The thin red line | A tempo ride

formentor-3Charting the emotions of a tempo ride to the Formentor lighthouse, Majorca’s best cycling route.


Dawn. Sun yawning. Sky, sea, eyes pink. I set off, legs still snoozing. Air warm, thick, already. Streets empty, beach deserted. The masts on the boats in the harbour clank and clatter, ringing in the new morning, birds waking, the roost all a tweeting, more a cacophony than a chorus.

Legs spinning reluctantly, the warm up for the climb ahead is a quaint dawdle along the beach front, eyes glued to the ever changing colour of the sea and sky, red now, almost orange, the day warming up quicker than my legs.

I turn back towards the beginning of the first climb, a challenging 6% ramp for 2 long miles. Go hard, I tell myself. A tongue out ride. You can recover on the descent that follows. Do not think of the long stretch that’s up after, that maddeningly slight uphill road that saps your mind as quick as your legs.

Cranks turning faster now, I’m ready because I have to be. The base of the climb is upon me. Click. A change of gear and away I go. Click, a change of mindset, a focus only on one thing. Go hard. As hard as you can. Tongue out.

Inevitability catches me at the first bend and I’m paying for my quick start. Heart pounding, chest heaving. Legs? I cannot think of them for they must answer the call of duty without question.

Slipping up and down the gears as the gradient changes, I catapult myself around the tight hairpins, measuring my effort against the thin red line that is my threshold.

Formentor lighthouse ride

A brief thought. A crack. If I stop pedalling nobody will know. I will know, snaps back my inner chimp, its hands tight against my throat. On I push.

A long drag of up and up and up and yet more up. I no longer remember where the climb ends. I exist only to keep riding hard. Summit in sight, I’m tempted to stand but remember this is just the beginning of a long ride and so I simply change down a gear and up my cadence.

Summit crested, I’m relieved to feel the road no longer travels up. Joy. Christmas but with lactic acid as a gift. First climb conquered, my legs welcome the immediate downhill but fail to comprehend why they are still spinning.

Don’t ease up now, you’ve done so well. Guilt kicks in whenever I stop pedalling. Must not waste all of the hard work. I kick again, racing downhill on the quiet roads, slicing through corners at great speed and even greater risk.

Heart barely recovered I hit the long uphill I have been dreading, a gruelling stretch of straight road that is merciless on the mind. Will this ever end? Up ahead a shadow on the horizon. A target. Legs a little heavy from my previous exertion, I ignore their pleas and begin the chase.


I see not the forest, I smell not the pine. All I see is the gap between me and the rider ahead. Like an old friend you knew in a former life, the distance between us doesn’t seem to change no matter how much time we spend together. My head goes down.

Head up. He’s closer now. He cracks when the gradient increases and just like that he loses a race he didn’t know he was riding. Hola, I say in my best imitation Spanish as I pass, hasta la vista, I think, my action hero inner monologue as bad as my Spanish.

I see not the sea nor the beautiful vistas all around. Not with the shadow looming behind me, the rider I’ve just passed on my tail, so close I imagine I hear him breathing.

The road continues to climb and I spin away, heart rate rising above my thin red line. Don’t blow. Not now. A glance over my shoulder, the rider has gone but not my fear. On I push.

The road up and down now, up and down. My heart knocks loud as it pounds into my chest, the debt collector calling in his dues. Flashes of the world around me. Sea. Sun. Rocks. Hairpin. Goat.


I’ve been riding for a lifetime and I’m near death. Yet I sense the end of the cape is near. Sea surrounds me. Or am I dizzy and my world is spinning? One last push but my legs no longer respond. We stop here, my legs seem to say, go on alone if you like, you god damn hero.

Overcooked with a mile to go, the pain is excruciating as I struggle to maintain my speed, my cadence and the will to continue. The thin red line is now a noose from which my ride hangs.

It’s a fight now, teeth gritted, muscles tightening, lungs bursting. Mind versus the legs, legs versus the bike, bike versus the road. The end in sight, I stand for the first time to power over a climb but I’m back in the saddle before I can hear the imaginary commentator get excited about a rider dancing on the pedals. I’m not dancing, I’m dying.

One final climb remains. My gears disappear quicker than the road. Mashing my granny gear, I slump over the line. In the distance the slow clap of the unknown, a passer-by cheering or taunting this mess of a rider I cannot be sure.

Stationary, my legs continue to move, trembling. I shake all over and do my best to ignore that feeling deep in my stomach. I do not want to see my morning coffee again.

What a ride. Only when we forget to exist do we truly live.

I do not smile. I do not thump the air triumphantly, I do not whoop nor holler. I simply turn around and continue back the way I came. Just a lot slower.


The return

formentor-1The return is almost as painful as the ride out. Legs empty they can barely turn the cranks. This was the plan. Now was the time to enjoy the beauty of the ride.

My chest and heart eventually find peace, a rhythm approaching normal but my legs are gone, long gone, laid down on the road upon which I now return.

The road ahead is unfamiliar even though I rode it but minutes ago, as if someone has rebuilt it, adding extra climbs and turns, a new Scaletrix course created right before my very eyes.

Legs dead, my mind must get me home. I play out commentary in my head. I am Chris Froome spinning up a climb. I am Rocky Balboa racing ahead of the children.

More than once I imagine myself on the turbo in my hallway, this despite my beautiful surrounds. Being stationary in my head is all I can do to keep on moving. Recalling turbo drills focuses my mind on technique, on turning the pedals as efficiently as I can. Spinning away in my hallway the road no longer seems to climb.

The ride almost over, I coast down the last hill which earlier had been the first. Tongue out, this time I’m smiling as I admire the view and reflect on the road and the ride behind me.

Rides that hurt today will tomorrow leave us aching for more. These are the rides I live for.


The Formentor lighthouse ride on Strava

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Enjoy the view, courtesy of @GeoffRich
Enjoy the view, courtesy of @GeoffRich

6 thoughts on “The thin red line | A tempo ride

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