Cycling for Charity: What’s the Rumpus?
SNA (Tokyo) — Robert Williams joins WTR to discuss the activities of the Tokyo-based charity organization “Knights in White Lycra.”
Michael Penn: Welcome, to another episode of What’s the Rumpus? I’m your host, Michael Penn, and today I have a guest named Robert Williams. That is your name correct, yes?
Robert Williams: That is my name.
Michael Penn: So, why don’t you please tell us a little bit about yourself, and what it is that brings you to our show today.
Robert Williams: Well, I’m a long-term Tokyo resident of 19 years, Michael. I’ve got a wife, Japanese, with two children. My day job, so to speak, is a financial planner with a business that I own with two other partners. In addition to that I also do quite a lot of charity work through a sporting group that I founded six years ago.
Michael Penn: Alright, well I believe that we’re focusing on the charity work that you’re doing. I hear that you have one particularly big project. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that?
Robert Williams: Just to give you a bit of background, the Knights in White Lycra is what we’re called, or KiWL, for short, as most people call us. We started about six years ago, I was sitting in a pub in Roppongi with six other British men looking at our big bellies and wondering what on earth we were going to do to get fit. In addition to getting fit, we decided we’d do something good at the time as well because it was still soon after the tsunami. We decided to get on bicycles to get fit and cycle 300 kilometers up to Minami-Soma to give back and raise money for the survivors, particularly the children who were still in need of food and water at that time, believe it or not.
Michael Penn: Well a bicycle ride all the way to Minami-Soma though?
Robert Williams: It was only 330 kilometers.
Michael Penn: Is that all?
Robert Williams: We thought we’d extend it after the first year, make it 500, and it’s been 500 ever since, but it’s over four days.
Michael Penn: So where does it end up now, if it’s not Minami-Soma?
Robert Williams: Well for the last few years… Sorry, I should say after Minami-Soma it was to Minamisanriku, which was another town affected by the tsunami. We were helping the locals get back on their feet, helping them with the farming and raising money for them to do that. We did that for two years, and the last three years we’ve been riding to Ichinoseki, which is in Iwate, for a children’s charity that was focusing on abuse, neglected and orphaned children living in care. We would end up there and meet the kids in the care home for whom we were raising the money. Next year, we’ll be going slightly differently. We’ll be doing almost like a dogleg to Fukushima city from Takasaki, that’s also 500 kilometers, but it’s a new charity next year called You Me We. They also help abused, neglected children in care. It’s more an educational angle, helping them to learn IT skills like programming and coding which will give them things that they can use in adult life and hopefully get gainful employment.
Michael Penn: Well for all of us who were here on March 11, 2011, we all know exactly where we were, and now it’s very burned into our memory. How about yourself, where were you, what were you doing at that time?
Robert Williams: I was on the eighth floor of a rather old building at the time and there were nine floors on it, so I was getting whipped around like a rag doll and it was the longest two minutes of my life, I can assure you of that. I’m sure you felt the same depending on where you were, but, yes, it was scary. I never got up there in the immediate aftermath, unfortunately. I wish I had but we were able to help through this ride eventually. When we went to Minami-Soma and saw where they were living, the temporary accommodation, it was very sobering indeed.
Michael Penn: That does remind me, over the years you’ve been doing it, we always hear about the rebuilding of Tohoku and how this was supposed to be a national priority. Do you feel there’s been sufficient rebuilding or is it still flat and undeveloped? What’s your feeling about the progress of the restoration of the area?
Robert Williams: It’s rather more difficult for me to answer that these days because our ride doesn’t take us to the Tohoku coast, so we don’t actually see the development. A few years ago we rode through Sendai up on our way to Minamisanriku for two or three consecutive years and we did see development and redevelopment of those lands immediately by the coast, but to no great extent whatsoever. I would say Minamisanriku have made great efforts to rebuild the infrastructure, but I haven’t been up there recently so I can’t say for sure what it’s like these days.
Michael Penn: I see. And how exactly is the money raised? How does the money get generated from the bicycle ride?
Robert Williams: We have a lot of corporate sponsors that put their logos on our jersey so we have about forty-five riders and we have an official video made every year so there’s quite a good exposure for the sponsors. So we have a lot of companies sponsor our jersey, our shorts. Believe it or not, that’s the most popular one actually. I have a little anecdote about that the first time last year we had our shorts sponsored, and the company who sponsored it got business out of one of the riders on the ride, so it worked commercially as well as on a charity level.
Michael Penn: How many people are participating in these rides over the time that you’ve been doing it?
Robert Williams: That’s a good question, we started with ten, and then we went up to twenty, twenty-seven, forty-two, forty-five, and next year we expect forty-five again, so you do the maths. I think that’s well over a hundred.
Michael Penn: And what kind of reaction have you been getting from, like, say the local Japanese media up in the Tohoku area and from the people?
Robert Williams: Well, that’s a good question, actually. Most of our riders are actually foreigners, so the Japanese media haven’t really caught on to what we’re doing too much.
Michael Penn: I’m surprised.
Robert Williams: Well, we probably should be more proactive in telling them about what we do, but we haven’t wanted to draw too much attention to it. The reason for that is that if you’ve got forty-five cyclists on the road at the same time it’s probably illegal. So, we divide our cyclists into seven different groups of six to keep that there, but we don’t really want to attract too much attention to the police or anything like that.
Michael Penn: Have you thought about maybe getting political support from local leaders up there and have them back you?
Robert Williams: To be fair, we did when we rode to Minamisanriku. We had the mayor endorse our efforts and obviously praise us for what we did for the townsfolk, etc. When we go to Fukushima city next year maybe there’s an opportunity to do that with them too, but we haven’t approached that idea just yet.
Michael Penn: What is it like up there when you’re actually doing the cycling? Is it an enjoyable experience or is it kind of hard going?
Robert Williams: Well, it’s got to be hard going, Michael, because if people want to be sponsored by friends and colleagues then it’s got to be an endurance effort. It’s definitely not a cycling holiday, but we get to see the most fantastic scenery that maybe others wouldn’t see if they were in a car because they’re going up on the highway towards Tohoku. We go on the back roads, we go over mountains. We went over Mt. Bandai last year, and we saw the most amazing scenery… well… most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen in Japan. We’ll be repeating that next year because we’ll be going to the Sea of Japan next year on the coast, as well as inland in the mountains, so people will get the best of all worlds next year, I think.
Michael Penn: And have you had any problems, accidents, any, you know, interesting developments over these years?
Robert Williams: Most people have actually finished the ride, so I’m glad to say that they take it seriously. They train properly, they get ready, and apart from a couple of mechanical issues, most people have managed to make it. We have a couple of support trucks as well, so if someone literally runs out of steam they can get in the support truck, but not many people do that because they’ve trained to complete the whole thing. Last year we had a little accident; a fellow got clipped on the elbow by a wing mirror from an angry motorist in Fukushima who wanted to get home on a Friday afternoon. It was reported to the police. The police went right to see him, and he said, the police told us, he was too angry to talk. It didn’t go any further than that. Fortunately, the rider was okay. He finished the ride and he’s going to ride again next year, so it’s a bit like falling off a horse, get straight back on.
Michael Penn: Well, if people who are watching this say well, hey, this is cool I want to get involved in that, what would you say to them?
Robert Williams: Well, I would say first of all learn more about who we are, what we do, and why we do it. You can do that by going to the website which is kiwl.net and on there it’ll tell you exactly about what we do and why we do it. Also, we don’t just do cycling, we do other sporting events as well, so loads of people can get involved. We have futsal, golf, we also have quiz nights and social nights for those that just want to give back rather than get fit. So there’s lot of things for everyone to do, and the Imperial Palace walk is very popular too because anyone can do that from toddlers to grandmums. So that’s very positive too. From the cycling ride point of view, we will be actually closing applications in January because we get so oversubscribed we have to make a decision on who can go and who we’ll have to leave behind. So if you want to join next year’s ride, go to the website and apply as soon as you can, or contact us if you want an information pack which is also on the website to download.
Michael Penn: Personally, what has really moved you the most about this project?
Robert Williams: Good question, Michael. I think the most important thing for us and anyone taking part is the fact that they can meet the children for whom they’re raising funds at the end. The sense of personal accomplishment of having completed a 500 kilometer bike ride coupled with meeting those children who don’t deserve to be where they are… I mean, you know they just don’t deserve to be there… and the happiness we can give those kids just really, really resonates with everybody who does it. I should be clear that we are not the charity ourselves. All we do is raise the money and we choose the charity to donate that money to. That charity is the one that specializes in developing these children. It’s quite an emotional attachment, and that’s why we get so many people wanting to do it again and again and again.
Michael Penn: So let’s say somebody out there does not want to actually physically strain themselves to take the bike ride all those kilometers up to Tohoku, but they want to contribute in other ways, what would be the best means for them to do so?
Robert Williams: We do have inclined sponsors as well, so if any companies would like to donate energy bars or energy drinks to us that will be recognized obviously. That’s one way of doing it. We’d like an official photographer. We need support truck drivers, so there are crew requirements as well to support the riders of course. If you simply want to donate, you can sponsor an individual rider if you know them, or you can just make a donation direct to the charity. You Me We NPO has a GlobalGiving page, and on that page you’ll find our ride and you can donate very easily online through the GlobalGiving page for You, Me, We. Or, through the KiWL website, kiwl.net.
Michael Penn: Alright, and do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to give to our audience before we wrap up today?
Robert Williams: Yes, I would like to say that, you know, the Knights in White Lycra welcomes anybody of any age and any ability and any gender. The fact that we’re called Knights in White Lycra might only be relevant to people who know the song Knights in White Satin by the Moody Blues from the 1960s. The reason why we got the name is we were in a drunken karaoke session and that song came up and a name was born, that we thought we’d only ever use for one year, but we ended up doing six rides. So that’s where the name comes from, but it is for everyone and we’d love to have more women join us, and our age range is between 27 and 65, so don’t be scared. Give it a go. It does need training, you can’t do a 500 kilometers ride on a mama cherry. You’ve got to put some effort into it. The rewards at the end are very, very great for everybody, participants and the kids alike.
Michael Penn: Alright, well I think we can all agree that sounds like a very worthy cause, and I want to thank you for joining us today and telling us about it.
Robert Williams: Thank you very much, Michael.
Michael Penn: And thank you for joining another episode of What’s the Rumpus? This will probably be our last show of the year, we hope to pick it up again next year, but thank you for tuning in and see you later.
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