James Burns: McSwain cyclist shootin' for the moon

James Burns, sports editor
James Burns, sports editor

Up the gravel driveway and through the garage of this McSwain ranch-style home sits cycling's next shining local star.

Larry Burns is seated at the kitchen table, hands folded in his lap, mileage log in front of him, hot tea warming on the stove.

He notes his recent adventures -- using his index finger to highlight the weather, close calls with strays and, of course, his miles -- before rushing over to address the whistling kettle.

It's been hours since his morning ride, but Larry still looks the part: form-fitting yellow top, black spandex shorts.

But don't be fooled by the canary-colored jersey, the one typically associated with race leaders and champions.

Levi Leipheimer or Lance Armstrong, he is not. In fact, Larry has never competed in a cycling race, professionally or as an amateur.

"I ride slow so I can collect cans to pay for my Native American flutes," Larry says, running his hand over the thick, padded seat of his Recumbent bicycle, a laid-back cruiser fixed with a windshield.

"I'm not a racer."

No, he's not.

Larry is a rider.

The Moon Rider.

And to the best of our knowledge, he is the only one of his kind.

For nearly five decades, the former fourth-grade teacher at McSwain Elementary School has been combing the rural grounds outside the Merced city limits.

For the last 30 years, he's been keeping track of his daily travels, jotting his miles down on note pads and calendars.

For instance...

In 1979, on a Peugeot UO8 bicycle, Larry reached his first major milestone -- 1,000 miles.

Eight years later, he eclipsed the 50,000-mile plateau on a Bob Jackson touring bike.

Then on May 3, 1998, his mileage log took on new purpose, greater significance.

He reached the 100,000-mile marker that Sunday afternoon on a green Bianchi road bike. It was then that he set the goal -- and the quirky nickname -- in motion.

"I knew I would try for another 100,000," said Larry, who was actually known as "Lunar-tic" before switching gears to "Moon Rider."

"So I decided I would try to make it to the moon in miles. The moon's orbit is elliptical, so it's not a perfect circle. It's 220,000 away at it's closest point."

Odd, sure.

But if you're looking for a beacon of hope, someone to put on a pedestal during this historic cycling season, Larry Burns -- this 64-year-old retired schoolteacher -- might be your man.

He's a champion in the figurative sense, if only because he champions the cause. He promotes his sport unselfishly, urging those like him to give cycling a worthwhile spin.

"You don't have to be an athlete to ride a bike. Cycling can be a lifelong sport. You don't have to have a low body fat index to enjoy it," Larry said. "You can be an average person ... like me.

"I love cycling and I got a real kick out of seeing those athletes, but I'm not a professional. Never have been. Never will be. But I'll tell you what -- it's been enjoyable."

Today, when the Merco Cycling Classic kicks off with the Downtown Grand Prix and fun rides, Larry will be busy chasing his own victory.

With a few friends along for the ride, Larry will set off toward Hangar Cafe. Along the way, he'll reach the 200,000-mile plateau.

He'll probably celebrate with an omelet and glass of OJ, before resetting his focus on the end goal.

The moon.

He projects he'll reach the pie in the sky by the summer of 2011. To do so, he'll have to log at least 1,000 miles a month for the next 2 ½ years.

"He knows how to set goals, that's for sure," his wife, Anise, said. "He likes destinations. Not physical destinations, but goals to go after.

"He gets a goal in mind and wants to achieve it. I think it goes to show that if you find a workout you like, and you really, really enjoy it, you can achieve just about anything."

Yes, Larry's message this cycling season is simple.

Reach for the stars.

Just not the Moon.

It's already taken.

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at