I’ve been lucky enough to visit four of the main areas used as winter training destinations in Europe by both pros and weekend warriors in the last 15 months.
So, here are my throwaway comments, insights and tips on the four big hitters of the training camp world:
- Gran Canaria
- Javea (nr. Calpe)
What follows is essentially me just cunningly showing you (a) pics of me posing on top of hills and (b) my generally poor photos of my holidays… ENJOY!
I was lucky enough to go out to the island with work, on Athlete Service’s annual training camp. I was there as a guide and general dogsbody, and so the routes and riding were not always as adventurous as I’d have liked, but I still got one heck of a lot of quality riding in.
We stayed in Maspalomas, where many toursists and brits choose to locate themselves. It’s directly on the beach and is quite a busy place without feeling overbearingly big.
Like its neighbour Tenerife, Gran Canaria in late winter / spring is a head-scrambling mix of cyclists and spray-tanned orange people sipping coctails by the pool. And you can see why; even if late February, the mercury was hitting 25 degrees nearly every day and clouds were a scarcity.
The island is centerered around the dominating Pico De Las Nieves mountain, which tops out at 1950m. However, there’s a lot more to the island than that, with hulking valleys and mountainous ridges spilling out towards the coasts, which offer both beautiful climbs of varying length (see further below), and gently undulating valley roads that are great for group or speed work.
The island feels a bit greener and more lush than the slightly more barren and built up Tenerife, however, that arid and sandy feel is still there. It’s not perfect – there are some areas of tourism trash; I rode through holiday towns to rival Benidorm for brutal ugliness several times, however, they’re not overwhelming and certainly don’t dominate the island.
Like Tenerife, Gran Canaria is dominated by one huge ‘signatute’ climb; the Pico de Las Nieves mentioned above. You’re able to climb to it’s summit from sea level if starting from Mespalomoas, which makes it one heck of a day out – 44km from sea level to summit no less! As the distance suggests, from Maspalomas, the climb is more of a journey than a prolonged ascent, a it takes you through endless little villages and even a relatively large town. This makes it feel really varied and keeps the climb interesting; however, this also means, as I found to my minor annoyance, that it’s eay to miss turns in a few places which can disrupt the zen like majesty of big climbs.
The other main ‘drawback’ (in my opinion) is that the ascent of Pico is not a sustained climb . Brief glimmers of light in the tunnel of climbing pain are offered via the two or three descents along the way. A couple of them are only a few hundred meters, but one near the bottom is a good couple of kms. Many will view this as a blessed relief and opportunity to rest the legs. However, as I was looking for prolonged chain tension and sustained climbing, these little descents felt a nuisance.
The section immediately after the right hand tight in the village of Ayacata (about 30km of the way in), makes for a great section of climbing. These 5km or so are a lot steeper and more switchbacky that the bottom sections and final push to the top, which are more open and winding, and feel a lot more isolated. The very top is a military base, from which you are supposedly able to see nearly all the south of the island. Unfortunately the summit enshrouded in mist when I was up there, so i can’t attest to that… but i’m sure tourist marketing is 100% true. Oh yes.
The ‘other’ climb
If you’re looking for a sustained and slightly steeper climb, look west, to Playa Mogan, one of my favourite climbs EVER. And i’ve done a fair few.
At just over 9km it’s a good distance to push hard on the whole way and really test the legs. I’m not sure if it’s true, but the name of the relevant Strava segment (See below) suggests that Contador has used it as a testing ground before. It’s known that the Tinkoff-Saxo team have visited they island several times so it’s very possible. The average 7% gradient feels ideal, allowing you to either spin up at a good seated cadence, or dance in the pedals like Berty himself.
Perhaps most importantly, the road is super-interesting, as it twists and turns endlessly, slightly meandering in gradent the whole time, and offering views down thevalleys below that would never get boring. You must ride this.
Another climb to consider, and one i didn’t get a chance to try, is the infamous Valley of the Tears. You can see the segment data below. I’ve heard that the 9% average gradient is deceptive – there’s descents in there to steepen the true climbing gradient, and there are prolonged sections pushing 20%. Enjoy!
Ride logistics and life beyond the hills
Getting to the base of Pico de Las Nieves is super easy from Mespalomas, and reaching a wealth of the other cols to the west of the island, including Playa Mogan and Valley of the Tears, is pretty straight forward, about an hour or 90 minutes down a crazy rollercoaster coastal road.
There’s quite a few cafes and shops scattered about, even in places where there isn’t so much of a tourist industry. It just feels that the island is quite dense with tiny little villages and clusters of houses, where you’ll typically find a little cafe serving characteristically brutal Spanish espresso and random weird cakes.
There’s not masses of totally flat roads, but many more than you find in neighbouring Tenerife. These tend to be long and pretty straight valley roads offering fast progress and great views.
It’s unlikely that you’d be able to ride for two or three hours without an element of climbing though, and so you need to make sure you’ve packed your climbing legs. However, there is an escape from just relentless climbing, allowing you options and variety.
As you’d expect, it’s pretty similar to Tenerife – a canarian island with a bloody big hill in the middle, and that characteristic slightly deserty and arid feel to it.
Be warned – the roads here are either as smooth as your feshly shaved guns, or as pitted and brutally bumpy as the Arenberg trench. When plotting routes, particularly those going into the mountains, be very careful, as some benign looking roads are akin to a CX track. They’re ok to ride on a road bike but may take you by surprise.
The main climb is unforutnately broken up by descents and awkward habitations, meaning it may not be so suited to those looking to do very structured long intervals – Teide (Tenerife) is your place for this. The climb to the summit should be vewed more as an adventure or journey as opposed to a place for ball busting 90 minute efforts.
Overall, I loved it out here, probably more than I did Tenerife. Some of the other climbs, such as those discussed above, are sheer majesty, there’s some nice long valley roads, and there’s plenty more to explore around the North of the island… including the Valley of the Tears….maybe…
I went out to the isand on a training camp with Athlete Service, before I ingrained myself (like an ingrowing toenail that you can’t get shot of) into their community and came to be an employee. It was a pretty relaxed affair, but we rode big miles and rode hard. We were based in Los Christianos, in the South West of the island – which is where most tend to go. It’s a bit touristy and blighted by Irish bars and greasy spoons, but there were a few gems of restaurants and cafes in there too.
Everywhere you go, everywhere you look, it’s there. Teide. It’s a bloody big bastard and it truly does take up every inch of the horizon. It seems that whenever you look inland, you’ll see it there, lurking like that terrifying turbo session you know is coming up some point that day, but you dare not contemplate just yet.
As with Gran Canaria, it’s a mix of tourists looking for an all inclusive eating, boozing and pool binge, and idiots in lycra who think they’re Brad Wiggins.
That arid and desrt like feel of the canaries and southern Spain is ever-present, and it feels pretty devoid of greenery in places – perhaps more so than Gran Canaria.
Tenerife is Teide. Literally and metaphorically. The island is almost entirely consumed by the enormous volcano, and for cyclists, Tenerife is Teide. That’s’ why you go. That’s why the pros go.
Tenerife is hugely popular with pros, as Teide’s smooth and steady roads just scream at you to do interval work on them, and the Parador hotel at the summit (c.2300m above sea level) is brilliant for sleeping at altitude so as to gain blood oxygenation adaptations that we’re absoluely cetain they wouldn’t look to gain in other ways (don’t we?).
The summit actually forms a crater, and when you drop into it, it’s truly otherworldly; lava flows can be seen all over, and signs of flaura and fauna are sparse. The roads are cracked and broken from the impact of ice settling and melting, and it all feels very moon-like in an awesomely intimidating way. They filmed Planet of the Apes up there back in the day…. Ironic that now it’s just inhabited by package tourists and MAMILs. I’m not sure which is a more dystopian outlook?
You can take Teide from various angles, but the nicest I did, and which I believe is a very popular one, is to go from Grenadilla, through the town of vilafor half way up, and into the moonscape at the top. The first half to Vilaflor is really interesting and twisty, through narrow and quiet roads that seem to change every few hundred meters, and the gradient never feels too hard.
After Vilaflor, it all gets a bit more ugly, both on the legs and the eyes. The road becomes more busy with toursist coaches and feels more like a major thoroughfare than tranquil pass, and the gradients steepen from the preceding 6-7% to a stiffer 8%-ish. I’m not sure if it was the fartigue of having already climbed for an hour or the altitude, but some of the ramps in the final third felt very long, very straight, and very steep (presumably they’re the yellow bits on the profile below). It’s a tough climb, but the sense of achievement when you hit the lips of the crater is exquisite. Oh, and make sure you take warm stuff for the descent, as it’s a looooong way down and a fast plummet!
The ‘other’ climb
There’s a climb snuck away in the North West of the island named the Mirador de Masca that we attempted to have a stab at but failed. It’s a short sharp brute (4km at c.11%) but supposed to be amazing.
In order to access the climb we were aiming for, we had to climb the opposite face (starting in Santiago del Teide) before dropping down to Masca, a town marking the base of the col. Unfortunately we reached the summit and were met with a pummelling storm and winds so strong that they threatened to blow my whippety frame off into the Atlantic. Thus the descent and following climb were abandoned.
However, even the climb on the back side of the climb proper (i.e., that starting in Santiago de Teide) is a banger. The road is vertiginous and narrow, the surface is rough. It feels a world away from the smooth gradients and benign surfaces of the ascents to Teide. It almost felt Pyrenean, and for me, that’s a great thing. I’d love to go back and do it proper.
And it’s not just me that enjoyed the climb; Chris Froome has cited it as one of his favourites (no.9) in this article http://www.cyclingnews.com/features/chris-froomes-favourite-climbs/
Ride logistics and life beyond the hills
A a whole, there’s a lot of villages and random habitations scattered about the island, meaning that you don’t need to stress too much about water and supplies. When you go to a cafe in these places, expect the coffee to be strong and harsh… but with a dollop of sugar all is well.
The climb to the summit of Teide from Grenadilla is pretty conveniently broken up by the town of Vilaflor, where there’s plenty of stuf going on, even a pizzeria i think. So if you’re suffering the hunger knock from hell, you can fall of your bike a face plant directly into an cheese and tomato disc of joy (but if you ask for pineapple i will personally fly out there and punch you in the face).
One thing to bear in mind is that it feels like its difficult to escape either climbs, or slightly unpleasant drags through local towns or the suburbs of tourist tat to get to another climb. We didn’t find many quiet and flat roads for doing any other types of training, and this should be bourne in mind.
Tenerife s a very cool place indeed. Teide is a climber’s paradise, offering one humungous ascent, or the option to break it down and do repeats and intervals at altitude.
However, the island may be limited for some.
Definitely don’t go there if you don’t like a big hill! Much as i love climbing, there were times, particularly on recovery days etc, when you wished for a nice quiet flat road, not one either riddled with traffic and road junctions, or one that was pointing generally skywards. This is based purely on my experience however, so i’m sure either staying in a different location or doing a bit more research would reveal some beauties for easy spinning or group work.
This limitation of scope may be exacerbated slightly by the occasionally very very desolate feel to the place. The island can feel like just scrubby sandy vegetation, MAMILs, and Thomas Cook tour spray tanned folk. The variety and aesthetics of its neighbour Gran Canaria feel somewhat lacking.
Solid and structured training camp?…. Tenerife
Slightly more relaxed and scenic island to train hard on but have a bit of everyone?… Gran Canaria.
Javea (Nr. Calpe)
I was lucky enough to be invited out by my mate Tommy Willan (check out his blog here) whose in-laws live in Javea, a small coastal town about 30km north of Calpe. He’s been going out for riding and family duties for a number of years and so knows the place like the back of his hand. Cue a 6 day trip with Tornado Tommy (as i have dubbed him) for our own makeshift camp, a mix of hard riding but also social miles and afternoon beers.
Calpe is the place where the pros and seemingly everyone else bases themselves if visiting the area, but Javea was perfect – a quiet and untouristified coastal town with a mix of authentic Spanish cuisine and some slightly more ‘Western’ restaurants etc resulting from the expat community out there.
As opposed to the Canaries, which are dominated by a central epic peak, or Mallorca, with its northern Tramantua range, the South East Coast of Spain is pockmarked with rugged hills and sprawling vallies. The climbs are big, but no Hors Categorie monsters; the majority are 20-30 minute efforts. However, the roads are almost never flat here, apart from at the coast. As soon as you go a bit inland, the road feels like it’s slowly dragging up or down; stough work as you grind up false flats or pedal through ever so gentle downhills.
There’s no Sa Calobra or Mount Teide here; instead the most well known climb is the Coll de Rates, which, as 6km at 6% (ish), is nothing to get to terrified about. It has become famous more due to its frequent appearances in the Vuelta, and more importantly, Sean Kelly’s recent spill when hit by a feisty wind boar whilst descending the Coll.
When I rode it, it did seem extrememly popular; the number of cyclists spotted instantly increased as you approach the foothills approaching the base. I think one thing that may enhance its popularity is that, for most enthusiastic amateurs, its 18-25minute duration makes it ideal for a threshold test, and the steady gradients – save for the nasty kick at the top – make it ideal for repeats or shorter efforts.
I didn’t like it all that much; it felt busy with traffic and far from the isolation and tranuility that I love about places like the Pyrenees. The ‘other’ side, which is more of a rolling, draggy steady ascent spread over a number of kilometers rather than identifiable climb is stunning though. A huge valley lies below you and rare glimpses of greenery are dotted around. All traffic seems to stop once it’s got to the top of the Rates having driven the famous side, making the less-popular ‘other’ side far more to my liking.
The other climb
Bin Coll de Rates. Go up the Vall d’Ebo instead. It’s a beauty.
Like all the climbs in the area, the Vall d’eno is relatively short, at 8km averaging c.6%, but is set in a far quieter environment, swings and switches back and forth endlessly, and just feels more wild, more unspoilt, and with that element of menace that I relish about its huger cousins out in France and Italy.
Ride logistics and life beyond the hills
The great thing about the area is that there’s a lot of variety. Sure, you don’t get high mountains, and epic descents. But you do get a bit of everything. There’s plenty of short climbs of around 5 – 10 minutes, grinding false flats, easy coastal roads, and bigger hills for longer climbing efforts. So, unlike Tenerife and Gran Canaria offered above, you don’t need to check you climbing legs and descending brain into the Easyjet hold, and the rouleurs can breathe a little easier.
The roads are great for the most part, super smooth and appear newly surfaced, making those valleys all the faster and more exhilarating for even the most mountain-minded such as me.
The main thing to think about when planning a ride is your hydration. There are some parts of the area away from the coast and in the mountains, where you may not see any other signs of life beyond scrubby sheep and stray dogs, for hours. that, for me, is part of the beauty of the place… truly wild and rugged. We’re not in the UK here, there isn’t the salvatory petrol station every 10 miles or so to rescue you with its oasis of snickers and a coke. So make sure that you know you’re able to top up with fluid if going long.
Riding out here is great, and strangely overlooked – perhaps because it is more a place to ride long and steady, with fewer mountains for intervals and leg-crushing efforts. But the riding is stunning, and bloody hard. The roads are mostly very gradually up or down, with little imbetween. Some of the most remote roads are like a rollercoaster, up down up left down rightleft down left up left right down up disiness.
The tranquility is amazing. I love the serenity of cycling, and the quiet beauty of the mountains. It’s possible to find yourself on the tops of the mountains in total isolation, without a village or car to be seen for hours. I loved this. It felt like the end of the earth. It does mean that you need to be wary of your hydration however, and we stopped even when we still had the best part of a bidon left in order to re-fill, as you never know if you’ll see another shop for hours. All in all though, an overlooked gem. Definitely one to go back to!
By the end of 2016, I’d ridden a lot of ‘must-do’ European cycling locations, with two notable exceptions: Mallorca and the Dolomites. So I decided that 2017 would be the year to tick them off. Cue a booking of a week out in Italy to train and ride the Maratona, and a week in Mallorca to see what all the fuss is about. I went out with a tour group called Ciclosol, whom I’d heard nothing but good things, and was based in Puerto Pollensa.
Ciclosol were a massive help throughout, seamlessly organising airport transfers and accommodation, and offering guided rides every day. I admit, I didn’t do any of the guided rides in the end, opting to ride with a few guys from the group I befriended when out there, and riding solo to give me optimal flexibility. However, their knowledge and enthusiasm shone through throughout the trip, and Rob was able to offer me great advice on routes and weather.
Mallorca is pretty small so you can get around it pretty easily. The northern coast is a great ridge of mountains, mostly on the smaller end of the scale, called the Trumantua (i think i have spelt that differently each time i’ve written it in this blog). The bottom half of the island is relatively flat save a few bizarrely isolated climbs that I didn’t go to as I was looking to try to re-find my climbing legs, but that Ive heard offer stunning views and equally stunning riding.
The Tramutua (see, it’s spelt differently above) is stunning. A range of green and rocky mountains that offer awesome views of the sea on one side and almost the entirety of the rest of the island on the other. One of the appeals is that the climbing is never too ferocious (I doubt it ever kicks above about 9%), and there’s climbs from 15 to 50 minutes. So both the mountain goats and the leisurely tourers can have their fun here.
Away from the mountains, there is a brilliant maze of super-quiet backroads aroud the island that just beg exploration. Some of them are white and dusty in their feel, proper Strade Bianche. You could spend many a lonely hour out on these and never get bored.
Well, Mallorca. It’s Sa calobra innit. Actually, its proper name is Coll del Reiss – Sa Calobra is the name of the little village at the bottom of the dead-end road.
Being an awkward fucker, I sort of didn’t want to like it just to be different. However, it’s pretty great. Most climbs in Mallorca are relatively shallow, typically around 5-7%. However, Sa Calobra averages a touch over 7% for its 9.4 km length, and this slightly sharper gradient definitely favours me.
It’s quite a crazy beast. The bottom few km are relatively straight and mundane, but once you’re out of the shady forested area at in the bottom third, it gets more rugged and wild, and twists and turns all over the shop, with switchback after switchback, and of course, the gratuitous 270 degree twist at the top thrown in by the Italian engineer / lunatic Antonio Pariettie who designed it
I was warned that the road can get rammed full of fat men in Sky kit and tourist busses (more of which later), and so to train on the climb and enjoy it to its maximum, without being held up by busses too big to handle the difficult road and choked by the smell of burnt clutches, an early start is required. I hauled my ass out early and got there not long after 9am and it was blissfully quiet.
I’d say it’s definitely one of my favourite climbs on the island, however, for the cycling media to laud it so highly when there’s so many more beautiful and exhilarating climbs all throughout the world is perhaps a little odd.
The Other Climb
There’s a load of other climbs on the island, and a lot of the true stunners are hidden away on the North West of the Island, which I wasn’t able to get to. Unfortunately, to ride to the likes of Valdemossa, which is supposed to hide a climb to easily rival Sa Calobra, and then back to Puerto Pollensawould lead to an eight hour minimum trek which would probably put a nail in the coffin for the rest of the week.
That said, there is a service provided by Mallorca Cycle Shuttle whereby you and your bike are ferried to the Western side of the mountains and you are left to ride home, thus allowing you to take in all the most stunning ascents of the island. The day that I was going to use the service was plagued by brutal winds and storms, and so the organisers wisely decided to cancel the service for safety. However, it seems a great idea, and the organisers, who I had a lot of correspondence with, are mega helpful and informative and gaveme some great route advice
Of the other climbs I tackled, the Col de Sa Batallie is a stunner; a stack of about 6 hairpins through beautiful verdant woods before opening up in the middle to reveal stunning views below, and then plunging you back into another ridiculously awesome set of shaded hairpins. A stunner. Or, for pure training benefit. The Puig Major – a 14km, 5.5% climb to the highest point on the isand – is great for efforts or intervals due to its easy and consistent gradient and, of course, its sheer length.
Life beyond the hills and ride logistics
The roads vary. The Ma-10 – the main highway through the mountains – is ridiculously smooth and beautiful to ride.
What the Ma-10 lack in blemishes is countered by the traffic however. Not the traffic of tourist cars (although there are a lot of them), but by huge swathes of riders, some in bunches of up to 30 who are out with a tour group. A lot of the riders are well-disciplined and drilled and come across as quite experienced, however, some are definitely not and can take up the whole lane and be a bit of a pain in the pisser to get around. The biggest issue arises when tourist coaches get stuck behind slower riders, thus causing a tailback of hundreds of riders and agitated hirecar driving Germans that are frustrating and perhaps a little dangerous.
One easy way of avoiding the worst was simply to get out early (or, more obviously, not visit in peak season like i did). Before about 10.30 the roads are yours, and yours alone. It’s ony later in the morning when everyone has awoken from their cocktail or training induced comas to climb onto their bikes or busses that the traffic starts.
Away from the hills, the roads which vary in quality. Some maintain that immaculate feel of the Ma-10, whereas some are the polar opposite and are either unsurfaced strade bianche or pothole riddled tracks to make even Boonen, Spartacus and Van Avaermaet wince.
Lots of cyclotourism = lots of places to get coffee, cake, baguettes and cokes.
It’s easy to see why the island is called the cyclists’ payground. With flatlands a-plenty and climbs ranging from 15-60minutes it’s got it all. The climbs are suited to all abilities and all riders, with gradients rarely over 8% – hence why you see whippets on compacts and climbing bikes racing hefty triathletes and TTers on the cols.
The major roads are the most ridiculously smooth paving I’ve experienced in a while, and make you feel like you’re floating.
HOWEVER, the island has some key drawbacks. Going in mid-April (peak season for cycling tourism) means the best roads can become like a London cyclesuperhighway after about 11oclock. And to compound this, the tourist coaches shuttling cocktail drinking pool-dwellers to Sa Calobra and the amazing lakes near the summit of Puig Major get caught up behind slower groups, trapping faster riders in their wake with no opportunity for overtake.
The cylists’ playground does unfortunately get treated as such; I had several instances where riders would ride four abrest on the road, descend on the wrong side of the carriageway, and generally stop in ridiculous places. However, all this is easily solved; being an early riser, getting out of the hotel by 8am means the bulk of your ride will be conducted in beautiful serenity. Before that 11am watershed the road is yours.
Lastly; pick your location wisely. I, like the majority of other cyclists, was in Puerto Pollensa. This is a nice bustling little town on the beach giving you easy access to the Formentor and the lighthouse, and reasonably close to the eastern edge of the Tramantua range. However,the schlep to the bottom of the range, desite only being about 12km, becomes boring very quickly, and the ride home – typically into a headwind – can be tearjerking both in it’s dullness and sense of minimal progress. The idea location, for me, would be Soller – the port town in the heart of the mountain range – giving access to the big hitters of the Colobra, Puig etc, but also to the smaller gems I never made it to like Vademossa.
But, as a whole, Mallorca is great. I can see why people go back again and again and again. I can see myself returning in 2018.
Final mega thanks to:
These guys helped immensely in my adventures and deserve a second shout out:
- Athlete Service
- Tommy Willan