BRM414 300 km Fuji, Wet and Windy Edition

On Saturday/Sunday I cycled in the 300 km brevet around Mt Fuji organised by AJ NishiTokyo, like in the six previous years. Last year I set a personal best time of 18 hours 51 minutes, which is 1 hour 9 minutes under the 20 hour time limit. This year I was not so hopeful. As the day approached, the weather forecast had turned increasingly worse, finally predicting heavy rain and very strong winds on the course between midnight and about 10:00 on Sunday morning. As it turned out, that forecast was spot on!

I had done the 300 km Fuji brevet in the rain once before, in 2014 (see pictures here), but this time turned our far worse.

After getting a couple of hours of rest on Saturday afternoon, I cycled 28 km to Machida for the late night start (22:00). In 2014 I had taken the train there and it had already started raining on the way from Machida station to the event starting point. We then had the pre-ride briefing inside the Cherubim bike shop. This year the rain held off until almost 40 km into the brevet, on the way to Enoshima.

At the start

The crowd at the start was much smaller than usual. As it turned out, most signed-up would-be participants had chosen not to start (DNS) due to the weather conditions. I had cycled to the start in my rain wear, but took it off at a convenience store near the start because I was starting to sweat in it. Four years ago I had worn my Polaris rain jacket, which is even warmer. For fear of overheating I went with a lighter jacket this time.

At the briefing we were told about two of the bail-out options, should we chose to retire from the ride. Both Odawara and Gotemba have train stations, but by the time we were to arrive there, the last trains would have left. Nevertheless there would be places around the stations where we could take shelter from the weather until the first morning train.

After the bike inspection we set off. It was quite windy, but no rain yet. Up to Enoshima on the coast I rode more by myself than in a group.

A couple of km before we reached the coast the first rain drops started falling and it steadily picked up. The first check point was a 7-Eleven store about 2 km east of Enoshima. I got there about 10 minutes to midnight.

When I came out of the store again the wind was fierce, whipping up sand off the beach which hit our faces and got on our teeth and into the eyes. The road was narrowed for some roadworks, so being pushed around while cars were passing wasn’t pleasant.

I was worried I’d be cycling into a headwind on the way to Odawara, but the wind pattern wasn’t very consistent. Whichever way it shifted though, it did slow us down. Also, there was little chance for riding with others.

When I reached PC1 (point de controle) in Odawara, 72 km from the start and 100 km from home for me, it was 40 minutes later than last year. I knew I had to get well ahead of the 15 km/h average that dictates control closing times and the overall time limit while I was on the flat part of the course to make it to PC3 in time, after hours of climbing on the west side of Mt Fuji later in the day.

After Odawara I put on my do-it-yourself shoe covers, fashioned out of some plastic bags and tape, to keep my shoes and socks dry. Nevertheless, as I started climbing up to Gotemba, which sits on a saddle between the Fuji and Hakone volcanoes, gradually I was getting soaked more and more. My long sleeve jersey and my uniqlo long johns were absorbing cold rain that leaked through the rain gear. I think my Polaris rain jacket would have done a much better job at keeping me dry.

I cycled with another participant for the middle part of the climb, but then stopped at a convenience store for food and a toilet break. My eyes started getting irritated. Either the rain was washing sweat into my eyes, or it was sand stuck to my face since Enoshima that got washed into my eyes. Taking off my glasses and wiping my eyes with the back of my gloves or the fingers didn’t help much.

The climb leveled off near Gotemba but the wind and rain were still picking up in intensity. At this wind speed the rain drops felt like pin pricks to the skin. At dawn the atrocious weather and the near absence of people gave the scenery an almost apocalyptic feel. From here it was about 25 km downhill to Numazu, but with no prospect of the weather improving soon. This was perhaps the coldest part of the course due to of the combination of rain, early morning hours and wind chill while descending. I was already shivering with cold while alternating between closing my left and my right eye to avoid the burning feeling.

Checking my notes, I was now running about an hour behind my 2017 times. The lack of a time buffer already made it questionable if I could make it to PC3 in time even if I could make it to PC2 OK. On this course my time buffer usually decreases significantly from PC2 to PC3 due to the time loss on the long west Fuji climb.

More importantly, the combination of eye trouble, hypothermia symptoms and the strong wind made me think about the risks of continuing. Even if I could coast down to Numazu, if I had to abandon the ride after that I would have to climb back up to Gotemba to get back home or ride the full course. That’s when I, remembering the advice at the pre-ride briefing, decided to find shelter from the storm in Gotemba and to head back to Odawara once things had improved.

Two or three other cyclists passed after I turned around and I shouted out to one of them that I was retiring. I found a McDonald’s on Google Maps that was open 24h and not too far away. I locked up my bike outside and walked in with my front bag. I bought myself some breakfast with coffee and sat down in a corner. I could take off my rain jacket to let my jersey dry. After eating I took a nap. When I woke up again it was still raining hard. Around 08:00 I called the organizers and let them know I was retiring from the event and would cycle home by myself.

An hour later it looked like the rain had eased a bit. I cleared my table and headed outside again. It got warmer as I descended towards Odawara. I took pictures of the muddy, swollen rivers I passed.

After about another hour the rain stopped. The black and grey rain clouds against the sunlight at the coast were beautiful.

I joined the coastal road and headed east, past Enoshima to Kamakura.

There I crossed the mountains over to the Tokyo bay side of Miura peninsula, then up to Yokohama and Kawasaki. I got home about 24 hours after I had set off, with 283 km of cycling. I hadn’t caught a single glimpse (let alone taken a picture) of Mt Fuji, but I was glad to be home safely.

This definitely wasn’t the most fun bike ride I have done, but unlike other difficult rides I have done, I also didn’t get much of a feeling of achievement out of it — the first time in 7 years that I didn’t complete the Fuji loop. Perhaps this is one time I should have decided to stay home when I saw the consistently bad weather forecasts. It would have been the rational thing to do. But for me, long distance cycling is not that rational a thing to do. Much of it is a mental challenge as much as a physical one.

I do long rides because I love the views, but partly I also do long rides so I won’t be afraid of doing long rides. They can be intimidating. I can take on bigger challenges only because I have faced smaller challenges before. You overcome fear of being stranded in a strange place by venturing out there and facing the challenges. Sometimes I learn something about myself from the experiences. It can be a balancing act. I am never 100% committed to achieving my immediate goal, because there are more important objectives. To be able to continue doing long rides, I can’t get seriously injured or worse, so I need to decide what risks to take and when to cut my losses.

My next brevet will be BRM512 AJ NishiTokyo 400 km Fuji Big Loop (BRM512富士大回り400km), a course I also rode in 2015 and 2016. Hopefully with nicer weather than last weekend 🙂

Links:



Getting ready for BRM414 NishiTokyo 300 km Fuji

A week from now I’ll be riding BRM414 NishiTokyo 300km Fuji (BRM414西東京300km富士), a 300 km clockwise loop around Mt Fuji from Machida to Machida (Sat, 22:00 -> Sun, 18:00).

In May 2012 this course was my introduction to randonneuring and I’ll be riding it for the 7th consecutive year.

This year the course has been updated in a couple of places. The checkpoint at Enoshima has moved from the public toilets near Katase-Enoshima station to a 7-11 further east. PC1 in Odawara has also been moved to a 7-11 with better toilets. PC2 in Shibakawa is in the same place, but has switched from being a Circle K to a Familymart. Around Kawaguchiko-Fujiyoshida the route has been moved from N139 to smaller roads nearer to the lake, avoiding some of the notoriously rough road surfaces there. The rest of the route is the same as last year.

The 22:00 start followed by 7 hours of riding through the night makes it essential to get plenty of sleep before the start. I’ll take a good nap in the afternoon before I ride 28 km to the start. Some rain is forecast for Saturday. Hopefully the ride itself will be dry, but I have once done this course with it raining for the first 150 km, which is not much fun (and it’s a pity if Mt Fuji is obscured by rain clouds).

This weekend I will be riding another century distance (160.9 km or more) as my last preparation ride before the event. This should make April my 68th consecutive month with at least one century ride.

2018BRM120 Miura Peninsula

I rode my third century of January and my first randonnée of the year on Sunday. After completing the 204 km ride (finished in 12:04) I rode home, for a total distance of 233 km. I had done the same event in 2015 – with only minor route changes – and almost the same time (12:06).

The main difference was that on Sunday it was not quite as chilly. Perhaps that was because it was overcast, which preserved more heat from the day before than if the night sky had been clear. It also meant that the sun wasn’t in our faces (and the faces of drivers coming up behind us) when we cycled towards Kawasaki around sunrise. I felt a lot safer because of that.

This brevet is the flattest by far of any events that AJ NishiTokyo (my local club) organizes. On the other hand, the first third and the last quarter had a fair number of traffic lights. Still, there was less pressure to make closing times than on any other brevet I rode.

I had to be at the start by about 5:20 to pick up the brevet card and attend the safety briefing, so the night before I rode 30 km from my home to a cheap hotel near the start where I spent the night. This I could still get almost 7 hours of sleep. Perhaps I’m getting soft in my old age 🙂

After passing by the Yokohama harbour near Chinatown, I took the optional route over the hills. This is where a lot of foreigners set up their homes when Japan opened to the world after the arrival of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships. On the Yamate district up on a hill you see many western style villas, a great view of the harbour and the historic Foreign Cemetery.

From Kawasaki to Yokohama down to Yokosuka the roads were urban, with traffic lights slowing you down. Yokosuka is home to the US Seventh Fleet. Not far from it is where William Adams (the Miura Anjin of James Clavell’s “Shogun”) had his fief back in the 1600s. The peninsula turns rural thereafter.

It was too overcast to see the mountains of Boso peninsula in Chiba, on the opposite side of the mouth of Tokyo bay. At Kurihama I passed Perry Park, a memorial to Commodore Perry who landed here in July 1853.

Following the coastline the route passed through seaside towns and fishing villages. Miura peninsula is one of the vegetable gardens of Tokyo, with mainly cabbage and daikon (radish) being grown.

After PC2 in the southwest corner of the peninsula, the route headed up the west coast. This is my favourite part, particularly in the late afternoon, with the sunlight reflected in the ocean, or when it’s cloudy and the sky can be very atmospheric. We passed the Imperial villa at Hayama. Emperor Yoshihito, father of WW2-era emperor Hirohito, died here in 1926.

A couple of km to the north we passed by Kamakura, one of the 4 historic capitals of Japan (Kyoto, Nara, Kamakura and Edo/Tokyo). In summer it’s popular for its beach, but even in winter there are many windsurfers (see picture at the top).

The next major town was Enoshima, which offers great views of Mt Fuji when it’s sunny, but not that day. Before the mouth of the Sagami river we turned inland, heading up north to loop back to the start. About 5 km later we reached PC3, that final control before the goal.

By this time I was about 1:15 ahead of closing time, so I could have made it to the goal even with an average of 10 km/h. I still kept up the speed to cover as much distance as possible before the sun went down. I only rode about the last hour in darkness, plus the ride home after the event.

Due to business travel my February distance will be lower than my January distance, but I’ll try to get one century in on the first February weekend, weather permitting. Today it’s snowing here in Tokyo. Usually we only have a couple of days of snow a year and this makes CaM a lot easier here than in many other parts of the planet.

Twenty-Seven Centuries in one Year

By the end of this year I will have cycled just over 8,000 km, slightly less than in the last couple of years (I cycled about 9,000 km in 2013, 2014 and 2016 and topped 10,000 km in 2015).

At the same time, the number of century rides (rides of at least 160.9 km aka 100 miles in one day) has actually gone up. In 2012, my first season of century rides, I completed 11 of them. Both in 2013 and 2014 I rode 21. The next two years I managed 22 each. This year, with one week left to the end of the year, the total came to 27 centuries.

The biggest difference has been that I didn’t participate in any 400 or 600 km brevets this year due to my business travel schedule. Both in 2015 and 2016 I had signed up for one 400 km brevet (which I finished) and one 600 km (which I DNF’ed). Both years I also pre-rode the 400 km route on a personal long distance ride. So I missed some distance overall, but most months I managed to ride 2 or 3 centuries. It’s all about being consistent.

With my December rides I have extended my “A Century A Month” streak to 5 years and 4 months. To ensure that I can keep this up, I usually do a long ride on the first weekend of each calendar month. That way, if anything comes up later in the month, such as a typhoon hitting Japan or me having to travel abroad, I won’t have an issue.

One of the most important factors no doubt is to avoid injury. Many of my friends have been involved in road accidents. A broken collarbone or other severe injury could put you out of action for weeks or months. Any kind of road sport has risks, but I try to limit my exposure. I am not a very ambitious descender because with anything that happens at high speed, the negative effects will be magnified. I am not ambitious when cycling in a city either. Where I work hardest is on climbs, because I need to 🙂

I have been very pleased with my Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer. Last year I converted it to 11 speed with a Sugino “compact plus” double crank and hydraulic brakes. It has been fun to ride and extremely reliable. The ride comfort from the 42 mm Compass tires is terrific and I have been without puncture for 20 months now. I still ride my Bike Friday Pocket Rocket as well and had its rear converted to a disc brake a couple of months ago.

The main attraction of long rides to me is the views I come across, at all times of day, in all kinds of weather and in all four seasons. I ride to see things, by myself or with friends.

Here are some pictures from one year of cycling:

January: BRM107 by Audax Japan Kanagawa – Zushi-Izukogen-Zushi 200 km

January: Doshi village on my Bike Friday

February: Boso Peninsula via Kurihama Ferry across Tokyo Bay (cycling to and from Miura peninsula)

March: Mt Dodaira in Saitama, visiting the observatory

March: BRM318 in West Izu, the hardest 200 km brevet I ever rode

April: BRM408 in Yamanashi, the 3rd 200 km brevet this year

May: Ome Temple Loop, a very mountainous course in Saitama that I normally only do once a year. I did it twice this year 🙂

May: BRM520 around Mt Fuji — my fastest ever finishing time on this 300 km brevet

June: Doshi village for coffee and cresson cake.

July: Some hydrangea blossoms at a mountain ride in Hinohara with friends.

July: Tokyo/sea level – Mt Fuji 5th stage/2300 m – Odawara/sea level (first time in 4 years that I rode this course again)

August: First ride on Arima Toge in Saitama

September: First ride on Nokogiri Toge

October: A hunting falcon at Lake Okutama

November: Annual Chichibu Foliage Ride

December: West Izu Century (view from Kumomi Onsen towards Mt Fuji, 72 km away)

Exploring the Chuo Shinkansen Maglev Route

Not many cars drive on prefectural road 35 near Akiyama, but I’ve cycled there many times on the way to or from Tsuru city during brevets and other long rides. Akiyama’s claim to fame, other than being a charming rural backwater, is it’s Maglev test track, which will grow into a section of the 286 km Tokyo-Nagoya line scheduled to open 10 years from now in 2027.

The test track was built in the 1990s to develop and test prototypes for the train and track, first 18 km in length, then extended to 42 km to be able to test the train at higher speed. The best detailed summary about the route that I’ve found so far that is not in Japanese is this (in German).

Ten years is not a very long time for a project of this scale, especially when there is always the risk of unforeseen difficulties during tunneling (the known unknowns). A 25 km long tunnel will run between Hayakawa in Yamanashi and Oshika in Nagano. Construction has started at both ends. As the Maglev train needs a near level track, this will be a base tunnel at low elevation. Consequently there will be 1400 m of rock above at its deepest point.

Near the end points at Tokyo and Nagoya, new stations will be built under existing train stations (Shinagawa station in case of Tokyo). The lines will run in tunnels at least 40 m underground. Under Japanese law (“Deep Underground Law”), construction at least 40 m below the surface can be done without having to purchase the land above, as long as its purpose is deemed to be in the public interest.

The Chuo Maglev line has been called the world’s longest subway line, as more than 85% of it will be in tunnels. From Shinagawa the tunnel will first run southwest towards the Tamagawa, passing Senzokuike and crossing the river near Todoroki (between the Daisan Keihin and Tokyo Toyoko line bridges).

It continues on the Kanagawa side towards Sagamihara. Avoiding Machida to the south and Tama New Town to the north, it will run south of Onekansen. The first stop after Shinagawa will be near Hashimoto station, to connect it to the existing rail network (JR Yokohama line, JR Sagami line, Keiō Sagamihara line) with proximity to the Ken’ō Expressway. The Maglev line will cross the Sagami river on a bridge, heading between Tsukui-ko and Miyagase-ko.

A 50 ha railway yard for maintenance with train depot is planned near Toya, which my cycling friends mostly remember for the Sunkus convenience store north of Miyagase-ko. From there the line tunnels west through more mountains to the existing test track.

Altogether there will be 9 emergency exits that connect the line to the surface in the tunnel section near Tokyo.

If you check Google maps for the satellite view, you’ll see the test track line emerge to northwest of Tsuru. where it crosses national route 139 from Otsuki to Kawaguchiko. If you drive out from Tokyo on Chuo expressway, you can see the line cross over the expressway on a bridge. There’s a Yamanashi Prefectural Maglev Exhibition Center nearby.

Heading further west into Yamanashi, the line first stays a little south of Chuo mainline and the Chuo expressway, before those two swing northwest while the Maglev route heads straight west. You can see it emerge for shorts covered bridges near Hatsukari, then pop out for longer viaducts as it crosses national route 137 and prefectural route 36 on the edge of the big Yamanashi plain. The current end of the viaduct is at Fuefuki, Yamanashi, according to Google maps.

There will be a station for Yamanashi prefecture in Ōtsumachi near Kofu, with access to JR Minobu Line.

The Yamanashi plain is where most of the above ground distance of the line will be found. The viaduct sections will either have noise barriers or complete covers. A main reason to opt for viaducts in this area is the relatively high water table, which would complicate tunneling.

The debris from 246.6 km of tunnel drilling amounts to 56.8 million m3 (some 145 million t by weight) that will be deposited at locations along the line.

Personally I’m a skeptic about this project. The time savings compared to regular bullet trains are relatively minor, once you factor in that most people will also spend a fair amount of time getting to and from one of the Maglev stations via conventional public transport.

For the people along the line who don’t live in Tokyo or Nagoya, they get one station per prefecture. Chances are, with Japan’s population on the decline, as the new line starts up that train services on the JR Chuo line, which runs somewhat parallel to the Chuo Shinkansen line, will get thinned out. We’ve seen the same thing with bullet train lines that opened that lead to cutbacks on other regional train connections.

So how much time will people actually save, if they don’t happen to live in Shinagawa and want to go to Nagoya or vice versa? Even Nagoya is only a halfway solution without the extension to Osaka that isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2045 (or 2037, if the central government steps in with a huge loan).

I think the only thing we can say with any certainty about benefits from the project is that, yes, the construction companies and the suppliers of equipment will benefit handsomely. Drilling and lining 247 km of tunnels with concrete and pouring some more of it for 24 km viaducts and 11 km of bridges will make them some money but will add a fair amount of CO2 to the atmosphere. The air resistance of trains at 505 km/h and therefore their energy consumption will definitely be higher than that of conventional trains. One source I saw listed it as having a CO2 output of 2-4x that of conventional commuter trains (not sure how those compare to a shinkansen).

Nevertheless, the dice have been cast and construction is under way. I will try and find more information about where construction is going on and what parts can be explored on bike rides or visited. You can already get train rides at the Maglev visitor center in Tsuru. There was some discussion of extending the test track 7 km to the west and building a station by 2020 to be able to offer test track rides as far as Kofu by the Olympics but without the Kanto connection that seems like a gimmick to me. I doubt that’s going to happen, as all kinds of construction projects are already competing for capacity before the magic Olympic year, driving up prices and busting budgets.

Jōmon Sugi, the hard way

Eight years ago I visited Yakushima island near Kyushu/Japan with my family. We did a lot of hiking to see the ancient Cryptomeria trees in the lush green mountains, but we did not try to go to Jōmon Sugi (縄文杉), the oldest and biggest tree on the island. It is estimated to be around 2000-7000 years old. Visiting it involves an all day hike. At the time I thought it was a bit far for my kids to hike.

Most people take a bus to the Anbo trail. Starting from the Arakawa trail head they walk along the tracks of the old narrow gauge railway previously used for logging. From there they follow the Okabu trail, which consists of a combination of dirt tracks, wooden steps and board walks. The route passes by Wilson’s Stump, the hollow remains of an even bigger tree, the size of a small living room.

The round trip on this route takes about 9-10 hours. People often leave their hotels at 04:00 to catch the first bus to the trail head at 05:00. The last return bus from the trail head leaves at 18:00.

Looking at the map (PDF here), I saw that one could avoid the buses by starting at Shiratani Unsuiko, climbing over the Tsuji Toge Pass and joining the Anbo trail about halfway to the turnoff for the Wilson stump. It involves a lot more climbing and descending, but the up side is that one is not tied to the bus schedule, no need for bus tickets and last but not least, Shiratani Unsuikyo is one of the most beautiful parts of the island. Furthermore, not far from Tsuji Toge Pass lies Taiko Iwa, a rock overlooking a mountainous valley with spectacular views.

We left the hotel in Miyanoura at 06:30. The hotel had prepared two lunch boxes for each of us, one with breakfast that we had in our room and one with lunch for during the hike. After driving up the steep road to Shiratani Unsuikyo high in the mountains, we parked the car in the car park and started to hike.

It was hot and humid but at least we were mostly walking in the shade of the dense forest.

At the Shiratani mountain hut I filled up with water. From the pass we climbed the trail up to Taiko Iwa. It was at least half an hour of detour, but we spent quite a bit more on taking pictures at the top.

A tour guide we met there told us we were probably a bit too late already to still make it to Jōmon Sugi in time to be back at the car park by the evening. Still, we decided to push on and see by what time we could make it to the Wilson stump. I reckoned, if we could make it there by noon we’d be at Jōmon Sugi by 13:00 and back at Shiratani Unsuikyo by 18:00, with about an hour spare before it got dark this time of the year.

Personally I find descents on foot harder than climbs, because they exercise muscles that only get used going downhill whereas climbing is much more similar to the kind of cardio exercise I get from cycling that I’m used to.

After about half an hour of descent we reached the old railway tracks, with wooden planks in the middle that made it easy to walk fast.

After maybe an hour we reached the turn-off for the Wilson stump. From here the course was a lot harder again. Especially the stairs were very hard on the legs.

We encountered some people heading back already. Many groups of people were resting by the side of the trail, either already return from or still heading to the tree.

There are two large viewing platforms near the tree, one below it on the hillside, one above it. For protection you can’t approach the tree itself anymore.

It was still a little before 13:00 when we started the hike back. With about six hours until sunset I was pretty sure we would make it, but it was going to be hard. There was a lot of up and down back to the Wilson stump and the Anbo trail. We rested a while at the Wilson stump, after going inside and taking pictures (there were about 8 people inside the stump at the time).

We were totally drenched in sweat by then. I had brought a towel to wipe my sweat but it was already soaking wet. All my clothes were soaked through. Paper tickets in my backpack dissolved.

I slowed down on the Anbo trail. With the goal of making it to the tree before cut-off time gone, I just wanted to make it to the end with the least amount of pain.

We rested again at the public toilets before the climb back up to the pass. Again I found the climb easier than the descent because my wife and kids slowed down more climbing while I had fallen behind on the descent.

The last kilometers from the Tsuji Toge Pass down to the Shiratani Unsuikyo car park were the hardest. All my muscles were sore.

A few hundred meters before the goal we soaked our feet in the cool water.

Finally we made it to the car, well before 18:00.

On the way down to the coast we passed some Yakushima monkeys. There are many of them all over the island, but especially on the mountains and on the west coast.

My legs were sore for several days after the hike (probably not helped by a canyoning tour the very next morning, which by itself was a lot of fun).

It was a great adventure to combine Jōmon Sugi with Shiratani Unsuikyo and Taiko Iwa. The latter two are definitely a local highlight, and much more interesting than Jōmon Sugi, which even though it’s impressive, is no match for the variety of stunning views at Shiratani Unsuikyo.

One of the hotel staff, who was a keen hiker, told us that even though he had also done the combined route, he had only ever done it once because it’s so hard. I can understand that.

If you want to see Jōmon Sugi, the conventional route on the Anbo trail is much easier, but then you should definitely also go and see Shiratani Unsuikyo separately.

When I next visit Yakushima, I probably won’t be hiking to Jōmon Sugi again, but I would love to visit Shiratani Unsuikyo again, perhaps climbing up from the coast by bicycle. A bicycle loop of the entire coastal road around the island (ca. 130 km) is also on my agenda for a future trip.

BRM520 300 km Mt Fuji

There is one cycling event I have ridden every year since I started long distance cycling five years ago, the 300 km brevet around Mt Fuji organised by AJ Nishitokyo. It was my introduction to randonneuring in 2012. This year I rode it for the sixth time, with unexpected results.

For the first four years I rode my Bike Friday Pocket Rocket, a folding road bike with 20″ (ETRTO 451) wheels. Last year I used my new adventure bike, the Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer, 650B randonneur bike with disk brakes. Most of my cycling friends expected the bigger wheels would make a big difference on the completion time: The event has a 20 hour time limit and I had always struggled to stay under the limit. The last two years on the Bike Friday I had finished with 11 minutes and 15 minutes spare. The first time on my NFE I finished in 19h 45m again – the same time to the minute as a year before! The Bike Friday really has been a great bike for me and if I had not been fast on it, that wasn’t because of the bike but because of the engine! 😉

Because this event starts at 22:00 at night, with the first 6 1/2 hours of riding through the night, getting enough sleep upfront is essential. I tried to avoid staying up much after midnight for the week before the ride and took short daytime naps on Thursday and Friday. On Saturday afternoon I went to bed at 15:00, planning to sleep until 18:00, but mostly rested. I don’t think I slept more than about the last hour.

I left home at 18:50 to cycle the 28 km to the start in Machida and was intending to ride home after the event too. So that’s 56 km on top of the 304 km of the event itself. I took it very easy, knowing I’d have plenty of time.

I bought bananas at a convenience store a few km before the start. The reception at a park near the Cherubim bike shop in Machida opened at 21:00. I saw many new faces, including younger riders.

It had been warm and sunny all day and the forecast for Sunday was the same, so I didn’t even wear a windbreaker at the start. Only for the early morning descent from Gotemba to Numazu did I bring my nylon rain pants, because that was going to be the coldest time of the night, before sunrise and going downhill for about 25 km.

The briefing started at 21:30. There aren’t any changes to the course from the year before, but temperatures would be quite different as last year’s event had been run about 8 weeks earlier in the year. Knowing it would get hot on the long climb on the opposite side of Mt Fuji, I decided to build up a decent time buffer until the morning, when it was still cool, so I would not risk overheating as much later in the day.

After the security inspection we started. The route to the untimed checkpoint in front of some public toilets in Enoshima (38.6 km), where we had to collect a signature on the brevet card from staff members, was pretty urban, with streetlights, cars and traffic lights all along. I made good time and arrived before midnight. It helped that I didn’t have to stop to take off a layer.

There was a large group motorbikes near the checkpoint. I came across groups of bikers throughout the ride, including several encounters with Bōsōzoku clubs making a racket on their two stroke bikes and weaving about on the road.

About half of the 35 km route from Enoshima to PC1 at Odawara I was drafting other cyclists, similar to last year. The Nitto Randonneur bars make it much easier to use my drops to get into a more aerodynamic position to save energy. I arrived at PC1 at 01:26, with 86 minutes spare, 5 minutes more than last year.

After Odawara the route starts climbing until it levels out at an elevation of about 400 m around Gotemba. I was still riding mostly with other cyclists. In Gotemba I put on my wind breaker and nylon pants for the descent. I rode down to Numazu with another cyclist, separated only temporarily when I stopped to take a shot of the first Mt Fuji view around 04:00, still about half an hour before sunrise. A waning moon hung in the eastern sky. It reminded me that we’re only three months away from the total solar eclipse in the western US on Aug 21, 2017.

Though I was yawning at times, I felt no urge to take a nap and continued on to Fuji city, maintaining my pace. I only stopped for a few quick photos of Fuji in the early morning light.

I counted down the distance to the Fujikawa bridge, where the road turns away the coast. I used the public toilets near the Tomei expressway entrance, so I could avoid queuing at PC2, only a couple of km up the road.

I tried to take pictures of Mt Fuji from the south-west, but the sun was behind it and the air was too hazy.

I made it to PC2 by 06:56, 132 minutes ahead of closing time. This was 26 minutes earlier than the year before.

It was still early in the morning, but it was already getting warm. From here it was about 36 km uphill, from close to sea level to about 1100 m. Some of the road was shaded under trees, but most of it was exposed to the sun.

Having done this brevet before, I knew this part of the ride was both rewarding for its views of Mt Fuji and green landscapes, but also tough for the relentlessly climbing road where I was pedaling in the heat. I had also done it on a rainy day, with only a few degrees above freezing, that wasn’t much fun either.

Until the climbing started I had consoled myself that even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the elevation (adiabatic cooling) would somehow make it bearable. Somebody forgot to pass that message to my Navi2coach GPS, whose thermometer displayed as high as 39 C at one point.

The air may have been cooler over the meadows and forests I was passing, but the south-tilted dark asphalt of the prefectural road 71 soaked up just as much sunshine at elevation as it would have at sea level. I was like riding on top of a barbecue. I stopped a couple of times for views and pictures and that made it easier to continue.

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I made it to the top around 10:30 and pulled into a parking area and view point overlooking Motosuko (Lake Motosu).

I took a couple of pictures, ate a banana and got back on the bike again. After a bit of rolling terrain the road descended. The forest surrounding it is called Aokigahara (青木ヶ原), also known as the Suicide Forest for the number of people who picked it to take their own lives there.

At the bottom of the descent, the minor road joined major Rt139, which is usually crowded with cars. Some of it’s surface is very rough, especially around Fujiyoshia. This is where the wide tires of my NFE really helped. They give me the confidence to descend faster even where the road surface is far from perfect.

After Fujiyoshida came a 25 km fast descent down to Tsuru. I didn’t have to pedal much and trusted my tires to deal with the bumps and cracks at speed, with several other cyclists in trail, none of whom ever tried to overtake me until after the road leveled out. It was till before noon and heating up more and more.

At 12:20 three of us pulled into PC3 at Tsuru. That was 92 minutes ahead of closing time. I knew I had previous made here with only 35 minutes spare. I was now 47 minutes ahead of last year’s result. But it was still going to get hotter for another hour or more from here.

The final 66 km from Tsuru to Machida were the hottest part of the ride. I used my lightest gear a lot, climbing slowly to avoid overheating. I am not usually someone who worries much about heat stroke. I drink sufficient water and keep the effort down when I feel it’s getting too hot out there, but this time I was starting to worry. Three or four of us stayed together more or less continually for the last leg of the trip, nobody willing to go any faster in this heat. I counted down the distances to the top of each climb.

Finally we made it to Doushi road (National route 413), for a lengthy descent. we stopped at a convenience store where AJ Nishitokyo staff met with us. Some ice cream cooled me down a bit. Based on the remaining distance it looked like I could finish before 17:00, with more than an hours pare. That would be my best result ever.

I felt relieved when I crossed the last major bridge, where I crossed back into the urban area of Sagamihara and counted down the final kilometers to Machida.

At 16:51 I pulled up in front of the Cherubim bike shop, together with one of the other participants. I had finished 54 minutes faster than in 2015 and 2016.

I’m very happy to have made it safely. I thanked the AJ Nishitokyo staff. As always they took good care of everyone. The route is difficult, but rewarding. I often incorporate large parts of it into other long distance rides that I do privately.

As to why I finished so much quicker this year, I am not sure. Looking at the elapsed times between PCs both years, I gained 21 minutes between PC1-PC2, another 21 minutes between PC2-PC3 and 7 minutes even from the last PC to the goal, in the heat. So I was pretty consistently faster. The first 73 km to PC1 is where I gained the least relative to last year (5 minutes), probably because I was already working hard there last year. Overall I took about a 100 photographs on both rides, so it wasn’t that I stopped less for pictures.

Perhaps my two recent rides of the Oume temple loop, with 2500-2700 m of elevation gain on 180+ km of cycling each time, helped prepare me for the amount of climbing 🙂 Whatever it was, I’m happy!

Oh, and I did ride 28 km back to Tokyo after the brevet, tired and sleepy, but I made it safely. I won’t be able to ride AJ Nishitokyo’s 400 km brevet this year due to business trips and I’m not sure yet if I’ll attempt the 600 km brevet in September again – I have DNF’ed (did not finish) it three times so far. Finishing it is a bit like riding a 400 km brevet, then finish this 300 km brevet starting from the bottom of the big climb at PC2… Pretty insane!

What I enjoy about these brevets is not just the scenery and the challenge, but also the camaraderie and shared love of cycling among randonneurs. We all have this same passion.

Olympic Hydrogen Hype

Today’s Japan Times reports that the Organizing Committee of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is considering the use of hydrogen torches to light the Olympic flame (“Olympic panel mulls high-tech hydrogen torch, pares soccer venues” — JT, 2017-02-27):

“An important theme of the Olympics is how to promote environmental sustainability. We will talk to experts and see how realistic it is in terms of technological development,” a committee member said.

One official said there are still safety and cost concerns, and asserted that there also was a need for a lightweight torch that can be easily carried.

In March 2016, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced a project to have the 6,000-unit athletes’ village for the games run entirely on hydrogen power.

The Japanese government is one of the most active promoters worldwide of a so called “hydrogen economy”. It sees the 2020 Olympics as an opportunity to showcase Japan’s lead on hydrogen. Other projects are the construction of a nationwide network of hydrogen filling stations for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCV) such as the Toyota Mirai, research into shipping liquefied hydrogen from overseas using special tankers and production of hydrogen from lignite (brown coal) in Australia for export to Japan.

Let’s start with the most obvious problem in the article, the hydrogen fueled torch: The usual Olympic torches use LPG (propane/butane) as a fuel, a gas mixture that can be stored as a liquid under moderate pressure at normal outdoor temperatures. This makes it easy to carry a significant amount of fuel in a light weight container. Hydrogen by contrast does not liquefy unless chilled to about -252 C. Hydrogen powered vehicles run on compressed hydrogen instead, at pressures of up to 700 bar, equivalent to half the weight of a car on each cm2 of tank surface. As you can imagine that kind of pressure calls for some fairly sturdy containers. An even bigger problem is that pure hydrogen flames are invisible because they radiate energy not as light but as UV. You could feel the heat, but you couldn’t directly see if the flame is burning or not, which makes it quite hazardous. Talk about playing with fire…

The comment about running the Olympic village on “hydrogen power” is quite misleading. It’s like saying they would run the Olympic village on battery power, without explaining where the energy to charge those batteries came from. Like batteries, hydrogen is not a primary energy source, it’s an energy carrier. Since elementary hydrogen does not exist in significant quantities on earth, it has to be produced using another energy source such as natural gas or electricity generated using coal, nuclear, wind or solar.

Though it’s possible to produce hydrogen from carbon-free energy sources such as solar electricity (splitting water through electrolysis) and then produce electricity from hydrogen again, this process is far less efficient than either consuming renewable electricity directly or via batteries. When you convert electric energy to chemical energy in hydrogen and back to electricity, about 3/4 of the energy is lost in the process. This is incredibly wasteful and far from green.

With its sponsorship of hydrogen, the Japanese government is trying to create business opportunities for industrial companies such as Kawasaki Heavy Industries, a Japanese shipbuilder (see “Kawasaki Heavy fighting for place in ‘hydrogen economy'” — Nikkei Asian Review, 2015-09-03) and for its oil and gas importers, as almost all hydrogen is currently made from imported liquefied natural gas (LNG). In the longer term, the government still has a vision of nuclear power (fission or fusion) producing the electricity needed to make hydrogen without carbon emissions. Thus the ‘hydrogen economy’ is meant to keep oil companies and electricity monopolies like TEPCO in business. The “hydrogen economy” is coal, oil and nuclear hidden under a coat of green paint.

These plans completely disregard the rapid progress being made in battery technologies which have already enabled electric cars with ranges of hundreds of km at lower costs than HFCVs and without the need for expensive new infrastructure.

Hydrogen, especially when it’s produced with carbon-intensive coal or dangerous nuclear, is not the future. Japan would be much better served by investing into a mix of wind, solar, geothermal and wave power, combined with battery storage and other technologies for matching up variable supply and demand.

See also:
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Are Not The Future (2016-12-05)

Get the Facebook “See translation” button back

I used to get a “See translation” link when browsing Facebook posts of my Japanese friends, but at some point that went away. I would still see it offered on languages such as Dutch, Swedish or Spanish though. It turns out that Facebook didn’t give me the “See translation” link for Japanese posts because in my language settings I had included Japanese along with English, French and German. I speak it, but unlike my other languages I can’t necessarily read it.

Having lived in Japan for many years I do speak Japanese well enough to talk to friends and family, to go to the bank, to travel and go shopping. I deal with officials at the city office or to renew my driver’s license, no problem. However, I do not do too well with written Japanese and its almost 2000 Kanji characters, so I’m still relying on translation tools for that. It was actually easy to re-enable the option in Facebook.

In Facebook, click on the triangle to the right of the padlock. Click on “Settings” in the drop-down menu. Click on “Language” on the left. Click on “Edit” next to “Which languages do you understand?”. Remove any languages that you still want to get a “See translation” option for. Click “Save changes”. Now view a Facebook post in that language and you should see the “See translation” option displayed below it 🙂

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Are Not The Future

On my bicycle ride last Saturday I passed a service station near Hachioji in western Tokyo that is being set up as a hydrogen station for fuel cell cars. Japan is in the process of setting up such infrastructure to support a small fleet fuel cell vehicles such as the Toyota Mirai (its name means “future” in Japanese).

For decades, hydrogen has been touted as an alternative fuel for transport once we move beyond fossil fuels. The idea was that it can be made in essentially unlimited amounts from water using electricity from solar, wind or nuclear power (from either fission or fusion reactors). The only tailpipe emission would be water, which goes back into nature.

Unlike electric cars, which have limited range compared to fossil fuel cars, hydrogen cars can be refilled fairly quickly, like conventional cars, giving them a longer operating range. Car manufacturers have experimented with both internal combustion engines (ICE) running on hydrogen and fuel cell stacks that produce electricity to drive a traction motor. Both liquefied and compressed hydrogen has been tested for storage.

Here is a Honda fuel cell car I photographed on Yakushima in 2009:

It’s been a long road for hydrogen cars so far. Hydrogen fuel cells were already providing electricity for spacecrafts in the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 70s. With the launch of production cars and hydrogen fuel stations opening now in Japan, the US and Europe it seems the technology is finally getting ready for prime time. However, the reality is quite different.

Arguably the biggest challenge for hydrogen cars now is not the difficulty of bringing down the cost of fuel cells or improving their longevity or getting refueling infrastructure set up, but the spread of hybrid and electric cars. Thanks to laptops and mobile devices there has been a huge market for new battery technology, which attracted investment into research and development and scaled up manufacturing. Eventually reduced costs allowed this technology to cross over into the automotive industry. The battery packs of the Tesla Roadster were assembled from the same industry standard “18650” Li-ion cells that are the building blocks of laptop batteries.

Li-ion batteries have been rapidly falling in price year after year, allowing bigger battery packs to be built that improved range. A car like the Nissan Leaf that is rated for a range of 135 to 172 km (depending on the model) would cover the daily distances of most people on most days without recharging during daytime. Not only are prices falling and range is increasing, the cars can also harness the existing electricity grid for infrastructure. A charging station is a fraction of the price of a hydrogen filling station.

Here in Japan I find many charging stations in convenience store parking lots, at restaurants, in malls and at car dealerships – just about anywhere but at gasoline stations, which is where the few hydrogen stations are being installed.

After the tsunami and nuclear meltdown hit Japan in March 2011, some people here viewed electric cars and their claimed ecological benefits with suspicion: The Nissan Leaf may not have a tail pipe, but didn’t its electricity come from nuclear power stations? This criticism is not entirely justified, because electricity can be produced in many different ways, including wind, sun and geothermal. Car batteries of parked cars are actually quite a good match for the somewhat intermittent output of wind and solar, because they could act as a buffer to absorb excess generating capacity while feeding power back into the grid when demand peaks. If cars were charged mostly when load is low (for example, at night) then no new power stations or transmission lines would have to be built to accommodate them within the existing distribution network.

The dark secret of hydrogen is that, if produced from water and electricity through electrolysis, it is actually a very inefficient energy carrier. To produce the hydrogen needed to power a fuel cell car for 100 km consumes about three times as much electricity as it takes to charge the batteries of an electric car to cover the same distance. That’s mostly because there are far greater energy losses in both electrolysis and in fuel cells than there are in charging and discharging a battery. A fuel cell car actually has all of the above losses, because even fuel cells still costing about $100,000 are not powerful enough to handle peak loads, therefore a battery is still required. Think of a hydrogen fuel cell car as a regular electric car with an added fuel cell stack to recharge the battery while the car is running. This means a fuel cell car suffers the relative small charge/discharge losses of a battery-electric car on top of the much bigger losses in electrolysis and fuel cells that only a hydrogen car has.

What this 3x difference in energy efficiency means is that if we were to replace fossil-fueled cars with hydrogen-fueled cars running on renewable energy, we would have to install three times more solar panels and build three times as many wind turbines as it would take to charge the same number of electric cars. Who would pay for that and why?

Even if the power source was nuclear, we would be producing three times as much nuclear waste to refill hydrogen cars than to recharge battery-electric cars — waste that will be around for thousands of years. That makes no sense at all.

So why are hydrogen fuel cell car still being promoted then? Maybe 20-30 years ago research into hydrogen cars made sense, as insurance in case other alternatives to petroleum didn’t work out, but today the facts are clear: The hydrogen economy is nothing but a boondoggle. It is being pursued for political reasons.

Electrolysis of water is not how industrial hydrogen is being produced. The number one source for it is a process called steam reformation of natural gas (which in Japan is mostly imported as LNG). Steam reformation releases carbon dioxide and contributes to man-made global warming. By opting for hydrogen fuel cell cars over electric cars, we’re helping to keep the oil industry in business. That you find hydrogen on the forecourt of gas stations that are mostly selling gasoline and diesel now is not a coincidence. Hydrogen is not the “fuel of the future”, it’s a fossil fuel in new clothes.

Due to the inefficiency of the hydrogen production it would actually make more sense from both a cost and environmental point of view to burn the natural gas in highly efficient combined cycle power stations (gas turbines coupled with a steam turbine) feeding electricity into the grid to charge electric cars instead of producing hydrogen for fuel cell cars from natural gas.

Even if electrolysis is terribly inefficient, by maximizing demand for electricity it can provide a political fig leaf for restarting and expanding nuclear power in Japan. Both the “nuclear fuel cycle” involving Fast Breeder Reactors and the promise of nuclear fusion that is always another 30-50 years away were sold partly as a power source for a future “hydrogen economy”.

While I’m sorry that my tax money is being used to subsidize hydrogen cars, I don’t think hydrogen as a transport fuel will ever take off in the market. Electric cars came up from behind and overtook fuel cell cars. The price of batteries keeps falling rapidly year after year, driven by massive investment in research and development by three independent powerful industries: IT/mobile, automotive and the power companies.

The hydrogen dream won’t die overnight. I expect the fuel cell car project will drag on through inertia, perhaps until battery electric cars will outnumber fossil fueled cars in Japan and only then will finally be cancelled.