So, I was eating lunch in a square in Girona with Ryder Hesjedal sitting at the next table. Not a bad opener when recounting a holiday story?
I’d flown south with a friend for an extended weekend with Bikecat, a company founded by Jaume Cabruja that’s recently celebrated its 10th birthday and offers bespoke guided cycle tours from its shop located a stone’s throw from the city’s cathedral. After a long, dark British winter, I desperately felt the need for some spring sunshine and Bikecat’s 3 night, 3 ride package seemed the perfect fit. Offering 4 star accommodation in the medieval heart of Girona’s historic old town together with a choice of Canyon Ultimate CF SLX or an ex team-issue road bike included in the price; coming in at a little over £500 per person, I felt this was right on the money in terms of value.
Especially when you consider that Rapha Travel are offering their own 3 day Girona ‘Pro Team Camp’ for £1300 with another £300 needed for bike hire. As a member of the Rapha Cycling Club I’m a big fan of their products and appreciate that they offer a level of service that is second to none. But not everyone, myself included, can afford to spend such a considerable amount of money on what is essentially a weekend away. Which brings me right back to Bikecat.
Flights to the nearby airport are available through Ryanair with my own costing a little over £80 for a return ticket. After a 20 minute transfer by taxi to drop our bags at the hotel and the aforementioned lunch with the 2012 Giro d’Italia winner (I like to think we had lunch together rather than coincidentally choosing the same cafe), we readied ourselves for our first ride.
A quick change into our cycling gear, a warm welcome from Jaume who’d already prepared our bikes using the measurements we’d provided during the booking process, a brief explanation that the brakes were switched front-to-back continental style and we were off.
Nothing quite prepares you for cycling outside the UK. The roads are quiet, drivers respectful, the scenery spectacular. But it was when Jaume occasionally called out a warning or pointed at the road surface that it really hit home. What justified a word of caution from Jaume would barely register to a regular UK based club cyclist. My friend and I speculated that if he were to join us on the busy main roads and country lanes that we ride in and around Manchester, he would spend the whole time pointing and gesticulating at the potholes, sunken manhole covers and general detritus that we take for granted.
Amongst fields edged with wind sown poppies, through groves of olive trees and ancient, dust covered oaks, the road took us on an extended loop to the base of our first climb before descending in graceful bends and banked turns to a cafe halt. All the time Jaume indicating local points of interest and offering advice on descending at speed before he disappeared down the road as if shot from a cannon; hands low on the drops, knee out at an angle to help with his balance.
Next morning, after a sound night’s sleep and hearty breakfast, our ‘Queen stage’ took us up the Mare de Deu del Mont in the delightful company of Albert, another Bikecat guide and possessor of possibly the widest, most infectious smile you’d ever hope to encounter. Over lunch in the medieval walled town of Besalu he explained how the local region has now become host to over 70 members of the pro-peloton. And it’s not just at the numerous cafes and bars that you can name check the current crop of professional cyclists calling Girona home. The year-round good weather makes training less arduous than in northern Europe and the quiet roads and local climbs offer varied and picturesque training routes. On our rides we were frequently passed by riders sporting team-issue kit; leaving us under no illusion that their bike handling is second to none.
Our weekend drawing to a close, we reflected on Jaume and Albert’s good natured and knowledgeable company, on the beautiful city of Girona with its cobbled streets and pavement cafes, on the smooth roads and towering climbs with views of snow-capped Pyrennean peaks, on the 24km climb to Sant Hilari that we rode on our final day. Deciding when, rather than if, we would return again.
By Chris Hargreaves (@openautograph)