When RISING headed to the world’s steepest island in the Canaries, we didn’t expect to end up riding down a lava tube…
As you fly into land on the Island of La Palma, the black volcanic cliffs of the coast cut past, slicing down into the sea like serrated blades. For a mountain biker this is a good sign. An island that has literally erupted from the sea is bound to have some serious vertical drop, combined with the kind of rocky terrain that knobbly tyres get rolling for.
Sitting on the North Western arm of the Canary Islands, La Palma is just 708km2 in size, but its highest point at Rocha de Los Muchachos is 2,426m high, apparently making it the world’s steepest island. Even better for two-wheeled freeriders, then. From the top of the island’s Caldera de Taburiente – the massive crater surrounded by high ridges and peaks – you can look down and see an entirely volcanic landscape. It starts super-rugged at the top, with sheer drops and boulders the size of cars. Steep sided ravines or Barrancos cut down into the countryside. This is serious freeriding territory.
Then you hit the lava fields and slopes of coarse-grained back volcanic ‘sand’ with clusters of pine trees growing out of it. The island’s climate is never too hot or cold, and the prevailing Trade Winds bring in enough moisture to support cloud forests, with lush vegetation. Towns are dotted among the forests, or around the coast and a line of volcanic craters runs down the island to the South where the latest 1971 Teneguia eruption occurred.
Because the original inhabitants found it easier to walk to the top of the Caldera de Taburiente and back down to the other side of the islands, rather than cut across the barrancos, there’s a comprehensive network of trails and marked paths, which has been expanded on to provide MTB rides that take the fast line through this Lost World landscape.
Here are seven surprising things RISING learned when I took on the gnarliest downs and the steepest ups with Atlantic Cycling’s guides:
1. Someone’s Been Busy In The Woods
When you are freeriding it pays to begin with elevation, so we drove in the Atlantic Cycling shuttle up into the pine forest at Refugio del Pilar. As we rolled away along a singletrack carpeted with pine needles it was obvious that this trail wasn’t a stranger to mountain bikes. As the hillsides steepened we dropped into a section of natural, rocky trail that had been upgraded with some digging by local riders. Take offs had been placed at natural banks where rocks or exposed tree roots provide drop offs. We were soon popping over jumps and nailing berms – a great start to finding some La Palma flow.
‘Drifting my back wheel through the volcanic sand felt like surfing down the mountainside’
2. It Turns Out You Can Drift In Lava
Once, riding down from the heights around Llano de Jable, low cloud suddenly rolled across the tops of the peaks and we were riding out onto a vast slope of coarse black lava ‘sand’, dotted with clusters of bright green pines. The cloud curled around the trees like volcanic breath, making the landscape feel even more primeval. As we rode down in a zig zag I realised how loose the tiny pieces of volcanic rock made the trail feel and I discovered that I could drift my back wheel on the corners to maintain my speed, and flow into the next turn. It felt just like surfing down a mountainside and I was soon grinning into the wind.
3. Air Time Is Good Times
In geological time La Palma is a toddler of an island, and this gives the terrain a raw, rugged structure making it a freeriders paradise. As I was hucking off massive rocky slabs, while negotiating pedal-snagging, technical and gnarly rock gardens it occured to me that with this variety of trails and terrain, you could end up somewhere you weren’t bargaining for. Fortunately there’s also an abundance of local guides who will show you the best trails and tailor the experience to your riding ability, from cross-country newbie to downhill racer.
4. E-Bikes Are Not Cheating
There’s a new beast in the world of off-road biking – e-bikes are making an appearance in mountain bike form, with electric motors to assist pedalling in order to achieve ‘uphill flow’. Purists call it cheating and I’ve been sat on the fence – until now. I hired an e-bike one day with the idea of taking on the steepest climbs the island had to offer – steep like a wall, then. As we attacked the rough cobbles of the Reventon Pass climb up to Refugio Pilar, I realised this was the steepest single piece of trail I’d ever tried to cycle up, and we had 2km of it still to go!
The trick with an e-bike is to keep pedalling at all costs, because the assist stops when you stop, and the extra 10kg of battery and motor act like an anchor. My style wasn’t so smooth. I made it to the top but it turned into a HIIT interval training session and I was totally gassed at the end! But dial your technique and these steeds can extend your range while increasing the training effect, because you can go further for longer – we crunched the numbers and the average gradient over that 2km was 19%!
5. There’s A Cloud Forest On A Volcano
It’s a surreal feeling, hammering across a blasted volcanic mountainside, and diving into the depths of La Palma’s laurel forests. The trail’s rocky course threads down in tunnels of vegetation, the laurels hanging down in fronds – it’s almost like going underwater. The closeness of the trees makes it feel like your shredding along even faster, picking your line through the edges of the rocks jumbled down the trial. The height of La Palma combines with the Trade Winds to pile up cloud and drop rain on this enchanted forest.
‘Freeriding down the bottom of collapsed tunnels of lava is amazing fun’
6. Finding Your Flow
Out in the warm sunshine of the lower slopes, we follow a freeride line down natural stream beds, and through rocky grooves. When a volcano erupts rivers of the lava flow down towards the sea, sometimes underneath the cooling crust of lava above. Fast forward to now, and riding down the grooves and collapsed tunnels of lava is amazing fun. The grippy rock and natural descent make you really tune into the flow. Rocky drop offs combine with very steep but grippy slopes of rock that are a blast to ride down.
7. La Palma Is A Starlight Reserve
The best end to an adrenaline-soaked day of La Palma freeriding is riding down the steps to the beach bar at Puerto de Naos for a cold one, to watch the sun sink into the sea. But if you’re heading to the island you should also know that it was the world’s first ever starlight reserve. Laws limited lights at night and all the street lights are yellow, which means the night-time skies are some of the world’s most stunning, with the Milky Way blazing overhead and meteor showers peppering the heavens.
How To Travel And Ride
Regular international flights land in La Palma and connect from Tenerife. RISING flew with Easyjet on its new route direct to La Palma from London, Gatwick and stayed at Hotel Hacienda de Abajo-Tazacorte.
Atlantic Cycles offer both bike guiding, tailored to your needs, and bike hire including freeride, cross country and e-bikes, all from their bike shop in Puerto de Naos.
WHAT NEXT? Watch Atlantic Cycling’s Postcard from La Palma to see riders taking the volcanic landscape head on…
For more information on La Palma as a travel destination visit www.visitlapalma.es
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.
Riding images Atlantic Cycles; RISING riding images Matt Ray with Zeiss Batis lens
Follow the writer @mattfitnessray