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Gran Guanche Audax Gravel 2023: A different island hopping

The Gran Guanche Audax Gravel has wrapped up another successful season of unsupported ultracycling events in the Canary Islands. Gran Guanche is on its own an island hopping route that can be tackled at any point during the year, but there is also a yearly organized but not competitive event for each of the variants; trail, road, and gravel.

Taking advantage of the good temperatures all year long in the archipelago, the Audax events take place between the months of December and March, when it takes some courage to ride in the cold in most of the northern hemisphere.

Varied conditions within the same archipelago

On March 18th at 10 PM, 100 riders took on the challenge of riding across five islands through a fixed route in a self-supported way. “There’s no cut-off time, there are no prizes, no medals, no brevet cards or finisher diplomas. The Audax is focused on the experience rather than the final results.”, state the organizers on their website. The only challenge was to follow the timings set by the Audax pace.

The route of the event is almost identical to the Gran Guanche gravel itinerary, but in this case, riders did not start in La Graciosa but in Lanzarote. With 110 km ahead and 9h 30 min to catch the earliest ferry, riders could take it super easy on this first island and still make it on time, or push a bit more and have more time to rest while waiting for the ferry.

The short 35-minute crossing to Fuerteventura was followed by the start of the real time trial against the ferry waiting on the other side of the island, as riders had to average 21 km/h across 160 km and 2.300 meters of accumulated elevation to keep up with the Audax pace. It was worth pushing because riders could then rest during the two-hour ferry journey to the third island.

Most riders reached the 24 hours of elapsed time while in Gran Canaria, and with a very long climb up to Pico de las Nieves at almost 2.000 meters of elevation, the accumulated fatigue was starting to play an important role.

In the spirit of Audax, participants are allowed to draft each other, which is something many riders took advantage of. In addition to the physical challenges of an event of this type, solitude is also one of the biggest hurdles to overcome, so the possibility of riding in groups puts Gran Guanche as one of the best events to introduce yourself to the ultracycling world.

In total, 10 riders made the 6 AM ferry to Tenerife, but if Gran Canaria was the first real climbing test, Tenerife was truly going to make the difference. 174 km and 4.570 meters of elevation are no joke, even more after the time they had already spent on the saddle. Most of it was on tarmac or some sort of paved surface, so they could at least put their focus on the views ahead rather than on what was laying two meters in front of them.

Aware of the magnitude of the challenge, several of the riders that were still on time with the Audax pace decided before the first pedal stroke in Tenerife that they were not going to try to make it to the 5.30 PM ferry on Monday evening.

Four riders arrived at Los Cristianos, in the west of Tenerife, inside the Audax pace. This time goal was set at 38h of elapsed time, including inter-island transfers. The clock stopped ticking once they made it to the finish of the second-to-last island, but in El Hierro there was a closing loop of 117 km and 3.770 meters of elevation gain in which riders could get rid of their bags and enjoy the varied landscapes of the island. It was mandatory for them to sleep before tackling this final loop so, to some extent, they could recover a bit before this last push.

Not long after they started riding again, Justinas Leveika attacked and created a gap that he would maintain for the remaining kilometers to become the first finisher. The rider from Norway already raced an ultracycling event this year, finishing second in the Atlas Mountain Race. In recent years he has won the Three Peaks Bike Race and Race Around Rwanda, and he has also already been among the top finishers in some of the most prestigious ultracycling races, like Badlands, Transiberica, or the Gran Guanche itself but the road version.

Among the other three riders that made the Audax pace, the discipline debutant Florian Chenaux finished ahead of Nils Correvon, current winner of Seven Serpents and 3rd at Badlands 2022, and Pierfrancesco Santin, winner of Two Volcano Sprint 2022.

The frustrating wait for the next ferry

The Audax pace was set in a way that waiting times at the different ferry terminals were limited, which meant that arriving later than that to the opposite corner of one of the islands could mean four, ten, and even more hours of waiting for the next ferry.

A big group of riders was stuck in Tenerife until the 5.30 PM ferry to El Hierro departed the following day, and they had to ride the final loop overnight. Among them was Cynthia Frazer, who had built a decent gap in the women’s category during her island hopping journey, but she missed the Audax pace very by not much. “I had exactly 9 hours and 45 minutes from ferry to ferry. I knew it would be the hardest island due to timing. I have never ridden that fast for that many miles with that much elevation […] I gave it my best shot but about 60km from the finish I realized I was going to miss the ferry by just a handful of minutes. I was out of water and in the desert”, she said on Instagram.

Her lead came to nothing as Virginia Cancellieri and Cristiana Tamburini were on the same boat on the way to the final showdown. Nonetheless, the American, who in the last few months has won Across Andes 2022 and Transcordilleras 2023, proved again to be the strongest and finished as the first woman and 9th overall. Virginia Cancelleri arrived 28 minutes after Cynthia but she was two hours faster than Cristiana, so she finished in a deserved second place.

With the pressure off their shoulders and putting leisure over anything else, riders kept making their way to El Hierro to enjoy a loop around the fifth island of the route. Beers, papas arrugás and mojo picón were spotted in abundance at the finish line, where riders took a breather before returning to Tenerife, the island where most took their flight back home.