Singletrack Magazine Issue 113 : The Winter Sun Chancers

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Words and Photography Antony de Heveningham

The post-Christmas period is a dark time for mountain biking in the UK. Fitness and motivation are low and the only thing on the menu is muddy slop, liberally garnished with wind and rain. To counteract the depression, Antony and his partner Celia have started a tradition of late winter budget biking adventures.

A bikepacking trip to Bulgaria last year certainly ticked the adventure box, although I have some repressed memories of pushing bikes through mud that rivalled anything back in Blighty, and hurriedly donning overtrousers to stop ice forming on my bare shins. So this year we looked further south.

Just now it seems like everyone is disappearing off to Majorca for some sun and skinny tyres. Menorca isn’t as well known as its pointy, roadie-beloved, cousin, being more synonymous with upmarket beach holidays. What draws our interest is the Cami de Cavalls, a 200km walking, riding and mountain biking path that completely encircles the island. There’s a very defined tourist season – direct flights don’t start until after Easter, and many places to eat and sleep are closed. But if we went self-supported and camped wild, none of this would matter. Or would it?

Making it up.

So we find ourselves packing for a fully loaded trip.

Our (t)rusty singlespeeds are prepped for action. Tyres are (mostly) tubelessed. A swanky bike bag is borrowed. Packing lists are made and ticked off. Bagged-up bicycles are weighed with a groan. And, just as I’m wondering how I can drop a bit of weight from my setup, Celia hands me half a kilo of incredibly dense home-baked fruit cake – an imposition that later turns out to be a great move. We also pack swimmers and snorkels, because, even after the coldest Mediterranean winter in years, the sea over there will probably be warmer than it ever gets in the UK.

After the obligatory budget flight, and a ferry crossing seemingly designed to prevent any sleep unless you splash out the extra for a proper cabin, we emerge blinking into a gloriously technicolour version of the familiar Spanish landscape. There are the usual greys and browns dotted with white houses, but also lush green meadows, towering roadside fennels with bursts of yellow flowers, and pink and purple vetches. Coffee is drunk, packed lunches and dry rations are procured, and we head off into the hills.

As the first off-road climb hits, we realise that bikes with one gear may not be the ideal tool for the job. (How many hundreds of times has this observation appeared in bike trip write-ups? I think I just answered my own question.) The trail bucks up and down like an angry Loch Ness monster made of pointy rocks, with plenty of loose gravel, wooden steps, and ‘if I roll this, will I die?’ moments. It’s hard work, and not entirely rideable on any bike, especially one laden with camping gear, but at least none of the pushes last more than a few minutes. 

There are a lot of gates too, although they’re beautifully crafted from waney local timber and close with a nice musical clack.

A few disasters.

The first day’s riding is punctuated by a series of small disasters. I tear the end off a drybag while trying to squash my clothes into it. My bar harness loses one of its rubber spacers, and for the remainder of the trip it has to be kept away from my brake cables by Celia’s flannel. My camera mysteriously decides that it no longer recognises its lens, and stops working. And our very first snorkelling session almost ends the trip, as I slip sideways on a green rock shelf and emerge from the chilly water with a deep cut in my palm. I patch up my hand with Steri-Strips and we enjoy a brief exploration of an underwater garden of eelgrass, complete with a slightly unnerving encounter with a small, but purposeful, jellyfish. The trail passes tons of beaches, all completely deserted and holiday-brochure perfect, and it’s great to have caught a glimpse of the hidden world that lies beneath the languid blue water.

Riding on, the names on the map make us think we might be drawing nearer to a late afternoon ice cream, an end-of-the-day beer, and a fancy restaurant dinner, before we retreat to the woods for the night. When we arrive at the next town, though, our hopes are dashed. The houses are shuttered, the supermarket is closed, and the only people we see are a gang of workmen building a new pavement. One of them points us towards a bigger town and we dutifully backtrack a mile or two to find an open bar, but no food. It’s now getting late and we need to find somewhere to camp before it gets completely dark, so we top up our water and retrace our steps. 

An abandoned beach bar look promising, but the inside is a mess of rubbish and broken glass. However, there’s a small glade of trees just behind it with a patch of concrete that’s perfect for an outdoor kitchen.

We’ve previously stocked up on instant spaghetti carbonara, and it turns out to be surprisingly palatable, particularly when garnished with slices of lomo curado, a horrible-looking alien proboscis of cured pork fillet that I impulse purchased that morning. Breakfast the following morning is the aforementioned fruit cake, and I’m extremely glad that I agreed to carry it. Self-reliance will be a recurring theme over the next few days.

And repeat in sunshine.

The next day is a mix of flowy clifftop singletrack, gentle green meadows that could be somewhere on the South Downs, and absolutely murderous hikeabikes up steep rocky switchbacks. It’s relatively cool, but we’ve yet to pass an open shop since the start of the trail 30 miles back and the water situation is still a worry. We find regular top-ups, but only by coming off the route to fill up at a village pump and a Don Quixote-themed beach bar.

Each section of the trail has its own character, and the craggy hills and lush green valleys of the north give way to a seemingly endless pumice field, 20 miles of continuous rock garden that requires a fair bit of concentration to negotiate. The trail has flattened out a lot, but is still rising just enough to make things hard work. 

The rocks are the geological equivalent of Mr Han, the knife-handed baddie from Enter the Dragon – I topple sideways onto them in a silly low-speed crash and suddenly I’m bleeding profusely from a myriad of small but nasty cuts. 

The towns we pass through are still closed ‘todo cerrado’, but we do start to encounter more people, and after a long day we arrive at Ciutadella, Menorca’s main city. 

It’s a lovely place, with a rambling old town full of beautiful buildings, so it’s an easy decision to linger for a night and top up on civilisation and supplies.

Leaving civilisation again.

The next day it’s back into the never-ending pumice field. I have one tyre on my bike that isn’t tubeless, and, of course, I manage to get a succession of pinch flats, even with some very tentative riding. But soon we’re at the south-west tip of the island, and there’s even an open tapas bar. We enjoy a post-lunch swim, although it’s cut short after a seagull takes an interest in our kit. 

The terrain gets hillier again, and there are some great bashy descents before we’re spat out at Macarella, a stunning natural harbour with cliffs pockmarked by spooky abandoned caves. It’s like a location from The Goonies, and I keep expecting One-Eyed Willy’s galleon to sail around the headland. There are ‘no camping’ signs and I’d expect to get moved on if we stayed here in summer, but the beach empties as night falls so we’re able to set up in the woods back from the beach and enjoy the stars as they come out.

The moon is full and a terrible barking noise rends the stillness of the night. I realise that it has emanated from the creature next to me in the hammock – it’s followed by several more guttural cries, then a request for the cough medicine in her hydration pack. The wash of the ocean has sucked the heat away from the land, and it’s cold even with our down underquilt. Gradually we’re lulled back to sleep by the sea, and a Radio 4 podcast about jazz. Nice.

Contrived radness.

When we wake the next morning the sea is actually steaming as the sun warms it up. We stage a quick bit of contrived radness on the last descent of the previous day for the benefit of photos, followed by some actual radness on the cliffside paths into the next town. We’ve discovered that although most of the cafes and bars are shut, there’s usually one open to feed the army of workmen who are busy sprucing things up for the coming season. A quick diversion off the trail and we manage to find it and fill up on bocadillos, their version of the sandwich.

The rest of the morning’s riding is hootsome wooded singletrack, interspersed with flip-flop retrieval missions as these make multiple bids for freedom. It’s much more rideable than the section round the north of the island, and I even start feeling confident enough to have a lunchtime danger beer. The trail isn’t finished with us yet though, and the next section passes through a steep chalky gorge with a few pushes that are basically bouldering with bikes. 

We slog on and the trail mellows out into a maze of walled lanes full of orchids and asphodel. Gradually the landscape becomes more urbanised, the road sections become longer, and the last section is mainly a cruise along beachfront streets followed by a bit of road back to Mahón. We are tired, sunburned, salty and sandy – and more than ready for one final day at the beach.

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