“Here we go. Up,” says a Mancunian voice behind me as the road starts rising. Here it is, the moment I’ve been waiting for since I got my start spot at the Mallorca 312 international cyclosportive.
It’s basically a tour of the island held every spring, with the first half dominated by some pretty hefty mountains – so big and so steep that they’re the preferred training ground of both Team Sky and Sir Chris Hoy.
But first, a confession: I won’t be doing the full 312km. I’ve opted for the ‘short’ version which is half the distance but still involves around 7,500ft of vertical ascent. Gulp. Six weeks of panicky training up and down the blustery hills of Somerset go by in a flash as I worry about the thigh-achingly long climbs that await me.
The shorter route takes riders through the same mountain passes as the 312 riders, then as we get close to the capital of Palma it’ll double back up through the interior along relatively flat roads, rather than continuing anticlockwise along the coast. We’ll all return back to the seaside town of Alcúdia for the finish.
I’ve done long rides before, but this will be something else for me – I wonder how I’ll cope. Frankly, I wonder if I’ll manage it at all.
Bike boxes everywhere
Dawn breaks at Bristol airport with vivid streaks of orange across the sky, and the check-in desks are swamped with bike boxes. Everyone wants to go cycling in Mallorca, it seems. The plane’s certainly full for my 6am flight, most people in couples – young and old – heading off for a romantic break, eager beaver cyclists or the obligatory hen and stag parties.
Relief that my bike’s arrived in one piece and I pile into the hotel taxi. Can’t wait to catch sight of those mountains and turn the pedals over. “Which one’s Puig Major?” I wonder as the Serra de Tramuntana mountain range passes my left window. That’s the biggie, at 854m it marks the island’s highest point.
I catch myself worrying about the wind and how it’ll affect stamina, and make a conscious effort not to obsess about things that are outside my control. Nutrition, pacing, drafting – these are the things I should be concentrating on.
My hotel for the next few days is packed full of sporty looking types, many drawn by the 312, who are variously renting carbon-fibre road bikes by the outdoor pool, heading off to the spa for a post-ride rub-down or gorging on carbs at the restaurant’s all-you-can-eat buffet. I’m in the right place then.
Race day dawns and I haven’t had more than five hours of sleep, tossing and turning past midnight as the Puig Major weighs on my mind. Oh heck, what have I let myself in for? Chatting to 220 blogger Sophie Radcliffe the previous evening, I’d felt excited – confident even. Now… where’s that feeling gone?
But my bike’s prepped and checked, suncream is on and my jersey pockets are stuffed full to bursting with energy gels and cereal bars. It’s going to be beautiful riding up top with the blue sea stretching out into the distance. Feelings of trepidation melt back into excitement. Let’s do this.
We roam the still-dark lobby, my fellow guests transformed overnight into gran fondo warriors. I follow them outside to the start line, past the ride-out leaders that include Irish cycling legend Sean Kelly, and join the back of a very long queue.
The sky is beginning to lighten but there’s no sun yet. Riders chat and joke with their neighbours, everyone beaming. We’ll be spending the day cycling on some of the most beautiful roads in Europe, what’s there not to like? Earlier fears seem small and silly now I’m on the start line. I ask someone to take my photo.
7am and the horn goes off, followed by the click-click-click of thousands of clipless bike pedals being snapped into. We ride out of town a seamless shoal of riders, through roundabouts and past cheering crowds. Spinning easily along the coast road, the speed passes 35kph on my Garmin.
The sun just clears the horizon on the sea to my right… and I nearly lose my balance admiring it. Pay attention! We cruise past the harbour of Puerto de Pollença, which I haven’t seen since a family holiday 15 years ago, and take a sharp left. Hitherto out of sight, them mountains suddenly rear into view…
Pine trees line the road and the mood shifts perceptibly, everyone in anticipation of what’s to come.
The first climb is one of the longest, I knew that already – around 7km with an average gradient of 6%. There are blue jerseys of Manchester Wheelers all around me, and I settle into a familiar rhythm.
Birds chirp as we climb, climb, climb. At most I can only see a hundred metres ahead of me before the next corner. Probably for the best.
What do you think about when digging deep? I asked Dave Scott that question at last year’s Triathlon Show and he suggested focusing on small sections, ‘Just make it to this tree, that bin.’ The road forces me to heed his words, and it seems to help. Thanks Dave.
We round a corner and onlookers greet us banging saucepans with wooden spoons, shouting “Allez!” and “¡Vamos!”. I grin and push on, feeling – ridiculously – like a Grand Tour rider heroically wending up an Alpine pass. Yep, really.
I decide to take a photo and fumble my gloves off. Nearly losing balance more than once, I take a quick picture:
The next 50km or so takes us up multiple hairpins, past bright blue lakes and small clusters of sheep nibbling grass. I remove my arm warmers and slurp an energy gel. I find myself behind a rider working his way up on just one leg, the other one motionless on the disconnected crank. Wow, that takes serious determination.
As I close in on the first drinks station I pass a couple on a tandem, chatting and laughing to each other, and what looks to my oxygen-hungry brain like a tall blue Smurf. Two men in their forties wearing ‘Scotland’ emblazoned jerseys, bib shorts and socks overtake me easily.
The first refreshments break is in a car park by a lake, where a volunteer runs up to me with a big bottle of water. Together we refill my two bottles, and I faff about with energy drink powder. Then clip in and I’m off again…
Sa Calobra and sleepy roadside diners
For the next 10km or so I swap places with a lady in Dutch colours who I just can’t drop on the climbs – though it’s fun trying. I open a cereal bar and immediately regret it, struggling to eat and breathe at the same time.
We pass signs for Sa Calobra, and sleepy roadside diners. It dawns on me that we’re now climbing the Puig Major. Barren landscape is all around and the globular radar station comes into view, reminding me of another beast – Mont Ventoux.
We crest the top and then it’s down, down, down, along swooping descents that make you feel like you’re flying. I start overtaking much fitter riders who passed me on the climbs, mindful not to let the disc brakes on my Genesis Croix de Fer overheat. Then I really would be flying. The roads stay smooth and sunlight filters through the trees lining the roadside.
The long descent lasts around 15km and takes us all the way back to sea level. We’re soon passing through the pretty, peaceful village of Deià, one-time home and final resting place of the English war poet Robert Graves. We leave the last of the houses behind and a sign says the gradient will become 6% for the next 6km. My legs start rebelling.
After 4km I’m not sure if I’ll make it to the top of this latest trial without stopping for a rest. Shut up legs, we’re not getting off now. I manage a few more stretches of climb then make a deal with myself – make it round this corner, then rest. I turn a corner and there it is, the top – I’ve made it.
Down the other side and I cruise up to a T-junction plastered with signs that send the 167 riders left and the 312 riders right. I turn left, emphatically.
A Spanish rider gives me a cheery thumbs up and we join the milling masses at a very welcome food station. Two rolls, two chocolate bars, a coke and more are devoured, and I stuff nearly the same again into my jersey pockets. Right – home.
The path back to Alcúdia is around 70km and the first half of it is mainly on quiet rural B-roads roads, some in dire need of repair. I relish the smoother roads and wind up my average speed where I can, though my hands are beginning to stiffen and numb.
Rounding a corner after a short and bumpy descent, I pass a fellow rider who’s come off hard and is being tended to by a Guardia Civil officer on the side of the road. I’m spooked out by this and somehow miss my turning – despite it being clearly signposted – only realising my mistake when shouts behind me tell me to turn around. Yep, my navigational abilities remain reliably crap.
Temperatures are beginning to drop by this point and I put my arm warmers back on. “Keep going, this is the easy part,” I tell myself. The scenery can’t be faulted, an attractive mix of vineyards and farmland that make it easy to see why so many people head out here with their bikes.
A short, steep hill nearly proves my undoing towards the end, my thighs cramping so badly that it feels like a giant is brutally pinching my hamstrings and won’t let go. I stop and stretch them out, joined by another rider suffering exactly the same problem.
Finally, eight hours after we started, the yellow race signs bring us back into Alcúdia and along the main strip to the finish, where groups of spectators shout us home. I cross the line weary and sore in a time of 8:27hrs, placing me in the bottom third of finishers but still inside the 9hr cut-off – the first riders from the 312km route won’t arrive for another half hour or so.
Paella and a sports massage quickly follows, and that evening I swap stories with fellow riders over a few beers. Hearing their struggles on the 312 I know I wouldn’t have made it this time – but maybe next year…
220 Triathlon attended this year’s Mallorca 312 international cyclosportive at the invitation of the Spanish Tourist Office www.spain.info