Vast forests are reaching to the horizon and on all sides we see mountains looming. The dew is still on the sparse grass on the roadside and in the shadow the asphalt is glistening treacherous. I zip up my jersey and change to a higher gear. Although it is still cold in the distance a watery sun is shining. I am now halfway through the Rocacorba climb. To my right a rock rises almost vertically, to my left I see an equally steep cliff. Don’t think about it now, I tell myself, just keep cycling. I can feel my leg muscles burn, but once at the top I forget everything when I get rewarded with spectacular views.
There is not a lot of time for a rest. When a few minutes later everyone has reached the top, together we turn around and we start the descent. From the first meter it’s everyone for themselves. The wind races past my ears while I try to handle the steep and deceptive hairpins. The descent is nauseating fast and with the constant twists and turns of the road I must keep paying attention. Leaning into a turn, finding the ideal line, whilst avoiding hitting other traffic and cliffs that loom in font of me. Not too much braking and especially not too much thinking, that’s the best way to survive the descent.
Girona, it is called the Mecca of cyclists. Already after a few days I notice there is not a word of a lie there. Situated between the sun drenched beaches of the Costa Brava and the jagged peaks of the Pyrenees the ever-changing landscape is a feast for the eye. But the beautiful environment is not the only reason to travel to Girona; in this Catalan city I imagine myself in the professional cycling peloton.
In the nineties the American Lance Armstrong was one of the first who was lured to the city in Catalonia, probably because of the forever nice weather and the quiet and varied roads. Today there are about seventy professional cyclists living at least several months a year in this city, to optimally train in the winter and spring and to be completely in shape when the cycling season starts again.
At the beginning of the spring they share the roads with amateur cyclists, like me, who want to feel like a professional cyclist for a week and want to to discover the climbs in the Girona area. Where professional cyclists tend to train here throughout the year, our season starts now. Like a bunch of young enthusiastic dogs everyone cycles the very first climb with full power, whilst the roads that surround us are filled with carefully polished carbon and flashy cycling jerseys.
Today we cycle through the volcanic Garrotxa Region. The road takes us past extinct volcanoes and winds along the azure lake of Banyoles. We turn off the main road to start one of the most heroic climbs in Catalonia; the Rocacorba. Notorious primarily, for the climb rate. In 13.8 kilometer one climbs to an altitude of 970m. The average climb rate of 6.5% inspires little fear. But appearances may be deceiving; thanks to a number of short descents the climb rate on the steepest parts is a mean 15%. One does not cycle the Rocacorba for fun. Winners will be born on this mountain. Here you show your competitors your fitness after the winter break.
The mountain owes its heroic status partially to the many professional cyclists who train there. For some of them it is tradition to cycle the Rocacorba at maximum speed a week before the Tour de France. To test the legs and to frighten the competitors by constantly putting down a sharper time, year after year. At this cycling mecca the Rocacorba is the perfect climb to challenge yourself. The -pro cycling- record now stands at around 27 minutes, but one always looks askance at each other, and you can be sure that with every new record in no time a new attempt is made.
Conquer the Rocacorba
These riders, who inhabit Girona, gave the Rocacorba its current status; an almost mythological mountain that all cyclists fear. Every year, during my training week in Girona, I cycle the Rocacorba. And it always frightens me. From the point where the road turns over the low stone bridge and makes a bend upward. From then on the Rocacorba rises before me, out of the rolling countryside which from here on will be hidden to the eye by the dense forest. There is only one way leading to the top of the Rocacorba and once at the top of the mountain you have no choice but to make a descent down the same road. Nonsense, so it seems. But to reach the top of Rocacorba offers a sense of satisfaction.
It’s the kind of climb that requires a great effort and you have to give everything, otherwise you will not make it to the top. But the beautiful view from the top is my reward. From here I have a panoramic view of the hilly region and the snow-covered Pyrenees in the distance. The Lake of Banyoles sparkles on my feet. I can hear other riders arrive. I turn around and they prove to be the pro riders David Millar and Daniel Martin. My 44 minute 25 seconds isn’t close to the pro-rider times at all, but what the hell. Satisfied I start the descent of Rocacorba, which is twisty and narrow. For a short moment I think the road is mine, but not even halfway through the descent I see the two riders racing uphill again. Pros and amateurs, is a big difference. Even in Girona.
The secret of Girona
What is the secret of Girona? Is it the long climbs through the volcanic landscape, the broad roads to the coast? Maybe it’s the raw nature. The cobbled streets of the old towns, where we cycle along, with small castles and medieval stone towers. Maybe it’s the rustic farmhouses, with terracotta roofs and wooden shutters. The old men that chop stacks of firewood, the women that every morning are on their way to the bakery for fresh bread. It might be the silence that you experience and that wraps itself around you like a blanket, when you cycle a few meters further out of the village. Except from some other cyclists we see little traffic. With the varied environment, beautiful towns and quiet roads Girona is the true cyclists mecca. But probably it is that strange feeling that makes Girona a myth for cyclists; that one moment you feel like a pro, when you climb the heroic mountains like a conqueror.
Cycling in Girona, the practical travel info:
Girona is 1400 kilometers from Utrecht. Flights to Girona Costa Brava Airport are relatively inexpensive and are offered by airlines like Transavia, Ryanair, Wizz Air and Jetairfly. The Girona city centre is about 15 kilometers from the airport. A transfer to the city center costs € 2.75 one way and € 5.25 for a return ticket and takes about 25 minutes. The bus departs every hour and tickets can be purchased at the airport. A taxi to Girona costs € 20 to € 25 one way. At the airport there are several car rental companies including Hertz and Europcar. You can bring your own bike, but in Girona there are plenty of opportunities to rent bicycles.
With the blog “A myth for cyclists: Girona” Aniek Rooderkerken won second place at the annual Press Prize and Blog Price “Proef Spanje”.