Chikashi Miyamoto

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

Category: France

Feel Safer?


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.

Raid Pyrénéen, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean (A2M)

We pedalled off from Hendaye on 17 September and safely arrived in Cerbère a little less than 100 hours later at around mid-day on 21 September. According to Garmin / Strava, we cycled 717.8 km and climbed 12,300 m, a hair less than the 720 km and a bit more than the 11,000 m that was anticipated.

Raid Pyrénéen, Hendaye beachOn a cloudy morning, we went to the Atlantic coast in Hendaye to mark our ceremonial start of the Raid Pyrénéen.

2 of our team of 21 had cycled in the Pyrenees previously in soaking wet conditions. More than half the Youtube videos of the Raid completed by other people showed rain, rain and more rain. Therefore, we were expecting to encounter rain, and there was much banter (and stress) about being suitably equipped. We were checking the weather forecast regularly only to find out that it changed significantly every 12 hours, not that we were surprised, given that the region does have a reputation for changeable weather.

MendiondeThe dark clouds were threatening to rain all day the first day, but we actually ended up with only a few spots of drizzle. The 150 km and 2,400 m elevation gain was done before the clouds made good on their threat. All the pre-ride banter about having the right sort of brake pads probably kept the rain away, just as carrying an umbrella in anticipation of rain somehow does not lead to actually having to unfurl it.

In fact, we were so lucky that the following 4 days were sunny, with the notable exception of a very thick fog at the summit of Col du Tourmalet.

Day 2 was anticipated as being our ‘Queen Stage’ with Col d’Aubisque and Col du Tourmalet on the menu, otherwise known as one half of the Circle of Death.

Col d'AubisqueGiven that this is a relatively wet region, the scenery is quite green. ‘Beautiful’ doesn’t quite do justice. But then again, things do look a lot nicer when the sun is out…

Col d'AubisqueTo be perfectly honest, climbing Aubisque was enough work.

In reality, it was meant only as a warm-up before a hop over Soulor and climbing Tourmalet.

Col du SoulorCol du SoulorCol du SoulorWhen we started climbing Tourmalet, we already knew that we were very unlikely to arrive in time for our lunch booking, 15:30 at the summit.

Col du TourmaletThe road just went up and up…

Col du Tourmalet… into the thickening fog. We had been warned that the restaurant will shut at 17:00. And I think I rolled in at about 10 past 5. The staff were kind enough to stay and continue serving food for those that were trickling in, with the last one entering the restaurant at around 18:00, perhaps a little later. If it had been in the rain, I’m certain that I would have been in tears.

Col du Tourmalet

The Fluorescent Duo lighting up a foggy mountain

The restaurant somehow did not get the message about dietary requirements for a couple of our team members. As they were both for medical reasons, it was not an ideal situation after a long, hard slog. I’m not sure how I would have reacted had I been in their shoes. Solutions were improvised, but the whole drama was avoidable.

We started to refer to lunch bookings on subsequent days as first dinners…

The first half of the descent from Tourmalet was so cold that both Jonah and I stopped to check if our headsets were loose, only to find out that we, not our respective handlebars, were the ones shaking violently. A sense of relief following the realisation that it wasn’t a mechanical problem betrays a somewhat warped sense of priorities…

Col d'AspinBased in an area as flat as a pancake, I always take about 3 days to find my rhythm in the mountains. I was forced to arrive in Hendaye a day early because of limited flight availability, which actually gave me the opportunity to go for a leg-loosening ride to San Sebastián with Jonah and Mark D a day before the show officially started. Consequently, I found my rhythm on Day 3 rather than Day 4. I was pleased to find myself in my own little equilibrium of sorts climbing Col d’Aspin first thing in the morning.

Col du PeyresourdeI don’t pretend to have found Col du Peyresourde effortless, but I was enjoying it in the sense that I didn’t keep wondering whether the summit was around the next bend. I just pedalled and took in the landscape.

This way to Germ, Col du Peyresourde

Before I left home, I did wonder whether I should wash my leather gloves and decided that they weren’t soiled enough to warrant a wash.

Which, of course, was a mistake.

At this point, they were so malodorous from all my perspiration that they could easily be considered a biohazard. I simply couldn’t wear them any more until I got home and washed them thoroughly…

Col de Portet d'AspetThe small beast that turned out to be a monster climb that day was Col de Portet d’Aspet. Two of our guys had climbed it previously, also from the west, but somehow neglected to mention what a monster it is. Only 4.4 km in length. but the gradient tops out at 17.5%, with an average of 9.8%. Everyone thought that the road sign at the start of the climb announced the average gradient being 4.8%, so to say that we were astonished to face the actual gradient is an understatement. We all moaned about the grossly inaccurate information given on the said sign, but with the benefit of hindsight, I think the sign probably did say 9.8%, but we all tricked ourselves into reading 4.8% as 9 and 4 do look very similar depending on the typeface. Wishful thinking at its worst. [Update: Alistair provided photographic evidence that the sign said 9.7%.]

As we climbed past the memorial for the late pro cyclist and olympian Fabio Casartelli, who crashed and died descending the west side, I noted that the local authorities have no clue about road safety as the tarmac in the area was full of loose gravel. A future accident waiting to happen on a fast descent. If you climb the east side and plan to descend the west side, take extra care when descending or better yet, consider reversing your itinerary.

Col de Portet d'AspetPortet d’Aspet is tough but it is a very pretty climb. Well worth riding up if you’re heading to the area. Some pundits have rated it as the toughest climb in the Pyrenees, but I’ll leave that subject matter for a future blog.

Col de Portet d'AspetRegardless, it is definitely one of those climbs that separate the men from the boys, as far as climbing is concerned. Here’s Briggs smashing it out of the saddle in a bid to bridge the gap with JT, whilst I’m just taking photos because I already know my place in these matters.

Col de Portet d'Aspet profile

plenty of orange and red bits…

After the feed stop atop Portet d’Aspet, it was off to lunch at Saint Girons 31 km away. Fuelled by 2 little packets of French supermarket crisps, I bombed down the last 25 km of flat roads to record the fastest speed amongst the group. It could have happened only on the flat bit, couldn’t it.

Col de PuymorensI was too distracted by the total distance (180+ km) and total ascent (3400+ m) for Day 4 that I didn’t really register the actual route profile. I did absorb the fact that the day will end with a 35 km descent, but that only got my mind to focus on the fact that all the climbing will be squeezed into the first 145 km. The important bit that didn’t sink in whilst staring at the route profile is that after descending from Col de Port, it is basically a 52 km climb to the summit of Col de Puymorens. If you try to look up Puymorens’s profile on the web, various sites tend to describe the distance in the single digit. Whatever the logic is, we didn’t see it on the ground. It’s not steep by any standard, but the 52 kilometres of a single climb can do your head in. I was seeing a flock of winged pizzas floating past my face in the last couple of kilometres despite being accompanied by Dennis and Bruton. I strongly suggest you ride in the company of others in order to remain lucid. I probably would have cracked had I been alone on this stretch.

Banyuls sur MerBanyuls sur MerDay 5 was a relaxed 90 km with a few bumps along the way. (‘It’s all downhill from here.’ Of course, it wasn’t.) The landscape evolved to a more arid one as we approached the Mediterranean. The approach to Cerbère had a certain ceremonial air about it, now that we had climbed all the major mountains in the preceding days.

Cerbère, Raid Pyrénéen done!We safely arrived at the beach in Cerbère to dip our toes in the Med to mark the completion of the Raid Pyrénéen. Several guys commented that this was the hardest route we’ve done so far. It certainly was hard work, and the numbers do support the view that it was the hardest. For me, the pain tends to be compensated signifcantly by the company of these boys wearing skin-tight clothes that push the boundaries of decency, so the Raid might have been the hardest so far in objective terms, but the first things that I recall are not numbers.

Each of us had to deal with our respective struggles during the Raid, and everyone deserves to be congratulated for their efforts and accomplishments. That said, here are my picks of worthy mentions.

IMG_3670Curtis had never cycled in the mountains before this trip. He could not have known what to expect or how to manage both his legs and his mind on a ride like this. But he completed it in style.

3 of our guys never saw their own bikes on this ride, courtesy of bungling British Airways / Iberia. JT was one of them. He had packed all his kit, save his cycling shoes, in the bike box. Consequently, everyday he wore the same Timothy Everest-designed team kit that we all received upon arrival in Hendaye. After each long day, he did laundry for the next day. (Well, I think he did.) The icing on the cake was that his rental bike, despite having some flash features like a Di2 groupset, had a tiny cassette. Luckily, it was equipped with a compact chainset, but I suspect the largest rear sprocket was a 25. JT was wise enough not to count the teeth on it for fear of the number messing with his head. But it looked a lot like 25… With that sort of gearing, there is no going slowly on an ascent as you would simply come to a halt and keel over. He said that he almost did on a couple of spots going up Portet d’Aspet, but the fact is that he didn’t. Chapeau.

I’ve said this before, but Nick is the fittest sexagenarian I know. I really don’t know how he does it. I can’t even hold his wheel for more than a few minutes. I’m really impressed every time I see him riding. Humility and the ability to leave you in the dust seem incongruent, but here they come in a single package. A role model.

The dinner on Day 3 claimed 3 food poisoning victims: Hoppo, Boothie and Drew. (Things do seem to come in 3s…) On the night that Japan collected South Africa’s scalp in rugby (which caused our 2 South African riders to get their bib shorts in a knot), the red wine they served us smelled like fertilisers as if it were the elixir of cow dung or a liquified form of some offensive soft cheese, but it seems that the wine was the least of the problems. Hoppo had it worst and was not able to get back in the saddle for the remainder of the trip. Dennis and I, it seems, got off easy: we were farting all day long on Day 4. Just wouldn’t stop, couldn’t stop.

Hoppo is also amongst the three who never saw their bikes arrive. He was on the phone every evening with the paper pushers at Iberia to sort out the missing bikes — I don’t even want to know what his mobile phone bill will be like. The two worst things that happened on this trip happened to him.

IMG_3666Many, many thanks go to Charlie for initiating and organising this trip. It is an enormously time consuming effort on behalf of all fundraisers and other participants. The trip would not have materialised if it weren’t for our captain.

I am also very grateful to the Classic Tours team. It is always a pleasure to be accompanied by Gideon, Pete and Julian, and to meet Serge for the first time.

IMG_3669Every trip like this needs at least one resident jester to keep things in perspective, lest we come to take ourselves too seriously, become supercharged with testosterone. James wasn’t the only one (we were blessed with a few, including the ever-reliable Bruton), but he posited the best question on this trip. He wondered aloud whilst climbing one of the cols, ‘These cows have all this mountain, so why do they have to shit all over the road?’ Someone else answered, ‘Because they can.’

Why do we expend so much effort climbing mountain passes on a non-motorised bike? Because we can.

Please sponsor me if you can. By sponsoring me, you provide food directly to Nepal’s earthquake victims. Please click the link below.
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A Few Numbers


I am off to the Pyrenées today for the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Cycling Challenge in support of Akshaya Patra’s Nepal Earthquake Fund. Here are a few relevant numbers:

  • I will be riding 720 km and climbing 11000 m, over 5 days starting 17 September.
  • For every £15 donated, 100 meals will be provided to earthquake survivors.
  • £150 provides 1,000 meals.
  • £1,500 provides 10,000 meals.
  • £15,000 provides 100,000 meals, the daily capacity of the kitchen.

By sponsoring me, you can provide food directly to Nepal’s earthquake victims. Please click the link below.
JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

Raid Pyrenéen Day 5 Preview

Day 5 route:

On the menu:

Col Saint Pierre, elevation 185 m

Col de Ternére, elevation 200 m

day 5 elevation_profile

The day’s summary:

Total distance: 88 km

Total ascent: 834 m

Total descent: 1173 m

Fresh cooked food distributed in the evening at a camp in Bode, Nepal

Fresh cooked food distributed in the evening at a camp in Bode, Nepal

By sponsoring me, you can provide food directly to Nepal’s earthquake victims. Please click the link below.
JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

Raid Pyrenéen Day 4 Preview

Day 4 route:

On the menu:

Col de Puymorens, elevation 1920 m

Coll de Llus, elevation 1345 m

Coll Rigat, elevation 1488 m

Col de la Perche, elevation 1570 m

day 4 elevation_profile

The day’s summary:

Total distance: 180 km

Total ascent: 3470 m

Total descent: 3636 m

Cooked food being unloaded from the cauldrons at the Akshaya Patra kitchen

Cooked food being unloaded from the cauldrons at the Akshaya Patra kitchen

By sponsoring me, you can provide food directly to Nepal’s earthquake victims. Please click the link below.
JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

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