TACKLING THE COBRA
What’s more Spanish than British cycling superstar, Bradley Wiggins? Paella? Tapas? Possibly?But for many keen cyclists who come to the beautiful island of Mallorca to turn their pedals, catching a glimpse of Brad (Sir Brad – sorry), complete with facial hair, is a bigger draw than the Spanish weather, the majestic Serra de Tramuntana mountain range, or Palma’s imposing cathedral.
The island, to coin a phrase which is hackneying even as you read it, has become a magnet (I dislike using ‘Mecca’), for the cycling fraternity. That includes professional outfits like Wiggins’s (erstwhile), Team Sky, who use Mallorca’s unclogged roads for off-season training, and amateurs, who like a bit of sunshine with their self-induced suffering.
That’s how I found myself on the island in June 2014, heading for the Ponent Mar Hotel in Palmanova – just a few kilometres along the coast from Palma itself. The hotel is the base for Stephen Roche Cycling Holidays and Training Camps.
You may have heard of Mr Roche - along with Sean Kelly (who also has a business on the island). He’s done more than most to make ‘pro’ cycling a recognised sport in Ireland.
His most famous exploits were crammed into a single year – 1987. As if winning the World Championship road race wasn’t enough, he preceded that feat by topping the podium in the Giro (Tour of Italy), which for him had resembled a hostile environment. And to kick it all off, he not only prevailed in the ’87 Tour de France, he provided cycling fans with one of Le Tour’s most celebrated moments when he hauled himself, wraith-like, through the mist at La Plagne, to stay in contention when everyone had written him off.
The rainbow, pink and yellow jerseys he won are on display in the Stephen Roche office in the hotel. And it’s from this nerve centre that the staff devise the guided rides which prompt clients from around the globe to come back for more, again and again.
Like any activity holiday, there’s no lounging around. We all had to be up for breakfast at 7.30 am – which just gave us time to check the day’s route map, placed on each dining table and get down to the basement bike garage in time for the briefing. Pedals started turning at 0900, as our ride captains led us off, split into our 4 groups, based on ability and speed.
Most rides involved some climbing. The rewards were obvious. Café stops in hilltop settlements like Valldemossa and Galilea, make all that grinding up hill more than worth it.
A typical guided ride has you back in the hotel by about 2 pm. But if you fancy an entire day in the saddle there’s the famed Sa Calobra. This is the ultimate playground of the pro bike riders on the island. It’s a snaking, 26-hair-pinned, 10km strip of Tarmac which plunges almost 700m down to the coast and the road’s end. The only way out is to turn and cycle back up.
No self-respecting, serious, cyclist should visit Mallorca without tackling the ‘Cobra’.
Banish from you mind, thoughts of Magaluf, rowdy stag parties, drunken beach shenanigans and waking up with a chronic hangover. That Mallorca does exist – as witnessed by the prevalence of steak and kidney pie as top menu choice, over Spanish delicacies - but seeing the island on two wheels is a calm and collected way of experiencing its considerable charms.
My only regret is that I never did catch a glimpse of Wiggo (Sir Wiggo’). Or maybe he was going so fast when he streaked passed me, that I blinked and missed him.
Published in Cara magazine 2016
Postscript: On one of our more recent visits in May 2017, Sir Brad actually cycled past us heading for the centre of Pollenca old town.