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With more than 20 microclimates, a volcanic summit, wild landscapes from sheltered pine forestes to arid volcanic lava fields, and plenty of mtb routes to savour, Daniel Wildey finds Tenerife is ripe for off-road cycling adventure

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About a third of the way down from the volcano to the sea we're spat out briefly onto a road between the pine forested section above and the lush rainforest below and my heart is thumping from the effects of altitude change as much as adrenalin. The section we find ourselves in appears to be yet another dramatic change of scenery and terrain, as terraced farmland stretches beyond the patches of parched earth and long grass, into which a ribbon of singletrack disappears.

"I used to organise a small downhill competition here" says Ivan, my guide from local tour guides Teno Activo, apparently not struggling for breath. "But I had to stop because people were taking it too seriously and breaking bones while training for it."

When I was asked to visit Tenerife, I must admit I raised an eyebrow. My impression of the Canary Islands began, and remained, based on a souvenir my uncle brought back when I was a kid; "My [insert family member here] went to Tenerife and all I got was this lousy t-shirt." Hilarious when you're 8, but eventually leaving a tacky aftertaste.

As I, and my sense of humour, matured, travelled and became obsessed with mountain sports I began to pigeon-hole certain foreign destinations with ideas of English pubs and roast dinners, sun loungers and 24/7 drinking. And 'humorous' t-shirts. But my favourite thing about travel is having my expectations challenged, so when I heard what was on offer I jumped at the chance. Still, I didn't expect bone-crunching downhill race tracks...

Neither did I expect the most varied landscape I've ever visited. Most people holiday in Tenerife for 'the climate' without ever realising they're in only one of many; the island has more than 20 distinct microclimates. I was finding out that if want a passing acquaintance with half a dozen of them, a 47 kilometre descent by mountain bike is a fabulous way to begin your education.


Beyond the clouds

Earlier that morning my taxi dropped me off 1700 metres above sea level in a deserted layby somewhere between the north-western village of Chio and the desolate lower slopes of Mount Teide, where Ivan was waiting with two burly-looking Mondraker Foxy Carbon rental bikes. The bikes should have warned me of the pounding we were about to undergo.

I hadn't realised Tenerife rose so high out of the Atlantic, with its summit at 3,718 metres rising substantially higher than any peak in the Italian Dolomites and a world away from the beaches of Los Cristianos.

At 1700 metres the air was thin and the sun fierce, but I soon realised we were going higher. Above the treeline - and indeed above the cloud - there was nowhere to hide from the heat. We pedalled for around 30 minutes, over barren and lava-blackened ground and I was surprised to see an abundance of pine trees. It took a while to realise what was wrong with the picture - there was no undergrowth. Ivan explained that although all other plant-life will perish under a semi-regular eruption of Mount Teide, the Canary Pine is incredibly fire-resistant. Its bark will burn and appear like charcoal, but inside the tree lives on, able to regenerate its greenery. Which is both impressive and beautiful as that vibrant green is striking against the dark pumice and basalt dirt.

At first the black ground was sandy and heavy going, but it wasn't long before we were pointing downwards through more pine, and the basalt took on a more rocky character, perfect for a hell-for-leather boneshaker to start the long descent.


The first change of scenery came from the cloud rather than the land, and gave a welcome (albeit deceptive, as my peeling skin would later evidence) respite from the sun. A low-lying bank of cloud often blankets much of the northern coast of Tenerife, giving rise to the most apparent variation in climate between the red sandy desert of the south and the lush forested north. Its effect was clear as we entered verdant terraced farmland, almost the polar opposite of the dry volcanic wasteland we'd just left behind.

It was here that we took on Ivan's downhill course, the singletrack vanishing amongst the ever-encroaching flora living up to its nerve-wracking billing, and I managed to berm and brake and barrel through unscathed, apart from a few scratches on my arms from the more belligerent vegetation in sections where I figured some reckless pace was worth a couple of scrapes!

The extensive farming at that level, along with the shroud of cloud, gave the false impression that we were getting close to sea-level. In fact there were more layers of Tenerife to dive through, and the next was ancient rainforest. The pace slowed considerably as we hit gentle, mist-sodden doubletrack which was a shock after the grip of the parched land above.

This subtropical rainforest is known as Laurisilva - Laurel Forest - and has all but disappeared from Europe except in places of consistent temperature and high humidity, such as the Canary Islands, and notably Madeira.


From close-up and within the cloud, the forest was atmospheric - the humidity acting as a veil of mist, emphasising stray sunrays that pierced through the canopy of gnarled and twisted branches. But from a distance - such as at a bend in the trail, where we looked out over a vast hanging valley - the forest covered swathes of the island, colonising vertiginous hillsides and stretching as far as the eye could see. Mists swirled in the canopy below and clouds hemmed us in from above, robbing me of all sense of place. It could have been a scene from a Vietnam war film or from a castaway Pacific paradise. This new and surprising climatic layer was as dense and lush as the pine forests were sparse and bare, and was populated by an unfathomable variety of life.


Back to civilisation

Eventually the forest gave way to vegetation that might be more expected on a hot island off the coast of Africa - grass land, palm trees and cacti - and the trails became steep and rocky once more. We wound through wild terrain and patches of terraced farmland, and began to see elements of the human landscape - simple houses that grew in size the closer we got to the coast. Mountains still surrounded us, forming the backdrop to the farms and dwellings, but there was one colossal surprise left: Endless banana plantations.


The exotic banana plants acted as a gentle way of bringing me back to Tenerife; I felt as though I'd visited some strange and unexpected worlds, and all under pedal power. The island is something akin to a layer cake, with the ocean and beaches as its physical and economic foundation, building through myriad lands to the cinder-cone cherry at the summit of Mount Teide.

Two million Brits are forecast to visit Tenerife in 2016, and if that's the kind of statistic that puts you off a destination, don't let it. I didn't see a single one of them in 47 kilometres of riding. Instead, on this ride and every other during my stay, I saw countless versions of Tenerife that I would never have imagined, and that could never be captured by a corny t-shirt.


Change of pace

Unfortunately - and understandably - mountain biking is not permitted on the slopes of Mount Teide (in fact, even straying from the path as a hiker can get you a hefty fine). But it would be a huge mistake not to leave the wheels at home for at least one day and hike to the summit of what some locals call "our father." To save time and energy it is possible to take a cable car the majority of the way up, but the altitude may come as a shock when the hiking starts! The much more natural - and satisfying - approach is to hike up to the Altavista Refuge and spend the night at 3260 metres. Sleep may be elusive at this altitude - and with the inevitable noise of a dormitory - but the pre-dawn summit push and the sunrise over sea and cloud is worth all the sleep-deprivation you can imagine.


Our trip

Daniel travelled with Monarch and stayed in the quiet northern town of Punta del Hidalgo. Mountain bike excursions were arranged by Teno Activo which offers a wide range of sea and land-based activities and Canary Bike Tours which offers road- and off-road cycling.

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