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Text: Dave Everett & Brodie Chapman | Video: Phil Golston | Photography: Brazo de Hierro
Over two trips in 2018, CyclingTips’ Roadtripping veteran Dave Everett took to the roads of Costa Brava, hoping to learn why this region has become a leading destination for cyclists worldwide and home for much of the pro peloton. For the first of those trips, he was accompanied by recently-arrived local/first year pro Brodie Chapman – a trip that was so inspiring that he went back again, this time with a videographer.
From lung-busting mountains to cafes created by and for the cycling fraternity, from coastlines to sunflower fields, our wide-eyed journey along these new roads meant nothing was taken for granted.
At last, we can confirm that the mythical city of cyclists – Girona – does indeed exist and is everything and more it’s cracked up to be.
The proudly Catalan township of Girona – located 99 kilometres north-east of Catalunya’s capital, Barcelona – has evolved into a ‘home base’ for much of the professional peloton. It’s easy to see why: for many non-European riders, the municipality is buzzing with a sense of community and comfort for the long season away from home.
Part of Girona’s appeal for professionals and visitors alike is its proximity to a major international airport, Barcelona El Prat. For intra-European travel there is also the smaller Girona-Costa Brava airport just 10km from the town centre, serviced by major European airlines including RyanAir. And happily, staff here are well-accustomed to a steady stream of cyclists.
Logistics aside, the unique appeal of the area lies in the assortment of glorious riding available immediately from the centre of town.
Zoom out on your Google maps and step outside the Girona bubble and you will find roads that have been plucked off postcards ripe for the riding – curvy, flowy and doused in landscapes that look more at home on the glossy pages of a travel magazine.
Mid-year, the Spanish sun is unrelenting, with the shimmering heat of an Australian summer but twice the daylight hours. While you may be tempted to leave at the crack of dawn to avoid the warmth, remind yourself of two things. One: you are on holidays – sleep in. Two: you are in Spain, so the population doesn’t rise until late morning anyway. With most cafes opening at 9am, you can turn off the alarm and rest in the knowledge that you have a long afternoon of seemingly endless sunshine stretching ahead of you.
After a coffee or three at Federal Cafe, owned and run by UAE-Team Emirates professional cyclist Rory Sutherland, we set out for Camprodon, a town about 12km from the base of the climb to the ski resort of Vallter 2000. From there, we’d rest our tired legs in preparation for our ascent the following day.
Between us, we have ridden many roads in Europe, many in Australia, and a high-quality selection in North America. Even so, the winding, dipping, ragged GIV-5224 road out towards Camprodon was a highlight.
Before you write this off as an eye-rolling journalistic trope, consider why we loved it so much.
There is elevation, yes, but not the type where it’s just up and up and up until you feel like you might be going backwards. It is rolling, with smooth, well-banked corners and a varied enough road surface to keep things interesting.
Don’t believe us? Take a look:
First stop: Oix. We spent some time on the way debating its pronounciation (‘Osh’, apparently) and were welcomed by a little cathedral with a fresh spring tap (common in Spain, which helps make the place feel made for cyclists!).
The cafes may not be open, but your time won’t be wasted here. Take a little roll around the cobbles and you’ll get a sense of the history around this little fortification nestled amongst the paddocks, before you begin to ascend further into the mountains.
Second stop: Tucked just off the side of the GIV-5224 is a quaint little stone village called Beget, over a thousand years old. Unlike many towns as old as this, the march of time has been slowed and the town has been intricately preserved.
A 20 minute pause will leave you enamoured and inspired by the town’s aesthetic – although, cyclists take heed, the town’s cobbles are savage. Proceed gently or better still, walk your bike to avoid the risk of a pinch-flat.
It’s hard to believe when in the heart of Camprodon that just ‘up the road’ is what feels like a slice of Switzerland. The highest alpine road in Catalyuna, the 2000m ascent to Vallter 2000 averages a friendly but firm gradient of around 7%. The 12km climb is steady at first, and with each turn, more of the landscape unfolds in every direction – ragged rocky cliffs, snippets of snow lingering on the high parts of the mountain, the rooftops of the town below.
You can go as hard or as easy as you like, but with views like this there’s something to be said for a softer effort and a chat with the mountain cows by the roadside – the tinkling of their bells add an oddly nostalgic soundtrack to the climb.
There isn’t much at the top – just some hibernating winter businesses – but there’s a purity and simplicity to the summit of this mountain pass. Enjoy the fresh air, pause for a moment to take it all in, and reach into your pockets to extract that deflated breakfast croissant. Then prepare yourself for an absolutely ripping descent.
The return to the bottom is eye-watering fast, the tarmac sticky, the corners at a perfect camber and if you’re there early enough, it’s empty enough to let you fly down it. It feels like you’re forever freewheeling – unadulterated exhilaration that reminds any cyclist of why they ride bikes.
It’s hard to explain how incredibly varied the Costa Brava region is. Head an hour or so in any direction from Girona and you can find yourself dwarfed by snow-capped mountains, pedalling alongside the Mediterranean or surrounded by bucolic farmland.
This variety was reinforced on our second day’s riding when we ventured north-east of Girona, towards Figueres and the picturesque whitewashed town of Cadaques. Figueres is most famous for being the birthplace of Salvador Dali, and we were keen to see the sights that had inspired his work. Cadaques, further east on the coast, is a small fishing village sometimes referred to as ‘The Pearl of Costa Brava’.
The roads around this area are plentiful and superb, but it’s the one leading out to the Far del Cap de Creus lighthouse that has you grinning from ear to ear as you crest the brow of the hill overlooking the spit of land, with the lighthouse perched on the end, a handful of kilometres away.
You’re greeted by a ribbon of tarmac that cuts its way through sunbleached rocks interspersed with dense vegetation. This drops away into crystal Mediterranean waters, where small boats bob lazily. From the roadside, families weave through the undergrowth in search of secluded beaches.
We put our feet up at a bar underneath the lighthouse, before turning around and enjoying it all over again in the opposite direction. Sublime.
On our third day in the region, we were up and about early. We had a date, you see – a guided tour of Girona’s most famous stretches of tarmac with a certain local, Mr David Millar, who’s a man with a deep passion for the region.
Just moments from the city centre, you’re in quiet rolling hills. Some are kickers and some, as you get further from the city, have cemented themselves in cycling folklore.
The big dog around these parts is the 12km climb of the Rocacorba, which has gained a great deal of notoriety in the past decade or so. For die-hard fans, it’s probably already on their bucket list. If it’s not on yours, add it.
For any climb to enter the pantheon of greats, there needs to be a special je ne sais quoi – not just a view, a gradient, a location. There needs to be some kind of mystique. The Rocacorba has that in the simple fact that it’s the ‘form’ guide for every pro in the region; the Strava KOM leaderboard is a who’s-who of the grimpeurs of the World Tour peloton.
The lower slopes wind through thick forest. The surface isn’t the smoothest, but combined with its wayward twists and turns, this adds to the climb’s feeling of remoteness. It builds slowly, but then a few early pinches kick up to around 12%, and the first strains on your legs show.
As the road levels out about halfway up, the trees part and the radio mast that stands at the climb’s summit comes into sight. A welcome sight awaits – the Rocacorba Food truck. This small blue 1980s caravan is fast becoming a key part of the cycling fabric of the region. It’s run by Matías, a local who grew up on the hillside and noticed the growth in the popularity of the climb – not just with cyclists, but horse riders and walkers as well. In an entrepreneurial moment, he decided to open a roaming coffee shop and now, most days, you can catch him on the climb. It’s worth pulling over – he’s a friendly fellow with a wealth of insight and local knowledge about the climb and the hidden gravel routes up it.
From the top of the climb there’s only one way down for a roadie – the way you came – but according to Millar and Matías the Rocacorba’s even better on a mountain bike or gravel bike, with numerous alternative off-road routes to explore.
Not that we needed the nudge, but that seems a pretty good excuse for returning to the region.
There’s something special about riding coastlines – like you’re balancing on the edge of the world, just you and your bike – and that makes the coastal road out of Tossa de Mar especially memorable. It’s a 20km ribbon of road skirting the water, forever dipping, curving and climbing in equal measures, leading you from one jawdropping vista to the next.
We ventured out to the coast road with a hint of scepticism, but found our doubts quickly washed away by the mind-melting brilliance of the ride. Overlooking pristine beaches nestled at the bottom of cliff faces as you roll past, each entices you to descend the multiple steps, but the call of the road is stronger.
We were there at the magic time of 6pm, half-expecting a mad convoy of sun-drunk tourists, but the road was ours to enjoy, bathed in the golden light of the waning sun as it left its last rays on the cliff faces and hills flanking the roadside.
We carved corners at a pace that wouldn’t have been advisable during the day, sprinting up the countless little rises before hitting hairpin after hairpin and another blast of Irn-Bru sunshine in the face. All of the most amazing things an evening ride should be about.
These peaceful yet enthralling last kilometres, mixed with the sun quickly disappearing over the horizon, was a perfect finale to an astounding few days in Costa Brava.
For such a compact region the riding is beyond diverse – one Roadtrip isn’t enough to cover even a fraction of the roads that are on offer. It’s understandable why so many riders struggle to pull themselves away from the region once they hang up their racing wheels.