“Are you ok?”
Well, yes. Better than ok, in fact. I’m soaring down an exhilarating descent, warmed by longed-for sunshine, and the man enquiring after my well-being is a boyhood hero.
Stephen Roche makes his enquiry at an approximate speed of 40mph, passing me effortlessly through a sweeping right hand turn, one hand on the handlebar, the other hanging at his side as he turns in the saddle and looks over his shoulder to phrase the question. He’s smiling broadly, and clearly enjoying the ride as much as I am.
I’ve been swept up by a group led by the Triple Crown winner on the way back to the four star Ponent Mar hotel in Mallorca’s Palmanova resort, home to Stephen Roche Cycling Holidays. Roche’s good natured enquiry is worth about 200 watts to me, and I make a silent vow to ride with him back to the hotel, even if the effort hastens my departure from this world.
Those who have ridden with him all day, members of ‘group one’, have the same idea, and I find myself clinging on as the speed rises higher and higher on the glorious, flowing ribbon of marble smooth concrete from the mountains to the sea front. As I look up from the handlebars, Roche is visible at the head of the suddenly elongated line of riders, his yellow shoes glinting in the sunlight. I refocus on the wheel ahead, but when I look up again, he is just two riders in front of me. Can this be happening, I think? My 14-year-old self, inspired to ride by the Irishman’s victory in the 1987 Tour de France, would certainly never have believed such a thing possible.
Back in the hotel garage, a large, low space in which racks and racks of Vitus Dark Plasma road bikes are hung, the holiday company’s hire fleet, it’s smiles all round, not least from our host, who mingles easily with his guests, sharing stories from the ride, one that has taken us from from our base in Palmanova to the pretty town of Bunyola and the Orient Valley.
Mallorca has become a prime destination for pre-season training, used by many of Britain’s leading professional teams, most notably, Team Sky. Much of Bradley Wiggins’ preparation for last year’s Tour de France was completed on the island, and images of him training on the Puig Major are now synonymous with the Londoner’s defining year. Roche, however, was ahead of the game, setting up his training camps here in 1994. The market has grown substantially in recent years, he says, and the hotel dining room, a popular location where his guests swap tales of the day’s riding, is full each evening.
Palmanova is located in Calvià, and is adjacent to the infamous Magaluf resort, but seemingly in a different world (Magaluf, by the way, has far more to offer than ‘lively’ seafront bars, including a superb athletics facility located just five minutes from the town, built at a cost of 10m Euros and equipped with a running track that until the opening of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium was considered the most sophisticated in the world. Cost to the user? Five Euros a day).
Calvià is located on the south west of Mallorca, and many of the rides from the hotel take place on 14 trusted routes in the area, ranging from 50km to 130km. Rides further afield, notably to the famed switchbacks of the Sa Calobra, and the island’s highest point, the Puig Major, are a regular occurrence, but planned and begun with a minibus ride that reduces time in the saddle by about an hour each way.
Roche describes the bike as his office and doubts there are many who wouldn’t swap theirs for his. He is not at every training camp, but guests have a greater than outside chance of riding with the man who, lest we forget, won the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France, and the world road race championship in 1987. He remains, with Eddy Merckx, one of only two riders in the history of the sport to achieve cycling’s fabled Triple Crown.
Riders of all abilities are welcome at the camps. Any disparity is ironed out by splitting the riders into groups and allowing the fastest of them (‘group one – 30+ kph’) to set off first. Riders unable to sustain the pace simply drop back to the following groups, of which there are five in total, the slowest for riders who enjoy pootling along at 18kmh and below. Regrouping, and any necessary reallocation, takes place at feeding stations. Once established, the membership of each group is recorded on a board in the garage, allowing the guests to check at a glance the following day’s itinerary. “You’re hear to enjoy yourself,” Roche says, “not to get a pasting.”
Enjoyment is high on the Irishman’s agenda during his regular visits to the island. “When I come here, I’ve got my bike, I never answer my phone, I have no emails, I’m just there with people like myself who are enthusiastic about riding their bike,” he says. He will offer tips to guests who ask for his advice, but will not force his opinion on anyone. Remarkably, some riders feel they can learn little from a Triple Crown champion.
The emphasis on pleasure is one that extends to the day’s structure. Mornings are for riding, afternoons for relaxation. Rides leave the hotel between 9am and 10am and return between 1pm and 2.30pm. The divide is intended to benefit guests travelling with non-cycling partners, who after enjoying a less energetic start to the day than their companion, perhaps at the hotel pool, or on the beach, are able to enjoy afternoons together.
Some camps offer training seminars and lectures in the afternoon, but this is not the form at Stephen Roche Cycling Holidays. Typically modest, Roche says he would rather be known for his achievements than for giving someone training advice they disagreed with. “I prefer to be remembered for the good stuff,” he smiles. “Any advice we give, we try to keep it general. Everyone’s read a book and they believe it’s the right book until they read the next one.”
Riding on Mallorca, good enough for Team Sky, can be a wonderful experience, but the weather is not guaranteed. When RoadCyclingUK visited in the second week of February, we experienced temperatures that failed to reach double figures, rain, strong winds, and even hailstorms. By the end of the week, however, typically, just as we were leaving, temperatures reached the low twenties and glorious sunshine had become de rigeur. In short, pack all the cycling kit you own if you’re visiting for pre-season training.
The landscape is rocky and breathtakingly beautiful. Mallorca is best know for its beaches and seafront, but its rugged interior is equal to the coast. The climbs are challenging rather than brutal, and taming them usually brings the reward of a view across the island. The Col d’Honor is extremely pretty, and reached from a narrow road that winds its way through the small town of Bunyola.
The Mallorcan way of life, as well its climate, seems conducive not only to cycling but to sporting activity in general. Tennis courts, swimming pools, even a floodlit rugby pitch, all lie within 10 minutes of Palmanova, as well as the aforementioned athletics stadium in Magaluf, which is also equipped with gym facilities, and an indoor running track. Triathletes will find much to like here. The motorists are considerate and clearly used to the sight of large groups of cyclists.
Riding with a legend is a privilege, but one that could perhaps be diminished by less conducive surroundings. Riding with Stephen Roche on Mallorca, however, is an experience not to be missed.
Stephen Roche Cycle Holidays in Calvia, Majorca is a training partner of Human Race, the UK’s largest mass-participation sports events company. To see Human Race’s full events calendar go to www.humanrace.co.uk To book your cycle holiday see www.stephenroche.com quoting code-HR2013 to receive a discount. Also check out www.visitcalvia.com for more on the region.