Author Archives: Frank Burns
Virtual World Tour: part 4
The advertising world is awash with advice on how you can do everything ‘from the comfort of your own home’, from running to nowhere to cycling to nowhere, eating in as if you were eating out, going to the cinema via a subscription channel. You get the drift. We are slowly being persuaded that we can live a full and rewarding life without ever stepping over the threshold. The marketing giants have subtlety infiltrated our imprisoned view of the world to persuade us to buy the expensive systems to make living life ‘from the comfort of our own homes’ the holy grail. If you have become an unwilling victim, how can you save your ‘soul’?
You may be disappointed to learn I have no distilled answer to the conundrum but, like you, I endeavour to fight the good fight to stave off the enemy. My own little psychological trick has been to begin a virtual tour of the world, but never more than 50 km from my home so, in a sense, I’ve never really left the ‘comfort of my own home’. After more than 8000 km, I now find myself virtually in Mumbai, on the west coast of India, heading towards Sri Lanka. Why India and Sri Lanka, you might ask?
Well, I once had a plan to spend a few weeks riding the Goa peninsula, before crossing to Sri Lanka, but it never happened. The great ‘virtue’ of doing a ‘virtual’ tour is that I haven’t had to address issues like visas, crossing territories in conflict, doubtful street food, rainy seasons, and the whole plethora of reasons that help to make adventure cycling what it is: adventurous. Which all appears counter-intuitive. After all, the very stuff of the adventurer’s way of life is ‘taking the rough with the rougher’, which then creates the stories that become the ‘click bait’ of the world of social media. The world is not interested in seeing me holding a glass of wine with a crimson sunset in the background. No, they would much rather hear of me sitting miserably in my tent during a rainstorm, and cutting my finger on the sharp edge of a sardine can. For some dark reason, readers take great consolation in the misery suffered by others, better known as the syndrome of “There but for the grace of God…”.
The solace that I feel on a wet November day in England is that I arrive in Mumbai during the dry season, the temperature is 30ºC, the sun is shining in a cloudless sky, and I am assured of at least 11 hours of daylight. So I can now bask in the virtual comfort of my own home.
Virtual World Tour: part 3
You may have picked up from previous posts that I began a virtual World Tour when most countries were putting their citizens under ‘house arrest’, and now that it is autumn (my favourite season for boxing up the bike and taking it to some far-flung corner of the planet), the migratory instinct in me begins to stir once again.
This time last year I was crossing 8 nations on my tour of the Baltic and Eastern Europe when, such was my disappointment at not being able to return home by train from Vienna because of lack of bike space, the seeds of owning a folding bike were sown. My attempt to take my new Tern Verge folder on a three week sortie along the French and Spanish Mediterranean was cut short by the pandemic in February so, rather than cry into my bedtime cocoa, I decided to continue riding throughout the period of confinement, but always within a 30km of my home. ‘Boring’ you might say, but you’d be surprised how many hundreds of kilometres of roads that comprises, and I’ve learned never to fall into the trap of thinking I know my own patch like the proverbial back of my hand, because I didn’t then, and I don’t now. It has been a veritable journey of discovery the whole way.
To add to the intrigue, I’ve been converting my daily rides into a virtual tour of the world, and doing what I would normally do on a long ride, which is to stop in places of interest and discover things by happenstance. Like an indoor spinning machine, which doesn’t exactly replicate a ride in the great outdoors, ‘virtual happenstance’ via the internet cannot replicate an authentic ride across a country or continent, but they are both pretty good substitutes in time of need. So my virtual World Tour, which began in Paris, has taken me through places like Cologne, Nuremberg, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia, Istanbul, and Tehran, and in each place I have used the internet to learn of the history, geography, cuisine and outstanding monuments of each city. Every country has its heroes, so discovering the ‘movers and shakers’ in each country has added another dimension.
After more than 7,000km, I now find myself in Karachi, Pakistan, a huge cosmopolitan city which, despite being the largest city in Pakistan and the seventh largest in the world, ceded its position as capital of the country to the newly-built Islamabad back in 1957, some ten years after partition. The Partition, in fact (when Pakistan was created as an independent nation) saw the biggest migration of people the world had ever seen, when Hindus made their way to India and Muslims to the new Pakistan. Up to that point, Karachi had had a majority of Sindh speakers, but after partition, when the city had tripled in size with a huge influx of Indian Muslims, the demographic changed completely, promoting Urdu as the most spoken language, and ultimately as its official language.
Whatever virtual world you have created to keep yourself doing the things you want to do, I wish you bon voyage!
Please do share thoughts on how you have survived these months of constraint in the Comments below.
Virtual arrival in Tehran..
Whenever I go out on the bike, which is most days, I sometimes get the feeling I’m pedalling one of the many well-publicised virtual turbo systems where I can virtually climb Mont Ventoux, or race with a bunch of elite cyclists. The fact that you can now do this without ever having to leave the ‘comfort of your own home’ is testament to the versatility of technology these days, but there is a striking paradox here: riding a bike is absolutely all about ‘getting out of the comfort of your own home’, and getting into the countryside. Don’t rely on virtual wind and hills to get your kicks, go out and feel a real 30kph wind in your face, attack a real 15% hill just a few miles from your home, and above all, feel the autumnal sun on your face, smell the early wood smoke of those first fires, and fend off the wasps as they try to eat your energy bar before you do.
My experience of ‘the virtual’ hangs on two things. Firstly, the fact that I have continued to do all my riding on my home patch since the beginning of the pandemic restrictions, and secondly, the fact that a real 6 week trek on some distant continent is just not going to happen this year. So, I have imagined myself riding the world as I have climbed on the bike each day.
On my virtual ride around the world from Paris, I reached the border of Turkey after three months of lockdown, but that was three months ago. A quick re-calculation now shows me to be in Tehran, and I’ve had no fuss at the border with visas nor have I had my luggage checked for illegal substances. But the one thing I have really missed is being able to sleep wild in my little tent. That is definitely something you cannot do in the comfort of your own home.
The inevitable respray
‘It’s déjà vu all over again!’
You get the old hack resprayed and you are reminded of that moment, many years ago, when it was ‘love at first sight’.
But we’ve been through a lot together.
Now for some tech-talk…
Bicycles and human beings have a lot in common. We both have moving parts that either break or wear out. I can probably hear you say: ‘tell me about it!’ You may have broken a bone, which is likely to be an arm, leg or collar bone if you are a cyclist. Some of your joints may have worn out, and you’ve had a hip or knee replacement.
Well, my Litespeed Ti has suffered similarly from progressive age and constant use. I recently picked it up from the ‘bike hospital’, having had most of its moving parts replaced. In fact, the only original bits left are the frame and two wheels (including handlebars and saddle, of course). I have known for months that the whole drivetrain was edging towards the precipice of no return, but the closure of my local bike shop during the pandemic prevented the ‘surgery’ being carried out. So I kept riding and riding, clocking up the miles during lockdown, keeping fingers crossed that the drivetrain wouldn’t suddenly collapse…..but it did. The early symptoms included an overstretched chain jumping on the razor-sharp teeth of the front chainwheel. Just like many of us, the old bike was getting ‘long in the tooth’. Still unable to get it booked in at my LBS, I found another (equally professional) business that could fit me in.
With the complete re-fit, I have taken the opportunity to revise the entire range of gear ratios, bringing everything down several inches. Most of my cycling life, I have ridden the standard range provided by the compact-double chainring of 50/34, coupled with an 11-30 cassette at the back, giving a range of approximately 120″-30″. A good range to have, and it has served me very well over the years. But, as is the way with all human beings, the anno domini have been marching on almost imperceptibly, until I realised one day I wasn’t climbing the local hills with quite the same ease I used to and, like a lot of male cyclists of my ilk, I was refusing to accept the inevitable. Until now….
So, the bottom line is, I have had fitted a 40/24 crankset, with an 11-32 cassette, now giving me a gear range of 96″-20″, which means that some of the bothersome hills have mysteriously flattened out. In fact, I climbed one this morning that would have had me in my lowest gear with the old set-up, and now I find I have 3 ratios to spare!
If you are not familiar with ‘gear inches’ (as opposed to gain ratios), on my old set-up, to engage with the top ratio of 120″, I would have to be going at more than 80kph. Given that I seldom exceed 50/60kph, the top four or five ratios were useless and dispensable. Now, with a top ratio of only 96″, I can still pedal at speeds over 50kph, but it now gives me the benefit of a much bigger range at the bottom end, where they are most needed. But, playing around with chainwheel and cassette sizes can bring other changes as well, especially if your front and rear changers are no longer up to the job. Mine weren’t, so they had to be replaced too.
The nett result has been that I now have a bike which continues to be utterly familiar in every respect, except for its range of gears and its new-found ability to drag me up the hills without me complaining too much. What is there not to like?
Change of steed
My Litespeed Ti has been admitted into the A&E of a local bicycle hospital. It’s getting on in years, like so many of us, but came to an almost terminal halt recently about 10 miles from home.
Fully aware of its condition, I decided anyway to continue riding it until its last gasp, driven by the fact that my local bike shop has been closed for the duration of the lockdown, and unavailable to do the work.
With age and miles, the whole of the drivetrain wore out, and a stretched chain was clinging for dear life onto the razor-sharp teeth of the chainwheel. But then it started jumping, and grinding, and being generally uncooperative, so the bicycle doctors are currently performing radical transplant surgery which will change the whole drivetrain in its entirety.
So, in the meantime, I renew my acquaintance with my Tern Verge, a nifty machine with a wide range of gears for a 1x set-up, but only really designed for more sedate long-distance stuff, carrying luggage. But it could be the future of my adventuring escapades….
Riding to Turkey during lockdown…
Who, outside the world of Himalayan climbing, would ever use the word ‘Everesting’? The fact that my spellcheck underlines it suggests that it hasn’t yet been elevated from ‘urban dictionary’ status to the heady heights of an Oxford English Dictionary entry. Since you know this website is all about matters cycling, you will already suspect it figures in the world of bicycles.
The fact that you can ‘climb’ Everest on a bike without straying too far from your front door is testament to peoples’ ingenuity at adapting modern technology to create new and exciting challenges. So, step out of your door, ride to the nearest substantial hill, and climb it non-stop enough times until you have ‘Everested’, in other words climbed to at least 8,848 metres. That is what Tom Stephenson, a 20 year old Cumbrian, did recently on his local climb, the Kirkstone pass, and broke the UK record in just over 9 hours, climbing the pass 38 times.
If I were to do something similar on my nearest proper hill in West Cambridgeshire, with only a 26 metre elevation, I’d have to climb it 340 times, not something I aim to do this week, nor any week. But this has kept a lot of keen cyclists busy during lockdown, it would seem. I mean, what else is there to do during a pandemic? Just nip out and spend nine hours climbing Everest, and then brag about it to the rest of the world via Strava. Am I sounding a bit cynical? I do apologise.
In the meantime, if you have followed any of my Without Words series of posts, you will know I have been ‘lane-bashing’ in my local area during lockdown, never straying more than 25km (15 miles) from my front door. All my rides have been shortish rides of 40-50km, occasionally exceeding 60km, and always in the morning as a pre-lunch escape from the house. I have ridden just about every lane, passed through every village, stopped in many of them to find something out about the community, always started from home and finished at home, and learned a lot about what lies on my doorstep. It’s been a fascinating venture, and it’s come up with an equally fascinating statistic.
Today is the three month anniversary of the start of lockdown. In that time I have clocked up a fairly modest 2,416km, but stringing all the rides together I discover that I have ridden from Paris to Edirne, just inside the Turkish border. Having ridden from my home to Istanbul in the past, I know just about the whole of that route, and it’s a long way.
Which reminds me of a little anecdote from that journey. I stopped at a crossroad somewhere in Germany to consult my map, and two pretty young girls on bicycles stopped, and asked if they could help me. I was flattered, of course, but I had been waiting for a moment like this. I scratched my head, pretended I was really lost and a bit confused, and said: “Can you tell me the way to Istanbul?”. They were completely flummoxed by my question. I kept a straight face, waiting for them to find an answer. They looked at each other, then at me, and one of them eventually waved an arm vaguely in a south easterly direction and said: “Oh, that’s a long way from here, maybe 2000-3000km”. I did my best to look thoroughly crestfallen, and said to them: “Damn! I wish someone had told me that before I set off”.
This lady is now a mere 89 years of age, and she is a rare example of her species. Having nursed both her parents through to their untimely deaths, she set off to cycle from Waterford in Ireland to India, in 1962, on a single geared man’s bicycle, carrying a .25 pistol for protection. And so began a life of astonishing adventure, mainly on two wheels which, even with the onset of single parenthood to her daughter Rachael, didn’t stop the travel to remote places, latterly beginning again with 5 year Rachael.
She used the gun three times on that journey, against wolves (she killed two), against a potential rapist, and against thieves who tried to steal her bicycle. Fortunately, the shots against humans were simply to scare them off.
She has written many books about her travels but her first, and best known, was Full Tilt, which quickly established her on the world stage of adventure writing.
And in 1993, despite hating the prospect of being interviewed, she appeared on Desert Island Discs. Click the link below.
Memories of Japan 2015
Like most avid cyclists in the UK, I take my regular permited dose of exercise most days, taking advantage of the fine Easter weather, and going for a circular ride from my home, never straying more than about 10 miles (16km) from my house. And there is a growing number of people doing the same, both old-time roadies and newbies alike, enjoying the relative quiet of the traffic-free roads, and the burgeoning wildlife all around us.
In my ‘off-duty’ moments (and there are many of them during this lockdown period), I frequently gaze out of our front window at the two wild cherry trees just coming into flower, and I am reminded of the day I arrived back from Japan in 2015, having completed the end-to-end of the country, and enjoyed several days following the famous ‘sakura’ (the cherry blossom season) from south to north.
I remember thinking then, as I gazed on the riotous blossom of our own cherry trees in mid-April of 2015 on my return from Japan, that I actually had a mini-Japanese ‘sakura’ on my own doorstep, but like a lot of travel-addicted romantics, I had to go chasing it on
the other side of the globe.
Now, with long-distance travel curtailed for an indefinite period of time, when travel romantics like me will find it hard to justify most forms of recreational travel that include long-haul flights to far-off destinations, when all the while, if we could just change the way we think about our more local destinations and try hard to look for ‘the extraordinary in the commonplace’ and the ‘diamonds in our own backyards’.
As I continue to struggle to develop this attitude of mind, I think of my not-so-distant ancestors, most of them living in Ireland, who were so poor and limited in their resources, they would seldom have strayed more than 5 miles from their homes, and then only to go to the local markets and cattle auctions. If you are a cyclist like me, are you going to allow yourself to be locked into frantic spinning sessions on Zwift or Peloton inside your garage or conservatory, or are you going to get out into the wide-and-wonderful, breathe in lungsful of scented spring air, and find your challenges in the local hills and your thrills on the inevitable descents?
Think about it.
2019 in a nutshell
Total distance for year: 6,325 miles/10,179km
Nobody wants to read a blow-by-blow breakdown of a full 12 months of cycling, and I am certainly not going to indulge myself to that extent. But casting an eye back over the previous year can reveal some interesting things. Annual mileage can be influenced by a host of different things, but I’ve learned that there is a threshold beyond which you will find yourself riding the bike primarily just to increase your total mileage. In other words, it becomes the driving force. The last couple of years have seen me come to recognise that threshold, pull back from it, and settle into what is a more comfortably managed limit, but which still surpasses the number of miles I drive by a substantial margin.
Separating out local mileage from adventure mileage, it’s no surprise to find that the bulk of my annual distance is still in the day-to-day riding within a 50 mile radius of my home (1,802 adventure miles v 4523 local miles). To get further afield on a morning/day ride, I am now not averse to broadening that radius and using public transport for part of the return journey. This has the benefit of opening up new terrain and new areas to explore. So, for instance, I took a train out to Norwich for a two day 125 mile summer solstice ride back home, with a generally supportive wind behind me.
The adventure miles last year were made up by my Biking the Baltic ride (crossing 8 countries and visiting 9 cities in the late summer), a week on the tandem in Holland in July (the hottest week in Dutch recorded history), a tandem rally in the Wye Valley, and the summer solstice ride. My local mileage is almost totally made up of solo-riding, but with the added benefit of meeting up with fellow cycling cronies at country tearooms to chew the fat. So today, as I write this, I have just come back from a 50 mile jaunt out to Fermyn Woods near Brigstock, where there is a café that amply serves the needs of hungry cyclists.
As I was reflecting on annual statistics, I decided to do a quick retrospective of my 11 years of retirement, and discovered (unsurprisingly) that I had accumulated a lot of miles, namely 90,467 miles/145,588km, about 25% of which were achieved on my many adventure trips around the world. As impressive as any of this may seem, it all pales into utter insignificance in the light of the lifetime mileage (1 million miles) achieved by Russ Mantle at the age of 82, much of it during his years of retirement. Very much a man of his generation, he would have spent most of his waking hours turning pedals.
So what of the coming 2020? Perhaps like many adventure cyclists, I will be trying to honour our collective need to add our grain of sand to saving the planet. Even though riding a bike is an ultra-green form of transport, getting to and from our destinations can be fraught with multiple flights. So for this purpose, I have added this little beast to my stable of bikes
The Tern Verge P10 is designed for long-distance, has ten ratios on a 1x gear set-up (ie. just one front chainring) and, most importantly, folds for transportation. This means I should be able to hop on and hop off trains and buses at will, and use non-aviation transport to get to some of my distant destinations.
Watch this space. I am currently looking at Flixbus that might take me down to the French Mediterranean in a few week’s time.
The cyclist who went out in the cold: Tim Moore
A veteran of several endurance cycling experiences, including French Revolutions, when he followed the course of the Tour de France, and Gironimo!, when he engaged with the route of the 1914 Giro d’Italia on a period bicycle, in The cyclist who went out in the cold, Moore takes on another seemingly ridiculous challenge, by riding the 8,500km Iron Curtain Trail on a communist East German shopping bike with only two gears, called a MIFA900. Moore is no amateur playing with risky possibilities. Even though his kit looks every inch unworthy of the job, the man who rides it knows how to survive long distances under trying conditions.
All that aside, what carries Moore’s narrative is his sense of humour (which is frequently over the top, and will be too much for many readers) and his ability to tease out fascinating bits of background history about the places he passes through. He is a consummate wordsmith, who conjures engaging narrative from long boring bits of travelling. Until you have spent 8-10 hours a day turning pedals, day after day for several weeks, you won’t understand how uneventful life can be on a bicycle. To convert all of that into an interesting flowing narrative takes a great deal of imagination and linguistic adroitness.
I frequently shy away from reading fully-texted narratives about long journeys on bicycles because, in the hands of many aspiring travel writers, the endurance nature of their travelling experience is translated directly into a feat of endurance for the reader. Very few writers can put together an engaging narrative and carry the reader for the full length of their journey. Tim Moore, however, successfully held my attention through the 8,500 gruelling kilometres, from Kirkenes in the north of Finland, to Tsarevo on the shores of the Black Sea.
Around the world in 80 days by Mark Beaumont
I inhabit the world of adventure cycling, and have always felt a strong connection with other cycling adventurers who espouse the conviction that a true ‘adventure’ is essentially an unsupported, self-sufficient and self-propelled experience. Whatever happens on the journey, you take all the credit, and all the blame, for whatever transpires (allowing for ‘acts of God’, of course).
Two weeks before Mark Beaumont headed off to enter the Guinness Book of Records for cycling around the world in fewer than 80 days, I had the opportunity of meeting him. He was the keynote speaker at an adventure cycling weekend in the Lake District. He is an impressive figure in the world of long-distance cycling, and has ‘managed’ his place in that world with amazing dexterity. But when I learnt of the huge amounts of sponsorship, the size of his support team on all the continents, the sophistication of his transport links and the extent of expert advice on tap during his journey, I began to wonder why he was ever invited as the keynote speaker on an adventure cycling weekend. I liken his attempts on the RTW record to Chris Bonington’s assaults on Everest in the days before alpine methods of climbing really kicked in.
Beaumont had enjoyed the distinction in 2007 of being the first person ever to circumnavigate the world on a bike in under 200 days……but that was a largely self-supported effort, and he was quickly followed by several other aspirants who broke his record because, like him, all they needed was a bike, a tent and a huge amount of determination and courage. It was the ‘Everyman’s Everest’ of the world of adventure cycling. Anyone could have a go at it.
What Beaumont has achieved with his current record is in a completely different league, and should never feature as an adventure cycling feat. Without a doubt, it is truly impressive as a feat of endurance, and he deserves all the accolades fitting such an achievement, but let’s not confuse it with the record he had set 10 years earlier. No one with a bike and a tent, and a huge amount of determination and courage, will be following in his footsteps. He has effectively cornered this record for decades to come…..or until someone comes along who dreams even bigger than Beaumont, and can bring to the table an even more impressive bank of resources.
However, the book is definitely worth reading….if you haven’t done so already.
Bridge over the River Tweed…50km
In the shadow of the triple peaks of the Eildon Hills, the River Tweed carves its way from the Lowther Hills, through the Cheviots, reaching its estuary at Berwick some 160km later. I chose a mid route stretch from Galashiels to Inverleithen, covering some 50km on both sides of the valley, steep and challenging on the southern flank, fighting a strong westerly wind, but fast and undulating on the northern flank, ushered along by the very same strong westerly.
Stunningly beautiful in the autumn sunshine, I will let the photos tell their own story….
Biking the Baltic: summary
Every adventure has its highs and lows, joys and frustrations….but through personal endeavour, we get to savour the sweet taste of achievement. I no longer measure achievement primarily by distance. I’m beginning to grow up a little (well, just a little) and appreciate the value of much more than just ploughing a furrow.
This adventure was never intended to explore heady landscapes, scale mountain passes, carve my way through verdant valleys…..no, this was all about visiting a host of countries that I have never been to before, and using the bike to connect capital cities. Over the last 40 days, I have simply binged on a succession of city breaks, 9 in total to be precise, including Krakow in southern Poland.
And in each city I have paused for a couple of nights, locked up the bike, and walked the historic city centres, visiting some 30 museums and historic buildings, enjoying the buskers and street entertainers, sitting by fountains with a picnic, catching the odd city demonstration (usually about climate change)….and in most of the cities, being hosted by friendly, caring human beings who form part of the Warmshowers network.
So I can’t share photos of many wonderful land and seascapes, of mountain top panoramas, nor of glacial ravines with cascading waterfalls, but I have come away with a sense of deep satisfaction of having discovered something about 8 individual nations, about people of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, about major historical events that have fashioned their history, and where they are now in their march towards the future.
For those who like statistics, here are a few to keep you interested:
Days travelling: 40
Days on the bike: 28
Distance covered: 2,308km
Average daily distance: 83km
Longest day: 115km
8 countries and their capitals:
Poland: Warsaw and Krakow
Camping: 14 nights
Warmshowers: 15 nights
Backpacker’s hostels: 10 nights
With a former student: 1 night
Rain while riding: 2-3 hours
Days of headwind: 18
Days of tailwind: 3
Best national food: Viennese
Best National Library: Helsinki
Best museum: Vasa Museum, Stockholm
Most beautiful historic city centre: Tallinn
Most scenic part of the journey: Tatra Mountains.
Most annoying moment: discovering I’d left my tent footprint drying in the previous campsite.
Second most annoying moment: discovering I’d had my power bank stolen in a backpacker’s hostel.
Greatest surprise: being seen from a distance by a former student in Stockholm, and then staying with him and his family in Turku, Finland. That’s a 10/10 on the serendipity scale.
Most uplifting moment: an eleventh hour offer of a bed (for three nights) in Vienna.
The most unusual camping spot: departure lounge at Heathrow airport, after a late arrival from Vienna.
If you followed me on at least some of my journey, thank you for your company. I hope it inspires you to embark on adventures of your own…..
The bubble of the illusion has burst. I fondly imagined that in Vienna I would breeze into the booking office at Central Station and book trains, there and then, right through to the Hook of Holland, from where I would catch the ferry to Harwich, and be back in England ‘in a trice’. Well, that was the plan…… but the bike thwarted the plan, given that these were inter-city trains. The most they could do was guarantee my arrival in either Munich or Düsseldorf, but beyond that, there was no provision for the bike. So I had to capitulate and book a flight with Austrian Airlines.
It would seem the only way to guarantee transit on multiple trains across Europe is to have a folding bike, which could be carried on as hand luggage. But how remarkable it is that when you are confronted with a need, a solution is sometimes put before you.
Stefan, my host during my time in Vienna and a multiple bike owner himself, offered to let me test ride his folding Dahon, a small-wheeled versatile bike which can be adapted for touring and carrying luggage. I’m already familiar with the Alex Moultons and Bike Fridays of the small-wheeled world, but Dahon are a bit of a mystery.
Then in the city centre I bumped into Andreas who was not only a proud owner of a Dahon, but had cleverly equipped it for the long distance stuff, and was a firm advocate for the nimble small-wheeled bicycle. With a quick flip of two levers, he folded it in seconds, and then demonstrated how he could detach the pedals with his fingers. As we parted company he shouted after me “Make sure you try out the Vitesse”. In fact, he was quite prepared there and then to let me test ride his own machine.
Staying with Stefan for a few days has brought me into contact with his other lodgers. He regularly hosts foreign exchange academics, and in this instance Kyoko is with him, a Japanese visiting fellow at Vienna university (whose mother Kaoro has come out to join her).
And Gudrun from Cologne, a university professor, who has recently co-authored a book about the rise of right wing populism in Europe,
came to Vienna to give a paper at a conference. I told her I hope one day to read her book in translation. “Well” she said “do you know anyone who might translate it for me?”. I’m afraid I can’t help you with that one, I said….now, if it were written in Spanish, we’d have a partnership…..
Stefan himself works in the offices of the Green Party in Vienna so, with so much political talent and involvement, there was a heavy bias in the conversation around the table…..and the table itself has been abundant with Japanese fare one evening, and Viennese another, amongst which was this delicious dessert called Kaisershmarm, anecdotally named after Kaiser Franz Joseph I, who was very fond of fluffy shredded pancake..
So tell me, what dish would you like named in your honour?
Bratislava to Vienna 80km
I’ve slept in a lot of strange places in the past, but never in a greenhouse. Erich, who runs a nursery garden business, decided to diversify, and converted one of his greenhouses into several AirB&B units….so his guests get to sleep in a glasshouse. But he kindly invited me, as a Warmshowers member, to stay as his guest, and my bedroom looked out onto the tomatoes, and I could lie in bed gazing up at the stars. My route to the bathroom was across a lawn on some stepping stones, and when I got up in the night, I jumped when the resident one-eyed cat scooted across my path, doing his security patrol.
The route to Vienna along the Danube fulfilled very few promises unfortunately. But I’ll let the pictures tell their own story….
Towers and street food
The guy making me a coffee at his street bar said:”You don’t look like a normal tourist. You riding a bike?”. When I told him my story in one sentence, he said “You probably need a good strong coffee then. Going to Vienna after here? You’ll find us in Vienna too…look us up”.
Then I walked into an outlet advertising street food, and ordered myself a Morrocan tagine, to fuel the legs to climb the enormous hill to Hrad Castle where, amongst the many exhibits in the museum, was this….
…and I thought, what an interesting use of the term ‘portable’. But a couple of cabinets away was a display of the first Bratislava Cycling Club founded in 1888, all lined up for the start of a race, and if you look carefully you’ll probably recognise one of them as being Peter Sagan’s great great grandfather….
There are towers to climb in Bratislava too. To get to the top of the Castle tower, you need a special kind of steely determination, and the Town Hall tower will reward you with lofty views over squares….
….and interesting roofs whose pitches make them look like church steeples…
And when you see some poor fellow trying to crawl out of a street drain, it is very tempting to just stroke him on the head to comfort him (as everyone does). What was he doing down there anyway?
And when you are bored with museums and towers and men crawling out of drains, you can join the crowds to catch bubbles, and contribute to this young man’s beer fund
…..believe me, people openly ask for money for their beer fund….they know you know they will spend the euro you give them on the next can of beer. So why not be honest about it….
Tomorrow, it’s goodbye Bratislava, hello Vienna…..with 60km of the Danube trail in between.
Bratislava: the false summit?
As my final destination, Bratislava was always going to be my second choice (behind Prague), but a persistent headwind across Poland dictated terms and conditions, so here I am, at the notional end of my journey.
But wait a minute, Vienna is only 60km away along the Danube, on Eurovelo 6. Flat, scenic and designed for cyclists, the only drawback being that I would be going upstream….. OK, not because it goes imperceptibly uphill (probably by only 10-20 metres), but because the vast majority of the annual 38,000 cyclists that follow the route go downstream, which is bound to complicate my progress if I have to go against the flow. But still….
Quite apart from the attraction of bagging yet another country and capital city, Vienna is a bigger transport hub than Bratislava, thus making it an obvious finishing point, with a greater chance of getting home by train and boat. Going overland will be more expensive than flying, and certainly more time consuming, but then I could simply change my thinking about that and regard it as part of the journey….in other words an integral segment of the whole adventure.
Last night, in the town of Pezinok, I was welcomed by an enthusiastic Slovak couple, called Michal and Eva, who are expecting their first baby in December. Michal came out to meet me on a borrowed electric mountain bike, one that he had been testing in the local hills, to see if he might be interested in one for himself.
The conversation over supper ranged from riding bikes to politics, and amongst the many fascinating (and disturbing) things I learned about Slovakia was the surprising popularity of its up-and-coming far right party, the Kotleba People’s Party, which has a double cross insignia that was used by an old Slovak fascist party during the war.
Slovakia spent more than 50 years subjected to the brutality of, first, the German Nazis, then the Soviet system, but people are clearly forgetting all that. The People’s Party ideology is underpinned by extreme nationalism, fundamental Christianity, hate for the Roma people, and a total rejection of western liberal democracy. What does that remind you of?
Tomorrow will be a day for exploring Bratislava.
Little Carpathian wine region
Now tell me, what do you know about Slovak wines…..never heard of them? If not, join the club. When did you last see a bottle of Slovak wine in your local supermarket? The reason why not is because the Slovaks keep it all for themselves. How selfish is that? But I’ve just discovered their dark little secret….in a wine museum in Pezinok, where I am spending the night.
For the ‘exorbitant’ fee of €3 (senior fee, of course), I was given a very informative audio guide to the excellent displays about the history and production of wine in Slovakia, and at the end I had a glass of the local Riesling thrust into my hand. Pity about the lack of pretzels….
The whole region, in fact, reminded me of the Alsace, and the vineyards growing along the slopes of the Vosges mountains. These vineyards grow on the slopes of the Little Carpathians, and the wines all have a similar character to the Alsatian wines…
I also learned about, and sampled, the first stage of production after the pressing, which produced what they translated into English as ‘the scrumpy’, a low alcohol beverage given to the vineyard workers as replacement for water….a bit like the small beer given to English farm workers in former times.
Last night, in Smolenice, I was hosted by an English family, resident in Slovakia for the last 6 years, and very happily settled. Mark and Suzanne’s 7 year old daughter, Zoe, was 1 when they arrived, so now has a native fluency in Slovak, and was proud to include their new kitten, Lily, in the photo.
The wedding march…
No, not the piece by Mendelssohn, but an actual march by real people. As I approached the village of Chetelnica, I could hear a band playing in the distance, and just imagined it was rehearsal day for the local musicians. However, when I dropped steeply down into the village centre, I met this very colourful procession walking along the road,
and right in the middle were the bride and groom. Lots of them shouted comments in my direction, which were either disparaging of my appearance or were an invitation to join the party…I’d like to think it was the latter.
About half of today’s 80km route was one of my favourite kinds of road, peppered with steep climbs, commanding views over the countryside, and tyre-burning descents….better known as ‘lumpy’ in the cycling community.
It also happened to be a favourite with that other biking community, the motorcyclists. Hundreds passed me, oblivious of the many shrines to the memory of their fellow bikers who have lost their lives on this stretch. And invariably, they ‘hunt’ in packs….they always roar past in groups…
So here are a few things that Slovakia is famous for: Peter Sagan, one of the most talented of elite cyclists, and certainly the most entertaining; the Slovak language has given us two very common words, ‘robot‘ and ‘pistol‘. And its capital, Bratislava, stands on the border of two other independent nations, Hungary and Austria. And don’t confuse Slovakia with Slovenia (which, apparently, many do) and in case you still haven’t caught up with history, it’s been separated from the Czech Republic since 1993. Here endeth the lesson….