The Camino de Santiago by bike: how to prepare and what to take with you
Bicycle company Tuvalum and travel agency Tee Travel share their top tips on how to become a bicigrino (bike pilgrim)11 jul 2022 . Actualizado a las 12:16 h.
What do Ronaldo and David Bisbal have in common? OK… a clue: two wheels and a trail of yellow arrows to follow. That’s right, they’ve both completed the Camino de Santiago by bike! While the singer completed it in 2009, the former Brazilian footballer has been the latest star to jump on the bicigrino bandwagon. In recent years, bike pilgrims have accounted for around 6% of those arriving at the gates of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, which marks the end of the pilgrimage. So far this year, some 5,000 people have reached the Obradoiro main square in Santiago atop a bike. Would you like to join them? Bicycle company Tuvalum and specialised agency Tee Travel are on hand to give us their advice: which bike to choose, what equipment to bring along, how to prepare and plan the route... So grab your helmet and follow us!
Before we get started, there is something very important that every bicigrino should know. To earn the Compostela (certificate showing that you have completed the Camino de Santiago), you must have completed the last 200 kilometres of one of the official pilgrimage routes by bike, instead of the 100 kilometres required for pilgrims travelling on foot. Note also that electric bikes or e-bikes do not count, according to the Pilgrims Office.
Which bike to choose
Ismael Labrador, founder of Tuvalum, recommends a gravel or trekking bike. Gravel bikes are «similar to road bikes, but are adapted for riding on unpaved roads.» Meanwhile, trekking bikes are built for long distances; «They are usually more comfortable and allow you to fit panniers.»
What should you do if you don’t have that kind of bike? Well, the expert warns against opting for a bike with slick tyres, as «You won't be doing much travelling on paved roads, so you can slip and moreover it won’t comfortable or efficient.» Fortunately, the boom in the number of bicigrinos has prompted many companies to offer a rental service for both normal and electric bikes. According to Tee Travel, electric bikes are a good choice for those who are not used to riding long distances.
The kit of a bicigrino: the equipment you will need and how to carry it
Aside from the bicycle, there are various items that every bicigrino should carry. First and foremost, a helmet is essential. When it comes to clothing, your best bet would be cycling attire. «Ideally you should wear a jersey and bib shorts with protection because you will be seated for hours on end,» explains Ismael Labrador. For those who don’t have that kind of material and prefer to find something from their own wardrobe, it is important to choose snug-fitting clothing «so that it doesn’t get caught up in the chain,» adds Tee Travel.
Turning to footwear, the travel agency explains that it really depends on what the cyclist finds most comfortable, although at Tuvalum they recommend cleats: «Your foot will be attached to the pedal, you’ll be more comfortable, your pedalling will be more efficient and doing so will help prevent injury.» It is also advisable to take a windbreaker in case the weather turns cold, as well as a mackintosh, cycling gloves, sun cream and, for those who need them, sports sunglasses.
Aside from the usual luggage brought by any pilgrim, which should be kept to a bare minimum, doing the Camino by bike requires some more specific gear. «A couple of spare tubes for the tyres, a puncture repair kit, a small CO2 cylinder and a basic tool kit», according to Ismael Labrador. «They are very small kits that fit in any bag and can easily be placed under the saddle,» he adds.
How to carry your gear? Saddlebags would be the traditional solution. They should be placed above the rear wheel, under the saddle, and the material should be split between two packs on each side «so that the load is balanced», explains Labrador. «You can also find accessory bags that can be hung on the bike frame,» he adds. At Tee Travel, where they provide a saddlebag rental service, they explain that more and more pilgrims have stopped using them, preferring instead to arrange the rucksack transport service.
Planning: which route to choose and how to carve up the stages
When planning the Camino by bike, you should pay closer attention to the type of services available along each stage. For example, it’s important to check that there is a repair shop in the village or town where you will be staying in case you need to get your bike fixed. When it comes to accommodation, both Tuvalum and Tee Travel recommend looking for something bike-friendly. They usually have a safe place to store the bike and often somewhere to wash it at the end of the day.
As for which route to choose, Tee Travel advises first-time cyclists to opt for the French or Portuguese Way, or one of the variants running along the coast, as they do not have steep slopes and are well signposted. «They also have specific sections for pilgrims on bicycles in areas where the usual path is difficult to ride on,» they add.
Regarding the best time of year to cycle to Santiago, experts recommend avoiding July and August because of the heat and also winter because of the possibility of rain. According to Tee Travel, «The best months are April, May, June, September, October and even November.»
The stages for bicigrinos are generally twice as long as those for pilgrims travelling on foot. Thus, bike pilgrims will typically cover «some 50 to 60 kilometres» per day, Tee Travel explains. However, as with any pilgrimage, this is an indicative figure and will ultimately depend on the physical fitness of each pilgrim. «Let’s not forget that you have a long way to go and you’re going to be on your bike for several days,» notes Ismael Labrador.
Preparation: how to train
So, can anyone do the Camino by bike?
«The route’s really not that demanding and there aren’t too many ascents. The route is also suitable for all ages, though you do need to be in decent physical shape. Doing 20 kilometres on just one day is not the same as doing 200 or even 300 kilometres over the course of a whole week. You need a certain amount of preparation,» explains Ismael Labrador.
For the most part, «a moderately fit adult will do just fine», say Tee Travel, who advise against doing it with children. For those who are not used to cycling long distances, they recommend choosing an electric bike and «getting some proper training in two or three months beforehand —about 30 kilometres a day, including hills.»
Preparation is, in fact, an essential step for any bicigrino, as cycling is ultimately a sport. «For anyone who’s not used to doing sport, it’s best to have a medical check-up done beforehand, just to make sure you have no blood pressure or cardiovascular problems...», Tuvalum explains. To train properly, they recommend heading to a sports centre.
Taking care of yourself while on the Camino
Because cycling is a sport and can be demanding, you should also take proper care of yourself during the Camino. «It’s very important to stay hydrated and eat properly before, during and after each stage. Many people only drink and eat when they are thirsty or hungry, but that is a mistake because our bodies will be enduring a continuous physical workout and we need our muscles to be hydrated and full of energy,» explains Ismael Labrador. It’s therefore best to drink every half hour and eat every hour. Bringing some isotonic drinks and energy bars is a great idea.
Another essential step for cyclists is to stretch before starting the stage, at the end of the stage and at each stop. Taking regular breaks is indeed one of the experts’ recommendations. How many breaks you take and when will depend on the individual, they note. The same thing goes for the pace, which should allow each pilgrim to ride comfortably, add Tuvalum. «It’s also very important to know how to adjust the height of the saddle and handlebars because riding with the wrong size or at the wrong height can lead to injury,» they add.
Road safety: better safe then sorry
Regarding safety on the Camino, Tuvalum advises caution and recommends checking your bike before setting off: «Take it to a garage and check that the brakes and suspension are in good working order, the tyre pressure is right and the transmission is well lubricated.»
Once you have made sure that your bike is in tip-top condition —a step you can skip if you rent it from an agency— there are several guidelines you would be well advised to follow in order to stay safe during the route. Firstly, if there is a specific section for cyclists, it is best to use it, as it is meant as an alternative to areas with steep slopes or other structural barriers.
On paths shared with pilgrims travelling on foot, watch your speed and use your bell —or voice— to warn them before overtaking. If you are travelling along a road, «You need to be well visible and stick to the right-hand side», Tuvalum explains «Basically you need to act as you would at any other time when you’re cycling: wear a helmet, reflective clothing and light. You won’t be heading along any busy roads, aside from the odd short stretch,» Tee Travel summarises.
What to do if it rains. Whether you stop or press on is up to the individual and the terrain, says Ismael Labrador. «If it gets very muddy and there’s a real risk of slipping, it’s best to stop,» he explains. «As long as you act sensibly, you should be fine. It is perfectly possible to do the Camino in the rain, or in windy conditions... but bear in mind that the terrain can get slippery and you need to be especially careful when descending», explains Tee Travel. «And of course you shouldn’t head out at all if there is a weather alert,» they add.
Common injuries and how to treat them
Injuries can always occur, no matter how careful you are. Just as a pilgrim on foot can get blisters even if they use Vaseline, a bicigrino can come a cropper even if they ride carefully. «The biggest danger is falling and hurting yourself. It’s not common, but it can happen,» Tee Travel explains. With this in mind, they recommend carrying a first-aid kit with hydrogen peroxide or saline solution, gauze, a roll of band-aids and some antiseptic (such as Betadine).
Apart from the risk of falling, the most frequent injuries in bicigrinos «tend to be joint pain —normally affecting the knees and wrists— and back pain», explains Ismael Labrador, who reminds us of the importance of adjusting the height of the saddle to avoid these problems. «If it’s an injury that hurts a lot, it’s best to stop and find a physiotherapist or a masseur, because if you try to battle through, you can make the injury even worse. What’s great about the Camino de Santiago is that every few kilometres you can find accommodation and support services,» he adds.
What to do in the event of a breakdown
The same thing goes for breakdowns. Hopefully they’ll never happen, but it’s important to know what to do in the worst case. Still, there are ways to prevent some of the most common problems, such as punctures. «You can get what are known as tubeless tyres. Rather than having a chamber, they are filled with a liquid sealant. When you get a puncture, the sealant plugs the hole, allowing you to continue cycling,» Tuvalum explains.
Another frequent problem is the chain, which can break. For these cases, Ismael Labrador recommends carrying a specific repair kit known as a «quick link». He also recommends carrying a lubricant in case any of the bike’s moving parts dry out.
For those who’d rather not get their hands dirty, many travel agencies offer roadside assistance services to cover these mishaps. «If you encounter any unforeseen problem, an expert will head to your location. If you’re already in town, you will be directed to a reputable repair shop,» Tee Travel explains.
At the agency, they are not ashamed to offer their own services in organising the Camino for you: «It’s all about living and enjoying the experience to the full, so all you have to worry about is pedalling». Putting aside self-interest, remember that it is the Xacobeo (Holy Year) so it’s best not to wing it: «Better to organise things in advance, even if you do it yourself, because during peak periods you might find it impossible to find accommodation without a booking.» Tuvalum share some similar advice: «It's not a sporting trial and we’re not going to get a yellow jersey for coming first. It’s about enjoying the Camino.»