Island Fever

Cycling trips have become a tradition in recent years. A few days spent exploring new places on two wheels can do wonders for your morale, especially if it also happens to involve escaping the British weather. Last year this was not the case, fortunately however the the rain failed to stop riding the length of Britain from being a truly amazing experience. The year before that it was a trip to the alps which culminated in completing the Ventoux cingles challenge. This time round the destination was the island of Mallorca. Often described as a cycling paradise I was never going to turn down the opportunity to spend a week seeing what the place had to offer.

Being something of a geek when it comes to equipment I spent many hours deliberating over which bike to bring. I came to the conclusion that the ideal steed would be a Colnago V2-R with Zipp 303 wheels and a SRAM Red Etap groupset. Sadly I didn’t have nine grand to spend and instead needed to consider the bikes I actually owned. My Specialized was out of the question, I know from past experience that my knees would not take kindly to a 39-53 chainset in the mountains. It was therefore a toss-up between the Cannondale and the Scott. The former is currently equipped with a compact up-front, making it ideal for climbing. Unfortunately it’s also rather heavy and whilst the 10 speed 105 groupset does the job it doesn’t shift particularly smoothly and the brakes aren’t the best. In the end therefore I opted for the latter, fortunately it proved to be more than up to the task in the coming days.

Packing bikes up is always a nerve-wracking experience. Sadly airline baggage handlers have a bit of a bad reputation among us Cyclists. It’s much less common than I would like to hear horror stories about bikes being damaged in transit. This therefore gave rise to a feat of paranoid overpacking. In the end the bike bag came to almost 30kg (the bike on it’s own is about 7.5), with all the necessary padding in place.

On that very first night, having arrived at the Villa and been relieved to discover that all the bikes had survived the trip unscathed we of course turned our attention to admiring each others machines. My Scott drew a few admiring glances. I’ll admit to being particularly proud of the way the wheel decals precisely match the colour of the saddle. My Father however was the owner of the star attraction, a special diamond coated chain. The great irony of this was that it wasn’t even fitted to his bike, it had simply been bought along as “an emergency spare“.

Our attention then turned to planning the following day. By virtue of being the only one who had bought a laptop I was appointed chief route planner. For the first time ever I was able to identify with Donald Trump, for rarely has an individual been worse suited to a role. I’ll never forget that infamous winter century last year whereby the route I’d plotted lead us down an impassable bridleway. Dinner that night was courtesy of the local supermarket, you can never go wrong with Pizza and beer. I’m going to let you in on a trade secret, when a Cyclist says things like “carb loading” or “eating for recovery” on these trips most of the time it really means “I’m eating whatever I like because I’ll probably burn most of it off and not have put on too much weight at the end”.  Each and every time I’ve managed to come back heavier despite all the riding. Anyway, onto the good stuff.

Day 1 – Cap de Formentor to Sineu Velodrome

We agreed to leave at 9AM. Another insight, we knew this really meant 9:30. I’ve yet to meet a Cyclist who has the ability to get out of the door on time in the morning. There are always tyres that need pumping up, chains to be lubricated, gamins to be charged at the last minute and my personal favourite – the missing arm warmer. It came as no surprise therefore that upon finally managing to set off we were stopped in our tracks by a distant shout from one of our number “wait, I’ve forgotten my gloves“. Nothing changes.

You’re always advised to take the first day easy and not to ride for too long. However, the night before we’d become very enthusiastic courtesy of a few beers and decided on an 86 mile route with about 5,500 feet of climbing. You’d think we would have been sensible enough not to hammer it up the first climb. Unsurprisingly you would be wrong on that front. It’s something that you can guarantee when you have a group of riders of similar ability, unbridled competitiveness. In my case that meant climbing Cap de Formentor at an average of 85% of my maximum heart rate, arriving breathless at the summit with about 70 miles still to go. With that said, the smiles on our faces give you some idea of just how enjoyable it was to be riding in civilised temperatures for a change.

I’ll admit that the descent wasn’t quite so pleasant. Ideally I’d have opted for a 35 mm rim wheelset but as it was it boiled down to a choice between my 45mm aero wheels and a cheap, heavy winter set. I of course went for the 45’s. On the flat they perform very well, however on exposed descents they can be unnerving in a crosswind. It’s not fun when you come close to losing control of the front wheel at 30mph. Fortunately, the best carrot cake I’ve ever tasted made the hair raising downhill a distant memory when we had the first stop of the day.

From then on things got really good. I’m sure I’ve mentioned the terrible quality of UK roads on here before. Smooth Tarmac almost felt like a guilty pleasure. That, coupled with the stunning scenery and generous tailwind made it a day to remember. For me the highlight had to be the coast road. Cliche as this sounds, riding along to the sound of the sea whilst taking in the clear blue skies and marvelling at the mountains on the opposite side of the bay was remarkably calming.

To top it off, just before turning for home we came across a town with an outdoor velodrome. On this particular day it happened to be open, we couldn’t quite resist riding a few laps. You won’t be surprised to learn that I was unable to contain my foolish enthusiasm and went for a couple of utterly pointless sprints, subsequently riding home on a set of tired legs.

In short it was the best first day we could have hoped for. A three course meal that night felt well-earned.

Day 2 – Randa Monastery

I could see from the map that this route was going to be a particularly good one. Heading out along fast rolling roads, culminating in a 5km climb up to the lunch stop. For the first time in a while I was going to get the chance to really put the Foil through it’s paces.

My plan for a quick ride was put into jeopardy due to waking up that morning feeling sick as a parrot. It’s something that often happens to me after a hard ride the day before, the reason why remains a mystery. I was seriously doubting whether I’d manage an easy 20 miles, let alone the fast paced 85 that were on the cards.

Luckily after the first few miles my legs remembered what they were supposed to do and I felt fine again. Great in fact. The headwind we soon found ourselves battling made me grateful for bringing an aero bike.The faster you ride the more you notice the benefits of wind-cheating equipment. I wouldn’t say that getting that bike up to speed is much easier than it is with any of the others, the difference lies in the ease with which that speed can then be maintained. I’m also happy to report it made short work of a rough and technical stretch of road we came across. I’m told the previous generation Foil was a bone-rattling ride, the newer iteration is actually remarkably comfortable for a race orientated frame.

A brief rain shower did little to dampen our mood as we approached the climb up to the monastery that marked the half-way point of the ride. Once again we threw caution to the winds and tried to take it at speed. Technically speaking we were not racing, instead we just happened to be climbing as fast as we could in close proximity at the same time – this repeated itself many times throughout the coming days. Due to it being a short climb with a reasonable forgiving gradient I was able to hold my own and cross the finish line side by side with the best climber in the group. Our reward was a spectacular view of the island.

The bike continued to impress. Whilst not super lightweight it climbed very well, the stiffness of the frame ensuring that no energy was wasted in the process. On the descent, mercifully more sheltered than that of day one, it was equally at home – the powerful direct-mount brakes coupled with grippy tyres allowed me to carry a good amount of speed round the tight corners. Once we’d regrouped at the bottom it was time to head for home. The wind that had caused us such trouble on the way out was now in our favour, making for a relatively painless return leg.

Day 3 – Sa Colabra

No trip to Mallorca would be complete without a expedition to it’s most well known climb. On paper a sixty mile ride sounds pretty straightforward, add 6,500 feet of climbing and thirty degree heat and it starts to look pretty tough. Factor in the effect of the previous two days and you get an absolute sufferfest.

It wasn’t long before I regretted the efforts I’d put in on the day before. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that it had been six months since I’d ridden any longer than 100km and with running having taken priority in the last couple of months my body really wasn’t used to this much riding. Once a few miles had passed the worst of the muscle soreness alleviated and it was time to focus on the task at hand. Climbing.

It’s hard to explain, the climbs in Europe are a very different kettle of fish to those that you get in the UK. Over here the hills are almost all short and sharp, finding one that takes more than ten minutes at a reasonable pace is rare. On the continent the longest one I’ve tackled is 28km. Pacing yourself for these efforts is a skill that takes time to develop, by no means would I describe myself as a master. I’ve long since learnt that for me the easiest thing to do is to pick a power output or heart rate and focus exclusively on maintaining but not exceeding it for the duration of the climb – in other words treating it like a time trial.

I say that. What actually happens most of the time is that I end up desperately trying to hang onto somebody else’s wheel and the pacing strategy goes out the window. On the first climb of the day that’s exactly what happened. Deep down I knew that trying to keep pace with someone 6kg lighter than me on a five mile climb wasn’t the most sensible idea in the world, sadly that competitive instinct could not be suppressed. Somehow I managed it and we crested the climb together before taking some time to admire the view before the others caught up.

A busy descent followed. I’ve never seen so many Cyclists in one place. Sadly there were some real idiots amongst them. Let me tell you, when you’re doing 30-40 MPH it’s very scary when someone flies past you with inches to spare and doesn’t give you any warning. Especially when that rider then pulls in front of you and grabs a handful of brake. I will admit that a few 18 rated phrases were uttered under my breath at that point. Anyway, we made it to the bottom unscathed.

Following another short climb it was time for the main event of the day. There was only one possible route, descending Sa Colabra and then climbing back up. It’s known for being a fun descent, one of the highlights being a 270 degree sweeping bend close to the top. Now time for a rant. Ever since I was a small child I’ve loathed travelling by coach, there is not a more boring, soulless, polluting and often nauseating form of transport. It came as no surprise therefore that a succession of them served to ruin the descent by holding everyone up on the bends. When we finally arrived at the lunch stop it was a relief to have negotiated that section and remained in one piece.

The stunning views at the bottom of the climb did little to distract us from the pain that was to come. One of these days I’ll master the art of not attacking these mountains in the hope of trying to set a fast time, rather spinning leisurely up the slopes and taking the time to enjoy the experience. This was not that day.

Once again I told myself at the bottom that I wasn’t going to race. That was until I was overtaken. This time round I couldn’t hold the wheel, the harsh gradient putting me at a weight disadvantage. I seriously regretted eating a whole Pizza for lunch.

I couldn’t talk about this day without including what I think was the standout quote from the trip. One member of our group suffered a puncture on the aforementioned ascent, another who shall remain nameless was later keen to offer his skills to help, declaring that he was “a man who could pump with the best of them“. Once the laughter had died down it was time to head for home.

Heading back the exact same way we had come was going to be tough. The undulating mountain road that had been easy on relatively fresh legs would turn out to be an absolute killer on the return journey. Even the very smallest hills posed a challenge, getting back that lost momentum got gradually harder each time. At one point I was forced to stop and take on some emergency fuel in the form of a mars bar and a can of coke.

The disappointing descent of Sa Colabra was more than made up for by the last downhill of the day. I can’t remember the last time I managed to have so much fun on a bike. Good visibility coupled with the fact that most of the corners weren’t too sharp made it possible to really get up to speed. It’s tricky to describe the adrenaline rush that comes with exceeding 40 MPH on a bike. In those moments everything comes down to your skill, one wrong move and it could end in disaster. Luckily once again we all made it down safely.

Rather than go straight home we opted to check out a famed Cafe that a few members of our group had visited on previous trips. The coffee and cake were spectacular. For me however the standout feature of the place was the treasure trove of rare bikes it was home to, among them a Lotus 108, and a Colnago Master. Suffice to say it took a great deal of willpower to drag ourselves away from the place.

The day ended with a generous meal in a restaurant overlooking the sea front at sunset. Sometimes you just can’t go wrong.

Day 4 – Petra 

This had originally been planned as a rest day. Upon waking up in the morning with my legs feeling like jelly I realised that for me there wasn’t any other choice. Had I set out on the bike it may well have been the last time I was able to manage it during the trip. With a heavy heart therefore I prepared myself for a day of sitting at home doing Uni work whilst the others headed out for yet another long ride. Okay, this day of work may have mostly involved sitting by the pool. Here’s the description of the ride, stolen from My Father.

Another day in Mallorca. It’s mainly flat he said. Lovely weather but some really strong headwinds and rolling terrain. Really felt the burn on the way back. Nice almond cake in Area with Jason’s mate. Decent baguette for lunch (tuna again). Al did his best St Francis impression and saved a baby tortoise from the roadside. BBQ Bob sorted supper.

Day 5 – The Queen Stage

As we sat and plotted the Garmin route the night before I must admit I was extremely grateful for having had a day off. This route involved three major climbs including the famous Puig Major. 87 Miles with almost 8,000 feet of climbing is never going to be easy, especially when you factor in the high temperatures and all the riding we’d already done.

It started off easy, cruising at a steady pace along the flatter roads we’d become familiar with on days one and two. Soon the mountains came into view. I was determined that I would get to the top of at least one climb first during the course of the trip. I’d already decided on the Coll d’Orient . At only 5km long with an average gradient of 5% it was well suited to my abilities.

I decided to go full gas from the very start, before long I was at over 90% of my maximum heart rate (that means bloody hard if you’re not a Cyclist). I was more grateful than ever that I hadn’t bought my winter bike, the extra weight would have made the climb even more soul-draining than it already was. I can’t deny that there is nothing more satisfying than flying past large groups of fellow riders on these climbs. It’s as close as many of us will ever get to experiencing what it’s like to be a pro Cyclist. In the end my effort paid off and I achieved my goal of being first to the summit. Later I would come to seriously regret it.

The Lunch stop that day was especially picturesque. The town of Soller can best be described as Mallorca’s answer to Switzerland. Sitting in that square tucking into a lasagne whilst watching the old wooden trams go by was something I won’t forget in a hurry. It’s the sort of place that makes you want to pack everything in at home and emigrate.

Following a quick photo stop at the port it was time to tackle the Puig. 15 km might not sound like very much but let me tell you it’s a long time to be climbing. There is nowhere to hide up there, overpacing yourself is likely to lead to you grinding to a humiliating halt and having to take a taxi home. Finally I came to my senses and decided to judge my effort sensibly. My strategy was simple, ignore everything else and just focus on the task – stick to a planned heart rate and take very careful note of any warning signs from my legs. For what felt like an age I pushed on, longing for the days when I was 10kg lighter. The sight of the tunnel that marked the top of the climb would have made me jump for joy if I’d had the energy. Once through it we were rewarded with a view of the lake below. 

Those last 25 miles were nothing short of agony. We stuck together as a group, this was not a day for leaving people behind. Soon we found ourselves travelling along the same road that had killed our legs at the end of day three. It’s a sign of just how hard the ride was that nobody said a word for a good five minutes when we finally arrived back that the Villa. The Pizza that night went down very well.

Day 6 – Sa Batalla 

Having discovered the night before that we’d now ridden eight out of the top ten climbs in Mallorca we set our sights on completing the challenge. One proved to be too far away, fortunately however number nine was in fact relatively close to where we were staying. My legs felt as bad as they ever have upon getting up that morning but I reassured myself with the fact the route was only 60km long.

We set out at an unusually leisurely pace, taking our time to enjoy some of the sights on the last day. On a bike you get to see the places the tourists don’t go, taking minor roads lead us to some beautiful villages and small towns over the course of the trip. None of which we’d have seen on a beach holiday.

Soon we arrived at the foot of the climb of Sa Batalla. At a mere 8km long this was a much more inviting prospect than the challenges of the previous day. We managed to stay together for an entire kilometre, agreeing that we wouldn’t try and chase Strava Segment times. As per usual however this pact soon dissolved, another rider passed us at some speed and two of us couldn’t quite resist the urge to try and follow him.

At the 3km mark the worst happened. My legs packed it in, with the lack of endurance training over the past few months it was a miracle they’d made it this far. This level of fatigue goes well beyond the usual muscle burn. You don’t have the energy to push yourself hard enough for it to hurt. My heart rate refused to go above a certain point. Fortunately the climb temporarily flattened and I managed to take on some food and drink. I just about made it to the summit, doing my best (and probably failing miserably) to look as if I wasn’t on the verge of completely blowing up.

Fortunately most of the remaining miles were flat or downhill and I was able to survive by staying at the back of group and shamelessly drafting everybody in front. At the final lunch stop whilst tucking into a particularly enjoyable Pizza I decided to head straight for home thereafter rather than completing the extra miles that had been planned. In some ways it was a disappointing end to the trip but I have to keep things in perspective. After a truly torrid offseason which involved battling illness, injury and a considerable amount of stress I was grateful to have made it out in the first place.

The verdict

I can’t tell you how good it felt to finally enjoy riding my bike again. Trips like this have always served to remind me why I do it in the first place; to push my physical limits, explore new places and spend time with like-minded people.

If you should ever get the chance to visit Mallorca I suggest you don’t hesitate to hop on the plane. It’s got everything; mountains, smooth tarmac, decent weather and cafes that do really, really good coffee.

Thanks for reading.

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