Once in New York, I had a pizza slice from an old and local slice shop in Brooklyn called Carmine’s that changed my life. This wasn’t just pizza, it was godly cheese, sliding smoothly from a perfect crust, crispy yet soft, with the enchanted top notes of oregano and parmesan. For years I had wanted to go back, listen to the hearty Italian New York voices from the open kitchen, savour this tucked away Brooklyn Mecca with the expectation of that holy slice but alas when I got there a few years later, it was out of business. I was heartbroken, distraught, inconsolable. That was until I went next door to a Polish restaurant, in the heart of Greenpoint, a traditionally Polish neighborhood which had never crossed my mind, and ordered a pierogi. What was this magical morsel? This eastern European ravioli? The fluffy creamy cheese mixing with earthy meats all hiding inside the fluffy pillow of pastry…Enter the new love of my life. Why would I ever want that same old pizza? That dirty, oily mess. I’m a Pierogi man now and my only regret; not trying it sooner.
Where am I going here? Why are we reading about pizza and a weird Polish potato dumpling in a cycling story? Well, This carb-based analogy tells the tale for my new love of gravel riding, and specifically, doing it in Girona.
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Girona has become famous, nay, glorified as the home of cycling in Europe. Not only do the pros live there, it’s like the entire old town now is one giant cycling Disneyland. Featuring old town charm, brilliant roads, Hipster coffee and great wine. What’s not to love? I would kill for the excitement of that first bite of Carmine’s slice, but I’ve also learned that new cuisine and things I haven’t tasted before can bring a whole new magic. Analogy, meet your pizza. The moral of the story, try Pierogi! Metaphorically speaking.
Before I go into details about the gravel riding, let's take a quick look at the geography to help paint the picture. Girona is nestled quaintly between the Pyrenean foothills and the Costa Brava coastline, which in dramatic contrast provides a huge change in landscape, surface types and vegetation in a seriously small pocket of land. Why is that exciting? Well, because in one ride I can go from temperate rain forest riding loamy soil, root-laden steep single tracks, overlooking the epic snow-peaked mountains, to then slip and slide my way through sandy brush forest, skipping on stones, jumping loose gravel water bars all the way down to my coffee lunch at the coast overlooking the Mediterranean. Sound fun? Then let's break it down a little.
Picture Girona gravel as one of those anatomy posters at your doctors' office. The main skeletal structure of the body (in this case your gravel map) is based around the carolet. A matrix map of disused train lines, farm tracks and old roads converted into a purpose-built, uninterrupted gravel carpet which stretches from beyond Olot, a major town 60km northwest of Girona, All the way to Lloret de Mar, a town better known for its drunken buffoonery, making this gravel highway almost 200km long with hundreds of detours and shortcuts to make it new and exciting every time you do it. It’s as smooth as a baby's bottom and you don’t even need a gravel bike to enjoy this. Now picture the circulatory system on this poster, the veins that run through and around the main skeleton as your single track map.
You can spend days riding the single track in one area and never do the same sections twice. Bonus: It all links together somehow. It’s a giant circulatory system. I leave that analogy now, back to pierogi.
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I’ve ridden off-road all around the world in my MTB racing days, but never have I known anywhere like this. The options are actually endless, and that’s not said hyperbole, it’s actually endless. Every day I ride I’m finding new ways to link through the natural parks, hills and fire roads to keep it fresh, fun and unique.
We can break down the gravel into three main areas. The hilly stuff behind the city pushing into the Pyrenees, The Gavarres, which is a massive natural park ridge-like in shape that goes from behind Girona old town all the way to the coast. Finally, we have the flatlands of the Emporda region which flow down from the Gavarres across the flat planes which meet the ocean in a very dramatic fashion. Picture James Bond in a convertible Aston Martin cruising the rugged coastline cliffs but instead Tom from sales in lycra riding a fat tire road bike. Got it? Right. That could be you.
The big hills/ mountains are certainly tough for beginners, they can get pretty technical if you don’t know the way or have the know-how, but they offer undoubtedly the most epic experiences. The views across the mountains, the river crossings, the peaty, soft and grippy loam soil giving you the grip to absolutely rail the corners is just beyond fun. The hardest part is the steep gradients, usually gear ratios on a gravel bike are suited to this, but just don’t expect an easy day.
The most unique parts of these rides are the masia houses that serve traditional, locally sourced Catalan lunches nestled into the temperate rainforest pockets of the hills. My favorite is El Subira, an old white masia owned by a rock and roll recluse who starts his wood fire in the morning, cooking for hours his traditional Catalan very-non-vegetarian-friendly stews in an old cast iron pot on the fire. He sources his protein from local hunters and vegetables mostly from his own garden below. It’s like stepping into another era and the flavors will blow you away. Sometimes the meat stews can sit a little heavy for the ride home but it’s all part of the experience. But that’s what digestives are for I’m told. Local ratafia is always on the menu if you’re brave enough.
The Gavarres is the bread and butter for most of the Girona gravel riding. You can go as safe and smooth as you like, or challenge yourself on the fast-flowing downhills, or really up the ante and hit the single track usually ridden by mountain bikes. It’s a true create-your-own adventure park and best of all, it starts literally at the back of the old town riding toward St Miguel and Els angels. I’ve never stopped discovering more new and crazy trails and I don’t expect to hit the ceiling on that anytime soon. The trails are littered with natural obstacles, rock gardens, roots, creek beds, groomed jumps and berms. It’s an amazing mix of natural and man-made obstacles but the trail itself is grippy, traction is predictable and flowing. It’s just a playground that I think you should all come for. A ride link for this area is attached below.
Finally, The Emporda region is more for your chill days, where you want to ride off-road, avoiding all of those annoying cars but don’t want to stress yourself with climbs or danger. The Emporda region is well known for its incredible produce, wine and food and this is all part of the ride. Dancing between apple orchards, wineries and small tributary rivers you have a true sense of being in nature, exploring the region's finest. One of my gravel gang's go-to rides is riding from Girona along the aptly named 'mumma stick farm', a beautiful tree farm that offers a maze of trails between Chinese maple and oak to a town called Celra. Once in Celra the trails become more technical, but not tricky, through a few small stone cathedral towns with cobbles and picturesque farmland. The destination, Dos Kiwi’s craft beer brewery for an awesome lunch and/or cheeky beverage on your way out. Yes, it’s very bike-friendly and accessible from Girona exclusively on gravel roads. The only downside, in summer the roads are so sun-kissed that your sand riding skills may be tested, but that’s all part of the fun.
If you don’t have a gravel bike, no worries, Eat Sleep Cycle Girona and Bike Breaks both have excellent fleets of medium- and high-end gravel bikes to dip your feet in the new game of Gravel. You can absolutely follow links on Strava, follow your nose on the trails to get around but if you want to supersize your experience, Gravel guiding companies like Grit Girona are your best bet if you want to taste only the most primo trails the Girona region has to offer. There are also lots of gravel races and mass participation events run by companies like Klassmark which are another way to experience the riding. I’d recommend all of it. And most likely, you’ll see me there. Just don’t follow my lines downhill unless you’re feeling game.
I still love pizza, and Girona’s road riding, it’s world-class. However, life it seems is about balance, trying that restaurant next to your favorite local, even if it’s just once. I still think the region's road riding is world-class, but before you get sick of that same old slice, consider the humble pierogi. It might just blow your mind.