By John Thomas – 2nd December 2019
Girona is now the home of over 100 pro cyclists and rapidly being discovered by amateur riders from all over the world. So what’s all the fuss about? What makes this place so good?
I first visited Girona in 2014 and was instantly smitten by it’s charming, historic centre. This small city of 100,000 inhabitants is nestled between the Pyrenees and Mediterranean, about 100kms north of Barcelona and 60kms south of the French border. I’d heard that Lance Armstrong and his team mates had made it home for a while and I knew it was becoming increasingly popular as a base for pro cyclists.
‘Just wait until you see how good the roads are!’ enthused Dave Welsh, owner and operator of the excellent Bike Breaks shop positioned in the heart of the city. He wasn’t wrong, the roads surrounding Girona certainly provide a fantastic variety of riding.
After having ridden already in many of Europe’s cycling hotspots, I felt that I’d really discovered something special in Girona, not overrun with riders but a wonderful balance of a great, liveable city where cyclists dovetail nicely into the community.
So, let’s have a closer look at why Girona ticks so many important boxes for the perfect cycling city.
Girona brims full of life, history and culture. Perhaps the epicentre of ‘real’ Catalunya. Catalan is very much the first language here and the feeling of passion and pride in all things Catalan is strong. It’s a city that’s extremely easy on the eye, clean, safe and sophisticated.
The vast majority of pro cyclists here choose to live in the centre and this is where the visitor should stay too. The charming network of cobbled lanes in the old town is atmospheric and vibrant. The bridges spanning the Onyar River provide a great vantage point to admire this colourful town. The magnificent Plaça de Independència is the perfect post ride drinks environment and the imposing 11th Century cathedral and city walls wrap the old town beautifully.
This town has a great vibe to it. The increasing number of pros that live here is evident. When you ride here you’ll see them. The same narrow lanes that once hosted the covert activities of certain pros are now being augmented with classy new bike shops and cafés courtesy of the likes of Rory Sutherland and Christian Meier and their entrepreneurial spirit.
Girona hosts a lot of pro cyclists and so does neighbouring Andorra where favourable residence and taxation laws contribute to having attracted around 70 riders making it their home in recent years. Girona and Andorra between them have turned into the biggest concentration of pros anywhere. When visiting here you feel part of something big in cycling. Girona appears to have become the pro cycling city. The notoriety of some of it’s former cycling residents is undeniable, it arguably actually adds to the excitement and intrigue of the place. Girona’s more recent and ongoing contribution to pro cycling is a happy story though.
Superb road surfaces, eerily quiet roads and a fantastic variety of terrain all await the Girona rider. The city centre itself is cycle friendly and feels safe to ride. 10 minutes or so in any direction takes the rider into a beautiful, rural hinterland. There’s no shortage of flat riding on the plains to the East but it’s the coastal riding and the multitude of climbs that provide the most indelible memories. The coastal stretch from Sant Feliu de Guixols to Tossa de Mar is a world class ride. A rolling, glassy smooth ride with the Mediterranean in your face around every corner.
Take your pick from a huge range of climbs. The iconic Rocacorba starts in Banyoles, 15km from Girona. This is is a climb made famous through local pros using it as their testing ground. It’s 14km of ascent will lull you in it’s first few kilometres until it ramps up in the middle to throw plenty of double figure percentages at the rider. The view at the top is stunning and it’s certainly a must do climb when in the area.
Mare de Deu del Mont is a little further out from Girona and well worth the effort. It rather aptly translates as ‘Mother of God of the Mountain’ and it’s name will resonate in the heads of any rider as they scale it’s tough final slopes. 19km long and rising about 1000m gives the hopeful prospect of a climb averaging a little over 5% in gradient. With the vast majority of that altitude gain loaded into the second half though, this concave profiled challenge will certain hurt the legs in it’s latter stages. A spectacular summit awaits with the most idyllic spot for lunch on the terrace of the magnificent ‘Sanctuari’ restaurant.
Right out of Girona you can scale Els Angels, a 10km, 4% power climb that culminates at the pretty Sanctuari dels Angels, famed for being where Salvador Dali was married. Over the other side and down to Madremanya and the superb vaulted village centre of Monells, the perfect coffee spot and one of many wonderful and beautifully maintained medieval villages in the area.
A week of riding in the Girona area will only scratch the surface of the massive range of rides available from the city. Other favourite rides for me include climbs to Sant Hilari, Santa Pellaia and Coll de Condreu. Head north west and inland to explore the volcanic Garrotxa region, head north east to sample the stunning Cap de Creus peninsular.
Girona is easy to get to, from anywhere. Barcelona airport is an easy 75 minutes away with a wide range of long haul routes from all over the world. Girona’s own Costa Brava airport is just 15 minutes from the city centre and provides an excellent gateway to the city for European travellers. By road Girona is easily accessed via the AP7 motorway meaning road travel from nearby France and the rest of Spain is easy. By rail Girona is just 37 minutes from Barcelona on the high speed rail service. This same trainline links into the French TGV network meaning fast access from the rest of Europe.
Nestled between the foothills of the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean Girona enjoys a very cycle friendly climate. Girona’s cool winters and warm summers make it rideable all year round. The best periods for the visiting cyclist are March – June and September – November when typical daytime maximum temperatures will be in a very agreeable cycling sweetspot range of 16-25°. December – February still provide great low to mid teen days and the 30° averages in July and August remain very manageable.
Cyclists will refuel in style in this town. Girona is a gastronomic paradise with a fabulous range of dining options with traditional Catalan cuisine beautifully mixed with plenty of internationally influenced options. Fine diners can enjoy the absolute best with the likes of Celler de Can Roca, until recently voted the finest restaurant in the world, now relegated to a lowly second! Every budget is catered for with a huge choice of three course menus including wine in the 15-20 euro range. More information on the best spots to eat can be found here.
I’m lucky. Every year I get to ride in a wonderful selection of destinations worldwide, courtesy of working with Alpine Cadence. I’m often asked where my favourite place to ride is and the answer is easy and always the same. If I could only ever ride in one place this would be it. Girona and Catalunya tick the boxes so much.
Coming to Girona still feels like a discovery, there are a few more riders here than when I first turned up here but it still retains a special feeling, the cycling hoards have yet to invade! Some will suggest that Scotland is where golf belongs, that Austria is where skiing belongs. Well, perhaps Girona can lay claim to where cycling belongs!