Bike Touring Across Spain: A Father and Son Adventure
About three years ago I decided to go on an 800 km (500 mi.) bike touring trip across Spain, completing the trail called Camino de Santiago (French Way). When I broke the news to my dad, I was surprised to hear his reaction: “I’m going with you!” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. I’m a relatively fit 30-some-year-old cyclist, and I had my own reservations about my abilities to finish an 800 km bike tour in 2 weeks on a mountainous terrain. The idea of my 60-some-year-old father coming along on this journey was worrisome, to say the least. My dad didn’t even own a bike at the time.
A couple of months passed, my dad acquired a bicycle, and my worries turned into excitement. I came to realize this could be a great opportunity for us to do something memorable together, something I’d be proud of. “When I was younger, I cycled across Spain with grandpa,” I dreamt of telling my unborn children. Another couple of months passed, and it was obvious that my dad was just as capable of completing this trip as I was. I’m not quite sure why I ever doubted his abilities. He has been very active his entire life, and he spends more time in the gym in a week than I do in a whole year.
Over the Pyrenees
September 2015 rolled around, and we found ourselves at the Montparnasse train station in Paris. My dad had come from Brazil, and I had traveled from the United States. Our plans were materializing so far. From there, we spent one night in Bayonne and another night in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, still in France, before starting to pedal towards Santiago de Compostela in the western tip of Spain.
We were ready. Fully loaded. Early start. Actually, not so fast. Before we could put our cranks to spin, we had to deal with a flat tire. One of our rental bikes was delivered with a punctured front tire. We put in a brand new inner tube and walked around Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to take some pictures. It would have been a pity to miss out on the opportunity to take pictures of this iconic town at the foot of the Pyrenees.
The first day on the saddle was a mix of excitement and disappointment. We were excited to be doing something memorable together as father and son. The views were awesome and the weather was great. But then the minutes ticked away, and then hours passed by. We pedaled uphill to cross the Pyrenees, but we were making little progress. I started to worry that we were not prepared enough, and we were not going to make it to Santiago in time for our flight home.
That first day we arrived in Roncesvalles right before nightfall, which was both a relief and a realization. A relief because we didn’t have to negotiate the tricky terrain in the dark, and a realization because it took us over 7 hours to cover the 26km (16 mi.) stretch that separates Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France from Roncesvalles in Spain. The terrain was the hardest we had ever experienced with lots of hike-a-bike sections. My dad tried to reassure me that this was only the first day, and we would still get to Santiago on time.
After a sleepless night in an uncomfortably warm albergue room, we set off to cover more terrain on our second day. More disappointment. Even though we were able to cover more ground, we were still behind schedule. We lost some time at a cafe waiting for our food before realizing that the cook had taken an hour-long break. The cold rain and the uphill sections were draining all the energy we had left and the lack of sleep was really catching up to us. We decided to cut the day short and check into a hotel in Pamplona to secure a good night of sleep.
Cutting the day short was probably one of the best decisions we made during the tour, but I was still disappointed. The trip was not going according to plan and that felt uncomfortable. My dad never had a sliver of a doubt we would make it to Santiago in 14 days, just like we had planned.
After Pamplona, our average speed started to increase and my confidence started to grow. We had a couple of rainy days and some cold mornings to cope with, but nothing that set us back too much. Those two hard days only added to the sense of accomplishment of completing this epic ride.
The view – and the wind – at the top of Alto del Perdón opened up our eyes to what laid ahead of us. This was a premonition of what was to come as a love/hate relationship with wind turbines. Spain is known for their wind turbines for a reason: it’s freaking windy! From the distance, the wind turbines were a threat, an indication that tough climbs were to come and that hauling winds were against us. Once we reached the wind turbines they suddenly became a friend, indicating we had reached a high point, usually followed by miles of easy descents.
This is probably a good spot to mention that Don Quixote is one of my favorite books. Parallels between Don Quixote’s fights with windmills and our struggles with the landscape and the wind turbines were too obvious to be ignored. I would like to think that we were not as delusional as the knight of La Mancha and his sidekick Sancho Panza, but only time would tell if imaginary enemies would defeat us.
Wine fountains, tapas lunches, jolly travelers having a beer or two. Spain is the perfect background for a cultural adventure. It was easy to forget the headwind once we stopped to take pictures, eat something, or just to take a break. There was always someone to talk to or something to see. A lot of people say that even if you are doing the Camino by yourself, you are not alone. I understand what this saying means now.
We were still behind schedule. Even though the worst terrain was behind us, we were still struggling to make up the time we had lost. Or worse, we were falling behind schedule even more. A couple of smaller mountain passes here and there, and we made our way through the mountainous areas of the trail and ventured into the plains of Castilla y León. The windmills started to disappear, and our pace started to pick up. I was still worried we would not have time to complete the route in the slotted time. What happens if we run out of time? What happens if another unforeseen mishap set us behind schedule even more? Only time would tell.
The Spanish Sun
We had yet to reckon with the force of the Spanish sun. In our planning, we specifically chose the month of September so we could miss the hot summer days. I had heard stories of travelers cutting their days short because of extreme heat. On this trip, our days had been pleasantly cool, but that was about to change. As we pedaled away from the mountains and wine producing regions, we reached the flatter parts of Spain. That’s when we got to experience first hand the infamous Spanish sun.
As the sun beat down on us, we were rewarded with well-maintained trails. We put our heads down and pedaled forward, making sure to take long lunch breaks and to stop at every watering hole along the trail (water and beer). I can see how this stretch of the Camino can be daunting for hikers, but for us, life was good as we zipped down the trails. Life was especially good since we were making up the time lost in the Pyrenees.
Final Stretch into Galicia
The Camino throws a lot of curveballs your way. One of them is climbing O Cebreiro as you leave the flattest part of the route. We had heard stories of O Cebreiro for days on the trail. Some talked about the weather being unfavorable, some talked about hiring a porter to take their bags up the mountain. What people forgot to talk about is that you first have to climb up to the Cruz de Hierro, which is the highest point on the Camino de Santiago, before getting to O Cebreiro.
After you reach O Cebreiro, you are officially in Galicia. Everything about Galicia is magical: the mist in the air, the green vegetation, the ferns covering ruined walls, and the tiny villages that dot the landscape. When we got to Galicia, it almost seemed like we had crossed the border into another country. In this part of Spain, people speak a different language called Galego, which is a mix of Portuguese and Spanish. Communication with locals became more fluid because after all, Portuguese is my mother tongue. In other parts of Spain, when I butchered the Spanish language by using words in Portuguese, I would get strange looks from the locals. In Galicia, my use of Portuguese words did not raise a single eyebrow.
We pedaled through the short hills of Galicia. The constant ups-and-downs were hard on the legs but at this point, we were fitter than we had ever been. Having our target in sight fueled our souls. In Galicia, there are stone markers indicating your current distance to Santiago. My dad and I celebrated a little every time we crossed those markers. “Are we really only 20km from Santiago?” – my dad exclaimed as we got closer to the end of our trip.
The Camino Never Ends
We arrived at our final destination in Santiago de Compostela in 13 days, one day earlier than planned. It turned out all my worries about not finishing the trip on time were in vain. My dad was right all along.
Our arrival was uneventful, no fanfare, and no ribbon to cross. We did get acknowledged by a couple of strangers that nodded and quietly congratulated us as we approached Santiago’s Obradoiro Square.
The experience I had with my father crossing an entire country, powered by our own legs, will stay with me forever. The cold, the heat, the wet clothes, the food we shared, the pictures we took, these memories will never fade. We laughed together, and at times, laughed at each other. Now, we are planning our next bike touring adventure together.