Sign up for our newsletter

Chasing perfection: Sa Calobra Big Ride

In-depth
24 Apr 2019
Advertisement

This article was originally published in issue 78 of Cyclist magazine

Words Peter Stuart Photography Patrik Lundin

There are climbs with amazing views, roads with rustic charm, and mountains so severe that we never forget them. There is no road, though, as stunning as Sa Calobra.

Sa Calobra is in fact not a road at all, but a port town on the northern coast of Mallorca. Out of the town, the road up to Coll dels Reis winds over and through the rock formations of the Tramuntana range like brushstrokes on a canvas, and over time this road has come to be known by cyclists simply as Sa Calobra.

The only way to get to the bottom of the climb (other than by boat) is to start at the top and descend for 9.5km. The gradient averages 7% and near the top the road performs an incredible 270° loop, twisting around and back under itself in an iconic hairpin bend called the ‘tie knot’.

Conceived and built by the same architect famed for the road to Cap de Formentor on the very northern tip of the island, Sa Calobra is probably as close as one could get to a perfect road for cycling, and it’s precisely where we’re heading today.

The sun has just come up over the town of Caimari as we unpack our car and pump our tyres. Between here and Sa Calobra lies a series of roads that in themselves would be the pinnacle of any other ride.

Brits abroad

Mallorca has built quite a reputation for cycling. Indeed, where once the island’s name conjured visions of desperate adolescents partying in Magaluf, the exuberant nightlife now seems like a curious hidden side of a cycling-themed amusement park.

The island attracts big names too, with numerous WorldTour pros regularly training here, and a few even investing in second homes. Bradley Wiggins is said to own a home near Port de Pollença.

In fact, at the beachfront restaurant of Tolos there was at one point a table that was regularly kept empty, reserved solely – rumour had it – for Wiggins when he wanted to dine there.

The biggest criticism you could level at Mallorca is that it has been a victim of its own success, because in April and May it feels as though cyclists overrun the island.

Sa Calobra, for instance, has seen more than 100,000 climbs logged by 64,000 riders on Strava, and the island is said to host more than 40,000 cyclo-tourists every year.

The Mallorcan government is rumoured to be planning to impose restrictions on the sizes of groups on the island to reduce tensions between cyclists and drivers.

‘Probably it will mean groups of no more than a dozen, which I think may be a good idea,’ says Martin Birney, owner of SportActive, as we ride out of Caimari. Martin is an Irishman whose strong legs belie his years.

He runs SportActive’s tours here throughout the spring, and today he’s offered to show me and my riding partner, Therese, around our route. ‘We tend to keep them to that number,’ he adds. ‘Some of the really big tour groups can dominate the roads a little, to tell the truth.’

Despite that saturation of visitors, away from the biggest climbs much of the island goes relatively untrodden. So, with the sun just rising in Caimari, it’s the quieter routes of the island where we’ll warm up.

Out of Caimari we roll along the road to Selva, which cuts through orange groves and up into the ridge ahead.

It’s only a little after 7am, and we’re alone on the wide, fast roads. We’ve started early not just to avoid the traffic but also because today’s route is a substantial one that totals nearly 130km and involves 3,200m of climbing.

Soon enough, we’re off the main road and on a narrow stonewalled track between fields of olive trees. Ahead of us, views of the Tramuntana range’s limestone cliffs grow ever larger.

It’s a reminder of the climbing to come later in the route, but for now we allow our drowsy legs to wake up slowly on gentle lanes, further softening the blow by making a stop at cafe-cum-bike shop Planet Cycling in Alaro. At this time of year, it seems that every cafe on Mallorca is a cycling cafe.

With some espressos under our belt, we’re ready to begin the ascent to Valldemossa.

Amphitheatre of giants

The climb to Valldemossa brings us gently into the mountain range that skirts the northern edge of Mallorca. It’s a mere 5km climb at 5%, but it sees the road turn from wide and busy into winding and narrow.

In the process, we’re rewarded with views of vineyards and grand country homes, as well as the limestone rock faces ahead.

The village of Valldemossa, which awaits us at the top, is dotted with blonde stone houses set into the steep inclines of the valley, which typify the Balearic islands. This is the cultural capital of the island, and was also the setting for A Winter In Majorca by George Sand.

George Sand was in fact a Frenchwoman called Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, who had an infamous romantic affair with composer Frederic Chopin.

The autobiographical novel, published in 1842, tells the tale of their winter spent in the town while Chopin was in the throes of tuberculosis. It speaks of the beauty of Valldemossa, describing the valley as being sculpted ‘like an amphitheatre for battles between giants’.

If our route was a little shorter, and the day a little longer, Valldemossa would be a lovely setting for a second coffee stop, but as it is we decide to press on, leaving the town via a corridor of tall trees. The road leads us towards the sea, with the salty air hitting well before we make sight of the ocean.

We descend along the coast, in and out of the jagged rock formations of the valley. By the time we approach the coastal village of Deia, we have seen some of Mallorca’s prettiest vistas (albeit at speed). It makes for a pleasant and relaxed prelude to the drama of the Sa Calobra to come.

On the run-in to Deia, Therese likens the view to an oil painting of a perfect island town. Sure enough, a few minutes later, we pass a chap tucked in beside the armco, carefully painting the scene to his canvas.

Further down the coast we arrive at the town of Soller. By now we’re feeling a little windswept and considerably hungry. We’ve ridden more than 60km and decide it’s time for some lunch, so we settle down at a restaurant called Sa Frontera, which has a reassuringly large number of sleek carbon bikes stacked outside.

We order an array of espressos and tapas and discuss the remainder of the ride ahead of us. The hardest climbing by far is still to come – a double whammy of the Puig Major and Sa Calobra.

The Puig Major – affectionately named The Pig – is the island’s highest ascent, with a summit at 850m and a total gain of 830m. It rolls up at an average of 6% over 13.7km, with a few harsh 10% ramps.

It promises to be the toughest part of the day and, more worryingly, it begins almost immediately after our lunch stop.

I’ve done this climb once before, and managed to go from base to summit in under 50 minutes. As we pull away from the restaurant, however, I’m already certain that I won’t be matching that time today, and I’m beginning to think it was a mistake to order the gambas.

The early inclines don’t punish us too much, with gentle gradients and a canopy of trees protecting us from the sun’s intensity. It all seems rather pleasant until we hear a screech of brakes and a blood-curdling scream.

We sprint up ahead to see a rider sprawled out on a gravel driveway – she has plainly overshot the corner and come down hard.

Incredibly, in the time it takes us to bridge the gap between us and her, a crowd of three dozen cyclists has gathered, complete with holidaying doctors taking vital signs.

We enquire as to her welfare but are ushered away by far more qualified bystanders assuring us she’ll be fine.

‘We always have to keep an eye on riders on these descents,’ Martin says. ‘They’re smooth and fast, so it’s easy to pick up too much speed for their level of skill.’ I resolve to bear his advice in mind for later on.

As we gain height metre by metre, we catch glimpses of the valley below and the sea through gaps in the trees. We focus on maintaining a steady cadence, and it’s not long before conversation ceases, replaced by the noise of rhythmic breathing.

When we near the summit, marked by a tunnel into the mountain, we see a thick crowd of riders ahead and wonder if another crash has taken place near the mouth of the tunnel.

We shuffle our way through the pack with a degree of trepidation, only to discover it’s the view, not another calamity, that has drawn the masses. And quite a view it is – a mixture of thick forest, ragged limestone and sparkling blue sea behind it.

We don’t linger too long, however, as we have a big climb and an even better view ahead. A sharp descent takes us around a limestone cliff overlooking a mountain reservoir and below a dilapidated aqueduct until we reach the bottom of the climb to the Coll dels Reis.

Once we have climbed that, we’ll be in position to tackle the hightlight of the day: Sa Calobra.

The Snake

I’m not normally a huge fan of road construction, but the story of the architect of Sa Calobra is one worth telling.

Many mountain roads are constructed for military purposes – for example Italy’s Stelvio Pass, which was built so the Austrian empire could keep a close eye on its new territory of Tyrol.

Sa Calobra (also known as The Snake) was built solely for tourism. It was intended to be a thing of beauty as much it was a means of access to a coastal town.

The road was the work of Antonio Parietti, a Mallorcan of Italian descent. The entire road was constructed by hand, which required 31,000 cubic metres of rock to be removed from the surrounding mountainside.

So keen was Parietti to not damage the terrain by blasting holes for tunnels that he innovated the ‘tie knot’, the 270° hairpin that cuts into a rock arch below itself.

The road was opened in 1932, and has been considered a masterpiece of modern construction ever since.

From the Coll dels Reis, two tall rock walls mark the entry to the descent. We teeter over the summit and begin to accelerate as the road angles downwards.

With largely open views of the road ahead and dizzying hairpins wherever we look it feels like a go-kart track, so we throw ourselves into its inviting twists and turns.

And because we’ve timed our descent for the onset of evening, we’re lucky to have the road largely to ourselves.

We reach the port with thumping hearts and windswept hair, and roll down to the beach at the very bottom to look out over the sea.

The sun has settled just between the two rock ledges that mark the entrance to the port, and if it weren’t for the 30km of riding still ahead of us, we’d settle in for a glass of wine to watch the sun hit the sea.

The ascent of Sa Calobra is an almost perfect test of form. Taking around 35 minutes for a good amateur, it requires both power and endurance, and has long been a favourite of WorldTour pros.

Thanks to its popularity, it’s also one of the few climbs in the world where reputable WorldTour pros can fall well outside the 100 best Strava times. Alex Dowsett’s PB sits just below the top 50 (admittedly it was the third of three reps of the climb).

We wind through the first few corners at a healthy cadence. Just after 2km, we’re beginning to find our rhythm as we hit the first landmark of the ascent – a pair of giant stone slabs that lean against each other like a perfectly balanced pair of cards.

When tour buses come through, it’s always a nervous moment watching to see whether they’ll manage to squeeze between them. I’ve tackled this climb a few times in the past and have often been advised to soft-pedal until this point to conserve energy. It’s advice I hope someday to follow.

Ramping up the pace, we emerge from the trees of the lower slopes and onto a near-perfect parabolic curve of road across the hillside. Around us, the view is now of rock formations rather than thick layers of trees.

On top of one stack of rocks a goat stands proudly, as if making a proclamation from a plinth.

Above, the road spreads over the hillside in a series of folds like a cloth draped over the landscape. When we reach the hairpins they offer a rewarding sense of elevation as we take each in succession. There are 12 in total, and while on ascents such as the Stelvio I make an effort to count them down, on Sa Calobra I simply enjoy each one.

When the tie knot comes into view I know there’s only 2km to go. The pace creeps up, and on a racy training camp this would be the perfect time to empty the tank.

I glance at Martin to see if he is about to launch a sprint finish, but he maintains a poker face, for which I am truly thankful.

Quite against normal etiquette, we stop briefly above the tie knot and turn back to appreciate the view. There aren’t many like it, where the sea and sun act in tandem to spotlight the mountain formations of the coast, all decorated by a perfect ribbon of road.

We ride back over the summit, through the stone arches, then follow the road on its sinewy descent from Lluc to Caimari. By now we have the road to ourselves, with only a few straggling cyclists and tourists making their way home in the last of the evening light.

From the blonde stone houses of Valldemossa to the epic ascent of Puig Major to the coastal beauty of Sa Calobra, the scenes from today’s ride reel through my mind.

It’s strange to think that a craggy outcrop of limestone on the coast of a Mediterranean island, and a 1930s architect desperate not to spoil the natural beauty of a mountainside, could make anyone so happy to be a cyclist.

Welcome to the Funhouse

Saddle up for a thrill-packed ride

To download this route, visit cyclist.co.uk/78mallorca. Beginning in Caimari, head south to Selva and Llosetta, before swinging back toward the north for the town of Alaro.

From there, follow the quiet roads of the Ma2020 toward S’Esgleieta, where the route turns north for Valldemossa. Follow the coastal road to Deia and Soller, then up the Puig Major.

From the summit, descend to the reservoir along the Ma10 and look out for a sharp left turn towards the Coll de Reis. Descend to Sa Calobra and climb back up, before following the Ma10 again to Lluc and the descent back down to Caimari. 

The rider’s ride

Orro Signature Gold STC Di2, £4,299.99, orrobikes.com

Orro is a UK brand that’s done a sterling job of establishing itself among the big boys in the endurance market. One reason for its success is that the Di2-equipped Orro Gold, complete with carbon wheelset and hand-painted carbon frame, represents fantastic value at a penny under £4,300. And it isn’t just a bike for the fiscally minded.

The Orro combines a comfortable ride with plenty of agility. It held speed well on descents, aided by the deep section carbon Fulcrum Racing Quattro wheels, and although it didn’t corner as sharply as some of the stiffest race bikes on the market the handling was predictable and the frame filtered out the worst of the road imperfections that might often unsettle a speedy descent.

It isn’t the lightest bike on the market, at around 7.5kg, but in terms of climbing the Orro has plenty of rigidity at the rear end, which helped to preserve power and spur me on up the sharper inclines. With the custom paintjob, it was also the perfect fit for the handsome roads of Mallorca.

How we did it

Travel

Palma Mallorca airport is serviced by several low-cost airlines as well as British Airways, which in many circumstances can work out cheaper when travelling with a bike.

We rented a car to make the short drive over to our hotel in Port de Pollença, although SportActive also offers a reasonably priced transfer service.

Accommodation

SportActive works with the four-star Hotel Zafiro in Port d’Alcudia.

The hotel boasts a workshop for cyclists, and half-board accommodation is included in SportActive’s package rate, which starts at €630 for seven nights for a shared studio room in March.

Thanks

Many thanks to Martin and Flora from SportActive for supporting our ride, creating our route and offering advice on the region.

As well as packages, SportActive offers bike rental from €155 for a range of carbon bikes, with cheaper prices for aluminium builds. Throughout April and in October, former pro Sean Kelly rides with the group.

Visit sportactive.net for more details.