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Road to ruin: biking in Mallorca, by Tristan Rutherford

The Times, April 2017

Move aside, Chris Froome. Get off my road, Sir Brad. My pal Oli and I have hit 40 and are taking our middle-aged angst out on Mallorca. The training ground for Team Sky and half a dozen Tour de France teams encompasses 10,000km of Europe’s finest cycling roads. The best bit is our final descent: the ribboning tarmac between the ritzy villages of Valldemossa and Deià, as a crashing Mediterranean chasms below.

Thankfully we’re being led by cycling pro Alfonso Ochoa Vega. His cycling firm Mills & Honey tailors off-piste bike tours on an island that welcomes a massive 500,000 cyclists per year. While he’s pelting ahead to warn us of impending hairpins, his assistant is transporting our luggage from hotel to villa so we can concentrate on the fun bit. Better still, as Alfonso cycles thousands of miles a year he knows every café and ex-pro on Mallorca. These two assets combine at Café Es Forn in Deià. We’re served tuna empanadas by local cyclist Vicente Reynés, who regales us with stories from his ten Grand Tours including the Vuelta a Espana. Then laughs derisorily at our 40-mile morning route.

Our day started with 8am café cortados in cycle-friendly Hotel Esplendido in Puerto Soller, the most popular base for Alfonso’s guests. Oli, a Royal Marine, wants to cycle ten miles uphill to the quiet mountain roads. I, a lanky journalist from Lichfield, demand we ride up in the van. We pedal off beside olive groves from the 240m-high village of Bunyola. The roads are so quiet we can ride and chat three abreast. The island has tranquil routes for all seasons and all budgets, claims Alfonso. Oli and I are on £30 per day Cannondale and Cervelo rental bikes, that retail for around £2,000. Alfonso can hand deliver an £8,000 Pinarello Dogma F8 that Chris Froome rides for around £80 per day.

Spring and autumn suit our 15-mile ride to the mountain village of Esporles. Seasonal rains bring mountain flowers, scrumpted oranges and almond blossom. Birdsong meets horse neighs and donkey brays. The heat and hire cars of the coast are best tackled in winter. For hot summer mornings hit mountain passes near the Ben Nevis-sized mountain of Puig Major. Alfonso shows me how to spin uphill during our moderate climb. Low gears allow us to ascend freely while taking in the scenery; oxygen, not muscle, does the hard work. Team Sky use the technique to climb Tour classics like Mount Ventoux and Alpe d'Huez, settling into a zone-like cadence, or pedal rhythm, that propels them to the peak.

And what a panorama Mallorca has. From the signpost showing we’ve reached the Serra de Tramuntana mountains, a Unesco natural heritage site, the 100kg muscle-bomb that is Oli barrels into Esporles past mountain streams beset with citrus. Alfonso escorts my 70kg frame while offering a potted history. Esporles, for example, has the highest birth rate in Mallorca. All that spring water, I suggest? “No, just very bad Internet connection,” says Alfonso. This is apparent as we search for WiFi in Restaurante es Brollador, where we demolish a 10am snack of six orange juices, three pa amb oli tomato sandwiches and a decaf for Oli, the big wuss.

Alas, the trained solider in Oli pushes hard on the next ride to Valldemossa at an elevation of 410m. Seascapes tempt from the saddle, as do the swimming pools beside the honey-hued villas astride our route. “All groups like to get out of their comfort zone and feel the fear,” says Alfonso. For a recent mixed group of total amateurs and cycle nuts staying at La Residencia, the nearby hotel once owned by Richard Branson, he also introduced eBikes, allowing the entire party to feel equally challenged. Other visitors prefer two days in Soller, two days in Palma then two days in Pollenca, where Team Sky decamp all winter.

Mallorca’s toughest climb? Over coca de patata potato buns at Valldemossa’s Pasteleria Ca'n Molinas, Alfonso talks up Sa’Calobra. This snaking swirl of tarmac, designed by nutty engineer Antonio Parietti, tumbles seaward over 26 hairpin bends. Google it. In December and January you can join your cycling heroes using its 7% incline as Tour de France practise. Without Oli, who must fly home to eat naval rations, it’s a little too tough for me to cycle alone. Now Alfonso delivers his final USP: a self-guided GPS tour that I can follow via a downloadable map.

Which brings me to Mallorca’s other – slightly easier – asphalt rollercoaster on Cap Formentor, which was also designed by Parietti. This Unesco-protected peninsula undulates and twists like a topographical nightmare on the island’s far east. My base is the Hotel Formentor, an architectural classic beloved of Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin, which maintains its own fleet of eight lightweight bikes. Alfonso has advised a dawn strike to avoid the peloton of cycle enthusiasts. Indeed I see this tarmac ribbon of road as a solitary challenge. Like a Spanish Rocky Balboa I bolt three eggs, 12 slices of Serrano ham and half a kilo of Manchego cheese before punching off into the morning mist.

The first pine-scented section is the same pea green of London’s Richmond Park. Some over-friendly British bikers invite me to slipstream their pack. I ignore their advances and press on solo. Lungs heave as the route spirals on. It’s like the Horseshoe Pass in Wales, as Mallorca’s rainiest corner glows emerald. Goats nibble shrubs stunted by the salt-licked crosswind. Then the Formentor road becomes Snowdon itself. I’m cycling through actual cloud at nearly 400m in altitude. On top of the world, a road less travelled, if not less pedalled.

A sprinkle of rain makes the descent shimmer like a quicksilver necklace. I’m in ‘the zone’ when I’m overtaken by a dozen middle-aged Brits in Team Sky lycra. Some of them are discussing dental procedures. Really. On some of Mallorca’s roads the cycling experience is like an unwanted group hug, rather than a self-challenging zen adventure. I’m the sole cyclist to stop and admire the Cap Formentor lighthouse rising like a Disney-esque redoubt on the cliff edge. For a final burst of energy I munch the pocketful of almonds and pistachios I purloined from the admirably generous Hotel Formentor breakfast buffet.

It’s a hell ride to reach the lighthouse. The road corkscrews downhill into the blue abyss, before hitting a cyclone of sea wind. A mounted bridge like a Chinese Great Wall cuts cruelly uphill. It’s a final stage I work with an animal energy to overcome. I thrash the bike from side-to-side in a bid to propel myself forward using any muscles aside from my rubber legs. At  210m-high my reward is a seascape panorama that spans across the mountains of Mallorca to the beaches of Menorca. In the lighthouse café I consume more calories than a visitor at Cadbury’s Bournville Chocolate Factory. I’ll be back in the saddle before I know it.

Tristan and Kathryn write about the Balearic Islands for The Times and The Guardian.