If you’re a fan of olive trees, Mallorca is the place to visit. No shortage of them on the cycle ride up Sa Calobra, the hillside is covered in them, and goats, there are plenty of goats.
I’ve ridden this mountain before and the scenery wasn’t an overriding memory. It was more the effect of gravity on my ability to turn the pedals.
This time round it’s a more relaxed affair, a gentle spin, nothing too testing. I can talk, for one thing, which is refreshing. And I do, to David Millar, about olives, “the cockroach of the plant world, you can’t kill them.” And gardens. Did you know he was a gardener?
David Millar is a multi-faceted individual. His cycle racing pedigree is well-known and well documented. If you need to get up to speed he’s written two books which will tell you all you need to know. In a nutshell, he was a pro racer who doped, got caught, got banned for two years, returned clean, and was essentially forced to retire from pro racing by the people who ran the team he part-owned.
Even before you meet him you realise that there are really no secrets with Millar. He wears his heart and his history on his sleeve. And quite a history it is. This is the man, lest we forget, whose behaviour Lance Armstrong once became so concerned about that he advised him to seek help. Lance Armstrong!
Those were the bad old days. Millar has come clean both physically and metaphorically. He’s not proud of what he has done and has done his best to make amends, still is in fact, by mentoring the next generation of racers. You can’t help thinking he must be good at this, because they would look up to him. He carries a commanding presence, which has already been put to use as road captain at Garmin Sharp. That was then.
These days, along with the mentoring, he is full-pelt building Brand Millar and has put fingers in more pies than Sweeney Todd. He has Chapter 3 (Chpt:///) his exclusive clothing line with Castelli which features a capsule but expanding line of exceptionally well-appointed kit.
Then there are the cycling breaks. He was approached by the Jumeirah Hotel in Port Soller who had a plan to attract cyclists during the quieter off-season periods in the spring and autumn. So the David Millar Ultimate Cycling Experience was born and here we are. “Living the dream,” Millar says.
I heartily agree. What is there not to like about riding up a mountain chatting to a former professional cyclist about nothing in particular, with only the whisper of the breeze through the trees, occasional birdsong and the rumble of a Maserati Ghibli to puncture the silence? The Ghibli is there for us. There in case we get a puncture, or need some food, or just need a lift.
That’s a tempting thought when you get up as far as the scree at the top of Sa Calobra, when the switchbacks come nine to the dozen and you think it really should be over by now and you look up and see these little dots crawling along the mountainside and realise, with a gulp, that they are cyclists and you’ve still got a long way to go.
“Let’s see if I can get a selfie,” says Millar and he’s got his phone in one hand trying to get us both in shot. He is displaying no outward signs of fatigue whatsoever (later, playing back footage from my seatcam, I discover he’s even been texting when he was following me up the lower slopes, sometimes with both hands. Before you react with horror, this was on a traffic-free road).
I’m trying desperately hard to conceal my suffering, even though I’ve already let myself down at least twice by commenting on the challenge this hill presents through a succession of profanities, to which I received no response. What could he have said? He’s finished 19 grand tours! Won ten stages! I should count myself lucky he didn’t just leave me there, propped up against an olive tree.
Did I mention the photographer? Little bloke on a scooter - in actual fact being driven by another little bloke on a scooter - who managed to be everywhere at once, like a pixie, or a wombat. You’d see him halfway up an embankment, and then you’d go round a corner and there he would be, standing in the middle of the road. Camera aimed and ready to fire.
We’ve turned the switchback and there he is, the photographer, crouched like a lost teddybear on the side of the road and Millar, clearly used to having his picture taken on a daily basis, is muttering something and slowing up. A cyclist appears from behind us and scuttles up the hill.
“Let him go,” says Millar, trackstanding. “We need this shot.”
So we pedal in a slow but effortlessly stylish manner towards the photographer who lets off a salvo and then is back on his scooter, farting off up the hill in a cloud of two-stroke to position himself for another photo opportunity.
It doesn’t always go our way. The top of the climb where the road curls around and over itself is judged to provide another ideal location, but a cyclist is standing right there in shot, waiting for his mates to come rolling up. Will he move? No. Not for the photographer or for Millar. Even Anna, marketing manager of the Jumeirah has trouble sweet-talking the cyclist. Eventually he relents, for one shot only, but he’s not happy.
In fairness the presence of the photographer and Anna and her assistant - who periodically emerges through the sunroof of the Ghibli to grab snaps of us - is not your standard Millar experience. They are there because we are there, the journos. As a rule it would just be a Maserati.
But even that makes you feel incredibly smug. The best most of these cycle trips can usually muster for support is a beaten up VW Transporter. It’s an added layer of luxury typical of the Jumeirah.
Take the hotel itself. Even the lobby smells nice. It perches on the clifftop above the Port de Soller in such a random and haphazard manner it looks as if one of the Gods has lobbed a handful of Lego bricks. From the port it is an imposing presence, the white low-rises housing the 120 apartment-sized rooms dazzling in the sunlight. The fact this hotel sits on top of a cliff offers a clue to the difficulties faced in reaching it. The climb by bike is brutal. According to Strava some stretches tick up to 48 per cent. That’s more than the gradient of your average staircase. If I was driving that Maserati I’d be worried about burning the clutch out.
When we make it up, as one always does eventually, the pampering can begin. Cyclists are provided with an undercover area to regroup in, baps and fruit and an ice bucket of beers awaits and then you can have a massage in the spa if you so wish, or take a dip in one of the two pools, or get totally and hopelessly lost on your way back up to your room, which will involve a good bit of climbing in itself since the rooms are linked by a sprawling stair-laden, tree covered walkway. You don’t actually mind getting lost - testament to the beauty of the place and the serenity it fosters within you.
By the time you do eventually make it back to your room and have had a rain shower and chilled out on the balcony with the mountain view, you can get lost again on the way down to the sunset bar. As the name suggests, this offers breathtaking views of the sun dipping into the Mediterranean as you sit and drink it in. The restaurants are at the fussy end of the scale, the one in the main complex serving fish on anything but a plate. One of our group received his starter on a sawn-off log and a bed of what looked like gunpowder but tasted of nothing (I tasted it). The fact I can remember this and not what I had for my main gives you an idea of how forgettable the experience was. The tapas in the restaurant near the infinity pool was stunning, however and the sushi at the sunset bar amazing.
This might tick a few cycling nutrition boxes these days, but there were a few things missing from the menus of all the restaurants - namely pasta and burger-based dishes, which are all I want to eat after a day’s cycling regardless of whether it is actually good for me. The Jumeirah has however suggested cyclists might be better accommodated in terms of stodge in future.
You need it to get around the hills here. Port de Soller is nestled at the base of the Tramuntana mountain range. On the sea side of it. To get anywhere you have to climb, and to get back you have to climb. It makes for spectacular views and riding but it does take it out of you, regardless of how fast you are going.
To reach Sa Calobra, for instance, you must first conquer Mallorca’s tallest mountain, the mighty Puig Major - a good hour or so of steady climbing right off the bat, and 10.2 miles from the port to the tunnel at the top. There’s not much chance of a warm up before you start climbing out of Port de Soller.
Halfway up the “Big Pig” we hit a traffic jam. You know it’s going to be a long one when the drivers have turned their engines off. So we ride up the side of the cars and into a film production. Trucks and crew are shuffling around with rolls of cable and booms and lighting and cameras.
“There are easier ways to get up there,” says a man with some cables, pointing to Millar’s bike, gesturing up the mountain with a nod. “Just out for a ride,” replies Millar, as we restart the slow crawl upwards. “What are you filming?” he shouts over his shoulder.
“Porno!” The crew member yells after us.
The scenery is so stunning up here among the pine trees that none of us actually questions the statement. Great backdrop for a moneyshot. But it turns out it was an ad for a new Ford. We know this because a little way further up, a flatbed truck comes barreling around the corner looking like something out of Mad Max, bristling with lights and booms and people hanging off it shouting “get out of the way!” and on the back is a brand new Ford, with someone pretending to drive it. And you can see both of his hands.
To cycle around Mallorca with David Millar and a Maserati is akin to knocking about with the popular kid at school. People stop and stare at the car, both cyclists and any and everyone else, and more than once I hear someone say “I think that was David Millar” as we ride past. That’s aside from the people he actually knows. One minute we’re descending down a high street, the next a man has launched himself from his cafe table and is shouting. On this occasion it is one of Millar’s pals from VCRC, the Girona cycle club he set up. Being of exceptional manners and upbringing we are all introduced before setting off again.
David Millar in retirement is a contented man. His company is a charming delight to share and as he rides at your pace up a mountain so as not to make you feel bad it is often easy to forget that he could oh so easily take off and leave you in pieces.
This, more than the Maserati and its boot full of Coca Cola and sandwiches and the five-star Jumeirah hotel, is what makes the David Millar Ultimate Cycling Experience what it is.
We’re tackling the switchbacks on the backside of the Col de Soller, heading home from a 50-mile loop to the flatlands and the computer is reading 34 degrees. Millar is a switchback below, accompanying our pal Simon.
“Graham!” he shouts up, pointing. “Check out that olive tree!”
CYCLING IN MALLORCA
The term ‘cycling mecca’ is a phrase as worn out as a UK road, but in the case of Mallorca is entirely appropriate.
Most cyclists visit the north of the island, in particular around the Tramuntana mountain range, where you will find the famous climbs of Sa Calobra and Puig Major. While not easy to cycle the roads are less severe than the Alps or Pyrenees.
The north of Mallorca is lush and green. Tiny bays await exploration and hillside towns pepper the landscape. Visit in April and the air is thick with the scent of lemon blossom.
The attraction of the Tramuntana range to cyclists, walkers and coach parties has inevitably led to congestion on the roads. You can blame the coaches for that. It can’t be easy manoeuvring a 50ft rectangle around a mountain switchback. Nevertheless tempers rarely boil over and cars, coaches and cyclists share the roads for the most part in harmony.
Mallorca is also fully aware of the benefits to the economy of cyclo-tourism and has resurfaced many of the mountain roads. This makes them glass-smooth and a luxury to cycle on. Other roads on the island, however, leave a lot to be desired, in particular in some parts of the northwest coastal road west of Valldemossa. They still compare favourably to the UK.
“Cyclists are good for the economy because they travel around and spread their spending,” says Xim Hernandez, our guide on the David Millar trip. “But some locals are becoming frustrated with the numbers and think there are now too many on the roads.”
Most cyclists visit out of season - between March and May and September and November, and the weight of numbers on the roads can be something like that experienced on a sportive. Roadside coffee stops are buzzing. Popular locations include the viaduct on the Ma10 junction with the Sa Calobra turning, the garage / restaurant Coll de Sa Bataia just outside Lluc, the town square at Esporles, the cat caves at Campanet (provided you like cats), and the town square at Petra, but there are places to stop and eat everywhere.
A particularly stunning descent winds down through the gorge from the Sa Bataia garage at Lluc along the Ma2130 to Caimari. Trees line the switchbacks on the upper sections before the road straightens to lead you past sheer rock faces before you enter Caimari. Keep on the road through town and try the roadside barbecue restaurant just on the other side.
Jumeirah Port Soller offers accommodation for cyclists. Visit here for details.