Information, resources and links about cycling the Camino de Santiago (or 'Way of St James') across northern Spain
This page accompanies the article in Cycle (the CTC magazine), Dec 2011 / Jan 2012 issue. See PDF of article (0.8MB).
Below you can find a podcast about the route, info at a glance, and links to other useful sites.
Info at a glance
Camino Francés, the most popular of the various traditional pilgrimage routes collectively called the 'Camino de Santiago' that all end at Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. The Camino Francés usually starts in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, near Biarritz in southern France, reaching Santiago via the Pyrenees, Roncesvalles, Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, León.
500 miles / 800km
Time to cycle
You can cycle either the walker's route (99% cyclable, no gates or stiles; mix of shale, farm track, mud path) or the road route (which is the original route of Camino, now paved over; mix of busy major and quiet minor roads; the two routes run virtually parallel)
Any. With a full-suspension mountain bike, or trekking bike, you can cycle all the walker's route. On a fast road bike you can do the road route. On a hybrid or sturdy tourer you can take road options for mileage and speed, and pick the most scenic and smoothly-surfaced offroad sections.
Best offroad sections
—Scenic but often rough: The ridge between Pamplona and Puente de la Reina.
—Remote feeling and not too rough: West of Burgos through Hornillos and Hontanas.
Best place to stick to the road
The long slog over the 'Meseta', dull plains west of Burgos.
Plentiful pilgrim refuges and hostels, 5–10 euros per night. A very few begrudge or even turn away cyclists, but most happily accept them and have cycle storage.
When to go
March-April or October have decent weather and good availability of accommodation. In between it can be very hot, and convenient hostels often fill up early in the afternoon. Outside them, many places close and the weather can be unreliable, especially at altitude.
Is it hilly?
Yes, but not as much as you might expect. There are three big climbs: at the start over the Pyrenees, halfway through mountain villages such as Foncebadón, and shortly afterwards through the historic village of O Cebreiro. The highest point is about 1500m. West of Burgos is a vast plain. Away from those it's undulating.
Excellent. You could conceivably do it without maps or guides, though they'll be useful of course. Within towns and villages the route takes you directly through the historic centres, marked by scallop shell symbols inlaid or embossed in the pavement. In between the stylised shell symbol directs you reliably. Cycle and walking options are well distinguished.
Some vibrant big cities (Pamplona, Burgos, León) with big architecture. Countless delightful small towns and villages, all with at least a bar and a shop, many with pleasant markets and historic buildings. Remote-feeling only occasionally: civilisation (and main roads!) are never that far away.
Good. Available in many bars, restaurants and hostels, even in villages.
• Roncesvalles's awesome historic monastery-refuge
• Pamplona's bull-running culture
• Ridgetop views west of it
• Eunate's odd church
• Puente de la Reina's historic bridge
• Cirauqui's original Roman road surface and bridge
• Free wine fountain at Irache
• Parkland outside Logroño
• Storks in sandstone cliffs at Najera
• Hens in the church at Santa Domingo de la Calzada
• Burgos centre
• View from ridge overlooking Hornillos
• Romanesque church at Fromista
• Ancient bridge at Hospital de Orbega
• Maragatos villages
• Abandoned mountaintop village of Foncebadón and downhill after
• Mountaintop village of O Cebreiro with ancient thatched huts
• Descent after it to moved-and-rebuilt reservoir town of Porto Marin
• Farming villages around Ligonde
• Arriving at Santiago de Compostela
How to get your bike there from the UK
—European Bike Express. Convenient but not all year. Coach with bike trailer that runs from north of England to Pyrenees in summer.
—Train and ferry. Cumbersome. Book your train ticket, including bike space, via East Coast. Sail from Plymouth or Portsmouth to Santander or Bilbao through for example aferry.co.uk. Book train ticket in Spain through RENFE. You'll have to buy a bike ticket at the departure station.
—Eurostar. Can now take bikes but might be pricey. Take TGV at other end. For detailed info try the excellent Seat61 rail travel website.
—Budget airlines. Possible to take your bike on Ryanair or easyJet (both go to Biarritz, and back from Santiago), though we'd be wary of trusting any airline baggage handlers. Good option with bike hire, though.
Bike hire in Spain
I rented a trekking bike (front-suspension MTB with rack and panniers supplied) from Tournride. For 250 euros I got one-way hire for a fortnight (bike dropped at our hostel in Pamplona; I returned it to their office in Santiago on completion). I can recommend them.
You'll need one. Spanish law requires that you wear it when cycling on road – except in town centres, uphill, if it's hot, or if you're allergic. Silly, but true.
• Very useful accommodation listings and reviews, and up-to-date guides, from the Confraternity of St James (tel 020 7928 9988).
• There's only one English-language book on cycling the Camino, John Higginson's Way of St James – A Cyclist’s Guidebook (Cicerone). It's a bit sparse on maps and background info, and if you can read German, French or Italian, you can find much better books in those languages.
• The best walker's maps are generally said to be John Brierley's Camino de Santiago Maps (Findhorn).
Surprisingly hard to find usable ones. This Google Map is about the best I could find.
Links and further info
—Camino de Santiago.me.uk Good start point. Forums, advice, info, good overview
—Wikipedia page History, description, background
—Confraternity of St James Well worth joining for networking, info, pilgrim pass etc
—Why the Camino sucks Reasons not to walk the Camino!
—Cycling the Camino Experience and advice