Standing on the platform at the Paris railway station Gare de Lyon, the conductor was having none of it. The fact that Voyages-sncf had told me I could bring my bike on the train was irrelevant. My bike was not going on this train. It needed to have its wheels removed, be strapped together and in a bag. My heart sank. All the planning to travel to Girona by train was in pieces. This had not been an issue on Southern trains.
I stared at what I thought was a Pitlock on the front wheel and took out an allen key. One wheel removed, onto the next. The conductor looked at me with such disdain. In a very flat voice she said that my ticket was for the next carriage and the train was leaving in two minutes so I had better go and stand there. I took this as my cue to board the train and in a flash the holiday that seemed cancelled in its tread was back on track.
Several hours later I was in Girona. With my bike. Counting my lucky stars I vowed not to go through that again as next time the conductor might not relent. The first bike shop was proof that there are rubbish bike shops everywhere.
Checking in to The Hotel Ultonia via Bookings.com it was a hotel that clearly ticked all the boxes. It provided a warm welcome, secure storage for the bike, excellent bar menu, spacious and quiet room all in a great location. The only downside was not having tea/coffee facilities in the room. It was an eye-opener as to how inconvenient this was and how the luxury and freedom of being able to make a simple cup of tea in a hotel is something so easily taken for granted.
Studying the map to my next location, the road looked busy and fast. Perhaps I could cycle the return trip but not this one. As I climbed into a taxi it was clear the conversation would be limited. English and French would be great but the Spanish cab driver spoke only his native tongue.
It didn’t stop us from trying to communicate and as we moved out of Girona towards the hills learning how to count from one to ten, accompanied by Hello and Goodbye all of which became part of my new vocabulary. Nothing however prepared me for the news that I had come to the home of the cyclists Go To snack. Not something on my radar (I Quit Sugar) but Girona is where all the Spanish Haribo are made!
As I continued peering out of the window, the majestic and mountainous skyline was breathtaking. Snow on the top, like drizzling double cream over a Sundae under a clear blue sky the sight of the Pyrenees raised my heartbeat.
35 minutes later we reached Hotel Mas Pelegri – a cycling focussed hotel that would be my home for three days. The Adventure Syndicate with whom I had ridden the North Coast 500 were running a training camp and somehow I had managed to secure a place.
Midday in Spain is quiet. No barking dogs, nobody could be seen or heard and as I turned the door handle of the enormous wooden front door I wondered if I was in the right place. Moments later Emily Chappell appeared in front of me. Bingo!
Emily continues to raise the bar in endurance cycling. The first woman to win Transcon last year – a cycling race across Europe that is way beyond me. 3,500 miles from Belgium to Istanbul, unsupported and totally into the unknown – real proof of stamina and how to put the A in adventure.
Along with Lee Craigie who raced in the 2104 Commonwealth Games and several other awesome cyclists they have joined together to inspire women to achieve cycling distances they thought impossible with the Adventure Syndicate.
The hosts arrived with several more of the group from the airport, bags were unpacked and bikes were built. An hour later we went on our first ride that took us to the nearest town for provisions and the opportunity to purchase a supply of cycling snacks.
It was also the moment that Emily explained how important it is to minimise time-wasting when buying food on long rides. The challenge to find the foods that will give you the carbs and sugars you need without giving you a sugar-rush is paramount and to do it in the most time-efficient way without wandering about the Harpic section.
Introductions and conversations continued and as we sat down to dinner that evening we became a group of 22 who had travelled in from all over Europe. Every single one of us had apparently told the organisers that we were unfit and unable to ride very far or fast. We all had our cycling insecurities that diminished minute by minute once we all realised that we were in the same boat and that we were all at least trying to do something about it.
A ginormous breakfast the next day set the scene for a glorious day of cycling. The sky stayed blue, the air was cold and cycling in groups we moved towards the hills. The variety of our cycling ability did not reduce the volume of banter, laughter or mileage one jot. We were put into three groups and moved out through the flatlands surrounded by fields upon fields of recently ploughed mud.
The technique of riding in a group became de rigeur. Moving through the countryside like a bus, taking a rest at the back after pushing harder at the front.
Every so often we stopped at a junction to take a photo or have a snack. At lunch we met with the other groups to compare notes, discuss every single subject under the sun before heading back out under the blue skies.
How the owners of the hotel accommodated our catering requirements was incredible. Vegan, vegetarian, allergies and choices were all incorporated without a glimmer of a problem. The offer of a swim in the pool was taken up by some even if it meant breaking the ice – literally. Something for the summer perhaps..!
Conversations about recovery were frequent. Building core strength through yoga, wearing recovery tights after long rides, drinking milk and using Recovery Calm by muck off which is an amino to rub on legs were all considered. The flow of shared tips, cycling experiences and laughter didn’t stop for the duration.
Three faboulous days later and another cab ride back to Girona followed by a hunt for a much needed bike bag. SNCF was not going to threaten to remove me from the train again – ever.
The Fortress of Girona goes back to the 1st century and exploring it on foot feels like being in a movie as you clip clip clip down steps and through narrow, walled streets as though you are being chased by something which turns out to be your imagination. It is the location for a fantastic cycling discovery. Bikebreaks – the Girona Cycle Centre – where you can hire bikes and everything you need to go cycling. The staff was so helpful that they rang another bike shop to see if they stocked a bike bag which they did.
Walking out of the Old Town, it didn’t surprise me that there was a film crew in action. The nearest cab rank had a line of cabs in it – at the front of which was the cab driver who had given me a lift to Hotel Mas Pelegri three days ago. 82 cab drivers in Girona and there he was!
Cycling in this part of Spain is becoming more and more popular and is definitely worth a visit. The Guardian and Cycling Weekly have both commented on the cycling and Queen of the Mountains are coming here in June.
The next day my journey to the French Pyrenees began. North and South – how different would they be?
Enormous thanks to The Adventure Syndicate, Hotel Mas Pelegri and John Hampshire Coaching as in three days I had proved to myself that training camps aren’t just for the professionals. They are for anyone who wants to push themself surrounded by other likeminded people. They have a team spirit and camaraderie that encapsulate the purpose of The Adventure Syndicate. What a fantastic group of people you are.