The plan was to use Bormio as a base so that we could climb Stelvio. Then about two weeks before our planned departure, it came to our attention that the weather was looking decidedly unreliable in Italy. Temperatures were as low as 16 degrees and there was even concern we may not be able to reach the summit of Stelvio at all.
The clock was now ticking and we had to instead immediately find a new location, a new house and a new itinerary. We chose Calonge, or as we more childishly referred to it as “Clunge”, about 30km South East of Girona.
The journey south seemed largely familiar on the whole: the Newhaven Ferry, early depart from Dieppe and a lonely motorway, bar the odd trucker. Our primary focus for most of the next 200 miles was progression and Paul’s patisserie, a breakfast special to savour. A relatively incident free journey meant before long we had the opportunity to stop at the quite incredible Millau Viaduct.
I’ll spare you stats as it needs to be seen to be believed, but needless to say it is one of those man made structures that makes you stop and think. It’s not just the size of the viaduct that you notice, but the simplicity of its design, as if they used the fewest amount of materials they could so that it would have the least impact on the skyline possible. It certainly worked and it meant we spent a good 30 minutes walking up the hill to the view point, capturing photographs and even taking in the visitor centre.
As we later crossed the border into Spain, almost 14 hours after leaving Dieppe, the roads became flatter and the plains wetter as we navigated through a string of A roads in what was clearly a recent wet period for them. We were slightly anxious this would have a bearing on our week ahead.
As we finally found the Villa, we excitedly familiarised ourselves with it; opening all the kitchen cupboard doors and looking for secret spaces and bedrooms. A nice house and one of those places that would always have been better if it didn’t have that holiday home feel about it, the quintessential game of Scrabble on the bookcase and the Ikea bedrooms. It was though perfect for what we wanted, although I would say Andy & I really did luck out on the room!
Dinner was going to be a bit hit and miss and with only one recommendation to follow there was an element of all or nothing about our first night out. The restaurant we were looking for turned out to be closed but the good news is we stumbled across a small family restaurant opposite. A classic traditional affair with grandfather sat in the corner staring into space with his drink in front of him, the daughter rushing around trying not to catch our eye in case we spoke to her, and the owner, a gentle man who was clearly going to cook, serve and clean as the night went on. It was perfect, and if anything a bit too much. Course after course of tapas was delivered with that air of “this is going to be expensive” about it. With rounds of 8 beers being served at a time, an element of numbness from the long day, nothing was going to get in our way of having a good time and as we resigned ourselves to whatever happened next we got on with discussing our plans ahead. Turns out that the food cost no more than about 22 Euros per head and most of us agreed we would have been fully content even without the main course.
Coastal Ride – Day One (52 miles)
After a slow breakfast, we picked up on Archie’s scheduled route that was to take us deep into the hills and onto local towns before weaving back along the coast eventually to Calonge. With no idea what was ahead, we ploughed into some humid 5% gradients and it was one of those rides where you suddenly found yourself riding like your brake was on. The roads though were superb, low on traffic, smooth on surface and lined with pine trees and that feeling that they would go on for ever.
With a short stop at the nearest town for ‘Silly Buggers’ in the old prison, we pointed towards the horizon of the next road ahead and headed towards the coast; our first chance to properly see the sea. Lunch was one of those places where everything about it was wrong; if you were on holiday. But as a cycling trip, it was perfect.
The resort was grey, concrete grey with architecture that looked like it had been borrowed from a 1960s London housing estate. The beach restaurant was decorated with faded laminated four-colour lunch photos and the aluminium tables and chairs sparkled in the sun light. It was perfect because we didn’t care; our feet were in the sand and even the sea.
The sun shining down on us, a gentle breeze drifting up the beach from the shore and plenty of people walking around to people watch. The panini’s and salads did the job and the ever present cold Coca Cola’s was ample reward for our long journey here.
Little did we know at the time, but the afternoon was going to present us with some of our best cycling moments of the trip. Imagine a road that follows the coast; weaving in and out around the coves and bays, rising up and down every half a mile to vary the view, speed and heart rate. For every descent there was an opportunity to ease off the pedals and glide through the bends. For every ascent there was an opportunity to push hard, holding the gear for as long as you can, in the knowledge you would soon be rolling over the mini summit ready for a new view, a new segment and an another re-group.
Like tourists we stopped at every view point, and like cyclists, we did our best to let no-one pass, treating every threat to do so as an opportunity to re-create our own mini race within a ride.
Rolling back along the coast was a slow but therapeutic process and one that ended with a Corneto, a moment of reflection – and that bloody awful climb back up the hill to the house!
Girona/Els Angel – Day Two (67 miles)
We knew that Girona was famous in cycling circles as it was routinely brought up in the various magazines and web pages the cycling nerds that we are read. I don’t think any of us really knew much more than that, mainly as there was no iconic climbs of note and speaking for myself, I really had no idea about the city at all.
That all changed on day 2 as we retraced our steps back through the pine tree hills and this time into Girona. Not the picture book cycling scene we had imagined and no moment captured this better than the twenty minutes we spent in a McDonalds with a milky coffee and a cookie waiting for the rain to pass.
With slippery roads, wet clothes and the hint of a better day, we cheered ourselves up and headed randomly through the streets of Girona, and yet somehow and clearly by coincidence, ended up slap bang in the middle of the tourist area, the very place we wanted to be. Over the course of the next few hours we spent out time being tourists as we walked and slowly weaved our way around the cobbled streets.
Eventually we encountered the cafe that Julie had been talking about for about four days. It was a cycling specific place in the old told of Girona, one of those high ceiling stone walled places with a real sense of history about it. Inside it was full of cycling memorabilia and even the towel in the cloakroom was hung on an old road bike tyre.
Most of the guests sounded Canadian and one in particular took a shine to our Lycra and asked if she could take a photo for her husband. A strange request until she explained that he was also ‘a biker’. It pleased us and it pleased her so no harm done, although I do wonder what his reaction was supposed to be when he saw it. Bless her. After lunch we headed off to the famous cathedral where apparently Game of Thrones is filmed. Not a program that I have seen to be fair, but the gothic sense of history it gave us was enough to keep us there for a good 20 minutes as we all searched for the best angle to capture the tall building on our camera phones.
Departing Girona the weather was starting to turn against our favour so we headed out of a now busy city and eventually to the start of Els Angels. Strava had introduced Els Angels to me when I was plotting routes and searching for local segments. It looked popular on the heat map and with a length of 10km it was going to give us something to think about when we got there. At it’s steepest point it was just over 7% and ultimately on paper it wasn’t going to present any challenges. That was until I decided to ride up it with Archie and Andy, and then the pace became the new variable I hadn’t considered in my calculations. With a bit of huff and puff, and slowing down on their part, I managed to hang on in there until the road levelled for a bit and the heavens opened. At this point we were weirdly enjoying ourselves. The road allowed us to race through the gears and as Archie correctly observed, turning ‘S bends’ into ‘I bends’ we pushed through, using our heart beat as the Dragon Boat drummer that fired us along.
When the thunder struck it was time for a re-think, and an opportunity for me to pull out my much needed Castelli waterproof. Not much good to Archie, who even gilet free, opted to push on up the hill using his legs to keep him warm – but not dry. Eventually, after some very wet but entertaining cycling we arrived at the top of the hill, the giant and quite grey looking monastery. I’d like to say at this point that we wondered around the great building, taking in the historic site where Salvador Dali married, and no doubt many others had experienced life changing moments. Instead though we opted for a hot chocolate and the chance to snuggle up against a cold radiator in the hope of some placebo warmth. The descent was going to be messy – and cold.
Fortunately, the weather decided to improve around the same time as the road and that allowed us to start racing. With Andy at the front and looking to time trial, it was a case of getting on the drops and holding the line – trying to stay close enough to gain the benefit, but far enough away to benefit from some visibility as we approached unfamiliar and slippery bends. In fact, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves cruising back towards the sea and for another promenade finish that took us nicely to our beer stop.
As beer stops go, this was picture perfect trash. The paint was peeling off the building, we were effectively sat on the pavement and were in no mood for anything other than a cold beer and lots of salty crisps. Well they delivered it perfectly! As the condensation ran down the side of glass, the traffic flowed past and we didn’t have a care in the world. But we did have that nasty bloody hill to get back up.
As BBQ’s go it’s fair to say that the lads have now got it down to a fine art. No longer do we need extensive group shopping for those ‘who likes?’ type discussions that are very polite but also add at least 30 minutes onto the trip. Martin’s loves a BBQ, he loves it that it’s his place, his role and his little moment to individualise himself for the inevitable cycling holiday video.
As usual, a fine mix of sausages, chicken and pork, all washed down with plenty of salad and potatoes. It’s a nice feeling when the day is cooling, your legs are tingling and the mood is relaxed and light. It’s a nice way to end the day and to start planning for the next.
Crash Day – Day Three (65 miles)
Not knowing where we are going is often a delight for Nick who loves to get the map out and plan a route. He has one of those memories that can remember place names and he recites them off the top of his head later as if he was a local. All of it goes over my head and he might as well be talking about made up places before all I know. What I did know, is that we had all agreed on a route and at some point it would provide us with another lunch on the beach.
The first part of the departure meant we had to navigate back out of Calonge on the road we had driven in. We knew it was a climb and we also remembered it was likely to be very scenic as the road weaved this way and that with only a crash barrier at the side to keep you from rolling back down the hill. With few cars around, it was a chance to find a gear, pace yourself and get the balance between putting in a good effort without blowing too soon. It was a great hill. With Andy and Archie leading again at the front, I was determined to keep the biggest gear I could which meant pushing hard to keep my legs spinning. I knew the moment I dropped down a gear my legs would lose me that vital yard that is so hard to get back when your buddies are faster. That’s why it turned into such a good section. With every bend came an opportunity to even consider clicking it up a gear to gain some much needed momentum ready for the next section. When we rolled over the top, which had a kind of finish line of it’s own across the road, it wasn’t long before the sweat was pouring out of us as we took a much needed breather at the side of the road to wait for the others. We didn’t need to wait long, they must have enjoyed it as much as we did.
The descent down the other side was one of those rides that you drive 1,000 miles for. Sure we have had an awful lot better, prettier, faster and longer. But it felt like the first time we had an opportunity to race around some hair pins kicking through the gears as quickly as you could in order to gain time on the rider behind you, or the one in front.
By the time we hit the flat straight at the bottom Andrew, Graham and I were flying. Suddenly from out of nowhere, Archive joined the group onto the back and had obviously put in a push to get away from the others to be with us. In no time at all he was rolling past and pushing on again at the front and for the next five of six minutes we all churned along at a very healthy speed in our very own mini team time trial. It was thrilling cycling and Andy later said he didn’t think he could have actually cycled any faster!
After some long straight roads, where we must have averaged at least 25 mph for many sections, the opportunity to find a country lane that could slow us down, return us to side by side riding was much appreciated. Nick was certainly on the Shredded Wheat that morning and in his classic upright and relaxed position, he churned through the miles like a true Rouleur. Just at the right time we turned a corner and were immediately greeted by the view that you can never grow tired of, that glimpse of the sea you get when you head down a corridor type road with the sun-light pulling you towards it.
This was a much better location than day one with plenty of space on the brick paved sea front for pedestrians and bikes. With a choice of restaurant, we opted for the one that would give us the best view of everyone else and ended up enjoying a nice burger and chips with our Cokes of course.
With the morning and lunch behind us, we followed our leader for the day along more straight and now fast roads. We had plenty of room due to the cycle path, but it was one of those roads where your pace quickened for the simple reason that there was nothing else to do but ride. On one such road we were pilling along, content to be holding 20 mph knowing that Archie, Nick and Julie were comfortably two or three minutes ahead, but not so much that it was a problem as we knew there would be a round-about before any further directions were required.
It was on this road that I heard the dreaded call of “man-down”. Not quite marine with a bullet in his leg, but it would have felt like it to Stuart who in a momentary lapse of concentration left the edge of the road and down a couple of inches onto the rough ground. The sudden jolt this would have caused the bike was enough to send Stuart crashing quickly to the floor at a speed that would have meant he spent more time collecting friction burns than he would ever want to remember. The end result was fortunately mainly superficial damage. A damaged helmet, gloves and jersey and some scrapes on the bike that will cost him a few quid in bar tape. The skin didn’t look too bad all things considered, but there were definitely enough injuries to sting for a few days and it would have be an ever present reminder for the rest of the trip that was for sure. Stuart took it really well to be fair, and after settling himself resumed riding showing little signs of apprehension, although I am sure it would have been on his mind.
If that wasn’t enough for Stuart, all he had to do now was navigate along what could only be described as a motorway back to Calonge. I mean a proper two lane 70mph road with slip roads, gantries and even a service station. It was oddly enjoyable, if not a little unnerving. It wasn’t so much that I was worried about the cars, mainly because I kind of trusted that due to the size of our group that they would stay well clear of us. It was more that you were hoping the rider behind was OK, making sure that you didn’t pull out a gap that could leave them exposed at a slip-road or even causing the group to separate out that could weaken the safety net we had formed around us. Of course we coped, we survived and we made it home alive. All we had left was that bloody hill.
Meal for Eight?
Dinner was planned for a nice looking restaurant about 2-3 miles from our villa. Again, it was a private looking venue with olive trees in small courtyard decorated with LED’s to give it a nice warm feel as you entered. We opted to dine inside a large conservatory and once again were in no mood to hold back with the menu. We were not disappointed. I didn’t drink but I heard the wine from the fixed menu didn’t quite float any boats but I do know everyone was very happy with their food, which for many included a starter of Spaghetti Bolognese! The more the evening went on the more tired we became, but it was a great night with no compromises (unless you were a wine drinker!) and it also gave us a chance to try out a little short-cut Andy found on the way home. Maybe, just maybe, we could reduce the impact of that bloody hill.
Roca Corba – Day Four (85 miles)
Before we arrived in Girona the internet was full of stories about Roca Corba. The main reason seemed to be that since David Millar had moved to Girona, he had formed a cycling club named after his local mountain and by definition he could be found on YouTube talking about it, riding it and quietly promoting his new range of clothing. The key point he had made, was that you can’t have a strategy for it – I didn’t really know what he meant by that. All I know was that we just had to find it. Graham had plotted the route on Strava so we loaded it up, hit start and got on with it.
First we had to get back up the same hill we started the previous day with. Now much more familiar, it was a chance to try out different speeds and different paces but more importantly it was a chance to have some more fun on the descent the other side. And that we did, in an almost repeat of the day before, we all raced down there kerb to kerb and then at high speed along the flat before rolling to a stand-still at the ‘breather point’ mid way through the small town.
The route then took a turn for the better as we discovered the beautiful countryside we had craved for yesterday. Busy roads made way for narrow, smooth and fast country lanes with no wind and a horizon that focused you on the next village and the next medieval tower.
One particular village captured our attention enough for us to deviate from our course and spend a bit of time walking it’s narrow cobbled streets. It really was a like a scene from many centuries ago and you almost felt like you would turn a corner and see people pumping water from a well. That is why it was a big surprise to see behind the church a huge modern building that clearly acted as the community centre. You can see why it would have got planning permission.
As we left the village we took the time to cruise for several miles. This gave us plenty of time to drop down onto the handlebars, tuck the elbows in and maximise the efficiency of gravity to enjoy some free rolling. With another welcome Coke stop in a cafe-come-village museum, we sheltered from the harsh mid-day sun and enjoyed just being in the moment.
Roca Corba didn’t really have a start line. We now know it does, but as we rode it we had a few false starts and these were usually triggered by any gradient that took us over 3%. We knew the mountain would be gentle at the bottom, but we also knew it was likely to have an official notice to ‘welcome’ you to what lay ahead. If it did we all missed it.
So after at least another eight or nine miles we did indeed reach the conclusion as we ramped up once again after a bridge and saw the classic Spanish road marker signs counting down the KM that perhaps we were now on it. It’s very noticeable how you change your mindset when that recognition kicks in. You go from riding the moment to starting to think about your strategy; how to pace yourself, what gear to be in, who you may ride up with in terms of pacing and how much water you have in your bottle. It’s a tough mountain. Sure, the first section was nothing we hadn’t done before on trips like this and on days that didn’t get given names or occasion. But it’s the heat and the constant grinding, dodging across the poor tarmac to find both the best line in the camber as well as the smoothest path. They weren’t always the same.
When the sweat starts to build up to a trickle you don’t need to look at your Garmin to find out hard you are working. The gradient was telling us we were bobbling around the 7-8% mark but we also knew from the line of the road that it wasn’t going to stay that way for long. A gradient of 10% is so much more harder than 7%. Obviously so, but the impact it has on your gear selection, your cadence and your heart rate is significantly more than that extra 3% would have you believe.
When it then ramps up to 14% and 15% it’s a whole new level of gain and a new problem. With no experience on this level of gradient, and with so many more kilometres of climbing to go, it gets – well stressful. Your lower back starts taking the brunt of the effort that your legs have maxed out. Your breathing is harsh, so harsh that talking or drinking could cause you to have to stop. As you struggle to bring your pedal back over you are very aware just how much demand cycling takes on your upper body; arms, chest and shoulders. Now was the perfect time to stop, to remove the helmets, recompose and basically just get your shit together.
With a gear selection of 54-11, I was envious of those with a bigger gear, none more so than when I was left to zig zag along the tarmac, turning the wheel every two seconds in an attempt to gain some sort of rhythm on the narrowing slope. To be fair it worked and after the brief stop I managed to find a new level of comfort and for the first time knew it was merely a case of carrying on.
As you near the top your reward is a brief bit of downhill and a respite from the pain. In fact, by now, even a moment of riding up a 7% gradient felt a welcome relief and one to relish. It was though a short lived pleasure and before long the site of the communication tower gave us every belief that we were now well on our way.
Unlike every other mountain I have cycled up, Roca Corba looked like and felt like cycling up a Helter Skelter. The closer you get to the top, the narrow the point. The narrower the point, the steeper it got. The only good thing about this was that it weirdly created a sense of speed. Your head lifts slightly and the breath that once slowed you down finally matches your cadence giving you back your rhythm. With the final bend behind us, we could see Andy and Archie at the top in front of us and the Three Musketeers of Martin, Graham and myself all squeezed and crossed the line together.
Now I know what David Millar meant when he said you can’t ride it with a strategy. You quite simply have to just get on with it and take it one pedal stroke at a time.
Ideally the day would have ended there. We could have continued the back slapping for the rest of the afternoon, jumped in the pool, taken a nice hot shower and then got stuck into a long and full meal. With at least 50km to go before we could back, we first had to find somewhere to get lunch, speed along the motorway for another ten miles and work out how to get back over that last climb before Calonge. One thing at a time..
I’ve averaged around 50-60 rides a year for the last five or six years and I can honestly say that on none of these trips have I have had my lunch sat on the concrete floor outside a petrol station that might as well have been on the motorway. But that’s what we did. And to be fair, those plastic wrapped sandwiches and huge 100g bag of crisps hit the spot. Washed down with some iced tea and yet another Coke this wasn’t our most picturesque stop but it was our most needed.
Eventually, after getting off the motorway our reward for the country road was for Graham to get a puncture at the bottom of a hill, with the only positive being a welcome break from the sun whilst we all took refuge in the shade under the trees.
About ninety minutes later, with a sore arse, swelling feet, aching back and horrendously salty lips, we finally, and after sterling work by Andy, reached the bottom of the last major climb of the day – a 1.5 mile 5% forest clad ascent we had so loved flying down only that morning and the day before.
For no reason I can explain, I found my second wind and decided to empty the tank and to see how close I could stay to Archie and Andy. Sure, they left me pretty soon after the bottom, but my bike computer would later tell me I was around 30 seconds behind them, which given the climb, miles ridden that day and the state of my (and their body to be fair) wasn’t bad at all. It was also noted that Andy was going flat out to make sure he smashed Archie, who himself was determined to make sure I didn’t make any progress on him! We are a competitive bunch at heart – and of course, in all instances merely trying to make ourselves feel good more than the other bad.
The descent was going to be fun and I was determined, as much due to tiredness, to take it as a roll back to Calonge. That was until three local lads shot past on their bikes, quickly followed by Graham (did I mention we were competitive?). So the next two miles passed very quickly, and at times a little too quickly, averaging out at 25 mph even after all the breaking for the hair-pins had been taken into consideration. Every time I saw Graham’s back wheel, it was flying into the next bend, causing me to drive my pedals as fast as I could before I had to ease off again to find the best line around an unfamiliar bend. Exhilarating riding, and a great end to a long day in the saddle. Now, we just needed to get up that bloody hill.
When Crowie Met Alf
With week long promises that Calonge did indeed have an old town supposedly packed full of restaurants, we persevered and headed off through narrow lanes into the heart of the village. I’m glad we did. We were greeted with a lively Friday night with people wandering the streets, couples sat outside cafes and bars drinking and enjoying themselves, and a local restauranteur who for me, was Alf Garnett’s twin brother.
It was the perfect restaurant: he spoke hardly any English, the menu was simple, the food was good and as long as you didn’t mind his choice of lager, wine or chicken, this was going to be a winner. It was.
Any meal that is the on the last night will always taste sweeter; you’ve just got that glow that over powers the fatigue normally felt. So chuck in some authentic Spanish or more importantly Catalan cuisine and you’ve got that welcome reminder that you aren’t just on a cycling trip. Its a cycling holiday.
See you next year.