I waited on a remote Spanish country road with about 20 spandex-clad strangers ranging broadly in age. Our shorts were equipped with built-in padding, a style that is attractive on approximately no one. We introduced ourselves and discovered that everyone was from either the U.S. or Canada. Meanwhile, a young local guide adjusted our rental bikes and summarized the 40-kilometer ride ahead. He ended with a warning: “Remember, this isn’t a contest.”
“That’s what he thinks,” I said to the tall, silver-haired man standing next to me. One of the younger ones, I scanned the group and mentally prepared to lead the way.
I had arrived on the Spanish island of Mallorca the day before, alone and exhausted. As I pulled my suitcase through the tiny sunlit airport, the reality of a long-distance bike trip abroad was just starting to sink in. I headed toward the exit and massaged a cramp in my neck, wondering if the three spin classes I’d taken had prepared me to bike up endless, steep inclines.
My concerns disappeared when I stepped outside. The rustle of palm trees and distant view of mountains were enough to convince me I was in the right place.
I was lured to Mallorca by a well-oiled bike culture that attracts the Lance Armstrongs of the world year round. Despite my lifelong obsession with Spain, I knew nothing about the island until I traveled there a few years ago. It’s located in the Mediterranean off the western coast of Spain—part of the same Balearic archipelago as its hard-partying sister, Ibiza.
By the time I met my fellow cyclists, my neck cramp had disappeared. So had my trepidation over biking alongside cliffs while jet-lagged. I rarely traverse anything more challenging than a highway overpass, but I felt ready to attack the next five days head-on.
Soon we were out of the gate. Within 10 minutes, I was huffing up a dusty road and struggling to keep up with a 69-year-old lady from Mississippi. Eventually, I gave up. With my group nowhere in sight, I decided to take my time, enjoy the scenery and take copious amounts of pictures.
I spent most of the week on my own. Each day we did a longer route on a different part of the island. I started to suspect the others were studying their maps in advance. But solitude has its advantages. For one thing, I was forced to follow the written directions and odometer strapped to my handlebars. At rest stops I chatted with cyclists from around the globe who were there to enjoy the mild climate, hilly mountain passes and sparse, bike-friendly traffic.
Old World Landscapes
Once I got over my fear of biking into the woods and losing all contact with civilization, I was able to savor my surroundings: olive and orange groves, terraced hillsides and barns with manual plows that are still in use. The local government has taken pains to preserve the 18th-Century windmills that still dot the landscape. Horses, sheep and deer graze among wildflowers and occasionally wander into the road—a regular reminder to control downhill cruising speeds.
Cool Mallorquìn Signage
On one of the longest and steepest slogs, a strain in my left knee caused my leg to give out halfway up the mountain. That left my right leg to do most of the work while my left foot sat on the pedal like a dead weight. With no van service on the way up, all I could do was pedal in small spurts. Every few minutes I would dismount, rest and discover more uniquely Mallorcan qualities. Like all of the awesome road signs.
Both Catalan and Spanish are spoken on the island, yet most of the signage is in Mallorquìn, a language similar to Catalan. They point out agricultural landmarks and tell you when to expect hikers or falling objects. My favorites, though, were the wordless signs whose meaning was pretty much up for interpretation. One had a single exclamation point, as if to indicate something very unexpected would happen soon. The road will end abruptly? You will beat that 69-year-old lady to the hotel?
I took it as a sign I would make it up the hill.