Judging by the magazine articles that I read, snippets from social media and anecdotal accounts, there are certain destinations that appeal to cyclists on a number of levels. The scenery, topography and historical relevance can play a part in attracting riders of all abilities, disciplines and depth of pocket. And a few may very well be considered iconic. I imagine that Alpe d’Huez, the Flandrian cobbles and Sa Calobra feature on many a cycling ‘bucket’ list.
Actually travelling to these destinations and riding the routes does require a degree of planning and preparation but the rewards far outweigh any logistical problems and the expense of getting yourself (and bike) to the foot of the first climb. With this in mind, I’d like to share my experiences of planning the perfect ‘wheeled’ weekend away.
Deciding on a destination
Offering easy access from the UK, my friend and I chose Girona for our 3 night long-weekend as we wanted to maximise the amount of time we could spend on our bikes enjoying the Catalan countryside. We each had £500 to spend and opted for a bespoke package offered by Bikecat, a firm that I’ve ridden with previously. This included 4 star accommodation, use of their top-end bikes and 3 guided rides with lunches provided. By scaling back on your hotel and arranging your own bike hire, you could achieve a similar experience for less.
Ryanair flies to Girona from both London Stansted and Manchester with seats available from approximately £24* depending on the day you plan on travelling. We flew on a Saturday morning from Manchester and returned early on the following Tuesday for a total cost of a little over £80 per person.
It’s worth noting that Girona airport is designated ‘Barcelona (GRO)’; a fact not lost on a young couple I sat with one year on the outbound flight. After asking where they were staying, I realised from their answer (‘a city centre Barcelona hotel’) that they might have misjudged the location of the airport in relation to the Catalan capital before gently breaking the news that they would have rather a longer transfer to their accommodation than they’d previously accounted for.
Girona Airport lies 12.5km to the southwest of the city centre. There is a bus service for those on a budget or, like us, you can simply jump in one of the taxis waiting directly opposite the arrivals concourse and for a fixed fee of €30 (quote the information boards posted on the pavement if a higher figure is mentioned),15 minutes later you will be arriving in the medieval heart of the old town.
Where to stay?
The usual budget chains are available charging very reasonable rates. Ibis have a hotel close to the city centre offering twin rooms without breakfast from as little as £39 per night.
If you fancy treating yourself, I can recommend the Hotel Historic; a family run hotel located a stone’s throw from the cathedral in the very heart of the medieval quarter. From the display of signed cycling jerseys and the bike boxes stored in the lobby, it’s easy to see they offer a warm welcome to all cyclists and the hearty breakfasts will set you up perfectly for a day in the saddle.
Girona is a popular tourist destination with a wide variety of establishments ranging in style from pavement cafes to gourmet fine-dining. The city is home to one of the world’s best restaurants, an accolade awarded by Restaurant magazine in 2013 to El Celler de Can Roca, but after a day spent climbing the neighbouring mountains, a plate of pasta served al fresco with an accompanying glass of draft beer or local wine can equally hit the spot.
If spotting resident professional cyclists is your thing (Cycling Academy’s Dan Craven describes this region of Spain as the ‘capital of racers’), there are a few key destinations that you can’t afford to miss. Konig, located in the picturesque Plaça de la Independència, serves excellent American style sandwiches; one of which I enjoyed with Ryder Hesjedal sitting at a neighbouring table.
La Fabrica, the ‘Coffee Works & Cycle Cafe’ opened by Orica-GreenEDGE rider Christian Meier and his wife Amber a little over a year ago, has rapidly become a ‘must see’ destination for any cycling tourist. Try positioning yourself in the morning at one of their outside tables where you’ll witness a steady stream of professional cyclists rolling up on their team-issue bikes for a quick espresso before they head out on a training ride.
Some cyclists choose to travel with their bikes; preferring the familiarity of their own ride. If this doesn’t appeal (there’s the additional flight cost and need for a bike box to consider) there’s always the option of hiring a bike for the duration of your stay. The Girona Cycle Centre offers Cannondale Synapse road bikes equipped with Shimano 105 from €35 a day with discounts available for multiple-day bookings. For a similar price, Cicloturisme can provide Orbea ORCAs; again with Shimano 105.
If you want to treat yourself to something a little special, Bikecat can also arrange bike hire, offering you a choice from either a Dura-Ace equipped Canyon Ultimate CF SLX or an ex team-issue road bike but with a requirement to combine the bike hire with a guided ride. A full day’s riding including lunch costs €90 (approximately £70) per person for a two person group but you benefit from your guide’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the local area and routes. Trust me, it’s well worth the extra expense.
OK, so over 70 professional cyclists currently call Girona home. I believe that statement alone goes a long way to suggest that you’re going to enjoy riding in the countryside that surrounds this Catalan city. The weather is good – especially in spring when it’s dry, sunny but not too warm – and the roads are generally in excellent condition. So smooth that locals will point a warning finger at a perceived imperfection that would hardly warrant a cursory glance for a UK based cyclist.
As to where you should ride, my friend and I started with the Els Angels loop that takes in two sinuous but not daunting climbs to the immediate east of the city centre. A perfect half-day ride on your arrival day.
Next, we rode our ‘queen’ stage that took in the Mare de Deu del Mont. Rising out of a wide plain of farmland, this is a ‘proper’ mountain with an 18km climb that peaks at 12% before rewarding you with simply stunning views towards the sea and the Pyrenees to the north. And that’s before you consider the 24km climb to St. Hilari, the brutal Rocacorba or a rollercoaster ride along the coast to Tossa de Mar. I guarantee you’ll spend your last evening planning next year’s trip and potential routes.**
If, like us, the focus of your weekend is ride, eat, rest, repeat; then you will probably find the notion of setting aside an afternoon to hit the shops as rather counter-intuitive. But it might interest you to know that the Girona Cycle Centre not only offers bike hire and guided rides but also ‘re-cycles’ (pardon the pun) the spare team-issue clothing of the resident professionals. Inside the city centre shop you’ll find rack after rack of bib-shorts, jerseys, gloves, gilets and even shoes; all with a little brown label that states the provenance of each item. When I visited early this year for example, I could have easily walked out in a complete 2015 MTN-Quebeka team kit. And not replica kit – this is the real deal.
We arranged our ‘group’ insurance very inexpensively through Boots Travel. Bike touring was classed as a Band 1 activity along with ballroom dancing. Band 7 included alligator wrestling (maybe next trip).
An evening meal with beer or wine, served at city centre pavement cafe, was easily available for less than €10. Many restaurants offered set menus for between €12 – €15 and I can also recommend visiting one of the many tapas bars where you can choose from a wide range of ‘plates’.
English is widely spoken but if you want to try out your Spanish, then it’s certainly appreciated. It is worth noting that, for the majority of locals, Catalan is their first language and you’re more likely to be greeted with a ‘Bon dia’ than a ‘Buenos días’.
Girona has at its heart, a picturesque network of medieval streets and alleyways that wind steeply from the banks of the River Ter up past the Cathedral to the encircling city walls. A pre-dinner walk skirting the University offers you panoramic views over the city and onwards to the nearby mountains.
Was it worth it?
Quite simply, my friend and I agreed that it was one of the best holidays we had ever enjoyed. Good weather, fine roads, spectacular scenery and the wonderful city of Girona to explore each evening; it was with heavy hearts that we climbed aboard our taxi for the return trip. And even though we were physically tired, mentally we both felt energised. The simple pattern of riding each day meant we focused solely on the most basic of necessities. The road ahead, the climbs and descents, the fuel to sustain our efforts and the sleep needed to recover for the next day. Reducing decisions down to the turn of a pedal.
*Every effort was made to ensure prices and currency conversions were accurate at the time of publication.
**As an appetiser, it’s worth taking a look at the routes devised by Rapha for their Girona based Pro-team Camp.