By Gigi Ragland
Biking the Camino has its high and low points. Cycling mountain passes, ascending and descending winding roads on a daily basis combined with panoramic vistas of rolling fields bursting with golden sunflowers and ripening red piquillo peppers, punctuated by local cafe stops in historic village towns; these were the kind of ups and downs the group endured along The Way. Can you imagine “enduring” this scenery along a famous pilgrimage route for 14 days? And cycling through the vineyard country of Rioja, another highlight due to the wine tastings. The tour definitely had its highs and lows, worthy of the intermediate cyclist looking forward to spinning 4-5 hours a day. Was it always picturesque and pretty? Yes, most of the time it was, how can you not be enchanted when riding by a 12th century crumbling church basking in the glow of the late afternoon sun or a sheepherder ambling along hills with his fluffy flock? Scenes like this were constant, from Roncesvalles to the very end of the Camino as our group pedaled into Santiago de Compostela. The most difficult part was not stopping, because after you got into the groove of a cycling pace, the world seemed to effortlessly open up in front of you with nonstop Kodak moments. I wanted to let my photojournalist freak flag fly a bit too often. It seems the ‘sweep’ guide was always tailing me in a good natured way but making sure that I made it to the next waypoint at a decent time, sort of like a mother bear nudging her curious frolicking cub across the trail.
Before the trip, I was a bit nervous that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the group and continue with the constant mileage of 30 – 80 miles per day across various terrain for two weeks. The trip planners at ExperiencePlus! suggested I take a look at their custom training guide designed by fitness expert Joel Friel on their website to assist in preparing my legs and lungs for the long days of cycling. The free bike training guide offers cycling clients a 12-week training packet with bike handling skills and health benefit suggestions as well. This was a great tool to prepare me for the variety of riding I would encounter on the Camino. In addition, at the beginning of the tour, the three guides worked with each of the cyclists in the group to adjust fittings on the bikes, which were all provided by ExperiencePlus!. Some folks preselected carbon fiber road bikes, one couple was fitted with a Cannondale tandem, and then there was a fleet of titanium road bikes, hybrid and mixed frames available for the rest of us. They even came with men’s or women’s-specific saddles and a rear rack and and expandable pack pump, patch kit, spare tube, cable lock, cyclometer, a water bottle cage, and a water bottle.
Our group of Camino cyclists ranged in age and ability levels of intermediate to advanced. Some could have qualified as pro-circuit riders–they usually flashed by most of the group in the morning, never to be seen again until later in the day–relaxing in the lobby of the hotel with a beer in hand. Of this elite group, there was a father in his mid-70s, his son and son-in-law. They were a great team to follow, cracking jokes, and even fostering some good bike etiquette. And there was Anastacia, celebrating her 50th birthday with her husband, whom we nicknamed “Flash,” you can guess why. I doubt if Anastacia’s college-aged kids could keep up with her–she set the pace for the women. The most inspiring cyclists of our close-knit group, the “Ladies,” were three women who always cycled in single file together, amazing all of us with their tenacity and positive attitudes to ride and overcome anything in their path. And you would never guess that one of the “ladies” was 78-years old!
Where was I? At the back taking pictures talking with the sweep guide ‘du jour’ (each of the three guides rotated as sweep) talking about the landscape, the food of the area, history and architecture. I hung out with my new cycling buddies and met walking pilgrims at roadside cafes for a quick coffee pick-me-up. Plus, I made sure my passport was stamped at waypoints, stopping at the Camino scallop shell markers, in addition to chatting it up with the locals in broken Spanish with some sign language thrown in too. That took some time: to really look and observe, smell and taste your way along the path. I was always one of the last guests to make it back to our accommodation at the end of the day, by 5 p.m. at least.
Of course, realistically there can be physical, emotional or even spiritual low points along The Way; it’s how you manage the low points that count. As one guide said, “be open to your own inner Camino.” Sage advice. I was intrigued with the notion of being a part of the steady flow of pilgrims that has traveled The Way for thousands of years. And, in an instant, my perspective on the ride changed: I stopped moving. I fell descending on a hill while clamping on the front brake too heavily. The abruptness propelled me off the bike landing hard on the asphalt road with the bike pedals biting into my calf and my chest hitting the frame. Sudden falls. Shit happens, right? This was definitely a “do as I say, not as I do” moment of monumental embarrassing proportions for me.