Mallorca's Cycling Conditions: Heaven or Hell?

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Mallorca is known as a training paradise for cyclists and triathletes Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty

"Are you ready to suffer?" These were the first words that Jan Chouieri, my cycling guide, addressed to me when we met at my hotel. He was a small man with bright blue eyes, but it would soon transpire that he was also an athlete with thighs of steel, whereas mine are made of buttermilk and dreams.

In the past I was wont to say, quite frivolously: "It's like riding a bicycle – you never forget." I now realise that this expression 1) assumes a hefty degree of initial familiarity – if not profound intimacy – with bicycles, and 2) notably does not concern Road Bikes. A Road Bike is not, I discovered, merely any bicycle ridden on a road, but a high--tech super-light piece of machinery with both gears and brakes for the front and back wheels, and which you are near -irrevocably stuck to with special shoes – shoes carefully designed to keep you and the bike together so securely as to endanger your wellbeing every time you want to stop, and which double as danger skates if you do manage to detach yourself and want to walk anywhere. Jan put me on one immediately.

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Grimace of pain: Peter Leggatt Peter Leggatt

I was sent to Mallorca to investigate its burgeoning repute as a cycling destination – 150,000 visitors went there to cycle last year, up from 100,000 the year before. One can see why, for it's like a cyclist's most febrile flight of fancy. Along the north-west coast stretches the Serra de Tramuntana mountain range, formed in the Variscan orogeny – a great big Paleozoic crush that folded many of Western Europe's ranges into being – while the central part of the island is called Es pla, Catalan for the plane – or, indeed, "the plan".

The result is a dense variety of gradients and curves that led Bradley Wiggins to describe the island as "a Scalextric track for cyclists", which is exactly what it is like and which quip I shamelessly passed off as my own throughout the trip.

The well-maintained roads, plethora of cycling shops and lack of serious car traffic draw in amateurs and professionals alike. It only gets too hot for major bicycling at the very height of summer, when the roads are presumably too overrun with Brits in black socks and Crocs for anyone to be able to cycle anyway. So the Vuelta a Mallorca (The Mallorca Challenge), the island's main event, takes place in February and is used by many of the professional teams use as prep for major competitions like Le Tour de France.

None of this knowledge of Mallorca's cyclistic excellence reassured me as I applied myself inseparably to my Road Bike and took off with Jan for what turned out to be a trip lasting a full four and a half hours. We went up a mountain called the Coll de Sóller, then down the other side, and then did it all over again the other way. Throughout, between dispensations of invaluable advice and teasing goadings designed to whip me into a state of cycling fervour, Jan made hands-free business phone calls in five languages, literally did not sweat at all, and cycled in front, behind and around me like a puppy on a walk as I wheezed monosyllabic conversation. Foolishly, I asked how long the ride would normally take him: 30 minutes.

The landscape was mercilessly beautiful; like the mountains of Greece but more verdant, and all under a sky squeegeed free of clouds and coloured the swimming-pool blue of Jan's eyes. Dozens of cyclists shot by me with no sound of approach, singly or in pelotons, many surprisingly fat, but all gloved in slick Lycra prophylactic, shimmering as though lubed, their suits resembling an extra, softer alien skin that creased only at the joints. From conversations on the summit and at a café where Jan stopped mainly, I think, out of pity, most were German, bearing out the joke that Mallorca is the country's 17th Federal State.

On reaching the summit, pedalling up to Jan as he shouted warm but intimidating encouragement, I fell off. I say "fell off", but to use that phrase is really to dignify what was more like a leisurely inclination to a horizontal aspect, for a Road Bike does, at least, forbid the indignity of normative falling; your total fastness to the thing ensures that the usual falling repertoire of tumbling, flailing and attempting to obviate or impede your collapse is out of the question. One merely slows down before relaxing 90 degrees sideways.

Jan said he was expecting this to happen, and the greatest (and only) compliment he paid me was his expression of surprise that it had not happened sooner. This took the edge off our two dozen onlookers' simultaneous Schadenfreude.

But I was to surprise Jan again on the way back. My second collapse occurred when I stopped to pick up a large goat's skull on the side of the road – a trophy that was well worth the gash on the ankle it begat (a "typical beginner's injury"). I shoved it into the back of my shirt (cycling shirts have these very useful little pockets at the back for water, snacks, archaeological remains etc) and sped down to catch up with Jan, who was waiting at the bottom of the mountain with the same worried look my father must have had when he first received notice of my arrival. Jan was both amused and somewhat perturbed when I showed him the skull, and for different reasons we both parted with the warmth of regard one reserves for an affable maniac.

The psychlismo did not let up in my hotel, which was responsible for introducing me to Jan in the first place. This resort's main purpose seemed to be to provide as many people as often as possible with "a glass of orange juice and a Refreshing Towel". Never a "hot", "cold" or "wet" towel, this was always a "Refreshing Towel", which exemplified the hotel's absolute dedication to managing every aspect of your experience – and your experience of that experience.

It was tactical, I thought, that the OJ accompanying the towel was mind-blowingly wonderful, but the OJ you had to serve yourself at breakfast was punishingly sour; clearly a Pavlovian design to discourage you from doing anything for yourself that the hotel could do for you, and typical of the obsessive attention to the guests' pleasure and total refreshment that characterised the resort.

Thus on my return I was immediately supplied with OJ and RT, and then my Refreshment was Refreshed with a cyclist's massage, to undo some of the morning's damage to my legs.

This involved essential oils, tinkly music, hot stones dropped on my back, a lemony blindfold, and a little gong rung at the end by the masseuse, Carolina – during all of which my only visual was of Carolina's tiny and somehow extremely touching bare feet pattering in and out of view on the floor, as she moved for better purchase on the different parts of me she needed to oil. Having never had a massage before, nor having ever needed one so badly, I can relate that the experience was pretty much The Best Thing Ever, and concluded, of course, with a further glass of OJ and an RT.

Should you want to try the Scalextric track yourself, take Mark Twain's advice: "Get a bicycle. You won't regret it, if you live."

Mallorca's Cycling Conditions: Heaven or Hell?