“The first time I ever set foot in the city was when I moved here and was looking for an apartment,” said Lawson Craddock, chuckling slightly. “There wasn’t much reasoning for living there really at the time but after my first year here I really came to know and love the area.”
Nestled at the foot of the Pyrenees, about an hour north of Barcelona, Girona has cemented itself as a premiere destination for amateur and professional riders alike. The city has played a long and significant part of the historical narrative of both Christianity and Judaism in the area. It bears a reminder of this long history on the streets and walls of the city, in the ancient Jewish quarter or “Cal,” which is one of the best-preserved in Europe, and on the fortified wall that surrounds the old town, or Barri Vell.
These days, Girona has become so synonymous with professional road racing that for many road riders looking to further their careers it feels like the only logical choice when looking for a place to live. If you stroll down the streets of the old town on any given morning, as the Cathedral of Girona’s bells strikes ten, and head to the Pont de Pedra – “Bridge of Stone” in the local Catalan language – you will almost certainly be passed by a handful of riders making their way to the bridge to meet up with the various group rides and training rides that set out from there.
The sound of Girona on a spring afternoon
“The camaraderie with the riders also attracts a lot of people,” explained Craddock who moved to Girona in 2014 after signing his first professional contract in Europe. “The younger riders can move here and whether it’s going through the process of finding an apartment or getting a visa sorted they know that there is someone here that has gone through the same process and is willing to help them out. It makes it a lot easier to move your entire life overseas.”
“No matter what you’re there for, in my opinion you should just go walk around Barri Vell and take in the city,” said Neilson Powless, who has called Girona home for the past three years. “There is so much history there and it feels like you’re taking a step back in time. Particularly up on the wall just behind the city, it’ll give you a great view and an opportunity to explore a little bit while you’re on your way there.”
In years past, flocks of tourists have swarmed the streets of Girona. It gained notoriety as a set location for the international HBO series “Game of Thrones,” but now during the pandemic the city has returned to a quieter way of life. Apart from the occasional tourist, the city is mostly occupied by locals or cyclists that call Girona home.
The history behind why Girona became a destination for cyclists is a little unclear and it seems like everyone you talk to has their own theory about it but one thing is clear, Girona has embraced cyclists and cycling culture. The city is surrounded by miles and miles of gravel and mountain bike trails, while the streets of Girona are spattered with coffee shops that double as lounges tailor-made for cyclists.
“I think most riders come to Girona because it feels like you’re getting the whole package when preparing for races, or trying to relax between them,” said Neilson.
We met up with Lawson and Neilson at ten on a crisp, grey winter morning at the Pont de Pedra. With the season fast approaching, and both Neilson and Lawson set to make their racing debut at the UAE Tour a few weeks later, the five-hour training ride was meant to have a bit of everything in it, while also showing off the diversity of landscapes that the area displays.
“You can go out for a ride and stand at the top of a climb and have the coast at your back and then also have these incredible mountains in front of you. I just don’t feel like there are many places on earth like that,” explained Lawson.
After they set off, it didn’t take long for them to start the first climb of the day. A few miles outside of town you will find the Els Àngels – the Angels. This 10-kilometer climb isn’t particularly hard, at least not for WorldTour pros, but it serves as a handy segment to warm up on and maybe workout some kinks before starting the actual training. The climb, like most climbs in the area, winds through rows and rows of deep dark green cork trees recognizable for being naked at the bottom where cork producers have stripped the bark to use it in the production of wine corks.
After a short descent we quickly find ourselves surrounded by fields and small sleepy towns on our way to the second climb of the day. Cresting over the top, we find ourselves staring at the Mediterranean Sea and the Costa Brava or Wild Coast, barely discernible in the distance through the haze in the valley below.
The Costa Brava, while not as famous as the Cote d’Azur in France or Cinque Terre in Italy is no less stunning. It doesn’t have the same historical significance as many of the more popular holiday destinations in Europe but the quiet roads and nearly empty coastal towns make for very pleasant exploring and even better riding.
After a brief – but obligatory – stop at a bakery in the town of Castell-Platja d’Aro which offers coffee and cakes, Neilson and Lawson set off on the coastal road. Miles and miles of breathtaking roads which weave in and out of the coast. Again, these roads were nearly void of cars although we are reminded by Neilson that under normal circumstances this would not be the case.
The pair crested one last climb which took them away from the coast and back toward Girona on mostly flat roads and got back in time to catch the tail end of the afternoon siesta, the time of day in the late afternoon when everything shuts down in Spain.
“I love the Spanish lifestyle,” said Lawson. “Overall, the afternoon siestas, the late dinners, and late mornings, I really appreciated that back when I first moved here, you know? Plus, the beauty of it, the surrounding areas, the Costa Brava is so close, the Pyrenees are right there, all those things really helped me fall in love with the area.”f
“If you are going to come to Girona in the future, I would say come without a specific agenda,” concludes Lawson Craddock. “Just lose yourself in the culture and the area. It’s an easy place to be and once you find your bearings you can find joy around every corner.”
Good advice for any exploring we do, whether at home or abroad.