The number of UK based sportives has exploded in the last couple of years, giving amateur cyclists a huge choice of opportunities to experience well-organised, semi-competitive, supported rides in our beautiful countryside. The only downside is our unpredictable climate – who can forget the wash out that was Ride 100 in 2014? In August! So it is that many of us have started to look further afield and beyond our shores and dark satanic mills for our next cycling challenge.
One of the most beautiful parts of the world I’ve ever cycled through is the verdant and peaceful countryside of Northern Spain, particularly around Girona in Catalunya. Quiet roads, a warm climate and a wide variety of terrain of flat valleys, rolling hills and mountain peaks like Rocacorba, make this area one of the most popular destinations for both amateur and professional cyclists. It’s no surprise that David Millar made this his home after being based here with Garmin and it’s not uncommon to catch sight of Dan Craven of Europcar or Dan Martin, now of Etixx-Quickstep, skimming over the cobbles of the graceful Placa de Independencia.
Girona itself is a gorgeous 2000 year old city with an impressive cathedral, Roman ruins and a quaint Jewish quarter. All this and only half an hour from the beaches of the Costa Brava. The old town is a maze of narrow streets, little squares and flights of ancient steps leading to hidden alleyways. They love their food here, fiercely loyal and passionate about their local produce and Catalan heritage. The river Onyar bisects the city with numerous pedestrian bridges joining either side. We once rented a cute apartment with a balcony overlooking the Pont de Sant Agusti and spent our evenings sipping local wine and people-watching as families and couples took their evening passeo.
I can’t think of a better place to go to for a week long cycling festival. This year the Girona Gran Fondo takes place from the 6th -11th June. It includes a timed hill climb on closed roads up to the Els Angels monastery, the Girona nocturne (a twilight crit through Girona old town with a timed uphill section over cobbles) and an urban downhill mountain bike event where the best local riders make a terrifying descent through the city from the top of Torre Gironella. It climaxes on the Saturday with a 125 km loop through the stunning countryside of the Garratxa volcanic region followed by a post race party and BBQ.
The event is organised by Girona Cycle Centre who put up a race village for the week and organise various informal group rides, meals and parties in this cycling extravaganza. Girona Cycle Centre offer a range of travel options from ‘Basic’: simply an entry into the Gran Fondo Saturday ride for 45 Euros; ‘Silver’ at 230 Euros: entry to all the race events as well as various perks like an invite to the after show party and free beer; ‘Gold’ for 430 Euros: all the above but with extra goodies like a jersey, meeting some pros and a massage; and the ultimate, all-inclusive ‘Gold Pack’ (950 Euros) with 4 star accommodation thrown in. If you’re lucky enough to be put up in the Hotel Nord, I can tell you from experience that you’re in for a treat!
Situated right in the heart of the old town, The Girona Cycle Centre is owned and run by ex-pat David Welch. When we caught up with him a couple of years ago he explained how he fell in love with Girona on holiday and never went home! A passionate cyclist with a background in competitive mountain bike racing, he was drawn to the surrounding area as well as the city itself that retains a certain provincial charm, boasting most of the benefits of its big brother, Barcelona, but few of its pit-falls. Determined to make a life for himself here he took on a variety of menial jobs, picked up the local Catalan, met the woman of his dreams in Saskia (who is now the General Manager), and slowly built up his bike business.
He’s now one of the biggest operators in Girona, running bike tours, bike rental and a shop. And the Gran Fondo, of course. The husband and wife team live with their daughter, Holly, in the Montjuic area of Girona – a lovely downhill freewheel into town in the morning, but a slog up the hill at the end of the day! Both are avid riders and qualified guides and regularly compete in local cross country races and European Cup downhill marathon competitions. They can tailor your holiday to your needs, whether it’s organising your accommodation, cycle hire, guiding or even making recommendations for somewhere to eat.
So, if the thought of another rain-sodden trek through the hedgerows and pastures of the English countryside is too much, you could do worse than taking on the Girona Gran Fondo in this other green and pleasant land. It’s a lot more intimate than some of the UK based, mass-participation events. More importantly, this one is at least kissed by the sun and warm weather!
To register for the Girona Gran Fondo click here