"Welcome to hell," says Josep, our guide for the day, as the road swings right and promptly heads skyward at a double-digit gradient. It's time to dig in - the final mile-and-a-half to the summit averages ten per cent and starts significantly steeper.
The road turns left, then right, tightly hugging the mountainside. I rise out of the saddle through the steep hairpins, the road slick and shrouded under a thick canopy, before settling back into a rhythm as the slope eases. There's no rush but we're approaching the top of the biggest climb of the day and we're pushing the pace. "Let's go, 500m," says Josep as the final two thigh-burning hairpins come into view. Relief comes at a small mountaintop sanctuary and we sprint for the imaginary finish line every cyclist draws at the top of a climb. I stop, gather my breath, and have it swiftly taken away again by the far-reaching views over the seemingly endless mountains extending towards the Pyrenees. Less than half-an-hour earlier we'd crossed the Panta de Susqueda dam and it now lies hundreds of metres below us, the reservoir filling every crevice in the wooded valley.
We’re at the top of the 856m Coll de Nafré, west of the Catalonian city of Girona. The climb’s Strava leaderboard is brimming with professional cyclists. Cannondale rider Lawson Craddock tops the standings; Tom Danielson, British pro James Knox, Jack Haig and Darryl Impey round out the top five. Girona is a playground for pro cyclists - more than 100 call the city home - and we're here for a slice of the action.
Speed Kore / Creative Commons
Josep has ridden on the region’s roads since he was 11 years old, often riding hundreds of kilometres as a teenager and sleeping under the stars before turning for home. "Still I am discovering new roads," he says. The Coll de Nafré itself has only been paved in the past couple of years. It may only be a short ascent as a standalone climb but first you have to get to the turn-off and that means following the river from the valley floor, the road rising over the course of six miles before gradually steepening as the Susqueda dam comes into view. It may juxtapose the natural environment - we've barely seen a car since we left Girona - but there's an industrial beauty to 135m of concrete plunging into the valley and the deep, shimmering blue of the reservoir which stretches behind it as we ride across the top of the dam.
"There's an industrial beauty to 135m of concrete plunging into the valley and the deep, shimmering blue of the reservoir which stretches behind it as we ride across the top of the dam"
This is one of Josep's favourite Girona rides, a 70-mile loop with just over 5,000 feet of elevation gain. Earlier in the day we stopped for a coffee in Sant Feliu de Pallerols, the village where he was born, and enjoy a mid-morning cortado in the pristine square. As we clip back in and head towards the dam, lightly pressing on the pedals on the false-flat descent, Josep points out the road to Sant Marti Sacalm.
How we did it
We flew with Ryanair direct from Bournemouth to Girona–Costa Brava and took the airport bus (30 minutes) to the city centre. We stayed at the Hotel Nord 1901 Superior, an excellent four-star hotel with a swimming pool and bike storage, just a stone's throw from the old town
Bike Breaks Girona provided high-quality Cannondale Synapse road bikes and a wealth of local knowledge. Bike Breaks also offers private guides, regular group rides, WorldTour memorabilia and mechanical support
We also used Dan Craven and Collyn Ahart's OurGirona.com to source additional routes, including GPS files (and, crucially, recommended cafe stops)
The five-mile climb is a dead-end so sees little traffic and averages a consistent seven per cent. The best riders in the world can power to the top in a little over 20 minutes and the climb is regularly used for fitness testing or hill repeats. George Bennett, the Kiwi climber, holds the KOM, ahead of Knox, the young British climber who this year signed for QuickStep Floors. Simon Yates, another Girona resident, lies third.
The dam loop is typical of Girona. There's no shortage of climbing on offer but the gradients are generally kind, the roads in good condition and the sunshine on tap. We're here in late October and the afternoon temperature reaches the mid-twenties throughout the week, as is often the case through autumn and spring.
Having descended away from the dam, Josep expertly navigates us back to Girona. After a brief stint on one of the busy roads skirting the city, we head back onto the blissfully quiet back lanes which make riding in Girona such a joy, climbing and descending briefly once more before returning to the old town.
Josep is a guide for Bike Breaks Girona, run by Dave Welch and Saskia Welch-Van Vuuren, a British-Dutch couple who have been in Girona for more than 15 years, and at the helm of Bike Breaks for a decade. After our ride with Josep, we catch up with Welch to find out why Girona has grown from a little known Catalan city to the cycling mecca it is today.
“When I arrived in 2002, Lance was here, the US Postal team was here, so perhaps there were only ten pros"
“When I arrived in 2002, Lance [Armstrong] was here, the US Postal team was here, so perhaps there were only ten pros,” says Welch, a former mountain bike pro. Now Bike Breaks alone can count more than 80 professional cyclists as clients, offering logistical and mechanical support to those riders whose teams aren’t based in the area, as well as providing hire bikes and guided rides to visitors like us.
Girona’s popularity as a cycling destination has steadily increased over the past 15 years, according to Welch, but it’s in the past three that it has become cycling’s boom town, helped by high-profile residents including David Millar. “Someone like Millar is very high profile,” says Welch. “He's a good ambassador for the area, for sure, and speaks a little bit of Catalan, so is well respected by the locals. Having so many pro riders here has definitely helped put Girona on the map.”
Where to ride
The Panta de Susqueda lies west of Girona and is the highlight of a lumpy 71-mile route
A local favourite, this 37-mile route is an ideal introduction to Girona, with two climbs and a hat-trick of medieval villages
Girona’s Coastal Loop follows a 75-mile rolling route along the breathtaking Costa Brava coastline. Expect sinuous descents and jaw-dropping views
Mare de Déu del Mont
The highest climb within riding distance of Girona, Mare de Déu del Mont rises to 1,123m over the course of 12 miles on the edge of the Pyrenees
Word spread quickly around the peloton after Girona’s discovery in the noughties, with riders steadily making the move, whether part-time for training or full-time with family in tow, but now the region is being enjoyed by everyone from amateur racers on training camps to recreational riders in search of sun. “Every year we’ve seen the number of visitors grow exponentially,” Welch adds. “We started with ten hire bikes - this year we’ve got more than 300 and that’s still not enough.”
Girona has earned itself a reputation as one of cycling’s worldwide hotspots and it’s little surprise. The riding on offer is some of the best on the planet, with flat plains, rolling country roads and the Med to the east, and mountains to the west, rising steadily towards the Pyrenees, with little traffic in between.
“There’s so much variety and that’s important for pros. If they've got to ride for 25 hours every week, they don't want to repeat the same roads or climbs too much,” says Welch. “Even Josep, who is 56 and has lived here his entire life, is continually finding new, secret roads that nobody else knows. His nickname in our club is ‘I know a road’. I've ridden countless hours with him and then he's like, ‘Oh, let's just go down here’ and suddenly there's this whole farm track, a back road for 30km with no cars. There are so many secret treasures, from deserted roads to hidden climbs. It's incredible.”
Sharing the secret
Dan Craven is among the professional cyclists to call Girona home and, having first visited in 2014, says he immediately fell in love with its charm. Craven and his wife, Collyn Ahart, feel so passionately about Girona that last year they created OurGirona.com.
“Even though I had never been when we first decided to move, I knew that I would love it,” he says. “So many people had spoken to me about Girona and sung its praises to such an extent that I was already a convert. The more I saw of the place upon arrival, the more I knew the high praise had, if anything, been modest.
"“We both felt there was no single go-to place for riding info in Girona and we were often asked by friends. We love the place so much we wanted to do our part to spread the word"
“We both felt there was no single go-to place for riding info in Girona and we were often asked by friends. It reached a point where we felt it needed to be done, and as no-one else seemed to have done it, we might as well. We both love the place so much we wanted to do our part to spread the word.”
The website’s routes include a ride up to the Susqueda dam, similar to Josep's loop, and during our stay we use GPS files downloaded from OurGirona.com to ride Craven and Ahart’s recommended 'coastal' and 'classic' loops. The former includes one of the most beautiful stretches of road in Europe, with a steep, sinuous descent plunging towards the shimmering azure of the Mediterranean, and the latter is a popular local ride with two climbs starting almost immediately from the city walls and meandering through medieval Catalan villages.
"The road network is amazing. I've ridden all over the world and haven't found anywhere that has such variety and abundance of roads"
“The road network is amazing,” Craven says. “I've ridden all over the world and haven't found anywhere that has such variety and abundance of roads. Hills. Mountains. Flats. The only thing that you don't have is continuous high mountains - but that's available only a short car drive away.”
Where to eat and drink
Plaça de la Independència
Located across the river from the old town, Plaça de la Independència is a beautiful square lined with restaurants - ideal for a post-ride drink & tapas
Owned by retired pro cyclist, Christian Meier, La Fabrica serves excellent coffee and cakes, making it a popular hangout for riders
In the heart of the old town, Federal Cafe is run by Team UAE Emirates rider Rory Sutherland and offers superb coffee and food
If you like meat, you'll love El Balcó. This small restaurant is renowned for its first-class steaks
The complete package
As well as sharing some of the best routes in the area, Craven and Ahart recommend some of the city's best bike shops, restaurants, coffee shops and bars. Therein lies the second half of Girona’s appeal - the labyrinthine old town, Gothic cathedral and local lifestyle. It’s accessible, too, with seasonal flights direct from the UK to Girona–Costa Brava Airport and Barcelona less than 90 minutes away.
“The great thing about Girona is the village vibe,” adds Craven. “If you go to Majorca, you're on an island. People can be based anywhere. There is no real hub. In Girona, as a cycling capital, everything revolves around the old town. You constantly bump into familiar faces and if you live there a while it is easy to get to know your local butcher, baker, favorite restaurateur or the like. This vibe is something I have not quite felt anywhere else I've lived - and I've lived in many a place.”
Even in Craven’s relevative short time in Girona, he has seen the popularity of the city explode. The Namibian, who used to live in the UK, compares the increase in bike-riding visitors to the rise of cycle commuters in London since 2009.
“When I first arrived you could only really rent a bike with Shimano 105,” he says. “Now the whole range, bottom to top, is on offer, because the demand is there. Walking through town or riding around some of the well known loops, there is a real difference in the number of cyclists.”
Girona boasts three Michelin star restaurants and countless bars dotted around the old town; locals, tourists and cyclists enjoying a coffee or beer in the sun, accompanied by tapas. The coffee scene has also grown ‘massively’, Craven says, and there are now a number of cycling cafes including Espresso Mafia and La Fabrica, run by former pro Christian Meier, and Federal, owned by current UAE Team Emirates rider Rory Sutherland.
For cyclists in search of world-class riding, abundant sunshine, and fantastic food and coffee, all set against the backdrop of a beautiful old town and rolling mountains, Girona is the complete package - and now the secret is well and truly out. This is cycling heaven, no two ways about it.