Hitting the trails at the Traka

Girona, in Catalunya, is well known for being a road racing mecca, but it also hosts a thriving off-road scene, and one of the biggest gravel events in the world. Rouleur feels the spring sunshine of northern Spain and hits the trails at the Traka

This article was originally published in Rouleur 123: Futurology.

“Paradise” is a word I hear often during my five-day stay in Girona. To be more specific, a “gravel paradise”. Girona, in northern Catalunya, has long been regarded as a road cycling hotspot; professional riders have been living and training here for years, with hundreds making it their base, while us mere mortals have flooded to the historic city to have our slice of cycling in the sunshine and hanging out on its cobbled streets. However, Girona’s reputation as a goldmine for gravel riding has been gaining momentum for some time, too, and in recent years the annual Traka gravel event has fast become a jewel in its crown.

When I was there in late April, the otherwise sleepy city was abuzz as 2,000 people from a multitude of countries readied themselves for their chosen distance. Although the 360 kilometre race is the most well known of the Traka events, there were also 200km, 100km and 50km versions across the weekend. There are some interesting statistical splits: 22 per cent of all entries were for the 360km, while the 200km was the most popular, attracting 40 per cent of the total, and while only 14 per cent of overall riders across the events were female, when you look at the 100km field it jumped to nearly 40 per cent.

“I think at the current stage, the Traka and Unbound are maybe the two most epic gravel rides in the world, where all the best gravel riders come,” says Peter Lange, co-founder of Pas Normal Studios. Although the ultra-hip Danish cycle clothing brand is one of the event sponsors, Lange and his fellow co-founder, Karl-Oskar Olsen, didn’t just want to slap a name on a banner – they wanted to give it a go themselves, too, and signed up to the 200km.

“It’s the first time I’ve challenged myself to go so far in a gravel race and it’s an experience I want to have, so I can understand what our hardcore consumers are experiencing when they try something extreme,” explains Olsen, who’s been running me through their gravel-specific Escapism range on the top floor of boutique bike shop, Velodrom.

“We’ve been gravel riding for a lot of years, but as winter training, not racing,” adds Lange. For both of them, embracing the training and embedding themselves into the scene is a mix of work and play. The growth of the event has been astonishing; in its first edition in 2019 there were only 70 riders registered, while in 2023, the number registered has doubled on the previous year. But it’s not just the numbers, it’s the quality of the field, too: Amity Rockwell and Sarah Sturm – familiar faces from the US gravel scene – are vying for the top women’s spot in the 360km race, while former pro racer turned ultra-endurance rider Mattia de Marchi is here to defend his 360km title. Not to mention that SD Worx riders such as Lorena Wiebes are entered into the 100km race. Rumour has it that there were a few other professional WorldTour-level riders who wanted to join in the pre-season fun but weren’t given free rein.

It’s worth pointing out that the Traka advertises itself as a “non-competitive bicycle ride” and strongly encourages all participants to respect the environment and communities they’re riding through first and foremost. But although the Traka attracts a cluster of top talent, there’s also room for both passionate amateur gravel fans and newcomers to the scene.

Sure, up front in the 100km event I took part in, you had Wiebes smashing it over the dusty red countryside tracks of Girona, but at the party end where I was, one guy grinned as he cycled alongside me and recalled how his friend had persuaded him to give it a go during a recent barbecue. One expat triathlete pal I bumped into in Girona even signed up for the 50km distance the evening before, pulled in by the energetic and fun vibe she was seeing at the sign-on area.

That’s also part of the beauty of the event: for the days leading up to the Traka, Girona’s winding streets spill over with cyclists and a number of collectives and brands organise shake-out rides and socials. An afterparty on the Sunday evening saw Paris-Roubaix Femmes winner and Girona resident Alison Jackson letting loose as a lively group celebrated at another Girona cycling favourite, Eat, Sleep, Cycle. It almost seems like a playground for those on two wheels, which can lead to some resentment from the locals.

Girona, like any once-undisturbed city that has become a sought-after destination by both expats and tourists, has seen property rental prices rocket. For Irene Bou, a roadie turned gravel fan and local, whose infectious smile greets you at the trendy La Comuna cafe and cycling hangout, creating positive engagement between the community and visitors is key. “I want to be the meeting point and connect,” she explains. If you come to her hometown and don’t engage with the locals then you’re losing the magic, she points out. “We have a lot of things to show and explain to you that maybe bring you more value,” she says. “Ten years ago, if anyone in Girona spoke English … wow,” she adds, underlining the rapidly increasing international interest in the area.

We’re chatting atop the hill of Sant Miquel, surrounded by lush woods, a few minutes’ cycle out of the city centre. Pas Normal Studios have put on a pre-Traka 3.4km hill climb to whet the appetite of those gearing up for the weekend. Members of SD Worx are spotted, with Wiebes casually taking the warm-up hill climb crown. It’s not every day you get overtaken by the greatest sprinter in the world as you slog uphill – who on paper you’re suddenly in competition with, even though you only agreed to ascend for the paella and beers promised at the top.

Music plays and the atmosphere is both chilled and vibrant as we sip radlers and eat handfuls of juicy grapes and the biggest olives I’ve ever seen. “This is gravel’s moment,” says Gerard Freixes, co-founder of sporting event organiser Klassmark, who are behind the Traka, when I ask him why he thinks gravel riding, particularly in Girona, has become so popular.

He explains, as the strong sun warms our arms and legs, that strategically talking, the Traka taking place at the time of the year it does is key: “In April Girona is in the summertime, while the rest of Europe is still in winter.” Undoubtedly the charming architecture and looping alleys of the city centre are worth exploring – a tour guide shares that the production crew for Game of Thrones came to film for a few weeks and ended up staying for months, so taken were they with the small city. But it’s the surrounding trails, tracks, mountains and views that are the star of the show during the Traka, and any other gravel adventure starting from Girona.

As Tobias Mørch Kongstad – a Pas Normal Studio staff member and professional racer, who will later take second place in the 360km – puts it as we chat on a social ride: “Within a few minutes of leaving the city, you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.”

Ashleigh Moolman Pasio – another professional rider who calls Girona home – has previously praised the area for its peacefulness and the way in which often she’ll not see another soul around for hours when on her bike. While I’m in Girona, I’m keen to rack up as much off-road riding as I can to get a full sense of why it’s lauded as the European hub of gravel.

Two days before my 100km, I follow a trio – members of the press group I’m with – who are scouting out a section of the 200km route. During the recon of the 200km, we are put through our paces on a steep gravel hill that stuns us all, sizzling temperatures and technical descents with loose white stones skidding as we corner. It puts fear in me for what’s to come on Sunday when I tackle the 100km. In fact, I’ll later find that that short snippet of the 200km was more technically challenging than the majority of the shorter distance I undertake.

While there are marshals at any potential dangerous spots en route and feedstops are manned during the events, those participating have to download a GPX file and route themselves. When Rockwell’s GPS device unexpectedly shuts down on the Saturday evening during the last leg of her 360km, she resorts to navigating via Google Maps in the pouring rain. Incredibly she still breaks the women’s record and finishes 45 minutes ahead of Sturm.

On the morning of the 100km, I line up among an eclectic mix of riders: Wiebes rolls up to the start, serious-looking racers and expensive bikes mingle near the front, while the further back the bunch you go, the more relaxed the vibe gets. Both the 100km and 50km riders start together, with the latter following the first part of the 100km route before turning off to finish their shorter loop.

I’m pleased to see that the first – and most challenging – climb of the day is actually the same as that used in the hill climb. At least I’m in familiar territory. With sweat pouring off me, I reach the summit and glance across at the low clouds skirting the mountains in the distance. Sweeping down the stony descent is a fun opportunity to put the BMC Kaius 01 One I’ve been loaned for the trip through its paces.

The day winds out in a mix of dusty terracotta tracks, snaking paths through leafy woods and white unpaved roads lined with cypress trees that have aptly earned the area being referred to as the ‘Tuscany of Spain’. With the quality of the tracks – most are wide, flat and hard packed – it’s easy to race across the countryside and through the vineyards.

Slower moments through more bumpy sections, either through poppy fields or climbing uphill, give an opportunity to soak in the woody scents, staggering scenery and the warmth of the sun on your skin. Water, chunks of melon, bunches of grapes, nuts and olives greet me at the food stops, but I get the feeling the most substantial fuel has been grabbed by the hordes who’ve come through already.

Upon finishing the 360km, Sturm, who struggled with sickness on her way round, praises her surroundings for getting her through: “It was amazing, and the only thing that kept me going. The high was seeing the coast – I just wanted to go in the water,” she says with a laugh.

Whether you’re out ahead in the 360km, testing your mettle in the 200km, racing hard in the 100km or getting a taster of the Traka in the 50km, the event works as a perfect opportunity to trial Girona’s gravel scene alongside a bunch of enthusiastic riders from across the world – and have a party doing it. I know for sure that I’ll be back next year and opting for the 200km (a newly announced 560km option for 2024 has not tempted me).

Although we may all differ in our aims for the Traka, Olsen sums up the motivation that unites us all in attempting it: “I want to see what I’m capable of."

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