Girona has a certain something about it. This north-eastern Spanish-Catalan city, with it’s famous tall, coloured houses lining the river that cuts the town in two and frequently Instagrammed bridges joining both sides, lies next to the Mediterranean and below the Pyrenees on on many a cyclist’s bucket list and tourist’s ’must see’ map alike.
While it’s home to a chunk of the peloton and as cycling heritage spots go, it’s pretty well got the pro angle cornered, it also feels one of those stand-out european cities like Venice or Prague that just has an indescribable kind of magic to it. History, architecture, location – there are familiar elements to all those cities and this one has added cycling culture. Perhaps that’s what made former pro rider Christian Meier and his wife Amber stay after the racing career that drew them here had finished. That or the coffee beans perhaps.
It’s a long way from Christian Meier’s hometown in New Brunswick, Canada to Catalonia, Spain. A small rural town of less than 10sq km with 4k residents, Sussex NB’s main industries lean more toward dairy farming or potash mining than boutique coffee culture. But cycling being an international language of course, where there are bikes there’s usually a will to race them, so it was there that Christian’s cycle team enrolment began. Racing with the Canadian UCI continental Symmetrics team, he and fellow Canadian rider Svein Tuft infamously lived in adjaisent trailer homes behind team owner Kevin Cunningham’s house near Langley and the team referred to the two as the ‘trailer park boys’. We were definitely the Trailer park boys! Tuft remembers… We both talk about it to this day – how that was such a fantastic part of our lives, we were truly free of all the things you acquire over time. We had nothing but all we did was ride, eat good food and go on crazy races down in south America – It was such a good time. It also led to positions in UCI pro-continental teams Garmin Chipotle, United Healthcare and Green Edge, which in turn took Meier to all three of cycling’s Grand Tours. So what drove this young cyclist from a remote rural upbringing onto the biggest stages in global cycling? It seems cliche’d to think the answer should always be hard work and determination but in Meier’s case, it almost seems that simple. Widely considered a formidable and reliable racer, Meier’s old friend and multiple time teammate, Tuft feels…He was one of those guys that the team could put up in any race, whether the flat with cross winds in Belgium or the hilly classic 260km Liege type races and he was just reliable and durable. One of those guys that was up for anything. And when it came down to doing the work he’d be the first to put up his hand. I would consider Christian Meier a great domestique. But it’s one thing to be considered a domestique and another to be a guy the team can rely on all the time. You’re healthy, look after yourself, and you’re ready to go for any race because it’s your life. And he was that through and through, he’s one of the hardest working people I’ve met – that’s what he poured into his life as a bike racer. I don’t know many people with his work ethic – a lot of which has to do with where he grew up and the family he was raised in. He’s truly one of the hardest bastards I know and up for anything. There would be days out in those trailers in Langley where it would rain non stop and I’d hear him for putting it down for 5 or 6hrs on the rollers.
And all that focused effort did pay off. To make it over to Europe you have to get results and show you have some class and tenacity – which he certainly did…Adds Tuft. And it’s when he got to Europe that he really found his legs. He was a smart rider, he’d tell young guys they need to find their niche – where they could be effective in a team. And when we got onto Green Edge together he was really able to be effective himself, helping out the leaders in those long monument hilly type races. He’s just an engine.
And so how though, does the hub of european pro cycling compare with back home to this cafe racer? Its very similar in a way…Christian tells me. I’m a guy from a rural way of life – used to a slow paced, small town vibe and for us, we fitted right into Girona immediately with it’s chilled pace of life, long lunches and days in nature that the community here really seems to cherish. Christian is from Sussex – Amber explains, but I was born in Mosquito infested Winnipeg where you can watch your dog run away for three days, its so flat. Although we were both born in different parts of Canada, eventually we ended up moving to and then meeting in Langley, just an hour and a half outside of Vancouver.
Along with world class soccer, cycle racing’s long had roots in Catalonia, but what made these Canadians choose to keep this north-eastern Spanish city their home when the day job was done? Girona had this hook that once we moved here, nothing else could compare…Amber explains. It really ticked all the boxes and we started to build a life outside of cycling that was perfectly suited to the little town. We could go to the beach in less than an hour, Christian could escape to some insane running trails in the mountains, and the idea of La Fabrica had taken root and we were ready to start that project.
The post racing life stayed on two wheels but added caffeine. Before Christian’s retirement from racing in 2016, the Meiers had put coffee roots down in Girona with the LaFabrica cafe then opening the coffee bar Espresso Mafia a year later. Sven Tuft remembers the idea starting to take shape while the pedals still turned in competition…Christian was always obsessed with coffee. I remember him labelling new brands of coffee here in BC. But when he launched the idea of doing a cafe while he was still racing, the extra workload and pressure actually made him an even better rider. And I think that when doing something closely scrutinised by sceptical people, that drives Christian even harder to prove to them it’s possible.
The Service Course – Christian’s boutique bike shop/ ride hub/ club hangout, then opened in 2017. While the best designed products and bikes adorned the walls and shelves, surrounded by sofas, fresh coffee, changing rooms and Roubaix style showers, the resident dachshunds would make introduction sniffs to visiting ankles. The mission statement was simple and modern – To Bring Exceptional Cycling Experiences to Girona. The immediate reality – a local bike shop that’s the stuff of dreams to any high street. The best known cyclists in the world mixing it with the rest of us, click-clacking their cleats around looking at t-shirts while their drivetrains are honed, like we all do. But the likelihood of that spannering actually being done by the boss – a former pro, seems pretty routine here. Like a retail holy grail, The Service Course is a destination store. People across the globe have heard of this little, deep set bike shop in a backstreet of a foreign land and want to visit it. Consumerist tourism on the back of a family holiday or business trip is commonplace here. That’s well executed marketing of course, but the power of word of mouth can’t be underestimated in cycling culture. Often stronger than advertising, significant shared public opinion is how to stand out amongst stiff competition in niche culture.
And competition in bike stores is dwarfed by that of coffee shop rivalry. Spain famously has a social culture and not much says socialising better than meeting friends in a cafe. There’s a distinct language of connection specific to cafes, from hours spent on a terrace outside to caught glances in a queue at the counter. Books are written in cafes. Plans are dreamed up.
LaFabrica – the Meiers’ first hub of the coffee bean is a 2min walk from The Service Course through the ornate preserved cobbled and tiled streets across the Onyar river. Open since 2015, those I speak to that know Girona always reference LaFabrica, in it’s small square not far from the city cathedral. Cleats and civilian shoes reside together in peace here while Amber can be found on any given day, omnipresent from kitchen to front line and usually in an apron. I love everything about working here. I still wake up on the weekends, bright and early, genuinely excited to start the day…she explains. Usually on a Saturday we have people sitting on the terrace waiting for us to open the doors and the feeling of hearing the 9:00am bells of Girona start to sound as I open the door and welcome them in, with the smell of coffee pouring out of the cafe…its amazing. There’s an obvious cycling presence from queues of standing lycra to framed jerseys and race photography on the walls, but it doesn’t feel exclusive to cyclists here. Quite the opposite actually. In that way that cycling isn’t the self proclaimed exile many subcultures can feel, this seems like an inclusive space with a part bib-short population rather than a private club for the cleated hoof. I suppose simply because cyclists tend to be normal people too like solicitors and driving instructors, that do wear regular shoes too Mon-Fri.
Everywhere you go in Girona cyclists that either look or are pro freewheel past you every few metres. It’s hard to express quite how much cycling there is here. The hills and villages around this city near the north eastern coast of Spain are famously a cycling paradise – an element that just adds to that certain something about this city. And for it to not just be just recognised but routine to be amongst so many like minded people with shiny legs in every town square is part of the cache.
This imported Canadian empire in the making could well have been timed perfectly as an aspirational new wave caught the cycling zeitgeist, and a previously brightly coloured, ill fitting subculture with
home made sandwiches stuffed into it’s jersey pockets quickly became aware of comfort, style and dare it be said, fashion. And as a result in turn became socially acceptable at city centre coffee bars where it where it had once been banished to car park vending machines. Rapha no doubt had a large hand to play in that transformation of a subculture, but the Meiers caught the gist early and laid down fresh roots with their own racing heritage and roasted coffee beans.
Their relocation to the head table of the coffee drinking elite in Europe does seem a far cry from that Canadian domestic racing, then a racing domestique scene. The Meiers are happy here. I’ve seen the smile on Christian’s face from hosting guest speakers on bicycle design talks or unveiling product launches in the workshop after hours, to being presented with an afternoon’s project made of titanium with which to enter the spanner zone – The Service Course is like his own personal velo clubhouse / mancave that happens to be called a job.
At what point did that seed get planted I’ve asked Christian. On yet another brutal alpine climb in the rain one year? Or aged 10 kicking about on a BMX in Canada? I never really knew I was going to have my own bike shop to be honest, it wasn’t something I had really planned. But after La Fabrica when we saw Girona was really missing that high end bike experience it was something that we didn’t even really think twice about. We were able to create something very special with The Service Course. I can honestly say there were people we were working with, small brands and other likeminded people that made us stand apart from a lot of other places and for that I will forever be grateful. I’m sure 10 year old Christian would have thought it was a pretty freaking cool place though.
And what does he consider the best part of having your own bike shop? Probably that I get to buy all the cool stuff that normally I wouldn’t be able to justify if I didn’t have a bike shop! Hahaha. I also like just personally having a place to hang out, work on my computer a bit and chat with guests. Going over routes, having a bike race in the background and really creating the living room type of feel that we were going for.
He adds…After I completed my first Tour de France the Girona-as-home dream’s seed was planted. I guess we both thought something would magically change after I crossed that finished line, but the team gave me 4 days to recover and I was off again to my next race. It was at that moment we both realised, I could be doing this for another 10 years if we kept on our current path. After having spent at that point, 8 years committed to my cycling career we started exploring the idea that perhaps there could be more than just cycling in our lives.
These two are a very hands on partnership – And I say that as a somebody that’s had lunch made by one half of the team while the other half rebuilds my bike. It seems even the idea of a bike shop work break doesn’t take the shape of a ride every day as you’d expect, but rather the roasting a fresh batch of coffee beans at the third outpost – their coffee bar Espresso Mafia again a couple of minutes around the corner. I’m still not sure if he’s more content on or around wheels or under the aroma of freshly roasting coffee beans. There’s seemingly equal contentment to the smiles elicited by both chores when I ask him ‘Bikes or beans?’ – Both is the answer smiled back to me instantly. A man of few words when tinkering with gear cables, Christian’s a dab hand at bike building. His awareness of bike design and function, reflected in the handmade bikes by independent builders The Service Course chooses to stock.
The idea of expansion globally to new cities appeared logical to me within minutes of introduction to the scene, it all just seemed ripe for growth to fresh palettes and pedals of different languages. And sure enough the flags have started to be planted. Nice – Manchester – Oslo. After opening La Fabrica and Espresso Mafia, we had a lot on our plates when The Service Course started to really take off…Amber explains. For this reason when we realised we had worked for years and years to build these three businesses, we were ready to work a little bit less and decided to separate The Service Course from the other businesses so that it could grow on its own journey and we could focus on the cafes, coffee roasting and having a bit of free time. The Service Course has a great international concept that can be perfectly executed anywhere in the world so we brought on some investors and the locations where people wanted the experience of TSC started growing and growing!
Though it all started to roll out just as the unthinkable happened to the hospitality trade with the eruption of a global pandemic pretty much stopping socialising. It’s likely difficult to express how that derailment to a dream must’ve felt but if you’re a team all rounder or a Meier, it seems hard graft and teamwork are in the genes.
So the recent past has been about clinging on, but what for the future? Does that now change and adapt? It has been the hardest, calmest, weirdest most eye opening year of our lives…explains Amber. Half the year we thought we were each having a mid life crisis, the other half with all the locations closed, we thought we were living the dream of a simple and peaceful life. Our dreams have changed a lot in the past year, not only with Covid but with the expansion of The Service Course. You reach a point where you can step back and look at what you built and ask yourself, is this enough? Do I want more? Especially for Christian who had been giving 200% for the past 16 years of his life. He went straight from a professional cycling career to an empire builder…with ZERO experience. Covid made us realise its time for a break. We are channeling our energy into a few smaller projects now and can focus on enjoying what we have built – the nice routine of working in a cafe, or for Christian, roasting the coffee and travelling a bit more.
I do wonder where the next Girona will be. While it ain’t going anywhere right now in cycling’s royal bloodline, the very essence of subculture means there’s always a next big thing around the corner. Yes, we think the next Girona will be somewhere in Italy – the Meiers tell me….and chances are you will see us there 😉
The amount of limelight quietly switched on to Norway this last year or so though, makes me wonder if unlikely as it might seem, Oslo could be a new Girona too. Friend of The Service Course, Velochef – Henrik Orre thinks so, opening his Velochef Clubhouse there while Gravel cycling – AKA; mountain biking before the comfort years, displays fresh races and adventure holidays across it’s wide open Scandinavian landscapes all the time on social media. The Service Course Oslo does take the Meiers from a Canadian snowy north, to a sunny southern europe and back round to a Norwegian frost at least – and that does make for a neat full circle journey in this adventure of the bike and the coffee bean.
Originally published in Canadian Cycling Magazine.