Jorji explores the White Isle, famed for its party scene and dance music, to see if it holds anything of promise for mountain bikers.
Words by Jorji Frederiksen, pictures by Victor Lucas.
I feel somewhat out of place as I navigate my bike bag through the tide of pinstripe suits marching through London City Airport.
The lady at the check-in desk hasn’t even seen a bike bag before. She confers with her confused colleagues as they shoot glances of mistrust at the bulky bag, which I assume they think contains a body, or bomb. In the end it’s me who has to explain the airline’s sporting goods policy to them. The excess baggage hatch high up in the wall isn’t bike friendly either. Perfectly designed for golf clubs or skis perhaps – the more typical sports equipment of the business traveller.
It’s fair to say that few bikes pass through London City Airport. But this is where I must catch my flight to Ibiza, as in the winter months it’s the only UK airport from which flights to the White Isle depart.
Ghostly White Isle.
In stark contrast to the focused busyness of London City, Ibiza’s airport is post-apocalyptic quiet. A single luggage belt trickles out our bags and we are seemingly the only flight to have arrived for a while.
I’m met by photographer Victor Lucas, and as we drive north to our apartment on this sunny February afternoon, the roads are eerily empty too. Not a transfer bus is to be seen and we pass by closed cafés, whose plastic chairs have clearly been stacked and chained up for months. This is a very different Ibiza to that which I remember from post-exam celebrations many full moon parties ago. The only suggestion it’s the same place are the weather-worn billboards advertising club nights and season closing parties, all of which happened months previously.
Sky that deep, rich, cloud-flecked blue…
It’s green; so very green. We pass by lush meadows, thick with early spring grass and wild flowers. Perfectly aligned almond trees in full white blossom grace terrace after terrace and the sky is that deep, rich, cloud-flecked blue I haven’t seen for too long in the soggy UK.
Mountain biking isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when Ibiza is mentioned. Having had a love affair with Spain for years, and already being a fan of the riding to be found in the mainland’s south, it seemed fair to assume that the mountain biking in Ibiza could be worth further investigation. Though as we press on towards our accommodation, laughing at the Google Maps lady pronouncing Catalan names in a curt English accent, a small part of me is worried. I’ve no idea what riding is in store, let alone whether or not there will be enough to justify my trip.
My invite had originated from Ash, British mountain bike guide, founder of Ride Ibiza and insanely enthusiastic fellow, who landed here a couple of years previously. Intent on finding an undiscovered mountain biking corner of Europe, he’d researched the island’s biking potential prior to arriving with the time-honoured desktop adventurer’s methods of Google Earth and YouTube.
The gamble, hunch and unlikely research methods paid off, however, and he couldn’t have been more excited as he started to uncover a vast network of trails, island-wide. Overgrown though they were – the trails he found ranged from amiable cross-country gentleness, to steep and technical downhill descents – with everything in-between. Some were established mountain bike trails built by a local government initiative several years ago, while others were old donkey paths, unused and long forgotten.
He was elated as he allowed his front wheel to flick whichever way he fancied, discovering more and more kilometres of fast, flowy descents, gentle climbing sections, drops, technical steeps, railable corners and sharp, tricky climbs. Odd tyre tracks, bermed corners and kicker jumps were all tell-tale signs of bike activity on the quieter trails and a validation of their potential.
Ash was to discover two distinct camps of mountain bikers on the island: the supremely fit marathon and cross-country riders, and the adrenaline-fuelled downhill set, with only a few locals riding all mountain style. Yet he was welcomed by the local riders, happy to allow an extranjero to play on their trails – especially when he introduced some of them to his own discoveries in return.
He’d discovered exactly what he was looking for: a relatively unknown bike playground. With a bike infrastructure already in place – good bike shops, some established marked trails and a generally bike-friendly local government – he was confident enough to entice his girlfriend Liz and Swedish friend Tomas over, as Ride Ibiza was born.
Ibiza is far better known as a dance music hedonist’s paradise, though. As we weave through the beautiful, twisted streets of Ibiza’s old town (and if history is your thing, Ibiza has a rather interesting and tumultuous one), tour guide and Ibizan local Miquel Tur explains it started way back in the ’60s.
Prior to this, Balearic islanders lived a relatively free but near-prehistoric lifestyle while mainland Spain endured dictatorship rule. Dominated by fishing and farming, life was simple, dress could be confused for that of the previous century, and only a few roads traversed the islands. Mainland Spaniards started to seek holiday refuge in these sunny sanctuaries and as the beginnings of a tourist trade flourished, many islanders abandoned traditional ways of life in favour of tourist ventures.
A mutually confused and mostly happy coexistence.
So began a migration of country folk to the tourist hotspots. Behind them, rambling farmhouses were left empty – which on Ibiza were snapped up by travelling hippies, who turned them into communes. Word spread and more of these alternative lifestylers arrived from all over the world. With them they brought everything the traditional Ibizans didn’t understand, but the two factions managed a mutually confused and mostly happy coexistence. The hippies almost became a tourist attraction themselves, selling their handcrafted wares in the long-established hippy markets.
Modern music and parties also arrived with the tie-dyed immigrants – and in the early ’70s, the first superclubs were born. Many started out as parties on the terraces of farmhouses or restaurants. As they grew, some were taken over by serious Madrid club owners and the rich, famous and beautiful flocked to the island.
Sad though, that this is peoples’ primary association with Ibiza, as the more we travel into the hills and the quieter areas, the more I am overwhelmed by the island’s beauty. Breathtaking hilltop vistas, sweet-smelling pine forests, glistening aquamarine seas dotted with magical islands, quiet secret coves (at least until the summer party boats periodically interrupt the peace) and – of course – Ibiza’s world-renowned white beaches. UNESCO heritage sites proliferate too, protecting large swathes of the island from development.
In fact, the majority of summer tourism and development is isolated in small pockets – and that’s just the way the locals like it. Just as they like the hedonistic party season being concentrated into three months in high summer. Gentler, family-orientated tourism extends a couple of months either side of this while in the winter months, with fewer cheap flights available, the island returns to its slow-paced, sleepy self.
However, the local tourist office is working hard to promote the other facets of the island’s potential and is trying to challenge the perception of Ibiza as solely a party capital. All manner of outdoor activities are possible and readily available year-round in the temperate winter climate: sea kayaking, hill walking, sailing, climbing, diving, horse riding – and of course, mountain biking.
Campo a Través.
Keen to hear about the heritage of mountain biking on the island, we spend a day with Joshua Bonder – a keen local rider, who works at the Ibizasport bike shop in San Antonio. (A momentary misreading of his name did mean the evening prior was spent wondering if we’d discovered the retirement hideaway of Red Bull Rampager Josh Bender…)
Setting off from Ibizasport, we follow the deserted promenade out of San Antonio, past cheerfully painted houses, which soon filter out into almond terraces as the climb up into the hills begins. With three days riding already in our legs, Joshua sets a fast pace, but the climb is dotted with prime photo spots – so frequent stops luckily break the slog. We are following route eight, one of the 21 official mountain bike routes on the island. Graded into green, blue, red and black trails, they vary from short, meandering coastal routes to long, arduous, cross-country missions.
We pass through cool Mediterranean pine trees and over abandoned terrace walls. Soon the climb settles into a hilltop traverse with spectacular views back down the island, before dropping into a fun section of fast, twisty singletrack. And, as ever is the way, it’s this gentle cross-country day on which I decide to have my fall.
Never underestimate the power of mighty duct tape…
My front wheel washes out on damp clay and I bail into a wall of sharp limestone fragments that do their best to gouge lumps out of my chin. Luckily we’re armed with a comprehensive first aid kit (ahem), so set about patching up the damage with a restaurant wet wipe and a small piece of frayed duct tape pinched from Victor’s camera bag. Never underestimate the power of mighty duct tape…
With the traditional crash of the week safely out of the way, we continue onwards and drop out onto a particularly pretty coastal route back to San Antonio. As we pedal along rocky cliffs, past empty beaches and jaw-droppingly beautiful coves, a dip seems all too inviting – scuffed chin or not. These are the same stretches of sand and rock over which tourists fight for square inches of sunbathing space in the summer, but despite temperatures in the balmy mid-teens we pass only a solo fisherman.
Joshua explains how the summer months are busy times for bike hire at Ibizasport. With trail maps printed in their thousands, clear markers at all major trail intersections, and even GPX files downloadable from the tourist board website, customers come from across Europe to self-guide themselves on Ibiza’s network of trails.
Ibizasport is also heavily involved in organising La Vuelta – gruelling three- and five-day multi-stage cross-country marathons, which take place every April around the island. Having run for 14 years, the event attracts over 1,000 participants, half from overseas. Sponsored cross-country teams use the event as spring training and competition is fierce. In true Ibizan style though, one of the main sponsors is superclub Space and its familiar logo stands proud on the event’s race jersey.
That ‘riding bikes by another name’ thing.
Ride Ibiza does seem to have found itself a perfect little niche on the island, filling the ‘all mountain’ gap which the terrain is crying out for. And it’s been busy; as well as the network of official trails, the RI crew have explored the majority of the island, seeking out trails with a bit more spice. They have cleaned trails, added features, and sanitised those that are deathly – as well as ‘enlivening’ the odd forgotten goat track themselves. The whole of Ibiza is privately owned, but access policy dictates that if a trail exists over private land, it must continue to be publicly accessible, no matter who owns it.
Ride Ibiza’s patrons have also made friends with the local riders, who are now on board with their riding style, and gone about their work sensitively, to keep the non-riding Ibizans sweet. The enthusiasm doesn’t stop there, either; they’ve landscaped their gardens into a mini bike park, with a fun pump track out front and a series of dirt jumps and berms in the back yard.
‘Enlivening’ the odd forgotten goat track…
The fine, heavily-worked agricultural dirt has allowed them to dig, test, flatten, remake, play and fine-tune the features and, since I left in early February, the bike park has been finished. As if that wasn’t enough, Can Truy bike park is a two-minute pedal down the road. Built by fellow bike enthusiast Art, who also has a small but rammed bike museum, the park is a fun, non-technical couple of miles of North Shore-style woodwork, berms, kickers and a wall ride.
The majority of Ibiza’s riding is in the trail network though, meandering through the hills. Man-made at some point in the past, the trails now have a distinctly natural feel with a huge variation in trail types. One minute you can be racing down smooth, forested tracks, cooled by the shade of the foliage, before you pop out onto a sun-baked, technical descent, drift round a gravelly corner, then back into the trees. Loops of varying lengths and varying difficulties are all waiting to be explored.
Should gravity-orientated riding be more your thing, many of the descents are shuttleable too. Though the climbs are never particularly long – the highest point on the island is only 475m above sea level – and as the island heats up in the summer months, I see the shuttling option being a popular one.
Notable favourites for me were the Cala Salada descent (ending at a stunner of a beach, complete with bar), the loop incorporating the fun and technical Infierno trail and of course the urban run at night through the Old Town. Popping off ledges, down steps, through tight and twisty streets – ending with cocktails and cerveza in the square. Take lights for this one – it’s not to be missed, if only to sit among Ibiza’s glamorous and beautiful in your bike kit. The riding on Ibiza isn’t endless Alpine style, but tucked into those small 220 square miles is enough to keep the busiest rider content for a good few weeks.
The primary aim of Ride Ibiza is for riders of all abilities to enjoy the island’s riding. Whether riders are with the RI crew for a day, a week or more, rides will be tailored to the group’s preferred riding style and ability level. Such is Ride Ibiza’s passion for providing a first-class mountain bike stay, they’ll actively forgo a full house, should it impinge on having a similar riding ability across a group.
The team particularly enjoys skills coaching – and hopes to encourage those in need of tuition and confidence boosting to visit the White Isle for a top-up. Accommodation is rustic but comfortable, and all palates are catered for – from committed omnivore to picky vegan. A local, sustainable and healthy ethos underpins the catering – just as it does the entire Ride Ibiza venture.
Time ran out on my stay and I never did get jumping the big stuff as hoped. So, in the time-honoured tradition of the mountain bike journalist, I’m going back to see the Ride Ibiza crew for a busman’s spring holiday before this story even gets onto the page you’re holding now. Testament surely to the great riding and beauty of a sleepy Ibiza in the winter: two visits inside two months. There’s just the small matter of another battle through London City Airport to contend with first…
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