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Ashbourne to Santiago Cycling Trip

Posted 11 Jul. 2013

"On the morning of the 25th of May, I was up at 7:30 putting brand new panniers onto my racer bike and thinking about the three and a half weeks that lay ahead. My boyfriend Alan Tobin and I would be setting off in less than an hour for a cycle that would ultimately span over 2,000km from our houses in Ashbourne, Co. Meath, down the west coast of France and along the ‘French Way’ of the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Over the past few months we had both completed a few cycling challenges but had never cycled more than two or three days consecutively! After a nice 48km spin on Irish soil, we took the Ferry from Ringaskiddy harbour to Roscoff in the north of France. The first two days en route to Pontivy were sunny and Brittany’s stunning countryside made for relatively easy cycling.

We travelled on the picturesque Vélodyssey cycle route – which runs from Roscoff to Hendaye; just before the Spanish border – but by the third day it was pouring rain and freezing cold as we slogged along busy roads in the direction of Nantes. After two full days of torrential downpours, hilly terrain and a puncture, the doubts in my mind were starting to set in; “What were we thinking? Were we too ambitious? Will I ever make it to Santiago?” At some point though, after about 400km into the journey, it started to get easier. Despite the weather and the uphill climbs, our bodies and mental attitudes were getting stronger.

As we progressed through some beautiful coastal towns like Les Sables D’Olonne and La Rochelle, the topography became almost completely flat and soon we were averaging over 100km a day whilst still enjoying ourselves.

The cycle lanes of the Vélodyssey are extremely well planned and are incorporated into the countryside, towns, cities and villages that make up the route we travelled; something that I feel should be implemented throughout Ireland in order to increase the safety and popularity of cycling in this country. Prices also differ greatly in France, especially where food and accommodation was concerned; we stayed in mainly 2* hotels each night which worked out quite cheap with breakfast included.

As we neared the Spanish border after taking a day off to enjoy Biarritz, I thought about the inevitable change in landscape that we would soon have to encounter. I soon realised how easy we had it in France as we crossed the border and headed for the town of Bera; the beautiful but intimidating mountains lining the road announced the end of the flatness we had grown accustomed to in France.

The cycle into Pamplona was the most difficult day we had yet put in, and a day I personally consider to be one of the most physically and mentally testing challenges. It had been raining from the previous day with no let up, the wind was against us and the uphill sections were constant as we ascended the Pyrenees mountain range.

Our journey along the Camino officially began in Pamplona as we obtained our pilgrim passports “credencials” from the Archbishop’s Palace and received our first stamps. The Camino de Santiago’s ‘Camino Frances’ is a roughly 800km trek from St. Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compestela in western Spain. Since medieval times, this pilgrimage has accommodated millions of travellers en-route to the site of the remains of St. James.

Today, people decide to walk, cycle or horseback ride the Camino for a multitude of different reasons, spiritual or not.

The weather varied from intense 33°C heat one day to a comparably chilly and wet 17°C the next. Each day, we passed by pilgrims who were walking, mountain biking and in one case even rollerblading the Camino!

As we had become comfortable with the physical demands of the cycling by now, we were able to better appreciate the entertainment around us such as the buzzing festival in Logrono with its variety of markets, late bars, night clubs and music on the street. We also enjoyed watching a huge fireworks display with hundreds of others who gathered on a hill in a nearby park. It was amazing.

The next few towns and villages that we passed through, such as Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Belorado were smaller than the commercialised cities we had previously encountered and were very much focused on the religious and spiritual aspects of the Camino which I appreciated a lot.

We were now only a few days away from finishing our challenge and we celebrated early by spending our penultimate night in a gorgeous 4* spa hotel in Astorga to relax our bodies. Again, we were able to agree on a brilliant price with the hotel that included a few hours in the spa and a buffet breakfast.

The final couple of days cycling into Santiago were tough as we were accompanied by a near constant onslaught of wind and rain. Finally, after cycling approximately 2,080km across three countries – Ireland, France and Spain – we arrived into Santiago just after 7pm on the 17th of June. The finality of it all didn’t really set in until the next day when we officially produced our credencials to the Camino Office and received our Compestelas; beautiful documents in Latin which proved we completed the Camino.

We flew back home a few days later after exploring Santiago, fully experiencing the sense of achievement having covered such a distance using only push bikes. We cycled the last 20km from Dublin Airport back to Ashbourne where we met our family and friends in the local pub to celebrate!

A lot of people generally reacted in horror or awe – depending on the person – when I told them about our trip. What I realised was that you don’t have to be super fit to complete a similar cycle; I didn’t even own a bike this time last year! If you incorporate cycling into your training schedule even once a week and plan your desired route well in advance before you set off, it really is not that difficult to accomplish".

Written by Michelle McDonald, age 22.