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Girona’s gathering place for coffee and cycling

To rub shoulders with the pros on your next vacation, head to Girona, Spain, and make your way to the old Jewish quarter on the East side of the Onyar River. Find Carrer de la Ciutadans and look for a stone-lined alleyway shooting off to the east, called Carrer de la Llebre. Follow it for 200 feet, to an unassuming terrace with six small wooden tables. A 500-year-old staircase climbs the hill to the right, toward the medieval abbey and its 40-foot-thick stone walls. An unremarkable door to the left of the stairs drops into a cavernous, garden-level space, lit pale yellow by vintage filament bulbs. Just inside sits a well-used Scott Foil in the colors of Orica-GreenEdge.

Further down the stairs, past the 12-seat communal table covered in cycling magazines, there’s a wooden counter where cups clink and good coffee wafts. Order a cortado, the best in Girona, from the beaming Canadian couple behind the bar, then head back outside. You’ll see riders in pro kits — the black and white of Giant-Alpecin, the greens of Cannondale-Garmin and Europcar, the red and gray of Velocio-SRAM — gathered around the tables and on the medieval steps. They’re not fans. They’re actual pros, fueling, chatting, and waiting to ride.

In Girona, specifically at the coffee shop called La Fabrica, one steps into the lives of pro cyclists. This is home for them. They glide through that tight alley each morning, clicking freehubs echoing off its walls, and settle into their morning haunt and meeting place. The shop, owned by Orica pro Christian Meier and his wife, Amber, is the hub of Girona’s cycling world, a daily focal point for the small Catalan city’s 90-plus professional cyclists and the countless riders who mingle with them.

Girona is set 30 kilometers inland from the Costa Brava, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees and conveniently situated on a high-speed rail line that runs from Paris to Barcelona, just an hour south. It’s an affluent city, easy to access, with warm weather and hundreds of miles of quiet, well-paved roads — the kind of place pro cyclists can easily make into a home away from home.

It is, without question, the most popular city on earth for English-speaking pro cyclists. Cannondale-Garmin is based here, and most of the team’s riders have an apartment in the city. Alex Howes lives around the corner from La Fabrica. Dan Martin, now with Etixx – Quick-Step, has a home nearby and owns a number of luxury rental apartments here. Cannondale’s mechanics have a service course just outside town.

It’s a Tuesday in early August, just days after the end of the Tour de France, and Meier is standing behind the counter at La Fabrica, his hands moving in rehearsed patterns around a Rocket espresso machine. Texans Lawson Craddock and Caleb Fairly each order a cappuccino, standing cleat-footed and smiling in their Giant-Alpecin kits. “It’s the little things,” Fairly says. “We know we can come here and find others and just relax. It is important.”

La Fabrica is a coffee shop in the American style — meaning seats and tables and people with laptops — a type of establishment that is only beginning to catch on in Europe, and it serves drinks that will please even the haughtiest connoisseur. For Meier, who balances the shop business with his life as a pro, the coffee takes precedent.

“At first, I didn’t want to do anything cycling related,” he says. “I wanted to make the best coffee, and that was the motivation. But we realized we had this whole market riding around the city and that I could tap into it. We could really become a place that could pull all these people together.”

In 2014, seven years after first leaving his native Canada to ride as a stagiaire for what was then Garmin-Slipstream, Meier raced his first Tour de France. It was the culmination of a lifelong dream, and one that forced him to ask a difficult question: What’s next?

“I’m not going to win the Tour, so what was the next goal? It quickly became this place,” he says.

Meier caught the coffee bug less than five years ago. Yet today he is an authority, selecting, roasting, and brewing beans as fine as anything in Europe — the same single-minded focus that took him to the top of his sport now driving him to similar levels in the coffee world.

Amber shows equal dedication. She’s a gifted and charming hostess, and the space, at once comforting and modern, is her vision. Many of the pastries and snacks come from her oven.

Meier splits his time between the shop and his bike, a balance he says benefits both parts of his life. “I just go out and do the work on the bike, get it done, and then come back and do this other thing I love,” he says. “It’s made me more efficient — less sitting around all day wondering when I should head out. I just go do it.”

The idyllic surroundings and happy, approachable pros make it easy to forget Girona’s recent, darker connection to pro cycling. Fifteen or so years ago, as France began to pass increasingly strict anti-doping laws, the riders of the U.S. Postal team fled Nice, where many of them were based, in favor of Spain and its (then) more lax attitudes about doping. Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton, Jonathan Vaughters, George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Tom Danielson, and Floyd Landis all made Girona home. Spanish doctors Pedro Celaya and Luis García Del Moral were brought to the team, and an organized doping program flourished.

The syringe-filled trashcans and shadowy doctors are gone (we hope), but the warm weather and welcoming culture that made Girona attractive then remain. The Postal riders may have done much to hurt the sport, but they also established Girona as a base for English-speaking riders. Life in a foreign country can be lonely and difficult, and there is logic in seeking a place where a community that understands those challenges already exists. The vast network of beautiful, quiet roads — part of what made the region so attractive for Postal riders — is still there. The nearby airport is still there.

The riders here today don’t think about why their predecessors came. This city is slowly molding itself in their image, becoming a locus of high athletics attractive to more than just cyclists. Triathletes and runners are turning up in bigger numbers every year.

Meier pulls shot after shot as pros in groups of three or four filter in throughout the morning, taking their time to catch up and to caffeinate. He looks over at his Scott leaning near La Fabrica’s entrance, waiting for the afternoon hours he has set aside for today’s training ride. When they come, he puts on his Orica kit and heads out the door with Namibian Dan Craven of Europcar. On tap today is one of his favorite rides, the coastal loop.

“If we’re feeling spicy, we’ll add Els Angels at the end,” he says, referring to the steep test climb outside of town, as he clips in and freewheels down the narrow stone alleyway, out of sight.