By Fulton Armstrong • December 20, 2019
No matter how many bike trips I take, there’s always a moment when the thrill of it all hits home. My brother and I are pretty experienced riders, but I still felt a tingle on a bright August morning when Sérgio, who set us up on our bikes, sent us on our way with a hearty, “See you next Wednesday!”
“Next Wednesday,” I thought to myself, was six days and 290 kilometers (181 miles) from the beautiful Duoro River in Porto, Portugal, where Sérgio gave us our cheery farewell. We were launching our unguided and unsupported ride to Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain – on a cycling variation of the famous pilgrimage on the Camino (Way) to Santiago.
“Unguided” and “unsupported” increased the excitement – and drew lots of praise from friends – but honesty requires that I admit the characterization was not entirely accurate (in a good sense). Sérgio gave us excellent printed guides on the route, with maps and recommendations. He equipped us with GPS units that showed us the way, with only a few tests of our independent navigation skills.
He also gave us support in the form of arranging first-class hotels along the way and organizing a fantastically reliable delivery service to take our luggage to each day’s destination. We put our bags at the front desk in the morning of each ride, and they magically awaited us – sometimes in our room – upon arrival at that night’s hotel.
Sérgio also called us one evening to make sure everything was all right. Are the bikes good? Are the hotels good? Are the breakfasts good? Yes, yes, yes. Very nice for a supposedly unsupported ride.
On a route like the Camino, moreover, you’re never alone. You’re never without support. The traditional greeting among everyone on the route is “Buen Camino!” – literally “Good Way” but also a reaffirmation that we are, so to speak, on the right track.
The “Camino Code,” as I call it, is that people help people in any way needed – even more than on regular rides. When a big community fair blocked our Camino, two other riders helped us find our way around the teaming crowds. Those guys turned out to be Camino buddies for us. They were from Israel and, unlike us softies, didn’t have a luggage service. (Do I need to admit that they were 10 years older than us?) They were great cyclists, and we wound up riding with them for several days – talking, laughing, resting, sharing observations.
If you have a mechanical problem on a ride like this, you’re not alone. My brother, Kevin, helped one of our buddies with a flat tire – and they later helped me with a flat. We consoled each other when walking up hills made more sense than burning energy trying to climb them by bike.
That sort of friendship is a major attraction of these trips for us. We loved riding on good equipment, including the e-bike Kevin had. We loved the great – and affordable – lunches and dinners everywhere we went. (I don’t mean to make you envious, but €3 for a delicious sandwich of Spanish cured ham and cheese!)
The four of us had a celebratory final dinner together in a 16th-century monastery, converted into a hotel long ago, behind the glorious cathedral in Santiago. Kevin and I promised to do a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the future.
All along the way, in fact, we met quite a few cool people. At the many little lunch stops along the way, we chatted with dozens of people from all around the world – Europe, South America, Asia. At two overnight stops, we dined with four fascinating “pilgrims” from Australia. We swapped stories of what we each saw – they as walkers and we as cyclists.
We love the riding and the sightseeing and the sense of accomplishment. But the people – local and fellow travelers – and the sense of community we feel is what we love the most. They motivate us to ride year after year. The world has a lot of problems indeed, but not on the bike trails and not with our Camino buddies. (Crazy thought: We should ask political leaders, regardless of political stripe, to do a bike ride each year!)
At the end of the ride, in a welcome center a block away from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, we presented our Camino “passports,” bearing stamps from places we stopped along the way, to get certificates documenting our accomplishment. On the application form, we were to check a box indicating the primary motive of our pilgrimage – religious, spiritual, or for sport.
If you’d asked us the week before, we probably would have said “sport.” But on that day in early September – proud of the ride and the people we’d met – we checked the spiritual box.
Our unguided and unsupported trip had taken us closer to our basic, spiritual values.
More photos (Click to enlarge)