Friday, March 28, 2014

In Praise Of Cycling Tourism

Those of you with good meteorological memories will recall that the first week of November last year was exceptionally warm. Your memories will also tell you that this exceptional warmth went downhill very suddenly and very drastically. All but out of control it freewheeled from a peak to a trough with all the recklessness and rapidity of a road cyclist who had mistakenly taken out a velodrome bike (minus brakes therefore) and who had encountered some black ice. Funny that, the reference to cycling, because back in November, cycling was one item on an agenda that has characterised this winter. Though that November weather did turn so dramatically, there was bewilderment at the fact that though that first week was knocking out thirty degrees or more, Mallorca had all but shut up shop for the "winter". Where was the winter tourism? And now, you may have noticed, winter is behind us, but in Mallorcan tourism terms, is still with us.

Call the season what you will, we are almost in April, and it seems appropriate to revisit cycling. In November there is very little cycling. By now and into April there is an awful lot of it, and along with this awful lot of cycling there is an awful lot of hot-under-the-collarness. More of that in a bit.

On Sunday there is a cycling event. Another damn cycling event, some will say and bemoan. It is the Mallorca Classic. In fact, it is the Mallorca Classic by Max Hürzeler. The race's name has been given this marketing appendage. The use of "by" (someone) is a piece of marketing me-too-ism that would normally make me want to find the nearest bike tyre and attack it with a sharp blade. But in Max Hürzeler's case, I shall make an exception. Hürzeler is one of the heroes of Mallorca's winter tourism (shall we call it off-season tourism instead). If a Classic is by him, then why ever not. He's deserved it.

In 1989, Hürzeler founded Bicycle Holidays. Though it is now 25 years since the founding of the business, Hürzeler had his idea for bringing cyclists to Mallorca some years before. A professional cyclist himself, at the start of the 1980s he had approached a travel-agency owner in his native Switzerland and had presented to him the concept of flying cyclists to the island. The travel-agency owner thought he was nuts.

He may well have been in one regard; the roads were certainly not as good as they now are. But he was undeterred. In 1985, still a leading pro cyclist, he organised his first training camp in Mallorca. Within four years the number of cyclists who came had risen from 185 to 1,400. He retired from cycling, started Bicycle Holidays and the rest is the history of growth.

Hürzeler has said that he didn't invent cycling tourism in Mallorca, just that he made it better, but he caught a wave, one that had been identified in the first tourism plan to be drawn up by the regional government in the 1980s. Cycling was one of its key, off-season elements, and the enthusiasm for cycling in Germany was to be made ever greater by its own cycling stars - Udo Bölts, Erik Zabel and Jan Ullrich - in a way not too dissimilar to that in which Wiggins and Cavendish have heightened British cycling enthusiasm.

The growth of cycling tourism in the 1990s prompted the Balearics Confederation of Business Associations (CAEB), in collaboration with the government, to produce the first proper study of this tourism. It is an incredibly detailed study, and one aspect it looked at was the other activities that cycling tourists engaged in. The sorts of things they didn't do (or hardly at all) were to also play golf, go sailing or to visit attractions. What they did most was to visit towns and "typical markets". This was closely followed (by 50.9% of them) by gastronomy routes. That left 49.1% who said  they didn't, but the fact that gastronomy (and visiting markets) were vastly more popular than any other activities gives a lie to the often-made criticism of cyclists; that they are not interested in restaurants and indeed don't go to them. Times have moved on, but it is no truer now than it was in 1995 when the research was conducted to suggest that cyclists don't frequent restaurants and therefore spend money on the "complementary offer".

Of course, not all the cyclists that Bicycle Holidays and others bring to Mallorca meet with everyone's approval. Frankly, I despair. What do people want or expect? Nothing it seems. Or nothing which entails a bit of inconvenience whilst driving. The vitriol that can be levelled against cyclists can be staggering and beyond rationality.

Max Hürzeler is partly responsible for this. He is also responsible for having given Mallorca something it might not have had or not have had to such a large extent, which is at least some off-season tourism. If you find a road closed on Sunday because of the Classic, it will be an inconvenience. But so what? There's an even greater inconvenience, and that's not having cycling tourism. 

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