The Way of St James pilgrim route from Le Puy en Velay to Conques and on to Santiago de Compostela is one of Europe's great long distance bike rides, says John Higginson, author of The Way of St James: A Cyclist's Guide
When writing about this section of the Way of St James, it's difficult not to run out of superlatives. It is, without doubt, one of the finest long-distance cycle rides in Europe. It has steep mountains, riverside freewheeling, breathtaking architecture and intriguing history; it's a true challenge for anyone who can ride a bike.
As with the river Loire, finding the best start is not easy. From England, the simplest solution is to travel with the European Bike Express as far as Valence, followed by a local bus ride, C. Rhodaniens (bikes are strapped into the hold) as far as St Agrève, and then ride downhill to Le Puy en Velay. It's possible to travel with your bike on the train, but from Paris it takes several changes.
Your passport to ride
Before leaving Le Puy, spend a few hours there to marvel at its sights and call in at the Amis de St Jacques (Friends of St James) to meet fellow travellers, to collect the latest information about the route and ask about the state of accommodation.
Stay the night in the Maison St François in the Rue St Mayol if possible (ring in advance 04 71 05 98 86) to rub shoulders with other potential pilgrims. If it's full, there are plenty of alternative hostels – ask at the tourist office.
Before you begin, call in the sacristy of the Cathedral to purchase your pilgrim passport and have it stamped. It will open doors for you throughout your journey. Keep it safe and have it stamped at least once per day by churches, town halls, hostels and even bars.
Your exit from Le Puy, a long 20% climb, will remind you that this is not a holiday but a serious challenge. Soon the walkers will branch off to the left onto a track, but cyclists stay on the tarmac which undulates wildly through volcanic scenery. It won't be long before the way begins a long, steep descent which should test your brakes and your nerves as you arrive in St Privat d’Allier in the Auvergne region.
A further descent leads you to the bottom of the Allier Gorge. Cross the river on the new bridge and in a kilometre or so, swing right and climb your first real ascent of the pilgrimage. About half way up there's a very welcome picnic spot, but your destination lies 16 kilometres ahead at Saugues, where plenty of accommodation is available.
The road from Saugues
Leave Saugues and head for a castle which appears ahead; soon after passing it, take a right turn towards Chanaleilles and on to St Alban-sur-Limagnole. Good overnight accommodation can be found in the next small town, Aumont Aubrac. In spring, this area is bedecked with narcissus, but in winter it's a desolate place. Ride through Nasbinal as far as Aubrac, a windswept village whose huge tower is a gîte and whose church should be visited, then descend one of the most exhilarating sections until the twisted spire of St Côme d’Olt in the Midi-Pyrenées is reached.
You are now in the valley of the river Lot which will be your companion for many kilometres. Pass through the busy market town of Espalion and visit the hidden chapel in the church at Bessuéjoules. Stay at the Hospitalité St Jacques in Estaing before riding along the Lot gorge through Entraygues and on to reach the bridge over the Lot which leads into the magnificent village of Conques. Stay here with the monks and enjoy their company.
John Higginson is the author of The Way of St James: A Cyclist's Guide. A keen cyclist in his youth, he took up cycling again after retiring from teaching. He is now a professional writer and lecturer. He is also the author of the Cicerone guides Cycling in the Loire: The Way of Saint Martin and The Danube Cycleway: Donaueschingen to Budapest. For the Way of St James guide, he and his wife Andrea spent two years researching the pilgrimage before embarking on their journey to Santiago de Compostela in 1997; they have spent much of their time riding alternative routes ever since. They live in France only a few kilometres from the pilgrim route and can often be found helping pilgrims in Cahors Cathedral during the spring and summer months.