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Girona Gran Fondo: In the pro’s back yard

In-depth
26 Feb 2019
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This article was originally published in issue 82 of Cyclist magazine

Words Marc Abbott Photography Matt Ben Stone

Fall asleep on your flight to most Spanish destinations and, upon waking, the view of parched, yellowing fields below will alert you to the fact that you’ve almost arrived. Not so in Catalonia.

As we circle the volcanic Garrotxa region, just a stone’s throw from the Costa Brava, what strikes me most is the lush landscape that greets my bleary eyes.

Tree-topped, long-dormant volcanoes – there are 40 in this national park – give a taste of the terrain that awaits on tomorrow’s 142km ride through this green and particularly pleasant land.

Numerous radio masts atop leafy peaks become visible as we begin our descent to Girona. Paved roads reveal themselves, snaking between the trees.

It has long been said that this part of Spain is a cyclist’s paradise.

On this aerial evidence it’s an expression worth repeating, and this before I’ve even turned a wheel.

Game of groans

I’m woken at 7am by the clanging of a bell from Girona’s cathedral, leaving me only two hours to eat as much of the hotel’s buffet as I can manage before I need to be at the start line.

On my way to the race village I pass the imposing steps that lead up to the same cathedral that doubled as my alarm clock, so I decide to take a peek inside.

I’m suitably awed by the imposing structure and opulent interior, but the geek in me is even more excited to learn that the steps I have clattered up were used as the scene for a tense stand-off in an episode of Game Of Thrones.

I try to tip-toe in my cleated cycling shoes, but every step sends sharp hammer-blows of noise echoing around the hallowed walls, earning me stern looks from the crowds of early-rising tourists in the cathedral, so I sneak off in search of more coffee and my race number.

The coffee is supplied courtesy of none other than LottoNL-Jumbo pro Robert Gesink, whose Piaggio Ape coffee truck is parked at the entrance to the race village.

I cack-handedly attach a race number to my handlebars with zip ties and I’m ready to roll.

The Girona Gran Fondo is an intimate affair, with only around 300 riders taking part.

A proliferation of British clubs are in attendance, along with a handful of local clubs – one of them decked out in an FC Barcelona-inspired jersey, an instant classic – and a smattering of lone wolves such as myself.

Despite the small numbers I bump into a friend, Ben, at the start line, meaning I have an unexpected riding companion for the day, for which I’m grateful.

The sportive starts tentatively, with riders teetering over the cobbles as we’re funnelled downhill through narrow streets between ancient walls.

Eventually we’re spat out of the confines of the old town and onto wide, tarmacked streets that are already shimmering beneath the heat of the Catalonian sun.

It’s only just gone 9am and the temperature is already nudging 20°C.

As soon as we’re clear of the town, the field starts to fracture into groups.

With a long day and plenty of climbing ahead, Ben and I ease ourselves into the ride and are quickly distanced by the pockets of serious hitters who have gone off the front from the gun, eyes set on glory.

The road rises and falls, flanked by farmland.

Any cars we encounter allow us plenty of room – Girona’s drivers are used to sharing the roads with groups of cyclists on any day of the week – while the police hold up the traffic at junctions and roundabouts so we can dash down the first quick descents of the day without breaking our speed.

Aided by a healthy sense of camaraderie between strangers, the first 25km of the ride flies by before we’re pitched onto the first – and nastiest – climb of the day.

Rolling Rocacorba

How do you approach an iconic climb when you still have 120km to cover once you reach the top?

Rocacorba is well known as a pre-Tour de France testing ground for the hundreds of professional cyclists who’ve made Girona their home.

It’s 14km long with an average gradient of 6.5%, but that figure is deceiving because after an easy start the climb keeps ramping up until the gradients towards the top are nearer 15%.

It’s a climb I’ve waited for years to ascend, and I’m tempted to go for broke to test my mettle against the pros, who can knock it off in under 30 minutes.

However, I decide to opt for caution and give the pros a reprieve, dropping into the little ring as I work steadily towards the summit.

A friendly Glaswegian rider draws alongside for a chat, but the conversation has barely begun before he’s forced to dismount with cramp.

Next, we have a British woman for company for a few breathless kilometres before she too drops back.

David Millar, the British former pro who now calls Girona home, passes us with a wave. He’s in the big ring and wearing a rucksack.

The event organisers have ensured that the road is reserved purely for cyclists today.

As the Rocacorba summit is a dead end, the only option is to return via the same route, with cones in the centre of the road separating those on the way up from those coming back down.

The climb itself is the epitome of relentlessness, especially with the heat now in the mid-20s.

I’m thankful for the tree cover as we crank towards the radio mast that marks our target.

The view from the top affords a moment of serene reflection before I’m prodded back to reality with the gnawing reminder that there’s a lot more riding still to be done.

We somewhat reluctantly point our bikes downhill and coast the 14km back to the foot of the climb.

After a moment of respite on flat terrain as we pass the glittering water of Lake Banyoles and take in the olive groves that line the roads, soon I’m calling on my reserves of energy as we begin a painful 30km stretch of rolling climbs on the volcanic slopes of the Garrotxa national park.

Ben informs me, unhelpfully, that his Garmin is reading 31°C.

Pro rider George Bennett climbs past us, chatting merrily to his training companion, his feet a circular blur of souplesse in contrast to the squares I’m pedalling.

We pass a rider who’s punctured her front tubeless tyre and is frantically applying a mini-pump in an attempt to breathe life back into it.

There’s little I can do to assist her, but I promise to send help if we find one of the organisers up the road.

At the next feed station I neck a whole bottle of water before refilling my bidon and ravenously munching handfuls of crisps.

I need to replenish the lost salt that now cakes the shoulders of my jersey like saline epaulettes, evidence of the exertion that’s brought me this far.

I’m beginning to wonder how much more effort I still have to give.

Over the top

It always pays to study the route profile.

Having done so myself, I know that most of the remaining kilometres are either flat or downhill – a fact that brings not only great relief but also a renewed sense of vigour.

By this point we’re rolling along in a group of around 10, and at the front Ben punches a hole through the air with each member of our multinational chaingang tagging on behind.

For the first time all day our average speed is north of 35kmh and we do a decent impression of a team time-trial as we power along the plateau from the town of Olot to bypass the peak of Roca Bellera.

A 10km downhill blast further recharges our batteries, and now we’re having fun.

Even when presented with a 4km climb, most in the group stay in the big ring, sprinting up the steeper sections safe in the knowledge that, five hours in, we’re nearing the end.

I ride alongside a local, who tells me this has been his hardest day on a bike. I ask him if we’re far from Girona, because I can’t see any sign of it.

‘Don’t panic,’ he replies. ‘The hills hide everything around here.’

We follow a perfectly surfaced road that leads back to the old town, negotiating roundabouts, shortcutting through a park, and crossing a narrow bridge over the River Ter, before aiming straight towards the towering cathedral that stands sentinel on Girona’s hillside.

Shooting up an alleyway, we return to the cobbles and I allow the bike to skip and bounce beneath me in an attempt to prevent my hands from going dead.

As we roll up to the race village, we’re engulfed with chatter from fellow finishers, and I catch snippets of conversations: ‘Man, I didn’t see that coming?’…

‘I think I had cramp about seven or eight times’…

‘Is there any beer left?’

I inhale a plate of pasta, before being handed a can of super-strength Catalan ale.

The first sip feels like nectar, sending a shockwave of reinvigoration from my stomach to my extremities.

The second sip gives me hiccups.

Deciding to save the rest for when I can enjoy it in the more relaxed environs of my balcony, I sling my finisher’s medal around my neck, remount my bike and make aim for my hotel.

As soon as my tyres hit the cobbles of central Girona, the can of beer that I’m clutching in one hand explodes all over me in a geyser of froth.

After successfully negotiating the toughest climbs Girona has to offer, and surviving 142km in blazing heat, I’ve still come to a sticky end.

The details

Catatonic in Catalonia

What: Girona Gran Fondo
Where: Girona, Spain
How far: 125km and 142km options
Next one: 16th June 2019
Price: From £40
More info: gironagranfondo.com

The rider’s ride

Cannondale Synapse 105, £1,599, cyclingsportsgroup.com

Cannondale’s Synapse has comfort at its heart, which was a significant plus on this event.

The Girona Gran Fondo demands a lot from a bike, from rolling hills, power-sapping climbs and some seriously fast and winding descents, as well as cobbles.

The Synapse took them all in its stride.

The frame is stiff enough that I didn’t feel I was leaking watts on the slopes of Rocacorba, and it equally tracked the road precisely on the descents.

But the flex built into the carbon layup, and the forgiving geometry, meant I didn't feel bruised or battered after five hours in the saddle.

Do it yourself

Travel

Direct flights to Girona are available from many London airports, with prices varying hugely dependant on when you are travelling.

Our return flights in June cost around £300.

Transfers from Girona Costa Brava airport cost £45 return, but it’s only 10km from Girona itself, and buses follow the same route for a fraction of the cost.

Rather than take a bike, we pre-booked a hire bike from Girona’s Bike Breaks Cycle Centre (gironacyclecentre.com), which cost around £40 a day.

Accommodation

We stayed at the Hotel Nord 1901 (nord1901.com).

This friendly hotel offers rooms at its main premises in the new town of Girona plus one and two-bedroom apartments within two minutes’ walk of the historic cathedral of the old town.

Our spacious one-bed apartment, complete with kitchen and lounge, cost from £100 per night, and was a 60-second ride from the starting point of the Gran Fondo.

Breakfast is provided at the main hotel building, a pleasant 10-minute stroll via one of the town’s historic bridges.

Girona is home to numerous pro cyclists, and good spots for breakfast, coffee and cake include Federal (federalcafe.es/girona), La Fabrica (lafabricagirona.com) and Espresso Mafia (espressomafiagirona.com).

Girona Cycling Festival

The Gran Fondo is the culmination of a week-long cycling celebration, which also includes a 10km hill climb and a Nocturne crit race around the old town on Thursday.

For those who can’t face the full 142km Gran Fondo there’s a shorter 125km route available, but why would you come all this way and not do the ascent of Rocacorba?