It’s twenty-five minutes past six on the 1st Sunday of May. There’s no one but dog walkers and I on a foggy greenway that runs towards the Catalan city of Girona. Last night I slept early and I slept often – at one stage I was staring at the clock as it rolled over to 03:12. Still, I’m in a decent enough condition after a decent if unglamourous breakfast – perched in the Airbnb’s bathroom playing Wordle, why my family sleeps in the studio outside.
Half an hour later I’m alone in the centre of Girona. The only sound is the squawking of seagulls above the River Onyar. I pass the mediaeval barri vell, zig-zagging through streets and roundabouts, through Parc de la Devesa and over another river, the Ter, to a convergence of hundreds of cyclists converging on a great green expanse beside a sports centre, the Pavelló Girona-Fontajau. Fist bumping, tuning bikes, queuing for coffee, gossiping. Calming the nerves.
We’re here for The Traka. Or rather the little Traka – the shortest in a series of three gravel cycling events – 360km, 200km and 100km, held in the northeastern corner of Catalonia, run by an organisation called Klassmark. The long version started on Saturday morning, and the leaders finished after 13 hours. Considering that entrants had 36 hours to finish, some of them must have been still out there on Sunday morning. The 200km version left this morning, ahead of us sluggabeds. I would have envied the terrain of the 360km route around Cap de Creus, had I not ridden there myself a few weeks back.
I say events, because Klassmark does not quite call it a race – though there’s clearly winners of each event – but they are all open to anyone who wants to enter. Events like the Traka are gran fondos in the road cycling community, or like marathons for runners – race hard if you want, but just taking part and finishing is an achievement in itself.
Professional road racers line up beside bikepackers, weekend warriors and MTB converts. There’s the likes of Australian pro Lachlan Morton (who famously rode all of the Tour de France last year including the transfers between stages, as a fundraiser for World Bicycle Relief), former Irish road race champion and professional Olivia Dill, offroad star Virginia Cancellieri and Australian FDJ rider Brodie Mai Chapman and former men’s Worldtour names like Laurens ten Dam, Brent Bookwalter and Joan Antonio Flecha, and other riders – legends who not known outside the gravel or ultra cycling world, like women’s winner of the 360km Marion Dziwnik or the men’s victor Mattia de Marchi, or Team Amani from East Africa.
Then there’s the likes of me, who raced as a 2nd category rider two decades ago and has, amongst my palmarès the honour of having won a small roll of green carpet in an uphill sprint in Robinstown, Co. Meath, Ireland.
There’s people riding The Traka who’ve never turned a pedal in anger, or drafted in a peloton, but who love riding their bikes and relish a challenge. Gravel events like this garner no snobbery or bad attitude, they’re an inclusive affair, young, old, female and male. Unlike in a race, I didn’t hear a bad word between two riders, even when mistakes were made. Only laughter, smiles, encouragement and apologies. That said, I wasn’t at the pointy end of any of the three events.
It’s been two decades since I’ve pinned on a race number. In my teens, and my twenties, I belted around the roads of Ireland and would spend weekends off road in the Wicklow mountains.
Later, living in Belgium, I was a weekend warrior, belting over the muddy pavé. I did a few big sportifs there, the Tour of Flanders, and a couple of 150km spins in the Ardennes. But that was all on the road, all before becoming a parent, and long before getting closer to having spent a half century on planet Earth.
I’ve been riding gravel for a couple of years now – and before I had a gravel bike, I knew it would be my natural environment – even back in Ireland, some of my favourite rides were off road fire road climbs with switchbacks. Thanks to my switch to gravel, my road bike has been hanging forlornly on the wall for a while now, giving my hangdog looks every time I pass it.
But before yesterday, I hadn’t ridden more than 100km on any kind of bike in about several years. And 100km off road is harder and slower than riding on the road. I’d never ridden more than 50km on my gravel bike, and the only time I have was at the Sa Costa Brava event held by Klassmark in nearby Palamos last October, which also included the flattest, fastest route I’ve been on since Belgium.
But while I do weekly two-hour gravel rides of about 35km, with up to 1000m of climbing, the Traka was going to be something different. I’ve ridden my bike twice since Easter. That’s enough, right?
“What’s our plan here… survive?” I asked Andrew, an American, Barcelona-based rider, as we lined in the starting straight. “Survive”, he confirmed.
And we were off, riding through the outskirts of Girona and onto narrow country roads. The 250 rider peloton strung out and snapped into fragments. I could see Andrew dancing on the climbs ahead of me, and I tried to make up some ground, but after we left the tarmacI never saw him again. The pace was high, but I guess only as hard as any individual wanted it to be. I could ease off any time. After all, it wasn’t a race, was it?
Up and down, along wet gravel roads. It was fast, until we hit a couple of steep, steep climbs. I can’t really remember when, or in what order – those first few kilometres are a blur. But one of those climbs had an incline of 15% or more.
Klassmark put hills in like this at the start to break up the groups and make the subsequent kilometres safer and more tranquil. That’s the theory, at least. I’m usually pretty handy at scooting up steep hills, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t happening for me this morning, and I, and like many others, just got off and walked up. At some point, before or after that wall, there was mud. Lots of mud. Around a bomb crater of water, surrounded by sloppy sticky mud that had already been kneaded into a fine polenta by a couple of hundred knobbly tyres.
Catalonia is gravel heaven, with hundreds, maybe thousands of kilometres of unpaved roads criss-crossing the landscape. Most rides here don’t involve a lot of mud. Even after a night of rain, one of my weekly rides in Parc Collserola (near Barcelona) will only mean, at most, a light bike rinse.
But north of Girona there’s an area that’s very green and agricultural, with dark humus soil that’s more like the land in countries farther north. And when it rains, as it did on Saturday… It’s a quagmire. Riders were walking, carrying, skating with their bikes to get around deep pools of water, then slaloming and swishing down sludgy descents. Off we went again up and down, chasing wheels. Several times I had to stop to find a stick to clear mud clots out of my shoe cleats. Note: never put your foot on the ground unless you have to.
The Traka route is not signposted. Where the route crosses paved roads, there’s stewards present, otherwise, it’s just you and the panicked beeping of your GPS, or putting your trust in the navigators ahead of you. As the sun rose in the sky, we splintered into ever smaller groups. There was one bunch of seven or eight guys in blue team kit who seemed to be constantly overshooting the turn offs – they would overtake at speed, then I would see them coming from a side road only to pass me again.
Eventually we emerged from the mud and steep hills and the tunnels of oak trees with a view of morning mist over green fields and hills, somewhere near Sant Martí de la Mota. It was my first moment to pause and think “wow, this is beautiful!
Then down onto the pan-flat plains of Emporda. Under the AP-7/E-15 motorway and through kilometres of mucky trails through deciduous plantation forest. I artfully managed to avoid falling in a river after the rider in front of me relinquished traction on a muddy bank.
After miles of muck and puddles, we emerged into open fields and dry gravel. The route followed the River Ter towards the Mediterranean Sea, towards the villages of Colomers and Verges. At some point I rode off ahead of a group I was in, and spent a few kilometres on my own, enjoying the flat open trails.
After a while they caught me again and I sat on the back, trying to avoid the mud flying up from their wheels while staying in contact. Can’t let a wheel go… it’s just not right. Then they dropped me, or I dropped some people, then those guys who kept getting lost passed me for the 19th time.
As the coast grew clearer, the land dried out. By the time the first official photographs were made by Klassmark photographers – with, I think the town of Colomers as a backdrop, we were on that pure Catalan gravel, and the mud-spattering was over. At 47km, just outside Verges, we crossed the line at the first digital checkpoint and rest stop. According to the results, I was in 98th position then. I assumed I was about 298th, and didn’t want to get left behind. I ate some orange segments, filled my bottle, stuffed some bananas in my pockets and was off again through a grassy field and over a little metal bridge. The sudden stony mountains of the Montgrí Massif loomed ahead, as a group that had passed me on the previous caught me again and passed me yet again. I hung on. A tall Dutch woman, Geertje Schreurs (#562), was sitting on the front, along and for the kilometres I hung on for, she continued to drill on the front. There’s a photo taken at some stage, with me hanging off the back off that group, beside #655, Jesus Lobo de Pozo and behind #719, Kat Stene.
I was reasonably comfortable at 32-34kmph, but really it was unglamorous – I was mostly yo-yoying off the back of a line out driven by people two decades younger than me, and many times as fit. But it was fun, and the group riding instincts came back in some form of ill-advised muscle memory. This section might have been on flat gravel roads, but this was also like road racing with aerodynamics and drafting and tactical cornering, just with more potholes and fatter tyres.
We arrived through orchards to the nearly-coastal town Torroella de Montgrí, heading southeast, then over the River Ter again and flipped around, setting a course Southwest onto yet more pure Baix Emporda flatland gravel. Around the village of Gualta I started falling off the back of the group. I kept them in sight all the way to about 68km – almost to La Bisbal, then decided to chill rather than risk blowing some fuses.
I and another guy sat up, dropped our speed and ate and drank. Then I was on my own, after he stopped to help a friend with a flat tyre. As I reached the outskirts of Corçà, I made a momentary wrong turn that saw another group get ahead of me, but only for a few seconds as they kept messing up their own navigation as we lined out onto weaving singletrack alongside the dry riverbed of the Riu Rissec.
Then a whole bunch of them turned left, and some went straight and confusion reigned with people stopping and studying their computers. Turns out that the 200km Traka had rejoined the 100km route some kilometres back and the left turn here was where it branched off again. Follow the wrong wheel and you might have a few extra hours on the bike.
I was with a couple of other riders as we skirted the mediaeval village of Monells. The flatland was now behind us, and rolling farmland started turning into forested foothills. I stopped to make a photo on the track to Sant Sadurní de l’Heura, just as a woman stormed past me on a mountain bike, yelling an extortion to “keep going”.
A rider overtook me on the way into the village, then he sailed past the next turn and I ended up yelling at him until he turned around. We now left the farmland behind and the track rose up into the forested hills of the Gironès. My GPS told me I’d done about 600m of climbing, so half the hills done… really? Riders came and passed me. I was fine, just not fast. Steady.
Then, true to Traka form, a steep ramp appeared. Komoot tells me it was 20% – Strava recorded 36.5%, which seems improbable.
I walked up, resigned to my fate. I wasn’t the only one. Halfway up an ambitious individual came past at speed, spun his back tyre on a rock and fell off, still clipped in. I lifted his bike off him, helped him out of the bushes and sent him on his way. I took a moment to turn and take in the view of the coast and the Medes Islands and resolved to relax and remember to enjoy myself.
After the top, I got passed by a dude on a mission, and I followed him down a trail straight dead ahead, instead of a descent to the left. After 100 metres, my GPS started having conniptions – and the dozen u-turn marks of gravel tyres confirmed our mistake. But the dude was long gone. As I came back towards the junction, I could see someone in a colourful jersey – I waved him towards the downhill. It was Amadeo, who I had started next to in October’s Sa Costa Brava. He vanished downwards and I followed him really a pretty sketchy, broken descent that could have been a bit dangerous for inexperienced riders.
On this next climb, my energy started coming back, and I repeated an unimaginative mantra: “one foot in front of the other”, as I cranked the 1×1 gear around. The 2nd rest stop at 85km, Montnegre, appeared at the top of a hill. I got off my bike and went and sat on a rock in the shade to zone out and get myself together. Amadeo was still there, and in great form, and while he headed off, I hung around and ate, drank, refilled my bottles, and took off again. Somewhere along the way I had slipped to 143rd, though I didn’t know this at the time, and if I wouldn’t really have minded. In fact I would have been surprised that I wasn’t almost last. Andrew, who I hadn’t seen since about 0735 was a full 30 minutes ahead by now.
Now we were back on tarmac again, as we passed through an idyllic cork oak forest. The legs were good, the head was clear and I felt I could cruise it all the way to the finish. The weather was great, and the splendour of the valley to the left opened out as I climbed. I topped a col and started descending, a thousand metres of altitude on the clock. I waved and shouted “bon dia!” to a trio of donkeys.
Then, two people appeared on the side of the road. Wait, what? It was my wife Nathalie and my son Killian. I didn’t expect this at all, and I was overjoyed to see them. Killian, who is six, kept telling me “papa, you’re very dirty!”
I waved goodbye and was off down the hill again, elated and daydreaming. So much so that I was puzzled by complaints bleating from my GPS. I had missed a turn off the tarmac that would have taken me back onto gravel. I had to climb back up 100 metres of road. Andrew reportedly missed the same turn and had to climb back a few kilometres and a couple of hundred metres of altitude, so I count myself lucky.
The route had been advertised as being 1246m of climbing, but there was a long way to go. I was soon descending, and I knew there were at least two climbs to go. As I came around a corner behind half a dozen riders there was shouting and braking. Discussions over whether we had missed a turn off. Another ten riders appeared. We climbed back up to a corner. Really, down this singletrack? Didn’t seem to make sense. We all decided to go the “wrong” way, and descended again, computers beeping until we met a junction which put us on the right track and the only sound was the changing of gears. As we climbed up through dry oak and pine forest, I felt like I was back in my element again, and got up to the first three or four riders. We emerged onto another tarmac road – La pujada als Àngels, a favourite climb for local roadies.
There were only four or five of us left in this group. A few of them dropped me and soon I was on my own again. After 2km, it was back to gravel and descending all the way towards Girona. I spotted a rider close to catching me a few times, but from now until almost the end, I was on my own.
Cutting through the lanes and trails in the Valley of Sant Daniel, you’d be forgiven for thinking it all over – a turn left would have brought me into Girona’s old town in five minutes. But no, lots of small, steep climbs, before the final drag to the top of Girona. I wasn’t fast, but I didn’t feel particularly tired, and I really enjoyed every minute since that stop at Montegre.
As the trail switched left and the long drag up to the top of Montjuïc, I was fearing some steep stuff – but the east side of this suburban hill is a lot less fierce than the climb from the city side. As I entered residential neighbourhoods, I saw a rider in yellow ahead of me. After we dropped into Girona’s Pont Major neighbourhood, I caught him, and we compared notes on our physical states. The last couple of kilometres took us across the River Ter again, and then along it, including a curiously unglamourous section through a half-closed car park gate and through an urban area typical of Catalan cities – not quite lush parkland, not quite derelict urbanisation.
Then a last sprint across the grass and to the finish line, complete with a cacophony of drummers and a welcome from the MC on the microphone. Fist bump with the guy in yellow and then off to find my family. I was 151st to finish, 44th in my age category. 120km of mostly offroad and 1,518 metres of climbing (so where did those 250m sneak in from?) Seven hours since I’d first sat on a bike this morning.
But who cares about numbers? I had a blast. Even the hard bits – like walking up steep hills, and getting dropped – were fun. I discovered new places, new people and all sorts of stuff about myself. The gravel community is great. It’s open, it’s chilled and friendly. There’s a photo from the 360km race showing Lachlan Morton patiently waiting for his opponent, Mattia de Marchi to leave the rest stop and join him so that they could start racing again. That’s the kind of thing I mean – where respect and friendship is more important than being “the best”.
Over the last few days, I’ve seen more stories emerging – rider Liam Yates who wasn’t feeling the 360km version and pulled out. Then, after a few days mulling it over, went back and rode the course on his own. Riders who crashed out, like Amelia Walsh and Canadian ex-pro Christian Meier.
The gravel cycling world has, up until recently, escaped coming under the jurisdiction of the Union Cycliste Internationale – cycling’s global governing body. That’s changing, and there may be fears that the blurred lines of an event like The Traka might become more arbitrary and delineated. I hope that won’t be the case.
No one, with the potential exception of the organisers and sponsors, is here for the money. The 800 riders from 35 countries who showed up for the Traka were here for the challenge and the camaraderie and the beauty of riding, at speed, through delicious countryside.
I hope it stays that way. I don’t want to really race, but don’t expect me to show decorum and cycle 100km of mud and dust in some sanitised calm and orderly, brochure-friendly manner in the name of “leisure” cycling. In the end, we do these crazy things because we’re racing to better know ourselves, and we don’t need officials in blazers to tell us how to do it. The Traka’s founder, Gerard Freixes told RAW;
“If one day we see that one of our races becomes excessively professional, we will only time a few sectors to try to maintain the essence of the adventurous spirit”
Finally, kudos to Klassmark for organising The Traka. They’re a small organisation putting on a big event. Their slogan is “no nature, no future” – and I’ll be interested in seeing how they progress this vision. Freixes clearly has views on limiting impact on the natural environment. As someone who works – full time – on environmental issues, this matters to me.
One could argue that the best way to respect nature is to leave it alone, and avoid riding 800 bicycles across it. However, the lands we pass through on the Traka are not untouched, pristine landscapes – for centuries, they have been used and altered by human endeavour. We should still limit our impact on them – although the influence of industrial farming and mass tourism is likely to have a far greater negative impact than a swarm of buzzing gravel cyclists. That said, I can see why the smaller 360km race can go across the protected landscapes of Cap de Creus, but sending all three races there would be ecologically unfeasible.
Freixes talks about the impact of urbanisation and rural life and farming (see more here on RAW Cycling) – though it’s not clear how the likes of The Traka can help make the situation better. However, although it may be coincidence, between the start/finish line of The Traka and the city of Girona lies the Parc de la Devesa. Over this same weekend, local organic food producers and other eco-businesses held an outdoor fair. Maybe it would be smart, in 2023 to connect the two events? And how about some kids events, with the analog version of GPS tracking – some cycle-orienteering in nature on the Saturday?
Give me a few days to recover and I’d do it again. Catalonia rocks, I love gravel cycling and Catalan gravel is the business.