Gravel Culture: Travel Gravel – Girona – The Dirty Hincapie Reach-around Switcheroo
Gravel Union On
2 March 2021
Ah yes, Girona, road cycling capital of the world. The small Catalan city in northeast Spain, one-time home to disgraced former pro-cyclist Lance Armstrong. Why should it appear in the context of gravel? I’ll come to that later.
Now home to dozens of professional road cyclists, Girona was originally selected as a base for pro’ riders when France made doping illegal and the pharmacies of Spain were somewhat more nonchalant about supplying non-prescription meds to healthy, if somewhat skinny, young cyclists!
In time though, the quality of the training roads, the considerate drivers, climate, food, proximity to two airports, less than an hour from France etc, drew more and more cyclists who had less interest in acquiring Pharma. Following the riders came the teams, team staff, mechanics, masseurs, coaches, media and soon a transient bustling sub-society existed who never had to learn much of the language as English was so widely spoken.
Then came a new wave - the middle-aged retired, and nomadic IT workers and remote working students - a population who either didn’t need to work, or could work from anywhere. Any yet, most of them were riding on the road. However, among the local cycling community, mountain biking was the big thing, and still is. Which brings us nicely to gravel…
As with many Mediterranean countries, unpaved rural roads are just “a thing”, and a very beautiful thing at that. There are farm tracks, hunting trails, forestry roads and beautiful houses 10km up dirt roads. The network of routes is beyond belief and it’s there to be enjoyed. Public access is pretty much a done deal and it’s rare to come across a truly private road where a no entry sign is more than just a suggestion. Of course, the term ‘gravel’ is vaguely irrelevant as the variety of surfaces ranges from hard-packed sand, to muddy rocks to smooth singletrack, to fine gravel akin to the driveway to a billionaire’s Tuscan wine estate. We have it all.
Back to Lance and his buddies for a moment. One of the iconic climbs on the edge of town is Els Angels - a 9km ascent through the Gavarres mountain range, no steep pitches and a great descent on the other side. A route was created by Lance’s teammate (and fellow doper) George Hincapie, which is now just universally known as the Hincapie loop – Els Angels, Madremanya, Monells, Sant Sadurni, the climb of Santa Pellaia and then the tasty descent back to Girona. A nice 55km, 850m loop to test the legs and pass a couple of hours.
But given the glorious choice of un-paved routes I decided that an unpaved Hincapie loop was in order, to start in Girona, include Els Angels and Santa Pellaia and obviously take in a great lunch stop. So, the ‘Dirty Hincapie Reach-around Switcheroo’ was created. And here it is in all its glory. Some of it is singletrack, but not super technical, some is fine white gravel (as fine as a Caribbean beach), some is mountain farm track, some is bike path and all of it is delicious. Oddly to ‘hacer hincapié’ in South American Spanish is to emphasize or elevate, and that’s what I hope this route does!
The route I’ve planned starts at the famous stone bridge, Pont de Pedra – which translates as Stone Bridge as it happens. I’m starting though with a quick coffee in Federal Cafe, close to the Cathedral, scene of many scenes of Game of Thrones and actual real stuff, before rolling out of town on a bike path. The Carrilet is a 40km gravel path that leads from the city to the coastal town of Sant Feliu de Guixols - a ride worth doing for a chilled way to get to a long lazy beach lunch in summer.
The Dirty Hincapie turns off the path in Quart and starts the climb into the Gavarres mountains on a good gravel road though dwarf oak and cork trees. Several short sharp ramps bring you out to the main Els Angels road at the restaurant Can Mascort. Here the trail hits a little 2m rocky ramp that needs commitment (or the use of your feet), into a section of singletrack, before meeting the glorious fine gravel track that leads upwards at a very gentle gradient with superb views to the right.
There are a couple of bits where you’ll need to use the road to by-pass some trail sections more suited to MTBs, before reaching the gravel road to Montnegre at 20km in. At this point if you need water, it’s best to rip the 1.2km up the road to the summit café at Els Angels, an opportunity to soak in views across to the Pyrenees on one side and coast on the other.
Back onto the gravel road to Montnegre you can bash out the kms on a great gritty surface, generally descending before 2km of swooping on a tarmac road. A left turn brings you to a short leg-stinging rocky ramp before the long descent towards Monells. This is steep in parts and corners can be loose. So, proceed with care as you whoop with joy. Our route takes a little detour into the village of Sant Sadurni de l’Huera where you can get water bottles refilled and food if you’re fading at El Cafetí de la Concòrdia. Most Catalan villages have public water fountains in playgrounds and village centres. Garden hoses have also been used to fulfil this role.
Now we’re heading for the base of the Santa Pellaia climb - the last one of the regular Hincapie loop, but a sharp left at a group of tall pines 36km in and we’re onto dirt, through a river, and heading high. The 5km climb to restaurant Els Metges is a cracker, meaning it might crack you, but remember there’s food and beer at the end. The restaurant is classic Catalan rural food stop, only dirt road access and busy most days, though closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s probably worth booking at weekends. It’s hard to beat sitting in the sun eating simple tasty local food with a beer or two in hand, among a collection of fellow minded hunters, foresters, chickens, dogs and gangs of tough old guys on eMTBs.
The next section is the global centre for café legs, a ten-minute climb with heavy legs and full bellies. It’s never failed to be hateful, despite the beautiful surroundings. But the climb is worth the descent, just don’t miss the sharp right! A few fun-filled minutes of descending, then climbing, then more descending takes you down among the trees and meadows east of Casa de la Selva, cork capital of the region. If you ever need someone to ‘stick a cork in it’, you’ll get the best cork here, and you may have noticed tree trunks that looks strangely naked of bark up to 1.5m. This is how they harvest the cork, taking enough not to kill the tree, it grows back in 5 years or so, and means that wine doesn’t fall out of bottles.
Our route skirts south of the town and picks up the Carrilet again for the flat blast back to town. Be careful passing walkers and joggers and the herds of airpod-bewildered beasts who can swerve into your path at no notice.
Back at the stone bridge you’ll have covered the soon to be legendary Dirty Hincapie Reach-around Switcheroo, a glorious 68km with 1200m of climbing on some special grit, and hopefully enjoyed a feast and temporary ownership of a cute dog at Els Metges. You’ll also have had more fun than someone on skinny tyres doing the standard Hincapie loop who will have totally missed the chickens, rivers crossings, ‘oh shit’ loose turns and dusty faces. The gravel way certainly ‘hacer hincapié’ the beauty of the region.
Dave Smith is the founder of Grit Girona - the premier off-road guiding company in the cycling capital of the world! A former Olympic coach to world-class mountain bikers and road pros, he spends his days off getting lost on hideous mountain trails so you don’t have to. Grit Girona offers guiding from half day to full week, in addition to skills sessions and rides to swim in rivers with beer.
Dave has generously offered a 10% discount off the price of his half-day and full-day guided gravel tours to Gravel Union members.