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The Camino de Santiago by Bike
The Camino de Santiago (or Way of Saint James) is one of the most popular routes for cyclists from all over the world and this article aims to provide all the information you need to prepare and enjoy this great cycling route.
Choose your Camino
There are many variants of the Camino de Santiago starting from different points across Europe. The list includes: el Camino Francés, Camino del Norte, Camino el Primitivo, la Vía de la Plata, Camino de Cataluña, Camino de Levante, Camino de Madrid, Camino de Uclés, Camino Portugués, Camino de la Lana, and even a route that begins in the Canary Islands.
The classic Camino, used by pilgrims from hundreds of countries today is the French Camino, which starts in the French town of Saint Jean Pied de Port and enters Spain by crossing the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles, which is where many pilgrims choose to start, to avoid the hard section through the Pyrenees. This is the most popular option and the most recommendable if it is your first, because it is so well marked and boasts a multitude of hostels and services that are available practically all year round. The Portuguese Coastal Route, from Lisbon, and the Via de la Plata, from Seville, which joins the French Route in Astorga, are also a good option for cyclists who are not used to long routes. The proximity to your place of residence can also be a decisive argument for choosing a particular Camino.
We recommend the website Federación Española de Amigos del Camino de Santiago, where you can see an excellent historical account of the different Caminos de Santiago and an exhaustive list of all the registered and marked routes. You can also find a description and maps of the most important Caminos in Spain at the Spanish post office website: El Camino con Correos.
When to do the Camino de Santiago
The Camino can be done at any time of year, but by bicycle it is easier and more pleasant during certain months.
May and September on average, offer milder temperatures and a low risk of rain.
In July and August, heat is intense, especially in the Castilla area, but, as this is when most people have summer holidays, it is the busiest time for pilgrims, in particular on the French Camino, which is overcrowded during these months. This especially affects cyclists who need to pay greater attention when so many pilgrims are on the trails and it may be harder to find accommodation, given that walkers have priority. Normally, however, there is enough room in both public and private hostels.
April and October are a good choice in as far as the temperature, but there is a greater chance of rain or even snow at higher altitudes and this can make certain sections of the trails quite muddy.
From November to March, is only recommended for experienced cyclists, used to cycling in winter climates, as the conditions are tougher and the days are shorter. Mud, rain and snow are a greater threat to cyclists than to walkers.
But once the dates are chosen, or forced upon you by circumstances, our advise is to take time to plan well. Gather information about the weather conditions that you may encounter on each section and the infrastructures that will be open, if you plan to go off-season.. If you plan your trip well and choose the right gear, you will be sure to enjoy the experience whatever the season. Every season has its attractions and its difficulties and the Camino guarantees an unforgettable experience, either in the solitude of winter or in the cosmopolitan, international, crowded atmosphere of summer.
Preparation, Planning Stages and Logistics
Once you have chosen which Camino route and when to go on your adventure, you will need to do some preliminary planning and preparation.
Physical training. You do not have to be an advanced cyclist to do the Camino de Santiago, but the less you have to worry about your legs and butt, the more you will enjoy the trip. However, it can turn into a real penance if you are not in adequate physical shape and are not used to the saddle. There are plenty of training plans for different levels available, in books, magazines and on specialized websites.
It is also a good idea to practice riding the bike with the real equipment and weight you plan to carry, as this increases the overall weight by about 10-12 kg, and the distribution of panniers and bags also significantly changes the behaviour of the bike.
Calculate the number of stages. If there is just one piece of advice we can give, it is do not consider the Camino a race, because you will miss a good part of its essence. If you have enough time, calculate the number of stages so that you can take time to enjoy the natural landscape, art, gastronomy and people. As a reference, the French Camino, which is 785 km long from Sant Jean Pied de Port, is usually done in 12 to 14 stages. This works out as a daily average of between 60 to 65 km, although the stages vary from 50 to 90 km, depending on the cumulative elevation gain. It is easy to find guidebooks with marked stages, descriptions and information on accommodation and points of interest for the most important and frequented routes. In the section on What to take on the Camino de Santiago we give some interesting tips.
The Credencial or Pilgrim’s Passport. This is the document that is stamped at each stage to certify your status as a pilgrim. It is for use in public hostels and is also needed to get the Compostela, providing you have: travelled at least 100 km on foot or 200 km by bike or on horseback. It contains personal identification, maps of the Camino and a square for each stamp along the route. The Credencial can be obtained through the Church, the Associations of Friends of the Camino de Santiago, the Brotherhoods, or other institutions authorized by the Cathedral of Santiago. It can also be obtained from hostels on the Camino, so this is an option at the start of the route, but it is advisable to request one beforehand. Again, we suggest you check out all the information on this issue at Federación Española de Amigos del Camino de Santiago.
Logistics. Once you have chosen the route and number of stages, you need to decide on the starting and finishing points and choose where to stay the night. Public hostels are more economical, although they can sometimes be overcrowded in the peak season and, if so, walkers have preference. Because of this, you may prefer to opt for a private hostel or guest house, which are a little more expensive but offer greater privacy and better services and the possibility of booking in advance.
Another issue to bear in mind is shipping your bicycle to the starting point and back home. It is not always easy to take it on public transport and if you plan to do this, check the conditions carefully beforehand. A courier service can be used to ship the bike to the starting point and then from Santiago to your home. The Spanish post office service, Correos offers a bicycle transportation service to and from European countries for the Camino de Santiago called Paq Bici.
But with the tremendous surge of pilgrims during the past century, it is easy to find a company that will transfer your backpack or luggage from one place of accommodation to another on each stage of the Camino.
Some may regard these concessions to comfort as opposed to the spirit of the Camino, but after twelve centuries of existence, it is inevitable that attitudes will have changed with the advances of our time. The concept of the Camino de Santiago already transcends purely religious motives and people are motivated by all all kinds of reasons to do it. These services allow you to cycle the route without your heavy panniers and packs, giving you greater freedom to pack items that will give greater independence on the stages. There are as many Caminos as there are pilgrims and each person can choose their own adventure.
Those who do not want to worry about anything other than pedalling and enjoying the tour, have the option of a Camino de Santiago full package service, which includes accommodation, luggage transfers, a support vehicle and mechanical assistance and it can be tailor-made to suit your needs. This is the perfect option for those who do not have the time or are unable to plan the tour for whatever reason and it also a good way of joining a group if you are doing it alone.
Which Bicycle is Best for the Camino de Santiago
If you intend to do most of the Camino via the original route, it is undoubtedly better to do it with a mountain bike, for its versatility. And, if you plan to carry panniers and/ or go bikepacking, we would recommend a hardtail bike. Of course, if you prefer to use your full-suspension bicycle, there are many systems available for fitting panniers and packs. At Mammoth you will find the largest assortment and professional advice on choosing the most suitable bike.
Hybrid or gravel bikes are also suitable, but you will have to go off the original route on the more technical or steeper sections. You can even look for alternative routes for completing the whole Camino on a road bike, but this means giving up the authentic Camino and contact with the other pilgrims.
Ebikes are also a good option as they give access to a greater number of cyclists, and balance the difference levels of physical fitness in a family or group of friends who want to share the journey. The only precaution you need to take with ebikes, is to ensure there is somewhere to charge the battery at the end of each stage and to use the battery life wisely.
Whichever bike you choose, the most important element for the cycle tourer is the saddle. To help you in this delicate task, we have made a series of videos to give
tips on how to choose a bicycle saddle and adjust it correctly. Ensure you have worn in the saddle long before you set off on the Camino, so that you are confident it will be comfortable after multiple days riding.
How to Carry your Baggage: Panniers and Bikepacking
Image: Bicycle touring in Spain – Spain Info
An essential accessory for bicycle touring and one of its distinguishing features is the the pannier. Unless you plan to use a luggage transport service such as those described in the Logistics section, panniers are the best solution for carrying all your gear on your touring adventures.
Modern bikepacking bags are another option, either as a complement to the panniers or used alone if you are able to minimalise your luggage.
Bags and panniers should be watertight or have a waterproof cover system to keep the contents dry in case of wet weather. Our Youtube channel includes several tutorials with information on how to choose the most suitable bike rack, panniers and on how to mount bikepacking bags:
With a good panniers and bag system, there is no need to carry any weight on your back, unless you need a hydration pack, in hot weather. If you are only using bikepacking bags, you may want to add a backpack, but we recommend you carry the lightest, essential items, to avoid back discomfort.
And finally we come to the most common query: What do I need to pack for cycling the Camino? Our suggestions are for those planning to cycle the Camino by their own means, without external support. And the first recommendation is to reduce your luggage to the essentials, because you will be lugging it for hours on end each day, including some very hard climbs, where you may end up pushing the bike. Bear in mind that, especially on the French Camino, the routes pass through many towns with all kinds of shops, hotels and even bike stores.
The following list will serve as a guide and checklist to avoid packing things you won’t need and to ensure nothing is left behind.
Be sure to pack the necessary documents in an easily accessible and waterproof bag:
Passport or ID card
Health card or medical insurance
Credit card and cash (Euros)
The Credencial (Pilgrim’s Passport), if you want to get the Compostela and use public hostels on the way.
Clothing and Cycling Gear
Cycling clothing and accessories are a must for comfort and safety:
Helmet, gloves, sunglasses, cycling shoes
Cycling shorts (2). It is important the chamois is good quality. In summer, shorts are enough and for cooler seasons pack some leg warmers for colder weather or early morning starts. In winter, we recommend long tights, although shorts and leg warmers may be enough for those who are less susceptible to the cold. If you are unsure, you can read our article on “How to Choose Cycling Shorts”.
Short-sleeved cycling jerseys (2). These are very versatile for summer cycling as you can add arm warmers in the cooler hours and use them as a base layer in spring and autumn. In winter a thermal T-shirt is usually required underneath.
Long-sleeved jacket Essential for low temperatures at any time of year, at least on the northern routes.
A windproof jacketto add a lightweight layer that protects from the early morning chill, the shade, on long descents, stops, etc.
A waterproof jacket, preferably with a waterproof and breathable membrane, such as Gore Tex, to keep you dry in wet weather and wick body moisture away.
Overshoesmade of neoprene or any other waterproof fabric, to protect your feet in wet weather. Very advisable, except in the hottest months or July and August.
Cycling socks, depending on the time of year. In summer, they should be lightweight and highly breathable, made of Coolmax or similar. At other times of year, more thermal socks will be suitable. 3 pairs are usually enough.
Neck gaiter, always useful both on and off the bike.
Earphones are essential for not disturbing other guests while listening to music or watching videos.
GPS or odometer
Headlamp, for moving in the hostel at night or on the route, if you are unable to reach your hostel before dark.
Multi tool penknife.
Bungee straps, for tying items to your bike or as a clothes line for your washing. Also pack a few clothes pegs.
Bag, neck pouch or hip belt for keeping your documents and valuables safe and close at hand, even when sleeping, if need be.
Multi plug, so that you can plug various devices into one socket.
For the Bicycle
Certain accessories and spare parts are recommendable and even essential, for dealing with repairs on the road.
Set of basic bike tools, such as Allen keys, screwdrivers, a Torx key and chain breaker in a multi-tool. We recommend watching this video for advice on how to choose the most suitable bicycle multi tool.
Mini pump for your tyres. The video below gives advice on how to choose the most suitable pump.
Puncture repair kit for inner tubes or, if you use them, tubeless tyres, which we strongly recommend.
Spare inner tube an essential item, even if using tubeless tyres.
Chain quick links or pins for chain repair.
Derailleur hanger a spare, compatible with your bike frame.
Brake pads. At least one set, as they can wear down quickly on muddy terrain.
A spoke or two, if wheels are different sizes, and a compatible spoke key.
Lubricant a small bottle and cloth for cleaning the chain.
Cable ties and duct tape, always useful for solving unexpected problems.
Bike lock to secure your bike while you go shopping, sightseeing, etc.
Rear light and reflector, for sections on the road, if it gets dark and for tunnels – in both cases they are compulsory.
Bell, this item is always compulsory, according to current legislation, but it is highly recommendable on the Camino for warning other pilgrims of your presence and avoiding accidents.
Ensure your bike is serviced and the main components are in perfect condition. But, just in case, it is also important to learn basic repairs and to use all the recommended tools such as fixing a puncture, changing the derailleur hanger, changing a cable and brake pads or adjusting the gears. You can learn more at our Youtube Mundo Mammoth channel, and you can also consult this from your smartphone on the route, if you need to refresh your memory.
You can find all the recommended equipment at our Mammoth stores and our Mammoth website.
Maps and Guidebooks of the Camino
Excellent maps and guidebooks are available, both in paper format and asapps, especially for the traditional routes. We recommend using a guidebook or other source of information so that you can check information on bars, restaurants, stores, bike shops as well as scenic, architectural and historical points of interest on the Camino.
This is also useful in case you need to modify a stage or find an alternative route due to a forced detour, etc.
There are also numerous apps such as Camino Guide, miCamino or Camino Tools. But we recommend always taking a guidebook or at least a basic map, in case you have a problem accessing the App. It is also advisable to download a weather forecast App, such as AEMET.
You can take advantage of the experience of others on social networks and find tracks of routes on platforms such as Wikiloc, Strava, Garmin Connect and many others. These tracks can be used on your GPS and Apps for your smartphone. But it is always convenient to check the date and read the comments by both the author and other users.
Final Advice for your First Camino de Santiago
If you are going to stay in public hostels, you will need to check and respect their opening times: they usually close at 22:00 and pilgrims, especially walkers, usually set off early to avoid the heat and make the most of the day. If you enjoy long evenings or are not an early riser, you may prefer to stay in private accommodation.
Cyclists still represent a small percentage of pilgrims on the Camino you will share the route with thousands of walkers who always have priority. It is important to take the utmost precautions to ensure their and your own safety. When there is little space for overtaking walkers, it is always better to warn them with your bell or verbally and, whatever the situation, the norm is always the same as on any shared road: MUTUAL RESPECT.
It is easier to cycle the route accompanied rather than alone. Apart from being more enjoyable, it is always easier to face problems that may arise, share tools and spare parts or take turns watching the bikes when shopping or sightseeing.
Just like planning the stages and times, you also need to plan nutrition, hydration and recovery , so that you are in the best possible condition for the long days ahead. You can find many tips in this section of our Youtube Channel.
And as we have already mentioned, the main advice we give when the planning the stages, is not to take the Camino as a race, but as a life experience. Whatever your reason for doing it, the most important part of this experience is the journey itself, the Camino, and there are as many paths as there are pilgrims and motivations: an adventure, a physical challenge, an inner journey, a religious feeling or simply an excuse to share a unique experience with friends and family, along one of the most important pilgrimage routes in the world.