Our far-flung international correspondent Petor Georgallou returned to Girona, Spain last October for GiRodeo 2023, The Service Course‘s flagship end-of-season event. It was an action-packed weekend with great riding, wild parties, music, coffee, friends, and loads of beautiful custom and bespoke bicycles on display. In his first report from the event below, Petor details his time as a guiri in the Catalonian region, improvising after only half of his bike showed up, subsequently uber-underbiking for 155 km, attending a wild Correfoc for the second year in a row, and much, much more. And be sure to stay tuned tomorrow for Petor’s overview of eight stunning custom builds from the event!
Guiri is a derogatory term used by locals for expats living in Catalonia. In Girona, as a tourist, I am a guiri, or an outsider who has come to take everything without contributing anything culturally. If I were to move to Girona to work in the cycling industry, if I learned the language, took a flat, ate the food, paid taxes even, and participated in the culture, to some, I would still be a guiri.
I woke up with the light. While my wife slept in an adjacent room, I took my daughter down to breakfast where I clumsily plated a mishmash of foods from the buffet, with my tiny agent of chaos wedged under my plate arm. Her own arms fully extended and grasping at any object within reach with chubby fists, ramming whatever she could clasp, full-fist, into her mouth, leaving a trail of debris around the breakfast bar. I sat down, swallowing half-chewed mouthfuls of food in the rushed, parental eating style, knowing that the boiled egg she was half smushing into her hair, and half smushing into my clean white t-shirt, wouldn’t last long as a distraction.
A wide-eyed and wild-haired lady, grinning from ear to ear, open arms outstretched, half ran across the room towards us.
“So cute! I will take him so you can eat!”
“Haha, he’s a girl. I mean she’s a girl.”
“He likes juice? Ok you come with me”
“No, I mean she hasn’t really had juice before…”
“Yes you come with me, I get you some juice.”
The woman leant across the table and confidently lifted my daughter out of my egg-stained lap, thrust a pink fluffy pen at her, and casually sauntered off into the hotel lobby cooing in baby Spanish. She clearly worked at the hotel and loved babies, as I found all Catalan people do. But having my baby even temporarily abducted and taken into another room by a stranger (who I half recognized from the previous year) was uncomfortable. I began eating even faster. Not chewing at all, just shoveling eggs and fruit and slices of cured meats and yogurt and muesli indiscriminately into my mouth, swallowing them together with huge snake-like gulps before dashing into the lobby to retrieve my child, who had become the center of mass that seemingly all of the orbiting hotel staff had gravitated towards. I penetrated their jovial, familial cluster to extract my, now pen-covered baby.
“It’s ok! You don’t have to take him, we can look after him, and you can go.”
“Haha thank you, but it’s okay, she has to sleep again now.”
“He’s a girl? I thought he was a boy!?”
“Yes, she’s a girl, I mean they’re all basically potatoes. hahaha, I’ll just….”
I leaned in to extract her from the matriarch’s arms, who swung the baby away from me.
“She’s a girl! You don’t want dad, you want me! Come we do girl things. You want my pen?”
“Haha yes well perhaps she can come and see you after her sleep?”
I pried my daughter from her reluctant arms and pushed the button to call the lift, which felt like it took hours to arrive as I stood awkwardly next to the hotel lady who was making faces and speaking baby Spanish at us. While it was a little unsettling, it was also lovely and indicative of the local culture. Spanish people love kids. Normal life is centered around family and food, so it was nice to feel a part of that, even as a guest at a hotel.
I ditched the baby with my wife, picked up the pieces of my partly disassembled bike, and headed to The Service Course via Oneria, still Girona’s finest cafe. Standing on the empty early morning street, with the rear end of a coupled frame in one hand and a latte in the other chatting to a German expat, a lady in her 60s or 70s quite deliberately bumped into me. I spilled coffee on my hand and shoe and reacted according to my very English conditioning by apologizing. She glanced at my spilled coffee which I was trying to wipe off my shoe onto the back of my trouser leg, and then cocked her head back up to catch my gaze with a look of pure contempt before gesticulating wildly, vibrating with rage.
“I’m sorry I don’t speak …… err I mean… pardon, No hablo español……”
“She wants you to move because you’re blocking the pavement,” explained my new German friend.
Confused and apologetic, I took a step back into the deserted road, to let her pass on the pavement. Disgruntled, she brushed past and walked on mumbling.
What was that?
“They don’t like cyclists because the guiris are ruining the town and people can’t afford to live here anymore.”
This was different from last year. I finished my coffee, licked the spilled dregs off my hand, and ordered another for the road. There is a stark contrast in the attitudes of locals towards tourists carrying bikes rather than babies.
The Service Course is located a few doors down and on the same tiny road as its previous iteration, but is now wholly different to not only the old shop but also any other bike shop that I have visited, in close to two decades of visiting bike shops. Split over four floors, and with a courtyard, the new shop felt like what the Service Course was always meant to be. It’s a spiritual home.
The workshop sits in the center; there’s a little cave full of rental bikes stacked like fine wines, as well as various other smaller rooms dedicated to bikes, apparel, presentations, and even living quarters. It’s an impeccably well-put-together juxtaposition of new and old Girona, with insane dream builds on display everywhere, and equally incredible bikes available to rent. I was stoked to see that the majority of the staff were still the same too, which is always a super positive sign for a bike shop. At the entrance, there was a huge painted map of the local area with some landmarks labeled according to the cartographers’ psycho-geography, at the center of which was a painted rat trap labeled “ATRAPA GUIRIS,” symbolizing Girona.
I spent the morning with Guyelle, a member of staff that The Service Course and a local, back-and-forthing with UPS in Spanish on the phone, trying to work out where the front half of my bike—which had been sent via 24-hour courier to me at TSC from the UK, where it was being repaired—actually was. By the afternoon, I’d given up on any chance of it arriving before the weekend, which wasn’t a disaster because I was almost certain that, somewhere, there’d be an Argonaut GR3 in my size that I could borrow.
I’d seen the Argonaut crew at the airport with about 12 bike bags. They couldn’t possibly ride all 12 bikes, so while it was disappointing to miss the super relaxed Thursday afternoon partner’s ride, I still had three days of some of the best gravel riding in the world to look forward to. “Always ride an Argonaut where possible,” was perhaps my biggest takeaway from the last year, so I waited patiently for everyone to return from the ride to start asking around to see if there was a bike I could borrow.
Surprisingly, there wasn’t. After the success of the previous year’s event, this year’s event had sold out, which meant all of TSC’s surprisingly fancy rental bikes were spoken for. I was in Girona, ready for perhaps the most fun riding of the entire year, not only without an Argonaut GR3 but even worse, completely without a bike. While trail running seems to have become super popular among the cycling community it’s not for me, so Jack, the events organizer, spent the rest of the day ringing around to find me a bike. I made an error turning down Peter’s (a guide at TSC and a friend from last year) mountain bike, which would have been a little short and heavy but would have totally done the job.
The next morning, I was prepared for the baby-nabbing and took full advantage of my free hands to load my plate at the buffet and eat at a leisurely pace. I’d been somewhat apprehensive about not having a bike to ride until, through chatting to some friends on the next table, the offer of a new unreleased, super high-end all-road bike to ride for the weekend came my way, which I gladly accepted. The top-secret new bike and I made our way over to TSC where Rasmus fitted it out with some 700x40c Hutchinson Tundras, and I fiddled around with the fit to make it work. That first day of riding was relaxed but bumpy.
I would have been bored on a mountain bike, but the route was exciting enough on an all-road race bike, which was pretty short, tall, and stiff. It was a joyful preamble, that left me more tired than expected. We returned to the TSC courtyard for lunch. I shot a few bikes until the sun went down before joining my family and the Argonaut crew for dinner and another early night. I knew what to expect so I was saving myself for the 155 km epic route and, more importantly, the Correfoc the following evening.
Sunrise brought a very lazy morning, drinking coffee, and having a lovely time as a passenger listening to traditional Catalan dance music on the car radio with my head hanging out of the window looking at the hills in the distance. I’d made a plan to hitch a lift to the first stop, ride the best bits, then get a lift back from the second stop to catch the riders coming back to the shop and shoot a few more bikes before the sun set. We arrived at the rest stop, where I rode down the hill to meet the first fast group of riders, past families collecting chestnuts, whose numbers were apparently dwindling due to drought, before returning to the stop for lunch and setting off again in the direction marked “long.” The first ascent and short descent were dreamy, cruising along with Alex and Sarah on their GR3 “Supernaughts.” Alex had offered to swap bikes since he’s a far stronger rider, knowing that I’d been a little uncomfortable the previous day on the all-road race bike with relatively narrow 40c tires, but I respectfully declined, which I regretted after the first descent.
Gravel in Girona isn’t actually gravel in that it’s not an evenly sized particulate, but rather a melange of uneven farm tracks and paths probably made by travel on horseback. If the scale of particulate goes from: boulders to big rocks, to chonk, to roots and ruts, to grav, to gravellé then grav grav, then unpaved, then roads, then grav grav grav, then sand, where the addition of extra grav denotes decreasing particle size—more gravs per square inch perhaps—then Girona gravel sits in the spectrum of grav to chonk. It’s just worn-away, hard-packed soil with rocks and broken-up bricks and chunks in it.
Each climb offered a little respite from the brutal hammering of each descent; what started out as a reasonably relaxed ride with my friends in the sunshine started to feel like a bit of the kind of suffering real cyclists seem to fetishize. Most of the calorific consumption of the ride seemed to be happening in my hands, as I clamped onto the bars, clinging on for dear life at 60 kph down deliciously swoopy, sheltered descents on dusty tracks hitting the odd big lump that would cause a snakebite, followed by a rest stop to patch up the tire. In just one day I used a Dynaplug mega pill and a Racer Pro’s worth of plugs, most of which were in the front tire.
I’d set off fairly near the front after the rest stop, so each time I stopped, I’d get caught by another group of riders, and ride with them until either I flatted or just needed a little break from the pounding of chonky grav on what was pretty much a road bike. I’m glad I took a musette with two Dynaplug kits, a Daysaver tool, a Silca Gravelero mini pump, and a slab of cheese and membrillo-flavored chocolate against all advice.
“You don’t want to be carrying those with you, it’s just extra weight, there’s food at the rest stops, and if you get a flat someone else will have a pump.” Right.
Girona is a watts-per-kilo kind of town, that’s about long, hard, fast rides. Tourists and guiris are at very different levels of fitness, so as a tourist, I wasn’t looking for Strava segments, just a nice time. It’s macho in that way, which is perhaps more ubiquitous culturally in the broader realm of cycling than in my weird little corner of the cycling world, so I took the weight weenerism with a pinch of salt.
There was nothing wrong with the top-secret all-road bike, it was probably quite a nice bike, but I started to understand the term “all road” differently; like a bike that should be ridden “all on road” and never not on all roads. The terrain was becoming increasingly challenging, and muscles I didn’t know my hands even had were beginning to hurt. I desperately wished for an “all off-road” bike. I wished I was on the GR3 Supernaught, surfing the chonk like it was nothing with Alex and Sarah on their Argonauts. Instead, I limped along like a hedge fund manager in a Lamborghini, scraping its exhausts over speed bumps in London traffic.
I leaned into the absurdity and decided to give up on any aspirations of catching anyone, and just enjoy being in nature surrounded by picturesque hills. My stops to look at the flora and fauna became increasingly frequent until riders began catching me up. I was so sure I was at the very back, where no one could see me suffering on such a fancy bike.
With perhaps 20 km left to the rest stop, I’d run out of food and water like an amateur. The views were becoming increasingly postcard-worthy, I could imagine the scenery printed 4×5” on gloss postcards, psychedelically saturated on a little wire rack for sale outside an off-license alongside beach mats and plastic spades. If I were riding the GR3 I wouldn’t have given the camera a second thought, but my palms were beginning to blister and my bum felt bruised, so I relished the distraction. Martin from Czech brand Repete appeared from nowhere and caught me squatting awkwardly in full postcard mode.
He seemed equally weary from underbiking the chonk, so after snapping a couple of images of him with his Repete All Road bike covered in Czech trailhead signs, we rode together to the next rest stop. Mostly we discussed how we each made our decision to ride bikes which were designed for “all road” and “no gravel” on all gravel with some chonk. The fact that I’d intended to ditch him for a car ride home at the rest stop didn’t come up until we had reached the rest stop. We ate a donut and cracked open an alcohol-free beer, which were the only snacks left by the time we arrived. I tried to broach the subject with diplomacy, however to my utter horror, the goalposts had shifted by 50 km, as there was no room in the car for me. I rage ate a second donut and chugged a second beer before refiling my water bottles and continuing the ride with Martin.
The route crossed a dam before winding its way along the river into suburbia and back into town. As the sun slid slowly down the sky, it illuminated golden hills, resting peacefully on top of blue shadows that bled into the winding river. The number of medieval stone bridges—now crumbling ruins—indicated the route would have been, at some point, important to someone. The ruins of crumbling churches, towers, and agricultural buildings became almost indistinguishable from the crumbling towers of rock that also littered the banks.
The river we followed down valley was clearly a diminished version of its former self; its prime, this surely would have been a ferocious torrent, but had been tempered with age and drought, to become a serpentine verdigris flow, placidly slithering between the hills. There had been a lot of talk of drought in the area, with only a few days of rainfall all year that had been unable to soak the parched earth before evaporating in the beating sun. Rings lined the reservoir representing past year’s waterlines, each year a little lower as the climate changed and less rain made its way into the river.
About 30 km later—once the donuts had worn off but the hope of an end to the perennial pounding had yet to set in—we stopped just outside of Girona at a normal bar, full of normal people watching sports, disgusted by our foreignness and our bikes, for a Pepsi, before the long but fast road descent into the town. Weaving through the urban sprawl we eventually made it back to TSC’s lush green courtyard for music, pizza, and bottles of ice-cold Vichy Catalan. The Epic route had been epic; the terrain, the scenery, the time spent, the people, the fact that it was not “all road” and how beaten up I felt from the gravel descents. It was the perfect warm-up for the Correfoc.
I suited up in old black clothes that I didn’t mind burning holes in, screwed a skylight onto my lenses, and brought a flash along. But even the Correfoc felt different this year. The square at the start was full, but half of the crowd seemed to be pro cyclists in their 20’s wearing Oakleys, and various team issue off-the-bike hoodies and jackets crackling with eager anticipation. Alongside these apparent guiris were teenagers wearing baggy protective devil costumes, who all seemed to be wielding broom handles, with a nail hammered into one end, loosely holding a crocodile clip so that it could spin, in turn holding a firework ready to be lit. The lights in the square went out, the drummers began their slow beating, building up faster and faster to a sudden stop.
The crowd’s cheers were followed in short order by the cracking of bangers and the shrill screams of fireworks. The scrabbling chaos in the square began to drain into the cramped medieval streets as the crowd, sandwiched between two marching bands, was chased through the town with rockets and Catherine wheels, under cascades of Roman candles towards the cathedral. I fought my way to the front and stayed for the most part with the drummers leading the procession like an army of pied pipers stealing Girona’s cyclists for having benefited from the landscape without paying respect to the culture.
The Correfoc has a theme each year beyond devils and fire: this year it was the circus, although that wasn’t immediately evident beyond the circusy psytrance the cathedral DJ was spinning, and the pantomime kidnapping of a girl who was transformed into a firework-wielding devil. There was a pause in the music during which a giant Palestinian flag was dropped from the top of a building to show the organizer’s support of the Palestinian people before bedlam was resumed with the ignition of various wheeled-welded structures covered in fireworks and fiberglass soaked in petrol.
I could feel something warm behind me as I ducked out of the way of half a wild boar that had been somehow combined with a wheelbarrow and a bicycle that was on fire. The warmth turned to heat and then to pain. I turned thinking someone had just let off a firework behind me, and while that was probably the case, I was definitely behind the curve. Flames were flickering up from the seat of my trousers which were now on fire. I patted out the flames but a three-inch hole had been burned into my trousers, with a marginally smaller hole burned into my underwear and then a marginally smaller hole burned into my skin. I knew then that I wouldn’t be riding the next day.
The Girodeo is also a bike show of sorts, with The Service Course having partnered with a handful of incredible builders to build their fleet of dream rental bikes, so I spent the whole of the next day shooting bikes (part two coming soon) and hanging out with the shop staff who each deserve a story to themselves. That evening, I caught up with Peter again for dinner at El Foment. A traditional Catalan taverna in the heart of the town, El Foment is owned by a developer who created (and continues to run) a community center funded by the profit of the restaurant, that offers programs like traditional Catalan folk dance for adults and children, as well as hosting Catalan folk music concerts and a load of other music-related activities for families with infants.
Peter asked me what I’d write about this year, because I’d seen everything last year. It was the first time I’d had a sounding board off of which to bounce my impression that perhaps the town was changing at a fairly alarming rate. I don’t know why that idea made me nervous but saying it out loud helped, and Peter agreed. There was an undertone of bitterness that hadn’t been there before between the locals and the guiris. Before it seemed like there was a strong expat community living in Girona, whereas this year, it all suddenly felt too much; like rather than embracing and celebrating Catalan culture, the local culture was being replaced by expat internationalism. There was the uncomfortable veil of Anglo-American pseudo-culture, like an airport boarding terminal, or a theme park where fiberglass facsimiles of culture are omnipresent, but there’s just no ghost in the shell.
“Even El Cafe has become a guiri bar. When I used to go there a few years ago when I moved here, it would just be me sitting in the corner quietly eating beans and looking around at all the civil servants and workers coming in to have a beer after work. You go in there now and it’s a guiri bar. It’s completely unrecognizable. There’s nothing left, it’s just full of guiris. I’ve been here for eight years but I’m still a guiri.” Peter told me.
“But I don’t want that. I moved here because it was a great town and of course the cycling but honestly there’s great cycling all over Europe. I also loved the food and the people. I moved here because I wanted to be in Girona, but now the cycling and the tourism have become so much that the whole town is unrecognizable. You know the local government had to put a cap on the number of Airbnbs—now 15% of the housing in Girona is Airbnb—so obviously that drives the rents and the house prices up, and the cost of living here has gone through the roof. You go a couple of towns out and you’ll see. They’re just ordinary towns, but of course, the riding is exactly the same.”
Girona is weird to me because I don’t know pro cycling, although the GiRodeo is a highlight of my year. The riding is incredible, as are the people and the cycling culture. It’s a great vibe and makes me wish I was part of that world. What TSC does in Girona is part of that; they cater to a watts-per-kilo local culture of super fit, pro-level nerdthusiasts like a normal bike shop would for normal customers. Cleaning and servicing bikes, selling parts and accessories, etc., but just at an insanely high level for high-level, serious cyclists.
Their rental fleet and events, and brands that they partner with like ENVE and Argonaut, but also Belle, Rizzo, Repete, CeramicSpeed, and more are all a notch above what you’d expect from even a high-end bike shop. All the staff are pro or ex-pro or near-pro level riders, who are incredibly dedicated to offering pro-peloton “Service Course” like service, above and beyond reasonable expectations, so for me TSC makes a lot of sense in Girona. It fits Girona as a cycling destination’s ideals and is in itself a destination.
TSC isn’t what frustrates the locals about cycle tourism in the area though. The tipping point over the last year has been the seemingly endless supply of tour operators opening up the local routes to ordinary, or even inexperienced cyclists, on mid-range e-gravel or e-mountain bikes, which in itself isn’t even problematic. The tourism infrastructure of mid-range hotels, slightly gourmet burger restaurants, moderately bougie cafes, pubby bars, and ok cycling apparel shops just don’t make any sense.
They erode Girona’s identity both in Catalan culture and also as a hotspot for serious cycling in Europe. Beyond that, they trade on Girona’s reputation for great cycling to offer good cycling to a crowd that could have a better time doing good cycling in a lot of places in Europe. Girona is a special place, and I do believe the expat cycling community can benefit the local culture, but increasingly expat business owners need to be mindful about whether they’re contributing to the local community or exploiting it.