Author Archives: Frank Burns

A trickling exodus?

I have to share this little amusing reflection. I follow the blog of one Kevin Mayne, formerly CEO of Cycling UK (the biggest cycling association in the UK) and now living in Belgium as CEO of CIE (Cycling Industries Europe). He recently shared on his blog the moment he was granted Belgian nationality, which gives him the opportunity to remain a member of the EU. Click here to read that post……well worth a few minutes of your time.

I was prompted to comment on his blog with this reaction:

Wise words, Kevin…..we share an experience. After waiting four months, I was rescued from the brink by my DNA….my new Irish passport arrived. We can raise a glass to each other….

And Kevin came up with this:
Well done Frank.
I was asked by Irish contacts why I didn’t go for an Irish passport, so I explained “I don’t have an Irish granny”
To which they replied “everybody has an Irish granny, you just haven’t looked hard enough!”


The magic…

Ah, the magic is still there (well, just)……

I’d like to brag that I danced up this 14%er like a hormonal teenager……but the reality is, it was more like a slow foxtrot…

But I have a plan. Still riding a traditional compact double, my plan is to replace my drivetrain (which is now showing signs of terminal wear) and scale down the ratios….

Not, as some are wont, by putting on a rear cassette with ‘dinner-plate’ size sprockets (they are for the off-roaders pushing a 1x set-up), but by reducing the size of the front chainwheels. Most road bikes are over-geared these days. The biggest gears can’t be engaged unless you are doing over 30-40mph….nice to have as a ‘just-in-case’, but very seldom used and, therefore, entirely dispensable.

However, getting a non-traditional compact double, outside the normal 50/34 set-up, is not easy, but I have found a supplier in Harrogate…..

…so ‘rock on’ you hills of 14…15…16…17% and up…..some of us will not be beaten!


Rescued from the brink by my DNA…..

Now to get on with what matters, and cycle the rest of the globe…..😄

A vilified King and usurper Queen

It is trite to say that wherever you travel in the UK, you are ‘travelling through history’…… because that is true everywhere in the world. However, around these parts, it is staggeringly easy to venture through a tiny village that spills over with significant historical events.

I have waxed lyrical before about the village of Fotheringhay, but it still prompts me to stop awhile to appreciate a little of its past. Despite its diminutive size (119 inhabitants in the 2011 census) it is famous for being the birthplace of our notorious King Richard III in 1452, perhaps the most vilified of all our kings, and whose skeleton has recently been discovered beneath a car park in LeicesterIMG_20190715_111346877_HDR

and it was in the same village that the famous would-be usurper of Queen Elizabeth I’s throne, Mary Queen of Scots, met the executioner’s axe in 1587 in Fotheringhay Castle. Sadly, the castle no longer exists, so today we gaze on the mound and  re-imagine the scene of her execution.IMG_20190715_111717785_HDR

It’s hard to imagine that this tiny community was once second in importance only to London in the 15th century……now it is a sleepy backwater deep in the Northamptonshire countryside.




The true meaning of ‘cake’

Over coffee and cake one day, I asked a buddy of the road how life was treating him, and he simply answered: ‘Oh, been eatin’ a lot of cake recently’…..

Meaning of course that he had been putting in a lot of miles because, as every roadie knows, miles=cakes… Well, I have to confess to the same guilty pleasure myself recently, not just because of the miles (which have been higher than usual) but also to the fact that I’ve been meeting up with groups of cronies almost every day…..which inevitably means spending half an hour collectively emptying the display counters of some distant cafés.

The last ten days have seen me cover over 500km sampling the offerings as far away as Landbeach (Ely), Earls Barton (Northamptonshire) Oakington (Cambridge) Gamlingay and Geddington. I seem to have ventured along most of the roads within a 30 mile radius….meaning, of course, I should know them ‘like the back of my hand’.

But as I came away from Cambridge today, I sought out a hidden burial ground to find the grave of a man who had figured prominently in my research for my MA thesis back in the 1970s….

and I’d like to say he was a hero of mine amongst the analytical philosophers of the 20th century, but I wish I’d understood even just 10% of his Tractatus. I’m so glad that most of his writings remained unpublished at the time….it saved me a great deal of hassle.

An Eleanor Cross..

If you don’t know the history of the Eleanor Crosses, now is the time to Google it. This one is the best preserved, and dates from the time of Eleanor of Castile’s death in 1290, built to commemorate an overnight stop when her body was being carried from the north to Westminster in London for a state burial.

Unlike most impressive stone monuments, this does not celebrate politics, war or religion…..just the faithful love King Edward 1 had for his Spanish wife….unlike the regard a certain successor of his had for his Spanish wife.

Geddington, the village where it is situated, is a fascinating medieval community. Amongst its many annual events, it has something on Boxing Day called The Squirt. Check it out…

A Firefighter’s equivalent of a ‘tug o’ war’?


Choosing your wine….

On the first day of the 2019 edition of the Tour de France, you have to carefully select your wine…..🍷

Spirit of fun…

We ponder and fret about so much trivia these days, simply because we enjoy the affluence of choice: the kind of bike I need; the kit and accessories that will improve my experience; disc or rim brakes; hub or derailleur gears; carbon fibre, titanium or steel frame; Di2 or mechanical; the myriad choices are endless, and we end up living the ‘pride of ownership’ experience much more than simply enjoying the ride.

If this is you (and I am not guilt-free myself), be inspired by Jim & Elisabeth Young who, in 1940, on a pared down tandem called The Spirit of Fun, carrying minimal kit, rode 7000 miles across the USA, from San Francisco to Virginia Beach, and back again….and I bet they didn’t even have a spare tube or puncture repair kit.

She’s not pedalling on the back…

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,

I’m half crazy, all for the love of you,

It won’t be a stylish marriage,

I haven’t got a carriage,

But you’ll look sweet, up on the seat,

Of a bicycle built for two!

This popular song, written by Harry Dacre in 1892, was believed to have been inspired by Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick, and one of Edward VII’s mistresses.

The song, which rapidly found its way into the music halls, was timely. The 1890s was the first time that tandem bicycles had really become popular. A Danish inventor, Mikael Pedersen, is credited with the creation of the first publicised tandem in 1898, with his Pedersen bicycle. The trend quickly caught on and early machines included such names as the Humber, the Singer, the Rudge, the Raleigh, the Whitworth, and the Chater Lea.

1930 Rudge, similar to our first, costing us £10

Courting bicycles

Given the tantalising but eminently respectable closeness that a tandem bicycle allowed between the two riders, they quickly gained the moniker ‘courting bikes’, popular with couples who wanted to spend time together.





The idea behind a later design was that the gentleman would ride on the back seat and steer, while the lady could perch in the front with enough room for her skirts. That meant that all the controls were loaded to the rear passenger, and the person in front could simply enjoy the ride.

The modern inheritance of these designs can be seen in the Hase Pino












and the Circe Morpheus


where the ‘stoker’ becomes the front rider, leaving the ‘captain’ to do all the steering, braking and gear-changing.

But as ever, today out on the most popular iteration of the design, I was informed (yet again) by a bystander and a passing cyclist for the 1000th time that ‘she’s not pedalling on the back’….so Jenny did stop pedalling…..(I say no more…)

Solstician madness

What kind of collective madness brings thousands of people together on the dawn of mid-summer’s day at megaliths like Stonehenge? Ask each one of them, and you will get a different answer… asking different people what chocolate tastes like (apart from nice, that is). The annual call to madness gets a hold of me too, but I celebrate the moment in a rather different way.

Some 30 years ago, I began the habit of setting off on the bike at sunset, about 21.20, riding through to sunrise, about 04.45, stopping mid-ride for a rest and refreshment (which I had to carry with me) and arriving back home something after 05.00. I would crash out for a few hours and be at my place of work by 08.30, ready to take my first class. (Alastair Humphreys might call this a ‘micro-adventure‘). Since those distant beginnings, a few things have changed. One year I took a small group of students with me, encountered a mid-summer car rally at midnight (scary, to say the least), waxed lyrical over a perfect sunrise, lay down on the warm surface of a normally busy road, and ended up in the school outdoor pool at 05.30 (having climbed over the fence….). The lads jumped in and immediately disappeared beneath the thick carpet of mist covering the pool. Health & Safety, if it had existed, would have had a field day!

Castle Ashby

Another year I headed south and had a mid-ride rest outside Castle Ashby, a rather splendid country manor in Northamptonshire. The whole place was ablaze with light and music, and I’d arrived in time for a mid-summer all-nighter…… but, damn, I didn’t think lycra would have counted as fancy dress.

Another year, I again heard music wafting across the countryside, and as I wended my way along the dark lanes, it got closer and closer. At its loudest point, I stopped to look for its source, but couldn’t see any dwellings in the vicinity, until I spied what looked like chicken sheds, ablaze with light and music. I learned afterwards that light and music through the night kept the chickens laying…..

So what have I learned from years of night riding through mid-summer nights? First of all, it never fully gets dark, even as far south as Cambridgeshire, so you can actually ride through the night without lights to see by……though be ready to switch them on should a vehicle come by. Secondly, wild life never actually goes to sleep or even goes silent during the night. You have to be prepared for all kinds creatures lurking on, and beside, the road. They can scare the life out of you, dashing across your path and squawking in panic. After all, I wasn’t supposed to be there! And finally (for now anyway) the coldest moment in the night is just before the sunrise, and it will remain cool for another hour or so. So be prepared…..

Last year, I rang another change to my routine. I rode out after sunset and found a small rural redundant church to sleep in, and discovered another truth. If you have never slept in an empty church, be aware that they are not silent places. If you are of a nervous disposition, and not sure about ghosts, this may not be for you. In the morning, I stepped out to a glorious view of the sunrise across the countryside.

This year, I rang yet another change, and decided to combine it with a ‘flash-dash’ ride. This is my name for the following: you look at the forecast for the next few days, discover the weather is going to be fine and verify the wind direction, and ‘in a flash’ you decide to take a bus/train to a starting point, then start ‘making a dash’ for home (or other destination) with fine weather and the wind on your side. It’s great. This was my fifth flash-dash ride, and it never fails. Last weekend (the solstice weekend) I caught a train over to Norwich, with the promise of two days of fine weather and a tailwind all the way back home. Crazy……

The 197 km trip took me through some fascinating places like Wymondham (pronounced ‘Windum’), Thetford Forest, Mildenhall, and an array of old Norfolk and Suffolk villages with their flintstone churches and occasional ruins of priories and abbeys. And the night I camped on the perimeter of RAF Mildenhall airfield rewarded me with the most perfect sunset……and a bit of plane-spotting, to boot.

Total distance: 197 km

So tell me…

I was once asked why I liked riding bikes so much, and I’m sure they were expecting the obvious: ‘countryside, freedom, exercise ….’. But my reply was even more obvious: ‘because I like cake’!….😃.QED

This year 75 years ago….

2019 is an appropriate year to immerse myself in two weighty tomes concerning the conduct of World War 2. When my attention is captured by well-written narrative history, life outside the book almost ceases to exist…..and these were two such volumes.

The Taste of War by Lizzie Collingham

Taste of War

Those of us born into the baby-boomer generation will have been brought up during the final days of rationing and the years following. In fact, I still have my own ration card. It is a well known fact that although the rationing system caused severe shortages of basic essentials in the UK, it also happened to be a period when most people enjoyed a relatively healthy diet, to the point where even the eating habits of the poor were improved, and excessive consumption amongst the wealthy was curbed. But this wasn’t the case in most countries engaged in the war.

In countries like Germany there was a deliberate policy of depriving conquered territories of their supplies in favour of the needs of the German population. This also happened systematically in Japan and Italy, where food was weaponized and it’s confiscation used deliberately to obliterate whole populations. In fact, many more people died of starvation in the war than died as a result of conflict, leading to the conclusion that it was access to food that gave the victors a primary advantage in the war’s outcome.

Appeasing Hitler by Tim Bouverie

This is a very pacey, well-researched narrative account of the appeasement of the third

Appeasing Hitler

Reich in the weeks and months leading up to the outbreak of WW2. I am aware it has been covered by many eminent historians before Bouverie, but rewriting the narrative at this juncture of time is particularly apt, given the tremendous rise in revisionist populism around the world. Can we learn any lessons from this….?

Hitler and the National Socialists came to power in Germany in the early 1930s, roused by their intense hate of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which, amongst many other things, robbed Germany of much of its territory and colonies. High on their list of priorities was the reincorporation of those territories into Germany, starting with Austria and Czechoslovakia, and eventually moving on to the invasion of Poland. Neville Chamberlain and his Conservative government spent more than two years bending over backwards allowing Hitler to pursue his own expansionist policies, until the point of no return. Hitler had played his cards so that he had the western alliance eating out of his hands.

This account is both high on detail and analysis of personalities, as well as benefiting from a brisk narrative form which, unusually for historical narrative, makes it a bit of a page-turner.

After the rains…

Medieval bridge over Great Ouse at Great Barford

After the rains, the rivers rise, the countryside turns an intense shade of green, and the crops burst into sudden growth. Muntjac diced with death crossing roads, skylarks sang in disjointed harmony, and the last of the flowering beans still wafted their heady scents.

This is a magical time to be travelling the lanes….


Japan revisited

When I completed my End-to-End of Japan in 2015, I was prompted to submit an article about the experience to Cycle Magazine, the monthly publication of Cycling UK which, with a membership of some 70,000, can claim to be the biggest and most representative body of cyclists in the UK.

Dan Joyce, the editor, duly thanked me for my submission, but couldn’t find a space for it at the time, and said he would archive it for future reference. Four years later I received an email from Dan saying he was ready to use the article and……could he pay me for it….! To say I was startled is an understatement…

Over the many years I have been riding a bike ‘in anger’, I have written a lot of articles for various publications, both long and short, but had always written them for fun and the simple joy of writing, and never once expected payment. So the offer of payment on this occasion came as a kind of revelation…… people actually do this stuff for a living! Of course, I knew that already but, like road accidents and winning the lottery, I never expected it to happen to me. So, a couple of hours penning an article earned me the cost of a couple of West End theatre tickets, and a post-theatre meal. I’ll have to do more…. after all, I do like theatre and eating!

So assuming you are not a subscriber to Cycle Magazine, here is the said article…..

1 cropped jpeg

2 croppedjpeg


Four counties 50

A favourite route of mine is to take in four counties in one ride, and I can do this because I live on the borders of three (Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire) and am within striking distance of the fourth, Buckinghamshire. To boot, it passes some fascinating places, such as Santa Pod

Castle Ashby, formerly the family seat of the Marquess of Northamptonshire

on through Olney in Buckinghamshire, once home of John Newton, author of the universally sung hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, and famed for its annual pancake races

and finally through Turvey, now home of the Benedictine Turvey Abbey.

and herewith the 52 mile (83km) route, almost entirely on quiet country roads…

Can you……..?

…..disguise yourself as a cyclist? he said. As I stood there in my lycra, astride my Litespeed Ti, I looked up at him and replied: ‘Oh, I’m not sure about that… do I do that?

I had gone out for a Sunday morning spin (yesterday in fact) and had forgotten all about the Tour of Cambridgeshire, a sportive that was being run on closed roads to the north of my village. I came across the first road block, and blagged my way through it. I took a diversionary turn off and came across yet another road block (‘Damn these cyclists’ I muttered under my breath……ah, said a little voice over my shoulder, but you are one!). Yes, but don’t let the truth spoil a good curse…….img_20190602_114432877_hdr

I took another diversionary route until I had to come back on myself and, of course, met the first road blockage yet again on my way back…..but this time the thick end of an 8000 rider peloton was just coming through.

‘Am I OK to just drop down this stretch to the other end of the village?’ I asked one of the marshals. ‘Can you disguise yourself as a cyclist?’ he asked. ‘How do I do that?’, I said, playing along with his sense of humour…….

He laughed. ‘Well you look like a sensible sort of guy…..just pretend you are a stupid sportive rider who’s paid £80 entry to come and ride his own bike…. that should do you fine’.

So I hopped into the 8000 strong bunch, pretending to be stupid, for about 1km……saving myself about 50p on the entry fee…..


Cycle Touring Festival 2019

350 people have just dispersed from an event which has been truly remarkable.

At Waddow Hall, Clitheroe, we have just been celebrating all things special about long distance cycle touring, with over 60 presentations, workshops, demonstrations and meet-ups, all organised by some very, very special people, Laura and Tim Moss

with an army of helpers from family members, who have all been supporting this event as unpaid volunteers for five years.

Laura and Tim were inspired by their round-the-world cycle trip 6 years ago to establish this event in the stunning setting of Waddow Hall

and it has gone from strength to strength, drawing in people from all over the country (and abroad) who share one uncomplicated passion….to ride their bikes near and far, in this country and in some of the remotest corners of the planet…….

And the age range was from 9 months to 81 years, children pedalling their bikes everywhere in the grounds, camping and sharing simple food….and the odd glass in the evening.

The above image is my favourite of the weekend…..children just revelling in the freedom of bike……

And don’t let anyone convince you otherwise….’it is all about the bike’!

The straight drove..

My journey today to meet up with the bunch at a remote tearoom took me into deepest, darkest fen country…..the absolute bane of a cyclist’s road life if the wind is against ….and let’s face it, it nearly always is….isn’t it?

As I approached the tearoom near Farcet, having followed an arrow-straight drain for about 10 miles, I was amusingly informed by a sign that the road was called Straight Drove….. ha! good to know someone on the local council has a sense of humour….

But…..and I emphasise ‘but’….for the 25 miles out there, I had a tailwind, which on the flat of the fens means you eat the miles in great mouthfuls….. But guess what? There was a 25 mile trek to get home again….so, without putting too fine a point on it, I was in despair.

But I have to admit, it was a freely chosen, and self inflicted despair….so I expect no sympathy.

52 miles

The city slicker….

Compared to the urban ‘city slicker’ cyclist, I’m a bit of a fossilised rustic from the country who still dresses up in shiny spandex to ride a machine that’s still got brakes and gears. How retro is that? Not to mention cleats and clip-in pedals….and a helmet designed specially for the cyclist.

In London last weekend, I was constantly distracted by cool-looking urban mounts like this one:

plain, unadorned, no frills or gears, no brakes (probably illegal)….I guess this one is a fixie (fixed wheel) which means the rider back pedals to slow down…..but still insufficient to be safe. Handlebars are super narrow so the rider can squeeze through tight gaps.

Riders of these bikes are incredibly agile, fleet of wheel, and they seldom dismount at lights and junctions….they are masters of the prolonged trackstand,

so they can race ahead of the traffic from the off. These bikes are a favourite amongst couriers and delivery people, and they have so few moving parts, they can be ultra light and will be very easy to maintain. I like them… fact, I want to live in a city so I can justify having one…..(no, just kidding).

But then the other phenomenon that goes with this school of cycling is the urban cycling boutique….what you and I know as a ‘bike shop’. Except that these are presented like designer clothes shops. You walk inside and there is no sign of grease and oil, nor of tools for fixing bikes, nor of displays of cycling accessories. The sales staff have clean hands and even smell of aftershave….you can’t imagine ever going in to ask about a mechanical issue, or even purchase a spare tube.

It’s a world of fashion and style, but it’s understated for greater effect.

Hike or bike?

Jenny has taken on the locally inspired challenge of the ‘100 miles in May’ walk to help celebrate the 100th birthday of Save the Children, and because of the celebration of her (and her twin brother’s) significant birthday last weekend, she lost nearly 4 days of her schedule, so she has been playing catch-up in the last few days.

So her ‘coach’ steps into the breech, and he decides she needs a pacer… now, once again, I am confronted with the differential that seems to be constant in the world of travel. What on earth am I talking about?

Several years ago, after cycling from home to Istanbul, on the flight home it occurred to me that the distance the jet plane would have taken to fly the 4 hours out to Istanbul, took me 4 weeks on the bike, and would have taken about 4 days in a car. Which meant that, in the time it took a passenger on the plane to be served drinks and a meal (about an hour), it would take me about a week to travel that distance on the bike.

So what of the world of walking…. a cyclist will (very roughly) travel at four times the speed of a walker, and cover four times the distance. So what it takes an averagely fit cyclist to cycle in a day, may take 4 days for a walker.

So, how does all this sit with Einstein’s theory of relativity? Does this mean the cyclist ages marginally slower than the walker, and the jet passenger ages the slowest of all? If so, how does that affect the longevity of pilots and cabin crew?

While you are pondering the conundrum, here are the stats for today’s 5 mile walk….

%d bloggers like this: