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Girona, Spain: Riding in the pros’ backyards

Ride through history in the cycling city of Girona, Spain.

As the sun heats up thick stone Roman walls built to protect the old town from attack nearly 2,000 years ago, I ride through the narrow cobbled streets to a café where I rendezvous daily with my teammates to go training in the Catalan countryside. The shop owners, in Girona’s old town, the Barri Vell, nod a friendly hello as they sweep the sidewalk in front of their shops. Over the past 15 years, the small town has become a seasonal home to roughly 40 professional cyclists from around the world. Attracted by the climate, proximity to the ocean, mountains, airports and quiet roads, Girona has progressively become an epicenter for English-speaking cyclists in Europe. We have become part of the vibrant community and, like the merchants, have developed our routines within the picturesque town.

Johnny Weltz, the directeur sportif of Garmin-Transitions, instigated the influx of cyclists to the small Catalan town in the early 1990s when he moved south from his native Denmark during his racing career in search of a warmer climate for winter training. In 1997, while he was working as a directeur sportif for the US Postal team, he advised one of his riders, George Hincapie, to move from Italy to Spain as the roads were quieter and the training ideal. When Hincapie moved west, his teammates followed and slowly Girona became colonized by cyclists. When Lance Armstrong bought an apartment and settled until his first retirement, the town became an international cycling destination due to the media attention he attracted.

In the local café, we sip on cortados, (short espresso coffees with milk) or fresh-pressed orange juice while we munch on croissants and bocadillos (sandwiches) discussing the day’s training route. After a friendly goodbye nod, we pedal the two kilometers out of the city center into the countryside. The traffic thins as neighborhoods become farms. Within 10 minutes we are alone on the undulating roads, finding our rhythm as the speed increases. The occasional passing car gives a short and friendly honk. An oncoming cyclist salutes us with a nod and a wave.

Through the winter low sun, an occasional rain brightens the landscape turning the grass a lush green. The town is quiet as the tourists, who flock here through the summer, are absent from the streets and restaurants. Despite the drop in temperature, it is a lovely time of year as the warmth of the community is evident. The locals, who speak Catalan with a unique accent, have accepted us as a part of the town’s culture. Although the Catalans are private people, once they recognize a face, relationships develop and flourish. They are kind and thoughtful and can almost be embarrassingly generous. A decade ago we were attracted to the town to ride our bikes, but now we have embraced Girona as our home: our children were born at the local hospital and now attend school in Catalan while many of our best friends are natives.

As the weather changes in April, I can begin to venture further into the mountains as the sun burns off the snow. With a thin jacket for the descents and food in my back pocket I will ride for hours, unaware of the passing time due to the serenity of the environment.

In the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains and within 35 kilometers of the coast, there is an abundance of routes, climbs and calming scenery.  From the monastery on top of mountain El Angels, which casts a shadow on Girona, the snow-capped Pyrenees look majestic while the royal blue Mediterranean appears tranquil. On the climb, we race each other, push our limits and refine our fitness while cyclotourists absorb the beauty of the surroundings and can feel the accomplishment of a challenging ascent.

Returning home from training under the warm setting sun the city has come alive. The café terraces are filled with chatting smiling patrons. The walking streets are crowded with shoppers while school children run in the parks and teenagers loiter on the cathedral steps. After a quick shower, I will join the afternoon crowds, relax with my family and enjoy the warm evening air.

Not only is there an ideal environment for cycling and sports, but Girona also has an affluent, educated, cultured community. A Saturday morning stroll down the Rambla de la Llibertat to the Plaça de Léon rouses the senses: the aroma of bread and pastries, the sight of the multicolored flower market, the taste of fresh espresso and tortilla y pan con tomate (egg sandwich on bread with tomato, olive oil and salt). At the daily farmer’s market, the locals sell their fruit, vegetables, olives, cheese, fish and meat. On the weekends, local bands play in the streets as shoppers dance along to Catalan tunes.

In the last 10 years, with chefs like Ferran Adria attracting a global following, Catalonia has emerged as a culinary destination. There is a high concentration of Michelin star restaurants to be enjoyed for an elegant dining experience and the rustic, traditional Catalan meats, rice dishes, fish and cheeses are savory treats available at even the simplest restaurants.

Girona is a cosmopolitan town that caters to many interests, but it is also easy to escape by train, car, bus or bike to explore its surroundings.  It is located just 30 minutes by car from the Mediterranean Costa Brava, which has wonderful cove-like beaches and rocky cliffs and a myriad of water activities. To the northwest, one enters into the grand Pyrenees. One hour south is Barcelona, one of the largest and most dynamic cities in Europe.

With each passing kilometer ridden, my love for Catalonia grows. Like being in love with a beautiful woman, the faults are overlooked while, with time, there is an awareness of a greater beauty.

When to go:

Girona can be enjoyed during all seasons. Its mild Mediterranean climate makes it comfortable to be outdoors year-round, although winter is the dampest season.

How to get here:

You can fly from North America into Barcelona and from there, take a train, bus or taxi from the airport to Girona about an hour and a half away. The bus station and train station are centrally located and within walking distance of the city center and most hotels. If you’re already in Europe, you can fly directly into Girona Airport located about 10 km from the city centre. If you’re driving through Europe, Girona is just off the A7, which is the main highway in the area.

What to do:

When you’re not riding, there’s lots to see and do in the area: Take a walk on La Muralla (the wall built between the IX and the XV Century that once enclosed Girona); Take a tour on the motorized train that goes past all the major sites of the city while providing information about the history, culture and architecture of the city; Walk through the tight, maze-like streets and stairwells of the Barri Vell; Visit the local museums and art galleries. If you visit in May, enjoy the Flower Festival, an annual 10-day event with flowers and sculptures throughout the city.

Where to stay:

Hotel Historic – Located in the heart of the historic part of the city.  This modern hotel is situated in a building with walls dating back to the First Century.  There are both hotel rooms and apartments available. www.hotelhistoric.com

Hotel Llegendes of Girona – Located 50 meters from the Onyar river and 200 meters from the Devesa Park.  Newly renovated, modern hotel.  www.llegendeshotel.com

Cuitat de Girona – Located in the center of the city, 50 meters from the Rambla de la Llibertat, Plaça Independència and the River Onyar in the shopping district.  www.hotel-cuitatdegirona.com

Where to eat:

Draps Restaurante – Catalan specialties, large dishes to share. $$

Boira Bar Restaurante – Specializes in Catalan cuisine in the restaurant and tapas in the bar.  $$

Celler De Can Roca – Family operated by the Roca brothers and is a Michelin 3 star-rated restaurant. Innovative and artistic cuisine. This restaurant has an architecturally appealing environment. Be sure to get a tour of the wine cellar and enjoy the wonderful wine selection. $$$$

Zanpanzar – A Basque tapas bar that has an array of decadent tapas to choose from on the bar, each placed on a slice of bread with a toothpick holding them together. You collect your toothpicks for the bartender to count at the end of the evening.  The house wine is not bad.  It is a cozy atmosphere and a cheap and enjoyable way to enjoy the evening with friends or alone. $

Michael Barry’s favourite rides

Easy 2-2.5 hour ride: Girona to Celra to Bordils. Then to La Pera and Corça, Monells, Sant Sadurni de l’Heura, Santa Pellaia to Cassa de la Selva, Fornells de la Selva and back to Girona. The majority of the ride is on small rolling roads, which pass through small ancient towns. Many of the towns have nice little cafes which are ideal to stop in for a quick drink.

Hilly 4-5 hour ride: Girona to Salt to Aiguaviva, Brunyola, Santa Coloma and St.Hilari. From here you head to Osar and climb the steep 6km Mas Coll and then come back down the same way before heading to Angles, Bonmati, Les Serres, Ginestar, St.Gregori and back to Girona. This is a hard hilly loop with two long climbs (30-45 min) and several shorter climbs. Many beautiful small roads with few cars.

Rolling 4 hour ride: Girona to St.Gregori to Les Planes d’Hostoles to Olot. Then to Santa Pau and Banyoles, where you can extend the ride with a 13km climb up Rocacorba. Next head to Palol de Revardit and to St.Julia de Remis and back to Girona. The roads are quiet and calm, rolling to flat until Les Planes d’Hostoles, where it gradually begins to climb towards Olot. The town of Olot is surrounded by the Garrortxa mountains, which are extinct volcanoes that lie at the foot of the Pyrenees.

Easy 1.5 to 2 hr ride: Girona to Els Angels to Madremanya, Sant Marti Vell, Celra and back to Girona. The climb up Els Angels is gradual and there is little traffic on the road. I use the climb for both intervals and easy rides as you can cruise up without struggling, but it’s also hard and long enough to get a solid workout in.

Michael Barry is a professional cyclist riding for the British Team Sky.