Girona, in the Catalan region of northern Spain, holds a magnetic attraction for professional cyclists.
The Garmin-Barracuda team has a permanent base in the town and scores of riders, including Britain’s David Millar, have made it their home.
The mix of warm weather, light traffic, and lively bars has proved irresistible to many of the WorldTour’s leading riders. Now increasing numbers of dedicated amateur cyclists are following the professionals’ lead and seeking out Girona for early season form building, pre-event preparation, summer holidays on the bike, and guided rides.
Dating back over 2,000 years, and home to a population of just under 100,000 people, Girona enjoys average temperatures in January and February of 13 and 14 degrees, and is now home to about 70 professional riders, including a significant percentage of the WorldTour peloton’s Anglophone constituency, including Michael Barry, Jack Bobridge, and Dan Martin.
Lanzarote and Mallorca have long enjoyed a popularity both among British amateur cyclists and professional teams seeking a guarantee of good weather unimaginable in the UK in the months building to the new season. But does Girona represent another option? The professional’s choice has long been regarded as the ultimate recommendation. Should amateurs follow their lead in their choice of training destination?
Former Irish national road race champion, Dan Martin (Garmin-Barracuda), a stage winner in last year’s Vuelta a Espana, is convinced of Girona’s benefit to cyclists.
He told RoadCyclingUK: “In my opinion, there’s no better place in Europe to train. I have been here four years. I moved here mainly because of the team, but the team is based here for a reason. The roads are mainly clear of cars. There’s a really good variety of training routes. You’re not limited. You can pretty much go in any direction.
“Being a cyclist, you need a social life as well. Girona isn’t a tourist town. It’s quite small, but lively. There’s always somewhere to hang out. The number of cafes and bars and restaurants and cafes is pretty high. I always say that guys like Lance Armstrong, who can afford to live anywhere, lived here because they chose to.”
Martin talks enthusiastically of his desire to do well in the year’s Volta a Catalunya, An Irish citizen born in Birmingham, he describes the Volta as his “home race” and finished third last year and second in 2009. “It’s somewhere I feel comfortable and somewhere I call home,” he says of Girona.
One amateur rider inspired to ride in Girona by reports of its popularity with riders of Martin’s caliber is Ross Peebles, 34, a commercial project manager and regular cyclist for more than seven years, who first visited the town on a cycling break two years ago. He says he would now ride there every weekend if he could.
“It’s a fantastic place to go road cycling. It has great quiet roads, and often you won’t see a car for hours in the hills. There’s a good variety of routes for all levels, excellent climate pretty much all year round, and Girona itself is a beautiful city to explore off the bike. Once you visit you understand immediately why David Millar et al live and train there,” he says.
Girona’s proximity to Barcelona airport (an hour’s train ride), the stress-reducing option of hiring a quality cycle on arrival and leaving one’s own machine at home, and the residents’ welcome for cycling guests (Girona’s cycling memorabilia records the sojourn of Armstrong’s US Postal squad) were other inducements highlighted by Peebles in his glowing assessment of the town.
As a regular sportive rider, he is far from alone in choosing Girona as the destination for a cycling break, according to Dave Welch, an ex-pat cyclist who established his Bike Break/Girona Cycle Centre business after moving to the town in 2002 to race for a local mountain bike team. “I’ve been doing this for about nine years,” he says, “and it changes every year. You see an explosion of different tours. At the moment, we are seeing an increasing demand for sportive type rides. We offer what I would describe as “real riding” for guys who are keen cyclists, who are riding criteriums and one day events like the Etape. They are keen, competitive, and ride at a reasonably high level. These are guys who might previously have gone to Mallorca.”
Ten years ago, Welch took a 12-month sabbatical from his job as a civil engineer; a hiatus that has been gradually extended and which he has no plans to terminate. “Am I tempted to move back to England? No!” he says. “It’s a lifestyle here. I ride my bike everyday.”
In 2009, the Tour came to town, with Girona hosting the departe of the 181.5km ninth stage to Barcelona. The route is now part of Welch’s favourite ride, although he admits to regular changes of heart, such is his passion for his adopted home. “My favourite ride changes pretty regularly, but at the moment it’s the coastal road. It’s a 100km ride with 1,700m of climbs, including a section of which follows the route used in the 2009 Tour. It descends towards the Mediterranean and there’s an incredible 10km along the coast,” he says.
While Welch has an obvious interest in talking up Girona’s advantages, his enthusiasm is unmistakable. “The riding is epic. Girona is very affluent and has many new roads, which means the old roads, which are still good, have very light traffic. It’s a chance to ride in great conditions, with beautiful mountains and very few cars.
“Girona is one of the few places that has everything for cyclists. The roads are very good, and there’s a lot of mountains near by, which is great for mountain bikers. Importantly, the town is very nice, particularly for the pros who live here. There’s a lot of cyclists, a lot of nice shops, and great restaurants,” he says.
Ryan Air fly direct from UK airports to Girona Airport.
Bike Breaks at the Girona Cycle Centre offer eight road cycling holidays. The Girona Sport Rider package of self-led rides includes four nights in three star accommodation with breakfast, a bike fit, and route maps for rides of between 60 and 105km, priced at 280 Euros per person.