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City of stars: Girona Big Ride

In-depth
6 Nov 2020
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Discover the quiet roads and perfect climbs that make the Spanish city of Girona such a haven for pro riders

Words: Peter Stuart Photography: Juan Trujillo Andrades

In the early-morning light, a group of young women is dancing methodically around in a circle on some nearby stone steps and humming what sounds like a high-pitched sea shanty. I shoot a confused look towards my host, Louise.

‘It’s the Game Of Thrones theme,’ she says with a derisive smile. ‘It’s always Game Of Thrones.’ Many of the HBO series’ scenes were shot in the Old Town of Girona, and a fair number of the tourists who visit the city are here to see the filming locations.

I let out a snort of laughter as we clip in for the start of our ride, but then I wonder if when they gazed down at us, clad in Lycra, they might be thinking the same thing themselves: ‘Cyclists. It’s always cyclists in Girona.’

Look around the cafes in central Girona and you’ll notice an unusually high proportion of muscular, shaved legs, suspicious tanlines and a fair few hipster tattoos. Look a little harder and you might recognise a ProContinental rider here or a Grand Tour podium finisher there.

Girona’s current and past residents include Mark Cavendish, David Millar, Steven Cummings, Tao Geoghegan-Hart, Robert Gesink, the Yates brothers and one Lance Armstrong.

This city in northeast Spain has become one of the preferred hideaways of the pro cyclist, and I’m hoping today’s ride will show me why.

Cycling Mecca

With me is Thérèse, my partner both on the bike and in life in general. For today’s ride we’ve enlisted the help of Louise, who runs tour company EatSleepCycle here in Girona, although she originally hails from the UK.

So far she has downplayed her riding form, insisting she’s some way off peak fitness, but as an ex-racer who spends much of her time riding around the local mountains, I have the suspicion that a little modesty may be at work.

There’s an abundance of routes we could take out of Girona. There’s the 750m climb of Rocacorba, a favourite for most pros in the area and with a Strava leaderboard that sees top professionals bumped to the third or fourth page.

Also within 50km of Girona is the Mare de Déu del Mont, which offers 18km at a 5.4% incline, and if you can keep up with Simon Yates it will take you a few seconds shy of 50 minutes to get to the top. But neither of those climbs is on today’s itinerary.

Instead we have set our sights on the Costa Brava. It’s a fairly daunting 156km loop that heads up the coast before looping back inland, with enough rolling hills to accumulate more than 2,700m of climbing in total.

While I’d normally breathe a sigh of relief at any ride with less than 3,000m of elevation, Louise warns me that the lumps on the coast are steeper than most people realise, and the ride may feel more like a day in the Alps than we expect.

Rolling through Girona’s Old Town, the early-morning sun casts sharp orange patterns across the stone buildings. Wherever we look, other cyclists are also setting off on their rides. It feels as though we’ve stumbled into a cycling-themed model town.

After negotiating Girona’s cobbled streets we’re out of the city and onto the bigger roads. At this time of day they’re eerily quiet, but even at busier times a combination of cycling-friendly road design and courteous driving makes riding here far more pleasant compared to the threatening city roads back home.

An easy warm-up of 25km brings us to the town of Llagostera. With the sun still low in the sky there’s a pleasant morning haze over the surrounding fields, and Louise takes the opportunity to tell us a little about how she found her way from dreary London to the sunny climes of Spain.

‘My partner and I bought seven bikes on a credit card with our friend Brian, and we just started renting them out,’ she says. Today the business has grown to 200 bikes and 14 staff. It’s the sort of escapist dream that so many of my London friends harbour, and it feels almost surreal to meet someone who has made it a reality.

Once through Llagostera, the roads get narrower and hillier. We begin to ride up the first real incline of the day – the Alti de Sant Grau. It’s 8.6km at a modest 5%, but the effort is enough to see our conversation taper down from a vibrant chatter to the bare essentials.

The climb snakes up a forested hillside, and while it’s never quite steep enough to break our consistent cadence I do find myself wishing for an extra gear several times, especially as we approach the 10% summit. When we get to the top, a lean figure that I’m fairly sure is South African cyclist Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio shoots down the incline with the smooth whooshing sound that seems to be created only when pro cyclists’ tyres meet tarmac.

Sant Grau offers a consistent gradient that makes it popular with local riders doing hill reps – Jumbo-Visma’s Robert Gesink has about a dozen of the top 20 times on Strava – but the summit is unremarkable, enclosed as it is by forest. Louise assures us that we will have ample views ahead to make up for it.

Sure enough, as we pass the pretty chapel of Sant Grau d’Ardenya we start to get glimpses of the coast through the gates of sprawling estates. Then we take a corner and are met by the sight of the panoramic road curving ahead of us, and a vista of blue spread out behind it.

The descent down to the Mediterannean is so stunning that I irritate Louise and Thérèse with near-constant stops to take photos on my phone. A series of hairpins tucked into the hillside makes the journey to the beach town below look and feel like a rollercoaster ride.

The coastal mountains are impressively steep and carved into dramatic formations, and it feels as if we could be on the southern tip of Cape Horn overlooking the Pacific Ocean – only with a few more pro cyclists and beach resorts.

We shoot down the descent, taking full advantage of the wide road and open bends to keep our speed high. Once we reach the coast, however, any notions I may have had of a flat run along the shoreline are quickly dispelled. The road undulates in a way that requires repeated strenuous uphill bursts, but the payoff is regular undisturbed views out across the Med.

At the busy town of Sant Feliu de Guixols we spot the small beachfront area of S’Agaro Bay a few kilometres further along and decide it’s time for a quick coffee stop.

The Wild Coast

The Costa Brava translates literally as ‘the wild coast’, and is so named for its rugged landscape and abundance of forest and wildlife. Today, with a warm breeze whipping up white horses in the sea, the name fits perfectly.

Curiously, despite its reputation as a package holiday destination, before the 1950s the Costa Brava was a stranger to tourism. It was the intervention of the government and the vision of a handful of local entrepreneurs that started the region’s transformation into the holiday mecca we know today.

S’Agaro Bay, where we’re sipping our cups of coffee, is a particular favourite for the rich and famous, Louise explains. Sean Connery, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro and Lady Gaga have all been known to holiday in this very bay.

Our espressos drained, we decide to set cleats to pedal again. With 60km of undulating coastal road to go before the route turns inland again, we have our work cut out for the next few hours.

Yet despite the steady burn of my quads, the kilometres fly by – as do a few pro riders, clad in immaculate team kit. First we see a group from Israel Cycling Academy (now Israel Start-Up Nation) sweep past on a shallow ascent, pedalling with an effortlessness that only five hours a day in the saddle can bestow; then we spot several EF Education First riders sitting on the beachfront sipping coffees.

The Mediterranean pops in and out of view. One moment we’re on the waterfront, the next we’re shooting through small lanes with our heads down in a paceline, surrounded by orange groves.

Despite her claims of poor fitness, Louise is predictably the natural climber of our group, dancing up the 15% lumps on the coastal hills. Thérèse has a natural proclivity for cruising along the flat sections at close to 40kmh, and I do my best to keep up on both fronts. It’s enough to keep us all healthily competitive, and our legs equally sore.

Further along the coast we skirt around the northern side of the town of Palamos. I’m told Truman Capote spent three summers here, and it was here he wrote his most famous work, In Cold Blood. Why he chose such a cheery spot to pen the tale of four gruesome murders we can’t even begin to imagine.

With the sun having pierced through the cloud and sitting directly above us, and nearly 90km of the ride done, we decide to make a strategic lunch stop. To find a restaurant means diverting slightly from the route, which causes my bike computer to spark into a discordant symphony of high-pitched beeps that accompanies us throughout the roll down to the town of Calella Palafrugell.

Sun, sea and steep gradients

We stop at a restaurant called Bar 3 Pins overlooking a sunny bay, and feast on calamari and an assortment of other seafood. While we eat we discuss the cyclists we’ve seen today, reflecting that it’s one of the few places where everyone from cyclo-tourists with maps mounted to their top tube through to wannabe pros – and real ones – on five-figure bikes seem to exist in harmony.

After soaking up the final remnants of our meal, it’s tempting to linger and watch the buoys bobbing in the bay for a while, but we agree that we should push on because there’s still the best part of 70km to go.

When we get going it occurs to us that a pause after lunch might have been a good idea, as the climb out of town is one of the most punishing of the day. It’s only 1.5km long but has several hundred metres at around 15%, which proves to be tough work on tired legs and full stomachs.

Louise doesn’t seem to be struggling too much, though, and while she sympathetically complains about her legs, I suspect she is just saying it for our benefit.

There’s ample reward for our efforts, however, because the last few kilometres of the coastal road are possibly the most stunning of all. We pass one cove after another as we roll up and down the jagged rock formations. And when we approach the town of Sa Riera it feels like we’ve ridden into a postcard.

Mediterranean stone pine trees hang over the road, framing views of a deep blue sea. On another day I’d be sorely tempted to descend to the beach and go for a dip, but I decide to save my energy for the Els Angels climb, which is the final challenge of today’s route. At least there is now a mild tailwind.

To Els and back

From Sa Riera we turn inland, and the next 30km showcases why pro cyclists love Girona so much. Quiet country roads, without a car in sight, stretch out in all directions.

It’s perfect for some steady training miles and in many ways reminds me of an unspoilt Mallorca. We ride three abreast through farmland and tiny villages before stopping in the town of Monells.

It’s spookily immaculate. The medieval streets and buildings of Monells have been preserved with unerring care, the roadsides are lined with potted plants and rustic walls are carefully draped in wisteria and rose bushes. We soak up the surroundings for a while, fill our bottles from the water fountain in the main square and ride on.

The climb of Els Angels (not to be confused with a cockney pronunciation of the well-known motorcycle gang) is possibly the most famous of the entire Girona region.

From a cycling perspective, that’s because it’s long, picturesque and in easy striking distance of the town. In the world of non-cycling it’s famous for a few other reasons, one being that the church at the top of the climb, Santuari dels Àngels, is the spot where the surrealist artist Salvador Dali was married in 1958.

As a climb, it has no figures to cause real concern. From Monells it offers up 10km at a mere 4%, including a short downhill stretch, but the climb proper begins after 4km, from the village of Madremanya.

That’s where it tilts up to a 6% average for the next 5.6km, with a few 12% stings along the way. For the pros, of course, it seems to be little more than a big-ring sprint, and American former pro Levi Leipheimer managed it at a fairly scary 27.3kmh average speed.

For us lesser mortals it’s the type of climb that has us sitting in the saddle and knocking out a healthy cadence at some points, but twisting our frames and praying for an extra gear at others.

With about 2km to go Louise seems to take flight. She stands up and sprints, and in my attempt to keep up I see 25kmh appear on my Garmin screen before she breaks loose and disappears around a sweeping bend to the left.

Once atop Els Angels we take a moment to visit the Santuari dels Àngels. Approaching it, we hear the sound of ferocious barking, and two large Alsatian dogs come into view. Louise and I anxiously discuss options for fleeing, but moments later Thérèse arrives, runs over towards the snarling dogs and is soon rubbing the larger of the two on the belly while the other trots happily around her.

I keep my distance, instead taking the opportunity to soak up the view from the other side of the church, where the sky appears to be brewing up an incredible sunset.

We say goodbye to our new four-legged pals and shoot off down the descent. With the roads empty we’re able to really push our limits, and it proves to be a perfect refresher with which to end the ride.

With a cool breeze on our backs, and chilled from the descent, we glide down into the Old Town feeling reinvigorated. All that remains is to settle down for a drink at Hors Categorie, a cycling-themed restaurant owned by Robert Gesink that’s equipped with a healthy variety of craft beers.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of Girona’s variety of riding, yet today’s ride has felt like half a dozen in one, taking in mountains, rural tracks and coast.

Around us, the tables are filled with cyclists who have come back from similar rides, each with the glow that a day cycling in the mountains bestows. Despite the town’s silver-screen fame, this must surely be Girona’s main attraction.

Costa Bravo!

Follow Cyclist’s route from Girona to the coast and back

To download this route, visit cyclist.co.uk/97girona. From Girona’s Old Town head south on Carrer de la Rutlla, heading for Fornells. After 5km, turn left onto the GIP-6631 and ride 13km to Caldes de Malavella. Turn left onto the GI-674 to Llagostera. Ride through the town then navigate onto the GIP-6821 towards the coast.

Reaching the coast, head north along the coastal road for 66km until the tiny town of Sa Riera, after which the road begins to head inland on the GIV-6502. Follow the road through Pals, Ullastret, Monells and Madremanya, before ascending the east side of Els Angels, which then descends back into Girona.

The rider’s ride

Factor O2 Ultegra Di2, £5,999, factorbikes.com

The O2 is the British brand’s all-round endurance racer (the non-disc predecessor to the O2 VAM reviewed on p122) and it couldn’t be more at home on the roads of Girona. In fact, it’s the weapon of choice for Israel Start-Up Nation, the new WorldTour team that includes Irishman Dan Martin, another resident of Girona.

Coming in at 6.6kg for a size 56cm, the O2 is well suited to the inclines of the Catalan coast. The lightweight frame is complemented perfectly by the super-light carbon wheelset from Black Inc, a company that, like Factor, is part-owned by Australian former pro Baden Cooke.

With aero trimmings and a rigid, highly tuned carbon frame, the bike mixes power transfer and comfort very well too, and it goaded me into a sprint whenever a signpost came into sight. For those a little less confident in descending, the disc brake version of the Factor O2 could be a good alternative, but that aside the bike does a fantastic job in all areas.

How we did it

Travel

We flew direct to Girona, which is serviced by several low-cost airlines such as Ryanair, but there are more options for flights to Barcelona, which has a 38-minute high-speed train connection to Girona. EatSleepCycle (eatsleepcycle.com) offers a very reasonably priced transfer service from either airport.

Bike rental

EatSleepCycle also offers a wide range of bike rental options – road, gravel, mountain, e-bikes and leisure bikes – from Ridley, Factor and Basso. We used a Factor O2, which was an excellent choice. Prices range from £120 to £420 for a seven-day rental.

Accommodation

We stayed at the Hotel Carlemany (hotelcarlemanygirona.com) in central Girona, which was a perfect location for riding out of the city.

Located just outside the Old Town and with quick access to the mountain roads, the hotel is supremely friendly to cyclists, with a dedicated secure bike garage complete with a bike stand, pump and an array of tools for maintenance.

Thanks

Many thanks to the entire team at EatSleepCycle and specifically Louise Laker who made our whole trip possible. EatSleepCycle offers fantastic holiday and training camp packages. The Classic Climbs of Girona tour starts at around £1,170 for six days, with fully supported rides, a stay in a four-star city centre hotel and meals at some of Girona’s best restaurants. Visit eatsleepcycle.com for info.

Thanks also to Jordi and Mònica at Hotel Carlemany for helping with accommodation during our stay.