The land flattened out as we pedaled toward the mountains, which loomed ahead like the broken jawbone of an old skull. Almond groves lined the roadway, and the windblown trees, leafing out and nearly shed of their blossoms, leaned away from the mountains at a sharp angle, as if cowering at the sight of the peaks. In our first two days of cycling through Mallorca we’d endured nothing more strenuous than a few rolling hills, just enough of a challenge to complement the picture-perfect landscape and the food and wine that this Spanish island offers in abundance. But with the Serra de Tramuntana now upon us—the range that brings world-class cyclists to this island from around the globe—that was about to change.
It was early March. Shoulder season in Mallorca, although this year it was a shoulder season unlike any other. Looking back, it was foolish to have gone at all, but when I boarded my flight in New York there were no travel restrictions to Spain, and the COVID-19 cases reported there were still in the hundreds. I hadn’t understood how quickly things were moving, didn’t realize that a week after my arrival the number of cases in Spain would reach 11,000 and the death toll would soar by a factor of 30— numbers that would soon be dwarfed as the virus swept across the planet.
I had landed in Palma on the day the World Health Organization declared the virus outbreak a pandemic, setting a surreal and disorienting tone for my time there. But it was also eerily beautiful.
The largest of the Balearic Islands, Mallorca sits on the map like a forgotten piece of a puzzle, floating in the Mediterranean halfway between Barcelona and Algiers. It is blessed with stunning beaches of white sand, brilliant blue water, ancient villages, and mountains plunging spectacularly into the sea that are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. My arrival fell in a small window in which hotels and restaurants remained open but travelers were dwindling—the streets, beaches, and bars unusually quiet.
Cycling in the countryside would prove to be an escape—lungfuls of fresh air, sunshine on pale skin, and platters of tapas served with cold local cava. I was fortunate to be in the experienced hands of Butterfield & Robinson, which specializes in luxury bike trips and has deep knowledge of Mallorcan culture. Alfonso Ochoa Vega, a Venezuelan cyclist and adventure enthusiast who has lived on the island for six years, was my main guide for the week. Lean and athletic, he described the climbs that awaited us in the mountains as we ate lunch on my first day—grilled artichokes and red prawns in garlic butter. “Don’t worry, you can always switch to an e-bike,” he said with a wry smile, sizing me up. “But I bet you refuse.”
At the Es Princep hotel in Palma (from $340; esprincep.com) late that afternoon, the rooftop was awash in gold as the sun went down. After dark a cruise ship left port and headed out to sea. A fog rolled in, and the lights hitting the cathedral, up on the hill, set off a glow like a bonfire.
Our first day on the road, we took off from Sineu, a town in the center of the island that dates back to the Roman Empire. After cycling 15 miles of mostly flat roads, we arrived at an old stone windmill on the vineyards of Mesquida Mora, a biodynamic winery with 50 acres of grapes growing in chalky soil. A locally sourced picnic lunch awaited us—pambolis (open-faced sandwiches assembled with tomatoes, cheeses, and cured meats) and coca (a focaccia-like flatbread), all drizzled with olive oil made down the road and sprinkled with sea salt from the coast. Co-owner Bàrbara Mesquida Mora poured her Acrollam Blanc, a delectable, minerally white.
Related: Exploring the Balearic Islands
My room for the night was in the nearby Finca Serena (from $260; fincaserenamallorca.com), a 13th-century estate of nine buildings that was refurbished and opened in the spring of 2019 as a luxury hotel. Four 500-year-old olive trees grow along its eastern façade, like something out of Tolkien—with new branches sprouting from thick gnarled trunks. I sat under one of them with a glass of cava, alone in the courtyard as it grew dark. A European robin was the only thing that broke the quiet, flitting among the olive trees and singing incessantly, as if he were wondering where the hell everyone had gone.
In three days of cycling we covered 90 miles. We saw other riders in the flatlands, but the big draw is the Serra de Tramuntana, which was always there on the horizon, taunting us. I’d heard that Lance Armstrong is scheduled to lead a bike tour there in September for $30,000 per rider. It was hard to imagine such a trip, considering the state of things. Still, the landscape was cinematic and mesmerizing as it rolled by. We biked past fields of young wheat and fava beans, splashed with fig trees, citrus, and patches of spiky artichoke plants. Falcons hunted in the orchards, swooping high over the ground and then plummeting in a nosedive. The roads were lined with dry stone walls and colorful wildflowers. The cycling was a remarkably effective antidote to the stress of thinking about the virus. As was true back home, where my preferred mode of exercise is running, the physical exertion and rhythm of movement served as a kind of meditation.
It would be a privilege to be in such a spectacular setting at any time. It was all the more so now. Like so many beautiful places in recent years, Mallorca has had some trouble with overcrowding. And yet there I was with the rare opportunity to see the island untrafficked. Was there a way, I wondered, to keep an element of this undisturbed spaciousness, here and elsewhere, when things got back to normal?
The meals and wine were a daily revelation and another respite from the news. The night before biking into the mountains we dined in Llubí at Brut, a restaurant built in an old warehouse. With stone walls lined with old knives, fire-wood, and shelves of glass vats full of pickling vegetables, the place has the feel of a bunkered sanctuary, exactly where you’d want to end up if you were forced to shelter from calamity. We sat at the square concrete bar that hugs a large metal table, where chef Edu Martínez and his associates prepared a 12-course tasting menu, a delicious piece of performance art highlighted by crab dumplings, shiitake mushrooms with puréed fermented parsnips, and tacos of
roast pork and chimichurri.
In the morning I had a perfect cappuccino and poached eggs with sobrassada on toast. Son Brull (from $270; sonbrull.com), my (nearly empty) hotel, is a magnificent 16th-century estate in the foothills of the mountains, surrounded by olive, orange, and lemon trees. After breakfast I packed a bottle of the house-brand cava into my luggage and left to meet Alfonso for our climb into the Serra de Tramuntana.
I shed my jacket at the base of the climb, and we started up. The view along the way must have been lovely, but I couldn’t really say. A glance into the valley was discouraging because everything was receding so slowly. Looking up was discouraging because, well, where was I going to find the energy to reach that peak, which I couldn’t yet see? And the burning in my quads...
“Cycling is all about pain endurance,” Alfonso had told me. “People think the pros don’t suffer. No. They suffer just like us. Maybe worse. But at a higher level.”
We biked to the lighthouse at the tip of Cap de Formentor—the northernmost spot on the island. The round trip was 22 miles of steep ascents and fast descents, accumulating more than 2,500 feet of climbing along the way. The pain made the view from the summits all the more exhilarating—finally, I could unfold myself and shake out my numb hands and look down the staggering cliffs of Mallorca’s northwestern shore.
We celebrated the ride on the patio of a small tapas bar in Pollença early that afternoon with seafood paella and calamari sautéed in spicy garlic and olive oil, washed down with glasses of cold Estrella Damm on draft. Such a simple meal, but perhaps my favorite yet.
That day’s cycling was the last we would do. By morning the Spanish government had ordered everyone indoors. The world was shutting down. As for my legs, maybe losing the last day was for the best. We drove the route on the way to the airport, so I could see what I missed. The day was bright and warm. We wound our way up switchbacked roads, surrounded by a tableau of mountaintops. At an overlook, we stopped and got out, the only people around. Alfonso, who’d been to this spot countless times over the years, looked around in awe, as if he’d never seen it before.
“This is amazing,” he said. “Usually there are buses stopped here and cars everywhere.” We looked into the valley. The only thing we could hear was the distant singing of birds. “Seeing it this quiet, I love it,” he said to himself after a while. I wondered again what normal might look like in the future, and what could be done to replicate what was right in front of me— empty, silent majesty—for others. Alfonso took some photos with his phone, and then turned to me. “You know,” he said. “You’re really lucky.”