I had experienced the excellent organisation and high standard of customer service provided by Stephen Roche Cycling Holidays and Training Camps last year. So I wasn't surprised, on arriving at the four star Ponet Mar Hotel in Palmanova, to discover the level of professional support I was about to receive during the four day Lighthouse Tour on Mallorca.
The Lighthouse Tour sets out to treat cyclists to a pro experience, with a package that includes:
- A full support service by Mavic mobile workshop, team car and motorbike
- Motorbike outriders that stopped traffic at junctions
- Ride captains complete with team radios
- Team cars carrying spare water, electrolyte, gels, bananas and other appropriate cycling fuel
- A doctor should the worst happen
- Massages after each stage (at an additional cost), at each of the four star hotels
- Breakfast, lunch (on ride days), dinner
- Luggage transfers
- Briefing session
- Bike set up (Pinarello Razha hire bike or help with your own)
- Goodie bag containing amongst other smaller items, event jersey, High Five race pack, cycling cap, cream, additional energy sachet
- Free bespoke video and photographs after the event.
This inaugural tour covering 430 kilometres and over 7000 metres of climbing was to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the company, finishing with a champagne reception on the sea front and a gala dinner where the Triple Crown winner of 1987, Stephen Roche was presented with an award for tourism by the Calvia council.
Stage One: 137km Palmanova to Cala Millor
After signing on, we were introduced to the 1988 World Road Champion, Maurizio Fondriest, and two potential future champions in the form of Stephen's youngest sons, Alexis and Florian. The three special guests were to cycle with us on all four days with Stephen joining us from Stage Two.
Split into three groups, with the fastest riders in Group one, seventy riders and nine ride captains (three for each group) set off at ten minute intervals, under instructions from our 'Director Sportive', Michelle Smyth of Trois Etape fame.
Wishing to pace myself over the four days, I chose Group 3 and gently rolled out behind the others. The route took us along rolling roads on the flat lands of the island and with the sun on our backs we passed through olive groves and picturesque countryside on our way to the first lighthouse at S'Estanyol. As my Garmin ticked over to 74km we entered Sa Rapita for lunch at a restaurant right on the sea front, affording stunning views of the Mediterranean. The intervals between the three groups worked well, ensuring the three groups didn't all arrive at the same time. Refuelled, we set off towards Cala Millor for our overnight stay at the four star Hipotels Mediterraneo.
And so the scene was set for the next three days: breakfast, ride, hotel, massage, dinner, breakfast and repeat. Bliss!
This was my first experience of living out of a suitcase for four days and my status as 'tour rookie' showed. It appeared my suitcase was the biggest and heaviest amongst the riders. Others, more experienced or organised, took the bare minimum, some even washing their kit each night. However using a company where the guest comes first, if you took everything bar the kitchen sink, no questions were asked.
Stage Two: 114km Cala Millor to Port de Pollenca
The day started easily enough with a gentle climb for the first 30km then it was virtually flat riding along the coast with fantastic views across the bay. Lunch was to be at the famous Bar Tolo's, Sir Bradley Wiggins' favourite restaurant on the island. We were all keen to refuel for the afternoon's challenge of riding to and from the most famous lighthouse on the island situated on the Cap de Formentor.
After the second course consisting of pasta and salad, most of us were adequately fed and started to think of the testing route ahead. So it came as a surprise when Tolo decided we all needed more calories, and instructed his staff to prepare paella for us! If that wasn't enough the sweet course followed, consisting of cake. I've had less food at a wedding! Indeed it was the first time I've seen cyclists refuse food and 'complain' of having too much.
With my stomach feeling heavy I climbed back on the bike for the 40km ride. Climbing out of Port de Pollenca was my first introduction to the gradients that were to become so common over the next two days. I had joined Group 2 for the day and although we had reached the start of the ascent before Group 1, it wasn't long before some us were being passed by stronger riders - a couple of world champions among them. I engaged the lowest gear and started plodding up the ascent at my own pace, resisting the temptation to try and keep up with the faster riders. There were two full days in the Tramuntana mountains to come and I didn't want to burn myself out on Day two.
The first ascent, the Coll de la Creueta, rises to about 200m from sea level at an average gradient of 6% but with ramps of up to 15%, before plummeting back down to sea level so you can start ascending all over again until you reach the lighthouse. Therefore within the 40km ride you climb four moderate ascents with a total climbing of about 1000m.
I found it a challenging route which gave little respite, but I can see why it has a reputation of one of the 'classic rides' the island has to offer. The views are sublime both from the top of the climbs and as you sweep round the bends that link the uphill bits together. Care should be taken on the open sections as you near the lighthouse as you can be exposed to gusts of wind and I found concentration and care was needed as you traversed the short but very dark tunnel.
This 'must do ride' certainly whetted my appetite for the other classic rides I was to experience over the next two days. With adrenaline pumping in my tired legs, we returned to Port de Pollenca with heavy black clouds in the distance. Unfortunately, although my group tried to beat the rain to the four star Club Pollenntia Resort just outside the Port, we failed. If only I was quick enough to join Group 1, I would not have had so much drying to do overnight!
Stage 3: 90km Port de Pollenca to Port de Soller
For me this was the hardest day of the tour. I would like to think it coincided with low energy levels, but maybe I should have done more hill training before coming out. Either way and even if you are on top of your game, it is an epic ride, incorporating the iconic Sa Calobra and a fantastic descent from the highest point on the island: Puig Major.
The first 17km as you leave Port de Pollenca are fairly flat allowing your legs to warm up. Then the real work starts and you do not get a rest from climbing apart from one very short plateau, until you reach the cafe under a viaduct 23km later. To make matters worse, the rain hadn't finished with us, so most of the climb was in the wet. We all regrouped and had a short breather before climbing again to the top of Col de Reis; the start of the famous Sa Colabra descent.
The descent of the man-made twisting strip of tarmac leading to the sea was optional, and some sensible souls who listened to their legs shouting 'Give us a break for goodness sake' or worse, stayed at the top and took part in coffee and chat. However, for those that had chosen to go down, there was only one way to rejoin the group and that was to ascend the monster.
Lunch was consumed at the cafe under the famous arch before the short and final ascent to the top of Puig Major. The fast, flowing descent was glorious, but concentrating on your line gave little chance of soaking up the open views or the pretty orange groves near the town of Soller. However, it was well worth the 2000m of climbing we had achieved. Needless to say I was passed by two generations of Roches and one fast Italian.
What was needed after such a terrific ride, was a high quality hotel that gave massages, a complimentary drink on arrival and luxurious rooms and surroundings. And that is exactly what we got. In fact the Hotel Esplendido is one of the best hotels I have ever stayed at. We arrived at 15:30 hrs which gave us plenty of time to carry out the rituals of preparing for the next day, before attending a presentation and questions and answer session by Stephen about his career. It was great to hear how he approached the races in his Triple Crown-winning year of 1987, hearing stories about behind the scenes, and his views on the modern era of racing.
Dinner was held at the restaurant Es Canyis and even though it had only been three days that we had known each other, there was a team spirit and a celebratory atmosphere. Proof that the doubters of Stephen's vision twenty years ago of providing facilities and rides for all nationalities to mix and cycle together, were wrong. Riders had come from America, Canada, Belgium, France, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England to enter the tour. Even though there were some language barriers we all shared the 'language of the bike', resulting in the tour being conducted in a relaxed, good humoured and friendly manner. Certainly the great food and inclusive wine helped! The party atmosphere was enhanced when Thierry sang a song in French congratulating Stephen on his achievements.
I would love to have stayed and continued to mingle with the late night revellers, but my bed was calling so I returned to my luxurious room, took one last look across the harbour to the third lighthouse of the tour, closed the shutters and retired to bed.
Stage Four: 90km Port de Soller to Palmanova
Another classic ride in the Tramuntana mountains around the Corniche. This is probably the most scenic ride on the island, and the most up and down.
After just 2km out of Port de Soller we started climbing for about 4km. This was to be typical of the many climbs of the day with the longest climb being around 6km.
For me it was hard to keep up with the group for two reasons; my legs were screaming to slow down and my head was screaming to stop and take photographs of the wonderful coastal scenery. Riding up to our lunch stop at Estellencs, the views around each corner became prettier and prettier.
Again the weather wasn't kind to us and the roads were quite damp and greasy in places, leading to the inevitable - a couple of riders coming off. Thankfully their injuries were not serious. The riders were promptly attended to by the first aid qualified ride captains before being dealt with by the tour medic. Nevertheless it was a wake up call for me. For all the years I've been cycling, I've never carried a first aid kit. I guess I never wanted to think of coming off, after all, 'it was never going to happen to me'. The truth is it could happen to any of us, and it was comforting to think that at least on a well prepared tour such as this one, the accident side of cycling was covered.
For the rest of the day the group took corners and descents very cautiously, everyone wanting to make it to just outside Palmanova for the massive group ride into the town and a celebratory glass of champagne.
Unfortunately the police would only allow a peloton with a maximum of 50 riders, so we split into two large packs. Any gilets were removed so we were all dressed in the official tour jerseys as we rode under police escort into Palmanova.
The tour had been one of the most enjoyable four days of cycling I've experienced, rounded off perfectly with a gala dinner. It certainly showcased the island and brought home the fact that cycling in Mallorca can be as varied as you wish to make it; from venturing into the mountains for conquering the climbs and enjoying the descents, to the rolling roads along the coast and inland. Even the motorists seem to like us, or at least tolerate us, making a change from some areas in England that I could mention.
Stephen announced that the tour will return in October 2016, with a similar event every autumn in subsequent years. The tours will be in addition to the normal camps are held from February to May and September to October each year.
Look out for tour dates at www.sportive.com
More information can be found at www.stephenroche.com