Four hours into the drive from London to Girona, I began to question my life choices in having decided to drive rather than fly. Eight hours down the road—winding through the mountains with the cruise control set to 140kph with lunatic focus on the pool of tungsten light illuminating a patch of road ahead—I began to see its value. I needed this focus. High beam, dip beam, high beam, dip beam. The solo drive that started off listening to audiobook recommendations from Josh Weinberg had descended into a white knuckle ride against the clock to beat the dawn and shut myself in a dark hotel room to squeeze in a few hours of sleep before my first GiRodeo. It would be, in fact, everyone’s first GiRodeo. The inaugural edition of ENVE and The Service Course’s collaborative framebuilder roundup gravel extravaganza G-Rodeo, but in Girona. The GiRodeo.
No Sleep ’till Girona
I woke up to what sounded like a lorry falling from the top of a multi-story car park to street level, or perhaps a dessert cart from a French restaurant being crushed by a falling tree, or a marauding army of cleaners with a battering ram filled with fresh towels and tiny shampoo bottles, invading the adjacent room, claiming their sterile empire. My sleep-starved and dream-drunk mind rolled dice for what the sound was, re-rolling each time it was disappointed by the results. It didn’t matter what the sound was, I was awake, and if rooms were being cleaned I was probably late. I focused on checking out, as a prequel to coffee which was the only thing standing between me and becoming functional.
‘There are a lot of cyclists in this town?’ I half asked the lady at reception who was faffing with my card key and passport.
“Yes” she said. “It’s the landscape, it’s very good for cycling, then Armstrong lived here and then all the cyclists came.”
There were many stories about Lance Armstrong, all of which were probably half true and the culmination of them left the impression of a local anti-hero, who had unintentionally put this small town on the global cycling map.
The Service Course
Girona is a mishmash of Gothic, Colonial and later Brutalist architecture. Its streets are varied and unpretentious, an amalgamation of smells that range from patchouli to piss, to cinnamon, to the subtle overtones of Frankincense that waft from the cathedral that looms over the city. Girona has a cathedral, so it is a very small city. Oniria drew me in like a moth to a flame, a tiny well-turned-out cafe that somehow channeled the energy of a former barber shop. I was surprised to see a Saffron Pangolin leant up against the wall behind the bar. It felt odd that the first bike I’d seen in Girona was made in London.
I didn’t really know a huge amount about the Service Course before I arrived: I knew that it was owned by some former professional cyclists, and that there was a location in Girona (among other places). For such a small town, Girona has an unusually high density of professional cyclists. Having never really been into sports, I wasn’t really bothered by pro cyclists, although I was a little nervous about riding with them. But to be honest, I would have been hard-pressed to point out any pros so I probably did ride with a bunch of them without knowing and it was fine.
I arrived so late the night before that I was early for the next day, and drifted into the Service Course with a coffee in a glass borrowed from Oniria opposite. The Service Course is a long, narrow shop draped with pastel cycling jerseys neatly hung in rows, an ENVE display on one wall, an elegant, ever-changing display of bikes on plinths in the middle, and a workshop at the back that houses rows of esoteric, super high-end bikes waiting on hooks. The bikes are a mix of rental bikes and customer bikes in for service; if you get a rental from TSC it’s likely you’ll end up on a Curve, a Mosaic or a Belle.
Boxes were being unpacked to the dulcet tones of tubeless tires cracking into place. The GiRodeo was the European launch of the ENVE Custom Road as well as the Argonaut GR3, so there were a number of fancy bikes in various states of unpacked-ness around. Somewhere in that melee, I found Ben and Alex from Argonaut who’d built up a GR3 for me to try out during the event and, afterwards, to take home for a long-term review.
The first night, we hiked. A short walk out of town and up a hill that should have taken about an hour, but shrunk to 45 minutes, to “Mirador de Cam Pi.” Cafes are my spiritual home, so I asked Janek at Oniria about Mirador de Cam Pi.
“It’s a house, and they live there, but they have chickens and goats, and they make their own cheese and wine and they make food. Young people, doing young people things, and drinking wine.”
Not a restaurant or a farm, it was a perfect first night spot; an ideal first glimpse into a community centered around riding but also around community.
Ups and Downs
The first actual ride of the GiRodeo started the next morning at a sensible time and took a meandering, gently undulating route through varied terrain. Neither hard nor easy, I started at the front and ended up near the back of what might have looked like a pro peloton but felt surprisingly relaxed. At one point, I waited with the Argonaut guys and a few others while a fellow rider who’d come out on what would have been considered a gravel bike five years ago made his way through a pack of Dynaplugs, then spare tubes. The frequent mechanicals at the tail end of the group meant my (lack of) fitness was never exposed. We rolled into the food stop just as the front of the pack was leaving, so I joined Alejandro from Scarab, a builder from Columbia I’d ridden with briefly the previous day. It’s hard to write about the riding that first day without it becoming a saccharine monologue about perfect routes on dusty trails, so it’s convenient to anchor myself with the day’s disasters.
As a guy fell off and smashed the brake lever and shifter off his rental bike, we talked about types of gravel and loosely planned a trip to Colombia. Peter and I tried to work out the etymology of the place name L’ Escala, a town we were passing through, based on our loose-knit knowledge of the history of Alexander the Great’s empire and Catalonia (it means a stop-off, which makes sense as the town has a small port that was part of an important trade route in ancient times). It was gravel. In fact, probably the finest gravel I’ve ever ridden because living in the south of England you MUST travel for gravel. The ride ended that evening at Dos Kiwis. A brewery run by two expats from New Zealand. I drank a kombucha so vinegary it came with a disclaimer and caught the bus back into town.
The next morning began early with the main event; a 79-mile gravel epic with 2500m of climbing. My bike had been cleaned as if by magic overnight, so I threw it in the backseat of my car to get some decent images of pros I could barely keep up with. That was an error. I’d have been fine in pretty much any off-road vehicle or even a small, lightweight rental car, but there can only be a handful of vehicles in existence less suitable for the ascent and subsequent descent than the 90s S-Class Mercedes I’d driven over from the UK. The climb was varied and, for the most part, sheltered all the way to a crumbling monastery at the top of the hill. The descent was an ideal, winding gravel road that snaked through the landscape into a valley, to a lunch stop by a 14th-century church. The descent was too much for the car, the traction control / ABS system overheated so driving downhill after the riders was nervous and skittish, fishtailing between a sheer drop and a rock face, while also trying to keep pace. Somehow I made it back to the shop alive and ahead of time to shoot a couple of portraits outside in the fading light, as riders congregated at the shop for pizza and beers to share stories from the eventful days riding.
What the Corrafoc?!
I left the shop early for a second dinner with the guys from Argonaut, and Christian who founded the Service Course in 2016. Having lived in Girona for a while, Christian has fully ingrained himself into the town, stepping back from the Service Course to open a running shop, as well as two other businesses in Girona.
“You’re lucky to be here this weekend. There’s a parade tonight because it’s the beginning of the festival. It’s pretty wild, you should check it out.”
It just kind of slipped out casually after dinner, like a thing that perhaps was worth taking or leaving. I’d kind of heard about the festival from a few other people but nothing concrete – just whispers really.
“People think it’s only for the weekend but it’s actually two weekends. The festival goes on for 9 days… each town in Spain has a saint, and when it’s that saint’s name day, people go full gas for a week!”
I’d seen some kind of fair being built across town so I thought I kind of had a grasp of what it would be. After dinner, Christian led us through the narrow streets to a cobbled square where people congregate around what looked like a cylinder, about 20 feet tall covered in red fabric. The crowd was pretty normal; families with kids, older couples on holiday, and normal people. There was a strange number of people wearing sun hats considering it was nighttime. I stood around chatting to Ben about bikes and bands and anything else, debating whether or not to run back to my hotel room to pick up my flash.
We were standing around like everyone else as though we were waiting for someone to turn on the Christmas tree lights or for some kind of speech. I felt a prodding finger on my shoulder and turned to meet a man who must have heard us speaking English and felt the need to engage with his compatriots
“Where are you from?” He asked
“Yes but where? I’m from Stevenage, I live in the UK too”
Oh cool – I live in Margate
The conversation was weird and stunted, probably because I’m not good at casual contact with strangers, and my attention was halfway in another conversation about carbon layup and halfway on camera settings since I’d decided not to go back for the flash.
“I bought a used car from Margate once”
Ok? Cool. Yeah I guess old cars are kind of cheap there
“Yes, it’s a very good place to buy used cars. Also Sheppey”
“The Isle of Sheppy. I bought a used car there too once. It’s very cheap to buy cars there.”
’That’s good to know. Very useful and interesting. I’ll have to remember that next time I need to buy a used car. You seem to buy a lot of used cars. What do you do for a living?’
“I buy and sell used cars”
I had a hunch.
Was he trying to sell me a car? Did he somehow know about my failing brakes? It was a very weird interaction that I was glad to see the back of until I felt the gentle prodding again.
“Have you noticed they’re all wearing glasses? And hats? And masks?”
I had noticed the hats – but passed it off as some kind of local fashion among septuagenarians in this locality, but kids were wearing sunglasses, and gloves and covering their faces like they were getting suited up to commit some crimes.
They are? That’s weird
“So the fire doesn’t burn their faces”
A group of drummers began hammering out a slow beat, like a war march that hushed the crowd. The beat sped up to a moderate tempo before suddenly stopping. All of the street lights turned off and the crowd murmured in fervent anticipation. I was in the front row; so I saw a man probably in his 50s, dressed as Santa overworked and aging elf, lighting a fuse and some sparklers at the top of the big red cylinder began to crackle. I watched in anticipation of the unveiling of whatever was in that cylinder. Then madness.
People use the phrase “all hell broke loose” far too loosely. I imagine hell to be a pretty loose place most of the time – like I guess anything goes, so for those guys to get loose… that’s pretty loose.
In the time it takes for a bullet to leave the barrel of a gun once the trigger has been pulled, all hell broke loose. Amidst deafening screams of Catherine wheels at a proximity they’re not designed for, the square exploded into frenzied madness. Showers of burning sparks fell over the crowd. I wasn’t in the front row anymore – there weren’t rows, just absolute carnage and I was in the middle of the carnage. People screaming and running away in abject terror; sparks weren’t landing on them and singeing them by accident, it was a deliberate assault from which they were fleeing. Dozens of devils – costumed teenagers with painted faces and fire retardant suits lighting Catherine wheels on sticks over the crowd and chasing people with Roman candles at random.
Bangers flying everywhere, strobing in the thick, gunpowder smoke air. No one could see anything beyond devils, sparks, and thick fog. My ears were ringing with echoes of unrelenting explosives being set off and tossed at random into the melee. A red glow rose up from a side street and the drummers started up an ecstatic carnival beat and marched the frenzied demonic crowd, dancing then cowering between stilt-walking devils through the streets, forcing them under floods of burning sparks from strings of Roman candles suspended between buildings pointed downwards into the crowd.
We danced, marched, ran, and walked through the town to the cathedral, now lit up in red, framing some kind of demonic altar where DJs played evil techno from huge stacks of speakers. The devils marched slowly through the crowd led by a bull-headed lady dancing while holding up a burning red flair. When they reached the cathedral, they shrunk away from the crowd into a little hell surrounded by burning fire bowls, into a corner littered with rusting contraptions welded together out of nonsense. One by one they lit fuses before running into the crowd, on fire and erupting with green sparks. The devils sacrificed one of their own on an altar, slicing her head off with a sword before suspending another on some kind of makeshift gantry from meat hooks in his back and swinging him around. Pinhead little weirdos, with heads covered in roman candles, ran around dancing. Shonky, deer-headed trikes spun around in nonsensical convolutions and stilt walkers breathing fire downwards faded into the drum beats, into a unified army in front of the cathedral dividing the crowd in two, before taking a bow and returning to the little hell zone now empty. The music stopped, the crowd cheered, the devils morphed back into ordinary kids and almost as fast as the madness had started the square became a normal square again. People eating outside restaurants amidst the gentle murmur of European tourism.
High on strange, Alex and I walked across the little city, divided by a little river inhabited by fat carp and ducks, to the fair that we’d seen being built the previous days. The fair was no way to come down. Bigger than the biggest theme park the UK has to offer and built in some woods, with rides brushing past the trees, every kid in Catalonia must have been there. How they all got there or where they were going to stay that night, we’ll never know. Tens of thousands of kids going feral, dreadlocked teenagers going wild to the sounds of a Rage Against The Machine cover band. Chestnut sellers inhabited grotty popup huts, while potato sellers blasted stress-house sound systems and immense LED screens illuminating the faces of the youthful hoards from across the street.
We ate both chestnuts and potatoes. The chestnuts were hot, rich burnt little nuggets, earthy and wholesome, while the potatoes had some strange aroma like they’d been slathered in a gummy bear sauce. They were completely inedible. Queasy from the strange food, the next challenge was to hit some rides and see if we could keep it down. Is it not a rodeo if there isn’t at least a mechanical bull? An observation I passed on to Sandra, The Service Course’s newly appointed head of vibes to be helpful.
A Guided History of Girona GravGrav
The previous night’s strangeness dissolved to crisp nothing, as did the fog that settled about the town in the early morning. A short flattish, gravel loup concluded the weekend. In terms of landscape it’s important to understand that the gravel around Girona is not remote in the slightest. It’s dotted with people, and villages, there’s shelter from the sun as routes criss-cross through woods. The whole region, while being home to incredible road riding, is also crisscrossed with gravel paths and roads and farm tracks. There’s gravel of every kind, from wide unpaved roads to technical rocky tracks through woods. Jack, the events organizer, pointed me towards Peter, one of the guides, to talk about routes. We’d chatted on the ride the day before about the cultural history of the area based on the history of settlers in Girona over the past 5000 years. I was interested to get some perspective on what brought such a tight-knit expat community to Girona.
We met in a Catalonian restaurant for a late lunch. It was the first Catalan food I’d consciously eaten on the trip. There was a set menu with only one option, all the food, which Peter ordered for us both in Catalan with a thick Canadian accent, that I could recognise without needing to be able to speak Catalan.
‘So….I have holes burned in all of my clothes from the other night.’
“I think they changed the formula of the gunpowder that they use, because I think I used to get more burned,I used to get little burns all over my skin where there was any exposed skin, but this time it just felt hot but I didn’t get any burns”
‘My hat is like a sieve’
“There couldn’t be a more mad time to come to Girona to be honest”
‘I’m kind of a Halloween enthusiast so I was bummed out to be missing Halloween in the UK but here they just go wild!’
“It has nothing to do with Halloween. Fieras in Girona is one of the latest in the year, but each town has its own Fieras, and most towns in Catalonia have their own Corrafoc, which means running with the fire. So they have Corrafocs all through the year in various towns, with the same idea, the devil… the flames… the fireworks….”
So what is it?
“‘I don’t know? I can’t say I understand its origins but it goes back hundreds and hundreds of years, and it has nothing to do with Halloween. It’s just pure Catalan madness. I have a friend who says she prefers the Corrafoc in Salt which is another town adjacent to here, they have their Corrafoc in Summer and she says it’s madder. There’s a big difference in Catalan and Spanish culture, the food, the language, the people, everything!”
“Catalan people are known for being more closed, less hospitable and friendly, but they make very strong bonds when they make them. Spanish people are more gregarious and outgoing. At the same time, the general feeling here is that Spanish people don’t work as hard as Catalan people.”
Right? Where does that come from?
“Well … Catalonia’s origins began with Aragon; so this area used to be known as Aragon. In 1480 something, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were married, so King Ferdinand was our King and Queen Isabella was the Queen of Castile and Leone and they formed one kingdom, which was the beginning of Spain. But these people had very different cultures so Catalonia was a very strong trading community on the Mediterranean, consequently, there’s a Catalan-speaking enclave in Sardinia… the Catalan traders were so important around the med that people learned Catalan all over the Mediterranean. So there are still a bunch of different languages spoken throughout Spain. For example, in Andorra, which is technically a Catalan country, although it’s its own principality, a lot of the pros who I know who moved there speak Spanish rather than Catalan. So their kids go to school in Andorra and learn Spanish but the pros whose kids grow up here learn Catalan in school.”
I don’t know if I’ve ever been anywhere with so many pro cyclists; is that a post-Lance thing?
“I can only really tell you what I’ve seen in the 7 years since I moved here. When I moved here, there were very few expats like me who had no real tie to professional cycling. So when I moved here I knew a load of the pros because there were a lot of social things and rides and stuff that involved pros so I knew a lot of them. But obviously, that’s changed a lot, so now people are just flooding in, so there are way more amateurs than pros. I don’t know, but from what I understand, Lance came here because someone had told him it was a kind of quiet part of Europe where there was good riding and he could just go about his business. There have been past pros who’ve come from Catalonia and I think that at the time you could buy steroids in a pharmacy. The restrictions on drugs were much lighter in Spain, France was getting pretty strict on drugs, but they were pretty lax here, so he could just go about his business and do his thing. There’s pretty excellent terrain for riding and good access to the rest of Europe. It’s a pretty cheap place as well to move the whole team, so it kind of made sense right?
Then I guess guys like Michael Barry who was one of his teammates, got pretty attached to the area and so he still comes back, and he runs tours here. He got to know a guy named Jordi Cantal, and as far as I know he was friends with Michael Barry and probably Lance Armstrong and all those guys back in the day, and Jordi – he’s a fireman. So the firemen here, they look after the city but they also have to look after the forest as well. So the firemen, they have to know every single road, every gravel road, and trail and have it memorized because if they have to fight a fire they need to know where to go and how to get to different parts of the mountains so Jordi became a guide. He knows every road he knows the area like the back of his hand.”
Why did you come here?
“I was on a bike trip, well I was cycling around for a couple of years, and I was on this one trip across Asia, and I was reading books one night. I read some serious books and some bike books, you know like books the pros write, and one of the only common threads through them was references to Girona. I guess a lot of them at one point visited or lived in Girona, and I had a roommate on this trip, whose son is named Jack Thomson, he’s an ultra cyclist who’s doing an Everest every week. Have you seen that guy?”
“Well anyway, my roommate was Jack Thomson’s father – so this was 8 or 9 years ago, and he told me it was an alright place to visit having visited Jack there. So when I got to Istanbul I booked a flight to Barcelona and I just started cycling around Catalonia. I stayed here for a week and thought it was an OK town, but I wasn’t blown away by it or anything. I wouldn’t have believed that a year or two later I’d actually come and live here, but I did. I guess what brought me here, you could argue, might have been the roots of Armstrong. If you’re reading cycling stories you think OK well there must be something going on in Girona? How come all these cyclists come here? I think it sort of became a self-perpetuating myth because now I think what’s happened is that where first it was really elite cyclists that came, who really knew about cycling and racing and who were perhaps racers themselves. Now with every passing year, we’re attracting a wider group of cyclists, so now we have people who come, who can’t even clip in! It’s just people who go to bike shops who know about Girona, who’ve never been racers or aren’t even that into cycling that somehow know about Girona. And this is all in the time that I’ve been here”
So why did you stay? What were you doing before when you were cycling around?
“I wasn’t working, I was just riding my bike. I kind of got to the point when I wanted a Winter off. I’d sort of just been doing a trip and then going back to Canada, and then I sold everything I owned in Canada, so I didn’t really have a place anymore. I was looking for somewhere to spend a couple of months in Winter. So I came over here and found an apartment easily and I guess I just didn’t leave. I became a nomad”
But one who lives here now? You seem pretty settled. Do you feel like you live here?
“I think there’s something about this community. I like it here. I struggle with this when I get asked. I think I upset people, especially Canadians when I talk about it. But I think getting out of Canadian or North American culture and coming somewhere like this, I think the culture suits me better. There’s also the thing about accountability. One thing that is a big change for me to be living here is that I always lived in larger centers. In those places, you can be somewhat autonomous, but if you want to continue to live in this town, you are accountable. So if you do something that is wrong you’re accountable for it and everyone knows. And that’s not even just in the cycling community where everybody knows everybody, but just in terms of Catalan people. You’re connected to everyone that lives here. The Catalan friends I have, know people and those people know other people, and so everybody can talk about each individual person and so you can’t really conduct business here unless you behave. So there was a fella here who was part of the cycling community and he was kicked out, because he said a few things and behaved badly. He didn’t contribute rent and did a few things that weren’t exactly savory. So people started to talk about this guy and then he went on a trip and when he got back all of his possessions were moved out of the apartment that he was supposed to be living in and they were sitting in a bike shop. He was not welcome anywhere. Nobody would talk to him and he had to leave. The community kicked him out. He was exiled. That’s a lesson in accountability!”
Wow, what did he do? I guess not paying rent?
“Yea, ripping people off financially more than anything. He wasn’t a criminal, he wasn’t murdering people, he wasn’t doing really horrible things but he ripped some people off which wasn’t cool, and so he wasn’t welcome in the community anymore. But it’s an amazing community. We have people doing ultras and in the media and at that end of it but we also have old retired ladies that come here and just ride like 30 or 40 km a day every day and they have their favorite routes and have dinner parties and hang out and just have a really nice life in Catalonia. One of the things that pulls everyone together is this cycling thing. There’s a really strong bond of bike riding here at all levels.”
We talked about a bunch of things for a long time, and eventually, the final course arrived as a prompt that we weren’t just a couple of guys having a nice life in Girona eating.
So… you planned the routes for the weekend? What’s your philosophy on a nice route?
“Well I guess I never tried to articulate it before? I believe in flow I guess? but that means something to everybody. Like what does flow mean to you and what does flow mean to me? Flow to me means I want a route to feel like it’s connected to itself in a natural way. like you haven’t forced it. I think I mean so that as you move through the route, the countryside… well perhaps this is interesting? We live in this funny little corner of the world. When you were riding didn’t you notice there are gravel roads everywhere. Like everywhere you look, another and another. Even the paved roads, at one time were all gravel roads. So we have this network of gravel roads in this agricultural area which is tortured terrain. Like there aren’t as alot of flat or straight sections, just a lot of little ups and downs and its always winding, you know, it’s tortured. So the farmers, they would have very twisty paths where you have to connect fields and towns. So interestingly around here, for somewhere that’s quite populated, you can make a route that only ever crosses a busy road. So you never have to force the route to ride a bit that isn’t good to get to another bit that you think is good, that ends and you have to find another connecting road to the next bit. So to me, when you’ve got flow, you have consistent movement through the terrain that always feels connected. So each part flows into the next. So you’ll never suddenly be on a four-lane highway and then a rough bumpy rocky road. I don’t know. We have a lot of gravel here. It’s a mind-expanding, mind-blowing place to ride where you can ride for two years on gravel and make a new route every day.”
With seemingly infinite, pristine gravel routes through rolling hills and “tortured terrain”, an ideal climate great food, Girona has become a global cycling destination. I’m not sure what role Lance Armstrong had to play in building the thriving expat cycling community there is today, but I’m almost certain that it was an accident. The Service Course hosting the Girodeo alongside ENVE the same weekend as the town’s biggest festival was also sort of a happy accident, but one that gave me a lucky glimpse into the community around Girona and The Service Course. The GiRodeo as well as being a lot of good clean Catalan fun, was also a bike show. With so much going on on one weekend, I felt the bikes needed their own article, so tune in again tomorrow for Part Two to see my favourite bikes from Girodeo ’22.