Moments of movement / Girona bike-packing

‘I consider these to be Mediterranean bikes. Rooted in the soil and culture of this beautiful region where I ride. Combining a sense of movement through a changing landscape with a timelessness that nature represents.’

These words, spoken by Clementina Bicycles founder Pau Tena, are the reason I’m being met outside the arrivals hall of Girona Airport. Accompanied by photographer friend Ian Walton, we’ve planned a 4 day bike-packing trip to the north of the city and Pau is here to hand over a couple of newly-built bikes that he’s transported from his Barcelona workshop.

Although we’ve been regularly messaging since the idea for our trip was first mooted, this is the first time I’ve met Pau in person. Calm and measured in conversation, initial impressions suggest an individual with considered views on his craft; his passion for this region of Spain abundantly clear and translating into the custom frames that we’re fortunate enough to be riding.

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Both constructed from steel – Ian’s ride differing slightly in having a carbon fibre down tube – what’s first apparent is the flawless paintwork. One a deep, lustrous black with the Clementina brand name and a stylised crow’s eye picked out in gold. The other referencing blossom, fruit and wildflowers in the coloured dots that adorn the frame and fork; all set against a blue fade of the Mediterranean sky. Arranged – as Pau describes it – in their natural order.

With introductions out of the way, Pau kindly drops us off at our hotel where we complete a final kit check before finding somewhere to eat dinner and discuss our first day’s ride. Taking us north towards Camprodon and the foothills of the Pyrenees, our trip is loosely based on the Pirinexus 360; a circular route that crosses into France before looping back along the Costa Brava coastline. For the hardiest of riders this can be completed in a single day but we’ve decided on a more leisurely pace to allow us time to stop and enjoy the spectacular scenery.

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Waking to the promised leaden skies – we’ve tried a number of different weather apps yet none are offering much hope of bright sunshine – with our bikes loaded we head westwards out of Girona along the Via Verde. A greenway of compacted gravel that follows the original path of the Girona – Olot railway, this offers a quiet and car-free route out of the city centre that criss-crosses a patchwork of allotments and tree plantations. There’s a distinct feeling of spring in the air with blossom petals covering the track and birdsong softening the crunch of our tyres. Even the sun decides to make an appearance; prompting us to remove a layer next to grazing cattle far more interested in their morning feed than Ian’s exhortations to look towards his camera.

Staying close to the River Ter, we pass the towns of Bonmatí and Anglès before a steeper ramp rises into woodland; sheep and goats momentarily blocking our path until the shepherd and his dogs move the straggling flock further up the hillside. The collar bells of the grazing animals echoing across the valley until we crest the top of this first short climb and all is once again quiet.

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At Amer the origins of this gravel trail are evident in the disused platform, station house and engine sheds; the latter now roofless with a covering of ivy and tree saplings taking root in the crumbling brickwork as nature gradually reclaims the man-made structures. As we take a moment to photograph the scene, an elderly gentleman approaches; introducing himself and questioning where we’re heading. One hand pointing north, Ian explains our route before asking the gentleman for his own thoughts on the day’s weather. Even with my limited Spanish I can understand the shrug of the shoulders with a nod towards the darkening sky.

Sure enough we feel the first spots of rain after pausing to fill our bidons at the natural spring adjacent to the Fonter bottling plant. Fortunately arriving later than forecast, the weather gods are feeling benevolent and we arrive in Olot only slightly damp but with one eye on the nearby mountains now disappearing from view as the cloud thickens. Deciding to abandon our lunch plans – refreshment now entails a shared bag of salted crisps and a Coke – we push on in the knowledge that the Coll de Coubet lies between us and our first overnight stop in Camprodon.

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At a little over 10 km in length we begin to climb almost immediately after leaving the outskirts of Olot. Never too steep – averaging 5% – the road takes us up through wooded slopes offering breathtaking views to the valley below and cloud-shrouded mountains to the north and west. With our bikes’ unladen weight of 7.5 kg and the uniformly smooth surface, the kilometres pass easily; the number of vehicles countable on the fingers of one hand. Reaching the plateaued top we descend rapidly; rolling up outside our hotel as the clouds finally burst and the rain pours down. With a knowing look passing between us, we unpack the bikes and roll them into the basement garage before minutes later settling comfortably into our room with the radiators turned to max and our shoes drying.

The evening passes enjoyably in the company of Lucas; Camprodon resident and friend of Ian’s. Our only concern as we sit in a restaurant eating dinner being the increasingly sizeable snow flakes mixed in with the falling rain and the thought that we’ll be climbing to 1,500 m the following day. And sure enough, morning sees us pulling back our room’s curtains to discover clear skies but a few centimetres of snow covering the town’s roof tiles.

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Retrieving the Clementinas from their overnight storage – a week earlier the garage was full of police motorbikes supporting La Volta a Catalunya – each now wears a reddish coat of sand and grit from the previous day’s gravel trails. A quick stop at a supermarket for ride provisions – the town is gradually waking to the sound of church bells and the scrape of snow being removed from car windscreens – and almost immediately we find ourselves climbing the Col d’Ares which will take us up and over the border into France.

The overnight snow has settled along the tops of the road’s guard rails and the trees on the wooded slopes are each coated in a silvery layer that glitters when it catches the morning sun. It’s cold but not unpleasantly so and the climb helps to warm our hands as we follow the steadily rising contours. Only in the shadows is the road surface icy but the absence of traffic means we can pick our own path.

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Passing mountain villages and stone-built farm buildings we continue to rise; each bend in the road revealing a new vista with the tops of Pyrenean peaks stretching away into the distance. And again the sound of bells; this time from cattle, their breath condensing into clouds as they feed. Higher still a large bird of prey glides effortlessly on the thermals; the markings on the underside of its wings offering a contrast against the blue of the sky.

As the road finally flattens there’s little to delineate the border save a thick black line on our navigational devices and the signs changing from Spanish to French. We park our bikes in a snowbank before adding extra layers of clothing to combat the expected chill of the descent. With the road disappearing downhill into the northern lee of the mountain we’re in the shade for longer stretches and both of us are struggling to brake with cold fingers.

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Entering the town of Prats-de-Mollo-la-Preste we immediately head to the nearest café; warming our hands on our coffee cups before continuing down the valley with the river at our sides. A steady gradient and the road’s sweeping curves make the descent a delight and the kilometres pass swiftly. Arriving at Céret we’re greeted by tree-lined streets with open channels on either side; each flowing with crystal clear melt water from the nearby mountains and adding a musical counterpoint to the sound of conversation from the pavement cafés.

With historical links to the art world, after storing our bikes and freshening up we decide to take a walk through the town. Quiet passageways radiate from the fortified centre; roadside reproductions of paintings depicting a particular viewpoint adding another interesting element to an already pleasant environment. An enjoyable interlude at the halfway point in our trip before we wake to another cold but sunny morning and prepare to cross the border once again.

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Re-entering Spain at La Jonquera offers a very different experience to our previous crossing and is the only time in our trip where the number of vehicles on the road feels a little oppressive. Ian in particular dislikes the frontier feel to the sprawl of urbanisation but brightens up immediately when our route takes us on a rocky trail away from these busy roads. Here our Clementinas again prove their versatility as they climb and descend the loose surfaces with an easy confidence before we reach a sinuous stretch of road that twists and turns towards the sea between dry-stone walls and groves of olive trees. 

As the day warms and the terrain flattens, our route alternates between gravel farm tracks and quiet country roads edged with wild flowers. The fertile soil of freshly ploughed fields is a rich, dark brown and the hills that ring the coastal town of l’Escala gradually grow on the horizon.

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Reaching the middle distance of this third day the wind begins to build and we each take a turn on the front. Passing the small working town of Sant Pere Pescador our thoughts turn to lunch and we decide to stop earlier than planned before pulling up outside a bar advertising a daily menu. Sitting at our window table we notice passers-by hunched over and leaning into the wind; promising some tough kilometres ahead but not until we pay due attention to our meal. Homemade soup, a meat course and dessert followed by coffee and it’s time to settle the bill and continue our ride.

The rest of the day is a war of attrition with the wind sapping our strength as we each take turns sheltering the other. The road signs count down the kilometres until we finally reach the outskirts of Palamos; approaching the town down another section of the Via Verde before arriving at the hotel and the promise of a hot shower. A wonderfully fresh Thai meal is followed by a peaceful evening in the hotel lounge. A converted farmhouse, the well-stocked library offers a choice of reading material as Fuji, the resident cat, takes turns to warm our laps.

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After waking during the night to the sound of heavy rainfall our final day dawns with the promise of clear skies and sunshine. Still feeling the morning chill as we ride across the seafront, the wind is blustery but should be behind us when we turn westwards towards Girona. Sunlight reflects off a sapphire blue sea as workmen busy themselves erecting the beachfront café bars in preparation for the start of the season. Our morning ritual of a supermarket shop complete, we ride inland on a gravel path; a short 50 km stretch through a mixture of farmland and forest that takes us first towards the towns of Llagostera and Quart before we reach the outskirts of Girona. Two friends – down for a week’s riding – our welcoming party as we lean our Clementinas against a wall and mark the occasion with a beer.

Journey complete and with time to reflect, highlights of the trip include the people we’ve met on the roadside and in the towns where we’ve stayed. Whether offering advice on locating the nearest fountain or strangers leaving the bar where we’re eating wishing us a casual bon profit; everyone has been friendly and happy to help. The landscapes too – from the mountains to the flat coastal plains and rolling wooded hillsides – have been as varied as they are stunning. Towns and villages rich in history yet still home to real communities where neighbours gather in tree-lined squares to pass the time of day. Our Clementina bikes have also been a revelation; light, responsive and taking all manner of surfaces and terrain in their sure-footed stride. What better confirmation of their quality than the daily excitement at loading up our packs before riding off on the next section of the route? Above all, however, this has been a trip made by two friends. Sharing the road with time to enjoy the beautiful scenery, conversations over dinner and quiet efforts climbing mountain roads. Appreciating – as Pau sees it – those moments of movement through a changing landscape. Decisions reduced to the turn of a pedal.

 

We owe Pau Tena of Clementina Bicycles a huge debt of thanks for making this trip possible. His bikes were never less than a joy to ride whether on gravel trails or climbing Pyrenean peaks.

To Far Ride Magazine for first publishing the story.

To Rapha for their excellent Explore clothing and luggage.

To Parcours for the wheels on my Clementina. Lightweight and beautifully understated; they smoothed away the kilometres.

To Lucas for his generous hospitality as the rain poured down.

And lastly to Ian – my bike-packing mentor – who took the vast majority of these images. I learnt and laughed in equal measures.

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