Riding through Mallorca
“Coffee and pastry stop twenty minutes away,” comes a Spanish voice behind me.
My thighs are burning and I’m straining for breath, pushing down on the pedals with every last ounce of energy I’ve got. I take a quick look around to remind myself why I’m doing this.
Within a second, I remember – on either side of me are burnt-yellow mountains and bright blue sky, broken only by the odd pocket of cloud cover; I’m here in the Balearic island of Mallorca because this island, which measures just 75km from North to South and 100km from East to West, also has some fabulous scenery and a plethora of brilliant and varied rides, offering decent training opportunities for cyclists of all different skill sets and varying levels of fitness.
In fact, the total average number of cyclists visiting the island every year between January and June is around 150,000. That’s a huge number when you take into account that the island is home to just 500,000 residents. But a quick glance out of the plane as we approach Parma airport and I’ve already got a strong sense of why so many come here, bike boxes in tow, to spend their precious money and holiday time.
The main reason is mountains, and lots of them. There’s the Serra de Llevant in the East, and, most impressive, Serra de Tramuntana, which runs Southwest to Northeast and whose highest peak, Puig Major, is 1445m and arguably one of Europe’s most iconic rides, not to mention a favourite of Tour de France winner and GB Olympic medallist, Bradley Wiggins.
Drifting along narrow roads, deeper into real countryside, the ascents get steeper and the landscape more rugged and exposed. The main challenge of this morning’s ride is yet to come however; the Col d’Honor, which will take us well into the beautiful Orient valley.
Today’s route however, is somewhat gentler, though it does still involve the latter of these two ranges. We (that’s me and the pack of riders I’m trying to stick to) start from the Calvian town of Palmanova, a cycling hub rather incongruously located very close to the infamously boozy beach holiday resort of Magaluf (although since 2009 the resort has also been known for its excellent athletics training facilities, after opening a state-of-the-art stadium and track that costs the public just 5Euro per day and which, until the opening of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium, was considered the best in the world). After warming our legs up on some fairly flat main roads, we start to hit some small but rolling hills. Drifting along narrow roads, deeper into real countryside, the ascents get steeper and the landscape more rugged and exposed. The main challenge of this morning’s ride is yet to come however; the Col d’Honor, which will take us well into the beautiful Orient valley. (Other, longer, classic climbs which include Col de Soller – which crosses the Tramuntana, connecting the capital, Palma with the port of Soller – the switchbacks Sa Colabra and, of course, the island’s highest point, Puig Major.)
First however, I need to make it to the traditional town of Bunyola, where I’ll be reunited with the pack that I managed to keep up with for around 15 miles but have now lost thanks to my inherent isolationist streak, combined with very sore (and thus slow) legs. Even if I wanted to be though, I wouldn’t be alone on the mountain today, flanked as I am by Kiko, one of many Ride Captains out today with the purpose of picking up stragglers, helping with flat tyres and generally keeping safe and happy all the cyclists out today who, like me, are guests of Stephen Roche Cycle Holidays (www.stephenroche.com).
Twenty minutes pass and, sure enough, I can now see rows of the sleek bikes, emblems of modern-day cycle training, leant up, rather incongruously, against the tables and chairs of a simple, traditional café. I’m salivating at the thought of the double espresso and ensaïmada (a local delicacy made with flour, water, eggs and – bizarrely – pork lard) that awaits me and relieved to hear the familiar clack of cleats on stone as people mill about. We’re meeting here partly just to take a breather, but also so that riders can switch up or down between the different ride groups. Since the rides vary between 50-130km with the top group speeding along on their Vitus Dark Plasma road bikes (nifty little numbers available for hire back at the Ponent Mar hotel, a.k.a. Roche headquarters) at some 30kph, it’s easy to be over ambitious initially. Thankfully, nobody bats an eyelid when I suggest I move down a group. My fears of being surrounded by competitive, lycra-clad bullies were unfounded; although the lycra is universal, everybody is friendly and encouraging, but ultimately far too concerned with their own performance to worry about another’s. Besides, it’s not all sweat, sweat, sweat. The emphasis here is on enjoyment. Rides are rarely longer than 5 hours, and usually return by 2pm, leaving you the afternoon free to catch some rays by the hotel pool or stretch out in the sauna.
‘My job is putting bums in saddles,” triple crown winner (which, if you don’t know much about cycling, just means he’s a total legend, and one of only two men ever to win the three biggest races in one year), Stephen Roche, tells me in his thick, Irish accent: “It doesn’t matter about your shape or size or level of fitness, once you do a little bit of cycling and develop some knowledge about changing gears, we can find a place for you here.”
‘I wanted somewhere that would be a cyclists’ paradise,’ he says, explaining why he chose Mallorca nearly two decades ago when establishing the company: ‘There are flights from everywhere, it’s a good climate, so I came to have a look and found people in the North doing cycle holidays but nothing down South where it’s more mountainous.’
Lots of Roche’s customers are either keen triathletes or pure cyclists training for a sportive (and entrants of any Human Race event, www.humanrace.co.uk, can receive a discount on Stephen Roche cycling holidays by visiting www.stephenroche.com and quoting code- HR2013). The primary idea is simply that you get a little better at cycling and leave fitter, and with more friends, than you arrived (so long as you enjoy the geeky chatter that surrounds recreational cycling too, since the conversation over dinner and drinks inevitably includes topics like clip-in shoes, rehydration salts and carbon frames as well as a discussion about what tomorrow’s ride will hold).
Nowadays though, Roche’s company is one of many with similar ideals in the area, including Tramunt Bike www.tramuntbike.com or Philipp’s Bike Team www.radferien-mallorca.com. If you’d rather go it alone though, the Southwestern region of Calvia (where these three holiday companies are based) also has details of many of the typical rides on its website www.visitcalvia.com along with information about all the other activities you can do in the region.
And it’s not just down South that people are getting out and about on two wheels. The Northern part of Mallorca is replete with fabulous riding opportunities (hence why Team Sky can be found around Alcudia during winter) whereas on the East Coast, the tourist hub of Cala Millor offers easy access to some great coastal route, like the 24kms from there to Porto Cristo, for those looking for a flatter, faster ride (though Llevent Natural Park is nearby and has plenty of hills). If you want to get off road for a while, there are also plenty of companies offering mountain biking too. Rock and Ride (www.rockandride-mallorca.com) run guided tours for the more experienced mountain biker and also sell a guide book detailing rides in The Soller Valley, Bunyola, Esporles, Palma/Gènova, Pollenca, Lluc Monastery and Arta. The bottom line is that Mallorca really is a haven for cyclists of all types and I, for one, will have no problems returning next winter to get some miles under my belt (wouldn’t mind another one of those pork-lard pastries either)…
– By Lucy Fry
First appeared in Outdoor Enthusiast magazine.