Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Cyclomania: Mallorca and cycling tourism

I love cyclists. I love their tap-dancing sounds on solid supermarket floors. I love their wailing to each other as they race along the carreteras. I love the roads being alive with the sound of cycling whoosh and the shouts of greeting they exchange with white-van men. I want to stroke their spokes and handlebars. I want to hug each and every one of them as I drive past them. Each and every one of the 90,000 of them.

I haven't always loved cyclists. I have been saloon-car Scrooge to toe-clipping and a-cloppetying Tiny Tims. But I have been visited by the ghosts of cycling past, present and future. I have seen the error of my ways.

It started last year with my being upbraided for the annual ritual that coincides with the beginning of the cycling season, i.e. the ritual of taking the rise. Then something more personal happened. Two old friends, one from schooldays, one from university. They came out. It was a surprise, but these are liberated times. One, to whom I spoke recently for the first time in years, confessed to being a "mad road biker". "A mad road biker?" I enquired. Yes, mad. Not mad as in being sectioned or maniac mad, but mad keen. Old friendships can mean much when bringing on a conversion; that with the other friend was so intimate, he once head-butted me while doing a Denis Law impression.

The mad road biker is so mad keen he began to ask about cycling in Mallorca. One day, he might become one of the thousands of cyclists on the island's roads in late winter and early spring. Ninety thousand of them, the number expected between March and mid-May this year.

Ninety thousand isn't a huge number. If you take the total of the island's annual tourist intake to be around nine million, cyclists amount to a mere one per cent. But it's something, when set against the general absence of tourists in the off-season.

Ah yes but, goes the cyclophobe opposition; 90,000 not spending anything, to say nothing of them getting in the way on the roads. There's an element of truth in the non-spending argument, but only an element. A drink here or there at a bar may not amount to a great deal, but you try hacking up the side of the Puig Major with a three-course lunch washed down with a bottle of red rumbling and sloshing around inside you. It's the après-cycle when the cyclist comes into his or her consumption own. I've seen them. Seen them individually demolishing the side of a cow. Were Erdinger to have its own brewery in places like Playa de Muro, then it would be drunk dry daily.

While there is a myth that cyclists keep their cash firmly in their panniers - the director of Mallorca's tourism development says they actually spend 15% more than your average tourist - there is also a myth that they are all German and therefore only quaffing "weizen". It seems as though they are all German, all "heil", hale and hearty, but they are not. It's because some are Swiss or Austrian. The country that apparently dispatches the greatest number of cycling tourists is the UK. 30%. A statistic I find hard to believe, given the lack of UK flights by comparison with those from Germany. But we will, I suppose, have to take the tourism ministry at its word and accept that the 30% is a reflection of the fact that suddenly cycling has become a sport that the Brits are any good at.

The 90,000 on two wheels have to be considered in the wider context of activity tourism. There are, it would appear, 150,000 hikers tramping across Mallorca on an annual basis as well as 100,000 golfers. Both figures seem surprisingly high, but there again, you're less aware of golfers than you are of cyclists. Golfers don't, as a rule, launch a tee shot down a main road.

Put these numbers together and the level of activity tourism as a whole starts to sound a bit more respectable. It's still not huge, but the 3.8% of tourism that the three groups together represent is 3.8% that might not otherwise be in Mallorca, and it is a percentage that is rising year in year out.

With an eye on increasing the number of cycling tourists, plans are afoot to improve both bike lanes and safety. Three cyclists were killed in Mallorca in 2010, the same number as in 2009. Some roads have a particularly bad reputation for being unsafe, such as that between Pollensa and Campanet, one route in the north of the island, the area most favoured by cyclists. There is a proposal, coming from the Alcúdia and Can Picafort hotel association, of revisiting the idea of creating a special bike lane that would run between Puerto Pollensa and Artà, across more or less the whole of the northern tourist zone in other words. Good. They should do all of this.

I don't expect a wholesale conversion of the island's cyclophobes into born-again cyclophiles. Loving cyclists may be stretching things, but learning to live with them isn't. Even if they do sound daft when they're clomping around a supermarket.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

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