It seems to be the norm rather than the exception these days for anyone who has any cycling aspirations at all to spend at least one week of the winter in warmer climes.
Previously, I have always gone to the Costa Blanca in March. There are certainly pro-spotting opportunities there, and glorious, beautiful and quiet roads that meet everyone’s needs. This year, due to other commitments, I decided to try something new in venue and timing, and I found myself catching a Boxing Day flight to Tenerife for a week in the sun.
Tenerife is renowned for the infamous and mysterious El Teide – a dormant volcano, rising to nearly 3,800m above sea level. It provides some of the longest, most sustained road climbs that I know of, with the extra bonus of altitude at the top. It has become the training ground of Chris Froome’s Team Sky in recent years, with a growing number of pro and amateur cyclists visiting every year. Many pros opt to stay at the Parador hotel at the summit of the Volcano for bouts on altitude training and to take advantage of Teide’s epic ascents.
The week before I arrived, an unusually wet period had hit the island. In December at 3,000m above sea level, even in tropical climes, rain falls as snow, so reports of the roads up to El Teide being closed due to snow were passed on to me by my friends who had already been there nearly 2 weeks.
There was a weather window on my first full day there, so an immediate ascent to the highest point on the islans was planned. From where we were staying on the northeast coast near Bajamar, this meant sixty odd kilometres of constant ascent; that’s from sea level to 3,200m. It would be a long, hard day in the saddle. There was never any doubt in my mind that I would get there, and was spinning away very nicely and enjoying the beautiful forest on the eastern spur of the mountain. Both my friends got bored of the relentless climbing though, and decided to bail out about half way up. Then I was on my own.
Breaking though the tree line and onto the barren volcanic slopes was a moment I will never forget, just spectacular, and you suddenly got a true impression of how far above sea level you really were. The high point actually came shortly after that, near the mountaintop observatory, where there were also crowds of Canarians out with anything they could find to help them slide fast down a snowy slope. As well as sleds, I saw surfboards, bodyboards, metal trays and of course plastic carrier bags. Canarians don’t see snow often, obviously!
A fast descent followed, before another stint of climbing to get to the Telepherique station. I thought this felt like the right place to turn around, but it has to be said it was a complete anticlimax. Rammed with tourists and not even a photo opportunity to say, yes, I’ve made it! I scarpered quick smart, and stopped a bit of the way back down the road to take the obligatory Red Chilli bike photo for my wonderful sponsor! I was still in awe of the scenery. Having studied volcanoes as part of my degree, to see one in real life, albeit a dormant one, was pretty incredible.
Next, it was the long descent down. If you’ve climbed for close to 4 hours, you know it’s a long way down! Great fun, until you get stuck behind a bus that can’t go anywhere near as fast as you. I wasn’t sure why but my brakes were juddery, so I tried to stay off them as much as I could. Once ridding mtself of the bus, a brief relief and ability to let the speed come was met by a second bout of getting stuck behind a vehicle moving way slower than I wanted to be moving.
This turned out to be the final straw. Bang! The overheated rims of my massively over-braked wheels made my inner tube go pop. Doh! Changed the tube (During which my friends came back past), set off again. Bang! Not good. After the third one, we gave up, and they went off on a rescue mission while I drank Cola-Cao in the conveniently placed bar!
I eventually got home safe, dinner, bed and preparation for Part 2.
Yes, indeed, that very same night, we had a plan to hike to the very summit of the dormant volcano. Access is restricted during daylight hours, mostly to minimise erosion, but I guess also to stop accidents from happening of inexperienced, ill-equipped tourists tromping to the summit from the top of the cable car. Those ‘in the know’ however, climb during the dark to summit at daybreak, before escaping down before the hordes of tourists arrive. I had been pre-warned to bring warm clothes and a headtorch, and duly, after an hour’s drive to the trailhead at 4am, we set off at a steady jog up the mountain shortly after 5. It wasn’t long before we encountered the remnants of the snow, and climbing higher, the snow got more widespread…. And the temperature dropped. I stopped for a comfort break at one point and got left behind by my ‘companions’. It was actually a little frightening being completely on my own for a while, with just the small beam from my headtorch for company. However, I pushed hard and started catching Richard, easing the anxiety somewhat.
We passed the refuge just before sunrise, and a short distance further up, the summit came into view. It was absolutely stunning; one of the most special moments I have had in the mountains – up there with summiting Ben Macdui in the Cairngorms at midnight on an equally snowy night, and seeing a glockenspectre (my shadow with a halo, usually only seen on days with temperature inversions in the mountains). It was at about this point where I was starting to struggle with the altitude. Even though I was moving at a decent pace, my body had lost its ability to retain its core temperature, and I was getting colder and colder. I had to stop to put extra layers on the top. We had another quick stop at the Telepherique station, by which time, there was a steady trail of people coming down from the summit.
The last 200m or so of altitude gain has quite possibly been one of the most humbling experiences of my life. As well as its inability to control temperature, my body decided that physical functions were also going to shut down. Suddenly this fit, highly trained athlete was struggling to put one foot in front of the other and I had to stop several times just to catch my breath and regain composure.
Altitude is certainly a leveller, as it is not about fitness on its own but wider physiology. I do remember reaching the summit, snapping some photos and appreciating the spectacular views, but to be honest, it is a little hazy. The weirdest thing was the small patches of suddenly hot sulphurous air blowing out of vents. I went and sat by one briefly to put on my last layers of spare clothes in a dazed attempt to sort out my core temperature.
Then, off we set on the descent. Loads of fun, and very interesting in trail running shoes on hard packed icy snow. We all went arse over tit a few times, but fortunately they were all controlled stumbles and nothing to cause any pain. It was amusing watching others totter down with their walking boots and walking poles, desperately trying to keep upright.
A little under 6 hours after setting off we returned to the car, tired, hungry, yet exhilarated from the experience.
About the Author: Hi, I’m Karen (Poole) and I’m super-excited that Cycling Torque have invited me to be one of their guest bloggers! As a friend recently said in his blog, I am a ‘self-proclaimed gob-shite’ from Yorkshire. I’ve classed cycling as my first sport since 2011 (after ‘retiring’ from international orienteering when I decided I was too old!), although I have very early memories of me riding a bike around the leafy lanes of the Cartmel peninsula in Cumbria, so have probably always had cycling in my blood. I might be a competitive cyclist, but nothing beats the sheer joy of a long hilly ride in the beautiful landscape that is Great Britain, exploring new roads and meeting new people with a common interest. I hope you enjoy reading my ‘Ramblings on Two Wheels’. If you want to know more you can follow me on @karenpoole44 (Twitter), @Hambletonhobbit (Instagram) or find me on Facebook.