This One Time, At Ride Camp...
VecchioJo heads off with Trek Travel for a taste of cycling holiday luxury, the lucky sod
...we saw a lady cyclist with her shorts round her ankles having an unashamed tinkle in the long grass by the side of the road. At least amid much boyish giggling, we think it's just a tinkle, and it emerges that this kind of entertainment isn't an upcharge on the holiday, just an unexpected extra on this Trek Travel Ride Camp in Mallorca.
Ride Camp is not a mouldy row of tents or even musty cabins, it's Reads Hotel which is, in a word, palatial, and in three more words, really quite posh. Originally a 16th century farmhouse, it was bought in 1988 after being unoccupied for 40 years and has been slowly and beautifully restored and converted into the splendour of today. The room I’m given is larger than some flats I've lived in, with an en-suite bathroom big enough to not just swing a cat in but herd them as well, a B&O TV in the corner, a double bed generous enough for a family of four and with a warm view over the courtyard it’s almost too good for a scruffy smelly cyclist. And it feels quite wrong washing the day out of a pair of cycle shorts in the shower. It wouldn't make it into the gritty black and white pages of a Rapha catalogue, that's for sure.
Unaccustomed luxury aside the hotel is perfect for cyclists visiting the island. Just outside the town of Santa Maria, it's ideally placed for striking up into the Serra de Tramuntana mountains that run along the northern coast, or heading south and east for a more placid ride around the flatter fields. Hidden away in the foothill folds Reads is only a few miles but a world away from the tourist beaches that string themselves along the south coast and the meat-package holiday destinations like Magaluf.
In the short Trek Travel bus transfer from Palma airport cycling-holiday thighs start to itch as the windscreen steadily fills with a growing vista of mountains, a short pause at the hotel to dump bags, freshen up a bit and get changed into lycra and we're introduced to our bikes for the trip by guides Justin and Stephan. Each bike is clamped into a turbo trainer and fitted to their rider with saddles and handlebars tweaked to make things comfortable before we head out onto the Mallorcan lanes to spin out any latent deep-vein thrombosis from legs.
I've been borrowed a Trek Madone 5.2 for the few days, full carbon frame, Ultegra running gear, a sprinkling of Bontrager finishing kit, and with, shudder, a triple chainset on it, a feature that the guides say everyone (well, men mostly) tuts at on the first day but come the end of the week their pride has usually given in to that extra left-lever click. After a few adjustments to make it "just so" it's perfect for long days in the saddle, even for an unfamiliar bike. The carbon does that soft soaking up of road chatter thing and everything plain old works, even having the brakes the wrong way round American style wasn't much of an issue, apart from that one hairpin on that descent. But no-one saw so it was okay.
The road straight out of the hotel is an excellent introduction to Balearic biking, a quiet country lane between walled fields of olive and lemon trees and whatever it is almonds grow on, smooth warm tarmac dipping in and out gently through quiet villages where not a lot is happening this Sunday afternoon, and traffic free enough for us to chase a lolloping hare up the road for longer than necessary. This week we are an exclusive group of three, Kathi from Vancouver, Chris from Chicago and myself, which makes things easy for the guides to adjust the ride to suit our simple needs and we stop on a whim at a cafe to see travel hungry tummies through to supper. We order sandwiches and drinks, although sarnies is too small a word. The ham and cheese platter that arrives is well up there in the Top 5 of mid-ride snacks, plentiful, fresh, with a taste that would make any petrol-station sarnie cry, and for a fraction of the price. This just from a small cafe on a corner in an insignificant village. You gotta love Europe sometimes.
Appetites whetted by this quick afternoon ride, Day 2 promises 100km and 5,000ft of climbing. We're soothed into it by Nora Jones and Sade serenading our pre-ride breakfast in the rather sumptuous surroundings of the Bacchus restaurant that in the evenings is one of the top restaurants in Europe, a 16th century room with, get this, frescoes. It's certainly the nicest place I've ever fuelled up for the day, and it's the best stocked cycling brekky ever too, a buffet of cold meats, cereals, pastries, dried and fresh fruit, eggs, yoghurts, juices, tea and coffee leaves no excuses for not being properly powered for a few hours in the saddle.
After 20 minutes of morning chill on the bike the sun suddenly wakes up and arm-warmers and gillets are shed just in time for the first real climb of the day. Legs have been warmed up by a chatty spin to the West before turning right towards Bunyola where an arrow straight road aims right at the mountains crowding the horizon, a wiggle under the trees and over the speed-bumps of the town, a short run up an unattractive and busy main road and at the roundabout where the traffic heads through the tunnel we skip to the left and begin the climb of the Coll de Soller. At 497 metres high it's not a long or steep hill by any means but it's a steady grade that lets its presence be felt and racing up it will certainly be punished. Thanks to the majority of the traffic speeding underneath it's also beautifully quiet with just roadside sheep and a fantastic view down the plain to Palma for company, and in true euro fashion there's a cafe at the top. Hooray.
The Ca'n Topa is run by a pair of Brits and is incredibly welcoming, selling drinks and snacks and with an enclosed decking area off to the side complete with a pool it's a good job this place is at the top of the hill and not the bottom because that road would never be climbed, but today there's no time for relaxing, there's a descent to scalp. The way down is just as twisty as the climb as the Spaniards certainly like their hairpins frequent and tight, and the few cars that get in the way are well behaved and pull over to let a champing cyclist past as we drop out of the shadow of the mountain into the sunshine that sweeps across to Soller. Plummeting into town we make the most of momentum and clip past petrol stations used as impromptu cafes by groups of cyclists gathered at the Coca-Cola fridge watering-hole, and out the other side we turn left up another long steady and gentle climb that's unassuming in it's provenance until the top where the road sweeps to the left at a cut in the rocks and takes the breath away. It's not the eventual summit that does this but the sudden and stunning view over the right shoulder of an exploding turquoise blue Mediterranean. Our "Wows" are smiled at by the guides. This must happen every week.
Standard road etiquette dictates that a long climb is always rewarded by a nice long descent. Not so on Mallorca. Just when you think you're going to get a generous gravity payback the road along the edge of this northern coast slips back up again and the guides description of "undulating" needs to be taken with not just a pinch of salt but a whole gritter, and their assertion of "no named climbs" is a little misleading as we've come up with quite a few for them already, but it's all just ride banter as it doesn't actually matter, the roads give up kilometre upon kilometre of fantastic cycling.
Most of the column inches about Mallorca and bikes seem to be concerned about early season training, and there are countless images of Pro teams showing off their new rosters as they pedal round the island in new-kit media-friendly formation early in the year, a trend followed by plane-loads of keen amateur and not-so-amateur cyclists itching to get a pre-season training jump on the competition in a more pleasant climate. But little is said about how great the just plain old riding is for those less interested in heart-rates and thresholds. The Trek Travel itinerary does a good job of squeezing the best of the riding in a week, the rides gradually ramp up in difficulty over the days and a rest day is included for recuperation and traditional holiday things should you wish.
Day 1 is the quick blast we did previously, usually self-guided, but as we are a small group the guides came along too, Day 2 is the now, tomorrow will be another 100k-ish guided ride, on the fourth day there is rest, be that a gentle self-guided ride, a train trip to Palma to do the tourist bit with a look at the cathedral and historic part of town and the shops and cafes, or a chance to take up the offer of a cooking class, or some golf, wine tasting, horse riding, hiking, spanish classes or simply making the most of all the spa facilities in the hotel.
Thursday is the Queen Stage of the week, 5 cols, 135 kms, 10,000 feet of climbing, including a there and back of a 10 km descent to the sea and back up again, with a 35 mins 35 secs record ascent as a gauntlet. Friday tops the week with the longest ride of 145km but with a mere 7000ft of climbing all the way along to the Cap de Formentor on the North eastern tip of the island. If there's anything left in your legs after that there's time on the last day for a quick nip out for a final 50km view of the mountains before the flight back. Time constraints meant I had to opt for the four day camp option and duck out early missing out on those big days in the saddle, something that I'm still kicking myself about, and something I will be back to complete.
Back on that undulating coast road we meander through picturesque Deia and work our way via several more long undulations to swoop off the main road round to the right and up yet another climb, up tarmac that is this time decidedly single lane and pleasantly green in contrast to the rest of the island's slightly parched and muted tones palette. We chatty climb to a chorus of carbon-brake squeal and deep-section rumble of cyclists coming the other way, but the descent on the other side is amusingly twisty and concentratey enough to stop that conversation in the hairpins that lead to lunch at Puigpunyent. We pause under the dappled shade of trees for coffees and Cokes and the packed lunches carried by our faithful mule guides to watch the world go by and pity cyclists passing to assault the hill we've just descended.
Maybe it's the gentle downhill that follows lunch, maybe it's the roads that are more rolling than undulating as we retreat from the mountains, maybe it's the coffee and fizzy-drink buzz but something happens that leads to a 3-man pace line into the sticky headwind all the way home. Pounding along at a hearty 35+kpm past fields of yellow flowers grazed by sheep briefly glimpsed when eyes look up from the wheel in front in case of a missed elbow flick it's as cycling holidays should be. Work done for the day it's time for a shower and a relax before supper and time to indulge the Reads Hotel pampering facilities. Take your pick from both an outdoor and indoor pool, a 6-person hydro-pool, a spa with an ice room, a herbal steam room, sauna, sensation showers and a Laconium, a gym with running, rowing and cycling machines, a deep relaxation room, 3 treatment rooms and a range of massage, manicures, pedicures, body wraps, waxing for the lady or particularly dedicated cyclist and salt scrub therapies to go with them. It's all pretty useful for rejuvenating tired cycling bodies or partner pleasing.
Scrubbed, polished and relaxed the evening meal is all very smart and well-dressed in the 18th century olive pressing room of the Bistro, and not one for coming down in a cycling t-shirt, ahem. The waitress served food is of an excellent quality, as you'd expect from such a place, but as a criticism, and the one criticism of the whole of the Reads Hotel complex is that the exquisite food is not up to hungry cyclist volumes. Extra chips may have been asked for.
The next day starts in customary style with talk of an steady start out the door to ease a bit of yesterday out the legs, but is in fact another 3-man 35kph pace-line from the get-go along the flat bits before we hit the first climb. We dissect one of the roads we rode yesterday and try not to crash down the fast yet twisty hill into Banyalbufar where we stop to look at the view, something that will happen quite frequently in the next few miles. Continuing along the coast road west it only takes a few kilometres for it to be agreed upon that this could be one of the Best Roads Ever, bothering the top spots in the Hit Parade.
As always it's up and down and up and down which means long descents and climbs with the perfect flat blue of the Med. strobing through the trees on the right with the scenery taking some of the pain away from the climbs and making it hard to concentrate on the switchbacks back down. The road follows the rocky outcrops of the island punching out into the flat sea, past olive trees with fat and twisted trunks showing their age, orange and almond trees and enough lemon trees to produce such a glut of crop that spare fruit is left in bursting plastic bags on front gates for anyone to take. We pass terracotta houses and terraced fields eeking the most of the steep land down to the blue, dipping and weaving with the road vistas unfold at each turn and every corner is a photo-opportunity.
Halfway along the coast road we meet up with Stephan and Kathi who have pedalled the short way here. Thanks to our small group the guides can split their duties and each shadow the faster or slower riders, usually the Trek Travel van accompanies larger groups and is used as a team car and sag wagon to carry food and clothes and for anyone to climb into the back of. But should a rider want to strike out on their own away from the group, or take their time on the same route or even take in a ride on the guide-free rest days extensive Cue Sheets for both the planned rides and more are handed out to each rider and in the evenings over supper the following day's ride is discussed and manipulated until everyone is happy with what it's intentions are. Our little group drops into Andratz for lunch where predictably it's a Fanta burpy climb out that climaxes in the road slicing through a gateway of rocks and a capacious view of another fold of mountains across the plateau.
The next ascent is one of those long ones where it just drags relentlessly on, with no steep bits to mention but with every corner promising the top and failing to deliver as the road contours and twists around the folds of the hill and talking becomes mildly stilted as we try to hide secret efforts under our breath, eventually at the summit hamlet of Galilea we drop down past where we had lunch yesterday and up the climb that was the descent. All of a sudden it becomes apparent why the people we smiled at yesterday looked so grumpy, the initial slopes of the climb are pretty steep, which is quite hard on the knees after the almost uniformly steady gradient of the climbing so far. The following descent is livened up by that lady squatting in the long grass, keen to lose some weight before attempting the climb maybe.
We stop in Santa Maria on the way home for an ice-cream to reward ourselves for another 3-man time-trial on the way home but it's heart-crushingly shut, so we're forced to cross the road to a cafe that's absolutely crawling with cyclists. The town and its row of cafes is obviously a popular cycling hub as groups come and go and the place is frantic with refreshment orders, Focus and Cube bikes hang off racks and lean against walls testament to the Teutonic popularity of the island, but there are also recognisable pockets of English brands about in the constant stream of cycle traffic. Bikes seem to have the run of the island as pedals probably outnumber engines by quite some margin, and as a result what cars there are tend to be extremely courteous to riders which makes a nice change. It's easy to see the attraction as a cycling island, the roads away from the main arteries are incredibly empty of traffic and make for fantastic riding of a hilly or flat persuasion, and of course there's the promise of good weather to draw a covetous eye from more variable northern climates.
Day 4 means I have to reluctantly go home while others enjoy a rest day, but as my flight doesn't leave till lunchtime there's room enough for a quick final pedal and an early morning sprint to revisit the top of the Col Soller, nip down the other side to turn round climb back up and head for breakfast, packing and a plane back to Blighty. Up early, easy when the sun's shining, straight into cycle-kit, potter downstairs, smile at the staff getting the hotel's day ready, outside to a waiting bike where Chris is coming along too. With arm and knee warmers on it's out into the chill long-shadows of the subdued morning and with the help of GPS and route notes tucked into a short leg we climb the Soller, chasing the sunshine up the hill. Olives trees drop their black load onto the road making us wonder how interesting that would be under tyre after a bit of rain, but we survive the potentially dewy damp descent of the side hidden from the sun to turn right back round, head back into the waking day and strengthening headwind for a frankly rude raid on the breakfast buffet still dressed in lycra. Wonderful.
This one time at Ride Camp wont be the last.
About Ride Camp
The Mallorca Ride Camp has a 7 days/6 nights (Sunday- Sunday) or a 4 days/3 nights (Sunday - Wednesday) option and prices start from $799 (USD). This includes the use of a Trek Carbon 5.2 Madone, airport transfers either end, 5 star accommodation, buffet breakfast every morning, nightly dinner and a packed lunch of sandwich, fruit and energy bar on the road and a welcome and goodbye complimentary cocktail. Daily guided rides are also included with use of a support vehicle, or a ride map and daily cue sheet should you wish. To be all matching you also get a Trek Travel jersey and a water bottle. Also included is full access to the Spa facilities, although hands-on Spa services are an additional fee.
For a bit extra you can hire a Garmin Edge 705 GPS, upgrade to a Bontrager Race XXX Lite Carbon wheel set or a Trek 6.5 Madone with a Durace Compact double chainset. Travel Insurance is available for a bit more as are on site mechanic services.
Trek Travel run their Mallorca Ride Camp in March, April, May and October. The Camp is geared to what Trek class as a Type 3 rider, one whose fitness is a central part of their life, with bike riding taken on a weekly basis and being comfortable with rides of 2 hours or more at a relatively strong tempo. With distances from 45 miles to 70 and 3,500 - 7,000 ft of climbing they're aimed at cyclists that like a physical challenge and need to get their heart pumping.