If you’re planning a Girona cycling holiday (or thinking about planning one!), this article is essential reading.
In it, we speak with Dave Walsh, a longtime Girona resident and owner of Bike Breaks Girona Cycle Centre (closed July 2021). Dave shares the things every cyclist should do while in Girona.
Though Bike Breaks may be closed, Dave's tips in this article are still really useful - so read on!
Here are the must-do things for the perfect Girona cycling holiday....
1. Explore Girona’s old town
One of the most important things to do while in Girona is quite simple - make time off the bike to just enjoy the old town!
Girona has one of the best preserved city walls and medieval quarters in the whole of Europe. The cathedral is a masterpiece, and someone told me it has the highest unsupported stone ceiling in Europe. So there’s lots of history, beautiful buildings, twisty streets and places to explore.
But you might think, lots of places are a bit like that, why is Girona different?
I think one of the reasons it’s not just a touristy shell, is that people still live here.
Twenty years ago, the old town was a red light district if you can believe it! As the town has gentrified, the local authority has been very astute in retaining the city’s unique architecture and atmosphere - and really making it somewhere Catalan people want to live.
One of the most important things the authorities did was impose hugely strict planning regulations, preventing chain shops/restaurants. As a result, most of the shops are individual and locally owned by people who really personally care about their businesses and are quite design focused.
All that means that today Girona is still a young city with a big University population. It’s very left wing and trendy, there’s a lot of money here, with lots of young professionals and hipsters moving out of Barcelona. Those factors combine to bring about a city that’s very beautiful but also a lot of fun to spend time in as a tourist.
My advice? Make sure you have at least one rest day while you’re in Girona and that you really explore the old town!
2. Play spot the pro rider
“It's like if you move to Beverley Hills you’re going to see actors. In Girona, pro cyclists are everywhere!”
The reason the riders are all here is that they like the same things we like. They’re young, well paid people, who need the riding and training but also want nice shops and restaurants and want to go out and do stuff. They don’t want to live in a hut in the middle of the mountains!
Of course there’s also the snowball effect, so another draw for them is the fact that there are lots of other riders here. It’s a small community and they want to be where their peers and friends are, so they have people to hang out and train with.
I reckon we service the bikes of 220+ pro cyclists and triathletes, and they’re in my shop the whole time just doing the normal things we all do, getting bikes serviced, buying nutrition and parts and so on. So keep your wits around you when you’re in our shop if you’re keen to spot a famous rider!
The funny thing is that often people don't recognise pros when they’re not in kit. Marcel Kittel used to come into our shop a lot, just in normal clothes. There was this great day when I was explaining to these three British guys about a route and doing my classic thing of trying to tell them not to go to Rocacorba. Sitting next to them were Nathan Hass and Marcel Kittel who were on the same tem at the same time, and they were agreeing with me.
Hassy was like “yeah, I live here and yeah honestly I wouldn’t go there”. The guys were like “well all the pros go there” - once Hass and Kittel left, “I was like dude you don't know who you were just talking to do you!”. That kind of thing happens quite a lot!
To be honest, it’s quite unusual if you don’t come across a pro when you’re in Girona. They also love all the cafes we love. On which note...
3. Chill in one of Girona’s cafes
Coffee is one of the things that makes Girona the world’s best cycling destination (yes, I know I’m biased!).
We’re spoilt for choice in Girona. That’s partly because of the pro rider scene too - because they love coffee and often set up cafes and bars.
One of my personal favourites is Federal Cafe, which has lots of exposed stonework and glass and you can get great coffee and also beers.
There’s also Buttercup Cafe, which is a bakery with coffee and awesome cakes.
Blend is pro Ironman Dave McNamee’s place. If you’re into your coffee, they have a famous barrista there - a guy called Frederico, and I’d say he easily makes the best coffee in Girona.
For more of a bar, there’s Bagels and Beers which is a great place. They ran the bar in our Cycling Festival race village last year and hopefully they’ll be able to do it this year too. A couple of riders are the partners behind it and a guy called Adam runs it - he’s absolutely born to be a publican!
Then there’s Rocacorba Cafe, Coffee and Greens, Mckiernans… it’s difficult to choose a favourite! And all of those places you're going to see pros for sure...
Outside Girona, I like really local places that are less well known. There’s a place I often take people on the shop ride, called Canet d'Adri. He does really good coffee and all the pros go there. It’s about 40 mins from town, so the pros stop there at the end of their rides. I was once there on a shop ride and about 15 riders from the Education First team all turned up at once!
4. Climb Rocacorba (and other better climbs!)
Without a doubt, Rocacorba is the most famous of Girona’s cycling climbs.
But - let me fill you in - it’s terrible!
Okay, perhaps not terrible, but it’s just not the best climb out there. The road surface is bad, there are hardly any views and it’s got a beast of a gradient on it.
Rocacorba is one of the reasons I’m so passionate about helping people plan their routes: I just don’t want people coming here, riding that and thinking tick, that’s Girona done. There are so many other better rides and climbs to do!
I know that whatever I say, first-timers here will feel a sense of having to ride Rocacorba, and to some extent I perpetuate it because we have the Cycling Festival timed segment up Rocacorba! So fine, ride it, but make sure you ride the good stuff too! [Note: the Cycling Festival is no longer running.]
I like Mare de déu del Mont, but one of my absolute favourite climbs is not well-known at all. It’s called El Far and it’s on a 145km loop from us, so a big day out but totally worth it.
The El Far climb is 18 kilometres long and the summit is at the top of a 200 metre high cliff. When you get up there the total altitude is 1,100m and you've got a panoramic view of the whole area. There’s a cafe too. It really is awesome! The El Far route is here (145km with 2,000+ metres of climbing) and you can see some great photos of the cliff panorama on google here.
5. Ride 360° cycling routes from Girona
One of the other must-dos I always recommend to our guests is to ride in a different direction out of Girona each day. That way you can get a taste of the amazing different landscapes we have in each direction.
In the UK we just don’t have anything so diverse within the same kind of distances. I mean you ride 50 miles from the Surrey Hills and you’re still in the same kind of countryside...
I’d say a cycling itinerary for a first trip to Girona should look a bit like this:
Note: check out this article for our 3 day point to point trip through the countryside around Girona!
6. Don’t miss the Girona Cycling Festival
[Note (July 2021): sadly, the Girona Cycling Festival is no longer running.]
For the last six years we’ve been running the Girona Cycling Festival (hopefully we can still hold the seventh event post-lockdown this year).
The Festival is different to your classic sportive or competitive cycling event as it’s basically a week-long party in Girona’s old town, with three different main cycling events for people to take part in: Els Angels hill climb, the nocturn crit around the old town, gran fondo and Rocacorba challenge.
The key thing is that the Festival is for everyone - this is not an elite event.
Throughout the week there are parties, group rides and kids races. 50% of entrants are over 50 - the master 50 category is the biggest category. We also love the fact that lots of women take part (in 2019 33% of competitors were women) and we get lots of people on the podium (last year we had 100 people taking part in each event and 35 ended up on the podium for each one).
It’s a really special event.
I can't finish without mentioning a final statistic that we’re really proud of - in 2019, 86% of people taking part were returning from the previous year. I hope that shows people like what they get from our Festival!
7. Check out our cycling memorabilia collection
[Note (July 2021): sadly, the physical shop is now shut but you can check out the online store here.]
“We’re part shop and part museum.”
We’ve got over 200 framed jerseys on the walls of our shop (and overall we have over 500 signed jerseys)! We’ve got some really random stuff. For example we’ve got all the points jerseys from all the Grand Tours apart from the yellow jersey. We’ve also got things like unsigned and un-logoed podium jerseys - those things are really rare and hard to get. The more of a cycling nerd you are, the more you're going to appreciate it and enjoy our shop!
The jerseys we have are all ones we’ve been given over the years. When we started the shop in 2009, there was a smaller pro community than now. We were the only shop that spoke English. They came to us because they knew that if they said “fix my bottom bracket” I’d know what they were talking about. People like Lucy Martin, Emma Pooley and Hayden Rolsten. They've retired now, but they were coming into the shop, we fixed their bike, we became friends, they gave me jerseys. That’s where it’s started and it’s just continued from there!
We’ve also got pro team kit for sale; our basement is like an Aladdin’s Cave of pro team cycling kit.
I buy kit from over 100 world tour riders and four world tour teams - and it’s all for sale in our shop. We’ve got just about every piece of pro team kit you could ever want, from jerseys to base layers, to toe covers. Some of them are brand new, some have been worn lightly before, but they’re all extraordinarily good value. We’ve also just gone into components - so you can buy power meters, dura ace pedals or ex pro team bikes.
We’re more than happy for people to just come and take a look at our collections. It’s definitely a bit unusual!
8. Stay in a cyclist-friendly, boutique hotel in the city centre
Girona is a very different destination to some of the Spanish resorts, like Mallorca - and it’s important to appreciate that before you come.
Whereas Mallorca has tons of big resort-style hotels that cater to package holiday makers in the summer, Girona is a city break destination.
This means the accommodation is more expensive, it’s difficult to find half board options (but why would you want to - this is the city of amazing restaurants!) and it’s a bit more tricky booking big groups as not many hotels have 20 single rooms.
On the upside, the hotels are of a city break standard, so we’ve got a great selection of boutique hotels in fantastic old town locations. The hotels are really getting into their stride with catering for cyclists too, so for example if you’re after a solid four star boutique hotel, I’d stay in Hotel Nord, which caters really well for cyclists. The tourist board also has an official designation scheme for Girona cycling hotels.
There’s also a good selection of apartments, which work out quite cost-effectively. Casa Cundaro apartments are fantastic if you want a bit more space, want to wash your kit, want to make more than a coffee. They’re beautifully restored, they’ve got a great little garden, an awesome bike store and bike wash facilities. They’re also right in the heart of the old town so right in the middle of the action and you can just walk out for a beer or a restaurant in the evening.
If you want to talk through the options or get our input before you book, feel free to drop us a line.
9. Visit in spring and autumn
People come to Girona to cycle throughout the year and (in a normal year!) we're busy from March until the end of October.
- So if you want to get some early season training in and not have to travel too far to get there, we’re a great choice.
10. Rent your dream bike
[Note (July 2021): sadly, the shop is now shut, but you can find other bike hire in Girona here.]
When you walk around Girona, you instantly feel that you’re somewhere beautiful and upmarket. This kind of quality extends to bike hire too.
At our Girona cycle centre, we have the largest fleet of bikes in the city - and in fact we’re the biggest rental centre for Cannondales in the whole of Europe! We can offer nine different specs and models of Cannondale.
If you fancy trying out a super bike - the kind of bike you may only dream of, this is the place to do it.
Not many people get the chance to ride this super bike but Bike Breaks clients can rent one every day in Girona and ride the same roads than the Cannondale Team uses to train. Pretty cool.
Big thanks to Dave for taking the time to share his insights on what makes Girona such an awesome cycling destination and what we should all do on our next trip. We can't wait to get back!
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