How to Bike the Camino de Santiago (French Way)
Camino de Santiago, also referred to in English as St. James Way, is the denomination given to any pilgrimage route that ends in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. One of the most traveled Camino routes is the French Way (Camino Francés in Spanish), this route traditionally starts in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France.
The Camino started as a religious enterprise centuries ago but in recent years it has also become popular with travelers looking for an adventure or a break from their busy lives. Most travelers complete the Camino walking, but biking is increasing in popularity.
Biking the French Way is certainly a challenge. The path crosses Spain close to its northern coast covering roughly 800 km (500 mi) and it includes all types of terrain you can think of: dirt paths, paved roads, rocky descents, and cow pastures, just to name a few.
When I was planning my own trip, I couldn’t find a whole lot of information for travelers wanting to complete the Camino on a bike, the vast majority of information on the internet and travel guides are targeted to folks who want to walk the Camino. In this post, I’ll try to give you as much information as possible to help you plan your cycling trip to complete the Camino de Santiago. These recommendations/tips are based on my experience, other people might live a completely different experience, and that’s OK.
Finishing the French Way on a bike is not easy and you should prepare accordingly. Most avid cyclists can complete the 800 km (500 mi) ride in about 11 to 14 days. It all depends on your fitness level and how much time you want to spend doing other things besides riding your bike. I recommend 13 to 14 days if you want to have enough time to make well deserved stops at local cafes and explore nearby attractions.
Keep in mind that to ride 800 km in 14 days, you’ll need to average about 57 km (35 mi) a day. The terrain is pretty hilly in certain sections and you’ll have to cross two mountain ranges (more on this later). I consider an “avid cyclist” someone that bikes two or three times a week averaging some 40 km (25 mi) per ride.
Anyone can complete this trip with the right preparation. Start practicing at least 8 months before your scheduled trip date and gradually increase the distance you can cover during a single bike ride. Everyone is different and it’s not up to me to tell you what will work well for you. For what it’s worth, I prepared for 8 months, biking on average 100 km (60 mi) a week, sometime biking 100 km on the weekends alone. I still found the Camino to be very challenging.
Camino Francés (French Way)
Why the Camino Francés? This is one of the most well documented trails in the world. It’s nearly impossible to get lost and there’s plenty of infrastructure along the way to support the dozens of thousands pilgrims that walk and bike the Camino every year. You won’t feel like you are in a touristy spot, even though you will be sharing the Camino with hundreds of other people every day.
The Camino Francés will take you through many different cultures even though you will be in the same country (almost) the entire way. A lot of people decide to do the Camino by themselves, but trust me, even if you start by yourself, you won’t be alone.
Let’s get into a little bit more detail on how you organize your travel plans. There are two basic options when it comes to having a bike at your starting point: 1) Ship your own bike; 2) Find a bike at the starting point.
Shipping Your Own Bike
I found out that shipping my own bike from the US to Europe would have been the most expensive option. There are many services that will ship your bike across the globe, but they all use the same international shipping carriers like UPS, Fedex, and others, meaning they all have similar prices. Bikeflights.com is a very popular bike shipping service.
Consider all the costs involved with shipping, such as: buying a bike box, taking your box to a drop-off location, actual shipping rates, picking up the box at your starting point.
If you want a hands-off approach, your local bike shop will package and ship your bike for you, but they usually will ship your bike to another bike shop at the destination location. This brings the rates down a little bit since it’s not a true door-to-door service. Also consider the fact that you will end your trip at a different location from where you started, meaning that you have to pay for shipping supplies all over again.
Some folks will pay the premium rates to have their own bike shipped because they want their bike to be part of their journey, almost like transforming their bike into some sort of trophy. If there’s one thing that I learned during the Camino is to not be attached to material things, but if having your own bike as a trophy will make you happy/accomplish your dreams, no one will be judging you.
Not Shipping Your Own Bike
Another option is to find a bike at your starting point. In this case, you can either buy a bike when you get to your starting point or rent one. Renting a bike for 2 weeks turns out to be a lot more cost effective than shipping your own bike overseas. There are a few main services that target travelers doing the Camino: Bicigrino and Bikeiberia. There are other companies out there but I did not had a chance to talk to anyone else on the Camino that used these other services.
I fully recommend Bicigrino, which is the service I used for my trip. The website is not very user-friendly but once you get past that, their service is top notch. They have a hard time answering e-mails in English (Spanish preferred), but they do respond to e-mails very fast. The bikes were delivered on time where I was staying in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and returning the bike in Santiago was a breeze.
Bicigrino hooks you up with everything you need bikewise, they send the bikes with top of the line panniers from Ortlieb, maintenance equipment, and spare parts. They even included a pair of derailleur hangers in case the one attached to your bike gets bent during your trip. I saw and talked to other folks along the Camino that rented their bikes from Bicigrino and they had no complains about the service and they all loved the bike they were riding. In 2015, Bicigrino was renting Specialized Crave bikes, which proved to be a very good option for the challenging terrain along the Camino.
Besides renting a bike, you can purchase one in Spain/France. As you probably already know, cycling is a very popular sport in Europe and finding an used bike at your stating point won’t be that hard. Just keep in mind that if you decide to bring the bike back with you, you will still have to pay for shipping costs at the end of your trip. Again, I found renting a bike to be the most cost effective and trouble free option for the Camino.
Getting to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port
Like I have mentioned before, you don’t have to start in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, you may start anywhere you want. But if you want to follow the traditional French Way, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port will be your starting point – in France.
There are a couple minor airports close to SJPP: Biarritz in France and Pamplona in Spain. These regional airports don’t offer a great deal of flexibility when coming from outside of Spain and France. A lot of people actually find it easier to fly into a major airport and then take a train or a bus to SJPP.
In my case, it was more cost effective to fly to Paris and catch a train to Bayonne, and from there, hop on a combination of a train/bus ride to SJPP.
The fastest way from Paris to SJPP is to catch a fast train from Paris’ Montparnasse train station. Since I’m in pretty good spirits today, I’m going to tell you exactly what to do when you get to Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport:
Plan to arrive early in the day in Paris, this will give you more flexibility (more options in the timetable) to get to Bayonne. After you claim your baggage, follow the airport signs to the RER B station. RER is one of the many metropolitan transportation options in Paris. The RER B will pick you up at the airport train station and drop you off pretty close (15 min walk) to the Montparnasse train station at the Denfert-Rochereau RER station. I found the RATP website to be very useful for looking up local transportation in Paris.
Once at the Montparnasse train station, you’ll take a fast train (TGV) to Bayonne. You can save quite a bit of money by planning ahead and buying your ticket online. Train tickets for long distance rides in most countries in Europe are much more expensive if you buy on the spot. I’m talking about twice-the-price more expensive in many cases.
Now that you have a ticket to Bayonne, just hop on the correct train and enjoy the 5 hour ride :).
The easiest way to get from Bayonne to SJPP is to go to the local train station and buy a “train” ticket to SJPP. SNCF, France’s train operator, currently doesn’t have any trains connecting Bayonne directly to SJPP, but they offer a combination of train and bus ride to take you to SJPP. Just let the teller know you want a ticket to SJPP and you will pay a single price for the train and bus ride. The trip takes 1 hour and 15 minutes, including the train-to-bus transfer in Cambo Les Bains. Keep in mind that service to SJPP is a bit limited. There are 3 departure times on weekdays and 2 on weekends.
Another option is to ride your own bike from Bayonne to SJPP. This is a 52 km (32 mi) uphill ride.
Accommodations Along the Camino
O.K. So far you’ve learned that renting a bike is the most cost effective option and you also have all the details on how to make your way to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. You might be asking yourself: How about accommodations? What are the options? I’ve got some info for you.
Also known as hostels. Camino albergues do not quite follow the same standard of a normal European hostel. Albergues are dormitory style accommodations that can cost anywhere from €0 to €15. You must be thinking “€0! That must be a typo”. Well, some albergues operate solely on donations from pilgrims, meaning pilgrims pay what they can afford for a night’s sleep. The quality/comfort of the accommodation can vary widely (pretty much true for any kind of accommodation on the Camino) and surprisingly enough, the quality of the albergue it is not directly related to how much you pay for a bed. There are several different types of albergues: some are privately owned, some are owned by different government bodies, and some are owned by religious organizations. They all have similar rules in which most travelers are expected to hit the road by 8 am. Another thing to keep in mind is that albergues are filled on a first-come, first serve basis. Some albergues will save a few spots for pilgrims arriving later in the day. Also worth noting that walking pilgrims take precedence over cyclists; the reasoning being that you can probably bike a few more kilometers in just a few minutes and find accommodation in the next town if need be. Albergues range from pretty crappy to pretty OK, never awesome. Its pretty impossible to walk into a town or a small village along the Camino and not bump into an albergue.
I basically see hostals as family-run hotels. Most of them will offer a combination of rooms with private or shared bathrooms. Hostal prices vary from around €20 to €50, and like alberges, prices won’t always be a good indication of how comfortable they are. There are some pretty great €30 hostals out there and there are some pretty bad €35 hostals on the Camino. €30-€40 will usually be enough for a double room, sometimes with private bathroom, sometimes not.
Casa Rural (rural home in a literal translation to English) is the Camino version of a Bed and Breakfast. Don’t expect the extra-plush pillows or the Victorian bathroom decoration you might find in the analogous American bed and breakfast version though. Casa rural prices are similar to hostals, in the €20 to €40 range. I found the food at Casa Rurales to be the best stuff out there.
I’m not quite sure what the difference is between a Pension and a Pension Rural. Pensions are houses or buildings subdivided into apartments. These usually include a private bathroom, but there’s no front desk or any other hotel-like service available.
Camp site options are very limited along the Camino. I only remember seeing one or two camp sites along the way. One could camp in the wild, but… why would you? Really, why would you camp when you can pay €10 or less for a bed in an albergue?
How to book a room or a bed
Like I have mentioned, all you have to do to get a bed in an albergue is show up before they are full. Another very easy way to find a room or a bed is to call ahead. Some people book their accommodations days in advance along the Camino, but the vast majority of hikers and cyclists will book accommodations the day of or one day in advance. All you have to do is figure out how many kilometers you are willing to bike on a given day, pick one or two towns on the map that are close to the chosen distance and call a couple places.
Another easy way to find accommodation is to use Booking.com, which is a darn good site to find last minute accommodations anywhere in Europe. Booking.com has tons of independent properties listed and many properties will let you cancel the day before without charging any fees. You won’t find albergues on Booking.com, but many of the other accommodation options are available.
Accommodations in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port
It’s not that easy to find accommodation in SJPP. Book in advance. SJPP does have traditional albergues where no reservation is needed, but those fill up pretty fast during the high season. I’d recommend booking something in advance. Keep in mind that you’ll need to arrange to have your bike delivered in SJPP, so booking in advance is a smart idea.
Storing Your Bike Along the Camino
Your bike will be safe. Just take the minimum safety precautions and you’ll be fine. All the places I spent the night were kind enough to provide a safe place to store my bike. Don’t expect a dedicated bike storage unit. Just be a little bit more careful in and around the bigger cities.
To give you an idea, my bike remained unlocked about 90% of the time it was parked somewhere along the Camino. On the 13 days that I biked across Spain, my bike spent the night in the main entrance of a hostal, in a server room at a hotel in Pamplona, at the courtyard of a casa rural, in a gas station storage unit, inside an unlocked storage container, in a private parking garage, and in many other places. I never worried about my bike getting stolen. Don’t leave any valuable gadgets attached to it and remove all your luggage; those items are more likely to get stolen than your bike.
There’s no need to pack more than a simple snack for the day. There will be plenty of opportunities to buy food and beverages along the way. Do bring extra water with you on hot days. No need to overthink it, the trail is dotted with towns, villages, and hamlets and you won’t have to bike for more than half an hour to find a place to eat or refill your water bottles.
Eating and drinking along the Camino is one of the many pleasures you’ll enjoy during this trip. Some days you’ll get lucky and score an awesome traditional dinner at a local restaurant, and other days you’ll solely survive on low budget bocadillos (sandwiches). I suggest packing some chocolate bars in case you need a little energy boost to get to the next town.
Here’s a breakdown of the most common delicacies you will find along the Camino:
Tortilla is the Spanish take on omelettes. It can take many forms; from the very simple egg and potato traditional version to the more complex chorizo and vegetables fare. Pretty much any place that sells edible items on the Camino will have tortilla on the menu. I found tortilla to be good biking food since they are a good mix of protein and carbs.
Bocadillo is basically the Spanish word for sandwich. These sandwiches can take many forms and can come an in a variety of sizes. The most common bocadillo out there, by far, is cheese and ham. At first, it might sound like a cheese and ham sandwich is not a very special thing to eat when you are trying to live an unforgettable international experience. And you are right in thinking so. Do know that the cheese in Spain is delicious and that we are not just talking about the same type of ham you find sliced in the deli section of your favorite grocery store in the US. Jamón (ham) implies jamón serrano which is the dry cured version of ham, not the overly-processed-individually-packed ham most common in the US.
You can pretty much ask for about anything you want inside your bocadillo. Most places will have a list of sandwiches and their prices, but I usually just took those as mere suggestions and just asked for whatever I wanted. Do you want a splash of olive oil? just ask for it. Do you want some tomatoes? Why not! Would you like tortilla inside your sandwich? Yep, they will do that for you.
Tapas isn’t a specific type of dish but rather how a dish is served. Tapas are bite-size appetizers or snacks that exist in a wide variety of flavors. Most common tapas found around Spain include potatoes dressed in many different types of sauces, squid, octopus, and meatballs. These appetizers might be served on top of bread slices or with no bread. In the Basque country, tapas are referred as pintxos. Many Basque citizens will try to convince you that pintxos are different than tapas, but you know, they might also try to convince you that everything in the basque country is different than the rest of Spain.
Tapas are a great way to taste many different flavors of Spain without having to commit to one single dish for your meals.
Food is absolutely tasty in Spain. Don’t let many of pilgrim traps that serve fairly overpriced average-tasting food discourage you from finding a great meal along the trail. I had many great meals along the Camino including an awesome sea bass meal at the Roncesvalles albergue, some of the best octopus I have ever tasted in Galicia, and a traditional paella dinner in Población de Campos. One of the things I enjoyed the most, was sharing a table with complete strangers along the Camino. Having a bike with you gives you great freedom, you can just bike around town and find a place that appeals to your taste.
Beer and Wine
All I have to say is that there won’t be a shortage of bars suitable for beer stops (and to eat some tapas). Likewise, you won’t have to put much effort into finding some wine to sip on.
Let’s talk about the terrain, this is a biking (and beer) blog after all.
Gradual uphills, steep inclines, flats, rocks, loose gravel, asphalted roads, pastures, you name it. The Camino is a potpourri of terrain options. Most of the “official” path is not paved but the conditions are pretty decent. Notably, on the first two days of the Camino, biking from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles and continuing on to Pamplona, you will encounter the most challenging terrain. Big boulders, sharp rocks, and muddy conditions will alternate along the way as you cross the Pyrenees.
There are multiple sharp short ascents along the trail, making it very hard to pedal through to the top. Don’t feel like you can’t dismount your bike and push it uphill, you won’t be the first or the last cyclists inclined to push your bike to the top of a steep hill; remember, this is not a race. I’d recommend equipping your bike with some climbing gear, like a 22T small front ring. This will make it easier to spin your way to the top as opposed to mash down on your pedals and getting tired faster. Pretty much every single cyclist that saw the 22T ring on my bike said the same thing: “I wish I had a ring that small”. But the Camino is not just all uphills, there are lots of flats and descents. You’ll be better served with a wide cassette that will let you speed up when you want to and spin your legs when you have to. The last 200 km (125 mi) are notorious for sharp ups and downs.
What’s better than a few pictures to illustrate the type of terrain you will encounter?
I’ll make it easy for you and break out the average daily cost in three categories: 1) Super low budget pilgrim; 2) Somewhat thrifty traveler; and 3) all-out rich man. My costs averaged about €40 a day.
1) Super low budget pilgrim: money is limited and the Camino experience is your riches
Albergue: €8 – €12 (for a single bed)
Food supplies for the day: €8 – €12
Daily cost: €16 – €24
2)Somewhat thrifty traveler: can spend a little bit of money but you don’t want to break the bank
Casa Rural/Pension/Hostal: €15 – €40 (for a double room)
Breakfast: €5 – €8
Lunch: €5 – €12
Dinner: €8 – €12
Trail supplies: €5
Daily cost: €30 – €57 (per person)
3)all-out rich man: money is not a problem
Regular Hotel/Hotel Parador: €70 – €400
Lunch: €12 – €20
Dinner: €12 – €50
Daily cost: I’m not even going to do the math
If you can follow “next” and “previous” arrows on a web page, you can navigate the Camino Francés. It’s pretty crazy how you can bike across Spain entirely following hand-painted yellow arrows. I was a bit skeptical at first, thinking that at some point the arrows would completely disappear on me and I’d get lost in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone signal (or data package for that matter) to google map my way back on track. My skepticism was foolish. It helps to have a road map if you want to deviate from the walking path.
Like I’ve mentioned, the Camino is mainly a walking path. Some sections of the trail are just not fun for cyclists. I recommend bringing a road map in case you want to take an alternative way. During my trip, I estimate that I actually followed about 80% of the “official” walking path on my bike. The other 20% I choose to take a more bike-friendly route.
I used a combination of maps on a travel guide and a GPS application on my phone to guesstimate if the route was bikable or not. If I thought the path wasn’t going to be fun, I opted to take a nearby road. On the other hand, if the road system deviated too much from the walking path, I opted to follow the walking path so I didn’t miss out too much on the Camino experience.
Use your best judgement and figure out what is best for you. There’s no right or wrong way of traveling along the Camino.
A Village to Village Guide to Hiking the Camino De Santiago: Camino Frances: St Jean – Santiago – Finisterre (this is the guide I used)
A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago: St. Jean Roncesvalles Santiago (saw many other folks using this guide)
OsmAnd (mapping application – ability to download offline maps for free)
Bicigrino (this is the service I used)
Bike Iberia (talked to other folks that rented their bikes)