Girona’s best cycling guide
5 min read by Laura Fletcher
Girona is a great destination for a long weekend or up to two weeks for a cycling holiday.
From the Historic City Centre to the tops of mountains, and down again to the pristine Costa Brava.
- When to travel: Visit March through November but if you are averse to heat avoid July and August.
- Hill & Climbs: The terrain is constantly undulating, but rides can be done with or without big climbs.
- Weather: Sunny and warm, year round.
- Road surfaces: Great condition with off-road trails aplenty a well.
- Getting there: Girona is served by Girona airport and Barcelona Airport. The high speed train is also a great eco-travel option.
The Cyclist's Paradise
From steaming bowls of Patatas Bravas to delicious roads with climbs xyz, Girona has it all!
The coffee revolution has well and truly come to Girona, with no less than 3 high end bean bars owned by current and ex professional cyclists, all opened in the time that I’ve lived here. One could spend the day comparing notes between what is on offer at Rory Sutherland’s Federal Cafe, Robert Gesink’s Hors Categorie and Christian Meiers’ La Fabrica. Less known to the fine tuned cycling culture purveyor is that Girona is also home to the largest Nescafe factory in Spain. Situated on the edge of town with a purpose built autoroute exit, long before Girona became a Mecca for cyclists, it was churning out enough caffeine to keep the Tour de France peloton alert for years. Late in the evening, as the overnight roasting gears up, you can smell the coffee in the air, wafting in over the river Onyar. Coffee is in the life blood of our little city.
The first thing that comes to many minds when they hear Girona is: the cyclist’s paradise. Situated an hour north of Barcelona, the Pyrenees greet you in the distance, a light blanket of snow dusting the tops. Its’ accessibility, both to the airports and the mountains is what has made Girona a home to so many professional cyclists over the years. When the US Postal team opened their Service Course here a few decades ago, no one could foresee the full force of cycling that would descend on the small city. Now, with over 100 professionals here, there is an a – z support network built in, bike shops, massage and osteopathic services, nutritionists and coaches that call Girona home. Alongside the professionals a vibrant community of local cyclists and ex pat enthusiasts have relocated to the quaint medieval city, with mild (by a British standard) winters, challenging terrain and a pristine coastline nearby.
It would be easy to come to Girona for a cycling holiday and simply forget to ride with all of the intricacies and intrigues the town alone has to offer. I’ve lost many an afternoon to perusing the local offerings at the Mercat de LLeo, and the carrot cake from Buttercup. The city wall walk is an annual tradition (although best avoided on weekends) and the Temps de Flor festival in May sees the city taken over by blooming flower displays. Sometimes my riding can best be encouraged as the only plausible offset for the steaming bowls of Patatas Bravas and fresh baked creme Catalan.
Sant Hilari Loop
We set off for Sant Hilari at 10 am on a clear morning, leaving from Pont de Pedra: “the stone bridge.”
The ride is one of my absolute favourites, with spectacular views, and worth every second, albeit a bit of morning traffic getting to the country lanes. As we hit Aiguaviva, the roads morphed from suburban outposts to rural lanes. Between Aiguaviva and Brunyola we opened up the legs and lungs, as this stretch of road is the perfect warm up for the bigger climbs ahead. Cresting the short kicker uphills we are greeted with rolling descents, a perfect balance to get the blood flowing. We weaved through farms lanes into Santa Coloma, a spa town with a 14th century cathedral and a 12th century castle to start the eventual slow drag up the base of the climb. (insiders tip- check out Magma Spa thermal ludic in Santa Coloma). As we roll under the highway overpass the climb kicks up. There are only a few switchbacks where the gradient reaches over 12 %, the average is 6-7%, a beautiful climb to either push yourself, or if you are me, take it easy, breathing in the lush green forest. The trees open up at 3/4 of the way up, giving dramatic views of Montseny, dotted with castles. On a clear day you can almost see all the way to Barcelona.
Arriving at the top in Sant Hilari, we stopped in to Bar Chapete for a quick bite to eat. Its a small town known for its fresh water and springs, although to be honest the town itself is nothing to write home about. The weather can be a bit cooler at the top so if you are lingering over a bocadillo at the summit, make sure to bring clothes to account for the long descent.
And speaking of the descent, as we rolled out the other side, as normal, we did meet our friends from the local farm casually taking over the road, the goats and sheep meandering at their own pace. The biggest risk on this descent is the local livestock, quite a gentle sight, but menacing to a too fast descender.
The descent can feel never-ending, a long drag with shaded cover, I did watch out for a few corners that can be slippery from the lack of sun. Eventually as the cover clears we started seeing the Roman Aqueducts, that’s when you know to turn left, the small bridge that turns over the river we’ve been following. That directly starts the next challenge, the climb up to Susqueda Dam. This is a super steep switchback-ey climb, a snap in the legs after a long downhill. The view of the Dam though, situated over the river Oser is simply breathtaking. The expansive view is refreshing after the twisty descent. The Sant Hilari loop is a view into all the best inland Catalunya has to offer in just a few hours.
As I sit (as I do on probably a tad too many of summer evenings) in Placa Independencia with Girona’s best Gelato from La Bonbonera, the cyclists meander past through the main town square. Most of us know each other, it’s a tight knit community despite its size. Friends roll up, chat about their rides and have a rest before heading home. The soft evening light comes in as the terraced cafes fill up, its pinchos hour here. In Spain dinner starts at 8 pm and the hour before is reserved for an end of day drink and tapas. The soundscape of Girona is threefold: the voices of conversation at sidewalk cafes, the church bells on the quarter hours and the gentle free hubs clicking away in time.
Local brewery culture is strong in the area, as the craft beer revolution takes on the established wine industry.
A Girona cycling trip isn’t complete without taking on the infamous Rocacorba climb. It’s a 10 km upward drag with an average gradient of 7%. The climb may not be as famous as Ventoux or Zoncolan, moreover, it’s notoriety has risen from it is the testing ground of the local pros.
We set off from Girona heading northwest towards the base of the climb. Out of town the road is rolling hills and quiet country lanes, the perfect warm-up for the behemoth ahead.
We cruised through the small town of Pujarnol and crossed the bridge demarcating the true start of the climb. Despite mystique surrounding it, the climb didn’t offer spectacular views or heart-stopping hairpins, it’s simply the hardest climb in the area, and a Strava record many attempts to clinch. The current record holders are James Knox at 27:13 and Ashleigh Moolman Pasio clocking in at 31:09. Any time under 60 minutes is considered a strong run. The view at the top made it worth the hour effort, the Costa Brava’s magnificent blue waters just out of reach.
When you’ve tackled Rocacorba, admired the views afar off the top and need to refuel before your return to town, the best bet is to stop by the town of Banyoles and sit at a lakeside cafe for a brief respite before venturing on. The expansive natural lake was formed from a tectonic depression and was the host of the rowing competitions for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The pride of the town as a sporting venue is evident throughout, with able crewman still transversing the lake, and cycling-friendly outdoor cafes along the banks. If your Rocacorba date is on a weekend, you can’t go without stopping by Can Campolier, the Masia owned by professional cyclist Ashleigh Moolman Pasio just outside Banyoles. The aptly named “Rocacorba Food Truck” parks up on the grounds over the weekends, and cyclist flock as a mid-ride stop to the old stone estate, (now a bed and breakfast) for a chat, a brew and a greeting from Ashleigh’s much-adored spaniel, Luna.
Catalan culture is awash with festivals, holidays and cultural events that spill into the cobbled streets. I’ve sipped many a glass of local Penedes red on the terrace of Placa del vi 7 to the site of Castaners (human towers) practising their craft. And speaking of craft, the craft beer revolution has firmly taken hold on the area as well. For the beer aficionados, try “Bagels and Beers”, B17 or premier glop for the best on offer. And for the more adventurous, journey north by bike or car to “El Birrot” a beer drinker’s haven nestled in the tiny village of Jafre, or Dos Kiwis brewery for a taste of something straight from the maker.
Every pro rider in Girona makes the “coast loop” a regular habit.
Rolling southwest out of Girona towards the Mediterranean, this 3-4 hour loop of 80-100 ks will take you through quaint villages and rolling terrain where you are greeted with the azure waters when you hit the castle town of Tossa de Mar. Stop here for lunch of course, and dip your toes in the waters of the pebble beach, before carrying on up the coast road. The gradient climbs out from Tossa, offering spectacular views of coves and lone fisherman with undulating hills and shaded estates appearing around each bend. Head along the coast until you hit Platja d’Aro and turn inland climbing towards Romana de la Selva. As you crest the climb you will be hit with glorious views of the Pyrenees behind the cathedral of Llagostera.
In the vein of heading North, this direction, slightly divergent from Banyoles and Rocacorba takes you around the backway to the spectacular Costa Brava and through the heartland of Salvador Dalí. When riding this way we always stop in through Pubol, home of the Dalí- Gala Castell and the fantastic eco-tourism bike-friendly Bruguera de Pubol. From there through the ceramics town of le Bisbal (don’t get distracted by the antique shops) the Costa Brava beckons with glistening aquamarine Mediterranean waters. If you want to venture further, to the northern costa brava, its world-renowned coastline won’t disappoint. The biggest climb of the area is Cap de Creus, the mountain pass that hides the gem of Cadaques from the rest of the region. The climb is about 56 km with an average gradient of 6%, a smooth wide road with a beautiful reward on the other side. The rollercoaster descent takes in magnificent views as it drops down into the small town, known for its blue doors, white buildings and of course a Dali influence. The ride is a big day, almost 200k round trip, so carve out a full day, complete with a glorious costa brava lunch stop to fully reward yourself for the effort. If you want to split this ride into two days, the bike-friendly Hotel Sol Ixent in Cadaques is a great option.
Coming over the top of Cap de Creus we were rewarded with the stunning view of the Med, a beacon for the end of the days journey
Sant Hilari from Girona
So why Girona? (despite all of the above reasons.) Well, if you spend your July afternoons watching the Tour de France, feeling like the world of professional cycling is a distant dream, a trip to Girona can put you right in the heart of it. Spend a few days living like the pros do and give them a friendly wave as they roll past on the roads. (Most will wave back.) Challenge yourself on the same training routes and check your times on Strava against theirs. Of course, keeping in mind, most of these professional athletes are pretty down to earth, and just living their day to day life, most don’t begrudge a hello and a smile when you come across them in town.
Cycling in Girona and the Costa Brava can be enjoyed year round, but we recommend avoiding January / Early February as it can be a bit chilly, and August, for it’s extreme heat and tourist volume. Serviced by the local Girona airport, flights can also be found via Barcelona and alternately Perpignan Airport in France. For the true Girona experience, staying in Barri Vell is a must. There are a plethora of apartments for holiday rentals in all the usual locations, or we would recommend Hotel des Legendes or Hotel Historic, tucked away in the hear of the old town. The roads tend to be lumpy here, with a constant undulation so opt for a wide range groupset and get ready to do a bit of climbing.
To the south the city, to the North the valley, to the west the beach and to the east the mountains. Girona is and always will be one of the world’s cycling centres. Just remember, when the wind comes from the east, and the smell of coffee is in the air, it’s flowing from the Pyrenees, via the coffee factory into town. When the Nespresso winds blow, always pack arm warmers.
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