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Cycling the Camino de Santiago - Day 16 (In the eye of the storm at the top of the Camino)

Today was a long, long day. And an incredibly wet one. 

I knew in advance that today was going to be tough. 

All the guide books agree there are three steep climbs - one at the start, between Saint Jean Pied de Port and Roncesvalles, and two near enough to the end, from Astorga to Ponferrada and from Villafranca to O Cebreiro. 

But no book could ever prepare me for just how tough this day would be. 

It started well enough. 

I left my hostel in San Justo de la Vega and was in the nearby city of Astorga within minutes. 

Though my day had just begun, I stopped here for a bit to see the sights. 

First stop, of course, was the Cathedral. 

It was €3.50 for pilgrims to enter, which included an audio guide and entrance to the museum.

I skipped both, I admit, because I was pushed for time. But the altarpieces of the Cathedral were beautiful to look at. 

I also liked the look of the building beside the Cathedral. 

Apparently this was the Bishop's residence. 

When the structure was being built, the Bishop at the time hailed from Reus, which is where the famous architect Antoni Gaudi was from. He commissioned Gaudi to design this unique residence. 

But time was ticking on, as it is wont to do, so I kept going. 

Before long I came to the quaint Santa Catalina de Somoza where I stopped for a can of Coke. 

Then it was onwards to El Ganso where I stopped for a Mars Bar at Meson Cowboy. 

This 'Wild West' bar has become somewhat of a landmark along the way, so I just had to stop in and get my Credential stamped there!

The road led me on through sparse terrain to Rabanal del Camino. 

Along the way there were typical markers to be seen - signs and shells and crosses and piles of stones made by pilgrims. 

The way was tough so far, but manageable. 

That all changed as soon as I got to Foncebadon. 

This was an odd little village in many respects. There was a lot of life there due to the passage of pilgrims, but the village was very much in ruins. 

It was like someone had decided to throw a garden party in a ghost town. 

I passed through the town, determined to get to the cross that marks the highest point on the Camino Frances - the Cruz de Fierro. 

But no more than fifteen minutes out of Foncebadon, I heard the familiar rumble of thunder. 

With blue skies, white clouds, and sunshine straight ahead, I thought I must have been hearing things. 

I turned around, and saw a huge blackness enveloping all I had just climbed through. 

A storm was coming, and it was headed my way.

In hindsight, I probably should have rushed back to Foncebadon to seek shelter. Such storms are dangerous but, as I saw from the other day, they don't tend to last very long. 

But no. Stubborn to the last, I decided I would try and outrun, or outcycle, the storm. 

I hightailed it up that mountain in record time. 

I got to the cross, took some quick photos, and kept going down the 1,000m steep descent which lasts all the way to Ponferrada. 

A few minutes after the summit, the heavens opened up. 

The thunder roared over head, the wind threatened to knock me from my saddle, the lightning streaked, and the hail thudded down upon me, slapping my head and face and body with incredible force. 

And here was me, careening downhill, trying to stay upright. 

I couldn't see a thing. 

Eventually it was so bad that I had to stop.

But there was no shelter. None at all. No trees, no bushes, no roadsigns even. Just road, and cliff, and barrier. 

So I stopped, and let it come down upon me, and cried. I cried, and cried. 

I was cold and scared and alone and absolutely miserable. 

But you know what? The storm passed. 

It kept going, to wreak havoc on someone else presumably, and left me to my own devices. 

Soggy, and still miserable, I got back on my bike and freewheeled to Ponferrada. 

Sounds easy, doesn't it? 

In reality, a descent of 1,000m is incredibly taxing. You have to be super switched on, and constantly applying the brakes. 

My hands were numb by the end of it. 

But, more than eight hours after I left this morning, I eventually got to where I was going. And all in one piece. 

And that, my friends, is a victory. 

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