was happy, tired and broken. I ran into Lucie and Simon, cried some more and ate some french fries with them before catching the ferry. I had made it but I didn’t know what I should do the next day because I was too tired to think clearly. I decided to get a good night’s rest in a hotel and decide in the morning.

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El Hierro & the final straw

 

To make matters worse, I fell when we were getting off the ferry in El Hierro. I hit my right leg hard on the metal deck and by nightfall I couldn’t bend it. I knew I would get a massive bruise. I was shattered, but I dreamed of cycling the whole night. Thankfully, come morning, I could bend my right leg again and my left achilles felt only a little tight, so I decided I would keep riding.

 

On the walk to breakfast the sharp pain in my achilles returned. I was stuck—to ride or not to ride. I wanted to keep riding, I had made it that far. But I was in a lot of pain and I knew it could get worse. So bad in fact that another 110 km now could put me out for weeks or months. I had to pause and think. Being able to ride my bike is everything for me, so sacrificing that for just one ride didn’t make much sense anymore. I decided to drop out. 

 

It was a tough decision. And although I was disappointed, I knew I had made the right decision. I’m doing this for the fun of it and risking my long-term health is not fun. I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself had I made my achilles worse and had to take months out.

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So, looking back, would I do an ultra-cycling race again? Maybe, but not tomorrow. My final day in Tenerife and the injury made me really question whether this format is for me. I love testing my limits, but I’m not into racing, so I think I’ll stick to my own crazy adventures with my friends, so I can really enjoy the places we ride at our own pace and get a good night's sleep in between. Saying this, ultra-cycling events are a great way to meet amazing and like-minded people, which I love, so you never know! Watch this space…

 

Sincerely,

Henna Palosaari

 

All photos by: Sergio Villalba