The 5 surprising things I learnt while cycling in Girona
Boasting safe roads, diverse landscape, a multitude of cycle shops and a welcoming community of fellow cyclists, Girona is the place to go if you want to improve your riding, but also have a real holiday. But you'll also get so much more from your time there, as Emily Fleuriot reveals...
A self-confessed fairweather cyclist and a reasonably regular London commuter, I'd completed a handful of longer distance rides in the previous couple of years when a message pinged up on Whatsapp: "Would you be up for covering the Girona Cycling Festival?"
In the same way that I'd cockily signed up to ride up the Stelvio Pass with the RCC following an encouraging text from a fellow female cyclist (I'd run 5km twice that week, it was day three of January and I was feeling FIT!), I said yes immediately, then panicked.
I knew it could be a great to get some serious riding in but I also knew that it would mean some big mental and physical leaps. Here, I reveal how I took on those leaps and won and how you can to...
I got in touch with Saskia from Bike Breaks who founded the festival with her husband Dave in 2014 and tried to wriggle out of it, but she reassured me that they'd set up the event to be welcoming to all comers, from professionals to beginners and everyone in-between.
Her persuasive, positive reassurance meant that after a couple of email exchanges, I was definitely going, PLUS I'd committed to the closed-road Els Angels timed hill climb – a continuous 10.3km climb averaging 3%, with a more serious 7.4% at the last stretch; as well as the Nocturne through the Old City, which includes a timed cobbled 250m stretch with two short but killer climbs of 17%+. Persuasive woman that Saskia.
I'm a keen rider and I've completed a few Rapha Women's 100 rides, the London to Brighton, the Nightrider, and an ambitious Surrey Hills Legs of Steel, but I always feel like the newbie and felt apprehensive about how competitive the people would be. I also realised that I had never actually travelled solo before.
From a cycling and personal perspective, this felt huge.
If I'd grown to love cycling over the previous few years, it was in Girona that I fell hard.
When I arrived, Saskia told me that the city's motto is 'Girona m'enamora' - meaning, in Catalan, 'Girona, I fell for you'.
For me, the city and its cycling festival – renowned on the circuit as one of the friendliest – absolutely lived up to the hype. With women making up 21% of the cyclists, and the encouragement of equal prizes for male and female categories, it stands out as a festival that's actually proactively addressing the sport's gender imbalance.
This immediately put me at ease, and meant the rides, all mixed (another first for me), felt very inclusive. Through a relentless heatwave, I pushed myself further than I had ever done before, learnt new techniques and gained invaluable insights into what my head and body can do.
The friendlier, more laidback sister city to Barcelona, Girona absolutely delivers as a must-do cycling destination: the roads, people, culture and landscapes make it a cyclist's dream.
For anyone travelling solo, it has the added bonus of an active cycling community, regular shop rides, delicious food – from pasta to pintxos – and safe and friendly nightlife, which means you'll soon be making friends.
5 things I learnt cycling in Girona...
As the Casquette mantra goes: Just Fucking Do It...
...And Girona makes it super easy to do exactly that. The city and surrounding countryside has long been a destination for pro teams, so you'll find everything you need to travel light but ride in style. I hired my top-of-the-range Cannondale Synapse from Bike Breaks (they upgrade their range every year), but also check out Eat, Sleep, Cycle and The Service Course. The welcoming community of cyclists, coupled with safe and quiet roads, meant I felt absolutely confident to give everything a shot: from the timed Els Angels hill climb in intense 36-degree heat to jumping joyfully into the lake at Banyoles following a sweaty 40km ride.
Never underestimate the cycling community
The more you ride, the more you realise that cycling isn't a sport we do, it becomes part of our psyche, your DNA even. In Girona, you're spoilt for choice for shop rides, which happen almost every day in high season and epitomise the friendliness of the cycling community. There's a ride leader for every riding ability and interest and I particularly enjoyed riding with Girona local Josep, whose intimate knowledge of the geography and culture of the region, as well as his gentle instruction for improving technique was second to none.
It's about the journey, not just the destination
Riding in Girona makes you sit up and take notice. The wide variety of quiet, safe roads – from mountains and aggressive hills to rolling countryside lanes and seaview clifftops – make the experience of riding here an incredible assault on the senses. Car drivers slow and give way so that you can smash out a PB or take your time (note: the laidback Catalonian attitude quickly rubs off on you). I learnt that I can set a huge challenge, but also see the smaller, incremental hurdles that I need to overcome to be mistress of my ride.
Work to live. Even better, live to ride...
Girona is a thriving city that's proud of its Catalonian status, while being home to an eclectic international community. From former investment bankers to prolific sky-jumpers, the people I met were united in their belief that life is for living and work is a means to that.
Take Anna, the sunny, Finnish air hostess who I met on a Bike Breaks shop ride. As we cooled off while riding flamingo inflatables in the pool (as you do), Anna explained that she works three days a week, reserving the rest of the week for herself, leading shop rides and catching up with friends. Even the entrepreneurs aim to maintain a work-life balance – Eat, Sleep Cycle co-founders Louise, Lee and Brian, set up their business with the aim that it would never get so busy that they couldn't get out for a ride every day.
Being able to decide your own measure of success: that's what success looks like.
Travel with an open heart and mind
Travelling on my own forced me into a series of firsts.
With solo dining I took a journal and a pencil with me in case I felt self-conscious, but I really enjoyed a table for one at pintxos bar, Zanpanzar: rustic dishes, a glass of wine and sketching and writing while watching the world go by - what's not to love?
Accepting dinner invitations with people I'd only just met and finding kindred spirits who I've kept in touch with.
Walking alone after midnight, back to my Hotel Nord 1901 apartment (spacious enough to stash my bike) through the Labyrinth of cobbled streets in the Old Town and revelling in it.
Everything about Girona whispers urgently at you to try more, love more, enjoy more.
The body achieves what the mind believes
I could never have anticipated how far I could go in a few days and how much everyone I met encouraged me to give every challenge a shot. On the Els Angels hill climb I realised I could push myself way past the point I previously thought were my limits – spurred on and inspired by fellow riders, not least the indomitable Arlene Duff who, aged 69, had returned to road riding only five months previously after recovering from a serious crash in 2015.
As I prepped my kit each day I realised how much I'd learnt from all the people I'd been riding with, both in Girona and beforehand. I also discovered the power of what my body can achieve when I embrace a challenge wholeheartedly.