Sa Calobra is the big climb in Majorca. It’s the one you simply have to do. Like all classic climbs, it’s a long, sinuous beast that overlays its coils on top of one another, and slides gracefully down the valley. I’ve now done it four times, the fourth because I didn’t press the button on my Garmin to record the time on the third attempt, which was of course my best (luckily, the video from which the stills this post is littered with can be used to show what my time actually was), and so hopefully can be of some help in riding it. So here we go.
Of course, you first have to get to the climb. This isn’t as easy as it first appears. There is one road to Sa Calobra (NB: whilst the town at the bottom of the climb is called Sa Calobra, the climb technically isn’t – it’s the Col dell Reis. Everyone knows the climb as Sa Calobra however, and so references to that name are to the climb, not the town), and this road can only be reached by going up into the mountains. From Lluc, simply follow the signs for it, and eventually after a rolling up and down jaunt, you’ll climb up to an aqueduct spanning the road which shades a little coffee shop. At first, you’ll think ‘is this it?!’ before realising you’re not actually at the climb yet, for a sign beckons that Sa Calobra is just 12km away, and looks like a much more pleasant road then the one arching up over towards Soler, as it looks like its going downhill. Unfortunately, as you round a corner to the right after going down this road, you’ll find it isn’t. Instead, a sign tells you that you have a 2.5km climb at 6.4% to get to the top of the climb. You’ll gaze up and notice buses and cars weaving their way up the road ahead, and sigh.
Eventually you’ll get over the hairpins and arrive at the scene in the above picture, where two shields of rock hold the gateway past the sign towards the descent.
You’ll pass through these rocks and start heading downhill at speed towards the overpass, as seen here, which begins the descent proper. Do not be tempted by the cafe underneath it – enjoy the descent, and wait for the bottom.
Soon, you’ll get your first view of what you’re going to face when you come back up. Indeed, a great quantity of your thoughts during the descent will be taken up by the idea of ‘I’ve got to come back up all of this!’
Indeed, quickly you may start having regrets when you cant see the end of the road as it curls around the dry countryside.
This is a site you’ll undoubtedly notice lots – buses. The busiest hours for these behemoths are between 1 and 3, where people are loaded down the mountain to the cove and beach that lies at the bottom. As a result, cyclists need to be be pretty careful. You can generally see what is coming at the top of the climb, where it is open and exposed, but on the lower slopes, where corners are shaded and hidden, it is easy to charge around a corner to find a bus in the way. There’s nothing worse then getting stuck behind one going down either- one time, I managed a paltry 16mph going down hill behind one due to the excessive amount of braking required.
If this bus wasn’t there, this corner could have been taken wide – being able to see most of the road means you can use the entirety of the road, so can sweep around the corners with ease. Unfortunately, you’ll then come to a roadblock such as this, where people block the bus by mistakenly thinking they’re helping by sitting on the side.
This is quite a bit further down to be honest, as the descent straightens out and you leave the switchbacks behind. You pass a view point where cars may pull in, and arrive at this rock precipice that shadows the narrowing road. Be careful going through – the road drops away at a greater rate (something useful to remember when you;re coming back up!) and so whilst the bike speeds away below you, you’ll actually want to slow down…
…because on the other side, you’ll probably meet a bus, and this will happen.
Indeed, you’ll spend a lot of time admiring your own reflection in a bus as it inches past someone who doesnt know how wide their car is.
Eventually though, you’ll arrive here, at the bottom of the climb, next to an unispiring car park and a cafe served by a lovely man who doesnt speak English, but then I barely speak much Spanish, and I’m in Spain. Fuel up with the french omelette and wave away the wasps before stretching your legs and sighing in terror when you gaze up and cant work out where the top is.
The Way Up
On setting off, you’ll pass this sign, which warns you that 9.5km of 7% average roads are coming up. Of course, like all evil climbs, its steepest at the bottom and at the top, and the slightly flatter bit in the middle is exposed to the wind. Joys. You do get an easier bit to start with to be fair, as long as any buses dont get in the way, but don’t do like I did once and think you can change into the small ring as you start – you won’t, you’ll simply drop your chain under the huge load and end up next to the sign fiddling your chain back on as everyone in the cafe across the street mocks you. When you get going, don’t be fooled by the early lax gradient and charge off – you’ll pay for it later.
After an nice smooth run up, you come to the ‘teeth’ that jut out of the road and narrow it. Remember how you sped up going down? Well, now you’re going to pay for that, as this section rears up to 10%+, making it doubly hard as not only do you have to overcome the gradient, but you have to watch for vehicles charging through.
No, the white light isn’t a world of pain opening up. You should really be pacing yourself fairly easily at this point still, as there is a long way and steeper gradients to go.
On passing through the rocks you get to a gently meandering section of hairpins that you can easily go over the corner of, as they barely bend or rise enough to warrant the rule of going around the outside where it’s not as steep. Enjoy the few trees that remain and the rocky shrubs and recover from the gradient increase. It’s about 6-7%, as the gentle curves dont force you to push too hard.
You’ll emerge onto a long, exposed straight road that looks like it’s leading nowhere fast. Annoyingly, the gradient just pushes up a percent or two as well. If it’s hot, you;ll struggle – you won’t get any shade and the wind will catch you from some direction, and the gradient increases just enough to be painful. This is a stretch to “use a bullet” on if you’re timing yourself. Push hard up until the bend in the road that shuffles you round a rock in a U shape, where the gradient relaxes and you’re sheltered from the sun and wind.
Passing the U bend, you’ll find more long roads, but and a small section of fairly easy hairpins, which help find a rhythm, especially if you can take the outside line, which helps kick your legs through and build some speed.
Eventually, the road will start curving right on what feels like an elongated hairpin, and will take you toward the final challenges if the ride: the last few hairpins.
The hairpins are one of those things that always makes you question engineers sanity. It appears that the builders simply reached a wall and thought ‘bugger, we’re going to have to build a road up that’ and so put hairpins in to make up for the lost space. Thus, you have to compete with these beasts, which, if the legs are sore, are killers.
Take the inside line going down, and the outside going up.
This hairpin, the near penultimate one, is the worst. The inside line is horrendous and unless you want to kill yourself, stay as far right as possible, where the gradient still pitches up past 10%
You’ll now get to the open part of the climb and get to see the views of what you’ve conquered. Not long to go now.
After one last cruel kick, you’ll see the arch with the road circling over it, and the combined easing of the gradient and seeing a known landmark near the finish will spur you on. Unfortunately, at around the point of the above image, the gradient returns to 9%, and you realise it’s still actually a few hundred metres to the top. Time to burn all you have left and power through to the finish.
Only a few hundred metres later, you’ll be back where you started, but will have climbed nearly 700m vertically in just under 10km. Not bad!
I thought I’d briefly
boast talk about my own climbing times up Sa Calobra, as well as give some information on times up the climb.
The source for this is Strava, and it is generally accepted that the correct segment to use is Sa Calobra – Coll dels Reis (official). Of course, with people on the climb practically every day, the rankings are ever fluid, so it’s best not to get too hung up on your position.
At the top of the tree is Spanish Sky rider David Lopez, who completed the climb in February 2014 in an impressive 24’59, the only rider on Strava to dip under 25 minutes. This equates to a scary 14.1mph average. Queen of the Climb is British (hurrah) retired rider Emma Pooley, she of the World Time Trial Championship gold and Olympic time trial silver, who clocked 30:52, 11.4mph. Supposedly, Bradley Wiggins has done the climb in 22:30, and Richie Porte 23:59, which would be 15.45mph and 14.51mph respectively, but neither are on Strava (Wiggins probably thinks it’s too “mainstream”), so they don’t really count.
The median time up the climb, which on the day I wrote this had been summited by 15,913 people (with 22,724 attempts between them), is 47’21, so beat that and congratulations, you’re officially better then average.
Where will your time stack up if you’re not on Strava? Use this handy guide. Unfortunately I only went up to 50 minutes, as Strava only lets you click through its results manually and frankly, I have better things to do!
25’00 – 2nd
27’30 – 23rd
30’00 – 124th
32’30 – 412th
35’00 – 1041st
37’30 – 1959th
40’00 – 3237th
42’30 – 4757th
45’00 – 6429th
47’30 – 8041st
50’00 – 9459th
How about my own times? Well, given I don’t race aside from the occasional time trial, and essentially just commute and ride a turbo a bit in the evening, I’m pretty happy with them.
My best time is 30:09, and I wont lie, I was aiming for 29:59, so I wasn’t best pleased at the time!
In seven attempts, I’ve only failed to improve once (and of course I have the usual cyclist excuses for why that was…), though given I’ve taken nearly 14 minutes off my time in 5 years ( a whopping 31.32%) I would no doubt be accused of furious chemical enhancement if I was a professional.
This time places me 132nd overall, and on the same time as the current world champion, who I like to tell myself was trying really, really hard…
It’s worth ignoring my power figures by the way, as they’re just Strava’s estimation, and thus not particularly accurate. So what’s my tip for a fast time? Well, most of you are probably better than me anyway, so you probably know better than me, but basically you just have to find a speed which feels ever so slightly too hard to keep going at for another 30 seconds and then play mental games with yourself for the next half an hour.
As you can see, my heart rate was pretty much the same all the way, and my cadence was its usual fairly constant and low self (I used 39-19/21). The speed has an odd spike where the Garmin briefly lost signal (I definitely didn’t go 46.3mph…),and the temperature (77 F, 25C) was hot, but not too bad.