21 September 2017

Cycling in Portland - Better and Better

The new bicycle/pedestrian bridge.
I was back in Portland for awhile to visit family at the end of August and earlier this month. Cycling there just gets better and better. I found this trip that it was MUCH easier to shuttle between the place I was staying and downtown Portland via bicycle than by car. The Trolley Trail and Springwater Corridor Trail have transformed in my view the areas of Sellwood, Milwaukie and Oak Grove. And the Tillicum Crossing bridge (light rail, bikes and pedestrians only) is great. They have an LED display that shows cyclist crossings so far this year, and on the current day.

Downtown obscured by the Ross Island Bridge (and Marquam Bridge) from the bike trail

In Milwaukie looking across at Lake Oswego

Oaks Bottom with spectacular purple flowering grasses

Its a wildlife refuge!

19 September 2017

Vol de Nuit (Night Flight)

SR600 Nihon Alps - Second Try!

I recently reread Le Petit Prince by Antoine St.-Exupéry. Of course, St.-Exupéry was a pilot in the early days of aviation, and the narrator of that, his most famous work, is a downed pilot in the desert.

But St.-Exupéry's real existential masterpiece about flying is Vol de Nuit (Night Flight).

Some people look askance at me when I mention that I will do a long ride during, or through, the night.

I say: read Vol de Nuit.

I will never fly a primitive small plane over the Andes at night, but cycling the Akiba Kaido at night may be as close as I get.

A 2016 review of this 1931 novel in The Guardian explains some of its magic. Fabien, the pilot, tells his wife, "It's great leaving at night. You pull the throttle control, face south, and 10 seconds later you turn the landscape round and head north. The city has become just part of the seabed."

Indeed, that was the feeling as I headed onto the climb to Fuefuki Pass out of Chino. Only a few minutes (it took more than 10 seconds, but not MUCH more), through a short tunnel and onto the first turn -- in the dark I turned the landscape around -- and I was alone, the lights fading into the distance. In 15 minutes, Chino and Suwa were ... just part of the seabed.
The Shoreline of Lake Suwa and the lights of its southern Chino-side shore visible below as I climb into the sky
After I emerged the next morning at the Kagura hot spring on the Tōyamagawa, I met a Nagoya motorcyclist. He told me he was afraid to ride his motorbike on Akiba Kaido at night. What if you have an accident, and no one is around? What if a wild animal shows up? A sudden storm?

I laughed. Japan really is a "village society". Of course he would feel uneasy alone at night on this highway. I think many Japanese would feel uneasy alone in the woods, just as many who, as I, hiked and camped in the Oregon cascades as a child, who celebrate and thrive in wilderness, would relish it.

I have ridden Akiba Kaido twice before, I know that you really DO need to watch for deer around Oo-shika (大鹿--the town of "Big Deer") and on the entire descent after Bunkui Pass. And I know that, for the cyclist, Jizo Pass is not a pass, just a signpost in the middle of the climb up to Shirabiso Kogen. I even know where the road is rough or sudden turns dangerous. So, to paraphase Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian: what could be more conducive to reverie than the solitude and majestic spectacle of riding Akiba Kaido at night?
My bike rests at Bunkui Pass, a Japanese "power spot"
Last time I tried the SR600 Nihon Alps, in August 2014, the rain started at the first pass, Fuefuki. It was a downpour by the time I got to Bunkui and beyond.

This time, I saw spectacular stars--Orion, Casseopeia, a bit of the Milky Way--all the way until I was most of the way up the climb to Shirabiso Kogen. A quarter moon appeared over the eastern ridgetop when I was about two-thirds of the way through the night.

I rode Fujimi Pass (970 meters), Fuefuki Pass (1250 meters), Bunkui Pass (1428 meters), Jizo Pass (1314 meters), and Shirabiso pass (1833 meters).
Time for a short rest, but another 600 meters elevation gain ahead!
And solitude! From the beginning of the climb to Bunkui Pass--10 kms before its crest--to Shirabiso, I was passed by only ONE car. I met deer, yes; stray cats, yes; I heard odd whistling animals somewhere in the woods, yes. People and cars, no.

But the rain did come, eventually. A few drops on the last minutes of the climb to Shirabiso after 430AM, then a steady, hard, cold pour. I had been riding in summer gear pretty much, enjoying cool weather and only sweating on the climbs. Suddenly, I was at 1833 meters (over 6000 ft) elevation, in 5 degrees C (40 F) weather and rapidly getting soaked. I knew that I would get no help at the hotel further along the ridge (tried that in 2014), and that the descent to follow was technical, slow, and dangerous. I put on all my gear -- arm and leg warmers, rain gloves, cap, jacket and rain chaps. It was not enough to last for long, with damp sweat already from the climb and hard rain. I immediately set off, picking the fastest, best route I knew off the mountain. In places I could ride under thick green trees, on dry pavement, but then would emerge into a blast of cold water from the heavens.
Shirabiso Pass ... STILL not the top of the climb. 80 meters elevation more aheadl
At the bottom of the hill, I knew I was no longer in danger of hypothermia. It was at least 6-7 degrees C warmer here, and my gear had served its purpose, barely.

I rode further down Route 152 until I found a bus stop with a roof. I could not think clearly there and was not warming, so I went further to another bus stop. This one had walls and a tight sealed door, a sign indicating a box for hikers heading into the mountains above to drop off their route plans upon departure, and it was warm and snug inside.

I quickly figured out that this was just the first band of what would be a major rainstorm, followed by wind, as Typhoon 18 moved up the Japanese archipelago. I had hoped to get a largely dry Saturday and another 170 kms, to Gero Onsen before the rain would start. But it was already here, and would not cease.

So I researched the local onsen, found the Kagura Onsen down the road, enjoyed a nice foot bath until opening time, then a real bath, then lunch, a ride to Hiraoka on the Iida Line, and one of the slowest trains ever to Toyohashi (3 hours), then a shinkansen home.
These free foot baths are not uncommon at hot springs in Japan. They can be life savers as warm feet
spread a glow throughout the body when cold and wet.

It took me multiple tries before everything lined up perfectly and I rode a successful SR600 Fuji in May of 2015, in beautiful, perfect conditions. The SR600 Nihon Alps is harder: bigger mountains, more remote, hotter valleys, and the main climb not even accessible until June. So I am not surprised at a second failure.

This time, as last, the weather made it extremely difficult. Last time impossible, with roads closed and evacuations; this time ... I abandoned too soon to know for sure, but likely impossible. It will not be my last attempt. But next time I will only go with an excellent weather forecast!
The weather just after my return to Tokyo. Still another day of rain ahead in Nagano.
The course is spectacular, with the start at Kobuchizawa, then a climb out of Chino and onto the Akiba Kaido, the passes west of Iida, Norikura, and then Tateshina/Yatsugatake. It remains on my bucket list.

07 September 2017

Private Bike Share companies in Seattle

Last year September in Seattle, the public bike share program, sponsored by Alaska Airlines, was prominent. But it did not do well, and went under since that visit.

This year, there are NEW lime green bikes in evidence. These are private bike share companies, like the ones that sprung up in China last year. There are over 1000 bikes in Seattle already by 2 companies, and no doubt more on the way. Lime Bike launched at the end of July, joining Spin. The bikes are similar, distinguished by their colors more than functions.

I rode MY bike to a lunch today at the Pioneer Square neighborhood at the South end of downtown Seattle, and could see these bikes parked in random locations. Like Uber, a user finds a bike by checking her mobile phone app.

The question remains, are there enough people in Seattle who want to ride a bike but do not already have their own bike within easy reach?