Vacay.ca occasionally publishes articles on destinations outside of Canada. In this article, contributor Doug Ward explores the beauty and serenity of cycling through Spain’s southern region.
Story by Doug Ward
SOLLER, SPAIN — I returned last spring to Soller, a charming town on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Twenty-eight years later everything was familiar in the town’s central plaza: the busy outside cafes and tapas bars, the neo-gothic Sant Bartomeu church, the jagged mountain peaks and the vintage tram that runs down to Puerto Soller, a lovely beach town on the Mediterranean Sea.
But there was one new and dominant feature in the vibrant Placa Constitucio: hundreds of high-end road bikes with a lunch crowd of mostly cyclists from northern Europe and North America.
I have no memory of cyclists during my one-week visit in 1987 with my young family to Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands. But in the decades since Mallorca has taken on a new identity. It’s become a magnet for road cyclists seeking a warm and picturesque place to train in the winter and spring.
I was in my mid-30s and an avid runner when I first went to Mallorca. Flash forward almost three decades and I am a cyclist, as are so many former runners. (Injuries and age will do that to you.) Baby boomers and Gen-Xers have embraced cycling and are mixing their passion for that activity with travel. Bike tourism is a global phenomenon and Mallorca is near the top of the pops in that genre.
When I told the manager of a Vancouver bike café, Musette Caffe, that I was heading to Mallorca, he expressed some envy. “It’s the place where cyclists want to go now,” said Thomas Eleizegui, who has cycled often in his native Italy.
Mallorca lived up to the hype — especially on that day when I came back to Soller.
We left the seaside tourist town of Alcudia, rode along narrow country roads, past farmhouses and olive groves, and landed at the bottom of Puig Major, one of the island’s most fabled climbs. The ascent was around five kilometres (three miles) with an average gradient of five per cent.
I started fast (for me), trying to keep up with the speedier members of our group from Magic Places, a bike trip company from British Columbia. I gradually fell off the pace but remained in the middle of our little pack of about 20 riders. The climb gradually took its physical toll but I loved the countless switchback turns and the gorgeous vistas of the Mediterranean.
Eventually, I was joined by May Jung, another middle-aged cyclist from Vancouver. She’s built like a whippet and has a reputation of being a climber. I focused on matching her cadence and we ended the climb together near the mouth of a road tunnel at the top. We stopped at a small car park and joined other riders who were enjoying the fabulous view of the scene below.
Bike Tours of Mallorca Offer a Thrill
After a brief break, we rode cautiously through a tunnel and down another series of gorgeous switchbacks into the valley, dismounting in Soller, outside the cafes of Placa Constitucio. There were plenty of day-trippers who had come from the capital city of Palma on the vintage train. But mostly there were other bike riders, soaking in the atmosphere and resting their legs. We replenished our body with caffeine and sandwiches.
After about an hour we climbed back on our bikes and headed up the Coll de Soller, which rises about 500 metres (1,640 feet) above sea and has about 24 hairpin turns. Two hours later we arrived back in Alcudia and headed straight to the bar where we recalled the adventure over beer.
Cycling in southern Europe, preferably in spring with the Mediterranean Sea nearby, has been my favourite travel experience for many years. Initially, my interest was sparked by watching TV coverage of the Tour de France. I started thinking of a trip to Mallorca a few years ago when I heard that many pro teams held early-season training camps on the island. Tour de France winners such as Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome have spent winters in Mallorca, building their fitness base. I knew that the presence of the pro teams had led to an annual annual pilgrimage of cyclists from colder nations. Riders begin arriving in the autumn — landing at the Palma de Mallorca airport, bike bags in town — and keep coming until May.
Where Pro Riders Meet Cycling Fans
I have cycled in Italy, southern France and Spain frequently during the past 10 years and have never seen so many cyclists in one small geographic area. One day I was riding with a group and we came to a four-way intersection in a very rural, unpopulated part of the country. We had to stop and wait because pacelines of riders had converged, against all odds, at the same point from each direction.
Among the cyclists on the island were plenty of Brits, Scandinavians, Americans and Canadians. But these visitors were vastly outnumbered by the Germans. Mallorca is often described as the 17th federal state of Germany because it is one of the most popular destinations for the people of Deutschland.
There are plenty of bike camps and tour operators in Mallorca. I went with Magic Places, a company that stages tours for serious recreational cyclists around the world. Magic Places was founded by Joerg Becker, a German who in the late 1980s began organizing bike-touring trips in Western Canada for people from his native country. Eventually, Magic Places became focused on trips for fit Canadian road cyclists who wanted to train in exotic places. The shift was shaped by the huge growth in road bike riding and triathlons among middle-aged professionals with money to spend.
Becker discovered Mallorca eight years ago after being told by others that the Spanish island was a paradise for cyclists.
“I didn’t expect much because Mallorca had a certain party-time image: mass tourism, beer drinking and disco. But you also heard about the good riding,” he said. “So I joined them and I was, like everybody else, amazed by the terrain and the scenery. I loved the variety of routes. You can ride here for two weeks before you have to start repeating. People love the variety of terrain, the climate — and, of course, the cervezas.”
My two-week camp began with long low-heart-rate rides over flat terrain, which is ideal for riders emerging from a long winter of little cycling. “Here you can go flat for two weeks,” said Becker. “In southern Spain or Italy, you hit the hills right away.”
During the first week Magic Places is based out of a hotel near Palma on the south coast. After the first two days of riding, I ditched the bike and explored beautiful Palma, wandering through the narrow cobble streets of its old town, which is dominated by the impressive gothic Le Seu cathedral. I enjoyed lunch at a tapas bar and spent a few hours in sunny street cafes.
After about five days near Palma, our Magic Places group moved to Alcudia on the north side of the island. During the second week our camp revolved around the Serre de Tramuntana mountain range, with its classic climbs, including the Coll de Soller; San Salvador and the Puig de Ronda, which both have mountaintop monasteries; the aforementioned Coll de Puig Major, which is the highest climb on the island; and Sa Calobra, the island’s most feared route, with 26-hairpin turns, one of which coils back on itself.
Then there’s the wild and spectacular peninsula of Cap de Formentor, which Magic Places reserves for the camp’s final ride because of its special seascape beauty. Cap de Formentor is a rugged peninsula on Mallorca’s northeast tip with amazing views, beaches, and a bar and café in the lighthouse at the end of the road.
The climbs on Mallorca featured switchbacks and mostly gentle gradients (usually about six per cent and usually followed by fast twisty descents). We tried to avoid busy thoroughfares by sticking to countryside roads that took us past almond and olive groves; and through sleepy towns with centuries-old architecture and vibrant plazas. We just followed our ride leaders who were familiar with the island’s maze of roads.
“It takes years to find all the roads on Mallorca, how to stay away from the highways, where not to go, how to avoid dead ends,” Becker said. “I would not recommend coming here without a guide, or else you will end up on a freeway. You will not find the nice bike paths.”
More About Cycling Trips in Mallorca
Magic Places Tours: The next available spring training camp in Mallorca runs April 8-19, 2016 and is based in Palma on the south coast, and Alcudia on the north.
Cost: The price is $2,250 for 11 nights in a one-bedroom apartment-style room, based on double occupancy. There is a $400 single-room supplement.
Notable: Joerg Becker recently sold the company to Matt Barlee, a friend of the company founder. But Becker will continue to be involved, leading trips to Mallorca, the US Canyonlands and South Africa. He will also continue to provide logistical support to Canadian riders in the Tour TransAlp.