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A letter from SENDAI

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A letter from SENDAI

Old 05-05-11, 06:17 AM
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A letter from SENDAI

I am not sure how many of you are on the mailing list for him but I got an update about our friend from Sendai. it is long and I have not read the whole thing yet. here it is as emailed to me.


We returned to Sendai on the 29th. The weather is a lot different than during the snowy evening when we boarded an Australian evacuation bus, March 17th. In retrospect, given that we had a choice unlike a million or so others, leaving was a prudent thing to do. Down south in Daiichi Fukushima, a storage tank had leaked out its coolant. Spent fuel rods were exposed to atmosphere and were ready to combust. Reputable experts around the world were profoundly shocked over this and other alarming situations in the plant.

I returned because I work here for our family income. We own a house here that cannot just be abandoned unless the risks and the facts rule it out as foolish. Many colleagues have either returned or remained here for the same reason. All things considered, it seemed reasonable to return to work in Sendai. Soemtimes my confidence profoundly wavers. It all depends on whom I read or listen to.

I brought my family back with me after a very intensive canvassing for facts — after a very careful assessment of the nuclear situation as it relates specifically to Sendai*. After a very long journey by trains, planes and automobiles, we set ourselves down in our home. Were were exhausted and grumpy. We were sad despite the end of living out of a suitcase for almost six weeks. Canada had been marvelous, and we had been in the embrace of relatives and caring friends. Our return was like parachuting onto a field long since abandoned. We landed and began threading our way back to domestic life. Five days have whizzed by. We have encountered friends and neighbours who we had left behind. They have borne up under stresses that we were spared.

A couple of days after our departure, a good friend made his way up the west coast of Japan and thence eastwards to Sendai. His mission: to rescue his wife stranded in a village up North, and to take some supplies to people relatives there. Fortunately, our little car had a good part of a full tank, and his efforts where a complete success despite the broken roads. I was in contact with him via cell phone. He said, “Everyone I talk to up there (Sendai) seems dazed or shell-shocked.” Some were affected more than others. Some will admit that they still do not sleep properly. The incident now referred to as ‘the other earthquake’ further unnerved everyone here.

It is very difficult to know exactly what is and what isn't. Just look at the pic attached*. I have not been to Sendai Port. So I don't know what is happening there. The city is back on its feet, but the question remains … just how much? Our house is very close to a major JR East freight yard. I should just be able to hear shunting trains. There is an ambient noise floor as the facility works throughout the night. The yard seems too quiet. Normally you can just feel slight vibrations under your futon. The apparent implications raise larger questions for a city that besides being a major education center is also a rail head and a port of historical significance to the Tohoku region.

In the weeks ahead, I expect to hear countless stories quietly told and often too sadly remembered. A student wrote to me weeks ago. She told me that all her friends were dead. She lived in Natori. She wrote yesterday to say that her family is moving to the sight of another nightmare — Iwanuma — because " ... my house was floated away". She is a vivacious, gutsy young woman of nineteen who promises to fight for lost friends, by which she means she will honour the lives of those who she went to school with since childhood. These youngsters must have been home for the spring break … perhaps home after a freshman year at university or college. They were swept away.

Inevitably there are happier stories. A teacher who lives in northern Sendai wrote to me with a gripping account that held me in breathless dread until I read the outcome. She was at home during the roar and fierce shaking. She remained calm throughout, until she remembered that her son was visiting a facility in Sendai Port. As the tsunami was on its way, the alerts were sounding all over the harbour. Suddenly there was a frenzy inside buildings and out in the streets. The young man dashed to his car and just barely outpaced the malestrom .

I have not been on the coast since March 12th, and I've not seen Iwanuma. But, a woman barber who cut my hair the other day lives there. She said the the people who live in refuge centers are getting three hot meals a day. But, she said that in her home town up north, refugees are receiving only stale, cold rice balls [onigiri]. They are without heat during the still chilly nights. If this remains true, it is absolutely scandalous in my opinion. In addition to the deprivation, she says that the people still suffer from acute stress and cannot sleep properly. I heard some helicopter activity today including the wacking great wallop from twin rotor CH-135 Chinook transports. Hopefully there is more help on the way.

It is difficult to grasp the vast disparities that most certainly exist. A few kilometres away, and all up and down the coast, hundreds of thousands of people have completely shattered lives while at the same time a city of a million people are resuming something close to normalcy.The gas and electric power has been back on in Sendai for some weeks. It must have been an intense process. We called the gas company the day after our return. A man came out early in the morning to restart our supply. The luxury of the Japanese bath is truly a national preoccupation, but the modern version depends on gas supply, as do our cooking ranges. Roads have been repaired, if not immaculately, at least to a tolerable function. I don't know about the bridges — the one on the Natori river near Arahama for example. At Tohoku Gakuin University's Izumi campus (where I have some of my teaching contracts) they were still working on getting water back in service before our return. An informant has told me that some spaces and facilities may not be available when the campus reopens in a few days.

Not all areas of Sendai fared the same — the coastal bits not withstanding because of course they were for the most part utterly destroyed by the tsunami. In some places, some houses were badly damaged and have to be extensively repaired or written off. This includes newer buildings. They are in areas that are adjacent to either seismic fault lines or unstable earth that either moved or went into liquefaction. A friend's gorgeous new house north west of us in a new area has tilted. The last time I exchanged mails with him, it was not known if they could save it.

There are new housing estates in areas of Sendai that a even a few years ago were forest with no historical record of occupation. No one really knows what is going to happen in these places during catastrophic events like 3-11. The city produces a 'hazard map' that exists to inform citizens of the predictable risks based on known facts about each area. This includes both flooding and seismic stability. My wife studied the map and determined where she wanted us to look for a house to buy. She did well because our neighbourhood is on firmly packed soil — unlike our former rented home nearby, which used to unnerve her. As things turned out, both our old 'hood and our newer one survived the quake very well. Some walks and bike rides have revealed that even quite ancient houses seem to have fared well. Despite this good fortune, we have some hairline cracks in our foundation. I have been advised to get this looked at. Friends have the same condition in their home and have been granted the maximum insurance compensation. If left, these cracks can open up and induce water erosion and extensive damage to the base structure. What looks to OK may often be quite something else to varying degrees.

Overall, the city appears reactivated. Downtown is bustling, and people move about night and day in brilliant contrast to the dark, somber, silent city of weeks ago. Sendai's main train terminal is virtually an iconic symbol of the city with it vast, elevated, exterior concourse and imposing utilitarian box-like frontage. The station currently stands as a rude reminder of 3-11. The entire building is scaffolded and behind canvas. Some entrances are shut and wooden panels secure areas under repair.

Sendai station is a terminal for the Shinkansen 'bullet train'. When the service started here many years ago, it enjoined Sendai and indeed the northerly Tohoku region to the south in a way that it had never been. It permanently changed the city. When the events of 3-11 shut it down, the city was, in a way, cut off. The port was closed. Sendai International Airport was a disaster zone. The Tohoku Expressway was open to only specially permitted vehicles, the Japanese Self Defense Force and disaster relief — albeit with filled-in fizzures and heaves. The national highway, Route 4, was impassable in many places. Once the electricity came back on, the subway ran a truncated route. Some bridges were knocked out. Local train service was altered. Sendai was like a city under siege. This has dramatically changed, although I do not know the exact extent of the resumptions.

As for the nuclear situation, some fear and trepidation must remain, although it is hard to know exactly how much is felt and by whom. No one talks about it because there is not much to talk about. Reports and updates such those from the IAEA are increasingly optimistic — if any optimism can actually exist around such a calamity. The constant refrain heads every report, " ... the situation remains very serious."

In anticipation of our return from Canada, I was intending to be extremely cautious about food, but my plans have been abrogated by my wife and mother-in-law. Mama or Ba-chan, who is visiting us these days, simply says that the government would not allow the sale of contaminated food. Usually she is no trout for the fly. She will not sing the ancient poem that is the national anthem [Kimigaiyo], and has little regard for the Imperial House. She reviles banzai. The loss of a brother on Saipan over 60 years ago remains a poignant reminder of government folly. Still, in the last couple of days we have eaten vegetables and fish.

My wife says that we can plant food in our yard [niwa] as long as we excavate a centimeter of soil. And apparently, that has to be done before rain leaches radioactive isotopes into lower strata. Iodine 131 will be increasingly less of a concern, but any Cesium 137 and other nasty tidbits that arrived will remain active for years before half of their radioactivity decays. It does not take a galactic imagination to see the contradictions and disconnections.

The level of radioactivity here in Sendai is being constantly measured and has been found to be within background level. In and of itself this is welcome news. And it comes not only from official sources, but also independent observations. However, more strident commentators have warned about long-term effects of low-level radiation. Whereas the authorities tout the relative safety of the area, it may be prudent to consider the effects of ingested Cesium 137 and other isotopes that may have travelled as a packet . As many experts have pointed out, a lot but not all the reassurances are directed toward external exposures. One only hopes that very little of the more hazardous stuff got here along with the Iodine. But that may be wishfull thinking. Moreover, one hopes that deadly alpha emitters such as Plutonium never arrived in any quantity at all. These cannot be detected by geiger counters. Special instruments must be used. Some commentators are warning that the true hazard to health needs more comprehensive detection than just a counter stuck outside a car window. We have to ask, is that what we are really getting in the reports? Information at this level of detail is apparently difficult to obtain.

So, the government and relevant agencies can equivocate the facts, but there are unknowns. Most of us have little choice, and most people have to move on in their lives because their jobs, education, child rearing and our homes are tied to the city we all live in. There is no life without risk, and I think that virtually all people call on a sense of proportion to see where they really stand. Hundreds of thousands of us feel lucky to be housed, employed well-fed and dwelling beyond the more vile and toxic areas of disastrous contamination. Still, for every one of us lucky souls there is someone we know personally who is homeless and perhaps unemployed.

There is no profit in fretting over the imponderables. But ignorance may not be an advantage either. One scientist friend has pointed out a concern that you will not hear addressed by the suits in Chiyoda-ku. Presumably, a sizable area of contaminated land will not be flooded for the annual planting of the rice crop this year. The soil could dry out, and the seasonal winds could blow contaminated dust northwards. I keep wondering about the mysterious white smoke coming from two reactors at Daiichi. There seems to be no report of it having ceased. Daiichi is a suppurating sore that is continuing to contaminate the sea and groundwater over a large area.

We will continue to learn more if we care to pay attention, but it may be very discomforting. Recently, TV news was topped out with a story about a schoolyard in Koriyama … southeast of Daiichi. All the topsoil in a typically vast playground that serves so many school and civic functions is being excavated as toxic waste. In the same city, high levels of radiation have been discovered in burned-off sewage sludge.

It is easy to get very upset, especially if you have young children. Many apparent experts have been highly skeptical and/or very critical in regards to the Japanese corporate and governmental reassurances that the radioactive releases are no threat to health. Could these announces be patently untrue? The internet is heaving with critics who are warning that errant isotopes borne on the winds are not the same as the background we live with everyday. They say that the true hazard is difficult to measure, and fallout is not evenly spread about. They say that the comparison to airplane flights and chest X-rays is pointless, even irresponsible rhetoric. Toxic dusts can lie around or be recycled as a life-time hazard. Ingestion can mean the disruption and/or the destruction of cells. Young people and pregnant women are dividing cells at a much greater rate than say an adult male. These critics are saying that Daiichi is a time bomb, and that it is not only going to affect people here in Japan, but but also vast areas of the northern hemisphere. Was I wrong to take us back here? It may be only a matter of degree as to whether here or there is better, but who knows to what degree? My plans to immigrate to New Zealand foundered a few years ago, but had they been successful, we might have been in yet another disaster. My target of choce was Christchurch. As they say … ‘swings and roundabouts’.

Yesterday, I was outside in front of the house sweeping the gutter — one of the things we do here as a civic duty. I was wondering if I should be wearing as filter mask. We may have to learn to live cautiously. Wash our hands before handling food, leaving our overcoats and shoes outside the living space … little precautions that incrementally rob us of innocence.

I am still unpacking while at the same time trying to organize for another year of teaching. I have had little time to decompress or run about on the motorbike to see what the city looks like further afield than my own bailiwick. Even an informal survey is going to be an unpalatable enterprise, but I am feeling driven to find out more about what the city is like in the wake of the triple disaster. I ask myself as to whether my decisions were correct in face of the risks this way and that. I am not afraid for myself, but rather for my teenage son. Are the more strident doomsayers correct, or is there a middle ground so to speak? If the more negative side prevails as fact, billions of us will be in the same boat. It may be a matter of degree as to how deep the bilges are.

Very best regards to all,


* An online official announcement. Contrary to its exhortation, being at ease is not so much the case for most people as is just living with the beast down south — 95 Km from here.

* * The helicopter pictured here is from a JETAI anti-submaine squadron based at Atsugi airbase in Kanagawa. It was carrying relief food supplies that were donated by the city of Ebina. I lived in Ebina in 1993-94 and frequently passed by the airbase on the way to work.
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Old 05-05-11, 06:23 AM
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a pic of the Port of Sendai

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Bianchis '90 Proto, '90 Campione del Fausto Giamondi Specialisma Italiano Mundo, '91 Boarala 'cross, '93 Project 3, '86 Volpe, '97 Ti Megatube, '93 Reparto Corse SBX

Others but still loved; '80 Batavus Professional, '87 Cornelo, '?? Jane Doe (still on the drawing board), '90ish Haro Escape SLX Bertoni "Speckled Trout"
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Old 05-05-11, 07:05 AM
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Thanks for sharing this, BG!

How recent is that photo of Sendai?
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Old 05-05-11, 02:37 PM
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A sobering update, thanks for posting it. If there is to be a future from the rubble, it'll take people to tough it out and stay to build again. Hopes and prays to them for success and safety.
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Old 05-05-11, 05:00 PM
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The tale of the 19 YO woman from Natori is an inspiration, in dealing with such a grievous loss at a young age.
We don't walk in her shoes, but it reminds us all that we will face some challenges in our lives (even if it is only our own mortality).
We can make a choice to be strong, or let it defeat us.
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Old 05-05-11, 09:19 PM
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Thanks for posting this... I was wondering what was going on with Lorne. Hadn't seen him post in awhile since going back to Canada.
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Old 05-06-11, 07:18 AM
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I am bit surprised Lenton58 returned so soon. Glad to see it's working out.

It seems condition are improving fairly rapidly. Probably not as as fast as he would like bit from where they were at 2 months ago it seems like they are at a functioning community now.
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Old 07-22-11, 06:18 PM
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Hi BF Friends,

Thanks to Bianchigirll who posted my message above.

I have wanted to thank all the kind people on BF who have expressed their care and concern over the last few months.

Kobe wrote:
I am bit surprised Lenton58 returned so soon
It was a very difficult decision, and also very complicated. I was under the impression that radiation had stopped leaking from the nuke and going aerosol. I also considered the low contamination on the ground in Sendai itself, which is currently about 0.067 to 0.080 micro Sv per hour. Some places south of us have readings that are logarithmically higher.

The authorities keep saying that there is no threat outside the exclusion areas in Fukushima, but this has turned out to be not true. So-called 'hot spots' have shown up in areas that were once thought to be within tolerable limits. So it turns out that the situation is more complicated.

In some places that were once deemed safe, as well as being at some distance from the plant, school yards were monitored and found to be so hot that all the topsoil had to be scraped off. Now it remains piled up at the boundaries of the playgrounds with covering tarps because no one has figured out what to do with the stuff. Some schools have to close all the classroom windows for fear of contaminating dust. In the humid Japanese summer, conditions inside theses school have be intolerable. The Japan Times has reported that parents have demanded that air conditioning be installed. Fortunately, the summer break has come to elementary schools, so the pressure is off for a a few weeks.

Very high levels of radioactivity were found in drainage ditches in Fukushima City. It goes on and on.

Expert sources have told me that there is no reliable data on which to formulate conclusive projections on the future health of the young. A private initiative in Fukushima got a French team in to examine a number of children, and they all presented Cesium isotopes in their urine samples. And IMHO, contamination from even small amounts of fallout are distinct from natural background. There are some experts who seem to agree with this, but the government keeps comparing exposures and ingestion to X-ray exams and MRI scans. This apparent confusion remains an issue that should be explored.

Fukushima has launched a plan to monitor the health of its citizens for 30 years. Miyagi has no such plan, but then if the figures are to be believed, most of Miyagi is around the national average — that is to say the widening region that received contamination in the air. Fukushima and some adjacent areas are especially affected. And of course, the exclusion zones are dangerous. Miyagi is not receiving the same sort of attention as Fukushima, even though a mere borderline on a map separates us. Southern Miyagi may have issues as well, but who knows? A lot may be discovered from the Daiichi disaster — in terms of local conditions and in principal — things in regards to low-level radiation and its effects.

It will take months to secure the still leaking plant and years to complete its decommission. I will not take space here here to express my opinions about how Daiichi Fukushima was managed before and after the three meltdowns, except to say that I have nothing favourable to say about any of it.

If Daiichi burps up another plume, I will get my boy out of here very quickly with the same determination you saw in March. I'll remain here and keep servicing my contracts. At my age, the options narrow down to a finer point. Someone has to stay here to earn a crust.

It will be a very long time before Northern Japan recovers from the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake — as it is now being called. I do not believe that it will ever be the same as before 3-11. It was never in the same economic health as the south of the nation before the quake. The hundreds of villages and towns on the coast were just getting by and making a living from the sea. Enough said there.

The very land itself is different. The coast is up to a metre lower than before 3/11 and subsequent tsunami. Many areas may never be inhabited again. I heard that one area in Sendai will be ruled out for habitation by governmental restriction.

No one who lives in Northern Japan can forget the appalling losses of so many thousands of families. The mood has changed. I guess that it may be similar to so many other places around the world — including America — where disaster has struck such as New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina.

The situation on the coast is hard to explain to people across the waters. The shear scale of the situation makes it different than the Great Hanshin quake some years ago. And also, I just do not believe that the government will be as energized to rebuild the communities with the same express resolve it showed after that disaster. Tohoku is the outback of Japan — not even like Hokkaido. Only recently when car parts and electronics were suddenly not heading down south did the country begin to see the region in a more realistic manner. Hundreds, or more likely thousands of small contractors supply the industrial giants down south — mom and pop machine shops and the like. But also, big investments have been made in moving some higher tech facilities up here in order to boost the economy. Concerted efforts are being made to get industry moving again, and a lot seems to have been achieved so far.

One particularly sad note: It was found that a lot of the babies and young children who were killed in the tsunami — many never to be seen again — were lost along with their grandparents. The south gradually came to realize that the north is still quite traditional. Families still tend to live as three generations in the same household. This is true for a lot of my students. Perhaps the tendency to think of Tohoku as populated by provincial hicks has been modified. And their resilience and stoicism has attracted attention both here and around the world. The Emperor and Empress have been up here to pay their respects thereby beating out the politicians who have mostly stayed in Chiyodaku, Tokyo in order to fight and squabble in a power struggle that followed the disasters.

It has been announced that it may be three years before the coastal railroad can once again connect all the towns and villages that have been blasted or scrapped off the coast line. In Japan, the loss of hundreds of kilometers of coastal rail is of special significance because it is part of daily life ... going to work, to school, shopping, checking in on the old folks at home, and so on. The increased number of buses plying the national highway is palpable.

Many, many thousands are still living in shelters. Some are migrants. Local governments have cut government subsidies with the reasoning that recipients have either recieved contributions from abroad, getting help from the red cross, have received payments from, TEPCO or are living in community shelters. A controversy is in the making because none of these people have enough at hand to rebuild their lives no matter what aggregate sums they may receive. And there are so many unemployed, as their jobs were swept out to sea or tossed inland as rubble.

Thank all the gods for the Japanese Self Defense Force [JETAI]. Despite all the other fumbling and blunder at the highest levels, they and the countless volunteers — Japanese and foreign — have made such a huge contribution. The spirit and resourcefullness of the locals has not been defeated either. But some are more vulnerable than others.

As for our family — we are lucky and OK. Like most homes in Sendai that were beyond the tsunami's reach, ours shows scars from the huge earthquake, but it is intact. I am back at work. My son is in middle school — a member of both the chorus and the school's tennis team. My wife is tutoring and has planted some vegetables using soil that was packaged before the nuke blew its top. We try not to stand out in the rain. I don't train on the bikes in the rain, nor do I use the Yamaha to get to work in downpours. Who knows where a storm was boiling around before it came here? Not me anyway.

We watch where our food was produced, such as avoiding milk that might have come from more contaminated areas. Recently it was discovered that contaminated beef had been distributed and consumed up and down Honshu — north and south. This has become something of a scandal. Also, I have been swatting up on the effects of low-level radiation. I have sought out opinions from scientists, medical practitioners and engineers. (Their opinions vary.) We are employed, well-housed, busy and taking life as it comes.

People in Sendai have become phlegmatic, but it is easier for those who do not have younger children. When you crunch the numbers, they are reassuring, but only if you are optimistic about the model and the formula that is used. My physician simply says, "I don't know." — despite his being a caring, serious practitioner and a scientific contributor to his specialization. Life is not without risk, and all of us here know that better now than before. The Japanese culture is adjusted to disaster, but I don't think that the individual is ever quite prepared.

My family belongs to the majority that remains healthy and unscathed. Nevertheless the scars on the local society will remain, and the effects are still actively being felt. Just last week a Japanese American left the area after teaching here for over twenty years. His income was nose diving, and there was no way to pull it up despite his traveling hundreds of Kms between jobs. His reluctant repatriation is a direct result of the disasters. This says so much about what has happened here. Many foreigners have left, but not because they wanted to.

Oh yes ... and the earth still moves around from time to time. When it starts, we never know if it is going to amplify and go crazy, or fade away.

All the support that I have received from BF members over these months has been encouraging and very heartwarming. it helped a lot in some very unnerving days. And I am very grateful for belonging to such a great group of friends.


Edited Sat. July 23, 11:23 P.M.

PS: In answer to a question: the pic above I believe was taken late in the day of March 11. The next day, I got out on my Simplon SS and got into the rice fields flooded by sea water by using the smallest of local roads. (I had to flush off the mud when I returned home.) The fire in the harbour was still billowing dense smoke exactly as you see here. I have photos of the same thing, but taken from the ground.
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Last edited by Lenton58; 07-23-11 at 08:37 AM.
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Old 07-22-11, 07:22 PM
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Hello Lenton, thank you for the update. my heart goes out to you, your family and everyoe in Japan dealing with this horrible diaster. Unlike Katrina, the terrible earthquake in China a few years ago, the Sunami in Indonesia or the other countless diasters of recent years the people of Japan, and to some extent the world, will live with this for generations, not just years. it is too bad the world press goes from one "story de jour" to the next. I seldom seem to hear about Japan to any extent these days.

I am glad to hear you and your family are OK.
Bianchis '90 Proto, '90 Campione del Fausto Giamondi Specialisma Italiano Mundo, '91 Boarala 'cross, '93 Project 3, '86 Volpe, '97 Ti Megatube, '93 Reparto Corse SBX

Others but still loved; '80 Batavus Professional, '87 Cornelo, '?? Jane Doe (still on the drawing board), '90ish Haro Escape SLX Bertoni "Speckled Trout"
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