The Epic Gran Canaria has wrapped up for another year.. ! It was a very brief break since the previous edition, the 2021 race running in October after a covid-related postponement from it’s usual early season date.
The event format remained exactly the same as that most recent edition, however this time I wouldn’t be taking to the start line alone: Ewa had signed up too, and now we would both be representing local club Seven Pro Sport!
In the last edition, we had only just arrived back on Gran Canaria, and my legs hadn’t quite re-found their climbing rhythm. This time, about a month before the event, Ewa had asked me to put together a training plan for her, and I decided to follow it myself too.
We had several weeks of oddly persistent calima these last weeks, and this somewhat derailed these best laid training plans, but we got most of the sessions done, even if the order and timing varied a little. This was a bit of a deviation from our usual long and slow rides traipsing through the mountains, but got us to the start line with a good amount of work done.
Add in cutting down chocolate consumption and we were ready to go.. !
Already when collecting our numbers the day before the event, rolling down the red carpet, we were bumping into plenty of familiar faces, the buzz and atmosphere of the event already sucking us in.
Its always an early start, so 07:30 the next morning we left Arguineguin to make it to the start at the Riu Palace Maspalomas, the sun slowly rising in a glorious orangey glow.
The all-star cast assembled for the start this year included Mario Cipollini, Davide Rebellin, Haimar Zubeldia, Abraham Olano, Claudio Chiappucci, Fred Rompelberg, and winner of the last two editions Matti Helminen, and they led out the field in the neutralised section before the first 12.3km race sector in Ayaguares.
After last year’s lessons of tiring myself to no avail in the valleys, I decided to hover near the front and wait for the climbs this time around. Good thing too, as the pace was kept consistently high by Mr Zubeldia, meaning any attacks would have been fruitless. Ewa fought to hang in up to about km6, but was then left in no man’s land between the front group and the next group, who caught her in time for a small respite before the climb kicked up at km 8.5. Despite being well positioned throughout the valley, I found myself suddenly swamped just before the start of the climb, then having to make up all the positions I lost as riders quickly lost momentum on the climb immediately after. On the little flat in the middle of the climb, the group had already significantly thinned, Dani de la Fe applying the pressure as soon as the road ramped up again, thinning the group even further through the next hairpins, until he pulled Rebellin and Helminen away from me, and I fought to keep them in sight. I pulled them back before the ‘la vie est belle’ hairpin, but at the final hairpin that trio distanced me again after what proved to be the winning attack from de la Fe. Fourth, with a 30s gap over the next riders. My best ever result, a good start!
I had time to watch teammates, friends and Ewa cross the line, with various expressions of effort, relief and smiles on their faces. A small regrouping, refilling of bottles and the group was descending to the next segment, starting at Pasito Blanco on the coast.
Again I planned to sit back and keep the powder dry for the following climb, which evidently was not our dear friend and teammate Hector’s plan; he launched out of the group pulling away a few other daring riders, leaving the bunch to be briefly led by an unsuspecting casual cyclist who hadn’t managed to get off the course before the peloton swooshed past.. !
The speed didn’t drop much in Soria valley, again courtesy of resident motorbike Haimar Zubeldia, but as soon as the climb started, he left others to do the pacemaking; a responsibility Matti Helminen isn’t one to shirk. Very quickly it was only Rebellin and I left on Helminen’s wheel, suffering up the steep first half of the Soria climb. I put it in my head to try to reach the slight flattening around the halfway mark, but the pace was unrelenting, and I knew Ayacata was a long way off yet, and with the small matter of the Barranquillo Andres climb still to come.. I watched them drift off into the distance as I tried to limit my losses, and near the top of the Tauropass a young Italian, Piero, caught up to me. After distancing him again on the short descent to the GC-605/ Presa las Niñas road, he came back up to me with none other than Haimar Zubeldia, recovered from his valley exertions.. !
Recovered he truly was, as he proceeded to do the bulk of the work on the draggy climb to Ayacata, Piero and I giving turns whenever he looked for one. Coming into the the final km I was perfectly positioned in 3rd wheel, and when Piero launched his sprint, I was able to pip him to take 3rd on the stage; a podium in the Epic Gran Canaria; not a bad first day at all at all.. !
Lots of happy reunions and catch-ups later, we descended down to the podium presentations to pick up some new jerseys; luchadora-extraordinaire Ela Muresan resplendent in her yellow women’s leaders jersey, me in a white and red category leader’s jersey; new threads for the morning !
Day 2 again began with our same morning commute, picking up Susan on the way, who had ridden a sterling race yesterday to sit second lady overall. We had a mechanical issue to sort with Ewa’s front brake to inject some urgency, but as the group assembled for the off, we were all well positioned for the short neutralised section out of Playa del Ingles and through San Fernando.
The flag dropped and a couple of riders crept away on the initial flat part, but upon passing the cemetery where the gradient first kicks up, their hopes too met an end. The winner of the first sector yesterday, Dani de la Fe, brought the same impetus to the opening climb this morning, whittling down the group with punishing accelerations. I was glad to reach the flatter part past the Mundo Aborigen with the leaders, now numbering only 6: Helminen, Rebellin, Zubeldia, Piero, Dani and me.
I thought to get over the top first, but Dani had the same idea, and hurled himself down the hairpins at a suicidal clip, Rebellin and I trying to stay close, knowing Helminen and Piero would be more cautious. Rebellin, 51years old and a professional bike rider as long as I have been alive, sensed the opportunity too, and didn’t let up the pace once we started climbing again, making sure Helminen had to work for it if he wanted to see us again. I had little doubt the hardy Finnish competitor would make it, but I secretly hoped he would shell young Piero in his wake.
Indeed so it played out, the front now numbering 5, which Helminen promptly reduced to 4 on the corkscrew corner before Fataga as he ejected Dani out the back with a stinging surge. I scrambled to get back on to Haimar’s wheel as the pace settled, but I knew my hold on the leaders was tentative. Helminen had had enough of me a kilometre or so later; another acceleration punching my ticket.
I gathered myself knowing that if I didn’t let them get too far away I could keep 3rd in the general classification, having a lead of almost a minute over Zubeldia, who was drifting away with seemingly minimal effort behind Helminen and Rebellin.
The last part of the climb to San Bartolome is truly spectacular, the shallow gradients and wide swooping bends opening up a spectacular panorama over all you have climbed thus far, and the trio were never out of sight as I fought on.
The final descent into the village of San Bartolome has often been my undoing, as Blas Rivero (absent this weekend) has twice stolen seconds and placings from me there, but today I could face the descent alone, sprinting across the line to minimise my time losses.
Watching the riders come in one by one, each with their own story, successes, suffering, relief, joy, satisfaction, smiles and hugs, I waited for mi amor Ewa to come across the line; her highlight of the day: riding those descents with no thoughts of oncoming traffic, knowing you can enjoy the corners to the fullest, all while beating her target time for the stage by several minutes ! Te quierroooo !!
The beating drums that accompanied every stage finish resounded in our ears once more for the pre-podium presentation parade of samba dancers, the dunes offering the perfect backdrop to a weekend of sweat, suffering, friendships and fun under the sun. Ela won the women’s category overall, Susan came second, our friend and ex-pro runner Marta was third.. An incredibly strong podium if ever there was one! Helminen took the overall honours for a record third time, Rebellin and I the bridesmaids. Of the top 4, I was the only one under 45 years old: something tells me I’m not quite done with cycling just yet 😛 To top it off, buen amigo and all around legend Flo (often overshadowed by his ridiculously strong wife Ela, but a savage competitor in his own right) was 3rd in the master 30 category, our friend Jeffrey had beaten his times from the previous edition by several minutes, and Ewa had fought limited desire to suffer and pulled a fantastic performance out of the bag: don’t worry we’ll be back to loooong slow rambles through the mountains soon 😘😘
Once again a terrific event, a mahooosive thanks to Yojan and his whole team, bringing together a cycling spectacle in the truest sense of the words. Helmets off, and see you in 2023.. !