Chikashi Miyamoto

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

Category: Belgium

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 

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.

 

Koppenberg, Grebneppok

As the Spring Classics are approaching, the mention of famous sectors become more frequent. Koppenberg is one such sector, and as it is a famous cobbled climb, the discussion is invariably about the challenges of ascending.

Climbing Koppenberg is hard work even on a clear, dry day, but descending a wet Koppenberg is one of the scariest things I’ve done on a road bike.

The Best Route in Belgium, La Philippe Gilbert 2014

The organisers of La Philippe Gilbert changed the route this year, and they did a fantastic job. The 150 km route is by far the prettiest route I’ve cycled in Belgium. It is the sort of route that makes one smile. It enables one to reaffirm why one enjoys road cycling. Of course, the glorious weather did help to bring out the charms of the route in full, but that was just the cherry on top. And, if you are a Phil fan, then the event is also a great way to meet the man himself and ride along with him… as long as you can keep up!

Red cow in Wallonia?

Vacche Rosse in Belgium?

Last year’s route poked into the Netherlands, but this year’s edition was entirely within Belgium. As beautiful as it is, it certainly wasn’t the easiest… Instead of Cauberg, Mur de Huy was included. It was my first time in Huy. When I was waiting for the green light at the foot of the Mur, I looked up at the climb and thought, ‘Oh dear.’ As I approached the first bend, I thought, ‘Are we there yet?’

When I went round the first bend and saw the Mur continue to soar into the sky, I thought, ‘Feck…’ When I went round the next bend, I thought, ‘Hucking Fell!’ My Garmin kept beeping to tell me that it went into Auto Pause, thinking I had come to a halt even though I was still grinding up the Mur. (I don’t remember the minimum speed at which the Auto Pause kicks in, but I obviously need to lower the setting…) My ride stats for whole route made me laugh: maximum speed of 80 kph and average speed of… 23 kph! Of the 14 climbs, 6 have maximum gradients of 15% or more.

There were quite a few Dutch participants. A pair of Dutch guys stopped to lend me a pair of tyre levers: I had a puncture only to realise that I had left my tyre levers at home. It seems that whenever I need roadside assistance, I get helped by a Dutch guy.

On La Redoute, the last climb of the day, a petite blonde stormed all the way up, overtaking everyone in sight. I had to go up to her after the ride to tell her how impressive she was, and I think she is Dutch as well.

If you think that you might possibly head to the Liège area with your bike, then grab the route details here. If you have a bike computer, then download the gpx file. The route is HIGHLY recommended.

Liège Bastogne… and another L

LBL 2014 morning

 

I had a feeling that I was being a tad ambitious today, thinking I might do the full 280 km of Liège Bastogne Liège. However, I thought that since this year marks the 100th anniversary of LBL, I might as well see how far I can go.

I did fine until the first feed stop at 48 km. After that it all went a bit south literally and figuratively. I was constantly feeling as though I was bonking. I kept eating, but there was no improvement. At 96 km, I stopped by the side of the road and swallowed a large salami sandwich I had in my jersey pocket. Dozens of participants cycled by, bemused by the sight of this guy eating a sandwich at a random spot… What concerned me more was that I was feeling light-headed. I have never experienced this before. However, it’s nothing a large martini can’t fix.

When I reached Bastogne, I decided to call it a day. I then pooled down to Libramont to get picked up.

It was my first day out wearing the De Pelgrim club livery, and this happens…

Hang on, it was still LBL after all, wasn’t it?

 

Menu for Tomorrow

Menu 26/04/2014

Distance from start (km).
Length of climb (m).
Average gradient (%).
Maximum gradient (%).

Funnily enough, the total distance of 280 km is longer than the pro version.

It seems like an awful lot to chew…

An Excellent Edition of Ronde van Vlaanderen Sportive

2014 Ronde van Vlaanderen sportive finish line
16,000 spots were sold out as expected, and unlike last year, we had glorious weather with the temperature reaching in the high teens. The wind was negligible, at less than 8 kph. I don’t think we could have hoped for a better condition. (Ruth, Tim, Luke, you chose the wrong year to skip the ride!)

Furthermore, my legs were feeling surprisingly strong. Going up some of the nastier climbs like Molenberg, Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, I even thought to myself that I had remembered them being much harder work. Even Paddestraat seemed smoother than usual. There was massive congestion on Koppenberg, making it look like central Mumbai during morning rush hour. Riders left and right were falling off their bikes, so I had to dismount and walk up the first half of the climb; I got back in the saddle the second half, and it seemed slightly easier than before. The congestion on Paterberg, the last climb of the day, was not as bad so I was able to ride up without incident.

The 134 km route was just perfect. Not too long, not too short. An excellent day out on the bike.

2014 Ronde van Vlaanderen

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