My first memory of Menorca was as a small child, where my attention was captured more so by sand castles than cycling. Fast forward thirty-something years, and the lure of winter sun – together with a feast of technical trails – saw my name added to the start list for Camí de Cavalls Epic 360. With the dreaded gloom of Scottish winter on its way – my good (and long-suffering) friend Erin didn’t need much convincing to join me for the adventure.
Now – stage racing is a tough game and preparation is key. A text from Erin shortly after confirmed Menorca wasn’t famous solely for its beguiling beaches – it was somewhat legendary when it came to cake. Always important to get your priorities in order of course.
Roll on a cold, dark few months of attempted training – and we soon found ourselves standing on the start line – still adjusting to the baking heat of the bright, burning ball in the sky. For three days, we’d loop sections of this historic trail, soaking up – and sucking up – fierce limestone rock, swooping forest tracks, roots, ravines, sand and plenty of steps. Despite the low levels of elevation, the relentless, rugged nature of the unforgiving terrain was to push us (and our backsides) to the limit.
Let Loose on The Limestone Assault Course
Riders took to the archway first; the 100 or so ultra runners following behind us a short while later. Charging off the line, it wasn’t long before the reality of the famed and feared limestone gauntlet was underneath our tyres; war waged on the rubber of every rider on course. Alien to us Scots – who revel in mud and roots – we put faith in our trusty MSC Tractor tyres as we danced over and around these lethal, razor sharp rocks. As we tried to pick a path across an albeit flat – but fierce – first few kilometres of the course, it was a wild awakening to mountain biking Menorca style!
Choosing our lines with care, a graveyard of flat tyres marked the next 17 kilometres of the route. Both arms and legs ached in equal measure; this race marked a swift transition to my hardtail after a winter of bouncy, full-suss fun. A tarmac road offered up momentary respite as we clung to the back of our Norwegian friend Børge, a veteran of the trail and back for his second year to tackle this epic and enduring race. As the surface mellowed, we had time to look up and take in the dramatic coastline – white sandy, secluded coves lapped by emerald waters.
Despite our stash of gels and bars, I wasn’t going to miss out on stage race snacks Spanish style. As we reached the feed station at Cala Galdana; I wasn’t shy on stuffing myself with Mahón cheese and tortilla, perhaps not the wisest move right before our first real ascent. Tarmac was fleeting though, and soon we were bounding down secret singletrack, slipping and sliding over mossy, damp roots and boulders. Passing other teams who tentatively edged their way down the trail, we heard eager shouts of “Buena Chinas!”
After a short neutral section, the hardest was yet to come. My sense of humour melted in the heat as the forest floor turned to unrideable, rocky ravines. So close to the end, we heaved our bikes up and over the last of this harsh and hostile rock, a mere nod to the day ahead. The finish line finally in sight, with a sweaty smile we crossed the line, winning female pairs on day one.
The Fiery Depths of Mordor
After a night of feasting from the hostel buffet (and some energetic post-briefing dancing), a 5.30 am alarm signalled the start of the second – and most severe – stage of Camí De Cavalls. The infamous Queen Stage, we’d been forewarned about what was to come – it wasn’t named Mordor for nothing.
With bellies full of breakfast and bodies suitably fuelled with caffeine, it was time to go. Bikes launched off the line on mass – riders spinning cranks furiously to get to the front before the rocky madness ensued. Our legs felt heavy, but we felt strong – vitamin D a welcome tonic to the dark winter we’d escaped from at home. It felt like an impossible feat though, fighting invisible lines and finding it hard to get a rhythm on the unyielding rocks. Our tyres were up to the task, but we were learning our first lesson – less is more when it comes to pressure on this wild, windblown terrain.
Unfortunately a sniper rock took Erin down, gouging out a sizeable chunk of her shin and setting off a series of expletives…Slowing the pace to recover, we looked out to an endless seascape – playing cat and mouse with the sharp end of the ultra running field. Having one of my closest and strongest friends beside me was all I needed to keep the head up and push through this gruelling section.
Stopping to let out air from our tyres, we found some eventual flow as the terrain transformed into dusty forest track. As we sped up, grins grew wide as we moved through the playful twists and turns – this time runners moving to the side as we descended through a now lush green landscape. Soon after, the flapping flags of the feed station marked the gateway to the feisty, fiery-red rocks and unforgiving earth that was ‘Mordor’. Mentally prepping whilst guzzling all I could grab from the table – we ventured on.
For ten kilometres we heaved, hauled pushed and scrambled up – and down – a series of relentless hills akin to the surface of Mars – with a ratcheting heat to match. A troop of teams came together with us – laughing and joking in a mix of Catalan and English about ‘type 2 fun’ – all the while lapping up the adventure that made the humdrum of desk life seem light years away. As we hit the fire road, a sigh of relief came as our bums reunited with bike saddles. We pedalled at speed towards our next course marker at 44km.
Met by enthusiasm personified – any chance of feeling beaten dissolved with the cheery chat from the race marshal. Spurred on by his infectious energy, we began the loop of fast flowing trail that skirted the very sides of the cliff edge near Cavalleria – halted only by a set of steps twice the height of our little legs! Hike-a-bike wasn’t quite over yet… The finish line wasn’t far away – charging down the last stretch of track – and with one final wall to scale – we reached the timing mat, delighted. All that was left to do was spin our legs for a short neutralised section back to town. Crossing the line again – we celebrated – then sought the services of the attentive medics, earning Erin a few stitches as a memento of this unforgettable day.
In Search of Beer…
After the might of Mordor, day three took us to the west of the Island, the archway mounted this time in Mahón, signalling the start of a 52 km day. After a rapid road climb, we found ourselves bashing over bracken; the clang of captured wheels a common sound as branches snatched at spokes. I soon felt my body click into race pace; adrenaline injecting a surge of energy to our efforts. From here, the only way was up. And up. And up some more. Steep, loose rocky path lined the hillside as we rode close to the water’s edge.
Erin and I dug deep. Gritting teeth, we stayed low and kept bums firmly in seats as we climbed the sadistically steep sections of trail. I was loving it! The descents were worth the screaming legs; charging down the loose, rocky backside, we made our way to the first feed station. Next up was a ride through the Parque Natural – having to stall our chatter and not disturb birds nesting nearby. As we weaved through sandy, leafy forest, it struck me how sharply the terrain changed; transitioning from one landscape to the next in mere minutes.
From under the trees we were soon back to brilliant coastline. Glorious coves were completely deserted – a reminder of the untouched and untamed beauty of this magical island. As we descended on a compulsory walking section, one of the many majestic lighthouses – Favàrtix – gleamed in all its bright white glory against the dark sea. Further on, we emerged on the trail to find families enjoying a weekend walk. Spurring us on, we heard “Venga Chicas!”, a common cry from the ladies we passed on the trail. At one particular gate atop a short, steep field – a lady held it open for us patiently – not aware how thankful we were to avoid tussling with this now familiar timber threshold.
I thought we’d seen the last of volatile limestone rocks, but as a closing sting, a small outcrop created a momentary assault course as we left the bustle of a seaside resort town. All that waited between us and an ice cold beer was arid scrubland and finally, a smooth section of road. We edged ever closer, always upwards, to Es Mercadal.
The final test was through a farmer’s field; juddering on the baked and rutted tractor tyre tracks – with one last sneaky ascent thrown in for warped humour. For the final time, we crossed the line – hands clasped together – elated, emotional and in need of a well-deserved brew. Other riders congratulated our win and snapped photos of our hugs and smiles. A gregarious group of riders clapped and cheered as they tucked into mountains of freshly cooked paella. This was the ultimate finish to a truly epic race – made unforgettable not just by the intense, beautiful trails, but by the spirit and kindness of all of those who took part.
Entries for Camí De Cavalls Epic 360 are open now.
Photos: @jsaragossa, @oriol_batista and Francisco Pons