If your idea of a pilgrim is someone in a robe and sandals carrying a staff and a Jesus beard, think again. The modern pilgrim might just as easily be wearing Lycra and SPD shoes.
For centuries, Christian pilgrims have been shuffling across Spain, walking the Camino de Santiago towards the supposed remains of St James, Christendom’s first martyr, beneath the cathedral in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela. In recent years, they’re being overtaken – literally and figuratively – by bikes, with statistics suggesting suggest that up to 20% of all Camino pilgrimages are now made by cyclists. I’ve been one of them, and it’s a ride so good I’ve lost all desire to ever walk the Camino.
My own ride began in the city of León, from where I was to cycle 350 kilometres into Santiago, effectively pedalling from one grand cathedral to another. What elevates cycling above walking on the Camino around León is the nature of the meseta.
This high plateau is akin to a Spanish outback: dry, clumpy, often featureless, tiresome. The Camino ambles through it on paths, but also along plenty of roads. It’s tedious enough that a lot of walkers avert their eyes from heaven and jump on a bus, skipping the section from Burgos to León. On a bike there’s no such need – in the course of a day, 100-or-so kilometres can have slipped behind.
The journey from León to Santiago is varied. There’s Gaudi architecture, vineyards, nesting storks, brown lands and green lands, and pilgrimages within pilgrimages. Atop the Montes de León, the mountain range that marks the end of the meseta, pilgrims build a mountain of their own, dropping stones around the base of the Cruz de Ferro in one of the Camino’s oldest traditions. For a cyclist, the inner pilgrimage here is more secular, with the Montes de León being the site of one of the Tour of Spain’s most gruelling climbs.
The Montes de León is not the toughest climb of the coming days though. Through Galicia, the Camino is an endless succession of hills. But there are also pulperias, cobbled bits of singletrack, brandy-fuelled afternoons, and none of the foot soreness so common to those we pedal past.
Into Santiago, the traffic feels ungodly after a few days on trails and quiet roads, but it’s brief. Soon we’re into the old town, pushing our bikes through a tunnel to the vast square laid out at the foot of the cathedral. Pilgrims sprawl over the cobblestones, seemingly at a a loss after weeks of walking… or just a few days of cycling.
As other pilgrims shuffle into the cathedral to pay their regards to St James’ remains, I discover my own unexpected, heavenly reward. A Tour de France winner is waiting to greet me (well, my cycling partner, but I claim it). If you want that story, here’s a link to it at Australian Geographic Outdoor.
- Andrew Bain cycled the Camino de Santiago with UTracks.