A cycling tour of Mallorca

Mallorca is the perfect island for a two-wheeled adventure. You don’t even need to wear Lycra

 

Do you really cycle?” asked the Californian life coach sitting at the table next to me. We were at a restaurant called Bacchus, eating clever, foam-covered, Michelin-starred food and drinking conversation-starter Mallorcan wines.

I was sporting heels that I’d crammed into the side pockets of my backpack, and I had been banging on about my plans for a cycling holiday.

“Yes, I do really cycle,” I said, sounding a little prickly. “Do you?”

He pulled up a trouser leg to show me an expanse of hair-free calf. He was a cycling nut, that money- and testosterone-drenched breed of urban professional male who takes his amateur cycling very seriously.

 

He had flown all the way here because: “I wanted to be able to ride mountains and small towns, and stay in a real nice hotel.”

And here we were, indeed, in a real nice hotel - one of the real nicest on the island - just two of the 90,000 and counting who visit the island to ride every year.

“Do you really?” asked the convivial owner of the hotel, a retired lawyer and antiques fanatic called Vivien Read. “Yes. I. Do.” I said, rudely.

In fact, it was the only reason I had checked into his fancy five-star hotel. It had recently opened a small but well-equipped “luxury” cycling centre, with carbon-frame Giant road bikes to hire for £29 a day. And it had a spa: all the better, I figured, to relax my hard-worked muscles.

But my first day had left me wondering if I was, indeed, a cyclist. I didn’t look like the average cyclist you see racing down Mallorcan roads: fanatical, wiry, male, tightly bound in club colours and Lycra. Most cycle tourism sees clubs and teams coming out and bunking up somewhere cheap.

None of them was riding in a bikini top with their shorts hitched up as high as they would go. This was bad etiquette: proper cyclists aren’t supposed to care about bizarre tan marks.

The next day, I rode with the cycle centre’s manager, Malcolm, and the life coach, who was taking it easy because he had flu, so he figured I’d not slow the pace too annoyingly. We attacked a couple of middle-sized mountain roads, wheeled through pretty old villages such as Alaro and Orient, and stopped for coffee and a cigarette (only me) in Bunyola.

It was the hardest riding I’d ever done - and the best. By the time we finished our second climb, I was in endorphin-induced heaven, the views over the medicinal- and oily-smelling mountain forests ambrosia for the eyes and nose.

Spanish cyclists have long come to Mallorca for the variety. There is everything from long, flat coastal roads to the snakelike climbs up the Balearic island’s highest mountain range, the Tramuntana, which forms the backbone of the northern coast. Look up and there they are: calm, green and, at their highest point, almost a mile above you.

My plan was to keep moving, sending my luggage ahead in a cab. Next up: Pollensa, a veritable hub for cyclists, due partly to its proximity to a great diversity of terrain to ride, and to a British-owned bike shop worthy of its own soap opera/sitcom, called Pro Cycle Hire. I bumbled in, having cabbed down from another flash hotel, Son Brull, my favourite of the trip.

It was late in the day to start riding, and hot, but I decided to take on the Formentor ride, which takes you up and down to the lighthouse at the end of the peninsula, Cap de Formentor – Mallorca’s most northerly point. When hardened cyclists arrive, this is the route they do first. Out and back in a couple of hours. It would take me maybe three, I figured. “Are you sure?” asked the experts in the shop.

“I am sure,” I said, smarting at the latest slight to my cycling proficiency. I rode up, up, up. A lone, fit Spanish rider, with a rocklike shiny bottom, puffed past me on the first climb, calling, “Duro, eh?”

Hard. Hard indeed. My quads fizzed and my face burnt. I stopped at the top of my first ascent and looked over the deep blue Atlantic, feeling good. Wheeeeee. I descended. Then came the queasy feeling that I’d have to come back up.

I battled gamely on to the next climb... and a few hundred yards up surrendered to the empty tank. I crashed on the wood-fringed beach at El Patxet, and could only force myself back up the hill after two strong coffees. Nobody in the shop said “I told you so”.

For the rest of the trip, my friend Andy joined me, and the days were longer as we set out through fields and villages, always on the search for the big climb of the day.

It was almond harvest, and the clank of antiquated farm machinery and the tinkle of the bells on the sheep mingled into a blissful sound-track to our riding. Most days, a heavy bag of grapes and apricots dangled from my crossbar. A refusal to wear Lycra cycling tops with handy pockets on the back amused the staff of Pro Cycle Hire.

Son Brull’s pleasures couldn’t last, so we upped sticks to the cheap and hippieish Bellavista pension, in the centre of Puerto Pollensa. Stuck in town with little to do but amble round the stodgy tourist paella restaurants, along with the empty-nesters and power pensioners who holiday here during school-term time, we planned one last two-wheel adventure.

With our luggage safely sent ahead, we started out for the Lluc monastery. En route, we stopped for a long, and for Andy, boozy, lunch in the honeystoned, rich and immaculate town of Selva. I couldn’t drink: the thought of the climb to the monastery was exciting, but given my spectacular balk at Formentor, it gave me the willies.

It’s a big climb – low cloud clung moist around my ears the higher we went - but the secret is to keep going: if the going gets tough, there’s always the highest gear, the “Granny ring” as the guys in the bike shop called it.

Hills are doable, even for noncyclists, as long as you just keep going. Once there, it was wine we craved, and the two comedy waiters in the monastery’s restaurant were happy to provide it.

High above the monastery, hiking on a stone path up to an iron cross, I shared the dank morning with a family of stinky, arrogant goats. Below the cross was a deep valley of green orchards, with the jingle bells of hundreds of sheep bumbling about in the forests the only sign of life down there. Bruce, the shop manager, rang.

“Please don’t ride today. You’ll kill yourself.”

The roads were slick and wet and steep down to our next stop, Soller. He was right. Today was not the day for two amateurs to tackle a slippery-when-wet Tramuntana.

Driving down, there was only one cyclist on a road usually stuffed with the hard-riding tribe heading for the island’s steepest, most lethal ascent, Sa Calobra. I admit to some relief that I had an excuse to skip it altogether.

For our last four days in Soller, at a hip-hotel wannabe called the Esplendido, we took to mountain bikes. Other cyclists didn’t wave as readily, but it was great to resume an upright riding position. Tramuntana Tours does guided rides for mountain-bikers, as the tracks open to the public are not well signposted, and it’s easy to find yourself back on tarmac, which is hardly why you’ve hired a full-suspension mountain bike. With their help, we took the back route to the tiny cove at Deya.

Halfway there, the limestone track crosses the orange groves of a small farm. The owners have set up a makeshift cafe in their garden where you can buy fresh lemonade and homemade cake, and listen to the bees laze about the flowers.

You pee in their family bathroom, and it’s about as blissful, honest and isolated a place as you could wish to find. No place was as emblematic of the fact that the Mallorca you see on a bicycle, particularly if you are prepared to put in the climbs and the miles, is a singular one. I may not be a cyclist with a capital C, but I was cyclist enough to get here, and that, frankly, is enough.