There’s a bar in Santa Ponsa that shows all the British soaps, right down to Hollyoaks. If you want fish and chips, bubble and squeak, or John Smith’s, you can find it. It even rains occasionally, to make us feel right at home. But Mallorca (Majorca, if you prefer, but either way pronounce it with a ‘y’ sound) is a substantial island, largest of the Balearics, roughly 100 km by 80. It certainly does cater for the sunburn-and-sangria crowd, but only a small percentage of its coastline is encrusted with tourist tat, still less the interior. It also attracts many visitors with more active ideas of a good time, like walkers and climbers and, in particular, it has become big news with cyclists.
In January and February many of the big professional teams come here to train; as spring advances they’re replaced by hordes of more average riders, bent on stacking up some miles in the sunshine. Naturally Northern Europeans are in the majority, with Germans and Belgians well represented alongside us Brits. Cycling holidays have become something of a speciality here, and they know how to look after both rider and bike.
It all sounded great, but I was full of apprehension. From offering ‘a range of riding options’, our schedule for a flying three-day visit had mutated to include ‘a full day ride led by a former professional rider’. I had visions of grovelling in the wake of some Lance Armstrong clone. And as our group assembled at Palma airport and I discovered that everyone else was a cycling specialist, it got worse. Being a jack of all trades, I now had visions of grovelling in everyone’s wake.
And that’s pretty much how it began. We were on mountain bikes for the first afternoon. A short drive from our base in Santa Ponsa, we were decanted on the outskirts of Andraitx. Within about five pedal revs we were off-road, and climbing, and within five more revs I was off the back of the group. And so it stayed, all the way to our high-point at around 400m. But if anyone minded stopping now and then to wait for me, they were too nice to show it. And the saving grace was that I wasn’t the only one who wanted to take pictures, even if most of mine showed rear views of the guys.
Having established the pecking order right away, I couldn’t see the point of crucifying myself trying to hang on. Easing off slightly - but not too much - freed up a few brain cells to appreciate the heady scent of pine and herbs, and the expanding views over the glittering seas and the spiny crest of Dragonera island. Near the top I passed a group of walkers - presumably Spanish - who chanted ‘Indurain, Indurain’ at me (Miguel Indurain, five times winner of the Tour de France, is a national hero). The comparison was flattering - to the point of absurdity - but cheered me up anyway.
The good thing about climbs, unlike headwinds, is that they don’t go on for ever. Getting to the top, still breathing and still in the saddle, was a good moment. The bad news was that while the test of my fitness was over, the test of my technical skill had barely begun. I watched in awe as ace downhiller Rob Breakwell rocketed down one rocky section that I didn’t dare ride at any speed. I could only wonder what he might have done on a full-bore downhill bike. There was nothing wrong with the hotel bikes - far from it - but they were set up for cross-country riding.
Before too long the gradient eased, and we could all enjoy a long, swooping descent, to finish in the best possible way, in a bar overlooking the sea in the pleasant village of San Telmo.
I’d enjoyed myself, despite spending most of the time exactly where I’d expected to be - off the back - but I was still nervous about the next day’s road ride. Road cycling tends to be a lot less episodic than mountain biking. And because I’ve been riding on the road a lot longer than mountain-biking, I had more pride at stake. But I supposed I could always make photography the excuse for lots of stops.
At breakfast we were introduced to our guide, former pro Peter Rogers, 62 and fit as the proverbial butcher’s dog. After sizing up our slimmed-down group (the downhill demons were off to play on some even more hairy terrain) he sketched a route of about 100 kilometres, avoiding the biggest climbs. Compared to what I’d been fearing, it didn’t sound too bad, but I was still conscious that it was many months since I’d ridden 100 km in a day.
Once out of Santa Ponsa we soon found ourselves on quiet roads. I slipped off the back briefly on the climb to the village of Calvia. A little further on I stopped for a photo and found myself riding alone. But I didn’t mind. It was nice to set my own rhythm as the road rose steadily through cool pine forests, then swept into a gorgeous hairpinning descent. The tarmac was silky smooth and there were more bikes than cars - which is how it should be all the time. In fact, I was enjoying myself. And when I caught up with the others at the bottom, it didn’t seem they’d been waiting too long.
We followed more open roads, zigging and zagging to avoid the city of Palma. The zigs pointed us towards the bristly peaks of the Serra de Tramuntana, which run along the northwest coast, rising to 1445m at Puig Major. There’s a road up it. My legs ache just imagining it.
To my profound relief, our roads were almost level now, and aiming directly for the lunch stop. Peter was discreetly lifting the pace and I was riding on guile and memory, following wheels, slipstreaming for all I was worth, but hanging in there.
Lunch was at Santa Maria, shady pavement tables packed with cyclists. I passed on beer. The first half had gone better than I had expected and I didn’t want to blow it.
Suitably fortified, we headed out into the dry heart of the island, a wide brown landscape. To our left the mountains skulked in the haze; to our right the skyline was punctuated by scattered citrus groves and occasional windmills, there to draw up water from the limestone aquifers. There were no real climbs, and my worries about getting dropped receded steadily.
And then it happened, the one thing that I’d never anticipated. With a dry breeze in our faces, someone else began to hang off the back. I couldn’t quite believe it, but it kept on happening. On a long, gradual rise, 90 km into the ride, I even found myself out on the front.
And then the road slipped downhill again, curling along the feet of the mountains, and almost before we expected it we were rolling into the peaceful main square of Pollensa. I looked at the computer on the handlebars: 99.2. For a brief moment I even contemplated rolling out again to tick off that last half-mile. But the waiter was already coming over to take our order.