For a good while I managed to keep up with the lead group and a voice inside my head could be heard ‘’who’s that behind Roche? It looks like Gilks, It looks like Keith Gilks, It is Keith Gilks, he actually kept up with Roche!’’ It wasn’t the only time that day that Stephen’s super human effort at La Plagne in the 1987 Tour de France came into mind. I was living the dream, feeling like a pro, cycling with a legend and climbing a monster of a mountain typical of a stage in the Veulta. Then another pro rider experience hit me; I cracked. Suddenly I could no longer keep up the pace and my speed dropped by 2 km/h. Not a lot but enough to see Stephen and two of our group, John and Lawrence disappear into the distance. The next time I saw Stephen was 15 minutes later when he was freewheeling back down the hill to catch up with the group behind me! As he sped past he shouted encouragement that I was nearing the top. I hoped so!
At last the summit came into sight; John had pipped Lawrence to the polka dot jersey. I joined them and caught my breath. Augustini directed us through the tunnel where the support vehicle was waiting for us, with what can only be described as a cyclist’s picnic; bananas, haribos, cereal snacks, marshmallow, gels, water, and electrolyte available to all.
Refuelled and with gilets on, we took off on the glorious descent heading for the Sa Colabra. Unfortunately my rear tyre developed a fault half way down. I pulled over to join Lawrence who had suffered a front puncture. Within a couple of minutes Stephen and Miguel (ride captain) stopped to help out. The support vehicle pulled up and to my amazement Stephen quickly grabbed a rear wheel, taken my faulty one off and replaced it. I had just been served by a Triple Crown Champion, acting as my domesitque! To me this summed up the outlook and service of the company and the measure of the man. He could have asked or even ordered Toni the mechanic to replace my wheel, but had chosen instead to crack on with it thus limiting my time off the bike to an absolute minimum. No wonder other members of the team when they witness the boss being so proactive and humble, act so courteously and can’t do enough to help guests ensuring they simply have the best time cycling with the company.
On the fast descent Stephen caught me up and we cycled together by the magnificent Gorg Blau lake. The flat road gave me an opportunity to chat a little further. I asked if he thought he would be the last Triple Crown winner, to which he replied he thought it was still possible for someone to achieve the elusive title. By definition tour winners/riders are good all-rounders; however the World Champs can be quite specific and not suit every tour winner. As we chatted about Nicolas (his professional racing son) and how he thought his move to Sky was good for him, Stephen nonchalantly removed his gilet taking both hands off the bars with complete control of the bike even though we were going at a fair pace. Worried that I might veer and knock him off, I concentrated on controlling my bike as I didn’t want to be known as the guy who caused the ex – World Champion to break his collar bone in Mallorca. Don’t think I’m ready for the peloton yet!
A short climb and we were at the top of the Coll des Reis, the start of the awesome Sa Colabra. The Sa Colabra isn’t called iconic for nothing. It immediately fills you with awe as you turn and twist down under the road like some sort of scalextric track built by a 10 year old, before you know it you are negotiating bend after bend as the road snakes down to the coast hugging the side of the mountain through amazing scenery. Not that you get a chance to really appreciate the distinctive landscape as you need to concentrate to enjoy the gravity assisted plunge down to the sea. Besides there will be plenty of time to admire the view on the way back up the 7% 10km pass.
At the start I was following Stephen, expecting to pick up tips on descending like a pro. Needless to say, even though Stephen was taking it easy and not going down ‘like the cables had been cut’, as in his racing days, he had lost me by turn three!
After the 26th and final turn we all met up at the bottom looking like a bunch of ‘laughing gas addicts’ on a day trip from Magaluf, with silly ear to ear grins. However when the time came to ascend the grins were soon replaced by grimaces and wide eyes.
Around the dinner table on the first night I had met Mike, a mathematician and cycling analyst wizard. Not only had Mike told fellow guests their best time for time trails, specific ascents and judged their weight to the nearest kg. He also predicted my time up the Sa Colabra. I didn’t want to let him down so I started the uphill challenge determined to achieve the time Mike had set and must have looked at my watch as much as the scenery. At one point Stephen had kindly waited for me for a photo opportunity and I spent a little time climbing the favourite training hill of pro teams with him. Forever the professional he eventually peeled off to ride with and help other guests. Eventually the café under the bridge at the false summit appeared. I was tempted to stop but knew Mike’s time was based on reaching the true summit. I persevered and hoped David had taken me seriously about having a defibrillator to hand. Through my smeared and sweat stained glasses, the summit sign appeared. For the second time that day the thought of La Plagne crossed my mind, I sprinted to the sign, collapsed in a heap, heart pounding, breath gasping. My little and quite honestly feeble replication and tribute to Stephen’s finish on that famous stage had done the trick. I had beaten Mike’s prediction by seconds.
There was no one at the top to witness my efforts or to administer oxygen, but in the solitude I could gather my thoughts. Stephen’s pinnacle may have been winning the Triple Crown in 1987, but mine was right here, right now. I had had a tremendous morning riding in a cyclist’s heaven with a cyclist’s god, climbing and descending classic Cols accumulating in the most iconic of all. My enthusiasts cycling ‘career’ was at its height. Surely nothing could beat today’s experience. Feeling a little emotional I cycled down to join the others and to celebrate with Mike.
With the major climbing out the way and with fuel tanks near to empty, we set off to Lluc for a fabulous Mallorcan lunch at the Can Gallet restaurant, with soft or not so soft drinks included. The meal was rounded off with coffee and a shot of your favourite spirit (optional!). This was another opportunity for me to pester Stephen who talked with passion about of all the successes his charity rides were making in raising money for equipment and support for cancer and also of plans for the ‘Legacy of the Giro’ in Ireland.
Lunch over, it was time for gilets and we were descending through glorious woods and more switchback turns into Caimari. From there it was an interesting route on smaller and ‘hidden back roads’ until we joined the PM-202 back to Bunyola and the waiting chariots to transport us back to base.
It had been an awesome three days, but as I said my goodbyes to the team, I knew I would be seeing them again – the next time I would have my family in tow. I had come here three days ago feeling like a cycling tourist, but was leaving feeling like a professional rider.
Coll de Soller
Length 5 km
Avg Gradient 5%
Climb of 257m
Length 14 km
Avg Gradient 6.2%
Climb of 830m
Length 9.4 km
Avg Gradient 7%
Climb of 670m