I had snuck my solo into the car, along with the tandem, to do a slightly longer route on our last day in Norfolk, and I had arranged to meet Jenny midst the restrained opulence of Felbrigg Hall near Cromer, an estate that dates from the 11th century, and owned continuously by the Wyndhams from 1450, until it was passed to the National Trust in 1969, for safe-keeping on behalf of the nation.
It’s only in remote rustic corners like rural Norfolk that you will find a level crossing where you have to open the gates yourself, stop, look and listen for ‘approaching traffic’, then make a life-threatening dash in your car across the railway line, before closing the gates behind you. And if you fail to close the gates, watch your back! You may be fined a tidy £1000 for bad behaviour.
But a small reward for the effort will bring you to sights like these……..old windmills that once worked round the clock (or when the wind was blowing, at least) to grind the wheat. Some are still working models today.
My route took me out to the coast, where the strong winds from the north were whipping up the waves, guaranteeing the beaches an eerie solitude. But there was beauty in the unbridled lack of restraint………
Blickling Hall, Norfolk
A few days in a small country hotel gave us the opportunity to use the tandem to get to a nearby National Trust country estate, following some of the narrow winding country roads so characteristic of deepest rural Norfolk. But I was beset by an almost insuperable mechanical issue when we arrived, not because it was impossible to resolve, but because I had stupidly left the necessary tools at home. I have names for people like me……*&@##+#+!!
The front gear changing mechanism had mysteriously got completely twisted, and I had neither an adjustable spanner, nor the appropriate allen key to fix it. But because we were at a National Trust property, I reasoned they had some maintenance people on site and, sure enough, a ‘Mr Fix-it’ appeared with the right tool to sort out the offending mechanical. You might say I was making full use of our membership of the association.
But we had a most enjoyable 3-4 hours at Blickling Hall, an extravagant Jacobean pile that dates back 400 years. Then we ‘motored’ back to the hotel with a gently assisting wind behind……..
…..and passed through a little village pretending to be the equal of the eponymous town where Jenny had been born in Derbyshire……..but it lacked the altitude, and the ‘attitude’!
A breathless ‘bash’ around the shores of the 8th largest reservoir in the country. 5km across open countryside, crossing an old wartime airfield, I can be on the bridleway that circles the water, taking in the views and swallowing the midges as I forge my way around. The sun was setting, the light disappearing fast, and the scent from the bluebells in Savages Spinney was heady. More importantly, I had most of the track to myself…….unbridled freedom!
Saying goodbye to club mates at Roxton Garden Centre to make my way home, I had allowed the Garmin Connect website to route my ride. I had chosen way points and then let the website choose the route between those points. It could have been a big mistake and I knew it was going to be a bit of an adventure because the website frequently can’t distinguish between metalled roads and unsurfaced tracks and sure enough, once I had crossed the railway line at Tempsford, I was sent off along bridleways, across land that landowners with a ‘fortress mentality’ tried to seal off as being private, the metalled surface led on to grass tracks, which led on to a narrow forest track that was just about rideable on a road bike.
My cross country route lasted 6-7 miles, ascended the odd unclimbable hill, crossed rutted stretches far too rough for 23mm tyres but, in compensation, I came across my first display of cowslips just pushing their heads through the surface, and in the denser parts of the forest, I stumbled across some early season bluebells.
I wasn’t expecting this to be published so soon after my trip. Such short articles normally get archived until some future date when there is space and a need for them…..and then they are not always published. This appeared in Cycle Magazine, national magazine of Cycling UK, with a circulation of 70,000.
Through my local library’s online services, I am able to access publications (free of charge) from around the world, including the British magazine Cycling Weekly. Because it is a racing publication, and much of its content is devoted to the road racing scene, I read it very selectively, because my interests in cycling lie in other quarters. However, I have noticed in the last few editions, with the advent of the racing season, more and more articles are devoted to the processes of training, nutrition, use of technology, interpretation of statistics, and a whole panoply of reviews of ‘new and improved’ bits of kit that will bite huge chunks out of the average monthly salary.
I skim through some of these items with a degree of bemusement, happy not to be spending the silly money some are prepared to spend for infinitesimally small gains, and equally happy not to become a ‘victim’ of the statistics of my performance on the bike, such as pedal cadences, heart monitors, power meters, dynamic profiles and so on. I go out on my bike to have fun, enjoy the countryside, and indulge myself in that sense of utter freedom that is so fundamental to the enjoyment of cycling.
My two shorter rides over the weekend took me in a less familiar direction. You might know my penchant for heading out against prevailing winds, to catch that delightful tailwind on the way home. Well, unusually for these parts, the winds had switched to the NE, so my rides took me roughly in that direction, rediscovering roads I haven’t ridden for several months. It made a very pleasant change…….
Distance today: 72km
Total distance for the week: 338km
As I set off to explore the few roads left to be discovered on the island, I heard that Alicante had its first snow in 35 years, and Ronda (in Andalucia) had its first snow in 60 years! Records are being broken everywhere, and news bulletins are letting the extraordinary weather events to even upstage Donald Trump’s inauguration tomorrow. As cold as Menorca has been in the last week, at least we haven’t seen any of the white stuff. Whereas over in Mallorca, there have been dramatic pictures of Sky continuing to train despite heavy snowfall. Commitment to earning their salaries, perhaps.
My route took me along one of the few coastal roads, through half a dozen deserted holiday villages, through the town of Sant Lluis
(a town established by the French during the few years they had arrested control of the island from the British), and eventually out along the long peninsula where an 19th century fort had been built to protect the harbour from invasion.
Ah bliss…..the freedom of the open road once again. Cold temperatures were forecast, as were strong winds with gusts of up to 80km per hour, but the potential of a dry day (according to the BBC weather app, anyway), so I set off into the wind with a degree of optimism. But whatever the street thermometers tell you about air temperature, when the winds blow down from Siberia, 6C really feels like 0C, or what the Spaniards refer to as the thermic temperature.
I headed for one of the many coastal holiday villages called Sol Parc, knowing it would be a winter ghost town like all such communities, but I had been assured by a fellow flight passenger that it had a bar open in the winter months. So off I went. When I eventually found this mysterious bar, run by an English lady, and met the only customer (an elderly gentleman who seemed to be living the life of a hermit, his only companion being his dog), I struggled to visualise the attraction of living in such a place year-round. Menorca is desperately trying to make the island a year-round holiday destination (like Mallorca), promoting outdoor activities and culture for the winter months, but they will have to do something to inject a bit of life into these coastal ghost towns if they are to succeed.
One of the coastal villages, Son Bou, had this fascinating 5th century Christian site
with the uncovered remains of an ancient paleolithic basilica, built after the Roman occupation, and before the arrival of the Moors. I tell you, this little island has seen some history.
And as I swung round from viewing the ancient remains, I was only this far from stepping onto a beach and gazing out over the horizon.
Over a late leisurely lunch in a harbour-side restaurant in Mahon, I met a young English family who were preparing to up-sticks in Dubai and move permanently to Menorca. In fact they had only just clinched the deal on their new house, and they were both nervous and excited about the prospects. Having just experienced the coldest week in Menorca for over 10 years, at least they were making their decision when Menorca wasn’t exactly selling itself.
We were spared the heavy snow experienced by neighbouring Mallorca, and even further south in Alicante, but the freezing winds whistling down from Siberia had me skulking under 7 layers of clothing, as I climbed on a smart-looking bus to Ciutadella at the other end of the island. Even though it’s not the capital, it is bigger than Mahon, and had been the capital until the arrival of the British. Today, embedded in their patronal festivities, was a re-enactment of a very important moment in the history of the island…..and this time, I’m not referring to the arrival of the British!
The island had been occupied by the Moors for 5 centuries until, in the 13th century, Alfonso lll of Aragon arrived to claim possession of the island, and it was in Ciutadella that he arrived,
A formal choral mass is led by the Bishop in the Cathedral, followed by a procession through the streets led by mounted dignitaries, until they arrive at the Plaza de Alfonso lll, where the ceremonial knocking at the gate is re-enacted to the cheering and applause of the crowd.
Trussed up like a turkey: this is what you get to look like when the forecast tells you the weather gods are going to throw everything at you…..rain, hail, gale-force winds, with temperatures just hovering above freezing.
The smile for the camera was completely erased an hour later when I had to throw in the towel and turn back to basecamp. I rode back through patches of settled hail stones, and had to peel off the several sodden layers one by one before jumping into a blissfully hot shower. My room now looks like a Chinese laundry.
Because the Siberian weather front is set to intensify tomorrow, with the rarely experienced possibility of snow falling on Menorca, even the patronal fiesta activities have been postponed for two weeks. San Antoni, normally celebrated on the 17th, is just going to have to wait (sorry mate!).
However, things brightened up in the late afternoon, which gave me good reason the explore Mahon, and it really is a charming and fascinating place, particularly it’s natural 5km long harbour, where hundreds of luxury yachts and launches are moored:
Most of the historic centre was built by the British in the 18th century, so the predominant architectural style is Georgian, but British touches were also added to already existing buildings, like the clock on this 17th century masterpiece.
And one other curious reminder of the British presence is the continued use of adopted words: grevi (gravy); winder (window); botil (bottle); mervel (marble); xoc (chalk), to name just a few. And when I say the British occupied Menorca, what I really mean is they captured it and occupied it three times. There was quite a bit of squabbling going on with France, then with Spain, and finally with Austria. Then they all came to a gentleman’s agreement (meaning the British won the fight to leave behind gin-drinking and cricket as their inheritance) and handed it over to Spain…..and everyone lived happily ever after.
Food is seldom far from a cyclist’s thoughts. A day’s ride is predictably punctuated by calorie-loading stops, but here in Menorca, I begin the day with a local breakfast delicacy: the famous ensaimada.
The weather forecast for today was dire. The landlord warned me to take great care (obviously, he didn’t want to lose a tenant so soon after I’ve arrived!). Strong winds were expected, with gusts of up to 60kms per hour, and sea surges up to 4-6 metres high. With the wind coming from the north, it was going to carry the icy chill from central Europe, where temperatures have dropped to -20C. So I headed off very tentatively, going north to Fornells
When conditions out on the open roads are tough, it is nice to know that the Spanish Ministry of Transport has the safety of cyclists at heart…..
and, amazingly, most motorists do observe the 1.5 metre rule, patiently trailing behind me until they can overtake safely, allowing me the stipulated safety margin. I am impressed. And despite the strong winds, cyclists were out across the island doing their weekend miles, especially racing clubs, who frequently left me behind to eat their dust…..
But as I whizzed through (wind behind me, of course) Es Mercadal again this afternoon, I was treated to one of those serendipities that halt you in your tracks. Carried by the wind, I heard the familiar drum rolls of a drumming band, so I followed the sound to the main plaza, and chanced upon two bands practising for the patronal fiesta on Tuesday.
They were surrounded by a growing audience, flashmob-style, and kept us entranced by the complex rhythms of their repertoires. The most impressive display of drumming I’ve ever witnessed was the famous Holy Week gathering of 1000 drummers in Calanda in Aragon. At the stroke of 12 on Good Friday, the surrounding buildings began to vibrate with the sheer decibel level of the outburst. Today’s 20 drummers re-ignited that memory for me.
When I got back to Mahon, I was annoyingly waylaid by a Galician restaurant that beckoned me inside to sample their empanadas and padron peppers. Life can be so difficult to manage at times…….
You’ve heard it all before…..’The best laid schemes o’ mice and men….’. I picked up my hired steed (a very nice carbon fibre Specialized Roubaix)
at a winter discount price, headed out beneath a threatening sky and against a very cold 20kms head wind, and decided to do just 30-40kms locally to get used to the bike, and have a quick route of escape back to base in case the weather turned nasty…… and what happened?
I got into my stride, the bike felt good, I felt good, the weather didn’t turn brutal, and what should have been an amble round bays and through villages turned into a moderately long day ride. One day I will accept that I can’t simply do ‘ambles’, because ambles are rides without purpose. For me, a ride with purpose requires two ingredients: a destination and a distance, and you begin the ride with both as given, because at the end there is a sense of completion and achievement.
I began the ‘amble’ bit of the ride exploring villages in the south, stopping for a much needed hot coffee in Sant Lluis (the wind chill had really got to me), then got the bit between the teeth and motored north to Es Mercadal, to the foot of the infamous climb to El Toro.
When you see an innocent little sign like this, there is nothing innocent about it. 3kms of bends in the road usually mean only one thing: a big climb with severe switchbacks. In this ‘post-truth age’ I won’t make any claims about my performance, because you’ll probably guess the real truth anyway.
But my quest to unearth a few more clues about the British occupation of Menorca in the 18th century was richly rewarded today. Sitting next to me at the bar in Sant Lluis were two venerable old boys enjoying their pre-prandial aperitives, and what were they drinking? Neat gin (an unusual drink for most Spaniards), but in very un-British large measures. Not only did we export one of our drinking habits, but it would seem our game of cricket pops up in the most unexpected places (as it did in Corfu)
And after following this winding country road for 25kms, I discovered that Kane was one of the British Governors of the island in the 18th century. He had had this road built to link the capital, Mahon, with the north of the island.
I tap out this post on my phone accompanied by tv images of critical weather conditions across Spain. Mercifully, Menorca is not going to have the snow and sub-zero temperatures of the mainland, but it is going to be cold and wet for the next 4-5 days….. whoopee!
Unlike the Canary Isles, the Balearics do have a proper winter, but one which is usually mild and sunny…. but not always. In other words, if you come to enjoy out-of-season sport, you take your chances, just as I am this week. And because Menorca has a proper winter, most of the island is in winter-mode, with minimal services, and many bars and restaurants closed. Perfect if you prefer to avoid the crowds, but disastrous if you like nightlife and the buzz of human activity. Menorca in January slumbers like a hibernating bear.
And my UK friends mustn’t imagine that we are the only country suffering from a crisis in our health services. Spain is reeling from a flu epidemic, people are dying, and the hospitals are in crisis. Here too, patients on trolleys are lining the corridors, and some of this has been caused by a somewhat less than enthusiastic autumn campaign to have the most vulnerable vaccinated.
Obstructions in life are commonplace, but on a bike they usually take the form of other road users or pedestrians, and seldom curious cows blocking the way on riverside paths
…..but sometimes you come across little medieval gems like this, that would have been used by trains of 50 pack-horses taking produce to the market
….and (apologies for the excessive reflection on the windscreen) then you chance by a rusting campervan that has one member of its ‘skeleton crew’ sitting in the front passenger seat. When I asked the owner, he simply said they couldn’t afford to bury every member of the family…..
…..and anyway, she never answers him back.
Repaying a kindness frequently broadens horizons and opens up new paths. On my trek through Japan last year, I was hosted by several generous members of the cycling confraternity, one of whom was Taka from Toyama, a large town on the Sea of Japan coastline. On the promised day, I arrived in Toyama not only fighting a ferocious headwind, but also battling with a torrential downpour and, to boot, it was after dark. All the ingredients for getting lost looking for an address amongst the 40,000 inhabitants. Knowing I was somewhere near to where Taka lived, I took refuge in a restaurant, rang him, and he jumped on his bike and came to the rescue. Fifteen minutes later, I found myself entering his extraordinary home, built entirely of wood to an ancient design, and thawing out beneath a steaming shower.
Yesterday, we welcomed Taka to our home in Cambridgeshire, at the beginning of his 5 month tour of five countries in Europe. He had endured several days of unseasonably cold, wet weather, and had to battle a headwind out of London to get here. Like for like, we had each apologised for our respective country’s appalling weather, opened our doors wide to extend a warm welcome to the unfortunate traveller, and provided a evening of friendship and good food to make up for the hardships. In our respective farewells, we had each accompanied the other en route to the next destination. I said farewell to Taka in Geddington, standing in front of the famous Eleanor Cross.
It’s called “fellowship of the road”.
It is always nice to be given a chance to tell the story of my ride through Japan, and I’ve had a spate of invitations recently.
On Friday November 27th at 7.30pm, I will be talking to a bunch of cyclists at the Rockingham Forest Wheelers Clubhouse, 11 Ashley Road, Middleton, Market Harborough, Leicestershire LE16 8YP.
If you are curious and within reach of the clubhouse, do come along. Entry is free……and, I believe, refreshments will be served. I can’t guarantee the talk will be riveting, but the cake will be excellent!
The world of cycling hides many contradictions: as an activity, it is both solitary and sociable, energetic and relaxing, lung-busting and contemplative. Like many other sports, it brings people together to share a passion, but through that commonly shared interest, you get to meet a kaleidoscope of the different strata of society. And everyone is fascinating in his or her own way………
When I arrive at the The Knavesmire (York’s Racecourse), I look out at the vast emptiness that is slowly filling up with tents and caravans…….this is nothing like my usual pitch, which is usually in the shelter of some hedge or copse, or skulking out of sight of prying eyes. This is a huge unprotected landscape designed primarily for horse racing. When the winds blow and the rains set in, this is not the kind of environment I would choose for my little tent….. And when the wind did blow one night, one of the tent poles buckled under the strain and the tent suffered a partial collapse. So glad I had brought a few strips of gaffer tape……. a bodged job is better than no job, and it held for a few more nights.
Once settled in, I answered the invitation of my brother and his wife to join them at their sailing club, conveniently only one mile from the race course. And that proved to be a curious switch of social groups……. from a motley bunch of cyclophiles to a crowd of boating aficionados, where the talk was inevitably about affairs of the marina, and the comings and goings along the waterways of Britain. And there I sat in my cycling lycra……..
20. You return from an epic ride to find your GPS didn’t record and it feels like you just wasted your day and energy.
19. Your gears stopped working… because of a dead battery.
17. You work out indoors on windy days because your aerodynamic frame and wheels are just too scary outside.
16. A rest day is when your GPS is turned off.
15. You can’t train indoors because your computer has a virus.
14. You’re involved in a crash and you get X-rays… of your bike for insurance purposes. The sore ribs go ignored.
13. You see someone wearing a tiger-print skinsuit and your first thought is ‘brave’.
12. A car hits you because they didn’t see your ‘murdered-out’ bike and matching kit. Luckily, you caught the whole thing in HD video.
11. Your brakes are leaking oil.
10. Your power meter keeps cutting out – you decide it’s pointless to ride like this.
8. It’s wet outside, so you wonder if you should just ride your cyclocross bike on the road today?
7. You get a flat and find neither you nor anyone in your group has a 60/80mm valve tube. You call a cab/your spouse, delete the file off your GPS and pretend the ride never happened.
6. Your heart rate/cadence/speed or power sensor malfunctions and picks up the data of a young-gun riding past. You immediately screen-shot the effort.
5. You can’t operate your bike computer because the touchscreen doesn’t work with the gloves you’re wearing.
4. You have a Gran Fondo coming up, but can’t decide whether to use 50/34, 52/36 or 53/39 gearing on the front. And the rear cassette is a whole other drama!
2. Fixing a bottom bracket creak is no longer a matter of reaching for a wrench and grease. It now requires a hammer, a cup remover, a headset press, a new bottom bracket and a whole bunch of Loc-tite.
1. Your crankset tells you not to quit your day job.
Taken from Bikeradar
Although the temperatures throughout the week have oscillated between 14-20 degrees C, the wind chill factor has brought it down by at least five degrees. Some days I was wearing both arm and leg warmers, even though the sun was strong enough to burn unprotected skin. Anyway, it saved on the sun lotion….!
This being the final day, I did the unthinkable, and repeated a route from a few days ago. Not too hilly, out against the wind, and back with it. Órzola is a superb place to stop, sitting on a port-side terrace, drinking coffee and watching the ferries come and go to the nearby tiny island of La Graciosa. There I met four other guys, all from Shropshire, sharing a week of cycling together. They were obviously not in training. They were there to have a good time riding their bikes and, probably, having a few beers in the evening. Friendly crowd….one of them gave me a litre of water for my bidon.
Now that I have succumbed to using a GPS for recording some of my rides, I can now bore you with a few meaningless stats. For someone who only rides bikes for fun and exploration, all of this does little more than satisfy vacant curiosity….but here goes.
On the above ride, I achieved the most elevation gain in one ride, 1035 metres, higher than Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England.…and on this ride I climbed to my maximum elevation of just under 600 metres, just outside Haría, in the north of the island.
…and my maximum speed coming down from the previous 600 metre summit, touched 64 kph (40 mph) which, with a strong crosswind, was a scary experience…..but exhilarating none the less.
The six days, in total, saw me cover a modest 487 kms/ 302 miles…..but since my goal was only going to be 500kms, I left Lanzarote well satisfied. The trip was not just about the bike. My intention was to explore the island again, visiting caves, museums, wine growers, the ‘mirador’ and Timanfaya. And to allow myself to be distracted by eventualities.
If you have followed my adventures on this short trip, thanks for your company. If you feel inspired to do something similar, look for the opportunity. If you go for just a week, it can be cheaper and much more convenient to hire a bike, as opposed to taking your own. For longer periods of time, you have to weigh up the cost/convenience benefits for yourself. With all this in mind, all you have to do is look for a reasonable package deal that includes accommodation and flights…..and with as little as 5 kilos of hand luggage, you can be fully equipped for the trip (bearing in mind that bike hire can include helmet, pedals of your choice, puncture repair, spare tube, lock…..etc).
“The world is a handkerchief!” (El mundo es un panuelo)
….it’s a small world…..a very small world.
Heading up the steep hill out of Costa Teguise, a cyclist flashed past me going downhill, so fast that I nearly missed him. But in that briefest of glimpses, there was something so familiar about the profile that it prompted me to turn around and chase him down the hill. As we reached the T junction, I looked over and said “Oh, hi Brian! Thought it might be you”. He stopped immediately, dumbfounded: “Frank, this is amazing!”…….we occasionally cycle together in a Northamptonshire group, and our hotels are only a few hundred metres apart in Costa Teguise. He invited me back to his hotel and we sat drinking coffee together.
That same evening, as I was sitting down to my evening meal in the hotel dining room, I noticed a chap (whom I guessed was a cyclist) sitting at a table nearby, we made eye contact, and eventually sat together and shared tales of the road, diet, training programmes, and much more. After about an hour of chat, we eventually got around to introducing ourselves and enquiring about each other’s background. When I told him where I lived and which club I cycled with, he said “You must be Frank Burns then. I’ve read some of your blog”. I was left speechless…..well, only for a few seconds…….until Paul revealed that he was also a member of St Ives CC and, although we had never met, he knew about some of my overseas expeditions. We went on to sit together over several meals, ‘chewing the fat’ and sharing anecdotes. He shared his current thinking about cycling and diet, and revealed that he has ditched the use of carbohydrates altogether (the traditional source of energy for cyclists) and has converted to a high fat diet, which not only changes the metabolism of the body completely, but also forces the body to seek energy in fat reserves, which are much more enduring.
I have yet to be fully convinced about the wisdom of all of this, but the following day he actually completed a very challenging 110 miles/175kms on a single banana and water, and never craved anything else during the whole ride. To say that is impressive is an understatement. I can’t imagine ever going more than 50 miles/80kms without sustenance, and then I would be at my limit.
Other cyclists I met at the hotel included a German triathlete who, at the age of 50, was training hard for his next Ironman; a Belgian, probably in his early 60s, who was on a serious training schedule, going out every day with a group and ploughing the same furrow each morning……always going north into the wind, and coming back with a tailwind. I couldn’t imagine anything more boring, but then he was focused entirely his training statistics.
My route today was quite spectacular, but the wind was stronger than ever. Getting out to the Caleta de Fámara, on the north west coast, was very tough, but for the last ten kilometres, I managed to tuck in behind a couple of similarly paced cyclists and ‘sucked on their back wheels’. The strength of the winds along this particular coastline is the very reason that surfing, of every description, is big business. The small village is dominated by watersports shops and restaurants.But, perhaps the most intriguing person I met in my time in the hotel was Alex, from Geneva in Switzerland. He is currently ‘in between jobs’ in the high tech industry, but is also a super-keen kitesurfer. He had come over to the Canaries to scout around for the best kitesurfing beaches. His mission was entirely one of research, jumping from one island to the next, to get a global idea of what was available.