Shoes or Wheels – Part 2

Adam McAree

According to the “official rules” one has to complete the final 100 km to Santiago de Compostela (SDC) on foot or the final 150 km on bicycle.Given the limits of and the border of Galicia, it just so happened that O Cebreiro is 150 km from SDC on the Camino Frances. Not knowing much about these rules before setting out, I have the distinct honor of being able to claim that I’ve “completed” the Camino de Santiago not once, but TWICE, having ridden my bicycle 150 km and then returning to SDC. Does it count if I did it in reverse?

So what, if anything, did I actually accomplish? If the point was to 1. not die or, 2. not get lost then I succeeded with a score of 50%. I was very excited to be able to take in the views, share my experiences with the film, and fulfill my daily dose of exercise, but I didn’t feel prepared for a “pilgrimage” in the strictest sense. In the sense that a pilgrimage is supposed to have rules/objectives, require extreme sacrifice or discomfort, and leave me transformed at the end I wasn’t ready. In reality I felt like a phantom on my bike for the first three days. I was riding into traffic, I was going uphill, I was alone, and the weather was unbelievably perfect – sunny, low 70’s, and picturesque. I looked forward to the albergues where I could unload and chat with people but, again, I felt like I was interrupting something important these “other” pilgrims had set out to accomplish. They were people with “real” problems. I was just a privileged guy from the US with first-world problems. I had friends, my health, and opportunities. One of the ladies in my dorm hadn’t been able to sleep horizontally since having had a surgery several months before. Instead she had to prop herself up into a corner of the bunk and keep comfortable every night. She was seeking answers via the Camino. I couldn’t help but think about my flight over. Of course it wasn’t comfortable, but 20 hours compared to indefinite (or forever) is an inappropriate comparison. period.

I kept to myself. I ate lots and got up at dawn each day (somewhat late, in case you’re wondering – sunrise remained around 6:55am throughout my trip). The bike was a source of comfort as I could move quickly but it also hurts the under regions after several hours on the saddle. My journey wasn’t long enough to worry about saddle sores or the need for chammy butter. In fact, I wasn’t even wearing bike shorts and failed to use the gel seat cushion provided in my toolkit. After a few minutes of pedaling my body would warm up and the pain would lessen. After a few espressos and miles of uphill climbing, the adrenaline would take over and none of this would concern me. I would stop every 2 hours, grab a coffee, a big snack (or meal), a water refill, and do a little stretching. Every so often I’d get find an intersection with no apparent yellow arrow. I’d stop and patiently wait until I could hear the sound of trekking poles or see a pilgrim hat bobbing up and down from behind a stone wall – this was the way.

On the last day of my ride (Saturday), I planned to reach O Cebreiro by noon. I had rode the better part of Thursday, all day Friday, and had just a half day to go. This was somewhat confusing for me. I thought I was fast and impervious to hills after spending so much time in Forest Park. Just a week before a number of my friends had rode from Portland to the Coast for charity (nearly 100 miles). This 150 km (93.2 mi) trek was taking too long, Why was I so slow? I answered this question when I arrived in O Cebreiro later that day and looked at elevation map of my journey. Essentially, the overall elevation change between SDC and O Cebreiro is 300m to 1300m which is 3500 feet with lots of ups and downs in between. This was a hilly uphill climb. For reference, if you’ve ever driven to the coast, you’ve encountered peaks no higher than 1500-2500 feet on your drive. These are some big hills, of course. Now double that and do it on a bike! The good news is that there are only 2 big climbs when walking the entire Camino Frances. There is a section in the Pyrenees and then there is the ascent to O-Cebreiro. Of course, I came the other direction but I will say, with confidence, that it was a much more pleasant/less sweaty descent!


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