Join cycling journalist George Scott who enjoys a short cycling trip to Girona to kick-start the year.
It’s mid-January, nine degrees and there’s not a cloud in the sky. Beautiful, you’d think, but a stiff breeze is blowing and the locals aren’t happy as we pull into the café stop. This is about as bad as it gets in Girona, they say. I’m not complaining.
Girona has established itself as the training base of choice for professional cyclists - the city has a population of only 100,000 but is home to more than 100 members of the pro peloton. Lucy Shaw of the Drops Cycling team is part of our group as we sit down for coffee, out for a recovery spin on the weekly Thursday shop ride of Bike Breaks, a Girona institution; Marcel Kittel’s Canyon Aeroad CF SLX sat in the shop before we rolled out, booked in for an early-season service.
In fact, you don’t have to spend long cycling in Girona to understand this is very much a cycling city. Head out onto the road and you’ll soon see a rider in team kit; perhaps a mini-peloton of pros. Wander the labyrinthine streets of the medieval old town and you’ll quickly spot like-minded cyclists, among the ever-increasing number of amateur riders coming to find out what the fuss is about.
As a cycling journalist, I’m here on a busman’s holiday, checking in on the British Cycling Academy’s first training camp of the year - Matt Brammeier, another Girona resident, and former Prendas supported rider whilst at ANPost, now runs the Academy since retiring from the peloton last summer - but also to kick-start my own year in the saddle.
An opportunity to reset the mind and legs for 2019.
And that’s why I find myself in a café, sipping a cortado. We’ve stopped early, 15km after leaving Girona on the rolling lanes surrounding Canet d'Adri, and it gives the group the chance to quiz our guide on the route to come. “Gravel,” says Dave Welch, Bike Breaks co-founder. “We’re looking to do 70km, about half it on the road, half of it on gravel.”
It’s easy to see why cycling Girona has become so popular. It has the weather and transport links; restaurants, cafes and bars. But most of all, it has the roads. The road network is dense, with perfectly-paved tarmac stretching out in every direction: from the plains to the north and south, to the staggeringly beautiful Costa Brava to the east and the high mountains to the west. You could ride a lifetime here and still discover new routes - slithers of tarmac so quiet you wonder why they’ve been paved in the first place - but there’s also no shortage of gravel.
After leaving the cafe and descending, the road gently rises through a wooded valley, the winter colours all the more vivid under a clear sky. The wind may be gusting but the sun has quickly warmed up, so I’ve stashed my gloves and unzipped my gilet. We ride two abreast and the few cars we encounter wait patiently to pass, giving the group a wide berth when they do so.
Dave signals left and we turn off the main road before tackling the main ascent of the day: a stepped 5km climb with an average of four per cent but sections approaching 20. Sepp Kuss, who made his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta a España in 2018, tops the Strava leaderboard ahead of Team Jumbo team-mate Robert Gesink.
After a short stretch of paved descent, it’s on to gravel. Sweet, sweet gravel. Technical enough to focus the mind but comfortably rideable on a road bike with 25mm (or, better still, 28mm) tyres. The view opens up and we’re surrounded by Girona’s rolling hills and exposed mountain tops. There’s not a car in sight, let alone another rider beyond our group.
“A lot more riders are coming to Girona and finding out how good the gravel is, as well as the road riding,” says Dave. “It’s something that’s really taking off here - some of the pros who ride in Girona do a lot of their training on gravel - and there are endless possibilities.”
We wind our way back to Girona via a network of gravel and farm tracks, hugging the River Ter that flows through the city, and it’s a reminder that for every road here, there’s an off-road alternative. For every iconic climb like Els Angels, Mare de Déu del Mont and, of course, Rocacorba, there’s the opportunity to take a detour off the beaten track.
Still, those climbs have developed their reputations for a good reason, not least Rocacorba. The region’s go-to mountain is what the Col de la Madone is to Nice, Sa Calobra is to Majorca and Mount Teide is to Tenerife. This is my third visit to Girona but I’m yet to ride Rocacorba, so 24 hours later it’s time to put that right.
This time I’m with Edward Greene, a former UCI Continental professional and now part of the team at Rocacorba Cycling - the 17th Century country estate reimagined as a cycling retreat by Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio. The CCC-Liv rider, who finished second at the Giro Rosa and third at La Course in 2018, moved to Girona seven years ago and by launching Rocacorba Cycling last year, has firmly rooted herself in Catalunya.
Vuelta a España champion, Simon Yates holds Rocacorba’s Strava KOM in a superhuman 29:26 minutes, while Moolman-Pasio is the Queen of the Mountain (36:14 minutes) on the 10.7km ascent. “I’ve probably ridden Rocacorba more than any other cyclist,” she later tells me. “Or the lower slopes, at least. It’s perfect for intervals.”
As the road swings left then right, and we ride over the stone bridge that marks the ‘official’ start of the climb, Edward tells me his fastest time is around 32 minutes, clocked a couple of years ago when he was still racing. “We won’t be going anywhere near that today,” I say. I’m a café rider, for starters, and there’s still that excess Turkey to shift from Christmas. It is January, after all.
The road initially rises at a comfortable gradient, fluctuating between five and six per cent, but Rocacorba’s cruelty is in its inconsistency. Two false flats and a short descent mean the seven per cent average gradient masks the climb’s true difficulty. After four kilometres, the road ramps up to 12 per cent and from there the gradient rarely drops below double figures.
The tarmac winds first through farmland before heading into the forest, with only occasional glimpses through the trees confirming the fierce gradient is being rewarded by significant altitude gain. We’re onto the toughest part of the climb now and I click into my lowest gear before we get our first sight of the radio mast that marks Rocacorba’s summit. We’re climbing at a comfortable pace, chatting, but the gradient is nagging nonetheless.
The trees begin to clear as we approach the summit and, as we round the final hairpin, the radio mast towers above us. A finish line painted across the road offers the opportunity for a half-hearted sprint. Fittingly, Rocacorba’s biggest prize is saved for its 955m peak and on a perfectly-clear winter’s afternoon the view is staggering: to the shimmering Costa Brava coast, the snow-capped Pyrenees and the French border some 80km away.
When winter in the UK is typified by sullen skies and days where it barely seems to get light, the constant presence of the sun over the past two days has been a much-needed tonic to kick-start the year.
This is the kind of January riding I could get used to.