The church volunteers of the albergue woke us up at 7.10 with loud choir music and the smell of toast and honey with instant coffee. The lack of proper coffee might not be a problem for the regular pilgrims who are on their way down hill into Molinaseca and Ponferrada, but I was about to embark on a 400m climb through grey mist to the Cruz del Ferro (Iron Cross) that, at 1500m, marks the highest point on the Camino Francés, and frankly that requires a cup or two of proper coffee.
after stopping to take a couple of photos of the cross in the drizzle, and admire the rocks pilgrims had brought from their homes to deposit on the cross, I pressed on in search of coffee.
The initial descent from Cruz del Ferro was bitterly cold, but after a brief stop in a bar in Foncebadon to warm up with a coffee or two, I passed through Rabanal del Camino into an hour of almost perfect conditions, a 25km/h tailwind pushed me down a gentle slope coasting along at 25km/h in still air all the way into Astorga.
I spent a few minutes looking for a more permanent fix for my panniers, and ended up on a park bench botching together a remarkably robust solution with some needles and strong thread I found in a chinese bazaar.
As I sat in that park in Astorga, repairing my pannier, eating my chorizo and cheese picnic I became concerned about my progress: before leaving home, I had assumed my trip would take between a week and 10 days, I would cover an average of at least 75km per day, conservatively assuming that I would ride at an average of 10-12 km/h for 6-7 hours per day. I was now half way through day six and had covered little more than 300km, or 50km per day. At this rate, instead of getting home some time between Thursday and Sunday, I would be almost a week late. I looked at my options:
1. Follow the Camino de la Plata south from Astorga to Caceres and then head east to Toledo.
2. Continue along the Camino Francés for a few more days and then get a train or bus from Leon, Burgos or Pamplona when time ran out.
3. Find my own route home, heading generally south east.
Option 1 was my original plan, but it would clearly take me far more time than I had available to me, as the off-road aspect of the Camino routes seemed to be slowing me down. Continuing along the Camino Francés was not really the aim of my trip. Once I travelled up to Santiago by bus, I became wedded to the idea of cycling home under my own power. Besides I had enjoyed the atmosphere on the Camino enough to want to return to do the Camino Francés in the “right direction”. If I was going to be allowed to come cycle touring again, I would need make sure that I arrived home not only safely, but roughly when I said I would, which left me 5 days to cover the 450-500 km I estimated lay between Astorga and home. In short, I needed to double my daily average distance and the easiest way to do that was to stay on tarmac.
I packed up my kit and followed signs out of the city, waved ¡hasta luego! to the Camino Francés and trundled south-east along the old N-VI . After 5 days on the footpaths and country lanes of the Camino, it was disconcerting to be sharing a main road with cars and trucks. It also became clear that the next 500 km would be much lonlier than the previous 300, as the constant trickle of pilgrims wishing me a “buen camino” all but dried up. I figured that the lack of pilgrims would also impact the opportunities for board and lodging. This would also impact my route planning from now on. I could stay on the main roads and be fairly sure of finding hostals and bars, or I could follow the backroads and lanes from village to village and rely on carrying my own food. I dived into an Eroski in La Bañeza, filled what space I had available with supplies and took the back roads, ending up in Alija del Infantado sharing a municipal albergue with a deaf italian pensioner who was pissed off with the plumbing.