Lance Armstrong had won his third Tour de France and was living it up at his home on the French Riviera. But the authorities were on to him after used syringes had been spotted in his team’s bins. The Texan bluffed his way through a gauntlet of allegations, but he was rattled. “In October  he phoned me, saying he had had enough of the f***ing French,” his teammate Tyler Hamilton wrote in his 2012 memoir The Secret Race. “He was selling his place in Nice, getting out, now . . . Where should we move?”
Professional cyclists have special requirements when looking for a place to live. Good training routes, proximity to a big airport, decent restaurants and culture are all important. For Armstrong, a quiet life and blind eyes were vital. “We all knew the Spaniards were far less strict about doping,” added Hamilton, who had lived in Spain before Nice. “No gendarmes raiding hotel rooms, no dumpster-diving reporters. The decision took five minutes. We were headed to Girona.”
Armstrong wasn’t the first pro to embrace a city that has long existed in the shadow of nearby Barcelona. But he did put it on the cycling map. For years, before he limped back to Texas when he was finally brought down for doping in 2012, other racers rolled in. Bradley Wiggins was there for a while. David Millar never left. Girona stayed pretty sleepy — a secret, almost — but in the past few years its cycling scene has erupted.
If Armstrong were still kicking around the surrounding hills and mountains today, he might not be on the road at all — for Girona has become a hotspot for the latest big trend in cycling: gravel. In a throwback to an age before asphalt, on-road and off-road riders all over the world are meeting in the middle, on unpaved roads, tracks and bridleways.
“Last year, we’d get people coming on road-biking holidays and maybe they’d rent a gravel bike for a day to try it out,” says Christian Meier, a Canadian ex-pro who settled in Girona in 2011 with his wife Amber. “This year, it’s people coming for five or six days on gravel-specific holidays.”
The city’s popularity among amateur cyclists has grown rapidly in recent years as professional settlers have retired from racing and looked for new business opportunities. Meier — one of about 100 former and current pros now based in a city of just 100,000 — founded the Service Course in 2015. As well as arranging holidays, it has grown to include a cycling “hub” (which sells and rents smart bikes and where guided group rides begin and end), a café — La Fabrica — and a smaller coffee shop.
I arrive in Girona, in a late-summer heatwave, as a gravel newbie. I’ve done bits of mountain biking, but am otherwise a pavement purist. I get a kick out of the beautiful efficiency of riding on the smoothest surfaces. When man and machine are in good condition, the satisfying rhythm of cycling somehow lets the mind ride free. Gravel, I thought, would be, well, a bit of a grind.
I sweat out my scepticism on a mountain to the south of the city. The climb to the Taverna del Subira, a hilltop restaurant carved out of a 16th-century farmhouse, starts near the spa town of Santa Coloma de Farners. For a couple of miles we ride on tarmac, which would make up perhaps 10 per cent of the day’s 55-mile loop. But then, as is the case with so many roads around Girona, the asphalt stops.
I am riding with Adam Sherlock, a British entrepreneur and investor in the Service Course (he’s now its CEO). Like Meier, he visited Girona and fell in love. The Mancunian long-distance specialist (a few days earlier he took on the notorious 745-mile Paris-Brest-Paris ride) now owns a flat here. We are joined by Aneel Mawji, a thoughtful 25-year-old Canadian gravel racer with thighs like Ibérico hams. Mawji would be our guide.
“Gravel” is just a label for unpaved roads and tracks, be they covered in mud, sand, rock or nondescript dirt. It is distinct from cyclo-cross, a form of racing on an off-road circuit, and has become a buzzword in the industry as manufacturers race to sell specialist gear. New bikes have evolved to include space for much thicker tyres, a lower and longer frame for better stability and a more upright sitting position for comfort. But at first glance they look like road bikes, and have dropped handlebars. Lycra is still de rigueur.
I feel the difference as soon as I set rubber on dirt on a bike from Open Cycle, a high-end Swiss manufacturer that the Service Course stocks for rental. As I settle into a climbing rhythm through chestnut trees and over rutted dirt, it all feels remarkably smooth. I have to concentrate more than I might on the road, leaving my mind less free, but this brings an appealing novelty and added challenge. Ahead lie a good 10 miles more climbing until we reach the restaurant.
Modern technology and marketing have played a big part in enabling and fuelling the gravel boom. But its proponents describe a retreat from the modern intensity of road riding, in which amateurs too often forget to look up while they measure their power output in watts and pore over their stats on tracking apps. Mawji was drawn to the adventure in gravel after trying to make it as a road racer. At one point he notes the scent of wild rosemary. “When it’s really hot, you can smell it almost starting to cook,” he says.
As Meier tells me later: “It’s a completely different approach. If you’re on a group ride on the road, very rarely does a guy say, ‘I’ll stop here and take a photo’ — but all of a sudden you get on a gravel bike and it’s totally acceptable.” Or, as he puts it in the first edition of the Service Course’s gazette: “We’re not thinking about watts, we’re thinking about what’s around that corner.”
The boom is rooted in America, where roads are typically more truck-bound than in Europe. Dirty Kanza, the best-known event in gravel riding, has grown from just 34 riders in 2006 to 3,400 today. This year a clutch of pros took on the brutal 200-mile route through the flint hills of central Kansas. Similar events and routes are opening across Europe. In Britain, the 124-mile Dirty Reiver, on forest access roads in the Scottish Borders, has boomed in popularity since its launch in 2016.
At Cyclefit, a premium bike shop in central London, owner Phil Cavell is getting loads more inquiries about fancy gravel bikes. “The great thing about it is that it appeals to old blokes my age but also young Hoxton hipsters who are drawn to images of people doing these big transcontinental rides, packing their own tents and navigating with the stars,” says the 57-year-old, who links dirt tracks and bridleways for his own Sunday morning rides in the Chiltern Hills northwest of London.
Girona always had miles of unpaved roads. There’s even a taste of gravel in some of the squares and boulevards in the city centre itself, with its still relatively untouristy (relative to Barcelona anyway) cathedral and cobbled streets. Now the bike companies that have sprung up over the past few years are making the most of what lies on their doorstep. The Service Course is a premium rival to companies including Bike Breaks, which opened in 2008, and Eat Sleep Cycle. At Hors Catégorie, a cycling café that would be large enough for a city 10 times bigger, yet thrives in Girona, I sip coffee in the sun one morning while a gang of Germans prepare to ride in branded “2019 Gravel Epic” Lycra.
The Service Course is now hoping to expand beyond the city’s medieval walls. It recently attracted new investment, including from former Team Sky professionals Edvald Boasson Hagen and Simon Gerrans, the latter an Australian rider who now works in foreign exchange at Goldman Sachs after completing an “athlete internship” at the bank. Service Course hubs are opening in Wilmslow near Manchester, in Tuscany and in Oslo, where miles of forestry tracks surround the Norwegian capital.
Before the climb to the restaurant, I roll out of Girona with Kasia Niewiadoma, a current Polish racer and another Service Course investor. She lives in the city with her partner Taylor Phinney, an American pro, and is remarkably relaxed, given that the World Championships road race in Yorkshire is only weeks away. She was gravel riding alone only the day before when she found herself pushing too hard. “I told myself, don’t be stupid, this is gravel, I should relax and enjoy it,” she tells me.
Niewiadoma wisely heads back before the ascent to the restaurant. After a few miles of climbing, I realise that the only thing I have lost in steering off-road is the motor traffic. Sure, the road is juddery, and the ride physically and mentally tougher, but in this way it reminds me of the joy of skiing off-piste away from the crowds, with a better connection to the mountain. There is also the frisson, when it happens, of returning to the hard, smooth road, or piste, after miles on rougher ground.
The climb is gruelling, taking a good 90 minutes. The reward is a carafe of clara (beer and lemonade) and rustic tapas from the tavern’s old log fire. Perhaps Lance Armstrong made it up here while he was in Girona hiding bags of blood in his fridge. Or perhaps he was too focused on winning at all costs to look up and enjoy his sport. His doping scandal did much, particularly in the US, to threaten the modern road-cycling boom that he had helped to create. In a departure from the road, cycling may have rediscovered its soul in gravel.
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