If it’s cycling you’re into and a challenge you’re after, then head for Girona, writes Eoin O’Sullivan.
The blurb on Eat Sleep Cycle’s website reads: ‘Prepare to suffer on Girona’s toughest roads.’
A strange way to promote the bike tour operator’s three-night ‘Girona Challenge’ package, you might say. The words ’suffer’ and ‘toughest’ are not terms that readily spring to mind for most come holiday time.
But, if it’s cycling you’re into, then suffering comes with the territory.
And if the prospect of sweating it out all day riding some of Europe’s finest roads takes your fancy, while discovering all of the beauty that Catalunya has to offer, then saddle up.
While Mallorca and the Canary Islands will always be choice spots for cyclists seeking out some warm-weather riding, the Catalan city of Girona is now also well established as one of Europe’s top cycling destinations, and it’s easy to see why.
Situated just 100km north of Barcelona (with direct flights from Cork with Aer Lingus) , and about 30km inland from the glorious Costa Brava coastline, Girona is nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountain range.
The riding is the perfect mix of flat, rolling countryside, stunning coastal routes and challenging climbs. The roads are quiet and crucially, in the main, road surfaces are smooth and pothole-free and lend themselves to comfortable riding.
The climate is generally mild, with plenty of sunny days and not too much rain. Unfortunate then, that I found myself stood, at the beginning of May, in Eat Sleep Cycle’s uber-flash new headquarters in the centre of old town Girona, looking out the window, a light drizzle beginning to descend.
Despondent, I cursed my usual ill-considered meteorological optimism when it comes to packing that resulted in my lack of wet-weather apparel. I was looking down the barrel of a very long and very soggy day in the saddle if the rain persisted. The Eat Sleep Cycle team were unfazed.
The ‘Girona Challenge’ comprises two 160-kilometre-plus rides over two days, both of which depart and return to the centre of Girona.
On Day 1, you ride west to Sant Hilari Sacalm, Rupit and tackle the Col de Condreu, gaining 3,244m in elevation over the course of 175km. Day 2 consists of a 163km coastal loop, gaining 2,500m, and traversing most of the stunning Costa Brava coast.
A quick look at what the weather was up to for the day, and it became apparent that the original 175km plan was no longer the ideal option. Damp and misty, a much shorter and critically, much lower, coastal loop of 82km with 1,894m of elevation was the more discreet option.
The expert Eat Sleep Cycle machine kicked into action and before long the support vans were loaded up with bikes and bodies and we were away.
The rainfall radar had given a good indication of where we needed to be and coupled with our guide’s local knowledge of weather patterns and cycle routes, about an hour later, some 70km north of Girona in the picturesque fishing port of El Port de la Selva, we disembarked the vans into the warm mid-morning sunshine.
About 20 minutes after that, the shimmering Mediterranean to our right, we were seven riders in single file, travelling briskly north towards the French border.
There was Canadian ex-pat Peter, our guide for the day; the very capable Stewart from London; Liverpool club cyclists Andy and Claire; Dublin bike commuter and weekend warrior Damian; and Patrick from Canada, who was travelling around the world and hadn’t cycled a bike in more than seven months; and myself. Saarlander and mountain bike enthusiast Knut was the man in the van for the day.
Founded in 2016 by Innishannon-man Brian Canty and his two partners, Lee Comeford and Louise Laker, Eat Sleep Cycle caters for cyclists of all abilities, from those out simply for a leisurely spin to those looking to push themselves to their limits.
Our group on the day fell somewhere in the middle of that range, maybe slightly towards the more energetic end of the scale. However, with Knut bringing up the rear in the support van, there was never any pressure if riders tired as the day progressed.
“Here at Eat Sleep Cycle we cater to all levels of cyclist, from complete newbies to weekend warriors to hardened road riders. We have an extensive fleet of bikes catering for road riders and off-road mountain and gravel bike enthusiasts alike,” says Canty.
Some 39km of rolling coastal roads with some gentle climbing and pacey descents saw our group cross over into France via the N-260 which became the D914 on the French side of the border. The pace was lively but never strained as we found a rhythm that seemed to suit most of the gang.
We stopped in the delightful seaside Banyuls-sur-Mer for a most welcome coffee and croissant before heading inland to tackle the first of two sizeable climbs of the day.
I’m not entirely sure how I made it up to Col du Berger, as pitiful a figure as ever mounted a bicycle, sweaty, puffing and panting, the salt stinging my eyes was second only to the scorching in my gasping lungs, the acid burning in my legs. With 14% and 16% gradients at times, it was a hard-fought but satisfying 4km when it was won.
Suffice it to say that the sight of Knut with his van full of provisions was a welcome sight at the top. Taking care of any mechanical problems, first aid issues, and all nutritional requirements, the advantage of having an accompanying support van is one of the real key benefits to the Eat Sleep Cycle offering.
Along with extensive local geographical knowledge and meteorological/rain-dodging expertise, the benefits of being in the hands of a top-class cycling tour operator are countless.
A light lunch of pan de leche rolls with Serrano ham and Philadelphia cheese, coupled with bananas and energy bars, all washed down with glasses of Coke, and we were soon ready to go again.
Sufficiently rejuvenated, the descent was long and gradual and glorious, the smooth, predictable surface and 28mm tyres on my rented Ridley Fenix SL instilling confidence enough to allow for slightly more aggressive lines.
We crossed the border back into Spain almost immediately, the noticeably drier and ever rolling countryside opening up before us, we gobbled up the kilometres as we headed for our second big climb of the day, a more gradual 8km pull up the 8-10% gradients of the GIP-6041 up to the medieval hilltop Monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes.
From here it was a 20-minute twisting and turning dash back down to our starting point in El Port de la Selva. On arrival, Peter suggested extending the day’s proceedings to take in an extra 15km up and over to the tourist town of Cadaques, famous for its links to surrealist artist Salvador Dali.
To a man and woman, we declined the offer. The spirit was willing but the flesh just wasn’t able. It had been a tough day and we had a mammoth 163km loop of the Costa Brava ahead of us the next day.
Day 2 began much the same as Day 1: wet. And this time there was no avoiding the rain.
Welsh ex-pat Gethyn was guiding for the day, with Knut in support again, the group smaller than the previous day. But again the pace was comfortable.
Starting out from Girona at 9am, we were soaked through by the time we completed the 40km to the beach town of Tossa de Mar.
From here The Costa Brava stretches out, the pristine GI-682 snaking north, a cliffside road to rival any. Gentle climbs and fast, technical descents went on for blissful kilometre after undulating kilometre. And then the rain ceased, replaced by a gentle caressing warm sunshine, our earlier travail a distant memory.
Barely a car passed as we continued north, a strikingly quiet, undeveloped area, pine trees cascading down the steep drop to the sparkling sea on the right.
Some 60km later, we turned inland, the scenery changing again. The stunning, rolling countryside, fields of yellow rapeseed blossoms in abundance, wild red poppies swaying in the gentle breeze, littering the roadside ditches.
Grape vines stretched out in parallel lines for as far as the eye could see, some 50 or 60 more rolling kilometres under our belts and we were on the final run back into town, the Girona Challenge overcome.
So what of Girona itself? Charming and relaxed, this medieval fortress city is packedwith a host of museums and historic buildings, designer and high-street shopping options, and a range of top-class restaurants and gastrobars all packed into a series of historic narrow walkways and cobbled streets.
The city’s historic Jewish quarter is worth a look, the city walls another attraction offering unrivalled views of a city that served as a filming location for hit TV series Game of Thrones, no less.
A compact city that can easily be traversed on foot over the course of a leisurely morning or afternoon, there is a wealth of options here for the non-cyclist as well.
EAT SLEEP CYCLE
Aer Lingus operates a twicedaily service from Dublin to Barcelona, and up to five flights per week from Cork. One-way fares start from €44.99 from Dublin and from €49.99 from Cork, including taxes and charges. For more information on fares and schedules and to book, visit Aer Lingus.