Unless you’ve been living under a rock, gravel riding and gravel bikes have grown in popularity in recent years.
Part of that popularity is that gravel roads make up a significant amount of the infrastructure of countries such as the USA, where gravel riding heralded from. Here in Europe, countries such as Italy and Spain count gravel roads as key travel routes.
That means they’re ripe for exploring by bike.
Gravel is considered contentious by some. Social media and community groups host friendly debates on whether gravel is mountain biking or road riding corrupted. In countries that have a gravel infrastructure, I can’t see how the debate has much value; you ride a gravel bike on gravel, mountain bike on trails etc etc.
Spain has, according to statista.com, 134,000 kilometres of secondary and gravel roads. On these roads it takes a while to get used to seeing high-quality road signs and homes in the middle of nowhere, on what a Brit would consider a farm access track.
Spain, and Catalonia in particular, are embracing and promoting gravel riding. With November temperatures in the 20s (celsius), little rain, towering climbs and the beautiful Mediterranean Sea, it has everything a big ride needs.
Route choice and GPS
This route was initially shared by Italian gravel and road bike maker 3T, including Komoot GPS files. I took these and adapted them to my own needs via Garmin Connect.
One note of caution: Garmin Connect can do some strange things when editing a route, as I found on day three; next time, I will use Ride With GPS for editing. On the ride, my Garmin Edge guided me, and though there were occasional on-route confusions, it was largely excellent.
I should also have carried a paper back-up but never got around to it. If you are looking for route inspiration, the gravel scene is very generous at route sharing.
Spain, getting there
Northern Spain and Catalonia are easy to travel to.
My ride started and ended in Girona, which is just one hour from Barcelona. Both are served by excellent high-speed rail connections and road networks. Girona airport even has a gravel cycle path, which I used to go from the airport straight into the town centre.
Having driven to the south of France a number of times and due to work in Barcelona, I chose to drive and left the car at Girona airport for the three days for a little over £30. It is worth noting that at the time of writing, inflation in Spain is considerably lower than the UK, and most costs were noticeably less.
Bikes and tyres
Bike hire in Girona is plentiful. For this ride, I used my Genesis Fortitude 29er, a rigid adventure mountain bike equally suited to gravel riding. This was shod with Teravail Rutland gravel tyres that were perfect for the mix of single track, lanes and gravel that my ride included.
Girona and cycling
Girona is a cycling haven. Home to boutique bike shops, cycling-oriented coffee bars and a host of pros. Ride about town, and those wafer-thin pros on XC full suspension rigs or wearing pro-peloton kit wave and say hi, and it’s a reminder of what a friendly sport cycling is.
From Girona, you ride east up into the hills overlooking the town. You quickly gain height and warmth.
The warmth is not restricted to your lycra; joining a mountain road at the summit, I passed a work crew laying the standard of tarmac we can only dream of in England. This was a rich black and billiard table smooth with no silly adverse camber, just pan flat.
Having been waved past by the work crew, I snaked my way down a series of wonderfully fast switchback corners to the valley bottom, where I encountered another work crew. This crew flagged me down.
Feeling the apprehension of a non-native with a pretty poor grasp of only one other language and that being French, I was worried. The crew at the top of the mountain had spotted that my rear bag was open at one end and had radio-called the other crew to let them know. In a strange but happy conversation of Catalan and English, we rectified the open bag.
As a reader of Bikepacking Journal, it was one of those ‘little moments of kindness’ stories that make all trips worthy and heart-warming.
After several more big climbs, my route took a more agricultural feel, traversing farm-land that ranged from apple orchards and duck flocks to traditional arable fields before reaching the sea at L’Estartit and its tranquil turquoise waters, empty beaches and seaside towns. A big climb above the town took me into L’Escala and the end of day one.
I took the soft option, and travelled with only spare clothing and chose to stay in AirBnBs for the two nights of my three-day trip. As this is Catalonia, and depending on the season, there is the full range of accommodation on offer, from hotels of all star ratings, through to camping for the real bike packing experience. Wild-camping is not legal in Spain, according to my research.
Packing-wise, I used two Apidura bags: one on the handlebars and a seat post bag. I’ve used them for a number of trips and recommend the Apidura kit. Easy to install, pack, and most importantly, they feel so much more part of the bike and how you want to ride it in off-road conditions than panniers do.
Banyoles was my destination for day two, as I turned my back on the sea and headed back inland.
This was a harder ride in terms of navigation. Day one had plenty of bike route signage, whilst day two went closer to farms and that nagging feeling that you may not be allowed to be where you find yourself. There was also a lot more private property signs close to the trails and gravel roads.
However, all three of my days were remote, and I hardly saw a person all day, and nobody questioned me or my route choice. When checking my location on the iPhone, I was always impressed by the amount of 4G connectivity rural Catalonia has.
Banyoles and its lake were hosts to the rowing competitions for the 1992 Olympic Games – the games where Chris Boardman and his Lotus bike triggered the beginning of Britain’s bike racing renaissance. The lake is an easy circuit and is dotted with beautiful castle-like lake houses. The town is very outdoors focussed, where hiking, cycling and water sports are central to the economy.
As a Dorking resident, I really did feel at home here – despite my poor language skills (perhaps because of? – Ed!).
Riding in the UK and even France, you take it for granted that there will be a shop or cafe en-route to top-up the carbs.
Don’t make this mistake in Catalonia.
The villages are exquisite in beauty. But as a fan of Patrick McGoohan’s TV show The Prisoner, at times I felt I’d ridden into ‘the village’. These Latin architectural beauties are empty by day.
You ride through like a gravel equivalent to the lone cowboy in a Spaghetti western; other than a few stray cats, not a soul is seen, so shops are rare. On day one, I spotted a petrol station just off the route that was a vital food stop; on day two, I almost missed a village shop that was so small and I several villages were devoid of retail of any sort.
The lesson is – to pack plenty of food each day for your day’s riding as you cannot be sure to discover anything on route. Science in Sport bars and Harribo became my sources of carbs and vitamins!
The Rocacorba is a category one climb (in road cycling terms) that sits between Banyoles and Girona.
Its twisting lanes and radio mast festooned summit are a Mecca for road and road pros. An Israel PremierTech pro slowed to check I was OK and even questioned my sanity in a brief chat as I stopped to route check before heading up a very steep gravel road.
In fact, this was a ‘road’ where being on a mountain bike was a major benefit. The low-down gearing and MTB geometry lend themselves to scrabbling to the top. No doubt, completing the South Downs Way in a day earlier in the year helped too.
The descent off the Rocacorba was also helped by being on a mountain bike; tight single track corners, ravines from rain water and loose surfaces were all passable with a mountain bike riding style.
If big rides in a big country are your thing, then go and explore Catalonia and Spain; this is surely one of Europe’s gravel highlights.