Sipping champagne on the seafront raising a toast to Stephen Roche to celebrate his twentieth anniversary of providing excellent cycling holidays and training camps, I reflected on the four days of touring the Balearic Island of Mallorca.
Maybe it was the alcohol flowing through my dehydrated veins that was responsible for my feeling of euphoria, or maybe it was the fact I’d enjoyed fantastic jovial and friendly company of fellow cyclists from across the world, including that of cycling icons. But I suspect, it was most probably due to the immense satisfaction of finishing the 430 kms, including over 7000m of climbing in one of the best and most beautiful places for cycling in the world.
The experience had been a taste of what it must be like to be a top professional. I had been supported by a full Mavic service crew, team cars that were in touch by radio to each of the ride captains, and been treated to motorbike outriders that stopped traffic at junctions. I had also lived out of a suitcase for four days, experiencing four different four stars hotels and the luxury of massages at the end of each day (at a small extra charge). To top it all the Triple Crown Champion of 1987 rode with us, together with his youngest sons, Alexis and Florian, and his special guest Maurizio Fondriest, the Road World Champion of 1988.
Four days earlier I had studied the route cards that were amongst the official jersey, High Five race pack and other goodies in the bag that was to be used as a musette. Stage One was to be a fairly flat ride to Cala Millor, Stage Two would include the classic ride to and from the Cap de Formentor, and the following two days would be spent in the Tramuntana mountains, including the iconic Sa Colabra.
This is probably Mallorca’s most famous climb and attracts both professional and amateurs alike. Indeed some cyclists come to the island just to ‘pit their wits’ against this climb alone and to compare their Strava times to the likes of Sir Bradley Wiggins and Sky’s David Lopez. It is definitely the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the island and the tour.
After the briefing session, I inspected my Pinarello Razha hire bike, that had been set up prior to my arrival, (having forwarded my bike fit details), packed my bag and retired to bed like an excited child waiting for Christmas.
The next morning after signing on, we were split into three groups, with the fastest riders in Group One. I chose Group Three, not wanting to overdo it on the first day. Before long the three groups set off at ten minute intervals, under the instructions from our ‘Director Sportive’, Michelle Smyth of Trois Etape fame.
The 137 km route from Palmanova to Cala Millor was picturesque as we rolled through olive and almond groves with the sun on our backs. By the time we reached the first lighthouse of the tour at S’Espanyol, we had begun to bond as a group as we chatted and got to know each other.
It soon became apparent that the guests (Stephen ensures all that attend his cycling holidays and training camps are treated as a guest and not just a customer or client), had come from all over, including America, Canada, Dubai, Germany, Belgium, France, Ireland as well as England, Scotland and Wales. Although there were some language barriers we all spoke the ‘language of the bike’ and a friendly atmosphere ensued.
As my Garmin ticked over to 74 km we entered Sa Rapita for lunch at a restaurant right on the sea front, affording stunning views of the Mediterranean. The intervals between the three groups had worked well, ensuring the groups didn’t all arrive at the same time. Once refuelled we set off on the final leg of the journey for our overnight stay at the four star hotel, Hipotels Mediterraneo.
And so the scene was set for the next three days, breakfast, ride, hotel, massage, dinner, repeat. Bliss!
This was my first experience of living out of a suitcase for four days and my status as ‘tour rookie’ showed. It appeared my suitcase was the biggest and heaviest amongst the riders. Others, more experienced or organised, took the bare minimum, some even washing their kit each night. However using a company where the guest comes first, if you took everything bar the kitchen sink, no questions would be asked. Although I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the luggage handlers.
I awoke to a glorious sunrise for the start of Stage Two, 114 kms from Cala Millor to Port de Pollenca. The day started easily enough with a gentle climb for the first 30 km, then it was virtually flat riding along the coast with fantastic views across the windswept bay. Lunch was to be at the famous Bar Tolo’s, Sir Bradley Wiggins’ favourite restaurant on the island and where his 2012 Tour de France and 2014 World Championship bikes are proudly on display.
After the second course consisting of pasta and salad, most of us were adequately fed and started to think of the testing route ahead, to and from the lighthouse at the Cap de Formentor. So it came as a surprise when Tolo had decided we all needed more calories and had instructed his staff to prepare paella for us. If that wasn’t enough the sweet course followed, consisting of cake. I’ve had less food at a wedding! Indeed it was the first time I’ve seen cyclists refuse food and ‘complain’ of having too much.
Climbing out of Port de Pollenca was my first introduction to the gradients that were to become so common over the next two days. I had joined Group Two for the day and although we had reached the start of the ascent before Group One, it wasn’t long before some us were being passed by stronger riders and a couple of world champions. I engaged the lowest gear and started plodding up the ascent at my own pace, resisting the temptation to try and keep up with the faster riders.
The first ascent, the Coll de la Creueta rises to about 200m from sea level with ramps of up to 15% and an overall average gradient of 6%, before plummeting back down to sea level so you can start ascending all over again until you reach the lighthouse. Therefore within the 40 km ride you climb four moderate ascents with total climbing of about 1000m.
I found it a challenging route that gave little respite, but I can see why it has a reputation of one of the ‘classic rides’ the island has to offer. The views are sublime both from the top of the climbs and as you sweep round the bends that link the uphill bits together.
This ‘must do ride’ certainly whetted my appetite for the other classic rides I was to experience over the next two days. We returned to Port de Pollenca with heavy black clouds gathering and although my group tried to beat the rain to the four star Club Pollenntia Resort just outside the Port, we failed. If only I was quick enough to join Group One, I would not have had so much drying to do overnight.
Stage Three, 90 km from Port de Pollenca to Port de Soller, had all the makings of an epic ride, incorporating the iconic Sa Calobra and a fantastic descent from the highest point on the island; Puig Major.
The first 17 kms as we left Port de Pollenca were fairly flat. Then the real work began and I did not get a rest from climbing apart from one very short plateau until I reached the cafe under a viaduct 23 km later. The rain hadn’t finished with us which made the climb that bit more challenging. At first I kept in touch with the main peloton but it wasn’t long until the ‘elastic’ snapped and I was dropped off the back. I was soon to experience what became known as the ‘Mavic Express’; a gentle hand on the back from the Mavic motorbike support rider pushing you back to the group.
I wasn’t the only one to benefit from this ‘Nibali type’ manoeuvre, and although one might expect some to be disappointed they didn’t conquer the climb independently, the riders I spoke to were only too pleased with the help, me included. We all regrouped at the café and had a short breather before climbing again to the top of Col de Reis; the start of the famous Sa Colabra descent.
The descent of the man-made twisting strip of tarmac that plunges to the sea was optional, and some sensible soles who listened to their screaming legs, stayed at the top and took part in coffee and chat.
Those that had chosen to go down seemed to relish the laborious climb back up. I guess there were Strava segment times to beat. Lunch was consumed at the cafe by the famous arch before the short and final ascent to the top of Puig Major. The fast flowing descent was glorious, but concentrating on your line gave little chance of soaking up the open views or the pretty orange groves near the town of Soller. However it was well worth the 2000m of climbing we had achieved earlier. Needless to say I was passed by two generations of Roches and one fast Italian.
What was needed after such a terrific ride, was a high quality hotel that gave massages, a complimentary drink on arrival and luxurious rooms and surroundings. And that is exactly what we got. In fact the Hotel Esplendido is one of the best hotels I have ever stayed at. We arrived at 15:30 which gave us plenty of time to carry out the rituals of preparing for the next day, before attending a presentation and questions and answer session by Stephen about his career. It was great to hear how he approached the races in his Triple Crown winning year, and hearing stories about behind the scenes, and his views on the modern era of racing.
Dinner was held at the restaurant Es Canyis and even though we had only known one another for three days, there was a team spirit and a celebratory atmosphere. Proof that the doubters who were certain Stephen’s vision twenty years ago of providing facilities and rides for all nationalities to mix and cycle together were wrong. As I chatted to Maurizio Fondriest it was obvious he shared the same passion for cycling as Stephen.
He remarked on how he was enjoying the tour and how remarkable it was to attract seventy riders from across the world, and went on to say ‘’it’s very, very interesting, my wife is here, and it is the first time she has cycled four days in a row with people, different people, different mentalities. I think that only the bike can do that, because when you can ride with old people, young people, like Stephen’s son, you can ride at 20, 30 or 40 km per hour, then on the top of the climb wait for everybody|: this is great.’’
I would have loved to have stayed and continued to mingle with the late night revellers, but my bed was calling so I returned to my luxurious room, took one last look across the harbour to the third lighthouse of the tour, closed the shutters and retired to bed.
The last day was another classic ride in the Tramuntana Mountains around the Corniche, and into Palmanova. This is probably the most scenic ride on the island and the most up and down. After just 2 km out of Port de Soller we started climbing for about 4 km. This was to be typical of the many climbs of the day with the longest being around 6 km.
For me it was hard to keep up with the group for two reasons; my legs were telling me to slow down and my head was telling me to stop and take photographs of the wonderful coastal scenery. Riding into Estellencs for our lunch stop, the views around each corner became prettier and prettier.
Again the weather wasn’t kind to us and the roads were quite damp and greasy in places, leading to the inevitable – a couple of riders coming off. Thankfully their injuries were not serious. The riders were promptly attended to by the first-aid-qualified ride captains before being dealt with by the tour medic. Nevertheless, it was a wake-up call for me.
For all the years I’ve been cycling, I’ve never carried a first aid kit. I guess I never wanted to think of coming off, after all, ‘it’s never going to happen to me.’ The truth is it could happen to any of us, and it was comforting to think that at least on a well-prepared tour such as this, the accident side of cycling was covered.
For the rest of day the group took corners and descents very cautiously, everyone wanting to make it to just outside Palmanova for the massive group ride into the town for the celebratory glass of champagne.
The magnificent sight of seventy riders, and nine ride captains all attired in the official bright green and white event jerseys being escorted into Palmanova by the police, stopped holidaymakers and Mallorcans in their tracks. The spectacle of the two large pelotons was further enhanced by the following motorbike outriders, team doctor, three team support vehicles and the bright yellow Mavic support van, car and motorbike. An unforgettable and dazzling end to this inaugural tour.
The event was rounded off with a short presentation of an award from the tourist board of Calvia, recognising the significant contribution Stephen has made to the tourism of Mallorca, before a gala dinner, enjoyed by all.
The tour had been one of the most enjoyable four days of cycling I’ve experienced. It certainly showcased both the island and what Stephen Roche cycling holidays and training camps can offer.
Written by Keith Gilks