When RSNG hired both a road bike and a mountain bike in Catalunya, we thought it might be overkill. But the region boats some of the best riding in Europe. It was a tale of Surf n Turf as we rode the dreamy coastal roads around Lloret del Mar, then headed inland to Girona to take on the 125km Grand Fondo road sportive at Sea Otter Europe. Then we headed off road onto the sheer, forested slopes of the ‘baby’ Pyrenees to discover some gnarly, brain- and bike-testing singletrack through the trees…
The Coast Of The Brave
Ninety minutes out from Barcelona airport lies Lloret del Mar on the Costa Brava, where golden sun, blue skies and a turquoise ocean collide with the jagged, imposing cliffs of the coastline. It’s a powerful backdrop to some stunning road cycling, as the coast road winds around the contours of each rocky inlet, the winding tarmac lined with trees. And what tarmac – not only does the scenery and total lack of traffic make you feel like you’re in a car advert, but the authorities have made a smooth ride a priority – freshly laid surfaces and a lack of potholes mean you can really get into the flow.
‘Girona is emerging as a European capital of cycling’
As we tackle the first big climb of the day, threading along switchbacks up the steep valley sides, our guide from Bikefriendly tells me about the archeological digs he’s been on in the surrounding coastal Gavarres mountain range. ‘There are stone age burial urns up there and megalithic dolmens – you don’t get them further south, just here. They were placed there to watch over the valleys.’
The climb is steep and long enough to be a real challenge, but the thought of ancient eyes following our progress is enough motivation to dig deep and ride my carbon-fibre machine to the historical chapel, come coffee shop at the top of the climb.
125km Long And 1,800m High
The next day provides a chance to visit Girona, which is emerging as a European capital of cycling. Many Tour de France pros, including a contingent of British riders, live here to take advantage of a combination of all-year-around riding conditions, beautiful country roads and challenging climbs. This year the Sea Otter format has crossed the water from the USA and is being held in Girona, with road and mountain bike events. Today’s main event is the Grand Fondo – a road bike sportive where everyone gets a number and a time at the end, although it’s not officially a race.
There are two routes, 100km and 125km (62/ 76 miles) – I’ve opted for the longer course after hearing the scenery is knockout – but the profile also shows 1,800m (5,900ft) of vertical ascent! As we roll out of Girona with a full police motorbike escort, on closed roads, it certainly feels like a race…
The Valley Of The Giants
After a flat start on wide, fast roads out of Girona, the course soon kicks up into the first major climb, switching back and forth, but the real challenge is yet to come. As we turn off the 100km route the character of the ride changes. The Guilleries mountains loom above us, completely covered in thick vegetation, their steep slopes running down to meet a rugged, boulder-strewn river with tumbling white water. Tall, slender oaks, unique to the region, trail huge vines down to the water’s edge and I suddenly feel like I’m in a lost world.
‘My bike computer is reading a 20% gradient and I’m pulling on the bars like I’m lifting weights’
There are hardly any no buildings here, and as we ride further a huge, pristine lake is revealed. At the head of it lies the massive Susqueda Dam. We circle the dam, then the road threads through the vines and violently punches upwards. This is the climb to the mountain pass, the Coll de Nafre, and it’s a giant. There’s a wall of 600m at an 11% gradient, but that’s just the start. At one point my Garmin Edge reads a 20% gradient and I’m up out of the saddle pulling on the bars like I’m lifting weights.
It’s tough, but the road mercifully levels off slightly, allowing my heart rate to drop from a rattling 190bpm to something more sustainable. Sooner than I expect we are at the top – and what goes up, must come down – faster! The descent is steep, technical and huge fun. I’m grinning into the wind as vegetation and rock faces whip past my head, slowing for hairpins and then winding up speed again, all the way down to an even more flowing, but less steep descent to the valley floor. It’s a well deserved reward for the upward toil, and the route loops all the way back to Girona.
Once back in the old town of Girona I celebrate with some local cava in the cafe culture of Independence Square before a quick walk – Game Of Thrones fans should know that several key scenes were filmed in its narrow, stone-laid streets. Circe’s ‘walk of shame’ was filmed on avenues leading up to Girona’s iconic Cathedral of Tarragona, and local guides offer GOT-themed tours…
Threading The Needle
For the next challenge, we leave the road bikes in the garage and travel with mountain bikes to the Pyrenees mountain range. The regions of La Garrotxa and El Ripollés rise up to meet the main range, with steep, volcanic peaks, glad in lush greenery. It’s rich land, with lots of cattle grazing the slopes as we ride up through the sunshine with our guide from MTB Dreams. Rather than man-built trail centres, this region is cut through with natural paths and trails, used over the centuries by man and beast. It makes for some rugged, rocky climbs which are soon testing both my fitness, and my technical skills, punctuated by surreal moments – like riding through a mountain meadow past horses fitted with alpine cowbells, while a fallow deer looks on.
As we climb higher into the trees the trail narrows, the trees close in and the character of the ride changes. We’re into the gnar! The trail tops out and we drop into a steep, rugged descent. We thread down, jumping rocky slabs, weaving through gullies ribbed with tree-roots. On the faster sections of singletrack I become completely absorbed in the moment as I pick my line through the rocks and thread through the trees. It’s only when I reach the bottom that I realise I’m flooded with adrenaline and my arms are pumped from soaking up the hits.
After riding hard you need to refuel, so we head to a gastrobar in Olot called La Barra D’En Regue which serves the best tapas I’ve ever had – this is big plate tapas to match big appetites, and aptly enough, it’s a Surf n Turf dream. Perfectly cooked langoustines follow muscles so good they are just cooked with garlic – as we sample some of the local beef we’d ridden past earlier I realise the lush vegetation embedded in this powerful landscape isn’t just stunning to look at – it reveals the lifeforce of the land too...
How To Get There
RSNG flew to Barcelona airport then transferred to Gran Hotel Monterey in Lloret del Mar, before transferring to Girona’s Hotel Carlemany, and then relocated to the Pyrenees and the La Rectoria de Sant Miquel de Pineda Hotel – we rode with Bike Friendly, MTB Dreams and Free Time. More bike holiday info is at the Costa Brava website.
WHAT NEXT? Check out this inspirational mountain biking in Catalunya video…
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