The life cycle: pedalling 312km in Mallorca, an island of hills, beauty and contrasts
The Mallorca 312 race must be completed within 14 hours, but there is still time to enjoy the experience
Cyclists take part in the Mallorca 312, a long-distance circumnavigation of the island by bike. Photographs: Mallorca312.com
‘This,” says one of my lycra-clad colleagues, “is what cycling is made for.” He waves a gloved hand in the direction of the sky (perfect blue), the roads (smooth) and the series of sheer cliffs before us, falling off into a turquoise Mediterranean (stupendous).
“I take your point,” I reply, glancing down to look at the bicycle computer, which says I’ve ridden almost 150km so far. “What’s not to like?”
I can’t believe I’ve come this far.
Back in Ireland, 150km amounts to a fair slog, what with the rain, the traffic, the steep and unpredictable terrain and, most of all, the wind.
Here in the largest of the Balearic Islands, the distance has flown by. It helps that I’m in the company of thousands of other cyclists participating in the Mallorca 312, a long-distance circumnavigation of the island. The sun is shining but it’s not too hot and the climbs, while long, are manageable. The company is good and new friends are being made along the way.
There’s only one fly in the ointment. The clue is in the title of the event, which requires participants to cycle 312km – almost 200 miles – in the one day, with a cut-off time of 14 hours. Now that’s what I call a long day in the saddle.
By rights, I shouldn’t be here. The boxes marked “Ring of Kerry” and “Wicklow 200” have been ticked a few times in the past, but that’s the longest I’ve cycled in one day. This year, early in the season (it’s late April), I haven’t ridden more than 100km. I came here intending to ride the shorter version of the event, which still clocks in at a calorie-chomping 167km. Instead, after a rush of blood to the head (or was that Rioja?), I find myself going the whole hog and, after 150km, I amn’t even half-way.
The thought fills me with fear. Fear of “bonking”, of slowing down to a crawl as the energy saps from my legs in the later stretches. Fear of being picked up by the broom-wagon that collects those who fall by the wayside in events like these. That might make for a good story in these pages, but at considerable expense to my pride.
The good news is that we have already negotiated most of the big hills. The Majorca 312 packs most of its climbing, up the quiet roads of the Serra de Tramuntana mountain range, into the first third of the distance. We’d started at dawn, more than 3,000 of us riding out from Alcudia as the sun rose over a tranquil bay stretching out toward the Cap de Formentor, the most northern tip of the island.
Spirits were high as we sped past fields of almond and olive trees towards the craggy mountains glistening in the early sun.
Sean Kelly, still a god to cyclists everywhere, led out the event, though he was cagey when asked how far he was going to ride. Shorter than I imagined him to be, but still trim and strong in his limbs, he is happy to pose for photos and sign autographs, but has little to prove on the cycling front. Unlike the rest of us.
The climb past Puig Major, at almost 900m, was tamer than expected, but this was followed by a heartstopping descent towards the coast. On a rented bike, I have to hope the mechanics know their stuff and all the important parts are going to perform as required. We see a few crashes and some blood, but thankfully not too many.
This is a Mallorca very different from the island known to millions of holidaymakers who crowd on to the beaches and resorts further south. We breeze up and down hills where tightly terraced fields breathe a variety of scents – citrus, mint and fertiliser. Sheer cliffs tumble down into the sea in the heat haze beyond as we scoot past ancient settlements sheltering under tiled roofs.
We speed by the longtime home of poet Robert Graves in Deià, and shortly after pass through beautiful Valldemossa, where the French writer George Sand holed up one unhappy winter with her two children and the composer, Chopin.
Poor Sand was having miserable time of it, not least because of the difficulty in travelling anywhere. “Rains, torrents, swamps, quickset hedges, ditches, all bar the path in vain; one does not stop for such trifles, because, of course they are part of the road,” she wrote in a memoir. “So you are left to contemplate the scenery either in expectation of death or in hope of a miracle.”
Thankfully, the roads have improved a lot since 1838, and soon our wheels are whirring past the early afternoon drinkers in the bars of Santa Ponsa. The sight of so much bare leg incites a predictable round of catcalling from some German potbellies but we are soon out of sight.
The route takes us along the sea-front in Palma, where a lane has been reserved for us, away from the general traffic. On the flat now, we race at speeds averaging 35kph between the massive cruise liners in the harbour and the magnificent 14th century cathedral dominating the old town. There are regular food and drink stops along the way, where we load up on the carbs provided by bocadillos of ham and cheese, as well as nutritionally dubious but irresistible colas and sweet pastries.
The overwhelming impression you get from travelling around the island is the massive contrasts: from the high-rise of Palma to the sleepy villages of the interior; from the old woman praying with her rosary beads by the side of the road to the antics of hen parties parading along the beachfronts of popular resorts; from the luxury yachts moored in marinas to the farmer ploughing a field in the countryside with equipment dating from the 1930s.
My fellow cyclists are a mixed bunch. Maybe half are local, but there are plenty of Brits and Germans, and quite a few Irish too, from north and south. Sean Kelly has long since turned for home, but there’s an entire team from a cycling club in Emyvale, Co Monaghan, and a contingent from the children’s hospital in Crumlin. The fitter club cyclists generally take on the work up front in the group, while the rest of us tuck into their slipstream and try to keep up.
The legs are getting heavy now and the bum a bit sore, but we seem to be eating up the miles as the groups increase the tempo on the flat. The sun has gone in and the scenery is dull compared to earlier as we ride through heavily agricultural parts of the island. The trick, I learn, is to stick with a group, thereby protecting yourself from side-winds and head-on gusts. On one occasion, I stay too long at a feeding station, miss the departure of my group and have to pedal forlornly and more slowly on my own for some miles.
The groups slow down on any ascent in order to preserve strength but zoom off again once they crest the brow of a hill. I learn this lesson to my cost when, impatient with the pace on one ascent, I accelerate ahead of my peloton. A short few minutes later, as I’m catching breath on the top of the climb, the group zooms past with undimmed energy.
Eventually, I fall in with a Geordie émigré living in Spain and his one-lunged Norwegian neighbour. By now, we are just an hour ahead of the backmarker group but we are collectively determined there will be no more slippage. Taking turns at the front and swapping stories, we eat up the remaining miles.
At the town of Arte, we are welcomed by a wildly cheering crowd, including an eccentric bearded German dressed up as the devil. Cups of beer are presented to us and duly drunk, though quickly.
The last 30km down to the coast passes quickly. Dusk is approaching and bonfires are being lit to welcome late finishers. The fastest cyclist completed the course in under nine hours but we’re happy to arrive home to rousing cheers in 13 hours. The legs are tired, but the spirits are high now that the circle has been completed.
How to . . . the Mallorca 312
The Mallorca 312 takes place in late April each year. There are two events, a 312km course which has to be completed in 14 hours and a 167km course to be completed in nine hours. Both events start at Playa de Muro, near Alcudia, in the northeast of the island. An estimated 150,000 cyclists holiday in Mallorca each year, particularly in the shoulder seasons in spring and autumn but also through the winter, when it is favoured by elite cyclists and triathletes for winter training.
Get there There are daily flights year-round from Dublin to Mallorca, operated by Ryanair or Aer Lingus, except Thursdays. Where to stay Most of the hotels in Playa de Muro offer a special welcome to cyclists during the off-peak seasons. We stayed in the Iberostar Alcudia Park, part of a Spanish hotel chain that offers bike hire and storage, as well as catering for the nutritional needs of riders. The Viva Blue & Spa Aparthotel nearby, which boasts a 25-metre heated outdoor pool and cycling station, is popular with triathletes in winter training.
Bike hire Bikes are available from many operators from about €120 a week for an entry-level road bike.
Where to eat One of the pleasures of cycling, at least on the quieter days, is lunching in one of the smaller towns in the interior to which you have ridden. The Celler Can Font in Sineu hotelcanfont-mallorca.com, for example, serves up typical Mallorcan fare, from Frit Mallorqui (a traditional fried up mix of meat, vegetables and herbs) to Paletilla de cordero (shoulder of lamb), followed by some Gató de almendras (almond cake), in an ancient wine cellar that hasn’t changed much in appearance for 300 years.
For a break away from the cycling, Palma and its old town is well worth a visit. Try Tast Club Sant Jaume tast.com/tastclub for lunch, a discreet yet modern food venue with the air of a gentleman’s club.
Paul Cullen travelled as a guest of the Spanish Tourism Office