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Cycling the Camino Frances The Camino de Santiago (Way of St James) is one of the most popular routes for walking and cycling in Europe. It attracts pilgrims, those wishing to challenge themselves, and people who just want to admire the fantastic scenery that Spain has to offer.

There are many resources where you can find details about the Camino de Santiago: the history of the different routes, the places of interest and detailed route descriptions. In this section, therefore, we will not repeat all of this information; rather, we will offer our personal recommendations and opinion about the different routes.

Routes of the Camino de Santiago

The Camino de Santiago has many different routes, some starting as far away as Eastern Europe; however, here we are only looking at the sections in Spain. Within Spain there are five main routes, of which three are by far the most travelled. The most popular route, and the one that is believed to have been travelled by St James, is the Camino Frances. This begins in Spain at the small village of Roncesvalles and continues through Pamplona, Burgos and Leon on the way to Santiago de Compostela.

The second most popular route is the Camino del Norte; this is much less busy than the Camino Frances and is generally seen as a slightly harder route, following the north coast. The third route, the Via de la Plata, is the only one that is completely in Spain from start to finish. It begins in Seville and heads north through the historic towns of Castilla y Leon before reaching Santiago de Compostela.

All three routes have advantages and disadvantages; in a series of articles we will look at the different routes, starting with the Camino France, and help you to choose the most interesting for you.

Cycling the Camino Frances

Most people that you know who have done the Camino de Santiago will have done the Camino Frances (French Way). Starting in the Pyrenees, the most popular version of this route covers nearly 750km through Navarre, La Rioja, Castilla y Leon and Galicia. Most cyclists, however, do not do the whole route. Cyclists that have a week to spend on the route usually start in Leon, which is the nearest large town that you can start from and still obtain the pilgrim's accreditation. Fortunately for these cyclists, the most spectacular scenery and the most diverse part of the Camino Frances is between Leon and Santiago de Compostela.

From Leon, the route works its way to Astorga, before reaching O'Cebreiro in a section containing the highest point on the Camino Frances. The route becomes increasingly hilly as you leave the arable lands of Leon behind and move into the greener mountainous scenery further west. The A-6 motorway carries nearly all of the traffic in the region, so you will mostly be sharing the road with a few cyclists and a lot of hikers.

The Camino Frances continues to be beautiful and isolated as it crosses into Galicia - the green scenery becoming increasingly vibrant as you get closer to the Atlantic coast. The roads continue to be undulating as the Camino Frances passes through Sarria and Palas de Rei, before the fantastic descent into Santiago de Compostela. It is here that pilgrims can best imagine the journey of St James, whilst more secular travellers can feel a sense of accmoplishment at reaching the end point of their tour.

Unless you are doing the Camino as part of a pilgrimmage, I would not recommend cycling the section before Leon. There is some attractive, rolling countryside for much of this part of the route, with some historic villages and, in Burgos and Pamplona, a couple of interesting cities. The vineyards of the La Rioja region are particularly attractive, especially if you visit during the harvest in September and October. However, unlike the walking route which frequently goes off-road through narrow tracks and rocky trails, the cycling route sticks to the road and there is a slight lack of variety in the landscape.

The section between Pamplona and Logrono is undulating without ever really giving you fantastic views of the countryside infront of you. As you get closer to Burgos, however, and from Burgos to Leon the route becomes flatter and the greener scenery gives way to hundreds of kilometres of arable land, with a few villages dotted along the way. While the countryside here is not exactly boring, it certainly does not showcase the best that northern Spain has to offer. Although I am sure that you would not be disappointed if you did choose to do this route; if you are on a longish cycling holiday there are other areas nearby that would be much better to cycle through instead, before meeting up with the Camino Frances at Leon.

If you wish to cycle the Camino Frances, but have longer than the week that it takes from Leon, the best option is to follow a route north of the Camino Frances, through the Basque Country and Cantabria, before dropping south to join the Camino at Leon. Between May and October, the north of Spain is one of the best regions of Spain for cycling. It does not suffer from the repressive heat that is present even a hundred or so kilometres south in Castilla y Leon and La Rioja, and has a unique culture, distinct from much of Spain.

If you have several weeks to tour, the Basque Country is an ideal starting point. Starting at San Sebastian, you can follow the coast around to Bilbao (see the section on Lekeitio for full details). From here you could enter Cantabria and, if you enjoy cycling in the mountains, you can base yourself at the Picos de Europa National Park, which contains some of the highest climbs in Europe (see section on Picos de Europa for details).

From the Picos de Europa, you can head west towards Oviedo, before heading south to Leon to join up with the Camino Frances. If you still have enough gas in the legs, you can try your hand at the legendary Angliru, which is situated just off this stretch.

Vineyards of La Rioja - Cycling the Camino Frances

Weather on the Camino de Santiago

The best time of year to do the Camino Frances is from mid-April until the start of November. If you plan to cycle the route from Leon, then it is fine to tour in July and August. Accommodation will be booked up quickly and the route will be very busy at these times, but the heat is not such a big factor as in much of Spain. The section between Pamplona and Leon, however, usually gets very hot in the summer months, and I would that you do this section in Spring and Autumn. The Camino del Norte is a better choice if you wish to do a long distance Camino in July and August.

June and September are probably the most pleasant months to cycle the Camino Frances. The route will be busy with cyclists and walkers, but not as crowded as in the height of summer. The weather is warm, but be aware that it does rain regularly in Galicia throughout the year.

People often ask us at Cycle Fiesta if it is possible to do the Camino Frances in winter. Although it may be possible at times, we would certainly not recommend it between December and February. The roads between Pamplona and Leon are usually fine for cycling through the winter; however, the air temperature can be cold, and the scenery through La Rioja and Burgos is much less attractive in winter than the rest of the year.

The section between Leon and Santiago de Compostela is much more difficult to cross during the winter. At times, the roads in the mountains (particularly around O'Cebreiro) are closed because of snow, so you may well have to find an alternative route. For walkers it is less of a problem as they can go through the snow with too much inconvenience; but, in Spain, the mountains roads will close with even light snowfall, making it both difficult and dangerous to complete on bike. It will also be very cold in the mountains, with temperatures regularly below freezing. We do not run tours in this region in winter and would strongly advise against you organising your own at this time of year.

If you really want to cycle the Camino de Santiago, and winter is the only season that you are available, the Via de la Plata route is the best option. However, even on this route, there will be some unpleasantly cold days. A much better option would be to follow the professionals and book a winter cycling holiday in Mallorca, Tenerife or Valencia.

Getting to the Camino de Santiago

There are a couple of important factors that will determine how easy it is to get to the starting point of the Camino Frances. The first is where exactly you wish to start, and the second is whether or not you wish to bring your own bike with you.

If your starting point is Leon then there are several options. Leon does have a domestic airport with regular flights from Barcelona and occasional flights from several other Spanish cities. The nearest larger airports are in Santiago de Compostela and Bilbao - both of which offer flights to a variety of international destinations. The train from both of these takes around five hours and, importantly, does not allow bikes on board. Therefore, if you wish to take your bike with you, the best option is to fly into Madrid. From here there are several trains that run; however, only the Intercity trains (taking around four and a half hours) accept bikes on board. Unfortunately, these only have space for three bikes each (although many guards will allow more on) and you need to get a separate ticket for your bike.

One final option is to fly into Asturias aiprort, which is around 150km from Leon. However, this is only a small airport which serves a limited number of destinations.

If you wish to start at the beginning of the Camino Frances in either Roncesvalles or, just over the border in France, at Saint Jean Pied de Port, then the trip will need a fair bit of planning. The nearest airports in Spain, San Sebastian and Pamplona, offer flights to and from Madrid and Barcelona. Biarritz airport, the closest in France, has a few direct flights to Northern European cities. This is the best option if you can find a convenient flight, as the train runs directly from nearby Bayonne into Saint Jean Pied de Port. Trains, however, are not regular, so it pays to plan a bit in advance. From San Sebastian you can also catch a train to Bayonne, before changing on towards Saint Jean Pied de Port. Trains also run to Bayonne through France, including a direct line from Paris, so if you prefer (and can afford) going by rail rather than flying, then this is the better option.

Other than from Biarritz, most people starting the Camino in this area, make their way via Pamplona. Pamplona is three hours by train from Madrid and close to four hours from Barcelona. There is one train from Barcelona (Intercity) that will allow you to take bicycles on board, but there are none from Madrid. From Pamplona, there are trains, but there is a regular bus to Roncesvalles. If you wish to reach the start by this route, you will have to hire a bike as they will not be allowed on the buses. However, if you want to bring your own bike, you could just begin the Camino Frances from Pamplona instead.

If you wish to begin somewhere else between Pamplona and Leon then you will have to use a combination of trains and buses. There are direct trains from Barcelona that accept bikes to both Logrono and Burgos; while to start from one of the smaller villages you will have to take a local bus from the nearest city.

Departure at the end of the tour is much more straight forward. Santiago de Compostela has a reasonably sized international airport, and the vast majority of cyclists doing the Camino will fly out of here. If you have brought your own bike then this is the only real option, as the trains out of Santiago de Compostela do not carry bikes (some ALSA buses do carry bikes, but it is a big gamble out of Santiago de Compostela as the driver will often refuse or the luggage area will be full). If you hire a bike for the tour, then it is possible to catch a train into Madrid, a city well worth visiting for a few days if you have the time.

Cathedral Santiago de Compostela - Cycling the Camino Frances

Tour operators on the Camino de Santiago

The Camino Frances is one of the easiest cycling holidays to organise by yourself. The route information and details of places of interest is readily available in numerous books and on tens of websites (one thing to be careful about is that the vast majority of the maps and guides are for the walking route, which differs from the cycling route at times). There are, however, a few reasons why it may be better for you to book with an operator rather than going it alone.

The first reason is bike hire. As you can see from the 'Getting There' section, you have a lot more options if you are not carrying your own bike with you. Indeed, depending on which company you fly with and how many connecting flights you need to take, it may well be cheaper to hire a bike than bring your own.

Another advantage of booking with a tour operator is that they will carry your luggage. Some people enjoy carrying their stuff around on panniers; however, the section from Leon in particular is quite hilly and it can be more enjoyable to cycle with a lighter load.

Tour operators are also able to organise accommodation in busy periods. They know the best hotels in the area and can often reserve them at discounted rates. If you prefer to organise it yourself, then you may well be interested in staying in the albergues along the route. This is a great budget option and allows you to meet with other pilgrims doing the route. Be aware, however, that the albergues (particularly the closer you get to Santiago de Compostela) are often full between the end of May and the end of September. Priority is given to hikers over cyclists if space is limited, so it is best to ensure that you have a back-up plan.

At Cycle Fiesta we run a self-guided tour along the Camino Frances from Leon to Santiago de Compostela. We also run bespoke tours from any starting point along the way, please contact us for more details.