Photography: Harry Dowdney | Words: Harry Dowdney

Island in the blue

A trip to witness Team Sky’s off-season preparations in Mallorca

The privilege of access is alluring. Even a glimpse past drawn curtains offers a rare thrill to the outsider, and so it was last weekend as Rapha invited a group of competition winners to enjoy three days in Team Sky’s winter training base of Mallorca. We would ride, and rest, under the Balearic island’s crystal skies, in the presence of the world’s best cyclists.

Down and Up

Stood at the panoramic corkscrew half way down the Coll dels Reis (Sa Calobra), we waited patiently – what for exactly, we weren’t sure. At the top of the island’s famed road climb, we had seen Team Sky’s head of performance operations Rod Ellingworth sitting in a team car with his stopwatch out.

The sun was shining and the Mediterranean stretched to the horizon as, suddenly, there they were: bullets of black and blue, spiralling up the switchbacks one by one, each rider a minute apart. It was the team’s fabled off-season mountain time trial, taking place before our very eyes. Rumour has it that Colombian climber Sergio Henao had set the fastest time during his final preparations for the Tour Down Under. He’s already shown that form on Stage 3 of the race up Corkscrew Hill.

You can’t appreciate the effortlessness of the pro rider until you witness it in person. An impassive expression belies frightening speed. Once they had all soared up and away from us, it was our turn to head down the mountain to the Sa Calobra seaside village before turning round and making our way back up. The climb is a role reversal; you can only ride it once you have already enjoyed the reward of the downhill to the bottom first. Most of us were far from effortless, as well as frighteningly slow.

Welcome to the Hotel Mallorca

It is dusk at the sandy Port d’Alcúdia beach. A dog walker saunters along the promenade and a group of elderly locals sitting on a bench are deep in discussion. The crackle of a portable radio filters in between their brief pauses. This charming Spanish scene becomes a tourist highway in the summer so, along with the closed restaurants and shuttered shops, there is a feeling of off-season relaxation.

A little further along is a gated complex with a canopy of palm trees lit up blue and a shimmering pool out front. The blue is a clue. Through a third floor window the silhouette of a standing man can be seen massaging somebody lying down. Another clue. Finally, a man walks out of the revolving doors carrying a handful of bright blue bidons emblazoned with logos. This is hotel Team Sky, the off-season home of the men in black and blue, and we’re here to have a look around.

The hotel is occupied by the team in December and January. It would be shut otherwise. This long stay is a new concept in the sport, allowing cyclists to drop in and out, avoiding the intensity and stress of one-week camps. It is a time for preparation, when management formulates its masterplan for the season with late evenings spent in huddled discussions, and when group training rides leave every morning.

As we enter, reception screens show the day’s schedule and signs urge everyone to use the plentiful supply of hand sanitisers. We are shown the mechanics’ trucks, with hydraulic doors impenetrable to any thieves eyeing up the carbon booty inside; the dining room, where chefs Henrik and James talk us through how they try to keep starving cyclists happy when only small portions are permitted; and the massage room, where Ian Boswell – “the world’s coolest pro”, according to our tour guide – lets us in on his post-ride rub down. New signing Mikel Landa is on the phone in the lobby and some young British Cycling juniors are shyly playing pool, but nobody is in the actual pool – not allowed. It is so well ordered as to be institutional, but it seems to work.

Team Sky are everywhere on the island. Their Norwegian puncheur Lars Petter Nordhaug was on our flight over, passing a departing staff member at arrivals, while the local paper’s front page showed the team out training. David López unknowingly wandered into our hotel bar for a (non-alcoholic) nightcap one evening. The islanders seem proud to have the world’s best cyclists here: a supermarket shelf stacker mistook us for support staff while a couple of the competition winners wearing the new Training kit were asked to pose for photos. Good luck trying to find their faces on the team roster.

In the shadow of giants

Mallorca is a cyclist’s playground and for three days we were kids again. It is easy to see why the team base themselves here. We rode up and out to the lighthouse at Cap de Formentor; along the sea front by Port de Pollença; and to the mysterious military facility past Mal Pas-Bon Aire. Wintry wonders, each ride. The Friday was cold and wet – the first rain in three months – but ideal for the group to test out the Rapha Pro Team Shadow collection, which features a revolutionary wet-weather protective fabric, before watching a presentation about it by Rapha’s head of product development and R&D, Simon Huntsman.

As the trip ended, we were joined by team staff for tapas and a few glasses of vino as directeur sportif and former Paris-Roubaix winner Servais Knaven regaled a lucky few with stories from the road. The next day everyone went home and the curtains closed again, but Team Sky’s preparations for another season at the top continue unabated. Bring on the racing.

Follow Rapha and Team Sky’s final season together by using the hashtag #PrepareExecute