CYCLISTS VS WALKERS: In the way

The Camino Frances is becoming more and more popular. It’s no exaggeration to say that the whole of Europe and most of the world meets on the Way to Saint James. The crowd is cosmopolitan and diverse both linguistically and in terms of outlook.

Every year the number of pilgrims grows, will reach its peak in Jacobean Holy Years (2021, 2027, 2032, 2038, 2049). Saying this I would like to emphasize one thing – although more popular, contrary to common belief, the Camino is not Oxford Street on Boxing Day. It is an 800 kilometres-long trail and most people only do the last several hundred kilometres. If you start your big adventure in the Pyrenees, you will meet others, but it won’t be too busy. It might feel busy in the morning around parts of La Rioja, Navarra or Castilla y Leon, simply because everybody leaves the albergues at the same time. Two hours later the trail empties because people stop for a drink or a sandwich, so for the rest of the day, you will meet the others only occasionally. Saying that – Galicia, your last province is always very busy, especially the last 100 km and at weekends, but again, for you as a cyclist, it won’t be a massive problem because your route is parallel to the trail. Bear in mind that in Arzua (40 km before Santiago) all routes meet – and those walking the Norte and Primitivo routes join the Camino Frances pilgrims. So, you will be slaloming between the pilgrims, but it’s just the last day of your journey and take my word, it won’t really matter.

Morning rush hour in Navarra, Camino de Santiago
Morning rush hour in Navarra Photography: Katarzyna Kostrzewska

The way I formulated this guidebook is to give you the best experience of the Camino Frances by bike. I walked the trail years ago and originally, I was of the opinion that cyclists should cycle the trail wherever possible. But then I realized that walking and cycling the Camino are such different experiences that to enjoy it to the full as a cyclist you need your own space. And you will have it in the form of former national roads, now deserted because of the newly constructed highways. I also made sure that you will get in and out of cities in the most pleasant way possible, so I used existing cycling paths. In places like Leon, where cycle paths are non-existent I just made exiting the city quick and easy.

Personally, I believe that either cycling the walker’s trail exclusively or cycling solely on roads defeats the purpose of the Camino. The first means great technical difficulties and constantly cycling next to walkers while you need some solitude and space both physically and mentally. You need much more of that than a walker to reach your goals because completing your Camino takes less time than his. And time is one of the most important factors, so you need to substitute it by giving yourself more space. If you decide to cycle the roads only – then the Camino will become just boring long trail, frankly not the most inspiring one. You will miss out on meeting the others and visiting all the small beautiful places and villages that grew around the Camino. You will in fact just be doing a route parallel to the Camino, slaloming between the cars – so you better go cycling in Southern France.

Camino de Santiago for walkers is roughly 70% off-roads and 30% on roads – yours will be about 55% off-roads and 45% on roads. There is no cheating – you will go through all the villages and towns that are on the Way to Compostela.

And a last very important remark – one of the arguments for cycling the Camino on roads is that cyclists ‘disturb the walkers’. Well, the Camino de Santiago never was or ever will be a walker’s only trail, as since the very beginning, meaning the 9th century, it was a route for those willing to set off on a pilgrimage to Compostela. In the past people walked or rode there on horseback, today they also cycle. Camino is neither a walking trail nor a cycling path. Be respectful to the others, slow down; don’t use your bell, but instead, make your way between the walkers in the morning rush hour saying “Buen Camino” (Have a good journey, the way the pilgrims greet each other). Sometimes when there are many people on the trail you can use it as an opportunity to dismount from your bike and start a conversation with the walkers. Be adaptable and make the best use of the situation you are in. But above all don’t let anybody make you feel like you are in the way or make you feel guilty for disturbing them (domain of some foreigners, definitely not the Spanish). Be respectful, but also demand respect in return.