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C-Suite Cycling in the Canary Islands
I spent this winter with a tech founder, an oil executive and an auto entrepreneur pedaling through the Valley of the Tears on Gran Canaria, one of Spain’s Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. I’m a cycling guide: My office is on the back of a Trek Emonda, the lightest production bike in the world, and my job is to wheel well-heeled Americans around Europe and to show them how to handle a $12,000 bike through the Alps, the Pyrenees and other exotic destinations. Luxury cycle tours used to be the dominion of romantic pairs spinning and sipping wine through Provence. Now, the industry has revved up and gone carbon. After years of grinding over the steepest passes on the Continent with C-suite companions, I can tell you why executive travelers are now exploring the world on two wheels.
Some people think it’s the Lycra, and others assume it’s an excuse to shave your legs. The actual secret appeal to cycling is that it’s the perfect sport for anyone with a quantitative itch. It is the most measurable, trackable, chartable weekend activity. Strap a Garmin device to your handlebars and you get a heads-up display of every metric you could imagine: road gradient, distance, speed and meters climbed. All of these can be converted to power units and heart-rate thresholds that calculate your ride as you experience it. Most of the people I guide come from Silicon Valley. It doesn’t take much time in the Bay Area to become inured to the gruppettos of brightly clad executives escaping the workday to hammer out some miles on a high-end bike. The data and their attendant culture have merged to define the sport, and the most faithful acolytes hail from the birthplace of the data revolution.
No cyclist worth their chamois cream goes long without mentioning Strava, the San Francisco-based social media company that helps athletes track and share their performance data. It’s an online repository for information on your rides: Think of it as the passbook where you collect all of your cycling bona fides. Ever wonder how you stack up against Lance (or maybe just Lance in accounting)? Strava knows. It also solves a big problem for very busy, but ambitious, adventure travelers: That trove of data can zero in on the best place for your next trip.
The toughest winter destination to ride your bike is found in the middle of the ocean. Gran Canaria is a volcanic speck in the Atlantic, best described as being far away from everything. It’s where Columbus landed to catch his breath on his way home from the Americas. Its shoreline is crusted with the predictable buildup of hotels and condo resorts, but the interior is a maze of steep valleys emanating from its frozen top 2,000 meters above the sea. This giant, igneous ramp is Valhalla. Dry, desert-like conditions and perfect roads sing a siren’s song to anyone who can handle the 20 percent grades and tortuous descents.
Before Eric, my guest who founded a Netflix-like subscription service for Ferraris and other super cars, landed on the island, I knew he was a high-octane athlete. He had already logged nearly 30,000 kilometers in just a few years on Strava, and was no stranger to the pantheon of classic climbs in France. Using his data, we custom-built rides that encompassed the highest echelons of suffering without detouring him far from where his friends were riding on the trip. Jumping on a guided tour may seem anathema for an independent-minded entrepreneur like Eric, yet the self-dependent nature of cycling makes it infinitely customizable. Eric and his companions could float back to one another to talk shop without interrupting the ride, or blast off to find solace in the meditative cadence of the bike.
The executives who joined me ascending the Valley of the Tears had met each other cycling across the United States. Joining them was an economist from Georgia and two journalists. This was a seasoned, veteran crew of riders who had logged 200 steep miles in just a few days, cruising the same routes as members of such perennial Tour de France teams as Lampre-Merida and Tinkoff-Saxo, who zipped past now and again. Though it’s an honor to ride with great athletes, after a long guiding season you can feel a bit dead-legged, and weighed down by months of five-star breakfast buffets. Eric proved to be a little friskier on the bike than I was ready for.
There are a few tricks a guide has when trying to keep pace with a better athlete. You can serve a little extra wine at dinner or draft the whole day behind the group. None of the tricks worked here. The Canarian climbs are too foreboding to contemplate grappling with a hangover, and the descents are too twisted to imagine riding hot on someone’s wheel.
Eric was particularly eager to conquer as much of the island as humanly possible. He’d pound every mile as if it owed him money, and then finish the day with a run along the beach. He was indifferent to the conditions: This was not a vacation to recharge his battery but rather a place to burn his matches, to let off a little combustion before returning to work.
On our final ride together, Eric proposed a few extra miles before battling up the steepest ride I’ve guided in my career. We got up early, and swept across the southern shore of the island like the second hand on a clock, before launching inland past mandarin stands and Technicolor cafes. It was a beautiful, suffering ride.
The new world of luxury cycling is no longer baguettes in a basket or leisurely breakfast rides. It is high-tech, high-endurance R&R. If this is how these people vacation, I’d hate to be support staff for them at work.