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Food, Coffee & Bikes: Christian Meier & the evolution of The Service Course

Interview by Tim Schamber with images from Tristan Cardew / The Service Course

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Former pro rider Christian Meier had a plan after retirement that involved food, coffee and bikes in no particular order. This wasn’t some pipe dream developed in haste, but instead a calculated mission to create spaces and services for the things he loves. Together with his wife Amber (above) they started La Fabrica, Espresso Mafia and The Service Course in their adopted town of Girona, Spain. All three are deeply embedded in the Girona landscape and all three offer food, coffee and cycling experiences that are top rate. All three, too, are exercises in style and design, quality and craftsmanship and service and comfort. In addition to The Service Course, Girona, they have now added two other spots in Oslo, Norway, and Wilmslow, Cheshire, in the United Kingdom. With the expansion, they have added big-name partners to their roster, including noted pro riders Edvald Boasson Hagen of NTT Pro Cycling, Michael Woods of EF Pro Cycling, George Bennett of Jumbo-Vizma, Sam Bewley of Michelton-Scott and Kasia Niewiadoma of Canyon-SRAM. In addition, they recently added Tour de France stage and monument classics winner Simon Gerrans as chief operating officer, and there are more partners in the works! We caught up with Christian Meier to get the inside details on how it all started.

Tell us about your childhood and growing up in New Brunswick, Canada. I grew up in very rural eastern Canada, living well out in the country surrounded by farms and forests. My grandparents had a farm, butcher shop and restaurant—true farm to table before it was a thing. I grew up eating off the land, having never had store-bought meat or milk until I left home. My mom worked on the family farm and my father was a machinist who worked in a potash mine; but he was also a true craftsman, building the house that I grew up in. It was an incredible upbringing, learning an incredible skillset of how to live off the land and to fend for yourself.

I got into cycling when one day I picked up a mountain bike magazine and I was just hooked from there, buying my first bike and building trails in our forests; that led to joining a local club, to racing. I loved riding so much. I raced everything from downhill and cross-county, to road and track. Finally I thought if I want to do this every day I should make it my job and it seemed to me that going pro on the road was the logical step, so at 18 I packed my bags and went to Belgium. No idea what I was going to do there but I just knew I had to immerse myself in a place where cycling was a real thing. The rest is history, I guess. [Meier raced for the Symmetrics, Garmin-Chipotle, United Healthcare and Orica-GreenEdge teams from 2005 to 2016.]

When you were in the pro peloton, did you ever think about what you would do in retirement? Quite often. I have always been the type of person who’s interested in many different things, most obviously coffee was something that had me thinking about life post racing.

Unlike other professional sports like soccer/football, baseball and basketball, a professional cyclist doesn’t have a huge contract (or big sponsorship deals), and retirement usually comes in your 30s…. So, were you worried about what you would do beyond the peloton? Not really. For me it was actually the opposite. I decided to leave my contract with a year still to go to pursue La Fabrica and Espresso Mafia [coffee shops], to explore more in coffee, traveling to origin to visit farms. Not long after deciding to retire from racing [my wife Amber and I] also started to develop the concept that became The Service Course [bike store].

At what point did you and Amber figure out that starting a business in Girona would be the next step and why? After doing the Tour in 2014 we had a sort of “what’s next?” moment. In racing, I had ticked off all the major races and Amber was fully devoted over the years in supporting that. We got to a point where Amber wanted to get to doing something for herself and with her background in hospitality and my passion for coffee it seemed like the natural direction.

Tell us a bit about Espresso Mafia and La Fabrica and how they came about? Espresso Mafia came about from wanting to control more of the process in-house. We had our coffee roasted externally when we first started La Fabrica, but I wasn’t really happy with where specialty coffee in Spain was at that time. It followed more the trends of London—quite lightly roasted fruity espressos, which I didn’t feel paired well with milk and wasn’t personally my preferred flavor profile.

La Fabrica came about for a couple reasons, one being that we were looking for something Amber could pour herself into, the other being there was no specialty coffee in Girona at the time and it was something we really wished we could go and do—sit at a café and enjoy a nice coffee.

Was something like Service Course an idea you and Amber had brewing for a while? The Service Course actually came from time I spent working at La Fabrica. We used to get messages from people about where to go riding when they visited; people would come in asking where they could find this and that, a shop to fix their bike, a good apartment to rent. It wasn’t long until we realized there was something missing in Girona to cater to a new wave of cyclists coming to visit, an informed rider who had known about Girona and all the pros that were living here. We are talking of the time when those first early adopter types were coming to what was still a very hidden gem in the cycling world. Like the other two previous businesses, we didn’t think too long about it and just got stuck in; looking back now it was all a bit crazy opening three businesses in two and a half years.!

What is it about Girona, Spain, that makes it such a special place for cycling and your businesses? There are definitely a few things that make Girona special. First, the riding in every direction is amazing—from the Mediterranean coast to the east and the Pyrenees to the north, it is truly a riding paradise. Add to that an idyllic medieval town feeling, world-class gastronomy and Barcelona only some 40 minutes by train. It’s a town you can spend a week riding completely different rides and eating at a different restaurant every night.

The success of the Girona Service Course has spurred on more locations. Was that the intention or did that just grow organically? Our idea when we started any of our businesses was to become references, we have never really been interested in just ticking along trying to be the best shop or café in our town. The intention I believe is to try to be the best in the world; getting there is another story, but if it’s not your aim to get to the top you’re already limiting your potential. We started in Girona but it has led to expanding, taking advantage of opportunities as they arise.

The Oslo, Norway, location has a special tie with Edvald Boasson Hagen. How did he enter the picture? I knew Edvald from my racing days; we used to geek out about coffee stuff during long boring stages. Through himself and Henrik Orre it came up that they had been looking to do something similar in Oslo. I went up to see them and for the shop there they really had the right guy, a guy that really understood what we were trying to do and he was a steel custom bike lover like myself. Add in some of the best gravel riding, I think, in the world and it has the opportunity to become a very special place.

And the location in Great Britain, how did that evolve? The first investors that came on with the expansion were from the area and they really thought that the cyclists in the Wilmslow area [in Cheshire, near Manchester, England] were underserved, an amazing place to ride without that hub for cyclists to gather before, after and during rides.

Aside from Boasson Hagen, both  Mike “Rusty” Woods and Kasia Niewiadoma are involved. How did that come about? I have known Mike for some time and he always told us that if we were going to grow the project that he would love to be involved; he liked what we were doing. Kasia is always someone I thought to be an amazing ambassador for women’s cycling, she has such a positive energy; so I approached her to see if she would like to be involved in the project.

Of course, the newest powerhouse to join the team is Simon Gerrans as chief operating officer…. I raced closely with Simon for a number of years and once he left cycling and started a career in the investment banking sector he became interested in investing in the business. It was not too long after that, spending some time riding together, it became evident that his new skillset would really be valuable as we tried to grow the brand internationally.

Aside from being brick-and-mortar and having a strong online presence, Service Course is all about riding and has a vibrant touring element to it with tons of daily and multi-day riding experiences. The biggest part of our business is still the travel component. We began here in Girona and that had really blossomed into some amazing road experiences, followed up quickly by gravel in the last season. We can take care of everything you need to have your best cycling holiday in Girona. This season was really going to be our first pushing beyond the borders of Spain with more gravel experiences from our hub in Oslo, as well as trips in Tuscany and the trip I was really most excited about was an expedition-type experience in Tajikistan. The Service Course really is an extension of my personal experiences and heading off to more remote areas of the world. I want people to be able to have those same experiences. These trips push your boundaries as a rider but also as a person.

The Service Course package has a clean and tight aesthetic, from the physical spaces to the kit, the imagery, website, the ride packages, etcetera. How did the overall design of all this develop and evolve? My favorite part of the whole business is creating and building; it’s an outlet for my creative side. I have always appreciated architecture, design and aesthetics. It’s also about people; we have begun to build a really strong team who really get what we are trying to build and are executing.

Covid-19 certainly caused a disruption for everyone across the globe. Spain was hit especially hard. How did you get through it as a business? And has the way you do business changed? Covid-19 has definitely disrupted our season. Like I mentioned, the travel portion of the business is our most important and that went out the window this season. We quickly adapted to boost our online presence and we have also been working more on the second biggest part of our business: custom bikes. We have seen the demand for custom bikes grow a lot this year and it has been amazing—some especially have really pushed me. I love the feeling of learning something new and growing.

What’s coming down the line for The Service Course? We just launched our own clothing line, which is exciting to see it come to fruition after a solid year of work so far, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg and I think we have some really cool stuff coming soon. Travel-wise we are adding more remote experiences to the mix like Tajikistan, which is not your average trip, with home stays, a lack of showers and cell reception, but a part of the world that will blow your mind. We are hosting a hand-built bike show in Girona this October which should be a blast.

From issue 95. Buy it here.