I had never done a bicycle trip before this one, but I have always been fascinated by those brave bikers I occasionally meet on the road, with their huge bags on both sides of the bicycle, their worn clothes and a little flag indicating their native country. For me they are the most significant image of freedom. I have always admired and respected them. So I had a dream in mind for many years, a solo bicycle tour. The itinerary choice has not been difficult: the classical Way of st. James by bicycle was everything I was looking for, and even more.

Introduction and premises to the Way of St. James by bicycle

It's a destination of a particular religious tourism, mostly done by feet, by bicycle or horseback, but in any case rigorously without any help of a motor vehicle, passing primarily through country roads with the Saint James Apostle's grave as the only destination. Going through country roads means dealing with a often inclement weather, but also the beauty of the landscape and the many surprises a man can front while a long walk by feet. For this reason, it's important to set some precise guidelines:
  1. Who does the Way of St. James is not a hero, nor physically prepared for that in a particular way;
  2. The Way of Saint James should not be faced as an “I was there” journey, since it is done by thousand of pilgrims every year;
  3. You should note that you are supposed to walk not less than 30 km per day for many days and so you need to be physically prepared. I am not a believer, so I don't have walked this way for devotion, spiritual search or other religious reasons. I have done it as a spectator, or a simple traveler if you prefer, obviously respecting the history and sacredness of the place, walking through 900 km by bicycle for 15 days, without following a travel plan.

Planning the Way of St. James by bicycle tour

The main problem in planning this trip is to find the way to arrive quickly at St. Jean Pied de Port, the point of departure of the original Way of St. James. Many people arrive in this little French town by train: it's about 10 hours and a half from Milan (via Paris) or 13 hours (via Geneva) to reach Bayonne, from which you can catch many different bus that in about 1 hour arrive at St. Jean Pied de Port.
After some searches I found the ideal solution: a Ryanair flight from Bologna with arrival at Bordeaux (France) in the afternoon. From there, a train to Bayonne with an evening arrival. A single (no return) flight with special luggage (bicycle) and insurance: 105 euros. From Bayonne, a bus to St. Jean Pied de Port. The return journey is much more easier since from Santiago de Compostela there is a Ryanair direct flight to Orio al Serio (Bergamo-Milan).
Another important thing is equipping your bicycle in the best way and minimize your luggage (further information about luggage and bicycle organization on my travel blog).

How to walk the Way of St. James by bicycle

You can walk the Way of St. James in two ways: following the road, or following the original path where pilgrims walk by feet. I have chosen the second option, since I was not interested in an ordinary bike trip. That said, you'll know that to follow this path you need a good mountain bike and, above all, a good dose of willpower and training. Arriving at Santiago De Compostela through the common roads (traveled by cars, so to speak) is instead much less complicated, less tiring and in this case I recommend you a road bicycle. Follow the original path means walk through a path specifically create for people who do the pilgrimage by feet, in a continuous up and down sometimes impossible to do by biking, with bottlenecks that force cyclists to dismount; the path has many other little features that, after tens of kilometers in a day, are surely felt.

My itinerary

  • Day 1: St. Jean Pied de Port – Zubiri 48 km
  • Day 2: Zubiri – Lorca 56 km
  • Day 3: Lorca – Logrono 59 km
  • Day 4: Logrono – Castildelgado 62 km
  • Day 5: Castildelgado – Burgos 61 km
  • Day 6: Burgos – Fromista 65 km
  • Day 7: Fromista – Bercianos del Real Camino 73 km
  • Day 8: Bercianos del Real Camino – Leon 46 km
  • Day 9: Leon – El Acebo 86 km
  • Day 10: El Acebo – Valcarce 53 km
  • Day 11: Valcarce – Sarria 55 km
  • Day 12: Sarria – Palais del Rei 45 km
  • Day 13: Palais del Rei – Santiago de Compostela 70 km

Travel details

The first thing to do before starting this bike trip is the “Credencial del Peregrino” (a card where you will collect the stamps of the hostels in which you will stop), which can be taken at the pilgrims reception office in St. Jean Pied de Port or Roncesvalles. It is not mandatory, but many hostels require it to accept you in their structure. The first day is undoubtedly the hardest, since you go across the Pyrenees and the rise is actually challenging (1.000 mt altitude). After Roncesvalles the road become easier. I want to note the rise from Leon to Cruz de Ferro (the highest point of the Way of St. James, 1.500 mt altitude) and O Cebreiro above all (an 8 km rise), between Valcarce and Sarria, very challenging to front. By bicycle is highly recommended the asphalted road since the traditional path is actually impossible to ride. Unmissable steps are Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos, Leon and Ponferrada.

The pilgrims

After this experience, the next time I will hear the word pilgrim in a derogatory way I will be disappointed! Yes, because pilgrims are tough people. First, they GO, this is their main characteristic, and is already enough to elevate them from the rest of the world that normally DO NOT GO. Furthermore, their way to GO deserves respect: they walk, silently, slowly but undismayed. They walk in the sun and in the rain, with their technical shoes or sandals, on uneven roads, often into the mud, under favorable weather conditions and not, they keep walk. And they do it silently, head down, no proclamations, without spectators nor rivals. And they always keep smiling to everyone, giving wishes and encouragement. Very rare and remarkable qualities, particularly in recent times. Ode to the pilgrims!

Some useful tips

Bicycle packaging: I advise you to ask your trusted bike shop. These shops often have cardboard boxes for shipping bicycles, that you could reuse to pack and carry yours. On most European trains you can carry your bicycle, but better be sure of that before booking the train ticket. Bicycle are usually accepted on scheduled flights (if adequately packed) by paying an extra (30-40 euros). For the return, in Santiago de Compostela you can ask to some local shops in charge of packing and sending your bike to Italy (about 100 euros, including pick up the bicycle from your hotel), one of these shops is called Envialia and is situated in Rua do Pombal 6; for the simple packaging (15 euros, 20 euros if you want to go the airport by taxi) you can rely on Velocipedo, Rua de San Pedro 23. Another good option is going to the airport directly by bike: there you'll find a dedicated area in which you can pack your vehicle. With some pluriball and scotch-tape, you can pack it and then go to the check-in terminal. This is definitely the cheapest method.
Hostels, inns and apartments: the most popular option to overnight on the Way of St. James by bicycle are the pilgrims' hostels. From St. Jean Pied de Port up to Santiago de Compostela they are more than 150, at least one for each town. There are public and private hostels, in any case they are very cheap (public ones from 3 to 8 euros per night, privates from 10 to 20). They are often very spartan structures, in which you sleep in dormitories with 4 up to 10 (and sometimes even more) beds, you eat all together and basically you have to adapt to the contest and live with other pilgrims. Another options are the little apartments or country houses: they are more similar to a classic hotel, then you will have a room with your private bathroom, (some of them have shared bathrooms too). The average price is around 20-40 euros per night. Anyway there aren't a lot of these country houses along the road. Of course there are also the traditional hotels and motels, but only in cities or particular sites (near wide roads and quite big towns), ranging from 25 to 45 euros per night.
Any other business: a bike bell could be very useful, you'll find it indispensable to overtake the many pilgrims during the Way. Equip your bike with a tire replacement kit: along the Way, except of big cities, you won't find any bike shop, so you have to be completely independent. Since you are going to pedal for several hours a day, you need to drink a lot: I recommend to fix on the bicycle at least two bottle cages. I also advise to drink mineral salts and supplements (better buy them in Italy, along the Way they are rarely available). Once you go into a tour city, firstly look for the tourist office (“oficina del turismo”, always well marked and very helpful). Here you'll receive a free map of the city, completed with all the needed indications, included how to come back to the Way.
Information updated on May 2011.
For some time Ryanair offers an air route to arrive in Lourdes from Bergamo. In Lourdes and Orolon-SainteMarie there are some pilgrims' hotels and in just two steps you reach Saint-Jean P.P.
Matteo Gracis, who has written this article, has taken this cycle-adventure, the Way of St. James by bike, in 2011 from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela in 13 steps. In addiction to a very complete and detailed blog create to tell about this trip, Matteo writes on its own blog in which he talks about Critical Consumption, Sustainable Lifestyle and much more else... take a look at it, you'll find it very interesting.
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