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Cycling the Camino de Santiago
When you take on the entire Camino Francés by bike, every day of cycling will bring an epiphanous étape.
Cycling is a religion for some people and, as its popularity grows all the time, it is not surprising that the Camino de Santiago is becoming a pedalling pilgrimage for more and more travellers. There are, of course, dozens of different routes to explore along the Camino, all leading to Santiago de Compostela’s cathedral. Cyclists with a week to spare tend to follow the popular Camino Francés in Spain, picking it up in the majestic city of León or at Gaudí’s Episcopal Palace in Astorga, and then spending a week heading west to Santiago.
Our Camino de Santiago Holidays
Cycling the Camino Francés
For those people who have more time to dedicate to this extraordinary route, we recommend taking around 18 days to cover all of the Camino Francés, which is around 800km. We say ‘around’ because on this trip you stop thinking in terms of kilometres after a couple of days, and more in terms of ascents and descents. On this route you are best to opt for a tailor made holiday, so that you can get advice from Camino and cycling experts in advance: where to stay, which are the hard bits, which bits are easier on the chafing, and many other delights. You will have your bags transported and your tour operator can build plenty of rest time into your itinerary, too.
Camino solo or Camino en grupo?
When you take on the entire Camino Francés by bike, every day of cycling will bring an epiphanous ‘étape’. The landscapes change dramatically from the high peaks of the Pyrenees to the mountains of León; La Rioja’s Ebro River valley to Castille’s high plateau. You will cycle on average 50km each day with climbs of between 220m to 1,177m starting in Roncesvalles, close to the French-Spanish border. Cyclists can also opt to start in Pamplona, which cuts out the Pyrenees. This slightly shorter and kinder version is 700km long and takes about two weeks, but you will still get your Compostela certificate.
The Camino de Santiago is different for every participant. Some take it on simply for the adventure, others for spiritual solace. The adventurers often like to travel in a small group, sharing Camino camaraderie along the way and having everything organised in advance, as well as having an expert guide to keep them on the straight and narrow en route. Taking on the Camino by bicycle can be easier and indeed more exciting when you have a group of likeminded travellers cheering you up a particularly steep section. Soul searching is much more of a solitary experience for others, or perhaps something you want to do with a close friend or loved one, in which case you will probably be better opting for a tailor made holiday. On this kind of trip, you are given your bikes, road maps and travel tips; accommodation is booked and your bags are transported for you. You will also have access to 24/7 support if you need it.
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Highlights of cycling the Camino
Often the starting point for a week of Camino cycling, León is an elegant city with an ancient and regal history, as it was an autonomous kingdom for centuries. Visit the Gothic cathedral to contemplate the route ahead and your reason for taking it, and then head to the gorgeous restaurants and cafes to cram in the Camino carbs before you do. Pedal from there up to Castille Plain and then into the Leon Mountains, or Montes de León, and be prepared to don your fleece and cycling leggings for this stretch, as it can get chilly.
When you arrive into Astorga on your bike, you will feel like a veritable King of León as this gorgeous town is within the autonomous region of Castilla y León. This was considered one of the most important cities in northwestern Spain during the time of the Roman Empire; it then became home to French, Jewish and Moorish settlers. The dominating architecture of the Episcopal Palace is one of only three buildings by Antoni Gaudí outside Catalonia, and the dominating landscapes are the Mountains of Castilla y León. It’s heaven on a hybrid.
Ah, gorgeous Galicia. With its green valleys and Atlantic coast you start to feel as if you are descending to the sea once you cross the borders into this autonomous region. After the mountains, you will cycle through more rolling countryside with fecund farmland, traditional villages, river trails and chestnut forests. You won’t be able to resist stopping at some of the cafes and restaurants, however, with Galicia proffering its own unique gastronomic delights. In Galicia it feels as if you are cycling through a crossroads between Celtic and Spanish heritage. With ancient monasteries to dine at and exquisite country hotels to collapse in at the end of the day, you may not want to get back in that saddle.
Santiago de Compostela
Arriving into Santiago de Compostela is like the Champs-Élysées for Camino cyclists, although your ‘tour’ should hopefully not feel like the penance that the pros take on. Everyone is overjoyed to see Santiago’s imposing cathedral come into sight, where you join other pilgrims who have arrived here from so many different directions and on different modes of transport. You can refuel with superb food in the city’s Old Quarter and take time to chill out in this historic, UNESCO town, after collecting your 'Compostela' Certificate at the Pilgrims’ office. If you aren’t too exhausted, you may want to extend your trip by cycling out to the coast at Finisterre. This additional 90km journey takes two days, cycling out to a rocky peninsula that was thought to be the ‘end of the world’ in ancient times. It is certainly a great place to bring your Camino cycling holiday to a close, with a celebratory Atlantic dip.
How tough is cycling the Camino?
You do need to be fit to take on the Camino de Santiago by bike, although it is a holiday not a race for redemption. An eight-day, small group tour along the Camino Francés would be categorised as moderate, with some challenging moments. However you will be travelling with a support vehicle so you can always opt out of the really steep stairways to heaven. On this trip you will generally cycle for six days, covering an average of 54km per day. There are a mix of quiet country roads, cycle paths, and a few off road, muddy challenges. Let’s face it – it’s a pilgrimage, not a pamper weekend.
If you cycle the Camino Francés in its entirety, you will need to get your stamina levels up before you begin. And don’t be thinking ‘oh my knee will be fine, I’m sure’. It’s a long way, between 700-800km depending on the starting point that you opt for - sin Pyrenees or con Pyrenees – so you will need plenty of gas in your tank. Although this holiday is tailor made, so you can incorporate rest days and go at your own pace, remember that your bags are being transferred from one hotel to the next, so you do have to get there eventually. On certain days that might mean three ascents, with an average of 50km to cover. You can also consider breaking up the Camino into shorter segments, completing it all over two 10-day trips, or even three-week long trips, so talk to the tour operator for details.
Best time to cycle the Camino
The best time to cycle the Camino de Santiago is from the beginning of April to the end October. Small group tours tend to stick to early May until early October, with tailor made trips extending the season a little. In April and October, mornings and evening can be cool, ranging from 5-15°C, and there may be showers too. In May the temperatures start to rise by about five degrees on average, with the warmest months being July and August of course. At the height of summer the weather is unpredictable, but usually sunny and anything between 15-30 °C. However, this part of Spain doesn’t get as red hot poker hot as the south, thankfully. It is also worth noting that numbers soar during ‘Holy Years’, when 25th July – St James’ Day (Día de Santiago) – falls on a Sunday. The next Holy Years are 2021, 2027, and 2032. The routes also get busier during Easter, when there is a great ambience.
Accommodation on the Camino de Santiago does book up in advance, especially for July and August, which is why it is always good to book through an expert cycling tour operator. It is generally not recommended to cycle the Camino de Santiago in winter and, in many cases, accommodation closes during this time anyway. The roads and paths between Leon and Santiago de Compostela are tricky to navigate by bike in winter and can be closed by snow.
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