31 August 2010

More high-altitude conquests

Day 1: back over the highest pass in Japan - Norikura, at 2,700m
Day 2: over Utsukushigahara Kogen at 2,100m
Day 3: over the highest national highway pass in Japan - Yamada Toge, at 2,172m

More here.

Laurent Fignon

Velonews and others reported today about the death of Laurent Fignon at the age of 50.
Laurent Fignon followed by Greg Lemon(d)

My first thoughts when I read he news were: "Oh, he is not that much older than me and he has won the Tour de France twice AND died already." I guess this is what happens when one get older and people one know are passing away to the right and to the left. Until, those who are still standing on the right or on the left will say: "Oh, mob has passed away already!"
I never watched cycling races on TV when I was a kid or later as a student, but for some reason unknown, I remember same names from the Seventies and Eighties: Diddi Thurau (noboby could escape the hype that was created in 1977 when he was leading the TdF), Raymond Poulidor, Joop Zotemelk, Freddi Maertens and of course Eddy Merkcx. And Laurent Fignon. Poulidor and Fignon I just loved for the sound of their names.
Moreover, Laurent Fignon wore this big oval glasses which made him look rather like an intellectual than a road racer. One could imagine him in the Sixties on the barricades in Paris leading the student unrest, agitating with a megaphone.
In this sense he was similar to Günther Netzer, the leading blond soccer revolutionary from my home team Borussia Mönchengladbach. Much adored even in these days. In the end nobody started any revolution but even years later one has the feeling, yes, these were the guys who could have managed it.

As Laurent Fignon was riding during a time when sun glasses were not popular and helmets not wore, one can remember his face and hair style well, they cast a well-known shade. Today, riders are almost anonymous when racing. Would you be able to identify say, Pettachi in a police line-up? Nibali? Tyler Farrar? Rudi Project. Oakley. Addidas. Rh+, Giro, Bell, Specialized, Mets and Catlike.

I am not sure when exactly, for sure not the first time when we met, but Jerome's glasses plus hairstyle reminded me of Laurent Fignon. Not to mention his riding style. So I am happy to see Jerome alive and kicking in Japan: riding on the right, or riding on the left side.

30 August 2010

On the demise of the Cervelo Test Team

David posted already about the end of the Cervelo Test Team. I just would like to add some longer thoughts, perhaps too long for simple comment.

OK, Cervelo shuts down it's own racing team and joins forces with the team of Garmin-Tranisitions. Things like that happen all the time, is there any team that starts in major cycling events that runs under the same name for a longer period of time, say 3 years? So one should not be sad. I would be sad if my hometown soccerteam Borussia Mönchengladbach would be renamed for obvious reasons of speed of spelling into Postbank MG, but teams in the peloton are lacking a more emotional bound.

Which is to say, that the Cervelo Test Team might be the obvious exception to this rule for several reasons that came to my mind the moment I read the news.

Well, I ride a Cervelo bike and so do some other Positivo Espressionists and TCCers. It might not be the greatest bike in the world (that is perhaps because it is the cheapest bike in the Cervelo lineup; so the more expensive ones must be greater and better: S1, formerly know as the Soloist). I personally also don't think that it is much better or worse than a Cannondale, Colnago or Canyon. But it is my bike, the one I chose some time ago, and for that simple reason I would have loved to see the Cervelo Test Team continuing.

Why is it so hard to support a team called "Liquigas"? That is indeed another point for Cervelo: A sponsor who manufacturers road racing bikes and setup his own team. It is hard to support teams that are sponsored by companies distributing gas, providing credit, telecommunication, power tools, promoting strange countries or distributing consumer electronics. Moreover in countries I travel to very rarely. So I liked the idea very much that a cycling-related company sponsors a cycling team. That seems so logical, but with the exception of Skil-Shimano and perhaps Garmin-Transitions, there is not very much logic out there.

Exceptions to the above comment: Gerolsteiner, because they had these nice bubbles on their racing jerseys some years ago. And Euskatel, for the fantastic orange color. Definitely not exceptions:  Milram and Team Telekom. Minus points in addition for the magnenta color and failing to provide me with a telephone line within 4 weeks in Bremen.

Cervelo has great marketing. They featured a series of short videos called "Beyond the peloton" which were very well made. Yes, yes, they brought great insights into the world of pro cycling and looked deeply behind the scenes of the teams. Sorry, but not the point. My point is that they had a good music track, some kind of modern version of Erik Satie's
"Gymnopedie No.1". Plus some very nice pictures, all together creating an atmosphere, an image in my mind of how cycling could be.

Last but not least, the team featured some sympathic riders. No, not Heinrich "Barbie" Haussler, who was rumored to take a leading role in Toy Story 3.  Rather, Carlos Sastre, who came across in the video series as a very responsible and modest guy, Thor Hushovd, and Andreas "GPS" Klier -- of whom I had never heard before.  And so far we have never heard any doping rumours about them. This is more than one can expect.

Finally, Cervelo had the best designed jerseys of all tour teams, with the exception that Team Euskatel has the better color. No sponsor names in completely different designs all over the place. Simply three colors plus oversized ""E accent aigu" or however this thing is called.

That sums up my thoughts. So let's see how the new liaison with Garmin will work out. How would a GPS system look like if it were designed by Cervelo. How would a bike look like if it were manufactured by Garmin?  I'm sure it would come with a 492 page user manual and a reset buttom located under the bottom bracket. And you must call Garmin every second month and ask for a new bike update.

Anyway. The Cervelo GPS could be the salvation.

Thanks to Podium Cafe.

27 August 2010

No more Bartape.Net

Cervelo Test Team confirms it is ending its Protour team sponsorship.  Sounds like the cost is just too expensive.  Sastre to Geox for the coda on his career.  Hushovd and Haussler rumored to be going to Garmin Transitions, and there are rumors that Garmin Transitions will become Garmin Cervelo, swapping out their Felt bikes for the faster, lighter, more aero and more comfortable Cervelos.

"The team had a spectacular debut season, winning stages and the green jersey in the Tour de France, stages in the Vuelta and Giro, as well as seeing Heinrich Haussler break through as a major force in one-day racing."  They also made a nice video sitting around on the team bus.

25 August 2010

Climbing the Jens Voigt way

With thanks to Race Junkie at http://racejunkie.blogspot.com

24 August 2010

"Be a Man" said the Russian

As I rode out towards Ome with Laurent I thought I was unlikely to write a blog about the ride as I did not want to draw attention to the fact we were sneaking off for a Monday ride. Admittedly I had some concerns in the back of my mind as this was my first ride with him and like the other Belgian-on-a-bike I know I suspected he enjoyed pain & suffering. The previous night I saw the weather forecast was calling for 92% humidity at 6am and a high temperature of 35-36C and told Laurent whose response hinted about the events of the next day: "I'm just re-watching The Deer Hunter and if they can go through that then we can ride. Just don't bring a pistol and a bullet as we mind end up preferring that."
We made the obligatory stop at the Aurora Bakery (the PE sticker is still on the pole outside the shop) when we were approached by an American man who said our accents reminded him of a TV Cold War spy series called The Company which he was watching. When Laurent pointed out he was in fact not British the man said "of course not, you are Russian" and then told us about Sasha, a mole in the CIA and to be particularly careful of his cardboard cut-out because it is alive. Confused? So were we. He explained he had been to a party "for a couple of hours" - it was now 9am on a Monday morning. I never knew Ome had such a wild scene. Our stoned American sauntered off towards the station but reappeared in 7-11 warning us that we were being followed, but not by him. Drugs do strange things to people and this enables me to introduce the usual drug/booze crazed rock star.
This week I learned the story of Vince Taylor, the singer who David Bowie credits as his inspiration for Ziggy Stardust. Vince was a moderately successful Elvis-type singer who in 1958 wrote the song Brand New Cadillac, made famous by The Clash in 1979. Although popular, the BBC would not play the song on the radio as it was deemed to be advertising. Vince's career struggled so he found work in Paris.

Vince became seriously unhinged when he tried LSD and appeared in front of his band-members holding a bottle of Matteus wine telling them he was now Matteus, the son of Jesus Christ. At the concert that night he took a jug of water into the crowd and tried to baptise the black leather-clad audience. It didn't go down too well and his career was pretty much over.

On the road to the Holy Fountain the temperature was already 33C. The heat, the previous day's ride and my first run in 2 years which left me with very tight hamstrings made climbing tough. My time up Yamabushi was almost 4 minutes slower than in the spring. On the way up I was thinking about which station I could get to on the other side but the descent made me feel OK and I told myself to HTFU. In the now searing heat we turned off up to climb Shigasaka. Last time Laurent took a wrong turn and ended up riding up a wall before the road leveled out. This time we got the 'right' road which initially felt like a beautiful and gentle climb up the valley. No sooner had I said we had dodged a bullet and had found a nice road the gradient kicked up, and then up more. 10%, 11% and even 12%..... hard work. About 2km from the tunnel at the top we found a pipe gushing cold mountain water. Even Bertie Contador would have stopped. By the time we reached the top I was cooked and fully intended to branch off at the bottom of the descent and head to a station.
At the junction at the bottom I was about to make my excuses and say farewell when Laurent, the Russian, delivered the killer line: "Be a Man". This is an in-joke between Laurent, a mutual friend and me and is a more polite version of HTFU. I could not face our mutual friend questioning my manliness. The video clip explains the phrase.
So instead of turning right and enjoying a flat/downhill ride to the station I turned left and headed up the road in blazing sun. At the entrance to Shiozawa Toge we stopped at a local village shop for water and ice-cream. No water so cold green tea. Very nice on its own but not so good later on during the climb when luke-warm and mixed with High 5 summer fruit flavoured energy powder. A very chatty old lady running the shop pulled stools out for us and offered us her kuri-gohan (chestnut rice) from the previous night. When we told her we were riding up Shiozawa she was surprised and said she had never actually been up there despite probably living around there all her life. I grew suspicious. Laurent claims he remembers a steep bit from the year before but not much else. The human brain has the ability to suppress painful memories.
The climb starts as quite hard work (9-10% up to a bridge) but soon after becomes a monster. Coming around a corner the road narrows and kicks up to 16%. Just as I was about to tackle this slope a truck came so I had to stand aside. No chance of starting again so I walked the next 50m. I thought I could have done it so soon when the next ramp came I managed to ride it (16%). It got worse. On the next slope I managed to keep riding until about 18% then stepped off. The next one was a non-starter for me: 200m at 22%. Even the local postman's motorbike was struggling. After this the gradient dropped to a more comfortable 7% only to kick back up to 14% for a short stretch. The descent is long and fast but narrows in the middle so caution is urged.
We hammered it down to Tomioka and then up an unexpected 100m climb to Annaka where we boarded the train to Takasaki from where we took the shinkansen. I felt sorry for the people sitting around us on the train. The man sitting next to Laurent abruptly got off at Omiya, probably to call his wife to say that he felt faint and wasn't going to back in Tokyo that night but felt he had to break his journey in Omiya. When I got home my children didn't want to come near me. I got in the shower fully-clothed.

Although my legs were not in top form it was a very enjoyable and challenging day. 180km, 2500m of climbing and 8 or more litres of fluid during the ride and lots afterwards. I didn't have a camera so had to make do with my cellphone, hence the lack of photos.

23 August 2010

Red ticket

"In the case of running a red light, for example, car drivers can be fined up to 9,000 yen, but cyclists face a fine of up to 50,000 yen, and there is a possibility that they will automatically get a criminal record.

In April 2006, the NPA set up a program to promote road safety measures, and told prefectural police divisions to crack down on cyclists who violated regulations. In March 2007, while the Diet deliberated on a revision to the Road Traffic Law that would tighten enforcement of the regulation that in principle cyclists should not travel on sidewalks, police began to crack down on cyclists riding on sidewalks. After the revised law came into effect in July, the NPA told police to issue traffic tickets to cyclists for blatant or dangerous violations.

In 2006, a total of 268 cyclists were issued red traffic tickets, but this figure jumped to 598 in 2007, 903 in 2008 and 1,326 in 2009. The most common offence in 2009, committed by 436 people, was passing through closed railway crossings. Next was ignoring traffic lights, for which 358 cyclists were ticketed. Another 67 received tickets for riding at night without lights and 50 were handed red tickets for riding under the influence of alcohol."

Over 1,300 cyclists ticketed for serious offences in 2009 amid police crackdown

22 August 2010

Orange Bullet Night Ride

I awoke at a reasonably normal hour for the first day following a flight from the US West Coast--at 6:30AM.  I took my time getting started in the morning ... until around 8:30AM my email started to flash and I learned of a 10AM conference call.  Somewhat relieved of the excuse not to head out into the furnace, I jumped at my wife's suggestion of a late afternoon ride as things started to cool down.

This gave me a great opportunity to try my new Mavic orange reflective jersey, and my "fibre flare" rear flashing light, attached to my seat stays.

It was still hot at 4:45PM as I started my ride heading directly toward the sun, low in the western sky.

I was rewarded once I got part of the way up the Asagawa toward Hachioji, as a strange cloud appeared directly in front of the sun, blocking it except for a golden lining around the edges of the cloud.  This site had many pedestrians stop, point and shoot with their cellphone cameras.

As I passed Takao, some of the summer festivals were underway.  One group had their matsuri along the Asagawa path, in a nice spot.  Another decided to have their matsuri on Route 20 near a busy intersection, complete with police traffic escort (I think I saw some of the same elderly cops who handled the Tamagawa fireworks on Saturday -- overtime pay bonanza this weekend.

Anyway, I skipped the Seven Eleven and kept going up the hill, turned around about half way up, and upon the return saw two motor scooters actually turn right into a newly constructed tunnel that has opened up since my last visit to the Otarumi climb hill, just at the location of the Ken-O-do expressway bridges early in the Otarumi TT route.  The tunnel had a sign indicating "Machida" -- a great find for me since I had been planning a return by Onekansen, and knew I did not have time to go West over the Otarumi hill and around via Tsukui-ko.  The tunnel was cool, fast and well lit.  It must have been 1.5 or 2 km long, and all of 2 cars passed me during its length.
Now the orange bullet really started to fly -- down Machida Kaido, then Onekansen, with a slight tail wind to ease the pain. 

The reflective vest, and my flashing fibre flare, must have made me the most visible cyclist in Japan for a hour or more.  ... unless the rider from the May 1 600 km Brevet who had a similar Mavic vest happened to be out at the same time.  Do people wear these in Europe?  The label said something about compliance with European Union requirements?  Why wasn't Sarkozy in one of these for his cycling photo op?

The rider who had one of these won the award for "most visible" rider in May ... but will have competition if he happens to ride theChubu Audax October event.

In any event, I made good time, and after a quick water stop, enjoyed the ride down the Kawasaki side of the Tamagawa.  This afforded a good view of the Keirin track (Tokyo Oval Keio Kaku), which, like many other buildings, looked totally different at night.  Not better, not worse, just different.

This may be a decent solution to the summer heat problem.  Next time -- I think I will just head out, keep going in the dark, and hop the train home.

20 August 2010


One more step along the road to global domination: PE has conquered the highest mountain pass in Japan (2,700m).

More here.

19 August 2010

Holy Ride

I found this Youtube video on the TCC website. While watching I was constantly thinking that among us, only David L. may have the nessesary skills, courage, weight and luck to attend this race.
Its was hold on the premises of the Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine in Yawata City, Kyoto prefecture just a few days ago.

17 August 2010

Bikeless No Longer in Portland, Oregon


I picked up a copy of the latest edition of Road Bike Action for reading on the plane back to Tokyo ... and it happened to have a special on the Masi Grand Criterium, the bike that I rented last week (looks like the article it is not yet available on the RBA website, but RBA seems like a nice find -- though a bit too much U.S. focus for many Positivistas).  I am not one of those cyclists who was originally inspired by the 1979 movie "Breaking Away" (nominated for the "Best Picture" and other Academy Awards and on many "top 10" lists of inspirational sports films), but the article notes the great pedigree of the Masi Grand Criterium --  made famous originally when the 1978 model was lusted after and ridden by the star in Breaking Away.  The article also points out that a Masi Grand Criterium really should be red, not blue like the one I rented ... just as a Bianchi should be celeste green, a Gios should be cobalt blue, Cervelo black and white, and a Colnago should have a beautiful, multi colored paint job.


After 4-5 days of what the Japanese refer to as "family service" (mixed with "client service" via laptop and some clothes shopping for the next year or so in Tokyo), I stopped by Veloce Bicycles on Thursday in Portland and rented a road bike for the week.  They rent a very serviceable Masi bike (aluminum frame, carbon fork and seat/chain stays, SRAM Rival shifters/derailleurs, Shimano Sora compact crank and Ritchey wheels, bars/stem etc.) for $150 a week.  That'll do!  Why don't more bike shops rent out decent road bikes?  I don't know, but this is one area where a good directory by geography is still needed, I think.  Demitri, the co-owner, said that he has always wanted to tour in Japan by bicycle, so I strongly encouraged him to do so.

After a spin in the area outside Lake Oswego/West Linn near my Dad's house (including a couple of nasty, short hills) on Friday, I joined a Saturday morning ride -- one of about 15-20 each week sponsored by the Portland Wheelmen Touring Club.  They had a 3-day ride at the Oregon Coast, but still a regular "metric century" ride of 100 km near town.  Around 12 persons showed up by 7AM Saturday at a light rail "park and ride" lot on the outskirts of Portland, crossed into Washington State (over a bike path running across a long bridge in the middle of 10 lanes of traffic, complete with concrete barriers and chain link fence).  At first I thought I would get very frustrated with the pace, but once we got across the bridge things picked up.  On the first real hill, I was 2nd rider in the group as we neared the bottom, but immediately 5-6 riders passed me as they attacked the hillside, while I downshifted way, way down and started my plodding climb.  At least I could pass two of them again just by holding a steady pace all the way to the top ... and on the downhill on the other side, no contest.  We had a pleasant ride through the hills and flatlands of eastern Clark County Washington, a mix of forest, agriculture, and subdivisions, maybe 105-110 km in all.  The most prominent manmade features of the area were at least 4-5 huge public high schools, the best landmarks on the cue sheet/map.

We stopped for coffee (16 oz latte!) and food (in my case, a great "breakfast burrito" with fluffy egg, hashed brown potatos, salsa and sausage inside a soft tortilla -- a huge improvement on the 7 11 version from Takao) at the town of Battle Ground, Washington.  I had always thought of this part of rural Washington (and the adjacent areas East of Portland in Oregon) as strictly "bible belt" -- full of born again Christians attending church, doing adult baptisms, and trying to convert the rest of us.  So I was pleased to see that at least one church had been converted into a coffee shop -- the cross remaining in place on the steeple.

Two riders who I spoke with worked for the local government, one in the City of Portland's "planning and sustainability" function, and another an economist in the Water Bureau, in charge of cost-benefit analysis of their capital expenditure programs.  (Portland has GREAT tap water, from the Bull Run Reservoir on the western slopes of Mt. Hood.  ... then again, Tokyo tap water ain't too bad in recent years).  One of the stronger riders was a woman triathlete.  She said she had taught English in Kobe from 1991 to 1996 ... but did not know Jerome B., who may have overlapped.

After a turn around at Battle Ground Lake State Park, we started a longer down hill stretch.  When I got to the turn off at the bottom of the hills, I looked back ... no one in sight.  Soon Eric (the Water Bureau economist) showed up, but no others after 5 minutes.  We assumed they had decided to follow the cue sheet, instead of take the alternate route that had been suggested during our stop.  So we pressed on, eventually doing several detours of a mile or so back and forth to see if we could find the rest of the group.  Then we headed for home as a well matched 2-person team.  We made good speed and were at the cars before the others, despite our detours.  They pulled up just as I was about to drive away -- apparently 2 flats had slowed them down.

Saturday was the hottest day of the year around here (98 degrees high temp in Portland -- 36.67 degrees celsius).  But it was a dry heat, and no problem for riding, especially after the oven that is Tokyo.  Nicer summer weather.  Nice bike lanes.  ... nicer than the trip out of Tokyo as far as Takao/Itsukaichi, but not nearly as nice scenery as the countryside that lays beyond, in the mountains outside Tokyo.

I apologize to all for not having my P.E. jersey with me -- I really did not expect to ride, and so was not prepared to add to our "global domination" series of photos.  On the other hand, I acquired a great Mavic orange, reflective short sleeve jersey that you will see upon my return to Tokyo.  In fact, you will all see it from 1000 meters away as you approach, in any level of light.  So at least on Saturday I could carry on Jerome's tradition of the "orange bullet."

16 August 2010

The Rise of MAMIL*

"Today's midlife crisis more likely to result in purchase of Pinarello than Porsche"

New research highlights rise of the MAMIL - Road.cc

* Middle Aged Men in Lycra

13 August 2010

Six Days of Ghent

This is a fascinating short B&W film. Although it is about cycling, the film is a fascinating study of people. Watch it and you will see what I mean.
This art-house film is certainly more high-brow than my usual posts.....

Source is Simon Lamb's excellent website: www.LaGazzettaDellaBici.com

No Addition

I am shocked to see so many blatant infringements of Euro-cyclist codes. HTFU.
Anyway, who can identify the bike, components?

11 August 2010

An Addition to the Positivo Espresso List of Great Sport Heroes

Obvious choice: Jens Voigt. He will join the ranks of Peyresourde, Aspin, Soulor and Aubisque; David Hasselhoff (although I have to concede that his name is contended in the list) and David L. recovering after his n-th accident.

The website Jens Voigt facts offers some astonishing insides into the head and life of this sportman.

Quote: "If Jens Voigt was a country, his principle exports would be Pain, Suffering, and Agony. "

Quote: "Jens' big ring is 56. His rear cassettte is 11-11-11-11-11-11-11-11-11-12. "

Quote: "Jens Voigt has four heart rate training zones: anger, rage, fury and breakaway."

The very last Trip

This post is in the pipe for quite some while. When I travelled to Japan in mid July to organize the move with my family to Germany, I could negotiate half a day off for cycling.

Which in turn would be the very last ride for a while. The Cervelo bike was already in good use in Bremen (by me, I don't want to say that it was stolen already and somebody was putting it finally into good use), but Bad Boy was still there. So I forced the staff from the moving service to unpack my bike; unfortunately I advised them wrongly and they unpacked the green Giant of my son. "Can't you ride on this one?" "No. Impossible of course." So they had to unpack Bad Boy as well. They were pretty angry and as a revenge I can expect that they will send the container with our stuff to Angola with a mark on it "For the local warlords".

The weather didn't look so promising but it was hot and I was ready to ride, whatever the weather would be. I opted for ... Yabitsu, naturally. I didn't wanted to check out some new obscure passes and having only half a day time, Yabitsu is easy to reach, easy to climb and easy to ride down and take the train home again.

The road along the Tsurumigawa, the Onekan, Tank Road, Tsukui lake North road, everything was more or less as I had it in memory. Thank God, the German re-education camp didn't had that impact ... yet. I made a short break at the shores of lake Miyagase, before starting the climb up to Yabitsu. The place was deserted on this weekday and even riding up there was hardly any traffic, not to mention cyclists.

After living in 2D North Germany for quite a while now and having to rely on Bad Boy, I wasn't so confident about my climbing abilities, but all went well. One of my favourite points on the road up is pretty much in the beginning when, after riding through the forrest, the view widens up and one can see the river on the left side for quite a stretch.

Somehow it was not as hard as I had expected. I thought that the climbs would be steeper, in particular the one from the tea house leading to the fountain.

On top of Yabitsu I made a short rest and took some pictures. There are also some stone Jizos which I have never recognized before.
So that was that. It has been hard to part from cycling in Japan and the very last trip added further to the general feeling of loosing somnething precious.

Carefully I rode down to Hadano as the last time I did this with Bad Boy, I slipped in one of the corners and developed som pretty nasty road rash.

Back at home I put my things into the container, the family on a plane and headed back to Bremen. I was greeted with a pretty nice sundown at the river Weser close to downtown Bremen.

I also bought a new bike. No, the motivation is not, that I need to become better and stronger and this can only be supported by a 6 kg carbon fiber 5.000 $ plus bike. It is something completely different. More to come.

Thanks to David and Jerome for having dinner with me at Golden Burning.

The Genius controls the chaos

from Bikezilla

04 August 2010

Thriving cycling market

Shrinking Leisure Market Deals Blow To Tourism, But Cycling, Hiking and Camping Thrive

TOKYO (Nikkei)--There seems to be no relief to the contracting domestic leisure-related market. Growing consumer frugality and the flu outbreak sapped people's thirst for outings, but environmental awareness and health consciousness nurtured people's interest in cycling, hiking and camping, a recent report shows.

Some segments posted a positive growth from a year earlier. The sports bicycle market jumped 21.8% to 190 billion yen. Hiking and camping gear also rose 8.1% to 161 billion yen. Behind the boost in these two segments was burgeoning demand among women who like to enjoy outdoor activities in style.

As to popular leisure activities, pleasure driving topped the list for the first time, a 31.1% jump year on year, thanks to cuts in highway tolls. Dining out, which had long stayed at first place till 2008, slid back to third, down 13.6%, as consumers tightened their pursue strings.

Also gaining ground were casual leisure activities, such as visiting zoos, botanical gardens, aquariums and museums, and going on picnics, cycling, hiking and taking walks. Jogging also remained popular.

Buzzwords of the year, such as "environment," "fashion" and "reasonable" are believed to be behind the growing popularity of these casual leisure activities.

Adapted from a Nikkei Business Daily article translated by Nikkei staff writer Tomoko Wakasugi

(The Nikkei Business Daily Aug. 3 edition)

03 August 2010

L'Etape du Tour 2010: Pau - Tourmalet. Part of "The Circle of Death"

(Passed over the top of Tourmalet. Very good road. Perfectly passable)

So read the telegram sent by Alphonse Steines to his boss when scouting the route for the 1910 Tour de France. What he didn't say is that he had to abandon his car because of snow and continue on foot. He got lost, fell down a ravine and was rescued at 4am. The first rider over the top in the race (just one of the climbs in a 289km day - others were Peyresourde, Aspin, Soulor and Aubisque - all monsters) screamed at the organisers "Assasins!".

The Lead-Up:
I flew into Toulouse on Thursday night and was almost an hour late thanks to British Airways. However, all my baggage, bike included, made it. Mine was the only flight to arrive at such a late hour so it was a mystery as to why it took the baggage 45mins to come out. It gave a chance for some irate Brits to practice their best rude holiday French on the airport staff, all to no avail as they merely shrugged their shoulders. "Qu'est-ce qu'on va faire?" Bienvenu en France.
By the time the bags did come out all public transport had finished and so I queued up for a taxi. Not many taxis can/will take a bike case so the wait was long. At least it wasn't raining. Finally got to my hotel to find the elevator too small for a bike case and my room (102) on the 2nd floor.... Bienvenu encore en France. The following morning I took the shuttle bus to the airport that leaves every 30mins on the hour and half past the hour. At 25 past the hour I was informed the driver had already left. C'est la vie, mon vieux.
Met James K and Jonathan D from London, rented a car and a van (part of our cunning plan for a quick escape after l'Etape), drove to Pau and checked into a pleasant hotel in the heart of the Pau and very close to the start of the race.
The Prologue (part 1):
Met up with Daniel, a Belgian friend who had travelled from NY with his beautiful Guru (bike, not person) and rode out to the registration area at the Hippodrome. It was good to do this on Friday, beating the Saturday rush. James had his bike serviced at the Mavic support booth. I'm told that in France if you want good service you should refer to the firm by it's proper name: "Ma-veek", not "Mavick". These mechanics take great pride in their work. The mechanic working on James' gears even called his boss out to discuss how to properly set up a combination of DuraAce and SRAM components. They did a great job. Meanwhile out the back of the Ma-veek tent was a trampoline with a man jumping/hopping on a fixie and doing and somersaults.
Rapha had a smart booth displaying all their wares including the new limited edition Tourmalet jersey. Some French riders were admiring the products but exclaimed "Zut alors!" when they saw the price list. Obviously not connoisseurs.

The Prologue (part 2):
It is said that preparation is half the battle. When in a new place one must try to acclimatise as quickly as possible so what better than dinner at La Table d'Hote in an ancient part of Pau? Great set menu and we enjoyed the local white (Jurancon) and red (Madiran).
The following day we drove in rain and fog to the top of the Tourmalet (photo) where the fog cleared momentarily but as we were above the cloud we could not get a clear view of what the next day held in store for us. It was stunning all the same.

We left the van at La Mongie, 4km down the other side with the idea of making a quick getaway after l'Etape. Back to Pau for a late lunch and then a carb dinner (pizza, pasta, a beer and some red wine) and to bed.

L'Etape - Sunday morning 18th July:
Up at 4:45am to ensure time for a good breakfast. We arrived at the start at 6am and waited for the gun at 7am. The hedges in the lovely Parc Beaumont will take a while to recover from thousands of nervous, overhydrated cyclists relieving themselves. In no time at all the group was moving. Even before we crossed the official start line riders were trying to push to the front. I learned a new overtaking manoeuvre from a French gentleman: push into a space just as wide as the handlebars and keep saying "pssscccht!" When you hear that coming just over your shoulder it takes you by surprise.

As I crossed the start line I said to myself that here I was, actually riding l'Etape. It is a far cry from when I first heard about this annual race a few years ago from a nutter in a spinning class back in Tokyo who was training for l'Etape 2006. That nutter was now riding beside to me and I have to thank him for getting me into cycling in the first place. It is difficult to explain why the organisers felt it would be appropriate to send 10,000 riders off on the first few hundred metres of the race on a narrow downhill section with hairpin corners. This then led through Pau to a bottleneck which caused a stop. All this would be a neutral zone for the pros who rode the course 4 days later. In fact they only raced for 174km vs our 181km. That might go some way to explain how they were twice as fast as me......

My overall impression was that the riders were fast and experienced, though over the day I did end up chatting with a lot of Brits who had not done much mountain training. The first proper climb was the Col de Marie-Blanque. With all pre-race chat about the Tourmalet climb this one and the next climb (Col de Soulor) did not get much mention. I had read that many pros do not like it because it is narrow and has an uneven gradient, thus not allowing them to get into a rhythm. Eddy Merckx, however, loved it because he said he could really make his rivals suffer. Although we had ridden over 50km the group had not really broken up much. It is difficult to climb on a crowded road because you cannot settle into your own rhythm. Motorbikes and the occasional ambulance or police car with siren reminding me of Inspector Clouseau movies would pass pushing riders over to the side. Once the gradient kicked up to 12 & 13% many riders dismounted and annoyingly, the road was blocked. We had to walk the last 1.5-2kms, thus losing a lot of time. The walk gave me the opportunity to talk to a Brit who it turned out used to live in Japan, is a good friend and roommate on the Paris-London charity ride of Laurent D. In fact he had even mentioned Positivo Espresso. Global reach!

The descent was beautiful and when the scenery opened up all that was missing was Heidi and a few goats.

On the approach to the Col de Soulor the group was serenaded by a professional Frenchman in a beret and stripy shirt playing an accordion. Set off up towards Soulor feeling good about good average speed maintained so far. As the Soulor goes on it gets steeper and more open. The last few kms were in baking heat and often at 8%. Unfortunately this is where James started to get very bad cramp but he soldiered on. I rode up alongside some 2 Japanese riders for a chat which rather surprised them. Every km there is a sign telling the riders how far to the top and the average gradient of the next km. At first these are useful, but soon become depressing and eventually, on Tourmalet, soul-destroying. I was amused on the way up to see"HTFU" in large letters chalked across the road. This is the important Rule 5. At the top I got James some salt water and ointment from the medical tent. The descent from Soulor is fast and gorgeous (roads are repaved for the Tour de France) but one had to be wary of over-enthusiastic Italians and the occasional pile of donkey sh*t. Hitting a pile at 75km would not be fun. James, a Frenchman and I took turns in pulling a fast train down to the feed-station at Argeles-Gazost, 1,000m below the top of Soulor.
And then it began: Le Col du Tourmalet (2115m). What many don't realise is that there is a 15km steady incline (3-5% gradient) leading up to the official start of the Tourmalet at Luz-St.-Sauveur. Having driven down this road the previous day I knew to take it easy, or as easy as I could in searing heat. The air was hot and still and we had the torment of riding alongside a beautiful, cool stream. I kept looking across to see if Jerome was wallowing in the water.
Le Col du Tourmalet is 18.6km long and climbs just over 1400m (ave 7.4%). In 36C heat having already ridden 160km it feels much more. It was as tough as everyone said it would be. All the way up spectators would douse me with cold water (some from the mountain streams was very cold) which would give me 30secs of respite. I even stopped for a glass of water in the shade of an elderly English couples property. They were too old and frail to ask for a push to help me get started on a 9% slope though.

All the way up people were throwing up, standing still bent over their handlebars, bodies were lying by the roadside in any shade there was and there was line of people by each crack in the rock from which water flowed. I rode up alongside a delirious Swede who thought he knew me and told me he just couldn't go on. I talked him up for another km before he basically keeled over.
The final drink station was just 10km from the top and felt like the final base camp on Everest from where the final assault on the mountain would be made. By this time James' cramp was so bad that he insisted I go on ahead without him. After all the hard training we had done together it felt like I was leaving a friend to die in the open (except it was 36C). These last 10kms took me over 1hr 20 mins. I was having to dig very deep. This was without doubt the toughest physical challenge I have ever faced. I stopped 2-3 times to drink, catch my breath and stretch my back. By this stage the road was lined with camper vans which had taken up position for the pros who would pass down this route in 2 days and then back up it in 4 days. I stopped at a van flying the Union Jack and Team Sky flags and enquired what had happened in the Tour that day only to be told Bradley Wiggins had dropped 5 minutes. There was a rider in full Sky kit enjoying a drink and shade of the camper van's awning who I was to meet later. I chatted with him at the finish and complimented him on his Sky Pinarello Dogma ("Nice bike" was a corny opening line). It turns out that this was a full-on team bike and that he was a director of Team Sky and the head of the British Cycling Federation. He explained that the max size rear cassette compatible with the Di2 is a 27 and because he was using a full size crank he was suffering.
The final few kms are at a gradient of 10%. There was an eery silence as riders slogged on, reminding me of some kind of death march described in WW1 poetry. Very near the top spectators would urge riders on with "only another 500m!" and then "encore deux cent metres plus, courage!" 60m from the top I got bad cramp and had to stop for a few seconds. Seeing my plight a kind spectator gave me an almighty push that gave me enough momentum to cross the line at a good speed looking like the climb had been no effort at all (I saw myself on the official Etape website video). I doubt anyone was fooled.
I spent 9hrs 33 mins in the saddle (longer when drink/food stops included). I covered 181km and climbed 4,400m. My goal was not to race but to complete. The winning time on the day was a little under 6hrs. Note that Jonathan D who has been riding for a little over a year came in 606th in 7hrs 34mins! The pros did the same course 4 days later and the winning time was 5hrs 2mins. My time up Tourmalet (not including the water stop) was 2hrs 8mins. The pros Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck did this 4 days later in 49mins! I watched this in a bar in Chamonix over a few beers and a copy of L'Equipe, the French sports newspaper. La Bella Vita.
Despite the pain and suffering I never once questioned why I had chosen to do this ride. The final climb made the ride much harder than I expected. Riding on closed roads and having officials flagging obstacles such as roundabouts and traffic islands (nowadays called traffic furniture apparently) made it feel very 'pro'. The crowds were wonderful and cheered riders along all the way with cries of "Allez, Allez" and "Courage" but what sticks in my mind is an Englishman sitting alone 3kms from the top slowly clapping everyone by. When I thanked him and he realised I was English he said: "No, thank you and well done. What you guys have done today is inhuman". When you are that exhausted emotions are exaggerated and I was very moved. I was also driven on by the thought of the children with cancer for whom James and I have raised Y3mn (close to $35,000).
If you are still reading, apologies for the long blog but it was a long day. A HUGE thank you to all the many generous donors to the Tyler Foundation (www.tylershineon.org) but also a big thank you to others who helped in other ways, with special mention for James M (http://team-machin-e.blogspot.com/) and to Simon L (www.lagazzettadellabici.com) for posting details of our campaign on his globally acclaimed blog.
Now I feel I can wear my Rapha Tourmalet jersey celebrating 100 years of the Tour de France in the Pyrennes.........

02 August 2010