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Sa Calobra time trial

James Spender
8 Sep 2015

What's 10km long, rises 686m from sea level and is probably the hardest 30-50 minutes of your life? Mallorca holds the answer.

Tourism is a funny thing. It’s obviously great for the tourists, but for the locals it can lead to a mixture of success and sadness. Success at the money brought to their local economy; sadness at what gaggles of straw-hatted aliens take away with each click of their cameras, by their very presence changing the feel of the landscape. The Mallorcans, however, don’t seem to worry so much – the very road I’m about to try and conquer was built expressly to serve the passage of tourists.

That road is the Carretera de Sa Calobra, which winds its way over 26 hairpins from sea level to the top of Coll del Reis at 686m, and on to Mallorca’s interior. Built in 1932 by Spanish civil engineer Antonio Parietti Coll, the Sa Calobra, affectionately known by many as ‘The Snake’, wasn’t designed to connect the then 32 inhabitants of Port de Sa Calobra with the rest of the island, but rather to make it easier for the holidaymakers to get down to this tiny, picturesque port village on Mallorca’s north west coast. In all, some 31,000 cubic metres of rock and scree were reckoned to have been excavated – by hand, no less – to make way for the road, which over the years has fulfilled its brief many times over, allowing thousands of coaches to ferry hordes of visitors over the mountainous terrain. 

Yet today there won’t be a coach or any other motorised vehicle in sight. The Sa Calobra has been closed for the first time in living memory, and for a few hours it will be given over to the people who worship it most: cyclists. The event? The inaugural Sa Calobra Time-Trial sportive.

Cigarettes and alcohol

Sa Calobra climb

‘There’s a fair chance Bradley will be up here in the next couple of weeks,’ says our host and road-closing instrumentalist, Dan Marsh. ‘He’ll be back to Mallorca for a party at some point to celebrate his end of season and world champs TT win, no doubt with a few beers and a cheeky ciggie!’ Even full of booze and smoke, one would imagine Sir Wiggo would place pretty highly among the 14,800-strong list of Strava-logging cyclists who’ve tackled the Sa Calobra. Currently the record for the official climb is held by one David Lopez, at 24m59s, averaging 22.7kmh. He rides for Team Sky so there’s little wonder, but still, as I queue for race registration, I can’t help but set myself the fanciful target of maintaining a 20kmh average. 

I’m not normally one for Strava bashing, but I have to admit I’ve been studying the Sa Calobra leaderboard since I entered this sportive. I want a good time, but never having ridden a time-trial, let alone one that just goes uphill, I have no idea how hard to push or how to measure my efforts. This, of course, is one of the key weapons in any successful time-triallist’s armoury, and one that Wiggo deployed to devastating effect when he took the rainbow stripes in the World Time-Trial – just how hard should I ride and when? After all, I don’t want to blow up before the end, but equally I don’t want to finish knowing there’s more left in the tank. Thus I’ve decided to reach for the stars and touch the sky – or in other words, set myself a goal that’s so unrealistic I shan’t feel disappointed when I miss it. 

A 20kmh average is the target, but I concluded that if I can average 16kmh I’ll be happy and, by my reckoning, safely inside Strava’s top 1,000. Strange how our human brains find round numbers so important.

By the numbers

Sa Calobra time trial sign up

Not only is the Sa Calobra TT a cycling event, it also encompasses a timed hill climb for those who are fleet of foot. Even the slowest riders should be within the hour mark for the ride, but the runners, I’m told, will be doing well to come in under twice that. Sitting on the crossbar of my rented Cervélo S3, the sun creeping ever higher in the morning sky and beating down even harder on my back, I’m glad I’m in cleats, not trainers. That said, there are quite a few serious types lurking on their bikes who are making me nervous. I reccied the course the night before, partly in a car, partly on my bike, but still these guys look like they know Sa Calobra intimately, and I begin to worry.

Rollers have been taken out of car boots, and well-drilled partners are pinning race numbers to jerseys, fetching coffees and knowing not to talk too much to their highly concentrated other halves. A couple have clip-on time-trial bars on their expensive race rigs, making me wonder if I should have done the same – every little helps, I muse, wondering if perhaps Brailsford’s marginal gains was a eureka moment while watching a Tesco advert.

As we’re ordered to form a queue by the start official, to be set off at minute intervals, I take the last few moments of calm to set my Garmin to just display distance and average speed. Nothing else matters. My time will be what it will be; top speed an inconsequential metric. It’s averages that will count here. Shoot for 20.

By the time the Tannoy calls my name and number, my knees feel like caffeine-injected jelly and my sunglasses are beginning to steam up. As they say, time-trials are the race of truth – just you, your abilities and the clock – and I’m feeling that pressure. Then honk! I race out from under the gantry to a ripple of polite cheers, determined, if nothing else, not to be passed by the minute men and women behind me. 

Sa Calobra time trial start

The first hairpin is only 20m away, but despite the adrenaline coursing through my veins, it seems to take an age to come, and even longer to negotiate. I feel like I’m going so slowly I can pick out every little leaf lining the side of the road, every glinting chunk of black tarmac passing below me in infinite detail. What’s wrong? Have I punctured already? Am I in some ridiculous gear? Yet before I can look down to find any mechanical element to blame for this sluggish departure, the road flattens out and I quickly find myself changing up as I spin out my gear. Bike OK? Check. Me? To be confirmed.

After yesterday’s recce I decided to break the Sa Calobra up into three parts. The first, ending just after the road makes its way through a silvery gash in the mountainside at 3km; the second the relatively straight drag as the trees thin and the road becomes more exposed until 6km; the third the relentless, twisting hairpins that eventually crest the summit. While the overall gradient is a ‘mere’ 7%, that figure belies the ramping quality of the Sa Calobra. Barring the higher gradients at the apexes of hairpins, the first few kilometres are gentle enough to leave you wondering what all the fuss is about, before they steadily increase as the road presses on. I’m determined not to be lulled into a false sense of security and overcook things, but I’m also keen to push a fair pace up these preliminary slopes to offset slow speeds that will inevtiably come nearer the top. I look at the Garmin. It seems to be working. Twenty-two.

Chase is on

I was once told as a rule of thumb that when riding at under 20kmh, 20% of the opposing force comes from air resistance and 80% from rolling resistance – energy lost through the tyres. Over 20kmh those percentages reverse, so besides concentrating on my breathing, I try to hold a relaxed yet purposeful TT tuck, with as flat a back as I can manage, hands balled like fists on the top of the hoods and elbows bent at 90°. Whether this is that efficient in reality I don’t know, but I’m feeling fast. I’d go as far as to say I’m feeling rather good. I can even hear something I don’t think I’ve ever encountered on a climb before – the sound of air on this otherwise perfectly still day rushing past my ears. Looking up, I’m buoyed even more as I catch the glint of a wheel up ahead disappearing round a corner. What do you know – I might even catch my minute man at this rate.

As commentators will often say of the pros, losing sight of your target has a demoralising effect on the chaser. Having it in your sights, on the other hand, can help you find extra power you thought wasn’t there. Right now, it’s happening to me. That wheel ahead is now a rider in the distance, the road having kindly straightened out for stretch. Before I know it I’ve instinctively shifted up and I’m sailing past my competitor. I look down. Twenty one point five. I’m elated. Still 7.5km to go. The joy ebbs.

Sa Calobra climbing

The giant chasm of rock through which the Sa Calobra threads passes by in a whirlwind of head-down pain – the only real inkling I have it’s there is the prickle of skin as I plough on through the cold, damp air it harbours. Coming back out of its shadow to glimpse for a moment the distant sea has an oddly calming effect. Nearly a third of the way there. 

The sea disappears behind me and the road makes a savage jump to 12% as it cuts back up the rock. For the first time since the start I’m out of the saddle, calling every muscle into service to see me past this tortuous bend and back onto something more gradual. Which it does. If gradual means a relentless drag of 7%. 

If there’s one saving grace it’s that this straighter road, my self-styled second sector, once again has the advantage of letting me see riders further on, so I attempt to distract my mind from my hurt and project it onto these others. Not that I want to demoralise anyone in normal circumstances, but being able to indulge a healthy dose of schadenfreude never did any suffering rider any harm. Goodness knows I’ve been the butt of that on many other occasions. 

I pass the first rider, one of the guys I think I recognise from the rollers in the carpark, and then another, now just a blur through the condensation coating my glasses and the fog of suffering permeating my brain. It’s still a boost to pass them both, not least as during that chase I realise I’ve negotiated turn one of the last phase – a series of 15 hairpins to the top.

Sa Calobra trees

By now I’m in something of a state. I rise and fall in and out of the saddle like someone’s stuck me on a piston cam. I realise I haven’t drunk a drop, nor eaten any of the three caffeine sweets I’ve taped to my top tube. A swig of water does wonders – better still the squirt I douse over my head. The sweet, on the other hand, is not such a revelation. My mouth is dry, breathing erratic and laboured, and I can’t chew it without feeling like I’m going to choke. With all the force I can muster I spit it out. It lands back on my top tube pretty much where it had been before and sticks there. Disgusting, but I couldn’t care less. 

Regaining composure

Somehow I’ve settled again. It’s not what I’d call a rhythm, but it seems to be working. I drop a couple of gears before standing to heave myself up and down through the hairpins’ apexes, trying to spin and accelerate before resolutely changing back up as I sit to pedal at a harder, lower cadence as the gradient peters slightly. Whether this is a useful tactic is uncertain, but I have various images of pros rising like startled stick insects from their saddles to attack similar bends, before reverting back to a seated, metronomic pace.

For the first time in what seems like hours I peer tentatively at my Garmin. Despite all the chasing and the feeling that I’m powering on, like I’m actually winning, it displays an average speed of 17kmh. I feel like I want to cry, if only to shed some more weight.

Sa Calobra mountain pass

If there’s one good thing about the final stretch it’s that the mountain is so grey and sheer that I can barely make out where the road is snaking off to, let alone how much I still have to ride. In fact, the only sign it’s still there is the occasional brightly coloured helmet of a rider appearing above like an iridescent pin thrust into the rock. The result is I’m riding blind, guided only by the markings on the road. Yet like so many tunnels of pain, like the thud of a punch, it’s over in an instant. Suddenly I’m enveloped by a deafening sound, and looking up I half expect the population of Mallorca to be cheering me on. 

They’re not. Instead it’s a sole enthusiastic supporter shouting himself hoarse in my ear and clapping fervently as he runs alongside. ‘Venge Venge Venge, Allez!’ he screams as we round the corner to the finish. But before I can either fall gratefully into his arms or rip his sunglasses off and toss them down the mountain (I’m unable to decide which), he sprints off back down the road, most likely to get in position to offer such services to the next rider, free of charge.

Sa Calobra coffee

The official finish is under an archway on a section of the Sa Calobra that sweeps through 270° up and over itself in a brilliant architectural flourish known as the Nus de sa Corbata, or ‘the knotted tie’. It’s quite something, and stunning to behold from above. Which is where I find myself heading. I cross the line and just keep going, because the ‘official’ Strava climb finishes at the highest point, the sign for Coll del Reis, another 100m up the road. 

Once there, I finally stop, alone. I look down the mountain, beyond the knotted tie to the riders and even now some runners strung out on the roads below. It’s a truly exquisite view, with not a coach or car in sight. Just people and their engines, valiantly battling up this beast. Against the clock. Against themselves. My Garmin beeps. Sixteen point seven. 

The TT Sa Calobra runs on the 3rd of October as part of a weekend festival that aims to raise money to support the fight against cancer. To sign up please visit www.ttsacalobra.com

Do it yourself

Travel

Unless you charter a Bond-villain style biplane to the island, chances are you'll be flying into Mallorca's capital, Palma, with prices on budget airlines out of London around £90 return. From there, it's a 90 minute drive to Sa Calobra. Or, if you don't fancy the hassle, luxury tour company Marsh-Mallows will organise airport transfers.

Accomodation

We stayed at the Hotel Esplendido on the scenic harbour of Port de Soller, with a great range of restaurants and bars, plus a gloriously sandy cove to swim in after a hard day in the saddle. The Esplendido's suckling pig is one of the best dishes you'll find on the island. Double rooms from €190 in October.

Thanks

Our stay was arrange by Dan Marsh, or Marsh-Mallows luxury cycling holidays. If there's a good route to ride, or restaurant to eat at, Dan's the man.

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