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Sunday, April 19, 2009

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Wheel time: Franz-Michael S. Mellbin, the Danish Ambassador to Japan, on one of his twice-weekly early-morning bicycle rides. "In Denmark," he says, "people would be probably more impressed if you say, `I bike 20 km to work every day' than to say, `I've got this nice Mercedes and I go to work in this every day.' " TOMOKO OTAKE

WEEK 3

Pedaling for the planet

Denmark's ambassador is flexing his diplomatic muscles for a cycling tour he's hosting in Japan to mark a climate-change meet back home


Staff writer

One recent early morning, Franz-Michael S. Mellbin, the Danish ambassador to Japan, was to be found preparing for an important diplomatic mission at a rather unlikely venue — on the Tama River cycling track just by the Futakobashi Bridge linking Tokyo's Setagaya Ward and Kawasaki.

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Trail talk: The Danish embassy's bikers confer by the Tama River. TOMOKO OTAKE

At 7 a.m. sharp on that beautifully sunny day, Ambassador Mellbin showed up on the Kawasaki side casually but neatly dressed in a white T-shirt, light beige cotton pants and red running shoes. He was maneuvering a fancy bike with a gleaming burgundy frame. Accompanying the ambassador was an entourage of three fellow cyclists from the embassy — a trio apparently just as fit, and certainly as fashionably kitted out in their bright red, sky blue or yellow sports jackets, matching gloves and tinted shades.

Clearly, this reporter, who had made an appointment to meet the ambassador there, was completely out of place. Not only was I wearing a decidedly un-sporty, bulky down coat, but I'd rolled up on a heavy, battery-powered mamachari (mommy's bike) borrowed from my mother-in-law — complete with shopping baskets fore and aft.

"Do you need those?" one of the embassy chaps asked me, extending a diplomatic digit in the direction of my off-white earmuffs.

The truth is, I knew I probably looked like a balloon on a tractor, but with the weather being so unpredictable at this time of year, I didn't want to catch a cold while pedaling all the way there from my home in central Tokyo — a trek that took more than an hour.

But my ungainly appearance didn't really matter at all, I reasoned to myself, because the purpose of my meeting with the ambassador that day was not to compare notes on cyclists' fashion trends or the geopolitical implications of Japan joining the eurozone, but to report on how he was preparing for the COP15 Cycling Tour he will host in nine cities across Japan from May 23-31.

During COP15 (which stands for Conference of Parties and refers to the 15th annual U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change), the ambassador will stage a cycling event of between 5 km and 50 km in each city, from Sapporo to Hiroshima to Kyoto to Miyazaki, to promote cycling as an environmentally friendly alternative to driving or using public transport.

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In tandem: Ambassador Mellbin and a colleague ride beside the Tama River. TOMOKO OTAKE

If all goes to plan, Ambassador Mellbin hopes to ride in each of the cities with a total of 10,000 local citizens, collecting their opinions on climate change along the way. He will then deliver this grassroots intelligence to the COP15 conference scheduled for December in his homeland's capital, Copenhagen.

So, with that cycling extravaganza drawing closer, the ambassador has been training strenuously for the last couple of months, committing himself to a 30-km morning bike ride with like-minded embassy colleagues twice a week. He usually leaves his official residence inside the embassy compound in Daikanyama, Tokyo, at about 6:20 a.m., and cycles for about 10 minutes to meet the others at the intersection of Kan-nana (Tokyo's No. 7 ring road) and Route 246 in Setagaya Ward at 6:30 a.m.

The pedaling posse then travels southwest on Route 246 to the Tama River, which they cross via the Futakobashi Bridge, taking them into Kawasaki. Next, they ride on the riverside cycling track downstream for about 4 km, to the Marukobashi Bridge leading them back into Tokyo en route to journey's end at their embassy.

Getting up early is certainly not easy, but it's worth the trouble, the ambassador said. And indeed, the morning ride along the Tama River was, as I found out, a pure delight. Though I often ride a bike around my home district, being out there at that time set me free from the usual noise pollution, constant near-misses involving people and cars, and rows of sterile concrete buildings.

From the virtually straight Tama River cycling track, you command great views of the river and its surroundings, including a golf course, baseball grounds and soccer pitches, all the while basking in the morning sunlight, the mild breeze — and, just then, enjoying the cherry blossom, too. Even the occasional bumps and jolts along the way — which made my bike's plastic shopping basket shake and rattle, but fortunately not roll off — didn't seem to matter.

But first things first: I had to get my facts right, so as we pedaled peacefully along I asked the ambassador, who was posted to Japan last September, how and when the idea of organizing a multicity cycling event came up.

"Actually, it was before I came to Japan," he said, stopping his bike under a beautiful cherry tree. "I started thinking about it because COP15 is such an important event for Denmark. . . . Then I came up with this idea, because in Denmark there is such a strong cycling culture."

But when and how did the northern European nation of just 5.4 million people become a cycling realm? Mellbin, a 50-year-old father of three, said that Danes didn't adopt cycling; it's just that they never gave it up.

"If you look back to 30 years ago, a lot of Japanese people used bikes," he said. "But in the late '60s and '70s, when you got much more money, you lost your bicycle culture because everybody went out and bought themselves a car. . . . I think the big difference between Denmark and a lot of other countries is that in Denmark, we kept on cycling."

He added that in Copenhagen, 30 percent of people cycle to work every day, and that when he worked at the foreign ministry there, he always went to work by bike as well — then changed into a business suit in the ministry's locker room especially created for cyclists.

The cycling movement also grew in Denmark in the '80s, he explained, as full-scale research on urban bicycling began. Then, in the '90s, bicycles were fully integrated into traffic planning in the Danish capital. Nowadays, the country as a whole has 3,000 km of dedicated bike lanes. In addition, many other components of bicycle infrastructure have been introduced, such as speed bumps and barriers that cyclists can ride between but which prevent cars from using the same road. People can also take their bikes onto trains in Copenhagen — a luxury that commuters on Tokyo's packed trains can only dream of.

That all sounds great, I thought, but why Denmark especially?

Mellbin explained that, over the years, Denmark has seen a growth in its grassroots cycling movement, with members campaigning to make roads safer for riders. Many of those pedal-power proponents, he said, have also joined the national bicycle association to support such bike-friendly policies and, in fact, membership of the association came to be a kind of status symbol among them.

Then he paused a moment before adding: "And then there were a lot of bicycle demonstrations."

Demonstrations?

"Yes, and some of them were fun, like naked people riding around. In fact, that's quite a new thing . . . we've seen naked cyclists for the last four or five years."

Well, I'm not sure if people in Japan would buy into that part of Danish cycling culture — even to help improve the environment. Nonetheless, Ambassador Mellbin said he is eagerly waiting for people here to sign up to the COP15 cycling events, which he said would be held come rain or shine.

"Of course in Denmark we bike all year round, in all kinds of weather," he said smiling, before heading back down the cycle track toward the bustling streets of Tokyo. "Children also bike to school every day, in all kinds of weather — and it's not because we (adults) are evil!" he declared with a laugh as he left on his healthy and wholesome way to work.

For more information about the COP15 cycling events, call the Japan Cycling Association at (03) 6229-2715 or the Danish Embassy at (03) 3496-3001, or visit www.cop15.jp

WEEK 3



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