I'd signed up for the five-day trip just two weeks earlier. Return flight, half-board hotel, transfers and bike hire for a bargain £350. Why wouldn't you?
The Coronavirus had hit Northern Italy hard, but Spain still had relatively few confirmed cases - mostly on the mainland. What was the worst that could happen? (besides contracting an incurable virus with a 1-3% mortality rate). Sure, we might be quarantined in Mallorca for a few weeks, in mid-March, in a cycling-friendly hotel, with a Cannondale Synapse and some of Europe's most stunning climbs on our doorstep. Who wouldn't want to serve time in the world's cushiest open prison?
Organisers James and Gemmar had the group rendezvous at Gatwick. All guys, three I already knew, eight strangers, but no bro on this excursion. It had the feel of a very tame stag do, although it was too early to even think about a light Prêt breakfast, never mind a pre-flight pint at 'spoons.
When the Easyjet flight took off, it felt like I'd clambered aboard the last Bell Huey out of Saigon. Relief, not trepidation, was the prevailing emotion. At least until I heard the commotion at the back of the plane where a Magaluf-bound party of "ladies" were behaving in a very unladylike manner. No further comment.
A pre-arranged minibus ferried us from Palma to Alcudia on the West coast of the island. Check-in at the EIX hotel was quick. The pick-up from Bimont bike hire nearby was uncomplicated. Within what felt like an hour we re-emerged through the revolving doors of the hotel, blinking in the sunlight.
"Tonight Matthew, I'm going to be a middle-aged man in lycra."
There was a high shaved leg quotient, but a comforting volume of middle-aged spread on show. Enough for me to smugly surmise that while I was unlikely to be the fastest, there wasn't much chance I'd be dropped on the island's longer climbs.
Priorities among the group were very much aligned: ride bikes, as much as possible. The plan for day one was to cycle North along the coast, past Port de Pollença and to the lighthouse at the far end of the Cap Formentor. I had a vague memory of driving there years before, with my wife gripping the car door handles, knuckles turning white as we navigated the hairpins, leaning into the middle of the car as if to shift weight away from the precipitous edge.
So much for my hasty and rudimentary assessment of my fellow-riders. It turned out that some of the bigger fellas I'd written off as ungainly diesels were packing the torque of a Tesla. We accelerated from 0-35kph in what felt like 4.6 seconds and the pace did not let up for the whole of the pan-flat 10km from Alcudia, past the mostly-shuttered beachfront bars and shops of Port de Pollença, to the base of the Cap Formentor. With my underpowered economy engine, I struggled to hang on and was promptly dropped like a stone the moment the gradient began to rise.
I could have felt sorry for myself, but all I had to do was look back across the crescent of the bay and be thankful. This is a must-ride route on a must-visit island. The surface is immaculate, like most of the main Mallorcan roads. The first climb is around 3km long, but a gentle and even 6%. After that comes a dreamy descent, then a false flat through a forest of fragrant pines. Beyond a pitch-black tunnel, the peninsula offers panoramic views of the sparkling sea either side as you climb again to the lighthouse, a beacon in the distance not unlike the weather station that signals the top of Ventoux.
Thankful as I may have been, I still finished last. Last man up. Last man down. Last man there. Last man back. Last time I go on a cycling training camp without taking my training seriously beforehand.
We rode inland to charming Pollença and savoured coffees at a café in a corner of the town square still bathed in sunlight, before riding home along quiet inland roads into the setting sun. Not a care in the world. What a difference 24 hours can make.
Do we stay or do we go now?
Reclining on my bed following a feast of medieval proportions, the WhatsApp chatter began to intensify. An impromptu team meeting was summoned around 9.30pm. A presidential order had decreed Spain would be going into lockdown from 8am on Monday morning. In less than 48 hours, the island's bars, cafés and nightclubs would be closed. All outdoor leisure activities - including cycling - were to be banned.
Easyjet began to cancel its flights out of Mallorca. And sure enough, the cost of Ryanair and BA flights began to spiral as the pricing algorithms picked up on the corresponding spike in demand (that would be 12 nervous men simultaneously checking their mobile phones in a Mallorcan hotel lobby).
The clock was ticking. We had just one full day to make the most of unfortunate circumstances. Thankfully, the forecast was glorious. The breakfast buffet was bountiful. The bikes were still ours and the legs were reasonably fresh. We had a good chance of squeezing two or three of the island's famous climbs into a long day's riding.
Only... someone was then sent a share of a social post, via a friend of the hairdresser of a sister's boyfriend's friend's cousin, warning that the official lockdown, scheduled for Monday, had been brought forward by a day. Worse, the local policía would be dishing out fines ranging from anywhere between €50 to €5,000 (the amount seemed to increase every 15 minutes).
It sounded like an odd decision so soon after an official announcement. There was nothing on the local news sites and the hotel staff seemed nonplussed. Nevertheless, some of the group were understandably spooked and reluctant to ride. It's fair to say I fell at the less paranoid, more cavalier end of the spectrum. I was prepared to plead ignorance, or at least confusion, if we were stopped (besides, I'd made a mental note of my brother's address and birth date, just in case). Perhaps more importantly, I genuinely believed we'd be safer out in the fresh air than cooped up in the hotel with the other guests.
The twain couldn't meet. Five opted to play it safe. The Alcudia Seven - los banditos - decided to take our chances out on the roads. The mostly deserted roads, as it turned out. One or two drivers wagged their fingers at us, but then we passed a police car whose occupants were clearly too busy with their churros to give chase. Tacit permission!
The outlaws rode south-west under blue skies, through warm air, flanked by orange orchards and olive groves. It was very hard not to feel we'd made the right decision - even when the forsaken five texted with a warning the police were now operating a shoot-on-sight policy.
Lord lift us up where we belong
The day's climbing began just beyond the town of Alaró. Heading north, we traversed the Puig d'Alaró and started a steady ascent towards Orient. No need to get out the saddle, other than for an occasional stretch. It's testing, but more GCSE geography than A level maths.
From the foot of Orient, by way of some scrabbly switchbacks, we sped to the base of the Col de Sóller, the peak that lies between the island's capital, Palma, and the bucolic town of Sóller beyond. The main road and the train bore directly through the mountain to speed the journey made by thousands of tourists.
Given that 99% of the traffic goes through those tunnels, it's hard to believe just how well-kept the scenic route is. The civil engineers could so easily have gone for a harsher gradient and saved the municipality a few tonnes of tarmac by cutting out a few hundred metres and the odd hairpin. Instead, they splashed the cash on six kilometres of silky smooth, serpentine splendour, stretching out at a steady 5%.
And if you think going up is a treat, it's just as special going down. With the few cars on the roads taking the expedient route through the mountain below, we were able to descend as fast as shredded nerves would allow us. A good day to have the added reassurance of disc brakes.
The café stop at the summit is apparently well worth a visit. Sadly, we could only chat to the English owners over the fence. They kindly offered to bring coffees out, but we politely declined. The only legal-ish option was a stop at a petrol station, where we refilled bidons with water and gorged on Haribo and Pringles. (Conjure something out of that, Heston).
We were now beyond the halfway point. If challenged by the police, we could credibly claim to be on our way home - we just happened to be going via the highest peak on the island: the Puig Major.
The final drag
We skirted Sóller and approached the lower slopes. I missed my bro, mainly because he'd have known the exact length and precise profile of the climb - as I didn't have a clue. Whereas the Col de Sóller puts all its cards on the table and lays out its myriad bends before you, Puig Major continually plucks another hidden Joker from its back pocket. And I wasn't laughing. Every turn seemed to reveal a more distant horizon or a higher peak. It felt interminable.
The only comfort came in knowing I wasn't alone. First Kevin and then Barry gallantly rode by my side, putting up with my gripes and groans. I'm actually surprised he didn't tip me over the edge when we finally reached the tunnel that marks the top. The opportunity to pause and pose for photos provided some welcome respite.
On the other side of the tunnel lay a chilly descent. We toyed with the idea of riding the "short" distance to the peak of nearby Sa Calobra just to get some shots of the famous road looping below, then came to our senses. It will still be there when we return months or even years hence. Sometimes it's good to have unfinished business.
There was still some distance between us and Alcudia - and not all of it downhill. Where the first 40km felt like a breeze, the last 40km dragged - especially when we hit the coast and rode into a full-on headwind for the final few kilometres, well, those of us that weren't cowering behind our stronger compadres (err, guilty).
Job done. The bikes were returned and beers cherished. One fantastic day of riding in the most unusual of circumstances. No road blocks, no arrests, zero fines issued, and thankfully, no symptoms - yet.
Regrettably, the hotel and bike hire company have been unable to pay out any refunds. The good news: they've offered to give us a credit against our rooms and bikes for next year. I, for one, will be back as soon as possible after the travel ban is lifted - hopefully with the same group. Let's hope (cycling) life returns to normal soon. Now, go wash your hands.
The other brother
Much as I dislike the song, Cinderella’s lyrics seem rather apt at the moment: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
Solo riding during the coronavirus crisis hasn’t made too much of a difference as the vast majority of our efforts these days are lone outings. Plus I know we’ve always got Zwift to fall back on if outdoor riding is totally banned. It has to be said, though, that the groups of cyclists flagrantly flouting the lockdown has pushed my buttons.
What I miss is the all-consuming anticipation of the big trips and the forensic planning of our European adventures. Researching the best restaurants to feast at and my in-depth analysis of the biggest climbs. The sleepless nights beforehand, then the unbridled joy of crossing the line together. The sense of achievement, the glory, the medals... the oh so shiny medals...
Right now, I’d give my right arm (OK, maybe just a big toenail...) to be in Richmond Park to do a ‘Pretzel’ or a 3-lap challenge with the other brother. Bizarrely, I can’t wait for him to be taking the piss out of me for my weight gain/lack of cycling strength/social awkwardness. Roll on the end of the lockdown and see you around the bend.