Each year I like to set myself a new cycling challenge. This year I chose the GranGuanche Audax Gravel, an endurance cycling event traversing the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa.
It's a fantastic 700k gravel trail with a staggering amount of climbing. Starting at the north of Lanzarote the route heads south across Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Tenerife and finally around the tiny island of El Hierro.
It's an enormous undertaking and I needed to make detailed plans to have any hope of completing the challenge. For months, I debated about the merits of taking a tent. I finally went with a bivy but the decisions continued into what tyres, which lights, how many bags and the right pedals. And there was no room for spare clothes - whatever I chose to wear, I would wear for four days straight, day and night!
Last year, I was fortunate enough to attend the press launch of the 1816 bike L'Enfer du Nord at which I received a jersey from new brand GRVL apparel. The jersey quickly became a big favourite of mine because it was made of natural fibres - helping to control my body temperature at the same time as being ecologically friendly, something very important to me.
Made from a blend of Merino wool and Tencel it's soft on the skin and feels light and breathable. It also fits really well, looks smart and the mulberry colour seemed to suit my personality! Given its excellent UV protection it was an easy choice as my base layer for the ride.
The wonderful team at GRVL suggested I try the GRVL gilet and the water resistant, three season GRVL jacket to complete my packing for this endurance ride.
Before we go any further I should clear up a little misconception about the GranGuanche. Some riders think this is a race, but it's not. It has a start and finish like a race, it has timed chips like a race and the aim of the race (woops) is to get the best final position you can, just like in a race. So I can see how this is confusing to many riders who think this is actually a race!
Either way, the GranGuanche is clearly a gruelling challenge with a severe lack of sleep and a mind boggling logistical side twist of ferry timetables. If you're contemplating it, be prepared!
So, not a race!
A band of 110 intrepid riders set off into the darkness from the start line at 10pm. I was glad of the warmth and comfort of the GRVL jacket and gilet on the long night ride across the first island of Lanzarote. Before too long we were a long chain of gravel bikes tearing downhill through the first sleepy mountain village. I felt like a naughty boy, speeding through the narrow cobbled lanes with my gang while the locals were all tucked up in bed. The excitement elevated our spirits, and I was as high as a kite ... and (not a) race was on!
In the moonlight I could see the outline of what I'd been looking forward to... the amazing landscape. I noticed the wonderful patterns created by the semi circular walls carefully constructed to protect grapevines from the strong island winds and at this moment they remind me of a bee's honeycomb. I let my mind wander and realised that we were just big, flightless, two wheeling bees sharing this beautiful planet orbiting a sun. In my mind I tried to find an equivalent bee behaviour for what we were doing here, racing across the landscape in the middle of the night!
The answer didn't come so instead I started to consider that we are not big two legged bees after all, we are something other than bees and then I remember the book "Architect or Bee?" that I was supposed to read at university but never did. I suppose I'd know the answer if I'd read it, but then the trail took us down a fast singletrack and my only focus was staying upright!
I fell into this pattern of fluctuating between meandering thoughts and hyperfocus for the next three and a bit days until I crossed the finish line.
The first night of racing is said to be the easiest. The next ferry off the island leaves at eight in the morning, and pretty much all of us made it to the terminal in time.
It's a ride of just over 100k and traverses high mountain passes and rocky seaside beaches, all in the still of the night. One moment you're flying down a singletrack, the next speeding along smooth paved roads punctuated with a stint of carrying the bike over boulders.
I got into the port around 4am and helped complete the jigsaw puzzle of bikes and riders on the floor in the ferry terminal. To plan, I slept in what I was wearing for a few hours before ferry time and onto the next island, Fuerteventura.
We set off on Fuerteventura in the heat, and it just kept getting hotter as the day drew on. I tied the jacket around my waist and with the wind at our backs, I was happy with this arrangement. I don't think I smelled, I think I looked pretty fresh in the gilet and I definitely felt the benefit of the naturally breathable qualities of the fibres.
The jersey is beautifully designed with a collar. It makes me feel like a gentleman adventurer. The gilet grips my body nicely and I convince myself I'm a lot younger than I actually am with my dad bod neatly obscured underneath.
The Jersey has a pocket that I found very useful for a few snacks, bananas etc plus I occasionally stuffed my phone into it when I was caught off guard and the trail suddenly got rougher. But I always felt secure that whatever was in it would be safe because the neat magnetic tab held the contents firmly in place.
The gilet is pocketless and designed to keep you warm on the outset of a ride and to be taken off and stuffed into a pocket as you warm up. I found I didn't need to do this because the combination of jersey and gilet was excellent at regulating my body temperature. I simply felt really comfortable with them both on, even through the heat of the day and the cool of the mountains... plus they looked great together.
We set out across Gran Canaria in the early hours. I had saddle sores for the first time ever but the beauty of the landscape was enhanced by the endorphins and there was no way a sore bum was going to stop me.
I kept on, mile after mile, turning pedals, delighted that everything else was working well; the Fara Gravel bike ran like a dream, the magnet kit bags stayed firmly secured and despite spending two days and two nights in the same clothes, I was very pleased with my choice of outfit.
Tenerife was tough, very tough. Our ferry was delayed and we set out two hours later than expected. We climbed into the night.
I wore the jacket through the climb. I like this jacket a lot, it's very well made with fantastic attention to detail. The lining is strengthened with orange tape that sets off the grey/blue colour very neatly; the logo is highly reflective.
The material is stretchy and comfortable and it keeps me dry and warm and confident through the howling mountain wind and rain. We're above the clouds at many points and the temperature is constantly changing. The jacket also has a feature you don't often see but should be made mandatory on all jackets... It has super soft sleeves with a hole for your thumb. This ensures that there is never a cold gap between where your glove ends and your jacket starts. It's excellent, I cannot fault it!
If this was a properly structured review and I had to score it out of ten for different categories, I'd give it a ten across the board; but it's not that sort of review so I'm just going to say, it's "bloody awesome" in the honest way Australians like me are prone to doing.
The mission continued, we needed to get to the other side of the island to catch the only ferry to El Hierro that day. Missing this meant that we would have to wait a whole 24 hours for the next ferry and hopes of achieving a sub four day time would be impossible.
I did the maths in my mind; with 16 hours ride time required to get there and only 19 hours before the ferry would leave, we only had 3 hours to rest. So we continued into the night and slept for a couple of hours in bivys on the side of the road.
I don't know how many hours I'd been riding in my clothes, but it's a serious test of sniff and durability and I felt secure that they passed with flying - and trendy - colours as I nodded off in full riding regalia, including shoes and Camelbak!
The final push to the El Hierro ferry was difficult. My saddle sores were really bad at this point. But then something random happened and it saved my bum... Before I tell you how, I'm going to direct the squeamish reader to skip the next paragraph and accept my summary that the jacket material is stretchy and strong, surprisingly strong!
*Not for the squeamish*
The GRVL Explorer coat pockets are ideal for nutrition, and mine was carrying a muesli bar in the centre pocket wrapped around my waist when I sat back after climbing out of the saddle and caught the elastic base on the front of the saddle. This stretched the pocket with a muesli bar in it right up the centre of my saddle. It was a bit of a surprise as my bum made contact with the seat again and the muesli bar wedged neatly between my cheeks.
The surprise was rather more pleasant than you might imagine, as it took the pressure off the outside of my bum cheeks and firmly transferred the pressure to the inside. This was actually a welcome relief and so I stayed sitting on the muesli bar for a good few miles to relieve the pain from my sores.
The muesli bar was eventually crushed into dust and fitted my bum so well that it became less capable of transferring the pressure points, but now I had an idea... I tried this technique with various items and eventually found that stretching a tube of sunscreen across the seat and up my bum crack through the coat pocket was optimal!
It did occur to me that the coat would never survive this brutal and unintended trial but I didn't care, this was the only way I could manage the pain. Luckily, it transpired that the coat was left completely undamaged. Plus I could now eat the muesli bar by simply pouring the whole lot into my mouth and straight down my throat, sort of the equivalent of shooting a can of beer for the endurance cyclist.
...it's safe to look again now
So where was I? Strong and stretchy, yes, and made from plastic ocean waste, so you can feel virtuous for helping the environment at the same time as staying warm and looking good.
Plus there's pockets! Four individual pockets, one of which is zipped for precious cargo such as keys, cards and pain killers etc or even a bottle of sunscreen and three easy access pockets for gels and bananas or tubes, maps and pumps, whatever you need at hand the most.
After such a long stint in the saddle I was exhausted, the lack of sleep was getting to me. At this stage I was on my own and so I stopped for a few minutes and sat on a lava rock wall made from super sharp pumice stone that is likely to cut or scratch material quickly. But I was too tired to care. I lay down on the warm stone wall and caught myself snoring within what must have been less than a minute.
I quickly realised the danger of missing the next ferry so I just hauled myself back onto the bike and started slowly turning the pedals again with no sign of any damage to the jacket from the wall.
Night crept in across the landscape and I was thankful for the large reflective logo on the back of the gilet; it's a great looking logo that I feel proud to wear partly because of the eco qualifications and partly because it just connects me to the gravel community that I feel pleased to be a part of. A bit like a Kardashian might wear a Gucci top, but with the added benefit of helping prevent you from being flattened by a truck on the side of the road after dark.
A good 35ish (out of 110) riders made the ferry, and we quickly covered the floor with our sleepy biker jigsaw puzzle again for the 3 hour journey to El Hierro. When we docked, some set off to get some night miles done; I however decided to sleep and set out again in the morning.
It was my final sleep in the full cycle gear. I can't help but think any synthetic fibre against my sensitive skin for so long through heat and sweat would leave me at best itchy or at worst with a nasty rash, but I had no issues at all and remained as comfortable and confident as I did at the start line.
The kit barely looked used even though I lived in it for four days and treated it so carelessly, overloading the pockets with snacks, stretching the coat across my seat for, ahem, comfort, spilling gels down my front, rubbing sunscreen into the sleeves, and sweating like never before.
The GRVL jersey, gilet and jacket have all survived every trial with me across these beautiful islands.
I crossed the (not a) finish line in 91 hours and 46 minutes. It was a magical experience beyond words ... and I'm sure if this GRVL jersey could talk, it would say "C'mon Pete, what's next? Atlas Mountains? Let's do it!"
Because it knows that whatever crazy cycling challenge I take on next year, it's definitely coming with me.
Find out more about the GRVL kit Pete wore for GranGuanche at:
GRVL Merino Jersey - £145 from grvl.cc
GRVL 3 Season Jacket - £185 from grvl.cc
GRVL Gilet - £119 from grvl.cc
GranGuanche Gravel Audax returns for a third edition on 30 March 2024. Find out more and enter now at granguanche.com/audax/audaxgravel.