On a day when COVID lockdown has got the better of me and the foetal position on the couch seemed the only option, an email came in from Cycling Tours in Spain (we had to cancel ours in 2019 and couldn’t even dream of doing one in 2021). Australia feels permanently locked down from any form of overseas travel in the foreseeable future so the concept of writing about one of my journeys rather got me going.
My first journey to Spain on a bike in 2003 sparked in me a love of anything Spanish so I have continued to visit and explore this fabulous country both on foot and on a bike. But let me tell you about this first trip.
By Sue Tomkinson
St Jean Pied de Port
Four gals, three from Oz and one Canadian, with ages ranging from 40-55 yrs, packed up our bikes and flew to Paris; successfully connected with each other; met up with a carrier to get us to Gare d’Este with the bikes still packed in boxes; and then on a train to St Jean Pied de Port. In a time when the Internet was available but a lot less booking options and information to be found, I still marvel at how we achieved this feat.
In Australia it has always been possible to take bikes on trains, in or out of boxes, but little did we know that wasn’t the same in Europe. The conductor told us we couldn’t board, but we thought he was kidding and a language barrier to boot, so we bluffed our way through this and found ourselves a disused toilet cubicle, stacked them all upright in there and settled down for the long journey through France to the Spanish border.
Three of us had flights booked out of Santiago de Compostela in 6 weeks, so we weren’t in any particular hurry. In 2003 there were no cycling maps for the Camino Frances, nor were Google maps and Internet accessibility so prevalent, so we figured we had to follow the trail as set down for the walkers in the paper maps provided. Little did we understand what this meant!!
Top of the Pyrenees
Excitement was building as we obtained our credential and a shell from the office in StJPP. At this point in time they had seen very few cyclists and as he wished us well I asked would we get tea and cake when we achieved the top of the Pyrenees. This was half joking on my part, but I also had a vision it was a possibility there would be a tea house at the top. He responded in such a way for me to believe that it was a highly likely possibility. We had all purchased the same orange bike tops with humorous motifs on them so we were very recognisable as a team.
We had trained hard and were very fit, but really, there are no mountains like the Pyrenees in Australia so day one was an extreme challenge. The trail itself is steep and walkable, but on a bike?? Needless to say we probably pushed our laden heavy bikes about 50% of the 25km and arrived tired and exhausted into Roncesvalles. And we must have been so tired we missed that dreamed of tea house at the top.
Riding to Pamplona
Day 2 was a much nicer day into Pamplona, a distance of about 40km, with the option of made roads running parallel to the trail and despite being hilly, was generally downhill. Our plan had been to stay in all the designated pilgrim albergues but the Pamplona one was full when we arrived so we found another with a room for 4.
Cracks started to appear in “the team”. About 24 hours on a plane; navigating Paris; two complex train journeys across France; a night in StJPP and pushing a bike halfway up the Pyrenees led a couple of us to want to take a rest day in the beautiful Pamplona. But the youngest, and probably fittest of us, was on a tighter schedule and created a very difficult situation.
We had all agreed before departing on this journey that if at least 2 of us wanted a break, then we would take it. Oh no, that agreement seemed to have been forgotten. On we went and cycled an average of 30-40km per day comfortably – stopping and exploring along the way. After a couple of days the “team” member wanted to ride further and so we told her to go ahead. That left three of us, much happier, I might like to add. And so we rode on in this manner until about 20km out of Burgos.
We had become tired of trying to manage the heavily rocky walking trail and so whenever we could we took the main road. On this beautiful sunny day we decided to take a very busy main road so we could make some speed. Yes, you guessed it, an accident waiting to happen.
One rider off and unconscious in the middle of the road. This is a story in itself, but suffice to say, a very worrying time and her trip was over with a broken collarbone and three fractures in her pelvis. When her husband arrived from Australia after about 5 days, the two remaining of us took a piece of her bike clothing and headed off to finish the journey.
Part Two to follow – Getting out of Burgos...
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