Riding across northern Spain: Camino de Santiago

By Andrew Bain 17 June 2014
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First they did it on foot. Now crossing northern Spain via bike is becoming an increasingly popular way to complete the famous Camino de Santiago.

IN THE 2010 movie The Way, there’s a moment along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail when a pair of pannier-laden mountain bikers pass a group of walkers.
“What, you can do this on a bike?” one hiker blusters. “Why the hell are we walking?”  It’s a very good question.

Stretching almost 800km across northern Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela, the Camino is the Western world’s most famous modern pilgrimage. Every year tens of thousands of people walk it. For many, it’s a trudge worthy of a penitent, at times following long stretches of road or winding through the industrial outskirts of towns.

A sense of mission rather than landscape is often a walker’s greatest inspiration and so tedious is the meseta (high plain) across the middle of the pilgrimage that many modern pilgrims succumb to the luxury of a bus ride from Burgos to Leon.

Biking the Camino de Santiago

Camino rules, however, also permit the pilgrimage to be made on a bicycle, making it possible to breeze across the meseta. Especially at the pace I’m riding.

I’ve come to Spain to cycle the final 350km of the Camino, mountain biking from Leon to Santiago. I’ve teamed with a Spanish rider named Ramon, a former pro cyclist with a now-defunct Galician team. We move like the wind, though I’m nothing more than the dust carried in his wake.

From Leon, we cycle quickly across the last of the meseta, where even the storks seem to nest high in the hope of seeing something beyond the plain. If this dry, clumpy landscape lacks character, the pilgrims moving across it do not. There’s a woman being pushed in a wheelchair, a man walking barefoot and a poodle running alongside a man on a bike.

For a time, I battle with the idea that cycling this pilgrim route is akin to cheating – am I a wheeled devil among saints? – but I’m far from alone, as the popularity of cycling pilgrimages is growing. Statistics from the Pilgrims’ Office show that about 15 percent of pilgrimages are now done by bike.

It’s also soon clear that a bike is just one more piece of modern equipment on the Camino. There are walkers using GPS units, or zoning out with iPods. There are pack-carrying businesses and physios advertising their services. At one point, there’s even a soft-drink dispensing machine in a field beside the trail.

Like other pilgrims, we must get our Camino passport stamped as we travel to confirm our pilgrim credentials, but little else slows us down. We roll over the Montes de Leon, placing the customary pebble atop the enormous pile at the base of the Cruz de Ferro cross, and pedal on towards the foot of the Camino’s most notorious climb.

Climbing the Camino to O Cebreiro

From the village of Herrerias, the Camino climbs 800m over 10km to the gorgeous village of O Cebreiro on the Galician border. It’s a route Ramon cycled regularly when training with his pro team.

“It’s a very tough climb,” he says, and he’s a man I’m inclined to believe. The previous night he confessed that his usual cycling partner was his girlfriend’s cousin, a bloke named Oscar Pereiro. The winner of the 2006 Tour de France. I’d thought Ramon’s Astana bike bag was a jaunty souvenir, but it turns out to be Pereiro’s bag. Little wonder not a single bike has passed us since we left Leon, riding at unholy speeds.

As we ride into Galicia, I begin to feel as though I might need Pereiro’s legs myself. This province in Spain’s north-west corner is a world apart from the dry meseta. Bathed in rain, tangled in forest and rippled with hills, it provides a tough 150km finish for both cyclists and walkers. But it starts well.

From the cobblestoned streets of O Cebreiro, the Camino bobbles along the crest of the range before swinging down into Galicia on steep dirt paths. I tuck in behind Ramon and we descend like a dust storm, weaving through walkers, our bells chirping like birds at dawn.

It’s quickly clear that Galicia will be the sting in the Camino’s tail. No sooner are we into a valley than we’re out of it, climbing through farm lanes and over cow shit on slopes that are far steeper – albeit shorter – than the climb to O Cebreiro.

Arriving in Galicia

This theme continues as we roll across Galicia. Paths narrow at times to a single line of cobblestones, forest thickens into leafy dreadlocks and always there are hills. Kilometre posts tick off the distance to Santiago and when we pass the 100km marker, we add our names to the thousands already scrawled on the concrete post.

Architectural curiosities and history slide past in almost every town en route. Early in the ride, we saw Leon’s Gothic cathedral with its array of stained-glass windows. Later, the Gaudi-designed Bishop’s Palace in Astorga.

In Galicia, the town of Portomarin, where we stay the night, was moved brick by brick up a hill to escape one of Franco’s dams in the 1960s – even today the bricks on the cathedral remain pencilled with numbers from the reconstruction.

Always ahead is the cathedral in Santiago, the Camino’s holy grail, supposedly home to the remains of Saint James – Santiago in Spanish – who was the first of Jesus’s apostles to be martyred. I sense we’re close to Santiago when the walkers we pass begin to look more like refugees than hikers. The customary “Buen Camino” (good pilgrimage) greetings are now mumbled rather than sung, with 700-plus kilometres of walking finally taking their toll.

Completing the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage

In contrast, Ramon has barely broken into a sweat. We’ve even knocked back brandies over our final lunch in the town of Melide and our bells now sound like mockery as we weave through the straggling lines of walkers.

In keeping with the pilgrimage itself, Santiago de Compostela is an old city wrapped in modern suburbs. Cars blast disrespectfully past – don’t they know we’re hallowed pilgrims? – and coffee machines gleam through cafe windows. Then suddenly everything darkens as we enter the old town, funnelling through alleyways and a final tunnel to the front door of the cathedral.

After a journey of such spiritual import, I might have hoped for pearly gates or angels with trumpets. Instead, we get an even more heavenly welcome. Waiting for Ramon in Santiago is a friend who will drive him back to his home in the nearby city of Vigo. That friend is Oscar Pereiro.

Truly, my pilgrimage is complete.