Anyone who is anyone, or who wants to be anyone in the cycling world, knows about Girona.
About fifteen years ago, professional cyclist George Hincapie of the U.S. Postal Service Professional Cycling Team, moved to the medieval walled Catalan town just north of Barcelona to train. Others, such as Lance Armstrong, followed. The word spread. Now, approximately seventy-five professional cyclists, including Canadian Michael Barry from Team Sky, call Girona home.
Our current Canadian cycling superhero, Ryder Hesjedal, lives there during the racing season and his team, Garmin-Barracuda, has a permanent base in the town. Committed amateur cyclists, such as my brother-in-law, arrive in growing numbers to take advantage of what Girona has to offer.
What is the attraction? A fine and affordable standard of living, an endless supply of gelato, spunky nightlife, mild climate, well-paved roads through stunning landscapes just five minutes out of town, the chance to rub wheels with famous riders, and a culture that honours its history. The bike routes spiral 360 degrees from the center of town and provide variety to even the pro who rides six hours a day, six days a week.
And for the armchair rider? Well, the scenery is breathtaking and the rides can be as easy or as difficult as you want, without the worry of traffic. Signs warn drivers to give cyclists a 1.5 metre birth.
When I first met my husband, Joe, he owned three blingy road bikes, dozens of bike jerseys and watched the Tour De France religiously. I enjoyed commuting on my fifteen-year-old mountain bike or going for a burn up a logging road, but the road bike scene was not for me. Too many cars, too much speed and too little protection. But when we arrived in Girona to spend time with my sister, Laura Bennion, and her bike-crazed husband, I convinced myself to try the skinny seat. Before we had even unpacked, my husband had rented me a road bike.
We were ready to explore.
Lance Armstrong once described Girona as an inspired place. I wanted to see why. The old quarter Barri Vell, twists and turns around stone churches, shaded small green spaces, hidden nooks, bakeries and cafes. With each step down the 2,000-year-old, narrow labyrinth-like streets we went back in time.
Dede Demet Barry, the American silver medalist in the 2004 Olympic time trial, met us at the foot of the ninety Baroque steps rising to the Gothic Catedral de Girona to show us around. My sister had met Dede and her husband Michael Barry in the neighbourhood and they were soon cycling together. Michael Barry invited my brother-in-law, Ian Auld, on some of his lower key rides.
My sister had to explain to me how well known they are in the cycling world.
After a healthy helping of gelato, we made our way to a café where Dede met her husband before he headed out on his training ride. I listened to his wheels clickety-clack over the cobblestones and wondered how his body could withstand the daily punishment. Six hours on a bike sounded like an awful long time.
That afternoon, my sister loaned me her bike jersey and my husband filled my water bottle and checked my bike before we pedalled up and over Montjuich into the fertile farmland of Girona, where four rivers meet. My sister looked back every so often to make sure I was still there. We wound through fields of golden hay until we reached a stone village. The passageways were so narrow and indistinct that I thought we would have to turn back, but my sister dodged and weaved in slow motion through a narrow passageway onto another road. She turned and grinned. "That's not a route anyone would find without the help of local riders."
"No." I agreed enthusiastically. We had seen one car so far, and a tractor, had cycled 20 kilometres and I felt pretty good. Still, we were a ways from home and not turning around yet. Just when I thought the scenery could not get more beautiful we turned onto a long stretch of road lined with fields of sunflowers, and in the distance the village of Madremanya rose up, made up of light-brown stone dating back to the time of the Romans. In March, the Tour of Catalonia took this exact route. I could feel my bike carry me forward like a spirited thoroughbred, almost floating. I pumped my legs harder, felt my lungs burn a little and wondered how fast I could go. Is this the feeling? Are they all so gaga over road biking because of a sense of oneness with the bike? Being in the zone where nothing else matters? Cleaning the mental slate? I don't know. But it felt wonderful to almost fly using my own strength. The sense of freedom was exhilarating.
When we arrived back at the house, my sister announced that we had ridden 48km. Wow. My legs felt heavy and ready for a massage. My sister seemed less impressed and I realized that for people who ride regularly, 48km was just a drop in the bucket; 120km was a big day.
The next day my husband and I headed out to climb the highest peak of the city, Sant Miquel, at an altitude of 394 metres. At the bottom of the winding road, a sign pictured a car staying 1.5 metres away from a cyclist while passing. Another sign said the summit was 6km away. I wondered if I would have to get off and walk. I switched into granny gear and mentally went into diesel mode. Slow and steady. Just when I thought I might have to stop, the incline eased off. In half an hour, we stood inside the small Sant Miquel church on top of the mountain. Then we descended. For 11 km, we traversed and went down, sharing the road with just a few cars. My fingers ached from gripping the breaks. I stood up to rest my back. All the while the wind rushed passed my ears, watering my eyes and making me grin. Fast. Free. Just me. Fields, mountains and little villages as far as the eye could see.
I did not join the pros on the steep 8km climb to Sant Marti Sacalm, where the uphill grade averages seven per cent and Dede trained for the Olympic Summer Games. I did not do the 58km circuit known as "the Armstrong loop," on which the climbs are named after George Hincapie. But I understand why the land and culture of Girona inspire. There is history, depth and beauty in Girona, and above all, there are long stretches of smooth road surrounded by soft colour and peaceful sounds where you can pedal like mad, feel your heart almost burst, and feel like you almost fly.