Torrents of sweat had already erupted from my head as I approached a daunting road sign above Los Cristianos, a town on the south coast of Tenerife. I was barely 10 minutes into a ride on the Spanish island. It had started at my hotel, where I left my family by the pool after smothering the kids in factor 50.
“El Teide, 47km,” the sign read. As I looked beyond it, my own sun cream began to drip into my eyes. Fellow bald cyclists may be familiar with what I like to call the “Piz Buin squint”. The sign might also have included the warnings: “all uphill”, “really hot” and “not actually dormant”.
I had asked for this. Mount Teide, the 3,715m volcano that punches through the Atlantic above Tenerife’s black-sand beaches and karaoke bars, has been on my cycling radar for years. Just as tourists have long flocked to the island’s resorts and year-round sun, professional cyclists have made seasonal migrations to its rarefied roads.
Tenerife is a tectonic gift to the sport. Lying some 1,300km southwest of Spain, it is on the latitude of the Sahara Desert. Its roads, meanwhile, peak at more than 2,356m (you’ll need a cable car ticket to go higher). The routes from the four corners of the island to the top are often spoken of as the longest continuous climbs in Europe (although I’d argue Granada to the summit of Pico de Veleta in mainland Spain’s Sierra Nevada pips them). Either way, it’s rare for such a climb to start at sea level.
Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky trained for weeks on Teide, including in Tenerife’s mild winter, before his Tour de France and Olympics wins in 2012. There have been rumours that the Vuelta a España, or Tour of Spain, might one day include a Teide stage. And now amateurs are increasingly flying there to train like the pros — or at least to gasp for air in their tracks.
Days before my visit in mid-May, 1,000 cyclists had gathered for the fifth Vuelta al Teide, a 175km timed event including the big climb (and which, thanks to the ups and downs along the way, notches up a total of 4,400m of ascent). Participation has quadrupled since the event’s launch in 2017, as Tenerife realises its potential to rival Mallorca or the mountain meccas of the Alps and the Pyrenees.
As I began my own climb — and a 122km loop including 3,000m of ascent — I was reminded of Mont Ventoux, the Provençal maker and breaker of Tour de France legend. It, too, rises from nowhere in a series of increasingly barren and exposed slopes, punishing riders who struggle to find a rhythm.
The beach resorts soon disappeared in a haze below me. The sun kept rising. There was no shade among the aloe vera plantations and villages of Teide’s lower slopes. My first target, at almost 2,200m, was the southern rim of the vast Cañadas crater, the collapsed remnants of an earlier volcano that is up to 16km across. The road then drops into the crater before a 7km push up to the cable car station at the foot of the central cone of Teide, which formed within the caldera more than 150,000 years ago.
A pine forest above Vilaflor, Tenerife’s highest village, offered only momentary respite. Back in the fierce sun above 2,000m, it was hard to know what was dragging me most — fatigue or thin air. An orange blur whizzed down past me. Online detective work later revealed it as a group from Ineos Grenadiers (formerly Team Sky), including Geraint Thomas, who was training on the volcano for the Tour de France. Pros tend to eschew the beach and stay at the Parador hotel, one of the few buildings in the thin air and monastic quiet of the Cañadas crater.
And what a crater! One second I was busting a gut on a typical high-mountain road, the next I was descending into Mars. I passed rock stacks and scree slopes tinged red or an alien blue-green, and pink flowers as tall as me that are known as “towers of jewels”. There were giant cactuses, skittish lizards and vast fields of black lava that had spewed forth in an eruption in 1798 (Teide last erupted in 1909 and remains active, if quiet).
The otherworldliness was a welcome distraction as I hit a headwind before the steep ramp to the cable car station. Catching my breath at the café, I knocked back tortilla and doughnuts like a hungry pelican. The greater reward was the descent. After briefly backtracking across the crater, I looped northwards, dropping fast into the early afternoon heat. I grinned, my brakes squealed. After a cruel series of hills along the sweltering coast road, I slumped to the floor of my hotel room clutching a cold beer — and memories of a mountain like no other.
The next Vuelta al Teide takes place on May 6, 2023, see vteide.com for information on how to enter. For more on visiting Tenerife, including accommodation options, see hellocanaryislands.com
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