Chikashi Miyamoto

philosopher by training, gentleman by accident, pervert by nature, glutton by choice

Category: travel

Tea. Bicycle. An Unexpected Confluence. 

I enjoy tea. I am not an expert; I simply like the stuff. Not the ‘herbal’ varieties, but the Camellia sinensis varieties. Because coffee is so fashionable amongst cyclists of various stripes, I had not expected that the world of tea would overlap with the world of cycling, at least not in my sphere. Happily, it did, seemingly out of nowhere. 

I tend not to ‘talk shop’ with social contacts until I have developed some level of familiarity with that person. I cringe when I read or hear chatter about cycling being the new golf, for professional networking and advancement. I prefer to cycle with those that turn up because they want to go for a ride in the company of others, not for any motives unrelated to cycling, health or amusement. As such, I do not ask about someone’s trade until I feel I have become sufficiently familiar with that person. Of course, by that time, I tend to have picked up the information through normal chit chat within the group so I end up not needing to ask him or her what it might be.

Sometimes, such incidental discoveries take time. There’s a chap that rides regularly with a group that I occasionally join. He’s one of the group’s core members. I’ve been riding with them for a couple of years, but I only learned about his trade earlier this year. It so happens that he is a tea importer, with a family firm that got started in the 19th century.  

When you think of cycling, you think of coffee, not tea. Sometimes I get consumed by the most trivial discoveries in life.

There are tea importers and tea importers, and I didn’t know which one he is.

When spring was about to give way to summer, I was running low on tea supply at home. It was the time of year when spring harvest should be trickling into market. It seemed like a good time to suss him out.

Tea is a lot like wine in many ways. Climate and topography influence the flavour. Weather has a tremendous impact on the quality of the crop; the output varies from year to year. Each harvest, even with ideal weather, will have a range of quality. The crop must be picked and categorised with expert care. It must be steamed, fermented or both, to the right degree, not too little and not too much. The degree of care exercised by the producers depends partly on how discerning the market is.

There has been a steady decline in quality amongst many regions, even at renowned estates. If the weather does not co-operate, we don’t get good products no matter how good the producers are. However, there has clearly been some human contribution over the years. For example, it’s been quite a few years since the first flush from Darjeeling tasted like it should.

Surging demand from emerging markets brings buyers willing to pay any price for something, without understanding or caring about quality, because it’s ‘the thing to have’. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve seen that in wine, French in particular. The same has happened with tea. Producers get top money for mediocre output. So, why make the effort? I am guessing that the worst news to hit the Cuban cigar market is the US lifting the embargo. 

On a Sunday jolly in June, when we stopped for a nature break, I casually mentioned to him that it seems to be more and more difficult to find good Darjeeling these days. If he specialised in herbal and ‘detox’ nonsense and flavoured teas, he wouldn’t have anything substantive to say in reaction to my moaning. But he did. Pleasantly surprised, I was. Talking tea, on a bike, in Belgium.

Later I tell him that I’m in need of some tea. How is this year’s Gyokuro? He tells me Yame had a good crop and that he has some. I was stunned that he had any Gyokuro on hand.

I tell him that I’m also in the market for some white tea from southern China, expecting him to say he has no such thing on hand. He says he has some Yin Zhen. I thought, ‘Wot? You have Yin Zhen? You’re joking…’

And, any decent Darjeeling first flush, either SFTGFOP or FTGFOP grade? He tells me that he has a really nice batch from Tumsong. Tumsong was not familiar to me, and my ignorance had me feeling a bit suspicious. And then he proceeds to tell me that it’s a real, old guard production, what you expect a first flush to be like, from a small estate. OK, you got my attention…

 

He gave me a sample packet of Tumsong, and back at home I found that he was spot on. Darjeeling first flush as you would expect. Except it’s hardly ever available these days. It reminds me a bit of Castleton and a bit of Namring Upper when they were still producing excellent first flush many years ago. Marvellous. In this day and age, it seems even majestic.

Come autumn, I’m curious about the summer harvest, so I asked him how the second flush from Darjeeling turned out. ‘Too much rain, not enough wind, low grade crop. But I can still give you some if you want.’ OK, no second flush this year then.

Does he still have a kilo of Tumsong first flush to spare? Yes, he does. Fabulous.

Tea, cycling. Still surprised by the happy confluence…

Serving notes:

Gyokuro: 10g for every 60ml of spring water, steeped at 60°C, for 2.5 minutes 

Yin Zhen: 5g for every 200ml of spring water, steeped at 80°C, for 2-4 minutes 

Darjeeling first flush: 3.5g for every 200ml of spring water, steeped at 95°C, for 3 minutes 

A Perennial Challenge in Retail, Part 2

In the 1970s, a woman and her partner opened a Louis Vuitton Malletier franchise boutique in Munich and introduced the brand to Germany when LV was still owned and managed by the Vuitton family. Unsurprisingly, she still has several LV pieces from the 70s, one of which is a well-used Keepall bag.

Several years ago in the south of France, decades after her affiliation with LV had become a distant memory, she visited a Louis Vuitton boutique, owned and operated by LV, now a subsidiary of LVMH Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton, to have a repair job done on the Keepall.

After listening to her requirement, the LV sales associate took a quick glance at the bag and pronounced that it is fake.

Priceless.

Now, imagine if that sales associate told the same thing to someone who doesn’t really know the origin of the bag because it was a present from a thoughtful and generous person, or, so awkward to mention in this age of throwaway culture, it was handed down from a previous generation.

What can one say after receiving a divine revelation like that? My experience at Bottega Veneta in Paris was, I must say, a lot more subtle, if that’s the appropriate word.

With 1 1/2 times as many shops as Ikea, it’s no small undertaking for LV to train and manage all the front-of-house staff in all those retail locations. And, by training, I don’t mean just product knowledge but also conduct.

I know, it’s hard.

What bemuses me is the current trend (more like a mad rush) amongst product brands to have an army of ‘brand ambassadors’. They hand out products to these ‘ambassadors’ so that they can be seen in the wild and on social media using their products. The tactic itself has been used for ages, even before the advent of the Internet, but the practice of giving these people a formal designation is, I believe, a more recent phenomenon.

Some are famous people. Some are ordinary people.

With due respect to these people and without undermining the contribution that some are making in increasing awareness of the respective brands, none are ambassadors of the brand.

The real ambassadors, or rather, the people who should be the real ambassadors, are the brand’s members of staff, particularly those that come in direct contact with existing and potential end users and influence how they form a view about their relationship with the brand. That is not a revolutionary or innovative concept. Rather, it’s a very old one that has not lost one bit of its relevance.

However, it can be difficult to remember the important things when there is so much focus on gimmicks, buzz words, page views and likes.

Or, call me a dinosaur.

Travelling with a Bicycle, Evoc Bike Travel Bag

If you have travelled with your bike by air or rail, you would have gained a bit of perspective on the importance of having a good bike bag. My first couple of trips were with a cheap bike bag. I did not find them to be very good even though there are plenty of people who seem happy with these basic bags, which are essentially oversized  duffle bags. Then, I got one from Evoc a few years ago, and I am well pleased with it. I have a friend who has had an Evoc bike bag for much longer than me and used it more times than I have. He is well pleased too.

Eurostar recently changed their bike carrying policy and attracted more than a few comments from cyclists from both sides of the Channel. What was great about their previous service is that you could board with your bike without having the bike packed: just roll in, and roll out. For a price, of course, but for the convenience of arriving at the other end, say, St Pancras and be able to pedal off to your final destination, it was worth the premium. Now, all bikes must be in a bike bag or box. Your packed bike gets placed in a dedicated carriage, and you are charged a fee for it.

I can appreciate the thinking behind the change. Eurostar must have seen an increase in travellers with bikes. The old policy made it possible to accommodate only a few bikes on each train. In order to increase capacity, they had to figure out a way to use the same space more efficiently. However, what they could have done is to offer two levels of bike transport options: the standard one being the packed option and the premium one being the unpacked roll-on-roll-off option. There should be a premium for convenience, and I would be happy to pay a reasonable premium for the convenience of rolling on and rolling off. If not all premium spots are taken, then the space can be used to accommodate more packed bikes if required.

As for the standard service, there may be a question as to whether there should be a fee at all. Many airlines charge a fee for bikes, but train services tend not to charge for packed bikes. For example, it is free to bring a packed bike on board the TGV (or the Thalys). However, there is a slight difference.

When you board a Eurostar, you check in your bike at a desk dedicated to oversized luggage. The bikes are put on a separate carriage in contrast to your other bulkier luggage that are meant to be left on the luggage rack at the end of your carriage. When you reach your destination, you have to collect it from the specified area. It all seems like more hassle for you and for Eurostar, for no good reason. However, I do concede that extra-Schengen travel can require additional protocols, particularly with the UK having a history of being a high value target for terrorists, combined with the different types of risks arising from the train travelling underground.

In contrast, when boarding a TGV, you can pop your packed bike on the luggage rack at the end of your carriage. No special procedure or extra fee. It seems more convenient, more reasonable. However, there is a little snag: the permitted maximum length of the bike bag / box is 120 cm.

At 136 cm, my Evoc bike travel bag is 16 cm (about half a foot) over the official limit.

From the compliance standpoint, I have not come across anyone checking the measurements before boarding or during the journey. Actually, I don’t even know what would be the consequence of being found out that the bike bag exceeds the maximum dimensions.

On the practical side, the rule does make sense, given the depth of the luggage racks. The Evoc sticks out from the rack to the isle by more than 10 cm. It’s enough to get in the way of people passing through, which means that it is at risk of causing them harm. Conversely, they can potentially cause damage to your bike. The longer the train ride, and the more people there are on board, the risk level increases. For this reason, I was not entirely comfortable on the relatively long TGV ride from Paris to Turin a few years ago.

I suppose that I could have used a service like Sendmybag.com, but I think that would be my last resort in most cases.

What I would prefer is that Evoc introduce a bag that is 120 cm long. I would guess that there would be a limit to the maximum frame size that it can accommodate, so the commercial viability may be influenced by the limitation. However, I think that the desired solution clearly addresses a real, existing problem, so I would hope that there is enough reason to at least consider the potential market opportunity, before someone else does.

Crab Cake Eggs Benedict at Tiffany’s

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, Audrey Hepburn, 1961

You would think that every adult has seen this classic film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, starring a spectacularly famous actress. OK, maybe not, but if one is remotely interested in the jewellers Tiffany & Co., then you would think that one may have at least seen the film out of curiosity even if one is not much of a film fan or care about one of the greatest beauties that ever lived. (Or, have read Truman Capote’s book of the same title…)

You would be wrong. Very wrong.

When I was based in New York in the 1990s, every day there was at least one visitor to 727 Fifth Avenue that asked where the restaurant is. Every day, a member of staff politely answered THAT question. They tend not to be visitors from abroad even though there are many international tourists that shop at Tiffany. I am guessing that the situation has not changed after all these years.

I think a reasonable hypothesis is that those who set foot in Tiffany’s Fifth Avenue home in the hopes of eating something have heard of the film title but have never actually seen the film.

If you are one of them, here’s a pro tip: Tiffany does not have a restaurant. And, I’ll save you the trouble of seeing the rather wonderful film. Here’s the spoiler: Holly Golightly, the character played by Audrey Hepburn in the film, has a pastry and coffee OUTSIDE the store, on the sidewalk, as she gazes at the jewellery displayed in the exterior display windows very early in the morning as she makes her way back to her apartment from a night of parties. If you like, you can do that too, dressed in an Hubert de Givenchy dress. However, remember to consume your food and beverage outside the store, not in the store.

I once overheard a visitor posing THAT question to one of the security officers, and upon hearing the reply, she said:

‘Oh…  Are you sure?

I had to turn away in the hopes that she would not see me shaking violently in a futile effort to suppress my laughter.

Please spread the word. You might be doing someone a favour, particularly since many will be visiting New York between Thanksgiving and Christmas to shop.

Feel Safer?

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Antwerp Diamond District bombing, 1981, image via Gazette van Antwerpen

I had a flatmate at university who was a year above me. A very nice chap. A superb mathematician with a heart of gold. In other words, I have no idea how he ended up being our flatmate. After completing his undergraduate degree, he moved from our rather sheltered environment atop College Hill in Providence to Manhattan in pursuit of a doctorate.

He found himself an apartment in the Lower East Side, in Alphabet City. The area has become rather fashionable in recent years, but in the 80s, it was still a pretty rough neighbourhood. Heading into, and returning from, the neighbourhood to go clubbing at places like Cave Canem in the small hours was taking a calculated risk (or done drunk, high or most likely both). We were all a bit bemused that a bookish guy with a relatively limited exposure to the grittier, seedier side of life moved into a neighbourhood like that. A couple of months after the move, we asked him how he was finding his new ‘hood, and he told us that he felt very safe because there was an NYPD cruiser patrolling his block about once every half hour. It was the most adorable reply anyone could have given, but we explained to him the likely reason for the high police visibility. Nonetheless, he felt safe.

My current office is located on a street where a car bomb killed 3 people and injured 106 people in 1981. It has since been under 24-hour police protection, with countless surveillance cameras and elevated pillars blocking cars from entering the area. The police, armed with automatic weapon, are stationed at the end of the street, housed inside a bullet-proof enclosure. Cars are not allowed to enter without a permit which is granted only through a strict diligence process. Courier vans, such as DHL and FedEx, are not allowed in; they must park their vans outside the protected area and carry the parcels in or out by foot. Until recently, the waste bins on the street were of Israeli design that could withstand a detonation of a bundle of dynamite, the idea being that if a bomb were to be found, one can toss the bomb in the bin and let it detonate with minimal casualties. In other words, it’s the sort of environment that can make the outrage about the US National Security Agency’s indiscretions seem a bit quaint.

Then, since the start of this year, security in the area was stepped up a few notches, with the Belgian government making the highly unusual move of deploying the military within her own borders. Para-commandos armed with automatic weapons on foot patrol became part of the landscape.

belgian para commandos

image by Virginia Mayo via AP Images

It was supposed to be a temporary measure lasting only a month, but 11 months on they are still on patrol duty. The upgrading of the security risk level back in January has obviously not been reversed.

And, then the Paris attacks happened with key involvement of those based in Brussels.

As has been mentioned in the media recently, Brussels is a black hole when it comes to law enforcement, intelligence gathering and administrative co-ordination. If something were to come this way from Brussels, it seems reasonable to expect that any information coming from Brussels will be too late to be of any value for Antwerp. I should think that the soldiers will be here for a little while longer.

Do I feel safer? Perhaps it’s the wrong question.

 

Lest We Forget that Cycling Wasn’t Always the Same

I returned to Gaiole in Chianti earlier this month for my third Eroica jaunt. It was a wet one, but like the previous outings, it was delightful on so many levels. On the other hand, it is always a humbling experience. The strade bianche are not for the sensitive cyclist. To ride it on a century-old fixed gear rig takes things to an entirely different level. It’s hardly the same sport.

I said ‘Ciao, Luciano!’ to Luciano Berruti, the Eroica poster boy, as we overtook him on one of the hills. He was riding the same event, but I know that the 72-year old on a rusty, ancient rig wasn’t actually riding the same route as me riding an 80s Eddy Merckx equipped with a 5-speed transmission the size of a luncheon plate. To him, the distance and the gradients meant something completely different.

Today, we ride lightweight bikes equipped with a freewheeling 11-speed transmission. And, we continuously fuss about this stiffness, that stiffness, rotational weight, power output, aerodynamics, etc, etc. Also, outside of the velodromes, we have come to associate fixed gear bikes with a certain urban subculture. Outside of English-speaking countries, all single speed road bikes tend to be called fixies regardless of actually being equipped with a fixed gear or a single speed freewheel. ‘Fixie’ has a certain perception attached to it.

It’s an image that is so far apart from the hard men of decades past, racing through white roads in the Tuscan hills or through the Alps, the Pyrenees and other mountain ranges across Europe. No smooth tarmac. No shifters. No freewheeling. Just one gear.

The men and women who earn their living as bike couriers in San Francisco… I don’t know how they do it on fixed gear every day. Seeing them going up to Telegraph Hill made me doubt my own eyes. It’s even more difficult to imagine how they descend a 31.5% gradient without brakes on the way back…

Thierry Saint-Léger did Evian-Nice in June on a fixed gear bike, assisted but non-stop. He actually used 2 bikes with different gearing: one for climbing and another for descending, but both fixed. 57-year old. A hard man.

It’s humbling to see these hard men and women. They put things in perspective.

Thanks, But No Thanks, Paris

paris velo festivalI received an email a couple of weeks ago, announcing a closed road criterium in central Paris. Initially, I thought, ‘That could be fun, and a nice way to spend a Sunday morning and close out the season.’

The highlight for me is the chance to ride through the cobbled Place de la Concorde without worrying about being bumped by a motorist. So, I’ve been mulling a weekend trip to the City of Light. Then, the details of the event just sunk in.

Up to 3000 participants on a 65 km route. That’s plenty of people, if they fill all the spots, but that’s not a problem per se. If it were an A-to-B or a simple loop, then I think it’s fine. However, it’s 5 laps of 13 km. I appreciate the commercial imperative of the organisers, but I think that’s an unreasonable number of diverse participants doing laps.

The parcours is not technical and goes through wide roads, but there are a couple of choke points near Pont d’Iéna where it’s easy to imagine a pile-up with a bunch of limbs flying in various directions. With the whole thing being 65 km, I can imagine plenty of participants going full gas for the most part, if not from start to finish.

As for the start, I wonder if it’s going to be a mass start or a staggered one. A mass start for a timed event involving 3000 participants seems like asking for trouble. If it’s going to be staggered, I should think that it will be done by age group because there is no qualification process. The merits (or lack thereof) of age classification aside, I am guessing that by the time the last group rolls off, the faster lot from the first couple of groups will come bombing back to the start area already, given that the lap is only 13 km long. A disaster waiting to happen?

I hope that my concerns are completely unfounded and that everyone will enjoy themselves without getting hurt. A Parisian crit is a lovely concept and a wonderful initiative, but I think I’ll pass on this one.

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