Dekopon, Cherry Blossoms and Some Rain: BRM330 200 Km in West Izu

The dekopon season will be coming to an end soon, but to compensate the shorts-and-short-sleeves season has started! I enjoyed both on Saturday, buying local dekopon (4 big juicy ones for 300 yen) in West Izu. The roadside stand worked on the honour principle: I dropped my coins into the collection box and took one bag of fruits.

I was the only rider in shorts at the start of the 2019BRM330 200 km brevet in Mishima, out of 13 who had shown up, out of 30 who had signed up, the others having been put off by a weather forecast that predicted a high chance of rain in the evening.

I drove to Mishima on Friday night with the Elephant Bikes NFE in the back of my Prius and parked the car in a coin parking lot (700 yen for 24h). I stayed at the Toyoko Inn, which was also going to be the goal of the 203 km ride which started at Mishima station. There were 2 courses, the hilly Matsuzaki course and the insanely hilly Darumayama course. I had tried and DNFed the latter in 2017, so it was Matsuzaki again for me.

Before the 08:00 start I loaded up the course on my GPS unit, but hit an unexpected snag when it reported a file system error that required a factory reset of the unit, meaning I’d lose my stored breadcrumb trail for navigation that I normally use. So I had little alternative but using my phone and the paper cue sheets for navigation. However, I had not brought my usual plastic cover for the phone to protect it on the handle bars in case of rain, nor had I weather proofed the cue sheets. The map bag of my front bag is not totally waterproof.

I used RWGPS to load the course and map and it gave me verbal directions in English throughout the ride. I kept the phone connected to a 10,000 mAh USB battery in my front bag until the goal. I have two USB batteries and two phones. There’s always a plan B and sometimes a plan C! ๐Ÿ™‚

When the rain started to come down on the way back near Toi, I covered the phone with a plastic shower cap from a hotel stay which I secured it with rubber bands. I always keep one shower cap in the front bag as an emergency cover for the leather saddle or whatever. When my wet fingers made the touch screen difficult to operate, I used spare dry socks that I also kept in the same bag to wipe the screen dry again.

During a brevet on February 10, 2019 organized by Audax Kinki, a participant was sadly hit from behind and killed by a car in a tunnel. Brevet participants are required to wear reflective vests throughout the ride, but sometimes they wear a backpack which could partly obscure the reflective vest. Thus we were asked to wear the vest on top of any backpack. I actually brought two reflective vests, one to wear and one for my light string backpack (for spare clothes) to “wear”, which made getting changed quicker. I had bought the second at a brevet reception when I had forgotten the original one at home.

Most of the starter group did not spread out much until we turned the NW corner of Izu and the bigger climbs started. I took some pictures of the others and the scenery, but it was too hazy to see anything of Mt Fuji or even much of the mainland coast of Shizuoka on the other side of the bay. Mt Fuji remained totally hidden for the entire day.

As it got warmer towards noon I started fading a bit. I would have been really uncomfortable in long pants and thermal jacket. I was now riding on my own but comfortable in the knowledge that I was 50 minutes ahead of minimum pace at that point, which should normally ensure that I would complete the ride under the time limit.

There were a fair number of cherry trees, but most of them weren’t in full bloom yet, many quite sparse at the top still, so I didn’t take too many pictures of them.

There were only two timed controls on this course between the start and the goal, with 161 km in between. Near the southernmost point of the ride there was a photo check: We had to take a picture of a viewing platform on a mountain road together with our brevet card to prove we passed there. I climbed the mountain road together with a young couple. They had already suffered a puncture in NW Izu that had cost them time, while I frequently stopped for pictures.

From there I enjoyed a long descent to Kumomi Onsen. I had visited there in December and then climbed Mt Eboshi, which offers a breathtaking scenery of the coast. We passed Iwachi Onsen, where I had often visited by car when our children were still little.

I was trying to make it to near Heda village by sunset, where a staff member was taking pictures of all of us as we passed, but my own pictures took priority. At the last conbini in Toi before the wilderness it started raining and I put on my rain gear. On the descents I had to be a lot more careful. The wet asphalt soaked up all the light.

The rain became quite intense and I couldn’t help thinking of the 17 non-starters who had listened to the weather forecast… but with my time buffer I expected I’d still make it in time, unless I had bad navigation problems in the last 20 km. The phone became difficult to use when its touch screen got wet. Once, the RWGPS app somehow ended up back on the route selection and I had to restart the Navigation, which seemed to have cost me my downloaded maps ๐Ÿ™ Now I could only use the turn by turn instructions to follow the course, but no map view. Fortunately, those turn by turn instructions worked flawlessly, even if the sound volume wasn’t always high enough to be clearly audible. Worst case I had to check the screen. Twice I went off-course but it soon let me know and it recovered when I backtracked to the wrong turn.

After more than 3 hours of riding in the dark I finally got close to Mishima station. When I stopped at the traffic light across from the Toyoko Inn, a staff member waved at me and handed me a note with the finishing time after I crossed. It was 21:19, only 11 minutes under the cut-off time. At the goal reception I presented my brevet card, the receipts from PC1 and PC2 (both 7-11 stores) and showed a photograph of the viewing platform. I had successfully completed! The young couple also made it. They arrived a mere 2 minutes before closing time. Another cyclist who had punctured on the last part of the ride in the rain was over the time limit.

On the drive back to Tokyo I stopped twice at Tomei expressway service areas for some rest, as I was too sleepy. When I got home I unloaded the car, took a shower and went to bed at 02:00. Two more weekends before the 360+ km Fleche ride for which I’m preparing.

Good bye Audi, welcome Prius!

Only about 6% of cars sold in Japan are foreign makes (mostly German), but Kanagawa prefecture and its capital Yokohama have one of the highest rates of import cars in Japan. Yokohama is one of the two major ports (the other is Kobe), it has a relatively long history of exposure to Western influences and on average is relatively wealthy. Even so, the street where I live in a middle class neighbourhood is unusual for actually having more foreign cars than Japanese ones.

Until very recently the count was as follows:

  • Mercedes Benz: 4
  • BMW: 3
  • Volvo: 2
  • Audi: 1
  • Porsche: 1
  • Toyota, Nissan and Honda: 4

Since then the numbers changed because I sold my Audi A4 and bought a Toyota Prius. Who knows what’s going to happen when the only German in a street in Japan where German cars outnumber Japanese cars trades in his German car for a Japanese one? ๐Ÿ˜‰ It’s going to be interesting.

The first time my wife and I washed it in front of our garage, neighbours from two houses came over to take a look at it and to talk about it. One couple, who have a BMW X5 were very curious. They explained they only get about 6 km per litre (17 litres per 100 km) and were thinking about what to replace their car with. The other, who drives a Volvo came up as soon as she saw her neighbours across the street talk to us. Afterwards, the wife of the BMW driver said: “Minna eko ni shimashô!” (“Let’s all go green!”)

I expect we will see more hybrids in our street soon.

I’ve driven Audis (or Volkswagens based on Audi designs, such as the VW Passat) since I got my first car in 1982. Generally I have been very happy with them, especially an Audi coupe quattro 20V I had from 1989 to 1994. The latest Audi A4 2.4 however that I bought in 2000 was heavier and seemed not as well made as its predecessors.

The A4 was fun to drive when I bought it second hand with only 3000 km on the clock, but its V6 engine was never anywhere near as fuel efficient as my previous five cylinder engined Audis, nor was it quite as reliable.

After spending more than $2500 on repairs in the final year alone while consistently getting only about 320 km of range out of a 53 litre refill of premium unleaded (98 octane RON), I was starting to worry for the future of that car.

Even allowing for the fact that most of our trips are short runs to the station or to shops, usually less than 10 km total, with the engine starting from cold much of the time, that 16-17 l per 100 km (6 km/l) that I was getting was simply way too much. The best I’d seen was around 12 l per 100 km (8 km/l) on long highway runs on a ski trip.

Then one day last winter I took my daughter to an entrance exam at a junior high school. As I was waiting near the school, a Toyota Prius rode past me in “stealth mode”, running only on its batteries without any engine noise. It was almost as quiet as a bicycle. My curiosity about this car was awakened.

I had heard various rumours about the Prius, such as about limited battery life and started to check out the facts. I found the batteries did not need replacing every couple years and were expected to last as long as the rest of the car.

The more I read, the more I was fascinated how much thought the Toyota engineers had put into this car and how methodical they had been about making it work in real life. The Prius has been around in Japan since 1997, even though relatively few of that first generation were sold until 2000, when the second generation came out, which went into export markets too. Even before the Prius, Toyota had already been gathering experience with the RAV4 EV, a plug-in electric. The 1.5 litre engine in the Prius is a close cousin of the identical sized engine in the Yaris / Vitz / Platz ranges, but using the more efficient Atkinson cycle instead of the Otto cycle. Its peak efficiency is 34%, better than some diesels. By giving up on peak power and peak torque (which instead are provided via the battery and electric motors), the engine can be much more efficient.

Later in February my Audi needed more repairs and this time I had a Toyota Corolla as a loan car. It made me consider if maybe I would be better off in something lighter and more economical than the Audi and I was curious what a Prius would be like.

In March I went to California on a business trip. A friend there whose wife drives a Prius let me do a short test drive. Pulling away from a traffic light, where the engine had been automatically stopped, felt very unusual: The car starts up running only on its electric motors, without the noise of the engine, which comes alive only as you already start rolling.

Finally in late June my wife and I started shopping around for a buyer for the Audi and for a good deal on a Prius. The waiting list from custom order to delivery turned out to be about 5 weeks, far less than I had seen quoted by US-based posters on websites. I went for the “S Touring” model with a navigation system as an option, which my wife had been requesting for years. The touring comes with HID headlamps (I had never been happy with the conventional halogen lights on the A4) and a firmer suspension than the base model.

We also added a gadget called “etc” (electronic toll collection), which handles toll road charges for motorways here in Japan (most motorways here charge for usage). There are special lanes for etc-equipped cars at toll gates, which make it quicker to get through, as you just have to slow down to 20 km/h to pass through while your car contacts the wireless booth equipment. Before we always had to queue in a line to hand a prepaid card, cash or a credit card to a guy in a toll booth. There are discounts for paying by etc, I guess because the operating company can cut back on staff.

We returned the Audi on the day its bi-annual vehicle inspection became due. We then relied on bicycles and public transport for four days, until the Prius arrived on the last day of July.

Only after I placed the order did I google for crash test results, but the outcome was very comforting: Though the Prius was some 200 kg lighter than my 1999 model Audi, it did as well as the latest A4 model (2008) on crash test results. In fact it had the highest rating of any car tested for kids in child seats in the EuroNCAP tests. As far as interior space is concerned, I didn’t have to give up anything. If anything it’s more spacious than the Audi and it offers the practicality of a hatchback.

Last weekend we drove down to the coastal town of Enoshima on the Pacific, about 35 km from here, which on a Sunday takes 1 1/2 hours because of traffic jams. The Prius will simply shut down its engine whenever stopped, whether at a red light or in slow traffic. Even then the air conditioner (essential at 30+ centigrade in hot and humid Japanese summers) will keep you comfortable, as it’s electrical and draws current from the car’s powerful traction battery that also drives that car’s electric motors.

The NiMH battery will get recharged when the engine is running again or whenever you push the brake pedal to slow down the car, which switches one of the motors to work as a generator. This “regenerative braking” extends the life of the brake pads too.

Other auxiliary systems that on conventional cars are driven directly by the engine via a belt are electric on the Prius, such as the power steering and the brake servo. These always suck some power on conventional cars, whereas on a hybrid they only draw power when needed, making it more efficient.

On the way back we also drove at 80-90 km/h on multi lane highways, with the multi function display (MFD) showing better than 20 km per litre (better than 5 l per 100 km). We never had any trouble keeping up with traffic.

UPDATE (2008-08-10):
With about 250 km on the odometer, the displayed fuel consumption average is now around 16 km per litre (6.25 km per 100 km or 38 mpg US). Other than the weekend trip, it was mostly short trips to a shop or to drop off or pickup a family member at one of the train stations, which are about 3 km away. At our average of about 900 km per month this means the Prius is burning some 90 to 100 litres of fuel less per month than the Audi A4 it replaced, as well as running on a cheaper grade of fuel (regular instead of premium unleaded).

According to the website of the UK Department for Transport the Prius is not the car with the lowest CO2 output per km in Europe: It is undercut by two other cars. The Polo 1.4 TDI Bluemotion and the SEAT Ibiza 1.4 TDI Economotion both use the same 80 PS VW/Audi turbodiesel engine. At 99 g/km they output about 5g less CO2 than the Prius. However, these cars are classed as “superminis”, which offer considerably less space to passengers. Most people fail to realize how spacious the Prius really is compared to its competitors. Based on interior space the EPA in the US actually puts it into the “mid-size” category, along with the BMW 5-series and the Audi A6. Below the 5-series and A6 in size are the 3-series and A4 (rated as “compact” cars by the EPA). Below that is the A3 / Golf / New Beetle (“minicompact”). And one more size below that are the Polo and Ibiza.

UPDATE 2 (2008-10-16):

In two and a half months of ownership, our Prius has clocked up over 2500 km (1530 miles). My daughter accidentally reset the average fuel consumption display after 100 km, but in the 2400 km since then the car has averaged 18.9 km/l or 5.3 litres per 100 km or 44 miles per US gallon.

Keep in mind that most of our trips are to pick up or drop off a a family member at a station 3 km away, so most of our trips are no more than 6-7 km on a cold engine. Also, almost all our driving is urban, with plenty of traffic lights / stop and go traffic. If your average trip is longer or you drive more across country or if you live in an area that’s flatter than hilly Yokohama then you’d probably see even better fuel economy from this car.

Toyota Prius hybrid versus BMW diesel

The Sunday Times did a road test, driving a BMW 520d SE and a Toyota Prius from London to Geneva. The BMW used 49.3 litres of diesel, versus 51.6 litres of petrol (gasoline) used by the Prius.

While the BMW’s results are clearly respectable, the figures quoted in the Sunday Times article do not tell the whole story.

For a start, about 40% of the trip were on motorways, another 40% on B-roads and the rest in urban areas. A driving mix that includes only a token 20% of urban driving is hardly typical for usage patterns of most motorists in our largely urban / suburban societies (for example, 79% of the US population lives in urban areas, with most European countries having similar rates). This unusual mix seems almost purposely designed to ensure that the advantage of the hybrid drive train of the Prius would lie mostly idle: Driving at constant speed on a flat road, you are not going to see any real benefits from a hybrid system, which really thrives in stop-and-go rush hour traffic with lots of traffic lights, as most of us experience on the way to work or home.

Secondly, even with these skewed parameters, the BMW lost out on greenhouse gas emissions. It burnt 10.84 Imperial gallons (13 US gallons) of diesel, while the Prius used 11.34 Imperial gallons (13.6 US gallons) of gasoline. Because of diesel fuel’s 15% higher carbon content by volume, the BMW added 131 kg of CO2 to the atmosphere versus 120 kg by the Prius.

Personally, I see no reason why in the long-term efficient diesel engines can not be mated to a hybrid system and have the best of both worlds. Sure, it may not yet be cost-effective at current fuel prices, but things may look very different 10, 20 or 30 years down the road.