Girona is, without a doubt, one of the meccas of the road cycling world. Nestled an hour or so north of Barcelona and just 40km from the Mediterranean coastline, the enchanting and playfully twisting catacombs of archways, alleyways, and hidden plaça sit upon a confluence of four rivers which flow down from the lush mountain terrain surrounding the plain in which the modestly sized Catalan city rests. Girona is either home or temporary base to a multitude of pro-riders & teams, all drawn to the breathtaking terrain, multiple transport links and year-round promise of sun to warm the bones whilst training. Throw in the relaxed culture, fabled cuisine and old town charm and Girona, as a go-to destination for either a full-gas training camp or long weekend at touring pace, becomes irresistible.
Always Riding had the pleasure of a travel guide in the shape of Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka's Nathan Haas to provide the inside line in advance for our whistle-stop visit. When it became known that Nathan was to head off to find his fortune at the Vuelta e Espana, Team Novo Nordisk's Chris Williams stepped in as route-meister deluxe before also heading off himself to race at the Tour Des Fjords in Norway. More of Nathan's hidden Girona later; first - the riding!
CYCLING IN GIRONA
As with many things in Girona - restaurants, breakfast pastries, wines - we soon realised that if you ask three different people and you'll get three different opinions (none of them bad!). When it came to suggestions for 'The Ride You Simply Have To Do When In Girona' it was pretty much universal: The Coast Road Loop. After meeting Chris for coffee & croissants at La Fabrica we set off through the winding cobbled alleyways of the Barri Vell, or Old Quarter, across the river to the newer town on eerily quiet streets and quickly emerged into open farmland. We'd been told not to expect much traffic ever since arriving the previous evening but this seemed other-worldly, even for a Sunday. "It really doesn't get much busier, even in the week - you can ride for hours in certain directions and hardly see a car!" Chris informed me. Being used to the dense and often aggressive road networks of the UK, I always find Europe a pleasure to ride in, but this was next level! Those 'Pass Cycles at 1.5m' signs line the roadside and, in my two days experience, are obeyed.
We settled into that comfortable yet brisk pace that pros clip along at on an 'easy day' and soaked up the sun and hazy mid-morning mountain views as the smooth, blemish free tarmac swished by under our tyres. Gently rolling roads swept us through sleepy villages as church bells chimed flatly out across the freshly harvested arable land. A meandering 3km climb temporarily thinned the conversation out before a wide, sweeping 10km descent delivered us to the edge of the azure sea and sand at Tossa del Mar.
The Sant Grau twists its way up for 6km into the increasingly verdant cliff face and away from the coast at around 5 or so percent before a final kick in the last kilometre just for good measure
Time for an iced coffee under the beach hut parasols before the highlight of the ride: The rolling, cliff hugging coastal road that dances its way along high above hidden coves, many only accessible via a steep scramble down or swimming to in the crystal clear waters from your yacht. I could've ridden that road all day long but it was not to be; Chris motioned a left turn that denoted the start of the day's 'proper climb'. The Sant Grau twists its way up for 6km into the increasingly verdant cliff face and away from the coast at around 5 or so percent before a final kick in the last kilometre just for good measure. Another descent, more technical but equally as fun, once over the ridge took us back into the plains. The ride's finale was a tailwind assisted dash home on yet more super-fast, rolling roads, only punctuated by a quick stop for a bidon refill at one of the mercifully abundant water fountains en-route.
We said our goodbyes with 90km in the bag as Chris contemplated the less than clement weather that awaited him in Norway. As for us tourists: Time to delve into the shadows and see where Girona and the night would take us; time to place ourselves in the hands of Snr Haas...
NATHAN HAAS' GIRONA
Always Riding: Ok Nathan: Basics & background – how long have you been living in Girona and what or who influenced the decision to base yourself in there?
Nathan Haas: I've lived there for going on 5 years now. I moved over my first year as a pro, 2012. My team at the time, Garmin, is based there, so a big part of my decision was to be with the team and close to teammates. Moving half way across the world when you are 21 is pretty overwhelming - Girona offers a fantastic built in community to make the transition easier.
AR: What were your first impressions? Was it a warm, snug fit and vibe or did you have to find your way in to the Catalan way of life?
NH: Immediately when I arrived I knew it was going to be fantastic. George (Bennett) had already sorted out an apartment for us, and it was easy to settle in. From the second I hit the roads there I knew the training was fantastic and would be an asset for me for years to come. Of course, there are going to be hiccups in moving to a country before you speak the language - it's a very different way of life! We all have to adapt to perhaps what we might call the lackadaisical culture: We have a term there called "Getting Spained". It refers to things such as when an apartment key breaks inside a lock of one of the old buildings to misadventures at the post office, or like, mistakenly ordering uncooked meat.
AR: Hmm... I think we 'Got Spained' within an hour of arriving when the train doors jammed and wouldn't open for 15 minutes upon arriving at the station... nice to feel part of things. Anyway, how is the scene as far as cycling and training groups and World Tour riders and group dynamics? I spoke to a Lucca Crew contact the other day, their feeling was it can be a little smothering at times: ‘Man, You go out to dinner and you’re surrounded by half the peloton!’- Or were they just being a bit crabby?!
Hardest, longest climb? Roca Corba, always. Then there's Banyoles. It's our standard recovery day ride, through the back country roads to Banyoles lake.
NH: Ha! There is definitely that same feeling of running into people every time you walk down the street, but to me that is what makes it wonderful. And, to be honest, there are plenty of places to hide away if you don't want to be seen. I know how to walk the shadows... but one of the main things is that everyone realises it’s nothing personal if they see some friends out having dinner together and they weren't invited. If we invited all our friends to every dinner, it would be a massive blow out every night! Of course, there is the occasional spat between people, but it blows over and we move on. There have definitely been some people there over the years that I haven't gotten along with fantastically, but hey, we are all adults and it's no big deal. The trade-off being some of the best training buddies you could ask for and built in resources like mechanics, medical, and team staff. I wouldn't trade it for the world. Plus, as an athlete, it's good to be surrounded by like-minded people, otherwise those big nights out would be too tempting!
AR: Ok, Favourite places to eat?
NH: It's so hard to choose! Placa del vi 7 is one of the best in Girona. I mean of course there is Can Roca, the world’s second best restaurant... but getting a table there is hard and we don't normally indulge in 400 euro meals. At Placa Del vi 7, the world's second best sommelier works there, it’s just a fantastic little spot - and definitely the best patatas bravas I've ever had. For breakfast and lunch: Artusi, tucked away in the old town. I'm telling you, you have not lived until you have tasted one of their croissants.
AR: Favourite places for a beer/ bottle of wine to start the end of season wind-down?
NH: Well, along with Placa del Vi 7, Mon Oncle, just a few blocks away. It's owned by a lovely Frenchman named Axel and the wine is superb. It's got a lovely outdoor terrace - just in front of Bike Breaks, so we can spy on all the bike business- and the vibe is just perfect. Right in the heart of the old town.
AR: Best people watching chair and table?
NH: La Fabrica- that's the coffee shop owned and run by Christian Meier of Orica Bike Exchange. It's the cyclist's home away from home. To see local colour though, any cafe on Placa Independencia.
AR: Most beautiful street scene or architecture?
NH: How do I choose just one? Any stroll through the old town, up Carrer Forca into the tiny streets, back behind the cathedral; you find hidden parks, walls a 1000 years old... what else can you ask for? Of course, the most well-known are the giant steps - I think they blew them up in Game of Thrones - and the buildings that surround them.
AR: When in Girona, you must ‘fill in the blank’ before you die...
NH: Go to the Haribo factory outlet store? No? You must stay up late one night to catch the live music at Lola Bar.
AR: And what or where do I avoid at all costs?!
NH: There are a few tourist traps: The Rambla is lovely but watch out for mediocre cafes along it - though some are fantastic, like the Irish and the Italian place. Basically anywhere that gives you a menu in 4 languages is probably not a great idea...
Placa Del vi 7, it’s just a fantastic little spot - and definitely the best patatas bravas I've ever had. For breakfast and lunch: Artusi, tucked away in the old town. I'm telling you, you have not lived until you have tasted one of their croissants.
AR: Routes and riding - give us your favourites; beautiful routes, hard routes, coffee-ride routes...
NH: Best Views: Riding to the town of Rupit - we call it the Rupit loop. Hesjedal has a secret way of doing it where most is on jeep track, but if you are after a long beautiful climb with lovely views you can’t go wrong with the climb of Sant Hilari. Hardest, longest climb? Roca Corba, always. Then there's Banyoles. It's our standard recovery day ride, through the back country roads to Banyoles lake; the Cafe Aquarium there has the best coffee. On a nice day we can even take a quick dip in the lake. Or Platja D'aro beach loop- a little bit longer, but the cupcake shop in town there is exquisite. Also, the town of Madremanya, north of Girona is a must see. For beaches: L'escala or Les Franc in the Palamos area are stunning. And the town of Le Bisbal, the mecca of traditional artisan tiles. Full of antique shops - you can get lost in the tile stores for hours.
AR: Do you find you get homesickness both ways when you are at one place and start wanting to get back to the other place?
NH: Always a little bit! Both places are really home-home now though. I'm lucky that I get a good 3 months back in Australia in the winters, but, unlike a lot of American riders who have an apartment in America and Girona, and split time 50/50, Girona is really my base for 9-10 months of the year. I own a flat there now, my life is there, but of course my family is in Australia. When I do get homesick, I try to remember that this opportunity and this experience is the stuff dreams are made of. How can I complain? I try to make sure my family comes to visit once a year, which always helps. If only they could bring Elliot the cat as well! Part of me envies those who get to be professional cyclists and live in their home towns, but the larger part of me knows that this is a much more enriching experience. What I will take from my time as a cyclist goes well beyond results on paper. I love this life.
Getting there: There are plenty of flights to Girona itself or to Barcelona from where you can take a train or bus to Girona. If you travel via Barcelona and opt for a train it is worth noting that there are two options: Intercity express which takes about 40 minutes or the slower regional train which will take at least twice that time. The rub is that the regional train costs about half as much as the intercity. You also have to reserve the intercity ahead of travelling as they can be fully booked if you just turn up at the ticket office on the day.
Local culture: Avoid looking like a clueless tourist by realising you are in Catalunya first and foremost rather than simply ‘Spain’. The region is fiercely proud of its identity and has its own language. So, whilst tourism is a major industry in the region meaning you will be fine ordering food & drink and getting around with English and most people do speak Spanish, a couple of key phrases of Catalan will never go amiss. Sisplau (Please), Mercès (thank you), Bon Dia (Good Day/ Hello), Perdó! (sorry), Bona Nit (good evening/ good night) and TxinTxin! (cheers!) are all good for starters.
Food: The local cuisine is delicious – cured meats, robust cheeses, and heady wines rule the roost as you can imagine. It’s all delicious – dive in! My best tip would be to always order the Menu Del Dia for lunch if you want the most bang for your buck (eg. Artusi do a plentiful three-course lunch with bread, water and wine for €14)
Bikes: Your very first port of call has to be the Girona Cycle Centre. Call in and speak with Dave and Saskia. This shop is the absolute hub of cycling in Girona, offering route information, guiding, mechanic workshop service, shop club-runs and tales aplenty about the huge collection of autographed jerseys hanging from the walls. You can even pick-up some 100% authentic, unused pro-issue team kit – you’ll know it’s the real deal as each item is labelled with the name of the pro who it belonged too! We rode silky smooth Cannondale Synapses with the ever-working Shimano 105 groupset and Mavics.