30 March 2014

I've Ridden That Road

The press has been full of stories over the past 8 days about a terrible landslide in Washington State. The death toll is still uncertain, but a large chunk of the town of Oso was buried as the entire side of a mountain collapsed, the landslide even crossing a river and burying a stretch of Washington State Route 530, the state road through the valley.

As I read more about the disaster, the rain-soaked hillside somewhere NE of Seattle, it sounded very familiar to me, like the rainy, misty, valley we passed through on the final day of the Cascade 1200 back in 2012, soaking wet but recovering from the near-hypothermic conditions descending from Rainy Pass.

I finally took a look back at the route maps of the event, and sure enough, yes, we did ride through the area of the slide, on the Arlington-Darrington Road (Route 530).

I remember stopping for coffee and a snack in the logging town of Darrington.  And I remember the ridges towering above the valley in the mist as I rode between Darrington and Arlington.

I see that this year the Cascade 1200 will take a different route on Days 1 and 2, swinging far south to the Columbia River/Oregon border, and skipping Naches, the eastern side of Mt. Rainier, and Yakima.  I would love to try the road south from Packwood to the Columbia River. ... another time.

Day 4 is again scheduled to ride from Mazama over Washington Pass/Rainy Pass on the North Cascades Highway ... and then on Route 530 past the site of the landslide.  A truly dangerous road.

Road Construction Ahead!

In my tenth consecutive year as a Tokyo resident road cyclist, Spring in Japan brings many familiar scenes.  Of course, the fur tree pollen arrives in February, causing misery for many hay fever suffers.  The amount of pollen varies widely from year to year.  But even for those of us who are not particularly susceptible, a ride in March often ends with one's face caked in a film of pollen dust.

On the positive side, March and April bring great riding weather and spectacular flowering trees, first the plum trees we pass near Oume, and transitioning to the cherry (sakura) trees along many rivers, then finally mountain sakura and sakura in northeast Japan that peak up to a month or more later.  Indeed, this weekend the sakura have started to come out in many places -- the coming week will see them reach their peak in and near Tokyo.
Mt. Fuji still white, from Otarumi Pass
Another ritual relates to the March 31 fiscal year end of most Japanese companies and all governmental bodies.  Budgets are set by fiscal year and most funds are on a "use it or lose it" basis.  This leads to an annual acceleration of spending the last 6 weeks or so of the fiscal year, most obvious in local road construction projects.  Since much construction takes place on nights and weekends, this is when we see road crews out, lane closures and the inevitable traffic jams that result.

This year, the fur tree pollen seems no worse than average.  The road construction, on the other hand, and resulting traffic snarls, seem epic.  At least they did on the ride Jerome and I took yesterday, Saturday March 29.  Why were they so much worse than usual?  First, Saturday was a beautiful day, while rain and wind was forecast for Sunday.  Second, the March 31 FY end pump priming seems to have reverted to the level of the "good old days" with the return of LDP-led governments.  Third, this year March 31 has added significance, as Japanese consumption tax will rise from 5% to 8% on April 1.  The consumption tax increase means that just about every Japanese consumer is out this weekend stocking up provisions, accelerating any anticipated purchases, filling up the gas tank, etc.  And just about every dump truck in the Kanto region seemed to be on the move Saturday.  The government's macro experts are worried about the impact of this activity -- pulling forward purchases from Q2 into Q1, with a resulting swing way up then way down for GDP and other figures.  This is what happened when the consumption tax was last increased over a decade ago, from 3% to 5%.  No doubt construction work done in late March will be paid for in April, and the resulting paychecks will be spent soon thereafter, helping a bit to offset any downturn.

After seeing reports of the rides that Tom and Laurent ("the Russian") took last week, Jerome and I decided to head out toward Matsuhime Pass, go over it from the South side and then come back into town via Okutama and Oume or, perhaps, Kazahari Pass.  But we were overwhelmed by the road construction and seemingly endless lines of cars and dump trucks on National Route 20 around Sagamiko and Uenohara.  After a stop at the rebuilt 7-11 in Uenohara, we decided to change our plan and instead to head for Tsuru Pass and approach Matsuhime from the North.  This was a brilliant choice as we quickly found ourselves on near-deserted roads.

We took Manfred's preferred alternative to Pref. Route 33, along the east side of the river that runs NW/SE to Uenohara.  We then started up Pref. Route 18, then took Steve T.'s route around Tawa pass. No traffic at all.
On Steve T's route around Tawa Pass, the old lady is nowhere to be seen ... but the steep field has been planted!
After Tsuru Pass we rested at the base of Matsuhime -- briefly joining a well-traveled dump truck route for construction of the "new" route 139 around/through instead of over Matsuhime Pass.  As we headed up the climb, through 950 meters elevation, who should we meet but the Russian!  He was doing a repeat of last weekend's ride, this time solo.  He was on his Neil Pryde bike painted in Soc Gen colors, of course with Lightweight wheels.  Very nice!
Still snowbanks near the N entrance to the Matsuhime climb (and on the way up), but too warm for any badass cred.
After a brief chat, we climbed the last 300 meters elevation to the top.  Then it was down the North side again (away from Route 20 and its congestion), and back to Okutama-ko.  We were able to stop for a late lunch at Yakyu-tei, the P.E.-approved restaurant at the west end of the lake.  Mrs. Watanabe looked well.  She told us they had had 120 cms of snow accumulation in the big February storm, roads closed completely for 10 days, and food delivered via Japan Self Defense Force helicopters!  Five or six weeks later, all that was left were snowbanks along the north side of hills.  And some twisted pieces of steel showing where the weight of snow had pushed over a barrier fence along the roadside.
Jerome, who now has 3 consulting gigs and more coming down the pike, attends to business from the Pass.
We slogged home in a swirling wind, which fortunately pushed us the last few kilometers.  In the end, a ride of 194 kms and 2100 meters elevation gain.  My longest ride, with most climbing, since the New Year.  Jerome must have ridden an even 200 kms -- a full Brevet -- with the added distance to and from my house.
The view from Matsuhime Pass, on the signboard.
The view from Matsuhime Pass, behind the signboard.
A few more rides like this, plus the Fleche and 300km Brevet in April, and I should be back into riding shape!

24 March 2014

First Ride of Spring

Japan (and the rest of the northern hemisphere) celebrated the Spring Equinox this weekend.  In Tokyo, the weather was actually, well, appropriate for early Spring!  Sunday dawned cool (low of 4 degrees), but by midday the arm and leg warmers were off and I was riding in short sleeves/shorts for the first time this year.
Low traffic volume on the Akigawa
Jerome and I headed for the Akigawa and Kobu Tunnel.  I have had a nasty cold the past 10 days that still lingers, and my energy flagged on the shallow climb up the lower Akigawa.  I eventually turned for home, at the traffic signal where the steeper climb up to the tunnel begins.  Jerome kept on.  By the time I got home, I had managed 125 kms.  Jerome did 150 kms and more than twice the climbing.  Neither of us felt "in shape", but if we can do rides like this weekly and then the Fleche on April 12-13 we will get there before long.

Still, kind of depressing to only manage this short trip when I look at Tom Weilrunner's blog and see that this 3-day weekend he managed TWICE to do a Matsuhima/Kazahari loop, and on his middle (off) day made it up as far as the snow blocking the route along the Green Line in Chichibu!

This sentiment offset some kind of military memorial I passed on the way back down the Akigawa, where I stopped for a quite bite of a sandwich from my pack.  On the main memorial I could recognize the characters for 陸軍 (army) and 大将 (general), among others.

Early Spring on the Akigawa
Would have been a nice day for a barbeque along the Tamagawa, for a group of university students.  But fun is still banned!

16 March 2014

Bicycle for Masako

A second bicycle for an employee at my small business. ... This one for Masako I., who is working with us afternoons (and sometimes early evenings) 5 days a week.

She is tiny, and this time I took a short cut and instead of building up a bike from scratch acquired a used XS (or XXS?) sized Felt bicycle from Cycly.co.jp.  It came with 650c wheels (571mm diameter).  I was pleasantly surprised that it arrived in completely rideable condition, with Shimano 5700 components, as shown here.  The ergonomics of the 105 shifters are not ideal for someone with small hands -- something to keep in mind for her next bike, assuming there is one.

I changed to some new white bartape (with a hard finish that hopefully will wipe off when it gets dirty), added Shimano A-530 pedals that are one-side SPD and the other side a platform for riding in non-cycling shoes, a bell and Gentos LED light with Bike Guy light holder.

The only problem we encountered was the seatpost, which is so long that it will not go further into the seat tube than shown in the photo.  Masako was not able to reach the ground while seated, even with toes pointed.  So I swapped in a similar seatpost I had in the garage that was about 2cm shorter. Problem solved.

09 March 2014

We are so Eco!

On our way out to Oume, Jerome and I made a quick pitstop at a 7-11 in Fussa area.  We pulled in and parked our vehicles in the Eco Vehicle Area.

Jerome's and my vehicles (in the middle) have the longest range and highest top speed.  The vehicle on the right (mama chari) has the greatest maximum carrying load.  The 7-11 EV delivery cart has the best protection from the elements -- even better than the golf carts it was doubtless modelled after.

*If not clear, the title of the post is NOT intended to be taken seriously. Tongue in cheek.

Sunday Late Winter Ride

Jerome is back in town, and Stephen was visiting the Positivo Espresso Oume base this weekend, so Jerome and I rode up there and back today.  It was typical late winter weather.  Cold (but above freezing), a bit of headwind going out, and the wind had shifted by mid-day so that we had headwind again coming in.  Not a long ride -- only 105 kms -- but good exercise.

We rode over Jerome Hill to get in one modest climb.  And we saw and briefly chatted with one of the Dave's, on his Cervelo SLC-SL still looking like new, as we came back toward town.

Some major spring cleaning and re-staining of wood going on at the Oume base!

08 March 2014


Two years ago, the yen-dollar exchange rate was around ¥77 = $1.  Recently, the exchange rate has moved in a range between ¥100 to ¥105 = $1.  This swift fall in the currency is intentional on the part of the Japanese government and the Bank of Japan.  The "en yasu" (cheapening yen) has many effects, including relieving some of the pressure on Japanese domestic manufacturers to shift operations abroad and thus at least slowing -- perhaps even reversing -- some of the "hollowing out" of the five previous years.  It also squeezes importer margins, as they try to hold the line on domestic prices to the extent possible.

But this is not a political commentary!  It is a commentary on bicycle component and accessory purchasing options!  

With the strengthening yen or "en daka" from 2006 through 2011, I found myself gradually shifting my cycling purchases offshore, coming to rely mostly on Wiggle in the UK and Bike24 in Germany, with a few purchases also from Excel Sports and Nashbar in the USA, and BikeComponents.de in Germany and others, when I need specific items.

Since I started doing longer rides, I have become a big fan of the 1000ml plastic water bottle.  MOB brought me a big red plastic 1000ml bottle when he came back from Europe in 2007.  My bike frames are large enough to easily accommodate the 1000ml bottles, and I am loath to carry water in a hydration reservoir on my back, so I like to use a larger bottle.

Eventually the red bottle wore out, and in late 2011 I got 2 large Eline Scalatore 1000ml white plastic bottles from Wiggle.  These served me well on long randonees, including in the hot and dry air of eastern Washington during the Cascade 1200.  They also have a nice profile of the Scalatore sportive, including the climb up the Stelvio I remember so well from Transalps past.

In late 2013, each of the white Elite Scalatore bottles sprung a pinhole leak, within a period of a few weeks. Too much heat, cold and road grit, and too many cycles through the dishwasher.

Where to get the replacement?  In Japanese bike shops I have never seen 1000ml bottles that fit in standard bottle cages.  The same for Japanese online shops.  So I looked online as usual, at Bike 24 and Wiggle.  

I was able to find the same model as before on Wiggle, but it was out of stock, and a bit expensive, at $8.70 ($7.65 with "platinum" discount).  

I decided to check Japanese online retailer World Cycle, just in case I could find another 1000ml bottle choice.  To my surprise, not only was there a 1000ml choice, but I could get the 1000ml Elite Scalatore bottles (in clear instead of white plastic), and the price was only 686 yen, or around $6.60.  14% cheaper than Wiggle's platinum price, and no need to ship 2 bottles full of air around the world.  The item was in stock and arrived within a couple of days.

If the yen stays at this level, or cheapens even more, then it will be possible to shop locally here in Tokyo and not pay a premium, or not much of one, for awhile.

Of course, there are still items -- clothing and bike frames -- where sizing forces me to buy outside Japan.

UPDATE:  As of early April 2014, Wiggle lists the Elite Corsa Scalatore 1000ml bottle on sale for only $5.65, though not currently in stock.  Advantage Wiggle. 

02 March 2014

Comparative Advantage

It was rainy this weekend.  No downpours, but cold, winter moisture that chills to the bone, wet stuff falling lightly part or Saturday and all day Sunday.

I could not muster the enthusiasm for a real ride on Saturday, but I did get out of the house for about 15-20 kms with the Powercranks and a stop by C Speed to schmooze with Hiroshi.  I did not see any other road bikes out.  The only cyclists where mama-chari's, typically with people holding an umbrella in one hand as they cycled with the other.
No cyclists along the Tamagawa this morning
On Sunday, I made it to Yomiuri V-Dori at Yomiuri Land, did 5 or 6 repeats up the slope, then a fast return home with a tailwind.  I did not see a single other road cyclist at Yomiuri V-Dori, nor coming or going via the Tamagawa.  The ride was only 40 kms, with the Osymetric cranks, but my hands and feet were wet and starting to lose feeling by the time I headed home.
No cyclists at Yomiuri V Dori this morning, except for me

Sure, I did not get in much riding this weekend, but when I think of the scarcity of other cyclists outside, I surely achieved a comparative advantage in my training, leaving aside those who actually got on a trainer.

01 March 2014

Let's Get This Party Started! Tokyo 2020

On the cold winter nights, or days with damp or icy roads, I happened to watch a bit of the Sochi winter Olympics.  I was hoping to get a glimpse of Pussy Riot in the viewer stands protesting, or maybe the tanned Vladimir Putin with his shirt off winning the snow-cross gold medal in balmy weather (all the other racers mysteriously having "fallen" when off camera).

No, I did not witness any such spectacular scenes.  But at least the Olympics did seem to bestow a kind of modest protective shield over the protesters in Kiev, holding off any kind of massive Russian military intervention.

And just watching a few of the skiing events on TV got me in the Olympic spirit and revved up about the prospect of Tokyo hosting the 2020 Summer games.  If I will be in Tokyo over the period up to the games, maybe there is something I can do to help out?  Maybe even something to do with the cycling events?

And if the Sochi Olympics brought a focus upon gay rights and Russia's anti-gay laws, perhaps the Tokyo Olympics will be a chance to nudge Japan in the direction of internationalization and diversity?

Perhaps the Abe administration will be pushed to make good on its target that by 2020 thirty percent (30%, that is right!!!) of directors at both governmental agencies AND private companies will be women, up from 3% now.  And maybe Tokyo's new governor Masuzoe (age 65), one of a generation of exciting younger leaders, will follow through on campaign discussion about efforts to make Tokyo a truly world class bicycle-friendly and visitor-friendly city?

Let's get this party started!

Yesterday my morning newspaper included an insert with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's March 2014 newsmagazine.  It included an inspirational greeting by Masuzoe, who will strive to make Tokyo the best city in the world ("世界一の都市へ")!  Next to it was an article on the announcement on January 24 of the official Tokyo Organizing Committee.  Great -- things are starting to move!

Then I looked at the photo of the Committee accompanying the article:

Diversity?  Yes!  

At least 2 of the members appear to be under 70 years old.  This will send a great message of inclusion to Japan's younger population, including actual athletes.

Leadership?  Even better!

Who better to lead the committee than sportsman (rugby, Waseda Univ.) journalist (Sankei Shimbun) and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori (age 76).

Mori has a larger-than-life track record, having led the LDP to an electoral defeat of truly historic proportions back in 2001, something he managed to accomplish after only a single year in office.

As a "one-year prime minister" he was a trend setter, establishing the pattern for the later Abe, Fukuda, Aso, Hatoyama, Kan and Noda governments between 2007 and 2012.  Mori has always been know for a great rugby tackle, the "Mori slide", but now that term is just shorthand for a graph showing government approval ratings going from majority to near single digits over the first year of a prime ministerial reign.

With an unrivalled history of gaffes (nicely summarized in his current Wikipedia entry), we can expect to get some interesting insights, now that he has microphones in front of him again after more than a decade of microphones on mute.
Indeed, only a few weeks after his appointment as Chairman of the organizing committee, he thoughtfully commented on Japanese national beloved figure skater Mao Asada's disappointing performance in the short program.  Leading Japanese wire service Kyodo quoted Mori as grumbling:  "I went to see Mao-chan do her best for us (in the team competition), but she flopped spectacularly," said Mori, ... . "Without fail, she falls at critical times."
He seemed to forget Mao's Silver Medal performance in Vancouver in 2010 or her two World Championships.  
Of course, Mori also could not understand why Japan would field an ice dancing team of Chris and Cathy Reed, both born in the U.S.A. to a Japanese mother, and complained about them as well.  How can they represent Japan?  They even live and train in the U.S.A., and are "not good enough to make the U.S. team."  Someone must have made a mistake in letting them on the team.
Mori exemplifies the Olympic Movement, whose goal it is to "contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play."
Mori's comments on the Reeds did not ruffle many feathers, but Mao Asada is a different matter.  She is extremely popular, a national hero of sorts.  After she redeemed herself with a strong performance in the long/free program the day following his comments, it was a huge, banner story on the front page of all the newspapers.  Women around Japan cried in public and said on camera that they felt Mao-chan's suffering was their suffering, her victory their victory.  She got her best marks ever in the free program (though still not as good as the marks awarded two other skaters, including longtime Korean rival Yuna Kim).
When Mori next appeared in public, to give yet another speech, on February 23 at the opening of the Tokyo Marathon, he was openly booed by the thousands of runners.

UPDATE:  On March 17, there were press reports that the Tokyo organizing committee is adding 28 new members, including 7 women, and many athletes, former Olympians and "cultural figures".  The women were apparently added "in response to a push by the International Olympic Committee calling for more [any?] female representation."

I look forward to a picture of the new, expanded committee appearing in an upcoming edition of my Tokyo Metropolitan Government newsletter!

UPDATE:  In June 2014, Monocle Magazine ranks Tokyo as #2 most liveable city in the world!   Yes, low crime and lack of urban decay are great, but also clean, reliable public transit, and high rankings in "softer" categories -- easy to find a glass of wine at 1 or 2AM, and you can do your supermarket shopping easily on a Sunday.  So Tokyo does seem to triumph over its politicians.