Day 5

La Virgen del Camino to Ocebreiro

Today we said goodbye to Myles. Became Facebook buddies then left the warmth of the boiler room with dry clothes. That day Myles would go back into Leon to make use of his time gained with us.

The kilometres gained before sun up was very useful. The stars were amazing and this is truly the way of the Milky Way. When there are no street lights to cloud the sky a million more stars appear. We entered Astorga via a weird railway bridge at first light. The road abruptly stopped and a bridge ramped up then down over the line to allow pedestrians and cyclists access. A very sharp hill took us from a railway dominated outskirts to the old part of the town. Very very pretty. I took photographs and we looked over the sheltered ruins of a Roman bath house. We entered a series of plazas. A massive market was setting up and we followed the first of the days foot pilgrims exiting the local Albergue through town. Breakfast time. A small cafe and a very friendly owner who said his “English name” was “Tom Jones”. I’d timed this perfectly to sit down and phone home. Spoke to the kids and Jill and told her our aim was 700km by that night. “You think you’ll do that?” She asked. “Yeah of course, we’ve done about 40km so far.” It was 9am. I got off the phone and Glen asked for confirmation of that. I let him read for himself that it had to include two mountain ranges at 1500m and 1300m with a drop to 540m inbetween.

A man approached me and told me he did the Camino with his flamenco guitar. He wished me Buen Camino and tried to tell me his web address. Tom Jones did us proud with Camino special prices. Astorga is very pro-Camino and worthy of a visit.

We exited Astorga and saw Gaudi’s “Bishops palace” as we left. Typically Gaudi and a magnificent flowing tradition defying structure.

We then climbed. And climbed. Out the saddle back on the saddle, out the saddle. I’d say grinding but I don’t think you can say that anymore. But grind we did (stop it.) the villages really did tick away and knowing the promised kilometre-age we just kept our heads down and kept going. I’m quite proud to say at no point at all did I on this whole trip use “granny gear” (the lowest one) instead opting to push out of the saddle and use the higher gears instead more like “stair-stepping”. Santa Catalina, Rabanol, Foncebadon all ticked by. Stopping for photographs as each turn revealed more amazing views, the sun was smiling and it seemed like a world of wind-turbines.

When the iron cross (Cruz de Ferro) became obvious above the trees further along the ridge I suddenly realised why it was built this way. A wooden telegraph type pole with a cross on top, the cross is boosted up above the trees and into view from the approach. I was about a kilometre away but it pierced the profile of the ridge. This was the most poignant part of the ride so far and would equal that of the arrival into Santiago.

Before I left England I made a special trip to sit with my father. He now rests in a graveyard in Westhoughton and I wanted to tell him about my trip. But I also wanted to take him with me. Since a child I’d sit beside him watching wildlife programs and documentaries about far off places and have never got it out of my head that he wouldn’t have wanted to know all about this. So, the tradition goes, you visit Cruz de Ferro, you bring a stone from the start point of your journey. You place the stone at this point. People don’t touch. Out of respect they come and read the messages left on these stones then leave, your stone remains. So whilst telling my father where I was going I selected a nearby stone and took him along for the ride. I stood in silence at the top and read the messages, driving licenses, toys, flags and T-shirts left behind. I placed my stone amongst them. It’s message meant to me it wouldn’t be touched. I had a minute, maybe two. A coach load of American tourists came and went and I thought about the Dutchman. We then had dinner.

A short way over and before the decent I got out a little tripod and taped it to the front of my bike, I then taped the camera to the tripod to steady it and filmed a little of the decent. I’ll you-tube it later. The guide book says “this route can be very exposed with little help at hand. The decent through El Acebo has claimed cyclists’ lives, so take great care”

I say El Acebo was fun!

We dropped down to 600m quite easily. I waited for Glen in stages who insisted on throwing his water over his brake discs to see them sizzle. My back wheel had started to loosen on the climb. The spokes were easily wigglable and they clacked and pinged like spokey-dokeys (remember them?) as the wheel turned. Having two panniers on the rack didn’t help at all. No spoke key didn’t help either so I tightened them by mashing at them with pliers. Something I’d do a few times along the way. I reached 80kmph on the final stretch of decline into the city of Ponferrada at a height of 540m. We didn’t have time to stop so just motored through. By this point the sun was blazing down.

It hit Glen as we climbed out of Cacabelus (483m, lower than Ponferrada) through Villafranca del Bierzo. And up into sweeping countryside again. A swift stop at a petrol station to use the facilities and chug a litre of chocolate milk.

It turns out Ponferrada is a bit of sun trap. A bit like your back garden if you have decent walls. But this is a city, not your sun lounger and the garden walls are two bookend mountain ranges over 1300m.

I need to explain at this point the marvel of this journey. The sun always rises behind you and sets in front of you. In this case it’s like a ticking clock racing you to the horizon. Teasing you with the remaining daylight. Although if the sun is a blazer, its really not your best friend. Straight in the eyes and baking……

So we stopped and re-assessed. Had an apple. Then realised as the sun dropped behind the next mountain range it would be darker sooner. Tomorrow may be another hot one. At that point I was wishing the rain would return. Lets climb through the night.

We had left Myles at 5:30am. He woke to high five us and we rode off into the dark. But realistically we hadn’t come to sleep. It was painfully obvious that when you wait for the release of your bike from the outhouse at your Albergue and you try to get in somewhere with enough time to get out of the wet clothes and sort food you are chipping time off your day. I hadn’t gone to do that. So we pushed on.

As we regained height into the valley beyond Villafranca. We climbed spaghetti style weaving around a motorway, its sections strung high in the air on precarious concrete posts. As it got darker the sections started to silhouette against the sky. The villages we passed through must have seen some change since these roads were built. The darkness closed in and it remained quite warm but I was also very aware of how isolated we became. The motorway wound away and back and now you could only see the sections when the lorry lights lit the barriers and the moon hair lit the concrete. Again we were alone with the stars. And the endless climb. Standing, sitting. Did I tell you my arse was numb from the saddle?

We reach a service stop and drank, then continued. The roads became junctions, then civilisation. I asked at a bar about a room. Nope, gestured away. I think I actually used the words “I am diseased”. The petrol station said “albergue 4km” pointing in the direction we needed to go in anyway, so we climbed some more. I could see lights in the distance, a string of about 20. That means a large village in these parts. So we kept going. The motorway dropped to the right towards Lugo. We went into the night. Silence and darkness and now a wind chill from the summit.

Entering O’Cebreiro and into the bar everyone was packing up. Those who’d got the remaining hotel rooms were going up the stairs to use them and we asked where the Albergue was. One of the ladies came out at walked a few doors down. All the buildings were rough stone, the road surface rough stone cobbles. The Albergue owner didn’t answer. The girl looked concerned and I spotted a little shelter, open on one side and obviously just to keep the rain off those filling up at the water tap. It had stone slabs big enough to lay on and I pointed over “freio” she said, but there was nothing else. We bought coffee from the bar and an in edible sandwich and took out every insulated layer we’d brought and put it on to stop the chill of the sweaty climb. It was 11:45pm.

We’d reached 678km.

Glen’s Journal:

Day 5 – Day 6…from the town after Leon to Santiago

These days rolled into one… two long days of cycling… but most enjoyable….

We set off to astorga at 5.30 am.. alarm had gone off at 5…. we were up we had slept… we set off in the dark… it was cold I remember. .. but off we set from the hostel… me and tony… mountain bound… we stopped on the road and tony took a photo of the night sky.. tony explained why it was called the milky way. ..the stars were bright in the dark dark sky..

We crossed a train line over a bridge that went up many levels the road cur purposely for the train to go through….   we got to astorga…as the morning was coming  into light…. the early miles necessary with our trip.. Coffees and cakes in astorga were had a well needed little break…lovely coffee again. …

Next the climb to the iron cross… during this trip me and tony never had a problematic silence… or any issues with each other… we worked as a team… he is a top bloke and true friend…

We climbed and climbed to the iron cross… highest point on the ride… it was warm and sunny now…a joy to ride in.. not too hot but sunny and calm…. we made it to the cross… the views were amazing…. one thing about Spain lots of wind farms… tony never used granny gear but I did I was so thankful for it… We had lunch at the top and we both placed a rock at the cross with our fathers names… a moment to take in..

I took a photo of Tonys stone so I could frame it  and give it to him as a present…. I know Tony does everything to be a good dad.. and I can assure him he is…

Ok after hitting the top comes a descent!!!! And it was Ace…. steep mega quick and fun. . Tony recorded some of it.  I was so glad he clocked my pannier bag was un strapped. . If the toggle had gone through the tyre on tbis decent serious accident! !!! Clip tied back up Tony took the lead a flew.. Road swung back and forth as it descended… no need for peddling just brakes. ..

I was cautious on the descents… as I stopped near a cafe, were a group of mountain bikers were sat I squeezed water from my  bottle over my brakes and my discs sizzled as the water hit them as they were that hot from braking… cool descent thou… we pushed on descending further clocking up some good distance.. one mountain range cleared…

Our goal was to hit 700km that day… 700km covered in 5 days… but with two mountain range ascents could we do it??

We cycled on through a lovely little village..crossing a bridge were yhe wrought iron was emblazed with the Camino shell… Picturesque how I would describe it… we cycled on, it now getting to about 6pm as we pulled in at a repsol garage. . I at this point was tired… we, d been cycling since 5.30am with an hours rest at the cross..  a mean feat already but we had to carry on…. I had a fanta and  tony had chocolate milk… he had found a new love for chocolate milk….

Tony says he felt sorry for how hard he pushed me… but I wasnt I knew we had to continue…. I was glad he pushed so hard….  the same  day… the next climb….. onwards we head… it  now about 6.30pm..  we were considering cycling and sleeping next as we land  in Santiago if we could go without sleep….. but legs at this point were feeling it….

We left the repsol garage and began the next ascent… The final mountain range to conker… (but not the last hill)

We knew this next ascent was going to be but how big I wasnt sure…  we reached what I thought was the climb and we started ascending great…. up means closer to Santiago…. the roads were desolate now the motorway had took most of the traffic away.. we were fortunate with the westher it was calm walm and dry…

We coukd see the motorway network dissappear over the hill.. we.ll aim for that… we climbed and climbed avoiding down but we reached as far as we could with out descending…. so we had to succumb and head down to the little villager of rualto…  a little village lit onky by a few street lights…

It was now 8pm… we had left the hostel just after 5.30am… we were still going.. it was dark now….

A group of walkers were walking up towards our direction and I overheard them say lets ask these were there headed for the night… I said to them I was just about to ask the same.. they indicated that the albergue a km back was full and they were told there was another further up… They scurried past us thinking we might steal there beds… but little do they know we didnt have a bed that night….

We checked the maps and decided push on… it was dark.. but no wind and nicely cool.. not cold at all….  we climbed from the village of rualto up this big hill a main road that climbed in s bends for about 3 hours…. we were only passed by no more than 3 trucks on the ascent… when we got to what we thought was the too we tried to find a bed… we checked a hostel/bar no luck… we went to the repsol garage Tony spoke the best Spanish he could the emoloyee indicated an albergue 4km up the hill.. we thought 20 mins we could have a bed…

We pushed on.. climbing… okay at this point I was shattered.. body exhausted and tony still looked like he could cycle for miles…. 4km easy I thought…. nope 4km massively uo hill… we could see lights in the distance that our goal… my legs at this point Felt like shattered glass rubbing against each other….I was sore and tired now .

We made it to the little village at ocerbrero… at 11.45pm  I was beat… cycling from 5.30am to 11 30pm two mountain ranges.. not many stops. .. I was hoping for a bed….

However Albergue FULL… no space at the inn… I was beat I needed rest a refuel to stop…. Tony spotted the bin area.. it was undercover… we could stop the wind with the bins to a point and it was sold totall price for accommodation nil…  we slept outside.

We managed get the most inedible sandwich from the shop and a coffee…. I set my alarm and I remember tony saying your setting an alarm. .. I was like just in case…. I kicked my shoes off climbed inside my sleeping bag my survival bag and green coverall… id have been comfy if the rock base wasnt so cold. … but rest was what I needed.. so glad we stopped for the night..

Long long day mileage… we reached that night 683km that night and that was good going as t included two mountain range ascents… I was happy knowing in the morning descent. …. but we still had a lot of kms to cover could we do it..

5 days 683km done A further 162km to go….

(Please note were on mountain bikes with semi slicks and a full set of weighted panniers…)

Just after midnight sleep….. all I can say is it wasnt the best nights sleep but rest was rest…

Slept for 7hours… alarm woke us.. glad I set it now…

This blog: Tony Hemans and Glen Eccles cycled the Camino Frances from St jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela covering 845km in 6 days in October 2012. If you are trying to get fit, planning an adventure, long distance cyclist or just curious about my mid-life crisis then subscribe and share!

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