16 August 2016

Viviani beats Cavendish at Rio in the "Omnium" for Gold Medal

I am not a regular fan of track cycle racing, but every once in awhile see a report that grabs my interest. I think back to autumn of 2011 when Jerome and I were guests at the Rabobank-sponsored opening of Japan's beautiful wooden track velodrome at Shuzenji.  There were lots of prominent riders, including pretty much any Japanese rider of note (Arashiro, Beppu), and some special guests including Mario Cipollini and Elia Viviani from Italy.  We got to hang out in the infield with Viviani, Michael Morkov, and some top Italian women pros.

So I was pleased to read today that Viviani has won the gold at the Rio Olympics in the "Omnium", a kind of cycling decathlon, or more accurately a sextathlon, since there are only 6 events rather than the decathlon's 10.  

Very impressive ride for Italia.  Some nice photos on the Reuters site, accompanying their report.

As for Cavendish, he seems to have a bit of difficulty following the rules.  In one of the events he cut inside and rode below the inner boundary of the track to pass a group, resulting in a penalty.  In another event, he swooped down and cut off a Korean rider causing a crash that eventually toppled other riders, including Viviani.  Maybe if he had more practice on the track ... maybe if he had visited Shuzenji back in 2011?

15 August 2016

Ride Back from Karuizawa

A friend recently bought a place in Karuizawa that he and his wife plan to run as a "guest house" in high season, and use for themselves and friends the rest of the year.  It is within 15 minutes' walk of the shinkansen station, so seems to have no difficulty attracting guests.  In fact, the cars were lining up nearby in Karuizawa when I arrived on Saturday afternoon.
The quiet countryside?  Lines of cars in both directions.
I rode to Tokyo Station, rinko'ed the Ti Travel bike, and was in Karuizawa before I knew it.  Then 5 minutes or less by bike from the station to the guest house.  Door-to-door just over 2 hours, despite peak summer travel.  Not bad at all.

We took a short afternoon spin through some areas on the south side of town, climbing through a quiet area of second/vacation homes to the entrance to the Myogi-Arafune forest road that I had ridden from the other end back in 2009. It was a decent climb up to the road entrance, and we were ready to loop back.

The forest road was closed in the direction we wanted to go.

 ... but we figured this would just add to our adventure.  Indeed, the road was passable 90% of the way by bike, though we needed to dismount and walk or carry our bikes a few times.

Classic Gunma mountains -- the rindo skirted the Nagano-Gunma border.
Maybe neither city or prefecture had the budget to maintain a road that included the other?

My host pointed out that we were very close to the site of the Mt. Asama corporate lodge of Kawai Musical Instruments site of a 10 day seige when Japanese Red Army members holed up with a hostage and a cache of weapons back in the early 1970s. I guess the day the police stormed the building to break the seige is a marathon live broadcast event that everyone remembers in Japan who saw it.  Anyway, the vacation home areas south of Karuizawa seem quiet.  Last time I came into town in 2009 via the forest road, they were deserted.  At least this time, the absolute peak of peak season, I could see cars in driveways and some people out gardening or strolling.
The only exposed stretch of expressway between two long tunnels, from the forest road on Saturday afternoon.
My main ride was the return trip to Tokyo on the next day, around 180 kms door-to-door.  I left at 730AM or so.  I usually go in the opposite direction -- brevets, even the SR600, leave Tokyo and pass through Karuizawa.  And there was that trip Jerome and I took in 2010 where we arrived in Karuizawa via Chichibu, Shigasaka Pass, Tano District and Shimonita.  That was 183kms and 2750 meters of elevation gain on a very hot day.
Going under the expressway Sunday morning.
I thought about doing a "reverse" of that 2010 route, since I would at least shave maybe 8-900 meters of elevation gain off by starting from the high ground.  But when I got to Shimonita and recalled that in this direction I would need to slog uphill for over 20 kms, the last 3-4k ms climbing inside a tunnel, I opted for a slightly easier route around the south side of Tomioka, with a relatively short stretch on congested Route 254.
Almost no traffic to Shimonita, after getting past the expressway entrance route ...

Central Shimonita.
Bike leaning. Close to central Shimonita.
Say "Shimonita" and most Japanese think "Konnyaku" - a kind of vegetarian gelatinous
low calorie food included in "oden" and various "nabe" dishes.
Konyaku plants without flowers -- a perennial. These fields dot the landscape around Shimonita.
180 kms and almost 1500 meters of climbing -- not bad for a "downhill" route back to Tokyo.
On Gunma Route 193 - again no vacation traffic here
My route took me through the town of Karaku.  The michi-no-eki was not yet open.
But I noted the bike racks and lots of other attractive features for a return visit.
These michi-no-eki can be very pleasant surprises.
Also in Karaku SE of Tomioka. Spacious old houses and a stream at roadside.
Jerome was planning to ride out to meet me, and he ALMOST made it to the top of Yamabushi Pass, despite a late start.  As it was, I met him on the Tokyo side of Yamabushi as he climbed through 450-475 meters elevation, and we rode the last 80 kms or so home together, arriving back on schedule a few minutes before 5PM.
Still hydrangea in bloom on the north side of Yamabushi.

Flowering trees north of chichibu.
On Sunday night, my thought was that I am not doing enough of these classic one-day 130-200km rides this year or last.  It is hard to fit them in with my current schedule AND focus on the longer 400, 600 and 1200km events that take preparation and recovery.  Maybe next year?

07 August 2016

Rio 2016 Olympic Coverage from Japan -- Exceeding Expectations Early!

Belgian victory in the road race.

As a foreigner living in Japan during the past two past Olympics, I can remember the frustration of TV coverage that focused almost exclusively on certain heavily promoted national Japanese heroes, ignoring the other 95% of the games.  I remember mindless feel-good commentary (even in the face of contrary results), inconvenient scheduling, and lots of downtime.  It was not a happy time.

This year, NHK Sports seems to have decided to STREAM ONLINE FOR FREE (with recordings available afterwards in case you were sleeping or working), a huge number of events, without commentary!  I will not promise that everything is online or how long the recordings are available, but an awful lot is.

I am not sure if the most popular events in Japan are realtime (say, the Men's 400meter individual medley swimming final, with 2 Japanese medal hopefuls, who placed 1st and 3rd, though still more than 2.2 seconds off Michael Phelps' world record) ... but it was possible to watch the entire first night Rio swimming schedule streamed on Sunday, a few hours later (given the time difference), and to fast-forward through all the waiting and introductions.  Better yet, you can actually hear the announcer in the arena speaking English, and listen to the competitors congratulate each other and the relay teams celebrate at the end of the race!
Hagino captures the 400IM.
The entire men's cycling road race was streamed live ... and can still be seen today, all 7 hours and 30 minutes of video.  I watched some late Saturday night, then on Sunday morning watched the last 15 kms, including the crucial developments as V. Nibali and another rider crashed out on the last twisting descent.  Okay, the motorbike drivers are not quite as gifted as on the Tour, and they could not keep up with Nibali's 3-man group on the descent, so all we actually witnessed were two riders down on the asphalt by the time the camera came around the bend.  But there were plenty of other crashes caught on camera, and the overall quality was a heck of a lot better than the (free) streaming access to the Tour here in Japan.  And you can go back today and watch it again.
Only one of the 3 seems to have any legs left in the last 100 meters.

Olympics via NHK streaming update (August 18):

The Rio games continue to be a pleasure in terms of access to streaming content.  Yesterday I got an email reminder that one of my "kohai" from Yale, Katie Grace, would be running in the preliminary of the women's 800 meter track & field event, with a link to this NY Times story, more focused on her mom, a fitness/aerobics queen from a different era, before Title IX.

This morning I could wake up and watch a streamed recording of the race as she qualified for the semi-finals.

Yesterday, however, I had an unpleasant surprise.

The "NHK man" rang my doorbell, looking to collect my NHK fee.  (Perhaps compliance is down recently ... as the broadcaster is ignored by most Japanese under the age of 60, and its "three basic tenets" of current operations are said to be "avoidance of controversy, pandering to audiences, and parochial nationalism.")  I had to tell the bill collector "sorry, I do not have a TV".  (This is actually true -- I "cut the cord" recently and have no TV, relying entirely on the Internet and mobile data/telephony).  He asked "but are you watching 'One Seg' wireless or via your PC"?  I just said "NO" and "sumimasen" and closed the door.

After he left, I felt kinda sorry for him.  'One Seg' is a Japan-only format to get TV broadcasts on mobile phones in Japan.  Not supported by the iphone (without an add-on tuner/receiver).  Toast. History. Goes in the museum alongside "i-mode" data transmission.

But that was a little white lie about not watching on my PC. I wondered, do you think he somehow figured out from my IP address that I have been on their website? Are we in that much of a survelliance society? If so, does he know all my browsing habits?  And are they really trying to charge via the NHK law for viewing a website?  In this case, all I have been doing is access a website which, in its FAQ page, indicates that there is "no charge" for the service:

These guys must be desperate, grasping at straws.

30 July 2016

At Last - Hokkaido 1200

Jerome resting on day 3 during a long, hot, uphill, headwind stretch
It seems like so long ago.  On July 15-18, Jerome and I joined many friends on the Hokkaido 1200, getting successful "revenge" for the event in 2014 that was cancelled mid-ride due to a typhoon.

The event was only 2 weeks ago, but in this world of instant social media and a 24-hour news cycle, does anyone still care? We've been through two major U.S. political party conventions, a serious cycling accident of Tanigaki-san, the only current Japanese cabinet minister who is a devoted road cyclist (and who, based on news reports, seems to have spinal cord injuries), and various terrorist attacks and other mass killings --including the shocking mass knife killing of 19 disabled people at the Tsukui Yamayurien facility--which I ride by whenever I make the Takao/Lake Tsukui loop.  Of course, Inagaki-san has already completed an SR600 since Hokkaido; Jerome has gone to France and is already back in Japan; and Vincent is back in North America, but seems to be in Kamloops, British Columbia instead of Seattle, I assume for the Rocky Mountain 1200 this weekend--a(nother?) Can-Am medal awaits.

Well, I am sorry for the delayed report - I was too busy upon returning to town to sit down and write this. But the event was memorable enough (it was a 1200, after all!) to merit some figurative ink even two weeks later.  Indeed, it would do so even two months or two years later.  I really enjoyed the ride. Jerome grumbled a lot, but I think he did too.

We flew to Sapporo/Chitose on "Vanilla Air", an "LCC" or low cost carrier -- the kind where the flight attendants check you in, then change into cleaning clothes to clean the airplane (accompanied by regular announcements from one harried staffer about how boarding has been delayed), then change yet again to sell snacks to the customers. Vanilla is a least partly owned by ANA, and so they seem to have done everything possible to send the message "this is a cheap service and you get what you pay for".
I can imagine endless Japanese meetings where the ANA (and Vanilla) service is broken down into thousands of constituent parts, all with the idea to avoid cannibalizing ANA, while still making Vanilla tolerable, barely.  It starts with the 600 meter walk from the Narita Terminal 2 train station to the LCC Terminal.  Then the terminal itself has a linoleum floored food court, bare bones industrial style design, and track and field markings to tell you where to proceed.  The legroom on the plane is truly minimal - knees wedged in.  And of course, I sat next to a couple with an infant, who cried loudly the entire flight.
LCC terminal

LCC legroom
But then again, the food court was clean, the industrial style design is really not bad, in some ways nicer than the main terminals, the plane flies at the same speed as an ANA flight, and the flight was relatively short so neither jammed knees nor screaming infant could dampen my spirits as we disembarked to a beautiful day in Sapporo.
Cool industrial escalator
Of course, after completing registration and bike inspection, we made the tourists' pilgrimage to the Sapporo Beer Garden and ate Genghis Khan and drank beer.  All you can eat and all you can drink for 120 minutes.  It was a lot of lamb (and beer).  Guaranteed power for the next morning!
At the Sapporo community dome - location of registration and start
I try using the stretchy commemorative sack as ... a cap.  Works good.  Maya seems in a good mood.
Site of our pre-ride feast.
50th anniversary locale for 50th birthday boy.
The weather forecast looked really good -- so good I did not bring or attach my clip on fenders.  And even though we did get some rain on the latter part of the ride, it was never heavy.  We started at 530AM (or a few minutes later) on a beautiful Friday morning, and were out of town before any serious morning traffic.  

The route showed a long early stretch, from around the 15km to the 80km mark, with no convenience stores or food likely available.  Indeed, we were on a road in a valley with extremely light traffic and a mix of farms, woods and streams.  Really idyllic -- though a bit too much like rural France/Bretagne for Jerome's liking.  

About 25-30 kms into the ride, a long string of Japanese riders from the 540AM start group passed us.  I thought, great, a chance to hop on and go fast without effort.  Jerome, meanwhile, rode back up along the group and pulled them the next 10kms or more.  "Why did you do that?" I asked.  "I felt good" ... the answer.  Really not the wisest use of one's energy, but typical Jerome.
Jerome pulls

No traffic on this route!

Dr. Vinnie trades medications with Susan
My first front flat tire.
Anyway, by the middle of the day we were all riding at slightly different speeds, passing each other and leapfrogging at stops.  The heat was getting intense, and Jerome was suffering.  I got my first flat tire.  

We go ... somewhere up there.
Somewhere on the long climb of the day (to around 850 meters elevation), I pulled off to rest and Vincent passed.  Jerome was nowhere to be seen.  As I descended the other side, I saw Vinnie's bike outside a post office -- he must have gone inside for the restroom?  I pulled off at a community center down the road and asked politely for some water (my bottles immediately refilled by some middle school girls at the instruction of a parent or teacher).  Anyway, further on down the gradual decline I got my second flat tire, also on the front wheel.  What was wrong?  Was there a hidden piece of glass or metal?  I could not find it.  Was there some exposed sharp edge in the rim?  I did not know.  As I was changing the tire, along came Vincent and Jerome.  They pulled off.
Somewhere near my second flat tire ...
BOTH reported intestinal troubles.  Vincent upper (vomiting everything up) and Jerome lower (a serious case of the "runs").  They ran a few meters into the woods and did their respective things. We must have looked a sorry group, one vomiting, a second shitting, and the third trying to figure out why he kept getting gradual flats.  Anyway, we mounted up and continued.

Vincent (a doctor) was worried about dehydration and recovery.  Jerome was talking with a Japanese rider (Tamagawa Audax) who offered some anti-diarrheal medicine.  We made it to another town with a Seicomart convenience store, and Jerome took the medicine. Vinnie was suffering and did not even try yet to eat or drink.  We pressed on.  I was in the lead at the next PC, but Jerome pulled up, then as we were about to leave Vincent came in looking like death warmed over.  He ordered me to buy him some warm tea (and get him his receipt), then lay down in the parking lot to sleep.
Convenience store having trouble keeping up with 200 riders' trash
After another climb and descent, I was ahead of Jerome for the time being as we joined the main road toward Kitami from the west.  5 minutes on it and ... my third front flat.  Jerome came by as I was trying to change my tube and stopped to help. This time, I swapped out the tire as well, for a new Conti 4 (or is it "All") Season.  No more flats the next 900 kms!  Jerome was recovering, and we limped in to the Kitami overnight checkpoint really only an hour or so later than I had hoped.  

Of course, that meant an hour less sleep.  After less than 4 hours, we were up, eating breakfast, and by 440AM were on the road to Bihoro, then to Bihoro Pass.  There is (supposed to be) a great panorama view here.  It looked like this:

At least this time there was no typhoon.

Anyway, after the descent from the pass, the next stretch to Betsukai (or "Bekkai" as I heard some call it) was a series of rural rolling hills. 

The Bekkai control was another place to sleep ... but no time.  We would try to do so on the return leg, and needed to get to Nemuro and Point Nosappu, the turnaround.  Vincent arrived after us and wanted to sleep.  I went ahead.  Jerome forced Vincent to ride on an hour or two later.  The ride out to Nosappu was really nice -- almost no trees with ocean to the south and a relatively narrow spit of land a few kms wide and 20-30 kms long.  The weather was still great.  

Beautiful out near Nemuro

Japanese, English ... and Russian on the signs!

Heading from Nemuro toward Nosappu, I could see many riders already on the return.

Toilet building shaped like local crab delicacy.

Glad I got to see the eastern tip this time! It was just beautiful on a perfect day.
At Nosappu I slept briefly and waited for Jerome and Vincent.  A phone call from Jerome woke me after only 15-20 minutes - Jerome said they were an hour away still.  Sleep interrupted, I wandered around aimlessly and eventually mounted up and started the trip back. ...  and 10 minutes down the road there they were.  They must have been a lot closer, and I must have wasted plenty of time getting going.  I was happy to see them, so I turned around and rode back to Nosappu.  Jerome and I had local seafood across from the checkpoint, while Vincent slept. Finally he would catch up on his sleep, leaving Nosappu well after us.
Near the end of Day 2, a beautiful sky
Jerome and I plodded back to Betsukai then slept.  I wanted to push on, but Jerome said "no, lets sleep", and I was too weak willed by now to resist.  Vincent passed while we slept and we did not see him again until the finish -- which he reached 5 hours ahead of Jerome and more than 6 ahead of me. A powerful comeback.  

Anyway, after less than 3 hours or so we had to leave Betsukai.  I insisted -- it would be a VERY long third day to Lake Kanayama, so we needed to get back to Kitami by midday.  The sleep had interrupted my rhythm.  I should have pressed on without resting at Betsukai, since now I was having real difficulty getting going. Borderline stomach issues. No power.  We rested at the first convenience store in a tiny outpost along the road.

Then back over some of the rollers, another convenience store stop, and it was on the approach to Bihoro Pass again, Jerome now ahead of me.  The panorama from Bihoro?  This time the view looked like this -- pretty much as 24 hours before when we had passed it outbound.
Bihoro panorama again!
Between Bihoro Pass and Bihoro city

Anyway, we made it back to Kitami and slept a bit more, then headed out in the early afternoon, a LONG stretch remaining.  Now, a few kilometers after we saw a fox by the edge of the road, Jerome's rear tube flatted, we replaced it, and then it quickly flatted again.  Then, after 20 kms of tailwind but intense heat, we got some water, then started a long, gradual climb into a stiff headwind.  The headwind was brutal and cruel at this point in the ride.  We rested by the roadside.  
We stopped here and the proprietor sold us a 2 liter bottle of water from inside -- saving us from buying 4 x 500ml bottles out of his vending machines.  Typical Japanese hospitality.
It seemed like we would never get to the pass at the top of the climb.  But we did, and the signage suggested it is extremely cold here in winter.

Then it was a quick trip down to Rikubetsu and on to Ashoro, mostly flat and downhill.  The rain started at Ashoro.  The restaurant we had planned to visit was closed (only open for lunch), so we ate outside the Lawson store nearby, under its roof.  
There were flowers everywhere ... wish I had gotten better pictures of them!
The next stretch was the hardest test of the ride. After an evening of wet and endless zigs and zags across south-central Hokkaido, we finally reached Shintoku.  It must have been nearly midnight.  Smarter riders had secured lodgings in Shintoku or before, and would only climb Karikachi Pass at first light.  Jerome had met Hinoue-san from Osaka and was riding with him.  I passed them at the bottom of the Karikachi climb as their group was in preparation. I plodded up.  I rested and walked repeatedly, really out of gas, but needing to get to around 650 meters elevation.  It was cold, windy, raining and dark.  The scene at the top was a bit chaotic, a few groups or riders getting ready to descend.  One rider was huddled in a tunnel about 150 meters from the summit shivering under an emergency (space) blanket. I rode back down and told him that he really should go into the restroom entryway at the top - glass sliding door, warm, dry, much better than the tunnel.  He seemed grateful for the suggestion and gathered his things as I headed back up.

Anyway, the descent was miserable.  Cold and wet the first part, I had all my clothing on and was shivering.  Then when I got a few hundred meters elevation lower, and it warmed up a wee bit, I started to fall asleep on the bike.  Numerous times I caught myself before falling over, rested a bit, nibbled something, and continued.  Then again my eyes would close and I would start to veer as I put a foot down and braked.  Rest, and again stop.  It seemed it took forever -- maybe longer than the climb! But all I needed to do was get down the hill and I would be at the Lake Kanayama checkpoint and really able to sleep.  For some reason no other riders were following me on the descent.  Where was everyone?  Ahead?  Behind?  Asleep?

Finally, I got to a 7/11.  A young guy on a motorcycle who I thought I had seen near the pass was eager to talk.  He had read about this 1200 km in the local press and was amazed to see riders trying to clear the pass in the middle of the night.  He was trying to cheer on and cheer up riders.  I had seen him on the climb, and assumed he was a staff member checking up on us.  Nope, just a volunteer.  He gave me a cup of hot cocoa using the 7/11's thermos.

Another rider rolled in, I forget the name but he said he was from Kawasaki and was riding a yellow frame. I insisted we ride together to Lake Kanayama.  We talked most of the way and I could stay awake.

After a few hours sleep at Lake Kanayama, it was time to get back up and on the bike.  The last day felt like ... well, it felt like just slogging along to get to the finish. Jerome and Hinoue left with me, but they soon went ahead.  The first stretch was nice, over Kanayama Pass and down to Shimukappu, then on.  
But Route 237 to Biratori was crowded with trucks, and the rain returned at least briefly.  It was already early afternoon when I left the PC near Mukawa to head NW toward Chitose and Sapporo.
On Route 237 ... heavy traffic at times.
"don't leave garbage -- the bears will get it"

Lots of people ignore the sign! ... but no bears were in evidence.

At least it was flat now, and we rode through quite nice areas with lots of horse farms -- thoroughbreds, the equivalent of Kentucky "blue grass" country, in Hokkaido! Who knew?

Eventually, we returned to Chitose, and Eniwa, and heavy Sapporo-area traffic.  It was not pleasant riding a bypass with heavy traffic.  Then as we made it into the southern Sapporo suburbs, ... a sharp left turn and we headed AWAY from town up a 20km slog to the SW into a park area.  I arrived more than an hour after Jerome.  Lots of smiles and congratulations!  And some nice BBQ grilled seafood ... before the rain came back. Mmmm.  The 18th was Jerome's 50th birthday, and it would have been nice to celebrate properly. But it was already well after 9PM by the time we left the "goal" area, we needed to ride all the way back to Sapporo--25 kms in light showers, then first 8-10kms on a dark country descent.  Later, we did go out in town for food and drink, together with Vincent, and returned to our hotel through a cold, soaking downpour.  Then after way too little sleep, it was time to disassemble and pack the travel bike, race to the airport, and come back to Tokyo.

The staff were great, the course was mostly very nice (and not as hard as Okayama), and I saw some areas that were new to me and to which I would love to return.  And I cannot imagine there is any other part of Japan where a 1200km ride would be tolerable in the July heat.  Maybe some shorter rides in the high country of Nagano, but nothing more than a few 100 kms.  Hokkaido has its unique charms.

I would have loved to sleep another day.  As it was, I slept on the airplane despite wedged knees.  I slept on the Skyliner back to Tokyo.  And I slept in my office in between meetings later in the day.  Not enough.  Finally, after 2 weeks, I am just about caught up.