By Colin Dennis

Now in its fourth year, the week-long Girona Cycling Festival has quickly established itself one of the friendliest, slick-running, cycling events that you could ever find yourself swept along in. I make no pretentions in saying that this is possibly the best week of cycling I've ever been part of.

Read on to find out why.

During the second week of June, riders from over twenty countries swelled the ranks of this year's Girona Cycling Festival making it a truely global event. From New Zealand and Australia, North America, and Europe, including many from the UK, riders of all levels and abilities come to enjoy a unique cycling experience that few others can. Not only that, but there can't be too many places where you can perch yourself alongside one of the many pro-riders that base themselves here, enjoy a silky-smooth latte and then get to ride alongside them during one of the several organised rides?

Barriers, metaphorically or otherwise are few and far between in Girona, cycling is in the blood here, and it's on cobbles of the old town where the Girona Cycling festival really comes  alive. 

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                                                                                               The Peloton in full flight during the Girona Gran Fondo

Organised by Club Ciclista Bike Breaks and brain-child of Dave Welch and Saskia Welch-Van Vuuren, who between them and their staff operate the much-respected Girona Cycle Centre. The festival is made up of several exciting and challenging events that are punctuated by organised group rides throughout the week.

In a nutshell, the 2017 festival included …

  • Daily group rides for all abilities
  • Pasta party
  • Timed hill climb
  • Evening Catalan meal
  • Nocturne crit in the old town
  • Pre-Gran Fondo party
  • Epic Gran Fondo ride
  • Post ride BBQ

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                                                                                                     Dave and Saskia face the camera

For me, one of the most noticeable elements to the cycling festival was the opportunity to meet fellow riders and glean their thoughts as to what made the journey so worthwhile. As mentioned earlier, the Girona Cycling Festival brings riders together from across the world. They come in groups, couples and individually, but everyone has the same goals: to enjoy the company, meet new friends, eat well and to get as much riding in as possible! 

There are several ways in which to get the best out of the Girona Cycling Festival, but I feel the best way is to sign up to either the Bronze, Silver or Gold entry packs that are on offer. Each package gets you into all the races and rides with varying degrees of extras that make up the price difference. Click here for more info on this subject. You also need to book your package sooner rather than later as the festival soon fills up

The programme …

No, not a film about one of cycling's more infamous pro's that was based here once, but rather, what you can expect during your week in Girona.

Monday is all about getting to know my fellow riders, drinking coffee, and meeting pro-riders who have made Girona their base before setting off at a leisurely pace on one of the more popular local rides. By popular, I mean less hilly than some! Here’s my chance to get a feel of the local, well-surfaced roads. There is, of course, the obligatory coffee stop halfway round and a chance for us to split up afterwards into different groups depending on fitness, or ability.

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                                                                                               Chillin' out in the race village next to Girona's beautiful Cathederal

Unlike some of the long-haul riders assembled here, I can't blame my lack of performance on jet-lag. The flight from Bournemouth to Girona/Costa Brava Airpory only took an hour and forty minutes, followed by a twenty minute tranfer on the public, airconditioned bus. Getting to Girona couldn't be easier for me, so I actively avoided talking about flights and time zones with the friendly Canadian couple who arrived after I did.

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                                                                                               Heading off on one of the many organised rides 

Thankfully, no one gets left behind on the organised group rides. There is a natural order to things as the road steepens and we string-out a little, but certainly nothing to get demorallised about. I soon discover that local knowledge is everything as we stop to replenish our water bottles at a roadside fountain. We collectively pour water over our heads in a need to cool down. I have to mention here that Spain is in an un-seasonal heatwave with temperatures nudging 40C in the afternoons, I leak more than I can pour down my neck.

In my book, the perfect road ride is one where there's not too much strenuous climbing, but includes plenty of flattering tarmac that lets you off the leash and where you feal safe enough to dream you're in a pro, road race, and Monday's start to the festival doesn't dissapoint. With the long, sweeping descent into the village of Bonmati squealing to an end, I find my self grinning like the provebial Cheshire cat. Despite the heat and caked-on sweat, I find I'm not the last rider to the bottom of the hill. I feel I'm going to enjoy the rest of the week.

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                                                                                                It's all about meeting new friends ... and coffee ...

Tuesday is a big day. It’s day two of the Girona Cycling Festival and today is all about hill climbing. Just a short pedal away from Girona, Els Angels is a well know landmark with a picturesque white-washed Monastery perched neatly on top. Mind you, the start line is 10km further down the hill, and although not particularly steep, with an average gradient of three to four percent, with the mercury rapidly rising, I sensed that the Els Angels climb might take its toll if I set off too fast. 10km is a long way to carry too much lactic in your legs. To get a better picture of the Els Angels Hill climb, click here for some wonderful views.

As we line up in single file waiting patiently for our moment of truth, we are left to our own thoughts. The cheerful banter subsides the nearer we get to the start line and I can feel the ticking of the clock getting louder inside my head. Outer ring, or inner? I can’t make up my mind. The Cannondale Synapse on loan from Bike Breaks is fitted with compact drive and I’m used to a 52, 36 set up.

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                                                                                               The legs don't lie, you either have it, or you don't

I plumb for the outer and instantly regret it the moment I set off. Too much nervous energy has been wasted and I drop down onto the inner ring as soon as I’m out of site of the start. Well, if spinning like a mad works for Chris Froome, I convince myself it can only work wonders for me. The majority of the road less travelled upwards is silky smooth and the gentle gradient soon allows you to settle into your stride and push on. The climb is nothing short of a joy to ride - a flattering up hill, indeed. Still ...

... Over the years I’ve got used to searching results sheets from the bottom up, rather than the other way around, this way I get less depressed.

Wednesday dawns warm and sunny again, but rather than go for another ride I choose to explore the delights of Girona’s old town, or to be more precise: the old Jewish quarter, and the impressive Cathereral that takes centre stage in Girona. With its eye-watering white marble exterior, this behemoth of a building acts as a guiding beacon for tired legs when returning from afar.

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                                                                                                The Catalan meal is a true gastronomic highlight of the week

The main social event for Wednesday is the Catalan meal. Exclusive to those who have signed up to either the silver and gold packages, this select evening meal is nothing short of excellent value for money. The delicious local Catalan fare is simple and plentiful, as is the wine. All this is served up by the staff of the El Cul Del Mon restaurant who genuinely care, not only for their customers, but for the reputation of the local people and food that they represent.

A more pleasant location I could not imagine than sat outside in the cool of the evening of the El Cul Del Mon, surrounded by fellow cyclists light-heartedly debating the latest fad or trends, or even the virtues of Campagnolo over Shimano or SRAM. Cycling terminology, it seems, is a language that transends all boundries.

If there was one single aspect of the Girona Cycling Festival that grabbed my attention more than any other, it was Thursday’s nocturne crit race around the cobbles of the old town. Rather than the whole mile-long circuit being timed, the nocturne has a timed section starting from right in front of the steps of the Cathedral. A more dramatic location for a bike race you couldn’t wish for.

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                                                            The start of the timed section of the nocturne starts halfway up the climb to the Cathedral

The concept for this event is that you start off in a bunch, ride as many circuits as possible in the one-hour time-slot, with your fastest five timed sections deciding your position – sounds simple enough.

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                                                                                               Never undersestimate the power of gravity!

Well, I certainly learned my lesson, I can tell you. My first mistake was to go for one of the organised rides during the day. It was a great ride where we ended up at Mike Duff’s wonderful hill-top abode and duly swam in his outdoor pool for an hour and a half before riding back to Girona. The temperature was touching 40 degrees by the time we got back at mid-afternoon. No sweat. A couple of hours siesta and I’d be fine – not!

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                                                                                               They start them young on the cobbles of Girona

The temperature hadn't dropped by much as we were vying for our bunch start positions below the Cathedral steps and the sunburn was playing havoc on my back from messing about in Mike's swimming pool. Nobody’s fault but my own. But I can honestly say that after the first lap of the nocturne with its ‘twenty-five-degree cobble’ slopes adjacent the Cathedral, I wished I’d stayed in bed all day before venturing out onto the cobbles. Will I ever learn?

Having said that, the nocturn is a fabulous event. The crowds are cheering, the pro-riders are shaking their heads, and your lungs are imploding. I have never experienced a mouth so dry as when I reached the top of each timed section. But you know what? I wouldn’t have missed it for all the tea in China. Next year I'm staying put in bed before attacking those cobbles again.

I skipped Friday’s organised ride as Saturday was Gran Fondo day, and I wasn’t taking any more chances with the heat. Luckily there is plenty to see in the Girona’s old town. It’s a relatively small city, no more than a kilometre square, and sits across the river from the new city that’s grown up alongside it.

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                                                                                               The River Onyar looking towards Girona's old town

It’s impossible to get lost among the narrow street of the Jewish Quarter as its bordered by the River Onyar to one side, and the old city walls at the top of the steep slope to the other. There’s no shortage of cafes and restaurants for all tastes and pocket depth.

I used this opportunity to grab a quick chat with Dave Welch over a cold drink, or seven, in the race village after the riders had set off for the day.

I asked Dave for his thoughts on how this year’s festival was going. ‘It’s taken four years of trying and working really hard to get it to just about where we want it to be,’ grins Dave over his bottle of water. ‘We’ve purposefully left out the urban downhill this year, as fantastic as that showcase is, it’s just one event too many. It needs to be an event within itself and backed by a big sponsor.’

It’s day five of the festival and Dave is still full of energy. Energy is what Dave and Saskia both have in abundance, and in conjunction with their enthusiasm for everything cycling I can only admire his composure. ‘I relax when all the riders are back at the end of the day and I can turn my efforts to the next day, continues Dave. ‘The City of Girona has always been behind our festival, they love what it brings to the city and they couldn’t be more helpful. Cycling really is in the blood here. It’s a privilege to be part of it.’ 

I become aware that someone is trying to attract Dave's attention, its one of the city workers who have toiled quietly behind the scenes to ensure everything is kept running smoothly. 'No peace for the wicked,' winks Dave, and he's off once more.

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                                                                    Dave and Saskia have created something wonderful in the Girona Cycling Festival

Saturday morning looms large and the sun is already high in the sky. It’s only eight-thirty. The number of riders signing on for today’s Gran Fondo provides a steady stream back and forth the race village. Everyone looks bronzed and fit and ready to go. Gran Fondo’s are big events on the continent and are often regarded as highly as races. The Girona sportive, as you might call it, seems to have its place clearly marked on everyone’s calendar this year.

The riders squeeze in tight along the narrow streets from the race village to the start line. There is a strong showing of clubs from the UK and Ireland, but the numbers of Catalan and Spanish riders are quite staggering. In the cool of the narrow, cobbled street I pick up at least half a dozen languages within just a few metres. 

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                                                                                             More than enough to go around, feed station frenzy!

Motorcycle outriders are the order of the day as they usher the several hundred riders through the outskirts of Girona and out into the rolling countryside northwards towards the first feed station near Banyoles. Here marks the spot where, if you’re feeling up to it, can climb the venerated Rocacorba. In this heat, I decide to give it a miss, save it for another trip.

Not that the Girona Gran Fondo is short on climbing. It’s pretty much up hill to the halfway point of thirty-five miles just outside the picturesque mountain town of, Olot. Here the second feed station is in a pancake-flat valley floor, but the mountains behind us grow ominously large as I head off again. Except the route swings left away from the wall of mountains and heads south. There is a headwind that feels as warm as when you open an oven door when cooking a roast chicken, and the further you descend towards Girona, the warmer it gets. Yep, it’s touching forty degrees again.

The final water station is manned by staff from the support crew of Team Cannondale-Drapac no less. Here I swap my tepid water for ice cold bidons and set off downhill once more. With approximately ten miles to go, Girona comes welcomingly into view.

You really can’t miss the blinding white marble of the Cathedral. But just when you thought it was easy, a sharp lefthander takes you up another strength-sapping climb of around half a mile before we descend once more.

When I say ‘we’ I mean me! I haven’t seen another rider since taking on water, and the thought of riding the final few hundred metres of cobbles once more focuses my mind and I steel myself for the bumps.

I’m burnt and red in the face from the heat and effort, but what a feeling, I’ve done it! A medal is hung around my neck and the smiling face of Dave is there in front of me. ‘What do you think?’ Says Dave as he hands me a cold bottle of water. Brilliant! Is all I can pathetically muster before collapsing into a chair in the shade of the race village.

There I sit and replay the route in my head. It was tough in the heatwave, but I have no room to complain, especially as everyone around me who has already finished looks like they’ve only been out for a jaunt.

I’m saving my pennies for next year’s Girona Cycling Festival. I learned my lesson to not over-cook myself before the races, especially if I want to do better than this year. Bring it on!

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Photo credits: Cycle Reviewer and Girona Gran Fondo.