John Higginson, author of The Way of St James: A Cyclist's Guide, has this introduction to cycling the pilgrims' route from France to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain.
Legend has it that nearly 2000 years ago, Jesus’ cousin, James, returned to the Holy Land after a singularly unsuccessful attempt to convert the Spanish, only to be beheaded by Herod Agrippa. Two of his companions brought him back to Spain and buried him there. A thousand years later, his remains were believed to have been discovered and a great cathedral built on the site at Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain. The journey to visit these remains was first made by Bishop Gottschalk soon afterwards, with the church at Cluny providing hostels and churches at convenient distances along the route. The Way of St James – or, in French, Chemin de St-Jacques – had begun.
The pilgrimage soon became extremely busy, with millions making the journey in the 11th century. Over the years the number of pilgrims dwindled, but after the Second World War, thanks to the efforts of Elias Valiña Sampedro, the priest at O Cebreiro, the route was repaired and renovated, and numbers are once again in their thousands. They come to see some of Europe's most spectacular architecture set in some of it finest landscapes.
There are two major routes from France into Spain, as well as a number of altenative routes. See The Way of St James: Le Puy en Velay to Conques, The Way of St James: Conques to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and The Way of St James: Alternative Routes.
Bicycles are the modern-day pilgrims' mules
Most pilgrims travelled on foot and still do, but the rich and enlightened travelled by mule. A few still do today, but many instead choose to use the bicycle as their preferred means of transport. It is no less difficult making the pilgrimage by bike, the problems are simply different. This journey is not a holiday, but a pilgrimage. It is not supposed to be easy. It provides pilgrims with the opportunity to reflect on their lives and many will say that it is a life-changing experience.
Cyclists and walkers side-by-side
It would be very awkward and unfair if the walking and cycling pilgrim shared exactly the same route. Instead, the walkers follow the red and flashes of the GR 65 and the cyclists ride the minor roads alongside. These latter roads are usually the original walkers’ routes that have been covered in tarmac for vehicles; walkers have over the years worn new paths nearby where they are not disturbed. The two paths do, however, pass through the same towns and villages and visit the same buildings of interest, including those providing physical sustenance.
Accommodation along the way is plentiful, although in high season be prepared to ride a few kilometres off the Way to find a bed for the night. Many cyclists telephone ahead, but traditional pilgrims believe in the mantra 'God will provide' and He usually does! Be prepared to sleep in mixed dormitories in bunk beds or on mattresses on the floor, although if you are prepared to shell out the cash, more comfortable accommodation is usually available. Be prepared also to share your evening meal; this is the best time and place to meet fellow pilgrims and to pick up vital information about the journey. For alternatives, check here for links to hotel, gîte B&B, self-catered and campsite options.
Cycle shops are very few and far between. Take spares like inner tubes, a folding tyre and spokes as well as a decent tool kit, but try not to overload your bike – remember it is you who is going to have to pedal it up all those mountains. There is no best time of year to make the pilgrimage on a bike – just a few months when it's not wise to do so. The roads over the Pyrenées and the Cantabrian Mountains are often closed between November and March, although when we climbed the route to O Cebreiro in August, the bottom the temperature was 30 degrees celsius and at the top it was snowing. Whatever the conditions, make the most of them as you are unlikely to experience them again.
John Higginson is the author of The Way of St James: A Cyclist's Guide. A keen cyclist in his youth, he took up cycling again after retiring from teaching. He is now a professional writer and lecturer. He is also the author of the Cicerone guides Cycling in the Loire: The Way of Saint Martin and The Danube Cycleway: Donaueschingen to Budapest. For the Way of St James guide, he and his wife Andrea spent two years researching the pilgrimage before embarking on their journey to Santiago de Compostela in 1997; they have spent much of their time riding alternative routes ever since. They live in France only a few kilometres from the pilgrim route and can often be found helping pilgrims in Cahors Cathedral during the spring and summer months.