It's not often you start a sportive wondering not 'How fast will I finish?' but 'Can I finish this?'
That was the burning question as I lined up on a damp April morning alongside 6,498 other roadies - and the obligatory one dude on a Brompton - for this year's Mallorca 312.
Mallorca is widely regarded as a cycling paradise. Through the cold winter months all the European pro's are on it - geographical doping, if you like - and where the pro's lead, the proles follow. As we roll into winter, brace yourself for the torrent of Strava and Instagram updates from Sa Calobra and other impossibly photogenic ribbons of sunwashed tarmac.
But I'd never been. So when I heard of Mallorca 312, a sportive of almost 200 miles making a full circuit of the island, the date of 30 April was firmly pencilled in my diary and underlined twice.
Fast forward a few months, and touching down in Palma airport I felt both at home and mildly intimidated; the arrivals hall was buzzing with muscular-calved cyclists toting bike cases and determined expressions.
Mallorca 312 is based on the north coast of the island at the resort of Playa de Muro, near Alcudia. I hopped on the train for the hour-long journey north from Palma. Out the window to my left I gazed at the Serra de Tramuntana, the long ridge of mountains we'd be cycling the next day. Not for the first time I wondered whether I was biting off more than I could chew. My symbolic 31.2km training ride the previous week suddenly felt somehow inadequate.
In previous years the Mallorca 312 has been run on open roads, following a route that hugged the coast south through Palma and continuing anticlockise around the entire circumference of the island. But for 2016 the organisers announced a change of plan: this year, the event would follow a narrower loop southwest through the mountains and then back up again inland to Playa de Muro, before spurring off for an 80km westerly loop to bring up the 312km.
The new route may lack the kerb appeal of the original - there's something special about a full circuit of an island - but this was offset by fully closed roads. If anything the new route was actually more challenging, with more climbing - an advertised 5,050m - which of course adds to the appeal; at least, it does when you're sitting in an armchair with your laptop daydreaming about distant heroics.
As I hauled my bike case off the train at Muro, shit was, as they say, starting to feel real. After a few minutes' wait outside the deserted rural station a battered hatchback sputtered into the car park and rattled to a halt. It was my Airbnb host, Uschi.
When it comes to making travel arrangements my approach is best described as last-minute casual, and true to form I'd only booked my accommodation earlier that week. I'd lucked out though, managing to find a "luxury tipi" near Can Picafort, just a 7km spin from the start point. It looked ideal, and as Uschi cheerfully crammed my bike case into the car and launched into a good-natured rant about cycle tourists ("They come here on all-inclusive breaks, and they think that includes the roads!") I was feeling upbeat about my choice.
Uschi's establishment is a farmhouse with guest accommodation - a couple of tipi tents and one or two caravans - scattered about lushly planted grounds with views of the mountains to the west. She showed me to my tipi, complete with sofa and double bed - perfect - and after a few gentle 'welcome' nips from her pet Alsatian I was left in peace to settle in.
Registration for the next day's ride was at an Expo in Playa de Muro. As soon as I'd reassembled my bike I set off, tip-toeing through the garden to avoid attracting the dog's attention.
The road back into Muro was quiet in terms of cars, but every few minutes I'd meet cyclists - from tourists in ones and twos on hybrids, to pacy groups on lowslung racers riding in close formation. Mallorca's reputation as cycling Mecca was sealed as I reached Playa de Muro - the place was buzzing with bikes, and on my way to registration I passed a string of hotels that seemed set up to cater specifically for cyclists, especially German ones, with fully kitted riders milling around the track pumps, pressure hoses, work stands and feed stations outside.
Registration itself was a quick process, and after my name was ticked off on the start list I was handed a race pack with jersey, bike number and cable ties. As I left the hall a German chap approached and asked if I'd be interested in swapping jerseys with him. Fame at last? No - it turned out he'd been given a size small, and was looking to exchange for a medium. Well, we've all been there when winter training doesn't quite go to plan. Although I wasn't able to oblige it was nice to have a chance to practice my German - a useful language to have in Mallorca, by the looks of it.
It was a glorious sunny afternoon so I had a wander to the beach. After sampling one of the strip's many excellent burger bars, and sending a few photos home to reassure my other half that I was having an amazing time while she was at work, I headed back to Uschi's to try for an early night.
On my way out of town I pulled over briefly at a grocery store to pick up some provisions for the next day's ride: some haribo, jelly babies, peanuts, almond nougat and - for breakfast - a potato tortilla. I was a bit nervous about the scale of the challenge to come, and while there was nothing I could do in terms of my fitness at this stage, I could at least make sure I wouldn't run out of snacks.
The next morning my alarm went off at 5:30AM. A combination of excitement and a late-night chorus of barking dogs (tipis aren't very soundproof, it turns out) had put paid to my plans of an early night; but after stuffing down some cold tortilla and muesli I felt ready to go. The sky was still dark but brightening to grey as I slipped through the front gate of the compound and set off down the road to Playa de Muro once more.
The start was billed as 7AM and I arrived bang on Irish time - i.e. 5 minutes late. I needn't have worried though, as I joined the very back of the throng we still faced a wait of twenty minutes or so. I was entertained by an English guy, recounting cautionary tales of falls and near-misses from past Etapes. "I don't care about time on this one," he concluded, "I just want to get around it." I silently agreed.
Just before we rolled under the start arch a guy on a bright green Brompton pulled up behind me. 200 miles not hard enough for you? I found myself thinking mildly resentful thoughts, although they were quickly quashed. You have to admire his chutzpah.
Finally we were off, rolling west en masse into a light mizzle of rain. It wasn't supposed to be like this - where was the postcard-perfect sunrise, the silhouetted palm trees of the promotional photos? But as it turned out, the familiar weather may have been a blessing in disguise.
The damp roads made drafting an unappealing prospect though, so for the first 20km I wove in and out of loose bunches spread across the full width of the road. As we pased through Alcudia and then Pollenca on the northwest corner of the island, the road started to rise as we approached the start of the first - and longest - climb of the day, the Coll de Femenia.
At 7.5km with an average pitch of 6%, it's a classic continental climb winding steadily upwards on perfect tarmac. I tried to pace myself in view of the long miles to come, and the climb lent itself perfectly to settling into a rhythm and keeping the pedals turning.
After a little under half an hour the road levelled out at 534m and we got a welcome breather for a couple of km before the next climb which skirted past the hill town of Lluc. I'd considered staying at a monastery in Lluc before finding the tipi, and it would certainly make a spectacular base for a training camp. Just a few km further west is the famous Sa Calobra, and we passed the turn-off for the Calobra descent shortly before reaching the first water stop at the Gorg Blau - today more murky green than blue.
I pulled over at the side of the road; despite the cool, damp conditions the exertion of climbing meant I'd almost drained both my bottles, and the next climb was just around the corner.
Puig Major, the highest point on the Mallorca 312 route, tops out at 870 metres. The road gains 260m over 5km - a 5% gradient is fairly gentle by UK standards, and with just 50km ridden I still felt relatively - well, not exactly fresh, but I enjoyed the climb.
Mallorca 312 is merciful in that the bulk of the climbing is over with relatively early in the day; by the time we crested Puig Major I had the psychological boost of knowing that the toughest climb was done, at least in terms of elevation. Of course, I didn't allow the fact that exhaustion would make later climbs feel so much harder enter my mind...
It's a well-worn mantra that the best way to tackle a daunting challenge is to break it down into more manageable chunks. I'd approached the 312 in this fashion - basically it boils down to a hilly century, followed by a relatively flat 90 miles. Simples!
There was still plenty of climbing to come, but first was the treat of the descent from Puig Major - 15km of almost non-stop downhill. I've done relatively little cycling on the continent - other than pootling to Paris, and Flanders a couple of times, which hardly counts in this respect - so long, winding descents are a novelty. In other words, I approach them with all the finesse of a penguin falling down a fire escape.
With Mr Safety-First from the start grid's words still ringing in my ears I covered the brakes all the way down, gradually gaining in confidence as one sharp hairpin bend followed another in endless pattern. Still, while I'd generally been creeping past fellow riders all the way up the climb, on the way down I was constantly overtaken; the warning whoosh of wheels at my shoulder, followed by a blur as a rider tucked low in the drops sped past me around the next bend, became a familiar sight.
At the bottom of the descent we were roughly halfway down the west coast of the island, but still just 70km into the ride. The next 50 miles are a roller coaster as the road plunges up and down the coastline through picturesque towns perched high above the sea. It's some of the most spectacular scenery I've had the pleasure of riding a bicycle through, triggering a prolonged bout of that familiar "wish you were here" feeling.
Words can't do it justice, nor can the few photos I took when I reluctantly stopped; you really have to go there and ride it for yourself.
As the clock ticked towards midday I was approaching 130km. Typically, when I could disengage my senses from the scenery I would be focused on calculations; my average speed was showing around 23km/h at this point, and with a 14 hour deadline I was just about within the time limit. I hoped I could average a faster speed over the flatter second half of the course, but the great unknown was fatigue. I'd never ridden this far on a sportive. At what point would my legs fall off?
Salvation came in the form of a large bunch of riders who somehow formed organically around the 120km mark; I fell in with the group, numbering perhaps 30-strong, as the course reached its most southerly point at Andratx and turned north. We rode together, more or less, all the way back to Muro de Playa as the sun came out and the skies brightened for a few hours.
At 140km there's a double header of climbs - named the Capdella (cat 3) and the Grau (cat 4), according to Strava - and as we crested the Grau at 150km the real climbing of the day was done. If you can make it this far in reasonable time and shape, then the omens are looking good because the next stretch is a relatively fast and flat blast back to seaside HQ at Playa de Muro.
Riding mainly in the bunch, I averaged 31km/h for the 63km run in to Muro, so by the time we were approaching the town my average speed was looking a lot more healthy, even if my legs were starting to feel less than perky.
Before the event, the moment I'd feared most was not one of the climbs, or even the overall distance, but the fact that the course looped through the start point in Playa de Muro at 232km. Here the riders on the shorter 232km ride would pull in, triumphantly crossing the finish line with their work done - and I had major doubts about whether I'd have the resolve to carry on past this point, where the temptation to swallow pride and call it a day would surely be severe.
Well, now the moment of truth was at hand... Up ahead I could see the start/finish arch with weary riders gliding over the line and dismounting, exultant. A line of barriers appeared up the middle of the road; to the left signs indicated the finish line for the 232km finish; to the right, the 312km route with 80km remaining. The barriers loomed closer; I could smell the burgers, almost taste the beer... I took the lane to the right.
In the event, it wasn't such a tough call; I felt surprisingly OK. Riding fast is a tonic, and the last 60km had passed quickly. Besides, with 232km in the bank the last section of 80km didn't sound much. That commitment made, I felt a weight off my shoulders: I was going to do it!
Just out of town there was a small water stop, and a slightly hairy moment as a number of cyclists failed to see it until one of the volunteers called out and suddenly the small group braked sharply to pull over.
Refuelled, I set off - alone this time. But after a few minutes I noticed a guy on my wheel. We rode in silence for a couple of km along the gently rising main road heading east along the north coast. I kept glancing behind me and eventually my friend pulled alongside. We exchanged a few words, but his English wasn't much better than my non-existent Spanish - all I could glean was that he was from near Palma, and that his rear derailleur was broken so he was stuck in the small cog.
We rode together amiably for a spell but when the turn off for the inland loop came he gradually surged ahead, cassette smoking from the effort. I was flagging by this time and already mentally resigned to completing the ride in survival mode rather than a blaze of glory. The day had cooled, shadows were lengthening and the road to Manacor wound through what felt like remote rural countryside with long spells between settlements and scarce sight of other cyclists.
Manacor, as tennis fans may know, is the hometown of Rafa Nadal. A few years ago I was the victim of a case of mistaken identity while watching Senor Nadal courtside at the Stella Artois championships in London. The guy next to me was taking photos with his camera flash on. Rafa came over and waggled a finger at me: "No flash!"
It's an injustice that has rankled ever since, but unfortunately the route veered left a few km north of Manacor so I couldn't call in to set the record straight.
My happy thought at this point was that I'd read about a party in Arta. Arta is a town in the northeast of Mallorca, and is home to the cycling club involved with the organisation of the Mallorca 312 - the dreaded back markers in their green polka dot jerseys are drawn from this club. The Arta party is by all accounts a bit of an institution on the 312, with crowds filling the streets and pressing beer on cyclists as they pass through. I wouldn't have thought I'd need much pressing to accept a beer, but I was looking forward to the mental refreshment as much as anything.
When I finally rolled into Arta with 283km on the clock the scenes were surreal and a little overwhelming. For the last 50km I'd been riding mostly solo; here, the town was a cacophany of noise and colour; thronged beer stands lined the central square and, as weary-looking riders trickled in - I was well towards the back of the field by this point - they were welcomed with cheers and plastic cups of beer.
I propped my bike against a tree and sat on the stone steps of the square behind the beer stands to drink in the scenes, but I couldn't handle the thought of a beer. After a few sips I abandoned it, and when the back markers rolled in to a hero's welcome I took it as my cue to get out of town.
The last 30km were a slog. A couple of minor hills - in normal circumstances nothing worth mentioning - that I remembered from the outward leg drained the battery to near zero. A small bunch of tanned and muscled Italians overtook me and kindly motioned for me to latch on the back of their group, but I had to shake my head; I was riding the last few miles at my own pace, not by choice but necessity.
With night falling I reached the outskirts of Playa de Muro once again, and cruised over the finish line for a time of 13 hours and 19 minutes (moving time: 11:52:52). A pasta party was in full swing in a nearby marquee. I ate what I could - not a lot - before setting out into the by now freezing night. I had brought only my short sleeved jersey and shorts, and was grateful the event gilet I was handed at the finish to keep me from seizing up on the 7km spin back to the camp.
It probably goes without saying, but the dogs didn't keep me awake that night. As rain lashed the sides of the tipi I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Looking back, Mallorca 312 has been a real highlight of the year; among the best sportives I've ridden. It's a challenge that you can approach in two ways: to simply complete it - my approach - or race it, as many others did, finishing some 2-3 hours ahead of me.
That's the beauty of cycling, you can keep raising the bar and there's always a new challenge. And when that challenge is set amid the beautiful scenery of Mallorca, you're onto a winner. If you only ride one 193-mile sportive next year, make it this one: I know I'll be back.
Entries for the 2017 edition of Mallorca 312 are now open. Next year riders won't face the 'moment of truth' passing through Playa de Muro at the 232km marker, as the route has been tweaked to avoid doubling back over the same roads. For more information and to register, visit www.mallorca312.com.