The first time I met Amber Meier back in March she was out of receipts. She handled it like a boss, taking our email address and promptly and efficiently sending it to me the next day. The next time I came into contact with her, this week (on our inaugural Girona BreakAway tour), we had a client with a Di2 technical on a Sunday. A few texts back and forth and suddenly we had David-the-traveling-repairman slapping on an 11-speed Shimano chain and allowing our client to ride to Olot with us early Monday morning. What I want to say is, Amber gets things done.
Another thing she got done, along with her pro-cyclist husband, Christian Meier (Orica GreenEDGE), was graciously sit down with me and take nearly an hour out of their busy spring-season day for an interview.
Why these two? Well, they run a wonderful, warm, cafe in Girona, THE pro-cycling hub of, well, possibly the world, where you are nearly certain to run into someone from the pro peloton, either on one of the many awesome routes outside town, or at La Fabrica, pre or post ride.
Christian and Amber are also like me, transplanted Canadians trying to make a meaningful life overseas and determined to call it ‘home’ for the long term. They have put a ton of effort into their various projects in Girona, and it is starting to pay dividends, with the great popularity of La Fabrica.
I could go on, but you’re used to me talking. I’ll let the Meier’s take it from here.
Personal / Living in Spain
Viscous Cycle: Do you have a place back in Canada?
Christian: No, nothing. No car, nothing. We’ve severed all ties. Maybe I go back to do the Nationals but that’d be about it.
Viscous Cycle:: Home for you would be Vancouver?
Christian: Yeah, Vancouver.
Viscous Cycle: (to Amber) So, where are you from?
Amber: I was born in Winnipeg and grew up half in Vancouver and half in Winnipeg.
Viscous Cycle: Have you had any particular difficulties living here?
Christian: The first few years we didn’t really integrate that well. There’s such a cycling community here and we were living the typical expat community. It’s only been the last 4 or 5 years…we live here year round. We have more local friends and things like this.
Amber: In the beginning a little homesick, but the thing that I struggled with the most, before La Fabrica – and this doesn’t have to do with living in a foreign country as much as it does with Christian being a cyclist – so, an expat, if we’d both been moving here and living here that’d have been great but then moving here, living here and having the person who’s supposed to be with you, gone, then it’s a bit trickier because you’re doing everything on your own…but now it’s a lot better. He’s here a bit more.
Christian: And when you have the business it keeps us a lot busier.
Amber: Keeps us out of trouble…
Christian: Amber was always a people person. She worked in many cafes before and liked being with people every day and interacting with people. So going from that to moving to a foreign country and being a cycling wife was quite a bit different.
Amber: Yeah, for the first year, two years it was great. After eight, not so much!
Viscous Cycle: What makes Girona such a cool city? I always find that it has a good vibe when I come down.
Christian: It’s a good question. I think we’re small enough that everything is accessible, but we have…we could do with a bit more variety in things. I don’t what it is!
Amber: I think it’s a combination of the weather, the food, the people, the laid-back living and the fact that you’re close to the water, you’re close to the mountains, you’re close to Barcelona. If you really want an international meal, go to Barcelona; if you really want an escape in the snow, go to the Pyrenees; if you want a beach vacation, Costa Brava.
Christian: I think things are changing a bit now. Our biggest problem before was not much variety. All the restaurants were offering the same thing. I think it’s great – sometimes people come here and they want to try some other things, but sometimes they want some of their home comforts, like they still want to go and have their coffee because it’s part of their day in Vancouver. Just because they’re on vacation doesn’t mean they want to go and have a crap coffee, which unfortunately before here that was the only thing there was.
Viscous Cycle: You’ve obviously never lived in France!
Christian: Yeah, I’ve raced there a lot, so I know what you mean!
Viscous Cycle: So I want to ask about the baked goods.
Amber: All made with love! I make the berry and Nutella cake, the chocolate Oreo cake, the lemon cake with coconut glaze and usually we have little cinnamon buns but we’ve sold out. So the only thing we don’t make is that big one – the Hummingbird cake. It’s nice because I used to do all the baking, but I’d work 7 hours here then go home and bake for 5 hours. Couldn’t keep up.
Viscous Cycle: How do you source that stuff?
Christian:Well, it’s a local lady. She used to work at Can Roca (El Celar de Can Roca: 3-star Michelin restaurant and one of the world’s best according to Restaurant Magazine) as a pastry chef then opened her own business making cakes for restaurants, events, etc.
Amber: It helps a lot because it means I don’t have to do all the baking and she’s local. We do everything local. We have one person for the beer – local; one person for the croissants, who brings them in fresh – local; and this one lady who’s a local baker, so you’re always dealing with one person; you know their name.
Christian: I think at the end of the day that, okay, you’re in business to make money, but one thing that we always try to be very conscious of is that if we can bring more to the community – like if I can hire a lady in Girona to make cakes – that’s fantastic. At the end of the day that’s what you need to strive for; it can’t be just you sucking everything out of the economy, but instead get people involved and make everyone happy.
Viscous Cycle: Are most of your customers foreign cyclists?
Amber: No, it used to be that way. It used to be only cyclists, then it was cyclists and expats, then cyclists, expats and tourists, and now look around (actually looking around the café!), this table is local, this table is cyclists’ wives, and the communal table is local and the other table is local and here at the end you have tourists and up on top you have local, so it’s a nice mix of everything.
It’s nice to get a mix of everything because if you only have one market it’s a bit naïve, I think. How do I cater year round when the cyclists go home and we want a mix of people.
We try to market ourselves to not just one type of person. So, I don’t ride a bike and I want a place for someone like me, who really doesn’t do sports, can still come in a have a coffee, come in a have a cake and not be like ‘ah shoot, everyone here’s a cyclist and I feel out of place’.
Christian: We’re in hospitality. The coffee is typically the last thing. The first thing is customer interaction, customer experience, the personality of the shop. That’s all stuff that people appreciate more than, ‘oh that’s good coffee’. That’s what you want – you want people to leave having had a good time.
Viscous Cycle: I guess it doesn’t hurt that there’s always a bunch of pros walking around?
Christian: Yeah, but there are less and less right now because they’re all away racing right now. You’d probably be better coming in February/March when they’re all here training..
Viscous Cycle: Do you have plans of expanding?
Amber: I don’t think we’re going to stop. I think we’re just going to keep going until we’ve done everything we wanted to do. We have a lot of ideas. Some of them involve coffee; some of them don’t, but we’ll see. It’s definitely all going to be in Girona, though.
Christian: Well, La Fabrica…we’ve actually had people approach us for franchising, but there’s a lot more that’s involved in it that makes it successful. But there are other things, like Espresso Mafia, which would be quite replicable.
Amber: But La Fabrica is a one and only.
As the interview continues, cyclists clip-clop in and out of the cafe, nearly always saying ‘hola’ to the Meiers. I made a ‘Cheers’ joke (where everybody knows your name) that thankfully wasn’t too ‘generational’ and they got it.
And for the entire hour I was on the ‘communal table’ with them, Amber’s attention flowed seamlessly from the interview to, well, just about everything else that was happening in the place, jumping up several times to take care of business, then popping back on the long bench to join in wherever the conversation was going at the moment. You could tell that this was her place.
Viscous Cycle: What the heck in Espresso Mafia?
Amber: Well, that would be Christian. That was his brainchild. Originally he wanted to roast the coffee, so we were getting the coffee roasted to our profile, but by an outside source. Christian knew that if the coffee continued to grow that he’d be the one who was roasting it.
So Espresso Mafia is the location where we roast the coffee in house and we also have a small coffee tasting attached to it, so we do take-away coffee, we do coffee flights. Because we are doing it in-house it’s bringing a little more awareness to the process of coffee, as well as just having another location where people can cross over with.
Viscous Cycle: Where is it?
Christian: Really close; just 150 meters. If you go across the main street here and keep going. Not the first right but the second right. It right down there under the arches, right across from a tattoo shop and there’s an Argentinian guy who sells empanadas.
I’m actually there more there than I am here. There we do all the roasting. There’ll always be different coffees, so if you drink an espresso here you’ll have a different one there, so the idea is to have a bit more variety. The focus is on extracting the best coffee.
Christian’s Riding Career
Viscous Cycle: How did you get into riding in New Brunswick, Christian?
Christian: Mountain biking. Picked up a MTB magazine one day and liked the bikes – looked super cool. I bought a cheaper mountain bike and started biking and racing a bit, then raced downhill because that’s what I really wanted to race but when I started I was too young for the license. Then I raced cross country, so I’d race downhill on the Saturday and cross country on the Sunday. Then I got into road riding and if I wanted to make cycling my job I realized that was only really going to happen on the road. To really make a career out of it I felt that it was always going to be more on the road than on the mountain bike, and I also just loved road riding in the sense that it was freedom. On a mountain bike you don’t go that far, but on a road bike you can go 100 km and see a lot of stuff. That is probably my favorite part of riding on the road.
Viscous Cycle: And you were racing on the west coast when you two met?
Amber: We met at a little coffee shop called Esquires. He would know when I was working and come in, order a cappuccino…I like to think I was the one who started his passion for coffee.
Christian: I raced on the east coast a while and then went to Vancouver…and from there that was it. There was an Atlantic Series, but you were racing the same five guys every weekend. Then we’d go quite a bit to Quebec because at the time it was the strongest scene.
Viscous Cycle: Is it not that like anymore?
Christian: I’d say probably the west coast is catching up. In terms of programs and support, like Cycling B.C. is probably the strongest program in Canada. But maybe the racing…like when I was there last..you had Minions, Cadets, you had races starting at 10 or 8 years old, but the rest of Canada, maybe Junior was pretty strong. But in BC now there’s an after-school program that they’re pushing province wide and they’ve been quite successful in the last few years.
Cycling in Vancouver now has just exploded, but it’s funny though, I really don’t like it. The scene there is very snobbish. You ride with your club; they don’t wave at each other.
At this point a guy across the table interjects to say that it’s not like that in Victoria…Christian agrees and no blood is shed.
Christian: But the last time I spent time in Vancouver, you wave at people and you get nothing back. We got into it through clubs. You joined a club and there was an old guy there who taught you the values and etiquette. Now it’s become sort of the ‘new golf’. You can just go to the bike shop and buy a $5000 bike and start riding. Nobody’s taught them, you know, how to ride in a group – how to do any basic things. They just go…they’re terrible in traffic, riding in the middle of the road, and that’s why drivers are getting agro…
Viscous Cycle: You’ve ridden the Tour de France. Did you ride the whole thing?
Amber: Top finishing Canadian!
Viscous Cycle: You’re 31 now. Do you have cycling goals left that you haven’t fulfilled yet before you retire?
Christian: Not really. I think the Olympics would be nice, but I’ve ridden most of the races I wanted to do.
Viscous Cycle: Is the Tour the one that everyone wants to ride?
Christian: Yeah, the Tour is just different from every race. Every day is super hard. There’s no easy day. Most races have at least one – like a sprint day – but there it’s…the racing is generally hard.
But then the media attention is like this, too. You have people calling you every day, whether you’re a winner or not.
Amber: Everyone wants your photo; everyone wants your autograph.
Christian: When I did it, back home every couple of days radio interviews. People driving out to my parents’ place to interview them. My town is Sussex, with not even 10,000 people, and we live like 20 kilometers out in the country – like a house every kilometer. And they’re out there interviewing my parents! Things like that; no-one knows cycling, but everybody knows the Tour.
Viscous Cycle: (to Amber) Did you follow the Tour that year?
Amber: Yeah, I went to the finish.
Viscous Cycle: Which year was that?
Christian: 2014. Nibali won. My parents came over for the finish and that was pretty sweet.
Amber: Christian said that just to finish he was thrilled. To not crash…
Christian: There were a lot of a crashes, like the Paris-Roubaix cobbles…
Viscous Cycle: So, no more goals for you!
Christian: Well, like I said, if I could get to the Olympics that’d be pretty nice.
Viscous Cycle: How does that work?
Christian: Well, they should be doing the selection after the Giro. We have 3 spots. They haven’t quite decided what they’re going to do, but we have Michael Woods, who’s going super well, so they’ll ride for him. That’s the goal. And it’ll depend on how they want to set up the team, so if I go it’ll be to look after him, which is something I do typically in our races, with Gerrans and these guys…that’s my role.
Viscous Cycle: (to Amber) Would you go over to Rio?
Amber: I probably couldn’t (leave the shop), but one thing I’ve learned with races is that you can see a lot more on TV! It’s cool to be there, but I remember in the Tour, you go to the mountain, you climb for 4 hours and then…I didn’t even see Christian! Whereas on TV you see…and for Rio there’d just be so many people…and when he goes to races he’s very focused.
Christian: Something like The Games it’s logistically so difficult. If you didn’t buy your tickets last year already, you struggle to find something. But we’ll see…
Viscous Cycle: Your race is the Dauphiné. You won’t be doing the Tour this year?
Christian: I don’t think so, but it depends what they want. They only just announced the route a couple of weeks ago (the detailed route, that includes all the roads ridden) and it’s a lot different than what they thought it would be. Typically, for our team (Orica Green Edge) there’re a lot of stages with hard circuits that can come to a 40-man bunch kick where we’re really good, but it seems like they’ve gone back to a more traditional route with more flat, pure sprint stages, so for our team it doesn’t really suit those guys (like Simon Gerrans). So, I don’t know if they’re going to take another look at tactics and maybe take Caleb (Caleb Ewan) and look to go for the bunch sprints.
Viscous Cycle: I don’t want to keep you too long. I know you have to go to Ikea.
Amber: He hates Ikea.
Christian: I lose a year of my life every time I go there.
And that’s when I knew we were kindred souls. If you’re ever even near Girona (e.g. Barcelona), go for a ride, roll through the old town, park your bike outside, and pray that La Fabrica has a slice of Hummingbird cake to go with your delicious coffee. Amber is sure to be there to get you what you want.
17004, Carrer de la Llebre, 3, 17004 Girona, Spain
Open 7 days a week, 9:00 to 3:00