31 August 2013

The New Kids in Setagaya (and across the river)

Today was very hot -- 36 degrees celsius in Tokyo.  Too hot for me to want to ride.  A day to grumble about what a miserable place Tokyo can be at times.

Then again, maybe it is not so miserable.  I was looking online for a place in Japan that I could get Chris King Ringdrive grease to do annual maintenance on my Chris King Classic rear hub, since World Cycle mail order shop did not have any in stock.  ... and I came across the website for SimWorks, the import business of Shinya Tanaka (Circles shop in Nagoya) that sells in Japan bikes by Mike DeSalvo, Rick Hunter, Cielo (Chris King) and others.

I started to drool as I looked at the list of products.  Everything is aesthetically pleasing, authentic and interesting.  It all shows a love of bicycles.  And the blog was fun too, with a post from yesterday about a DeSalvo belt drive bike, a look at some beautiful Sykes wood fenders and a post reporting on CharRie's Cafe, a Japanese woman (Rie Sawada -- with "char" or "chari" slang for bicycle in Japanese, hence "Char Rie") riding across Europe this summer and beyond on her Rick Hunter-built "coffee bicycle" -- serving coffee to thousands of cyclists around the globe from a moving cafe.  Simworks has a strong connection with Portland -- my hometown.

Then, it was on to the page listing dealers carrying Simworks brands. Not surprisingly, there were lots of them within 10 or 20 minutes' ride of my house.  I will stop by Above Bike Store -- just across the river in Kawasaki -- to see if they have the Ringdrive grease.  They have some beautiful bikes in the gallery.  Maybe I should get a custom paint job for a frame, or stop by the "wheel bar" for a new pair while I am there:

Or maybe I should make an appointment to visit Rew10, a Setagaya-based framebuilder.  Or stop by Blue Lug in Kamiuma.  Or visit one of the several CyPara (Cycle Paradise) shops in Setagaya.
I have been living here for 9 years, and thought I was following what was going on nearby at least when there was something interesting related to bicycles.  But I have never been to any of these places.

Some people think there is no future Tokyo ... but I am not so sure.  I resolve to get out and roam around a bit more.  It was just such a stroll looking for good bike shops that first led me to Positivo ... and eventually to Positivo Espresso.  Who knows what the future holds?

SR FUJI 600 / 2nd Attempt / Failed

After the 1st failed attempt to reach Takao in 52 hours due to unsufficient preparation & wrong timing, I was obsessed about it & decided to give it another try before David return to Japan (I was really upset not to be able to join him for LEL & positivo traditional summer training camp in Spain / See David previous blog)

After spending 4 days at Stephen paradise resort located in Oume, I decided to give another try even under such a hot weather. I started from Takao station on August 20th / 18h00 and rode back to Stephen chalet (on the course) to spend another night before the big challenge. As I was a bit nervous & the weather very hot, I enjoyed a good dinner with many beers & went to sleep early planning to wake up at 4 am the next morning....

As it was too hot I decided to sleep outside but forgot to bring my alarm clock... & woke up 2 hours later. As a result I left Stephen place at 6h30 under an already hot I should say suffocating & humid weather (already around 30 degrees). It was so hot that I needed to stop again at the magic fountain before Yamabushi climb where I sept another 2 hours...
I felt much better & cruised at a good speed until Fujioka where I had some chinese food before the climb to Karuizawa. briefly stopped at Megane bashi. By the time I reached Usui toge it was already close 2pm... 
The climb towards Karuizawa went smooth despite extremely hot weather & traffic jam. I was wondering why I could not see any other cyclist but soon understood that because of extreme weather conditions all Japan cyclist might have decided to stay home. 
Next climb - 8 kms to Kusatsu - was much harder as I was getting tired & dehydrated. My dream of enjoying a good italian dinner in this winter famous ski resort ended up with an Izakaya style one... the only restaurant opened after 8pm...

After leaving this Ghost City which I recorded as Dead City, I attacked the long climb up to Shirane Pass. I cycled through the ropeway start where I had a nice sleep during my 1st attempt & finally reached the top at 22h28 after a short rest mid course in order to change batteries & enjoy the view. By this time the temperature had dropped to acceptable levels

I really enjoyed the long descent in the darkness even if I could not go as fast as usual (was worried about animals suddenly crossing the road or stupid tanuki zooming on my front light), 
I finally met some colleagues (mountain bikers) at the next PC where they were sleeping deeply.

Since it was getting late I decided to stop & slept outside a circle K convenience store. I felt aslept soon after finishing a beer & woke with day light. Even the light rain could not wake me up....
The climb towards Sugadaira (18 kms) was really exhausting because of extreme temperature again but I fortunately found another magic fountain where I could cool down just before reaching the top.
Another long descent toward Ueda & next PC.

I felt strong until I had to start climbing again toward Utsukushigahara visitor center where I had to stop for fresh food (make sure to order their fresh juicy tomatoes if stop by this place). 
I had to stop many times & even rest 30 mn before reaching the top.
 I cycled through the Venus Line Roller Coaster & of course stopped at Watanabe & Watanabe wada pass inn. By the time I reached Shirakabako it was already 4pm. As I was exhausted I decided to spend the night in this other Ghost city. I found a nice hotel around the lake which was offering a all you can eat / drink dinner. I was respeeting my plan for a light meal / drink when I bumped into a nice couple of retirees whom I had seen at Utsuhigahara Visitor Center. As they discovered I could speak Japanese we started exchanges views (& drinks) about Japan. I finally went to bed at midnight wondering if I could make good of my commitment to start at 3 am<. Guess what? I could do it & soon attacked Mugi Kusa pass. Thanks to the altitude & early hour, weather was cool. I could reach the top before 6 am.

Everything was going smooth until I reached the bottom of Nobeyama when I started to feel really hungry. I had no food since previous dinner & could not find any convenience for the 60 kms between Shirakabako & Nobeyama (CVS opening hours around Shirakabako are regulated as they are located in a National Park - from 7 am to 7 pm) & all other CVS along the road seem to have gone bankrupt. Fortunately I finally found a CVS in Nobeyama as I was worried I would faint... A french man always needs to eat.
I could feel the heat striking back as I was descending from Kyosato (30 kms descent) heading towards Ashigawa. This part, with Chichibu to Fujioka road, is the most unpleasant part of the whole trip as you do not know weather you re in the country side or city. 
Happily the next part up to Kawaguchiko was much nicer although quite long & steep. After a brief stop before reaching the tunnel to Kawaguchiko where I enjoyed local strawberries with mugi cha I zoomed down to Kawaguchiko & Yamanakako

Another short stop at Yamanakako Positivo official 7/11, I headed toward sagamihara along the famous  Doshi Michi road & reached the final destination by 18h00. 
As a result it took me 72 hours (20 hours over the deadline) but I made it to the goal...

I swear I will try again (probably with David mid september) & make it within the time limit (52 hours) prior to challenging the deadly SR 600 Japan Alps with more than 12 000 meters of climb.

26 August 2013

Into the Clouds While Avoiding Karuizawa

Tokyo has been unbearably hot the past few weeks.  Sunday brought brief respite, with clouds and drizzle bringing slightly cooler temperatures.

My younger son Henry and I had planned to escape the heat by head a one-day trip to Nagano, hopping an early Chuo Line express, riding up the hill from Chino through Tateshina, and then on to Sakudaira or Ueda for the train home.  Nagano at least would be cooler and less humid than Tokyo, and our route would take us into the upper reaches of Tateshina/Yatsugatake area -- at the least we would climb to over 1750 meters elevation.

We saw lots of groups of deer roaming the forest.
We pull off for a stop.
Starting to get wet!
Me too.
Indeed, the heat was no problem, as we climbed the Venus Line in a very gentle, misting rain.  By the time we got to 1500 meters elevation, however, the mist had turned into steady rain.  Even at this elevation, however, it was a warm, summer rain.

After one stop, we debated our course, deciding not to try Mugikusa Pass, but instead head north over Suzuran Pass, then down to Shirakaba-ko and Daimon Pass, then the 35+ kilometers down to Ueda to hop the Nagano Shinkansen back to Tokyo.

As we climbed toward Suzuran Pass, a familiar rider with Saitama Audax vest descended by us, moving too fast for any greeting, and looking as if he had not shaved in a few days.  This made me realize that we were on the SR600 course now, working backwards along the route Jerome had ridden less than 3 days earlier.  The Saitama rider must have on the same route.
A rider approaches out of the clouds. 

At Daimon Pass, just about Lake Shirakaba.  Right turn for the descent to Ueda.
At Ueda Station, we saw that the reserved seats (shi-tei-seki) were sold out for the next 4 hours or more -- the electronic display a sea or red "x" marks, even the more expensive "green car" tickets.  We booked unreserved seating tickets (jiyuu-seki) and joined the snaking line on the platform near one of the boarding spots at the front end of the train.  Cars 1, 2 and 3 were unreserved and 4 through 8 were reserved.

Of course, Ueda is only the 2nd stop for Nagano Shinkansen trains headed to Tokyo, after the start in Nagano City.  We need not have worried -- this train line has been running since the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, and not since February 22, 1998, the day of Closing Ceremony, has anyone boarding at Nagano or Ueda has ever failed to get a seat in one of the unreserved cars.  Passengers boarding at Sakudaira (3rd stop) also managed to sit down, though some were separated from their traveling companions.  

Only at Karuizawa (4th and last stop in Nagano) did people not find seats.  One lucky and aggressive male traveler at the front of the line managed to grab the last open seat in our car, and the other 20 or so who boarded our car from both ends stood in the aisles or in between the cars.  So if you visit Karuizawa and want to come back to Tokyo on a summer Sunday afternoon, you must get a reserved seat and be sure to catch your train ... or you will be standing for the 70+ minutes journey.

This I can add to my list of things I do not like about Karuizawa.  What else is there, you might ask?

Well, my last complaint was during the SR600, when I arrived at the top of Usui Pass and entered the town from the East at around 5:20AM, looking forward to some breakfast -- at least a convenience store, maybe more -- a Gusto family restaurant or Mc-Cafe.  Unlike EVERY other place I have been in Japan, it seems in Karuizawa even the convenience stores are shuttered until 6AM.  There was no Gusto in town, and the McDonalds I passed had a sign that it opens only at 6:20AM.  I rode through to Naka-Karuizawa and turned onto the Nihon Romantic Kaido, found a 7-11, and took a forced 30+ minute nap, hungry and slightly cold, as I waited for the opening hour.

These just add to the opinion formed when Jerome and I rode to Karuizawa from Tokyo in 2010, and arrived from the south having seen some spectacularly beautiful valleys, streams and mountains, only to join a sea of cars, sitting in the heat, full of people -- even leaving their cars to buy ice cream for the wait.  My wife tells me that Tokyoites like Karuizawa because it offers an opportunity for a "big city lifestyle in the countryside".  Indeed, if the traffic jam I witnessed was at all representative, it does just that!

14 August 2013

Pico de Veleta - Highest Road in Europe!

Positivistas Juliane and David had done the team research and selected the Sierra Nevada because of its reputation for quiet, smooth roads and plenty of climbing (by bicycle) opportunities.  The queen stage of our week was to be the ascent of the Pico de Veleta, a climb of more than 40 kilometers and 2500 meters elevation gain, which takes us up Europe's highest road, topping out at 3384 meters (11,000 feet) elevation, as reported in this article from earlier in the year.

We wanted to get an early start so we would be above the summer heat and reach the cool of the mountain air before early afternoon, so we planned to rise at daybreak.  But rest day had taken its toll on some team members, and we ended up heading out just before 12PM for the 2-hour drive down and around the base of the mountains.  We parked in Pinos Genil, just up the road from Granada, and started climbing around 2PM, in the heat of the day, from 750 meters elevation.

The others gave me a head start, since I was the slowest climber in the group this week, and I had my bike ready first.  As with elsewhere during our trip, we were pleased with the low traffic volumes, both on the climb along the "old road" (SE-39?) from Pinos Genil to Route A-395, and from there all the way to the top.

I climbed slowly but steadily through the heat of the lower slopes, gradually gaining elevation and, with it, the feeling of being "up there" above the distant plains.  After about 45 minutes, Juliane "the gazelle" zoomed past with some encouraging words.
Looking down at Guejar Sierra from the visitor center
I stopped at a visitor center around 1600 meters elevation to see if I could refill my one empty bottle. I asked the man at the reception desk about "aqua" while gesturing to my bottle, and he pointed me toward the rest rooms in the back.  The tap I found bore a clear "not potable" diagram -- a big red "X" over a water bottle.  Back at the front desk, I asked him "aqua potable?"  He shrugged his shoulders, so I left without refilling my bottle.  At least the air was noticeably cooler now that I had reached the higher slopes.

At around 2000 meters altitude, I stopped at the sign for a photo and rest, and MOB and DJ arrived.  After MOB also posed for a photo, they gradually moved ahead of me.  MOB's training week in the Alps, and recent rest, had brought him back into strong climbing shape.

I caught up with the others a little further, at a turn off before the entrance to Prado Llano, the ski village, and again at around 2650 meters where they had made a wrong turn and needed to back-track.  I was still with MOB at 2750 meters where there was another altitude sign, and an opportunity for more photos.  (We eagerly await MOB's trip report and official team photo).
Climbing past Prado Llano
The "real" highway ended above 2500 meters, and from there we passed an open gate and were on an old road, much less well-maintained.  It had been paved once, but at places was now deteriorating into potholes and a rubble of broken concrete.  We needed to get off to walk from time to time.  The others on the climb were all hikers and a few mountain bikers.  We saw only 2 road cyclists on the entire last 1000 meters of vertical climb, younger guys already on the descent.
We are going up there.
We came from way down there.
I should have stopped for more water at the temporary cafe in the parking lot just before the gate, but was eager to catch up with the others, and still had more than a half liter left.  And hadn't we all been skeptical we would be able to go far once the road deteriorated?  So surely I would be back at the cafe before long.  Not.  

The winding road.  A gradual climb ... but one starts to feel the altitude.
At least DJ had an extra bottle of water with him, and I could beg 300 mls or so to add to my supply.
Still climbing next to the ski lifts.
One of many areas where we needed to dismount and walk.
After the others completed their detour across the ski slope and again surged ahead of me, I climbed more slowly yet, the altitude and exertion starting to have an impact, until I needed to dismount at a long gravel patch around 2950 meters elevation.  The others were already back on their bikes and I could see two yellow jerseys disappearing into the distance.   I had eaten my last snack.  I had only a few reserve sips of water left.
We are nearing the top of the world.  Not paved right here ... but passable.

The road loops around to the right and approaches the summit from the non-cliff side!
So when the gravel ended, I kept walking, no strength to try to continue the climb by bike.  And I walked, and walked further.  After about 45 minutes, and at least 4 kilometers, I was up, above the turn-off of the road that went around the mountain (and down past our team HQ in Capileira), onto the top of the Veleta.  I could look down onto Capileira, Bubion and Pampeneira in the valley to the South.  It felt like I was on top of the world.
Left fork - to summit; right fork - around the mountain toward the South.

Looking over the top, and down to Capileira, Bubion and Pampileira.
Closer up view of the villages.

With a mountain bike, I think we probably could have kept on going over the South side, along the dirt/gravel path, and been back at our lodgings after a spectacular descent.  Indeed, as we instead started the descent retracing our path down the North side, we saw a few mountain bikers on the climb, as the time approached 7PM, who were likely doing this.
Positivo Espresso-Approved!
On top of Europe
On the descent, we stopped at the parking lot cafe at 2500 meters, drank liquids, ate, refilled our bottles, and then continued.  We managed the rough road to the top and back without a single flat tire/tube.  From the cafe, we enjoyed a very fast and non-technical descent, along quiet, smooth and wide roads, covering the remaining 30+ km distance to the car in under 45 minutes.

11 August 2013

The Spanish Job

After a long week of cycling during LEL, what better way to recover than ... more cycling, in Spain, at the Positivo Espresso Sierra Nevada (Alpujarra) summer training camp.

Time does not yet permit a full report, including the "queen stage" of our successful ascent of the Pico de Veleta, ... but for now a few pictures I hope will help to quench our viewers' thirsts.
We traveled in a black, white and grey VW Golf convoy, in honor of the 2003 remake of "The Italian Job".
Our base camp, strategically located above Capileira at 1700 meters elevation for altitude adjustment,
approximately 2 kms from the end of the paved roads.
Looking up at Bubion (right front) and Capileira (left rear)
Trevelez, the home of the Spanish ham (jamon), through which all rides seemed to pass.
Inside J. Jimenez, direct seller of Jamones, in Trevelez

Juliane "the gazelle" Prechtl, at the intersection beyond Trevelez through which almost all rides passed.

Another perspective on "the intersection".  Note the very low traffic volumes.

Positivistas David, Stephen and MOB in Valor mid-ride

Another view of the middle/upper villages of Trevelez, approximate elevation 1500 meters 
MOB poses behind the "Bimbo truck"

07 August 2013

London-Edinburgh-London ("LEL") 2013

Last week I rode LEL.  I arrived in London on Thursday late afternoon -- just enough time for clearing the worst of jet lag -- and stayed in Lambeth (close-in SW London) with Positivistas David and Juliane.  It helped to be with friends on Friday and Saturday, since it prevented me from sleeping all day, ensuring that I got at least some decent sleep each night.
My Ti Travel bike, Voyage Voyage, rests among David and Juliane's vintage parts collection
Near David and Juliane's home in London -- a sign on the Council-owned housing block

As seems usual for these long randonees, I finished near the back of the pack, but at least with plenty of reserve strength left "in the tank" and hours to spare before the cutoff time.

It was a really great, memorable experience, as one of these rides should be.  How does this ride compare to Paris-Brest-Paris 2011, or the 2012 Cascade 1200 or Rocky Mountain 1200?  
The Prologue departs central London, just after 6AM on Sunday July 28
LEL is longer.  Indeed, including the prologue, and the ride back into London on Friday morning, and a few minor detours, I traveled nearly 1500 kilometers in 5 days.  300 kms (190 miles) per day.  So it is as if I rode Tokyo-Itoigawa, slept 4 hours, then repeated it again ... 5 times in total.

While LEL is longer than PBP, Cascade or Rocky Mountain 1200s, it is not necessarily harder than these.  That depends on weather -- heat, rain and wind -- and this year we cannot complain overall, even if we did suffer from headwinds in the afternoon on Day 2 and again on much of Day 4 and 5, and we did get rain at times on Days 3 and 4.  
The English countryside, mid-day on Day 1,  north of London
Two factors make LEL a bit easier.  First, the time cut offs at controls seem very generous, making it possible to rest earlier and longer than would otherwise be the case.  Second, while there is plenty of up and down, and a few real climbs, there are no long "all category" efforts, and long stretches are entirely flat.
In the Fenlands, a flat stretch on Day 1 -- nice while the tailwind lasted
Same location, looking to the South
My ride plan was to finish Day 1 early.  I arrived at Market Rasen a little after 7PM, ate, slept for 4+ hours, then started Day 2 in the wee hours of the morning.  I had only ridden the prologue plus 248 kms of the real event, but had been up since 430AM, so a real rest seemed in order.  When I awoke at 1:00 AM, a gymasium that had been nearly empty was now full of sleeping riders.  As I left the control, a few very tired riders were still arriving.  I used a similar strategy on subsequent days, though my arrivals were later at the end of Days 3 and 4.  This plan allowed me to avoid crowds at the controls, by and large, and to ride relatively fresh each morning, starting at a time of day when there is zero traffic and putting in significant mileage before breakfast.
North Yorkshire on Day 2 -- the Howardian Hills
North Yorkshire lavender
North Yorkshire -- on the return leg
Castle Howard, North Yorkshire, as the rain starts on Day 4
Support/volunteers.  The LEL organization and volunteers were incredible.  It takes a huge effort just to feed 1000 riders across many controls over 115 hours, and Audax UK came through.  This event was larger than any UK predecessor, and I was well-fed, had a place to sleep, and got some help with directions, bike repairs, etc. as and when I needed it. 
Barnard Castle (the ruins, not the town that bears their name)
There were a few controls on the return legs where I was greeted by the same person serving food as on the outbound leg.  At Barnard Castle (or was it Thirsk?), one elderly woman volunteer looked as if she had been working non-stop the 2 days since my earlier visit.  She used her left hand to support her right arm, near collapse, as she ladled food onto my plate.  Dedication.  And so mutual respect was shown by the riders and the volunteers.  I hope that we riders expressed sufficiently the gratitude we felt toward these volunteers, to make the experience worthwhile for them.
On Yad Moss, Day 2.  At 600 meters elevation, this pass is the highpoint for the entire ride ...

More Yad Moss
Crowds/fans.  There were none, with a few, very limited exceptions.  This is one area where PBP is and will remain impossible to match.

Riders.  The Brits and Scots were great hosts.  They were happy to offer advice.  Often as I sat down at a table in a Control, or rode with others, I was greeted with a proud “I live nearby here …”  and some interesting comments about the upcoming roads, sights and topography.

The French, Germans, Danes, Poles, and others (Taiwanese, Spanish, and on and on) were in evidence, recognizable by their jerseys and often riding in groups.  The U.S. and Canadian members were lower key (except maybe Liz, the sole Canadian woman entrant, who wore her Canada colors proudly).

I rode part of the time with friends, most of the time alone or with people I did not (yet) know.  Theo, from BC, had told me he would be at LEL.  We started the prologue together but were quickly separated.  I found him again 18 hours later, at the top of the first climb on Day 2 a few kms out of the Market Rasen control, lent him a tool needed to fix his light bracket, then we rode together 80+ kms to Pocklington.  We rode together again on the afternoon/evening of Day 4.  

Likewise, I rode the prologue and part of the initial stage with Inagaki-san, friend and Vice Chair of Japan Audax.  I saw him again at various points, and he also led the group that rode in the rainy dark evening of Day 4 from Pocklington back to Market Rasen, over the Humber Bridge in the dark and wind.  
Inagaki-san at Saturday's registration, hair flowing
I met Istvan (aka Steve) at times, a Hungarian who said he has lived in Stuttgart for 30 years. I passed and kept well ahead of him on the early morning of Day 4 as I climbed Yad Moss.  On Day 5 we rode together and shared the hard slogging into a headwind from Market Rasen to St. Ives, making easy work of a stage that caused many to suffer.  

I also rode for part of Day 3 in Scotland, and the last 2 stretches on Day 5, with Stephen, a Brit who lived in Japan in the late 1990s, when he worked for Nokia and Japan was a hotbed of innovation for the mobile internet.  I relied some on his knowledge of local geography, and helped make sure he did not fall asleep as he flagged near the end of the course.

As for the Japanese participants, Inagaki-san was his usual irrepressible self.  When he tired on the evening of Day 4, he started yelling “gamba, gamba, gamba” at the top of his lungs, taking aback some nearby riders but successfully giving himself the strength to continue.  There was one other Japanese rider I recall at the finish profusely thanking (in English) others who had helped him make it through.  Otherwise, each Japanese rider seemed mostly to keep to himself.  They did not ride together, even when several of them were very close by on Day 5 and might have done so.  I did not see them ride with other non-Japanese either.  Perhaps it was the ever-present language barrier? At least there were no serious accidents, and I suspect that all or nearly all were able to finish the event.

Scenery.  The scenery was always pretty and sometimes spectacular.  It seemed more varied than PBP, taking in numerous different regions, instead of Brittany.  Particularly memorable were the Howardian Hills and nearby areas in York, the Penines (including Yad Moss) in NW England, and Scotland.  But Essex and other areas closer to London also were beautiful.

Roads.  The road surfaces varied, but at least traffic was light in most places, and drivers were courteous.  England and Scotland are criss-crossed with a huge number of local roads and lanes, which is a major advantage in planning an event like this, as compared with the Rocky Mountain 1200 in BC, where there is often no choice except to ride a major road together with trucks, buses and cars.  Indeed, the network of roads and lanes seem to make Britain a kind of potential cycling paradise ... when the weather cooperates.

All in all, congratulations are in order for Audax UK.
Audley ("oddly"?) End, a great house now open to the public, near dusk on the last day of LEL
See also: my report of the 3rd day of LEL, spent in Scotland.

For further reading, see Susan Otcenas' (Oregon-based randonneuse) LEL ride report which offers a more chronological narrative of the event.