A drop of salty sweat rolled slowly down my nose. It was a quiet, crisp morning, and I could hear nothing but my own breath—deep, uncontrolled, and fast. I focused on the wheel in front of me, almost in a state of meditation. Everything hurt, but I refused to let the wheel go. Despite the pain and suffering, which I knew would go away once I slowed down, I felt in full control. I even felt strong.
Ex pro and Dutch Tour de France legend Gert Jacobs hung his head out of the car next to me and screamed,“five more minutes. Go Go GO”. The wheel in front of me belonged to former junior world champion Tom Cordes. We rode uphill at a steady, fast pace. Those five minutes seemed like eternity. I felt pain in my chest and struggled to control my breathing. I had no interest in looking around, only to that wheel in front of me. I counted, one, two, one, two, and ignored the pain, one, two, one, two. “One more minute,” Gert shouted, “Go, go, GO!”
The sun peeked over the little mountaintop in front of us. Birds sung in the trees to our left. I looked there and saw a farmer tending his crops. He waved. We waved back. I stuck the last piece of freshly baked banana cake in my mouth. The surroundings were breathtaking—little farms, old houses, and vineyards left and right. I looked again to the left and suddenly remembered the climb there in the distance. That was it. All those training camps before the starts of so many seasons…
Until about 18 years ago, I rode for one of the Dutch trade teams. Every spring, we went to Mallorca to prepare for the first classics. As an under-23, I had some talent and did quite well in races, but absolutely missed focus. Maybe it wasn’t laziness, but I certainly didn’t have the drive and determination that many others my age had. What might have happened had I put more effort in? Who knows? Who cares? It does not matter; I got so much out of the years when I rode against the best guys in the world my age. What for many were ambitions, performing in another Ronde van Vlaanderen or Liège-Bastogne-Liège for espoirs, became burdens for me after a few seasons. I preferred to go to more exotic races, such as the Ruta de Mexico, Univest Grandprix, or Superweek in the US. Adventure spurred me on more than the performance.
Now, so many years later, I found myself staring at that same Mallorcan climb that we went up so many times during our training camps. I suffered so often on that climb, trying to hold the wheels of the likes of Tom Cordes and so many others so many times. Instead of going left up it, we kept going straight and took a right turn into the vineyards on a dusty old farm road.
When Dennis had called me a few weeks earlier to ask if I was keen to go ride dirt roads on Mallorca, it had taken me exactly two seconds to say yes. Dennis is one of those guys we all know; you never hear him in a group, but he is always there for everybody. The world would be a better place if we were all like him. A former trail runner, he is as fit as hell and an all-around great guy. More importantly, he is as addicted to riding old farm roads as I am. My good friend, Olympian, and former cyclocross world cup winner Thijs Al responded the same way to his call. “Hell yeah!” Who would say no to a few days of riding on Mallorca, exploring its gravel roads while staying in a beautiful old house? Ed from Bike Villas Mallorca had invited us to stay at one of his stunning places. He had also connected us to a local guide.
Way back when, we used to stay at one of the ugly concrete hotels by the coast for our training camps, so my expectations were low when we were travelling in. I had not been back since I stopped racing at 24, so it felt a little like a trip down memory lane, though we were now focused on an other sort of cycling. We would be staying at an amazing house, as we soon found out.
The first morning, after a dip in our little pool and a cup of coffee, we started our ride from Alaró, one of the oldest towns in Mallorca, which is located in the centre of the island. We crossed the vineyards of es Raiger, the biggest and most famous area for wine production. Every year, the limestone soil and warm weather provide perfect conditions for the wine grapes. Our guide told us that the changing climate and warmer summers are bad for Mallorcan wine. That was not something that had ever crossed our minds. If the climate keeps changing at the pace that it is, it will soon be very hard to make wine with a decent alcohol percentage, he said. In the near future, that might kill one of the island’s oldest traditions. Still thinking about this, we hit a long, winding gravel section. I stayed right on Thijs’ wheel. He opened the gas, and we flew from one sector to the next, enjoying the last ten kilometres of gravel though vineyards and breathtaking landscapes.
It was still the early season, but the temperature was getting hot, so we made a first stop in Biniagual, a small village that is nowadays the property of Klaus Graf, a German economist who decided to buy the town in 1960 and completely restored it to its old state. From Biniagual, we rode through a narrow path full of high bushes, until we reached a small rural village, where it felt as if time had stopped. The Mallorca known for its many tourists and cyclists was as far away as could be.
We rode gravel section after gravel section, hardly hitting any concrete before we arrived in Maria de la Salut. Our guide explained that there used to be more gravel roads before, but more and more rich Europeans have bought property on the island and seem to want smooth roads to their houses, despite their big 4×4 cars. We stopped for a coffee break in Sa casa Rotja, a hotel in the middle of the fields, where there was no sign of the modern world, no advertising, no computers, no people on their phones, just an old man cleaning his old rusty shed and a friendly women who served us drinks. We slowly drank the good strong coffee.
We left the little town behind us and rode some flat sections before we hit the first real climb to the monastery of Bonany in Petra. This was where Fray Junipero Serra, an important person for California and the West Coast of United States, was born. He lived during the 18th century and went on many missions to convert American Indians to Christianity. Californian cities such as San Diego and Santa Monica were founded by him. I could not help but wonder how the US would have turned out without those missions. The locals, however, seem to celebrate his work.
My thoughts disappeared soon enough, because the climb and views were absolutely breath taking. I heard a scrambling sound, as Thijs shifted to his big ring and opened the gas. Of course, I answered and soon enough exploded off his wheel. I had the morale, but not the legs.
After the short but steep climb, we stopped for a Mallorcan lunch with amazing views of Alcudia bay, the Tramuntana range, and the east coast of the island. Our guide, by then known to us as Legend, served home-made food and local wine. He sure made sure that not only the riding was epic. I’m pretty sure that life doesn’t get much better. A power nap in the sun later, we saddled our steel horses and descended on a tight and winding MTB path to Villafranca.
In Villafranca, we stopped for a quick coffee again. Gravel riding was, after all, mainly an excuse to enjoy all the best of what Mallorca has to offer. Satisfied and smiling, we rode in the direction of Montuïri and Randa—our final destinations for the day. Some tricky but fun sections through the pine forest brought us to the bottom of “Randa”, the holy mountain of Mallorca. All the hills in the centre of the island feature chapels or monasteries, but only on Randa will you find three on the same mountain. Ramón Llull, a philosopher, mathematician, and religious man, lived there as a hermit. The story goes that he had a spiritual revelation and came into contact with God on the top of the mountain. We decided to leave Ed and his comfortable Bike Villa for the night and set up camp by the monastery. The restaurant on top served great wine and amazing food, so we decided to wait out the late sunset and after a great dessert, sneak into the garden and roll out our sleeping bags to put our heads to rest. I’m not sure if it was the wine, the good food, the perfect day, or some sort of revelation, but not much later, we all fell sound asleep with the biggest smiles on our faces.
The next morning, we woke up at sunrise. When we had set up for the night, we never realised how great the spot where we had decided to camp was. We enjoyed views in all directions and could see for miles into the distance, as the sun slowly began to peek over the hills in front of us. After Dennis had made us a great breakfast, we got ready for a new day on the bike. We stuffed our sacks and packed our stuff for another day of fun. Our guide has left us with a route, but we were on our own.
The downhill from Randa was fast, and then we hit the long, winding road. The morning was chilly but it got warmer with each hairpin we passed on the descent. At the bottom, it was jersey weather again, so we parked our bikes and re-checked our routes and plans for the day, while drinking something warm (no not a beer). We decided to ride gravel all the way into Palma and after lunch there set a Komoot route to circle back to our Bike Villa. Stretches on the way back from Palma looked a little like private property on the map, but we decided to take our chances. Just like the day before, we hit section after section of gravel, which never seemed to end, until Thijs decided that it was time for some real adventure and jumped off the road. Within ten minutes, we found ourselves surrounded by bushes, but couldn’t stop smiling. We could see Palma in the not so far distance, so decided to keep following Thijs’s imaginary path.
Soon, we hit something that seemed to look more and more like an old farm road again. It got a little bigger, until all of a sudden it was blocked by a huge fence. Without thinking, Thijs threw his bike over, and Dennis and I followed. We rode the last few miles down into town on a bike path and soon hit the scene we expected to see when we arrived in Mallorca. Palma was everything and more than what Spanish touristic cities are known for. Like many overly commercialised places, it does have some great hidden gems just a few blocks away from the busy boulevard. After a nice lunch with—of course—a glass of Spanish vino, we rode back to our home for the night. In the middle of a suburb of Palma, we took a sharp left and then a right and all of a sudden were on a beautiful gravel path. It crossed the main road a few times, and after about 10 km all of a sudden took a long left into the hills. The climb was mellow and winding until it ended at a huge house. We turned around, as we clearly should not have been there, and took off on a road, or at least something Thijs considered a road. After about five minutes, a big SUV stopped in front of us, and another one approached us from the rear. Now what? We smiled. A young woman stepped out of the car. It took all our effort to concentrate on what she was saying. She was absolutely beautiful, which did not help, as she seemed extremely angry. Tourists, we said, shrugging our shoulders and acting as if we did not know what we were doing. After about five minutes of swearing, she also realised that the conversation was going nowhere, so she waved to the guys in the other car and pointed us to the exit. We took her directions, but could not help but hit another path that wound down to the river, as it looked so epic. At the Villa, we made a last-minute decision not to turn in, but instead to follow the dusty road into town and sit down in the lively little town square. We sat down at one of the many restaurants and ordered all the tapas we could imagine. Buzzing and smiling, we clinked glasses to an amazing two days on our bikes, enjoying all the good things Mallorca had to offer. Performance could not have been further away.
After a few glasses of wine, and Dennis telling some good old tales till midnight, we headed back to the house. We stripped naked and jumped in the pool to end another perfect day in style. The next day would be our last. We had had two epic days of riding, so we decided to take it easy and jump on our bikes to Cycling Planet in Alaró, a local bike shop run by a former track world champion, where they serve homemade cakes. One piece of cake turned into a few, and before we knew it we were opening beers in the shop…
Mallorca is known as a destination for elderly people who head there to miss winter and for road cycling lovers, since all the road pros head there in January and February to train in the sun. I had never wanted to go back, but after a few days of riding around the island with good friends on dirt roads, my view changed. What an unbelievable place Mallorca is. There is so much more to riding there than suffering on a teammate’s wheel to get ready for another season. The island opens your eyes to what gravel riding is really about. It is fun to hurt your friends on the climbs, but the best rider is the one who enjoys the riding and the food and drink the most.