This article first appeared in the February 2012 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.
Confession: I am a member of a private club — the elite, rarely mentioned, super-special cycling category known as the Secret Slugs. Although we’re hardly ever talked about, you probably know one of us — you may even be one of us. We cycle frequently but never push ourselves to the point that we’ll actually get stronger. We eschew training rides in favor of cocktails. We love to talk about bicycle technology but somehow manage to slip away before any of it actually gets put to use. Sound like someone you know?
Although I’d normally be just fine cultivating my sluggish status, the gods of cycling had different ideas for me. A few months back, my boyfriend Josh announced that in November we’d be taking a two-week self-contained mountain-bike vacation in Baja, Mexico. Josh is anything but a Secret Slug. Pretty much the exact opposite. In fact, sometimes he actually wins races.
“There will be very long dry stretches,” he said. “Where we have to carry enough water for several days. Do you think you can do it?”
“Of course, I can!” I said indignantly and stormed away.
Honestly? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to disappoint him, but I did need some help getting myself out of my Secretly Sluggish rut and into better riding shape. It didn’t really help matters that the weather in Missoula, Montana, was, in early October, already taking a sharp turn for the worse. So when I got offered the chance to try out Trek Travel’s weeklong Mallorca Ride Camp, I leapt forward and didn’t look back.
Mallorca is the largest (approximately 1,400 square miles) of the Balearic Islands, located in the Mediterranean Sea and just a hop, skip, and jump (by plane or boat) off the coast of Spain. An unbelievably warm and arid Mediterranean climate — like someone turned the sun on and forgot to turn it off — is what keeps the tourists coming in droves from all over Europe. That and the white-sand beaches complete with palm-topped umbrellas, lined like soldiers at attention beside the aquamarine bay.
Although those beaches called to this Secret Slug, they were not the reason I was visiting Mallorca. Nearly 40,000 cyclists visit that tiny island each year for the literally breathtaking climbs and hair-raising descents located on the mountainous regions on the northwestern and eastern third of the island. The climbing in Mallorca is so fantastic, so stunning, so unrivaled, that it has become known as the place where pro cyclists go in their off-season to train. At one point, I asked an especially fit-looking cyclist wearing a team uniform if he was a professional. He wasn’t, but he was thrilled that I’d thought so and gave me his autograph anyway.
Our ride camp wasn’t large. There were only seven people, including our tour leaders Dave and Logan, who did the important job of fitting us for our Trek Madones on the first afternoon while we checked in and unpacked. What a pleasure to have my bicycle waiting for me at my destination! No worrying about my beloved bike getting lost or banged up en route, no charges for oversized luggage, just a perfectly fitted carbon-fiber bike set up to suit my every whim. “Let me know if something doesn’t work for you and I’ll change it right away,” said Dave after I came back from a brief ride around the nearby tiny town of Santa Maria, giddy with the lightness of my carbon wheels. “This,” I thought, “is the kind of treatment I could get used to.”
Because I was the only female rider on the trip, I was given a single room in the delightful Hotel Reads, which was to act as our base camp for the next six nights. Hotel Reads, an old estate brought back from ruin in 1998, is now a small hotel and restaurant. The manicured gardens, gorgeous palm trees, and vineyards that surround the building added to the air of relaxation and tranquility that seemed to settle like a serene cloud around the entire resort. A sparkling sapphire lap pool that seemed brighter still against the white sun umbrellas was just a few short steps from my back patio. At the front desk, I was given a key to the spa room with the heated pool, and I flipped through the guest book. A few days before, an entry had been written that made me do a double take: “Thanks for the great hospitality; I’ll be back soon!” – Halle Berry.
At the beginning of the trip, each rider was given a list of the rides as well as cue sheets to keep us all on track. The first rides were relatively easy with only a moderate amount of climbing, while the rides at the end of the week were closer to 90 miles with around 9,000 feet of climbing. We were informed that breakfast would be served at 8:00 AM, the support van would leave at 9:00 AM with our lunches, and the rest of the day was ours to enjoy. And so, after waking up to sunlight sifting into my window and feasting on a delicious breakfast of croissants, fresh yogurts and fruits, cheeses, and glass upon glass of thick, delicious café con leche, it was time to get my sluggish backside on the saddle and hit the road.
Because most of the other riders had been on Trek Travel trips together before, they already knew each other. I chose to mix up my days by riding occasionally with the larger group, sometimes with other riders that I met out on the road, and every so often alone. The first day out, I left with the pack. Scott, a lawyer from Palo Alto, suggested that we try to stop at every espresso shop that we passed along the way — a plan that I, of course, immediately got on board with. It wasn’t long before we hit gold in the sleepy town of Soller, famous for its orange groves and olive terraces. We all piled our bikes up against the side of the open-air café and ordered our mid-morning treats. The air still felt cool, and it was agreeable to get something warm — later it would be soothing to have the cold white wine waiting at our hotel. We talked about all the climbing the week held. “Don’t give me the numbers!” I squealed, somehow convinced that having something to count up to would work against me. In the back of my mind, though, I was sure I could do it. My legs felt strong, and I couldn’t wait to make them stronger. Given enough of these delicious cappuccinos topped with a dollop of whipped cream, I could probably summit Everest.
Bestowed with a newfound sense of confidence, the next morning I began my ride at lightning speed. In retrospect, this was probably a mistake as the second day’s ride was about twice as long and hilly as the first day’s outing. As I hit the bottom of the first climb at maximum speed, I heard a voice at my left elbow ask, “Do you ride here often?”
“Well, no,” I said. “This is my first time.”
That was Kristina, and it turned out she did ride here often because she lived here. She’d ridden up this monstrous mountain three times that past week, in fact. She was my savior for the next few hours as she coached me up and down the climbs.
“You’re starting off way too quickly for one thing,” she said. “Unless you’re an elite rider, and I can tell you’re not, there’s no way you’ll be able to hold that pace for the next eight miles uphill.”
I wanted to ask her how she was so certain I wasn’t an elite rider, but I was gasping so hard for breath I couldn’t gather a full sentence together. Instead, I did the sensible thing and slowed my pace enough so that I could finally gasp, “Another … eight … miles?!”
Mallorca is training ground not just to road cyclists but also to many other athletes who enjoy its varied terrain and moderate climate all year round. Golfers, runners, and mountain bikers flock to the island to enjoy some top-notch training in the sunshine. At one point, as I was snacking on some almonds, an entire team of men wearing tiny shorts, heart-rate monitors, and very long Rollerblades shot by me at a shockingly high speed. I couldn’t believe my eyes and thought for a moment that the combination of sun and exercise was making me hallucinate. When I reported back to my trip leaders, however, they didn’t seem surprised at all and informed me that the group was almost certainly a ski-team training in their off season. “Those long Rollerblades are called roller skis, Sarah,” said Logan, “and it’s not nice to point and laugh at people, even if they are only wearing tiny shorts and Rollerblades.”
There was a variety of things to do on our day off. I chose to start my day with a yoga class at the Read’s Vespasian Spa. I was looking forward to stretching out after two and a half days of hard riding and preparing myself for the hardest days yet. As the instructor talked us through each pose and reminded us to be mindful in each breath, I felt — as is so rare — really present in my body. My muscles felt slightly sore, but not in a bad way. They just felt used and grateful for a rest. As I lay down on my back for a few minutes of stillness at the end of class, I thought about what Chuck from Denver had said to me as we were riding into our hotel the night before. We were amazed both with our accomplishments and the beauty that surrounded us.
“Isn’t this the life, Sarah?” he’d said. “Riding in Mallorca with a tailwind. Isn’t life grand?”
Rodrigo dubbed Day Five the “Queen Stage” of our ride camp, and the name was fitting. At around 80 miles and more than 9,000 feet of climbing, it was a ruthless day. I spent a good portion of the day climbing switchback after switchback with a pleasantly cantankerous couple from Belgium. She was a dentist and he was a doctor, and after they’d complained about the weather in Belgium (“horribly rainy”) and the terrain (“flat”), they moved on to American cities (“vapid”). We could all agree that this climbing was getting rather tiresome, no matter how strong it was making us, so we couldn’t have been happier when we crested the final climb and had a magnificent view of the Mediterranean, sparkling like some rare jewel. To make things even better, there was a roadside kiosk that served espresso drinks and cookies, and for one pure moment, nobody complained because our mouths were stuffed full.
Friday was the first day I awoke to slightly overcast skies. Our last day of riding proved slightly cool and windy, a sharp contrast to our previous week of sun-drenched riding. We were all excited about the day’s adventure despite the clouds — a meandering route that climbed through the western portion of Mallorca and ended at the luminous lighthouse Cap de Formentor. Scott was especially excited about the ride. The evening before, he’d decided he’d had enough of the hills and opted to use one of Trek’s electric assist bicycles for the day. The bike would max out at around 18 miles per hour on the flats, but he’d be able to get an extra charge when the rest of us were crawling up the switchbacks. “You all better watch out for me on the hills,” he gloated as we crowded around to watch him climb on his new ride. “I’m going to be just like Lance Armstrong.”
As soon as we left, the wind began to howl. “Hunker in behind me!” Scott called to me. “I’ll pull you in!” And, almost effortlessly, he did, although he breezed away from me as soon as we hit an incline of any type. “This bike is amazing!” gushed Scott as I pedaled furiously behind him, ashen from the effort. “I’m totally getting one!” We neared the lighthouse, and the olive terraces and vineyards made way to weather-beaten crags. The smooth-as-butter road became narrower and more uneven, and we pulled over to watch the dark blue water swirl thousands of feet beneath us, battering the island relentlessly. The lighthouse was majestic in its stark, lonely form, the clouds gathered ominously behind it. Boats looked like toys in the water beneath the grand structure and most of us ate our baguettes in relative silence, punctuated by bursts of laughter. I’d purchased some fake pearls at a gas station earlier in the day (Mallorca is famous for pearl production), and everyone tried them on. We couldn’t believe we were leaving a place of such enchantment.
“But how can you visit a Mediterranean island without taking a dip in the Mediterranean Sea?” Rodrigo asked. I had to agree with him, you just plain couldn’t. So, after our guides had loaded our bikes atop the van, we convinced the ever-willing Logan to stop off at a nearby beach and let us all out again. Nobody (except the forward-thinking Rodrigo) had thought to bring a suit, but I was happy to dive into the crystal clear, bath-warm water still clad in spandex. Some tourists eyed me curiously from the shore, and I waved at them merrily. Then I lay back and let the salty, warm water wash over me. I held my breath and ducked my head under water. I stayed submerged for as long as I possibly could, exhaling every last bit of air out of my lungs.
That evening, I said goodbye to my new friends, packed up my cycling clothes, and then went and stretched out luxuriously on my bed. I brushed a few stray clumps of sand off my feet that had stuck around from the afternoon and then allowed myself to be really proud of all that I’d accomplished over the past week. I’d gone into this ride a Secret Slug, with no belief in my strength, my riding ability, or my endurance. And I’d emerged stronger and more powerful, my muscles ready to take on the next challenge, my legs ready to take on the next climb. My next cycling adventure lies just around the corner, and thanks to my experience on the dazzling island of Mallorca, I’m more than ready to take it on.